‘An Open Grave Awaits My Dead Son’: A Kashmiri Father’s 11-Month Long Fight For a Burial

For 11 months, Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, 42, has been waiting for the body of his son to be returned to him. With the hope of being able to conduct proper final rites, an empty grave lies ready at his ancestral graveyard in his native village of Bellow in Pulwama district.

On December 30, 2020, Athar Mushtaq 16, a Class 11 student, was killed along with his two friends Aijaz Ganaie of Putrigam, Pulwama, and Zubair Lone of Turkwangam, Shopian, in an alleged gunfight in Srinagar’s Lawaypora area, 40 km from his home.

As per a new government policy citing concerns over COVID-19, families of suspected militants are being denied a proper burial. The trio was buried quietly in the Sonamarg area of Central Kashmir – more than 140 km away from their hometown.

The empty grave site Wani has dug for his son. Photo: Abrar Fayaz

According to the police, the three had been identified on the basis of “recoveries” from them. “Upon their search, arms (one AK 47 rifle and two pistols) and ammunition and other incriminating material along with some documents were recovered,” the police statement had said.

Immediately after the “encounter”, General Officer Commanding Kilo Force H.S. Sahi had addressed a press conference in Srinagar. “Militants choose Srinagar outskirts or highways to carry out attacks on security forces to get maximum publicity,” Sahi was quoted saying by a local news agency. “The nature of ammunition used by the militants in today’s gunfight suggests they were planning a big strike on the highway.”

However, Wani has refuted the police version and alleged that the trio were picked up from different locations, interrogated and then brought to encounter site to stage a gunfight. His son did not have any links with any militant groups, he says.

“My son was innocent. He still had two exam papers left, and had gone out to buy some books,” Wani said.

According to Wani, Athar left for Srinagar around 12.30 pm along with his friends. At around 3:30 pm, he called on his sister’s phone to inform them that he would be staying the night in Srinagar and returning the next day.

“The next morning, I left for Srinagar to drop one of my business partners to the airport. While I was returning home, I got a call from a police official from Rajpora police station in Pulwama district. He asked me if Athar was my son. I replied yes and asked what had happened. He told me not to worry and to reach home, and cut the call. Sensing trouble, I started driving home with heavy heart,” Wani recounts.

“The moment I reached near my village in Pulwama, I saw that a huge number of people had gathered near my house. When I entered my house, my elder brother hugged me and said, ‘Athar ha korukh shaheed‘ – that he had been killed in a gunfight in Srinagar,” he says. “I lost my senses and started wailing.”

The family, he says, was informed that the bodies were lying at the Police Control Room in Srinagar. “We reached there and were not even allowed to enter. Only after repeated requests was I allowed to go in and see my son’s face.”

For Wani, pleading for his son’s body has become the main routine of his life. In February, Wani, among seven others, was booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) by the J&K police for organising a protest where they demanded the return of the body.

Mushtaq Ahamd showing Athar’s shoes, which he has buried for now at the graveyard. Photo: Abrar Fayaz

A police officer had told The Hindu then that Wani, was booked for “organising illegal procession under criminal conspiracy and were abetting anti-national elements”.

Wani says he had been told that they would be shown evidence within 10-15 days of his son’s alleged links to militants. “No evidence has been provided yet,” he says. “While protesting at the Srinagar press colony, I shouted, ‘Today, it was my son, tomorrow it could be yours’.

Wani describes his son as an obedient boy who was known for his jovial nature. “Each time Athar is discussed in our house, the mood changes and tears start rolling from our eyes. I have lost my young son, whom I used to treat like a prince. I now only have one wish – to burry Athar in our ancestral graveyard, so that I can visit to him every day. It is very difficult to travel 140 km from here and I am getting old now.”

Last week, the families of Muhammad Altaf Bhat and Mudasir Gul – two civilians killed in the controversial Hyderpora gunfight – were handed over the bodies of their kin, spurring Wani to raise his demand again for his son’s body.

“When I heard the bodies of two killed in Hyderpora encounter were handed over to the families, I got a ray of hope and decided to release a video message on Facebook and appeal to the administration once again to hand over Athar’s body. I don’t need any compensation – I only want the body of my dead son,” Wani said.

All images by Abrar Fayaz.