Lost Again

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Fourteen years after people normally move out of jail but Muzzafar Rather could go to gallows in West Bengal in absence of good defence, Aakash Hassan reports the cycle of hope and despair

Parents of Muzaffar Ahmad in Kolkata Jail

Fourteen years ago, as autumn was had initiated foliage fall, two siblings of Rather family in South Kashmir’s Khee Jogipora hamlet (Kulgam) left for government high school Katrasu, a kilometer from their residence. That was their routine.

Later that day, the family had only one son home, class 9thstudent Riyaz Ahmad. His younger brother, Muzazafar, class 8th did not return.

The parents scolded 15-year-old Riyaz for not taking care of his brother. Without wasting time, the family launched the search along with their neighbours and relatives. They went from village to village, from his friends to acquaintances.

“We started looking around for Muzzafar,” says Riyaz, now 30, who works as a teacher in a private school a mile away from his home. “It was a goose chase that eventually yielded nothing.”

“Where has my Muzza gone to, he can’t even step out of the door in night, where has he gone to? Have you seen him?” Nafiza his mother would ask every person she met while looking for her son. “He was so afraid that his sister would accompany him if he had to step into lawn in night.”

But dusk fell; weeks passed and even winter arrived, Muzzafar didn’t return home. Finally the family lost battle at their own level and filed a missing report in the last week of November. The Kulgam police station registered an FIR on the basis of report filed by dejected father, Abdul Majeed Rather.

As the months of disappearance turned into years, Muzzafar figured in the list of Kashmir’s disappeared youth, for whom there was only faint hope of returning, that too alive.

Disappearance phenomenon was not new in that period. The conflict had turned young boys missing as the “new-normal”. It was PDP-Congress in government and ‘healing touch’ was in air but at ground zero certain things were still unstoppable: boys would go missing in custody and even crossing the line to become militants.

But for Rather family, Muzzafar was a timid boy who would never have gone for ‘militant activity’. This thought never crossed their mind and they continued their search.

The time had its effect. While others started to move on slowly with their life, longing for him Nafiza could no longer live a usual life.

“I would see, Muzzafar’s face in every boy of his age,” she says powerless to hold her moan of longing. “Since then there has not been a day or night when I would not miss my son.”

However after two years, Rather family had no hopes of his return. They literally gave up the hunt. For the peace of Muzzafar, they held Fateha (special prayers) for their “lost son”. Though this did not deter mother from waiting for her son. She did not accept the verdict.

“My heart would grip and it would never accept that my son is no more,” she said.

And the mother’s belief turned true after passing of five autumns. When spring approached, a hurrying neighbour came in with news: ‘your lost son was found!

The news broke the lull of five years of mourning. But before familycould rejoice, the‘where’ question had a gloomy answer on the lip of visitor. “He has been arrested along with three others by BSF while they were crossing border in Bengal,” the neighbor informed the inmates quoting a news paper.

Three militants associated with Lashker-i-Toiba were arrested while crossing Bangladesh India border, the press had reported. The security agencies announced later that they were “involved in bomb blasts in Mumbai.”

The other three arrested with him were identified as Mohammad Yunous, Abdullah Khan, reportedly a Pakistani nationals and Sheikh Naeem, resident of Maharashtra.

Muzzafar being alive was a respite. Rather family soon planned to visit their son and in next few months, they saw him in a West-Bengal Jail, after fourteen years.

“The first meeting was brief, and he was few feet away in the meeting chamber,” said Ab Majeed Rather.

The distance and the noise in the chamber left them hopeless as he was barely audible to the longing family.

But with the joy of seeing their 14 year lost son, who has turned into a man with beard on the pump cheeks, the family rejoiced.

“He was looking different than I was remembering my lost son,” says Nafiza, “But with first glimpse I got that he is my son. After all I am his mother.” A smile passes through her arid lips while she recalls looking her “new son”—a grown up man, but restricted to a small space.

Police in action as People of Khiee Jogipora Kulgam protest against death sentence of Muzaffar ah in kolkata Jail

After getting to know the charges against their son, the family went to meet a lawyer hopeful that their 19-year-old, returned son would start a new life.

“We were shocked,” says Riyaz, “The amount lawyer demanded from us.”

“We have one kanal of land and if we would have sell that, still we could not meet the fees that lawyer had demanded,” he says.

“There was option to sell off my meager property and hire a lawyer but the lawyer had least hope for Muzzafar’s release,” says Majeed. Majeed’s compulsion of the family behind him made him not to go for hiring a lawyer.

With no legal support, the family visited Muzzafar again in 2008. They did not left him alone and keep sending clothes and some cash through post.

“We had not that much of economic condition that we could afford trip to (West) Bengal,” said his father, “He used to call in a week from the jail’s telephone cell.” Hope was the only thing left us and we continue to cling with that.

On a chilly December day in 2016, Muzzafar broke a news to his family while calling from the jail’s telephone facility. He told them that he might be acquitted from the case and they should come to take him home.

Amid ease and elation, the family left for Calcutta and met him on December 24. But against his hope court did not let him free.

Dejected, his father and mother returned home, though the hope was alive that on next hearing he will come home.

Scheduled on January 16, the parents again booked railway tickets. But before they could have moved, another call from Muzzafar suggested them to stay back with reason that it is expensive to travel and he is hopeful that court might release him on January 17.  Following his son’s legitimate advice Rathers’ cancelled the tickets.

But court decided January 21, as decision day and didn’t precede the verdict on January 16. The next call from Bengal to Kashmir was worrisome.

“He called and said in a broken voice that he would be perhaps given life imprisonment,” said his brother.

He told them that he will convey the outcome of decision on Monday through phone. However, before the “Monday call” it was again a neighbour who came to their door, like in 2007, when Muzaffar was arrested. This time revealing a death verdict.

“Court has sentenced him to death,” he informed “along with two others who were arrested with him.”

The third one had already fled from the CID custody in 2013.

A fast track court judge Vinay Kumar Pathak in Bongaon, 24 North Pargana, in West-Bengal has sentenced them to death for ‘waging war against India’.

The hopes dashed. Pal of gloom descendedall over the area and the family was shell shocked.

Everyone; neighbors, relativesand people from adjoining village began frequenting their home. “The missing boy has been sentenced to death,” they whispered.

But the Rather family has nothing to say.

“He left house and then we met him in jail,” says Riyaz his brother, “beyond this we had never talked with him, neither in jail and not on phone.”

“We would get some minutes to meet, that would turn melancholic only after first sight,” said Muzaffar’s father.

He says that he could have been in Pakistan or anywhere else as it is being said “but that hardly matters now.”

Nafiza is still puzzled and the “unhealed wound” is bleeding, as her unstoppably tears depict.

On the day of the verdict, Villagers gathered and lead a protest march against the death sentence, but met the forces teargas shells just few miles away.

The verdict was condemned in J&K state legislature as well when Langate Lawmaker said that he “will not allow any innocent to become Afzal Guru.”

Rasheed while terming the decision as, “murder of justice” said that he will provide all legal aid to Muzaffar who has been a victim of “conspiracy” and will raise the voice wherever required.

Separatist leaders were not even behind in the race of condemning the decisions and turned him as another victim.

But For Rather family there is no big hope.

“We went from one office to another of these leaders, both mainstream and Hurriyat (separatists),” the family said, “Everyone expressed their sorrow and asked us to left copy of the documents but never responded back.”

Now the villagers have also begun collection money voluntarily to help the family.

But 14 years have passed since Muzzafar was lost and 9 years since he was found and languished in jail.

As for the hopeless family, they have lost their missing, “14-year-old son” again.

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