A Daughter’s Fight  

Fourteen years after a chemist from Rawalpora was taken by army and subjected to enforced disappearance, his daughter held his funeral-in-absentia. Fighting twists, turns, pressures and hopelessness, the brave daughter Bilkees vows to fight till the accused are arrested and punished, reports Mohammad Raafi

Bilkees (L) and her elder sister holding a banner demanding punishment for accused Major Kishore Malhotra.
Bilkees (L) and her elder sister holding a banner demanding punishment for accused Major Kishore Malhotra.

At 2 PM on January 19, 2016, crowd started to swell inside the sprawling playground of government high school Rawalpora, to take part in the funeral of Manzoor Ahmad Dar. According to CJM Budgam’s report, Manzoor, a chemist by profession, was picked up by 35th Batallion of Rashtriya Rifles of Indian Army, from his home on the intervening night of January 18 and 19, 2002. Ever since he is missing.

Unlike all other funerals that take place across Kashmir on daily basis, this one was different for many reasons. First, there was no coffin or the body of the deceased, placed in front of the mourners. Second, the funeral in absentia was taking place exactly after sixteen years of Manzoor’s disappearance. The funeral in absentia was planned by Manzoor’s daughter Bilkees, also a prime witness of the case.

“I clearly remember the night when army came to our house and took my father,” says Bilkees. “The name on the insignia of one of the Major read Kishore Malhotra. This name is imprinted on my memory ever since,” recalls Bilkees.

From next day, army stationed at Rangreth’s sector 18, started harassing Bilkees’ two young brothers. “They were called to the camp and questioned. It was a way of pressuring us so that we will not pursue our father,” says Bilkees.

Then the family decided that now onwards only Bilkees will follow her father’s case to trace his whereabouts. When Manzoor did not return, Bilkees approached Police station Rawalpora and filed a missing report.

The next morning, Bilkees says, “we received a phone call on our land line. The caller directed us to wait at a particular spot.”

The caller had told Bilkees that they will take her to Sector 18 in Rangreth, were the 35th RR camp was stationed. Despite family friends and relatives suggesting her not to go, Bilkees went ahead. “I was taken to a room inside the camp where Major Kishore Malhotra, the same person who took my father, was sitting on a couch.”

Bilkees was asked many questions and finally let go.

In march that year Bilkees approached Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), a platform for the kith’s and kin’s of disappeared persons in Kashmir. “I joined APDP on suggestion of some friends. However due to some ideological differences I later parted ways from it,” says Bilkees. “I wanted to fight my own battle.”

The next phase of Bilkees’ life was full of struggle, disappointments, intimidation from different quarters etc. “I was approached by army, CID, and who not. At times they would simply threaten. At times they tried to offer me money. They wanted me to stop pursuing my father’s case,” recalls Bilkees.

In 2002, High Court Srinagar, directed the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Budgam to probe the matter, after Bilkees filed a petition. In June 2004, the case was transferred to Sessions Court, for investigation. Finally in 2007, Manzoor’s case was referred to Special Investigation Team (SIT) of J&K police.

“It was quite an achievement for me to take my father’s case this far given the circumstances and pressure from the army,” says Bilkees.

In order to pressurise Bilkees to give up the “ghost chase”, army started harassing locals from her areas. Some of them were taken into custody and beaten, claims Bilkees. “First thing they would ask them was, ‘do you know Bilkees’,” she says. “They (locals) in turn started convincing me to give up the fight,” claims Bilkees.

Bilkees’ brothers, who take care of their father’s chemist shop, were on and off approached by the army, taken into custody and harassed, claims the brave sister. “They would tell my brothers, ‘stop your sister or face the music’,” says Bilkees.

“When I came to know about the harassment I called the army Major and DIG Mujtaba and told them to spare my brothers, they are not part of it. Its me who is fighting for justice,” claims Bilkees.

Bilkees claims that on many occasions people from CID visited her house and interrogated her mother Jana Begum. “They would pressurise my mother to persuade me to take the case back. Sometimes they even carried money with them,” says Bilkees. “At times army officers from the nearby camp would leave their phone numbers with locals instructing them to pass it on to me,” says Bilkees.

On one such occasion, recalls Bilkees, an army Major named Ajit ordered someone to ask me to call him. Sensing trouble Bilkees immediately called DSP Shabir Khan, explaining him what had happened.  “He asked me not to call this Major till he speaks to then DIG Mujtaba,” Bilkees says.

Few days later DSP Shabir met Bilkees and gave her a phone and a sim card with directions to record all conversations with Major Ajit. “Major Ajit called and said, ‘take back your case and we will pay you whatever amount you want’,” claims Bilkees.

But the CID official, who was witness to the call from Major Ajit and had a copy of the recorded conversation, was killed in a car accident under mysterious circumstances. “He was killed under a well hatched conspiracy,” alleges Bilkees.

Finally in 2008, SIT started working on Manzoor’s case. “The files were opened, closed and reopened,” says Bilkees, “I would not let them breathe. I followed SIT’s  findings on weekly basis.”

After investigation SIT established Major Kishore’s role in the disappearance of Bilkees’ father. “SIT directed Major Kishore to appear before them. But he did not.”

In early 2009, Bilkees approached Supreme Court of India through her Lawyer Prashant Bhushan and a summon was issued against Major Kishore. “But he got the summon stayed.”

Later in 2009, on Bilkees’ wedding day she received a call through her counsel: “You have won the case Bilkees,” were the words from the other side. “It was the best gift on my marriage,” recalls sobbing Bilkees.

The Supreme Court had upheld the decision of the high court, directing the accused Major Kishore to appear before the SIT. The decision of the apex court had come after it dismissed the Special Leave Petition filed by the Union of India challenging the High Court orders.

People in large numbers attend Manzoor’s funeral-in-absentia at Rawalpora.
People in large numbers attend Manzoor’s funeral-in-absentia at Rawalpora.

Later on that day, noted human rights activist Gautam Naulakha flew to Srinagar with the court order to Bilkees’s home. “It was an amazing feeling,” recalls Bilkees.

On February 28, 2013, Bilkees received a call directing her to reach police station Rawalpora immediately.

“I was in a fix,” recalls Bilkees, “Thoughts like my father is traced; his dead body is located, started engulfing my mind. Somehow I reached the Police station.”

Bilkees’ mother and uncle had already reached the police station. “We were directed to board a gypsy and taken to Shivpora.”

The trio were then instructed to wait outside a small room in one of the buildings. For next three hours nothing happened. “We were just sitting there. Waiting,” recalls Bilkees.

Finally they were taken inside the room where chief prosecuting officer Aijaz Ahmad of Police Lines, DSP Shabir Khan, the then SHO Rawalpora, inspector Qayoom, IGP Police and Major Kishore Malhotra were seated.

“IGP asked me do you identify the people here?” says Bilkees, “I immediately responded by pointing towards Kishore Malhotra that he is the killer of my father.”

Then without saying or asking anything Bilkees and her mother and uncle were taken back to Rawalpora police station. “They simply told us to go home,” recalls Bilkees.

Two and a half years later, in July 2015, High Court Srinagar directed police to arrest Major Kishore for his involvement in the custodial disappearance of Manzoor.

Frightened, Major Kishore in order to evade arrest filed a Letter Patent Appeal against the High Court orders in the Supreme Court of India pleading his innocence. The Apex Court, however, dismissed his appeal.

After interrogation  of Major Kishore SIT submitted that “During the custodial questioning, he did not admit the custody of Manzoor (and nor led to the recovery of his body), which clearly indicates that the accused could have disposed off the body. So Offence 201 (destroying evidence) of RPC is invoked.”

Interestingly, the day when Bilkees held her father’s funeral in absentia, Supreme Court of India heard the case against accused Major Kishore who has filled a Special Leave Petition (SLP) against his arrest warrant.

The court has directed Manzoor’s widow to file a reply to Major Kishore’s SPL.

Longing to see her disappeared son, Manzoor’s mother, Zaiba (86), died after two days of his funeral.

“My wait is over for my son (Dar). I will meet him there (hereafter),” she had told her grandchildren after Dar’s funeral prayers were offered.

After fourteen years of struggle for justice Bilkees and her family is optimistic that finally accused Major Kishore will be behind the bars soon. “I want to see him get punished for what he did to my father. I won’t rest till he is arrested,” says a confident Bilkees.

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