BURIAL OF A MURDER

At the peak of Amarnath land row in 2008, a trucker’s murder provoked the historic long march ‘Muzaffarabad Chalo’ for neutralizing impact of an economic blockade of Kashmir. SHAMS IRFAN reports a widow’s struggle for survival and her fight to prove her husband was murdered by rioters and not killed in a road accident as the police claim.

Lateef's family during happier times.
Lateef’s family during happier times.

At the peak of Amarnath land row, on August 4, 2008 Hameeda called her husband Mohammad Lateef Wani on his mobile phone to enquire about his whereabouts. A truck driver, Lateef had left from Azadpur (Delhi) eleven days earlier carrying goods [biscuits] for an Islamabad based businessman. Lateef told his wife over the phone that he was being held ‘safe’ at Dina Nagar [Punjab], by the state police along with some 300 other Kashmiri truck drivers, as it was dangerous to drive into J&K. A day before, rioters protesting revocation of a land transfer order to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Boarad (SASB) by the government had damaged trucks belonging to Kashmiris plying on the Pathankote-Jammu-Srinagar highway at Chann Arorian in Kathua.

That evening, news of three Kashmiri youth traveling in a private vehicle beaten by rioters at Lakhanpur [Kathua district] reached Kashmir valley. Disturbed by the ongoing situation in Kathua, Samba, and Jammu district, Hameeda made several calls to her husband the following day.

Throughout that day Lateef assured his wife that he was safe and would reach home soon. “God willing, I will have dinner with you tomorrow, cook something good for me,” Hameeda recounted her husband telling her.

On August 5, Lateef called his wife late in the evening and told her that they had been allowed to travel and he was on his way to Kashmir. He informed her that Punjab police was escorting a batch of 75 trucks up to Lakhanpur check post [the border between Jammu and Kashmir, and Punjab] from where they would drive towards Jammu under state police protection.

Relieved, Hameeda immediately busied herself in preparing delicacies for her husband who was returning home after a month.

But around 9 pm that night, Lateef called his wife again, this time he talked briefly and sounded worried. “They are going to kill us,” he told his wife, “Police vehicles are moving far ahead, we are alone and in danger. There are rioters everywhere throwing stones, nobody is going to save us.” And he hung up without saying goodbye.

That was the last time Hameeda talked to her husband. Confused about what she heard, Hameeda immediately called her brother and informed him about the situation. “My brother came immediately and took us to his place for the night. Throughout the night I prayed for my husband’s safety,” said Hameeda. The next morning she was told that Kashmiri truck drivers were attacked by rioters the previous night at Lakhanpur and her husband was among the injured.

“I was told that he is out of danger and is undergoing treatment at Government Medical College Jammu,” said Hameeda.

She fell unconscious at hearing the horrible news. When she regained consciousness, a large crowd had gathered outside her small rented house at Panthachowk [Srinagar], and everybody present was shouting anti-India slogans. It added to the existing anger over the ‘economic blockade’ of Kashmir provoked by some political groups in Jammu and people came out on roads. Lateef was part of a convoy of trucks carrying essentials like food and medicines for Kashmir.

Late Mohd Lateef Wani
Late Mohd Lateef Wani

The same day Hameeda along with a few women from her neighborhood went to JKLF leader Yasin Malik’s home where she pleaded him to help her reach Jammu so that she can see her husband. “After listening to my story Yasin quickly instructed his aide to give me Rs 8,000 and two air tickets for Jammu,” said Hameeda.

As people in Kashmir against the land transfer to the SASB, it triggered a reaction in Jammu where right wing parties joined hands and set up Shri Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti (SAYSS) to spearheaded an agitation against Kashmir. The ‘economic blockade’ of Kashmir valley, Ladakh, Chenab Valley, Rajouri and Poonch was the SAYSS’s tactic to achieve restoration of land transfer order in favour of SASB.

In fact the blockade was announced by the BJP state president Ashok Kahjuria on June 22 to counter the Amarnath land transfer cancellation order well before the SAYSS came into being. Though there were instances of blocking supplies to Kashmir at Udhampur and Nagrota as well but the blockade was mainly enforced in Samba and Kathua districts where critical goods traffic from Indian mainland to Kashmir enters the state.

Though it was publicly acknowledged and condemned repeatedly by Kashmir’s both unionist parties – the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party, the government casually referred it as ‘temporary disruption of traffic’. However, a leaked official document in the middle of August 2008 brought to open the magnitude of the crisis enacted at the gateway to the state (See Box).

The next day, on August 6, instead of Hameeda, Lateef’s brother in law and another relative travelled to Jammu. “They did not allow me to go there. They took tickets from me. At least I would have met him one last time,” rued Hameeda. When they reached Government Medical College Jammu, they were not allowed to see Lateef. The hospital administration told them that Lateef was about to be shifted to New Delhi for further treatment and they had already arranged an air ambulance. “They didn’t let us accompany him to New Delhi. But after we protested they allowed only one of us,” said the relative who wished not to be named.

Lateef’s brother in law was sent back to Kashmir the same day while the other relative along with a volunteer resident doctor accompanied him to New Delhi where Lateef was admitted to AIIMS’s Trauma Center. “After we reached Delhi, Lateef was taken to the hospital and I was lodged in a guest house. They did not allow me to meet him even once. I was kept in the dark about his condition,” said the relative.

Twelve days later, on August 17, Lateef succumbed to his injuries. His body was flown home amid tight security and buried the same day. But his death, that contributed to the crisis and catalised the historic march towards the LoC for neutralizing the economic blockade, remained a mystery.

The Police claim it to be a case of road accident that is still under investigating. Interestingly, the only person against whom the case was registered was none other than the deceased himself. Investigations carried out by police at Lakhanpur suggest Lateef died as a result of rash and negligent driving!

Mushtaq Ahmad Dar, helper and conductor of Lateef’s truck, who was with him at the time of the attack said that on August 3, they tried to cross Lakhanpur barrier but were stopped by the Jammu and Kashmir police and sent back to Dina Nagar in Punjab, where they stayed for two days.

Finally on August 5, Punjab police assured them that it is safe to travel and escorted two convoys of trucks towards J&K border. The first convey of 75 trucks crossed Lakhanpur at around 8 pm. “We had no knowledge whether they too were attacked by the mob or not,” said Mushtaq.

At about 9 pm, J&K police let the convoy cross the Lakhanpur barrier. Lateef’s vehicle was moving in front, followed by other trucks, among them at least eight were of his close friends’ and relatives’. “After we crossed the Golden Gate near Lakhanpur, we reached a small bridge, Lateef was driving faster than usual as we wanted to cross Kathua district quickly. But as soon as we crossed that bridge I saw something coming in from driver’s window and hit Lateef on his head. It was a big rock, he fell unconscious and lost control,” said Mushatq.

“When I opened my eyes, I was stuck inside the cabin. Our truck had turned turtle and smashed into something hard, it was a parked vehicle or something which I do not remember clearly. I felt for my legs, and then quickly climbed out,” said Mushtaq.

“But by then rioters had gathered around. They had already pulled Lateef out and were smashing his head with stones and kicking him continuously,” said Mushtaq. “It was dark, the only light available was coming from a distant street light. I tried to run away but they (rioters) got hold of me as well and took me aside. They then started beating me. There were around 30 people, all young and ruthless. In the distance I could see red taillights moving away from me, they were other Kashmiri truck drivers who somehow managed to flee. With those fading lights the chances of our survival also faded.”

Mushtaq continued narrating his dreadful experience over the phone. Fear was still palpable in the manner in which he was speaking.

“Somebody from the crowd shouted, ‘Kill them both. They are …. They have taken our land’ and instantly somebody from the crowd hit me with an iron rod. They took everything we had, money, mobile phone and even our identity cards,” recalled Mushtaq. “We had around 22,000 (rupees) cash with us. They took it all besides the battery and a spare wheel of our truck.”

According to Mushtaq, as the rioters saw police jeeps coming towards them they ran away, leaving Lateef and him there on the ground. “I was taken to Lakhanpur police station where I was treated for my injuries while Lateef was shifted to Jammu hospital. He was unconscious and probably dead already,” said Mushtaq. “After giving me first aid they recorded my statement. I told them everything that had happened but I don’t know what they wrote,” he said.

Mushtaq did not inform his family about the accident but he said that he was in contact with the owner of the truck throughout. “After staying at Lakhanpur police station for six days I managed to leave for home with a friend of mine who was returning from Delhi in his truck with goods,” said Mushtaq. “Police did not help me to shift the goods from our truck to another so that they could be sent to the trader. It was the trader who himself arranged another truck in such circumstances to shift his goods.”

Mushtaq has not worked since the day he was attacked. He stays at home helping his family with day-to-day affairs. “I still feel pain in my left leg. I am still undergoing treatment for the injuries I sustained that night,” he said.

According to the FIR [No 48/08 dated August 5, 2008] lodged at Lakhanpur police station, however, a case stands registered against Lateef for negligent driving. The police records maintain that on August 5, 2008 Lateef was driving a loaded truck bearing registration No: JK05B 0559, from Delhi to Srinagar, and after crossing Lakhanpur check post he lost his control and hit a trawler truck which was parked on the side of the road. As a result he received multiple injuries and was shifted to Jammu Medical College for treatment from where he was referred to Trauma Center AIIMS, New Delhi.

There is no mention of any riots or the attack on Lateef and Mushtaq in the FIR. No details were given regarding the circumstances leading to the accident and his subsequent death.

“This is a simple case of negligent driving,” said Head Constable Mohammad Shareef, who is now in charge of the case. “He was killed in an accident as per our records. There is nothing mysterious about his death.”

According to the police officer, the post mortem report regarding Lateef’s death is with the family.

“Despite sending so many reminders we have not received any postmortem report from the family so far,” said Shareef. “The truth will only be determined after we get the complete postmortem report from the family,” he added.

This reporter accessed the post mortem report of Lateef from his wife. The report also claims that Lateef died because of injuries received in an accident adding that nothing suggests that he was killed or his head was smashed with any hard object.

“When I saw his body he had bruises all over. Not even an inch was spared,” said Lateef’s relative who accompanied him to AIIMS.

Immediately after Lateef’s death, his brother in law and a family friend went to Lakhanpur police station to collect a copy of the FIR. “They were both illiterate and could not check the details of the report,” said Hameeda. Later Hameeda took her elder daughter Saima with her to Lakhanpur to plead with the inspector at police station to report the actual events of her husband’s death in the FIR.

But he refused, according to Hameeda and asked her to bring Lateef’s postmortem report if she doubted the police version. The postmortem report [the copy of which is with Kashmir life] also claims that Lateef death was caused because of an accident. The report gives no details of the cause of injuries sustained by Lateef or multiple fractures on his head.

“They have changed my husband’s parentage in the postmortem report. So it is of no use now until it is corrected,” said Hameeda. “They have been calling me to come to Lakhanpur police station but I have no means to travel on my own.”

There are gaping holes in the police version of events that finally led to Lateef’s death. The night police drove Lateef to GMC hospital in Jammu for treatment mostly Kashmiri doctors were on duty. When they heard about a Kashmiri driver brought in after being attacked by a mob at Kathua, they rushed inside the casualty ward to see him. There, Lateef was lying on a stretcher unconscious, with multiple injuries on his head, and a few policemen surrounded him, according to the doctors.

“On 6th August, around 10 am in the morning Lateef was bought to Jammu Medical College in an ambulance,” said Dr Firdous Ahmed Sheikh, a PG student at the Jammu Medical College, who rushed to the casualty ward in order to check what had happened. “He [Lateef] had multiple fractures on his head and needed immediate neurosurgery which was not possible at Jammu.”

Dr Firdous said nobody knew who he [Lateef] was as he had no papers on him. His clothes were torn and he had blood all over his body. “Only thing we knew about him was that he is a Kashmiri so we offered help”

The Kashmiri doctors present urged the hospital administration to shift Lateef to Delhi immediately. A doctor said the policemen were unconcerned and simply waited there. Then, the Kashmiri doctors protested and a large crowd gathered around Lateef. After six hours, the hospital authorities finally arranged an air ambulance for shifting Lateef to Delhi.

“I offered myself as a volunteer to accompany him,” said Dr Firdous. “When we reached AIIMS Delhi, he was shifted to a special ward and operated several times, but he did not recover. Finally, after staying there for a week I came back to Jammu.”

Two days later, Firdous said he read in the newspapers about Lateef’s death. “At Jammu hospital police did not mention that he was attacked by a mob, instead they maintained in the official documents that Lateef met with an accident while driving on the national highway,” said Dr Firdous.

According to him, two other similar cases were received at Jammu Medical College during that time, both were Kashmiri truck drivers who were attacked by Hindu mobs on the highway. They too had multiple fractures and burn injuries.

Around 500 trucks carrying goods and essentials to Kashmir valley were stranded in Lakhanpur. Police has promised safe passage of truck on the national highway but after Lateef was attacked, an Association of fruit growers in Kashmir decided not to risk any other life and send their fruit instead to Muzaffarabad. After four hour long meeting in Srinagar all eleven Fruit Growers Associations in Kashmir decided to march towards Muzaffarabad to sell their fruit produce there. On August 11, around 300 trucks carrying fruit left for Muzaffarabad. The movement was later to be known as Muzaffarabad Chalo.

Fayaz Ahmad Rah, the owner of the truck Lateef was driving, who was thought to be absconding by Lateef’s widow, agreed to meet this reporter after lot of persuasion. “It is a plain case of murder. Lateef was killed by the rioters. His body had so many cuts and bruises that it was hard to recognize him,” he said.

On behalf of Lateef’s family High Court lawyer Nadeem Qadri filed a case with the State Human Rights Commission [SHRC] on August 20, 2008 against the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Police Chief Kuldeep Khuda in a press statement termed the case as baseless and said that, “This is a case of accident and not murder.”

But later in 2009, when Hurriyat [M] Human Rights Committee filed a case regarding deaths during 2008 unrest, the police changed the statement and said that Lateef was killed by a mob on the national highway while he was returning to the valley. Police also mentioned that Lateef received multiple injuries on his head and was shifted to AIIMS New Delhi where he died.

Lateef’s family was compensated with one lakh rupees by the state government in 2009 out of the promised five lakhs.

The president of the Panthers Party and senior lawyer Bhim Singh, visited Hameeda’s family in 2008 and apologized on behalf of the Hindu mob that killed her husband. “He also gave some money to my kids,” said Hameeda.

Hameeda was offered help by a number of individuals after her story was carried by local dailies in Kashmir. She now lives in a small two bedroom house in Pampore with her three children Saima, Bisma and Aqib. “Some anonymous person from Nawpora is paying our school fee and other expenses,” said Saima, the eldest among her siblings who is a 6th standard student.

The family has no regular income apart from a monthly stipend of rupees 3,000 from The Kashmir Chambers of Commerce and Industries’ Relief Trust. “There are some good souls who often visit secretly and help us with money and other necessities,” said Saima.

Saima dreams of becoming a doctor so that she can help people irrespective of their religion or community. Her younger sister, Bisma who generally keeps to herself, misses her dad’s presence in her life the most. “When I look at other kids happily accompanying their parents to school, I miss my baba,” said Bisma, without raising her head. She is a 2nd standard student.

During last year’s Amarnath Yatra, Lateef’s five-year-old son Aqib would sit outside his house and throw small pebbles on the passing trucks carrying pilgrims. “Whenever I try to stop him he would say innocently, ‘they killed my baba’,” said Hameeda.

Everyday Aqib would take a hand towel and a small pot filled with water to his father’s grave to wash his papa’s face. “He would ask for his baba almost every single day. What would I say?”

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