In a system where human rights are violated with impunity, few dare to fight a battle for justice. Shazia Khan narrates the story of a man who dared to take on dreaded renegade Papa Kashtwari.
His journey was long, difficult and intricate. But his untiring efforts let him stand out audaciously against all odds and injustice.
Zahoor Ahmad Mir, 37, of Brein Nishat is among thousands of conflict victims but his fight against oppression distinguishes him from the crowd. He is fighting an unceasing battle against a renegade turned politician, Ghulam Mohammad Lone alias Papa Kashtawari, presently detained at Central Jail, Srinagar.
For about 12 years, Kashtawari had unleashed a reign of terror across south Kashmir. He is allegedly involved in more than a hundred killings, scores of arson and a number of extortion cases involving millions of rupees. The fear he instilled prevented most of the victims from seeking any legal help. Even local police stations were not approached. Few who lodged complaints about the atrocities didn’t gather enough courage to point him out.
For Zahoor, however, his father’s murder allegedly by Kashtawari for money in 1996 changed everything. “All that I’ve been doing ever since is fighting for justice and for the peace of my father’s soul,” says Zahoor.
On June 26, 1996, Zahoor’s father Ali Mohammed Mir, then 47, left home to buy some medicines but never returned. Next day Zahoor lodged Mir’s missing report at Nishat Police station. “My father was mentally sound but police registered him as a mentally weak person in a missing report. Police tried to shove the case under the carpet but I sternly challenged the report and they later lodged another missing report,” Zahoor says. Failing to trace his father, Zahoor approached Papa Kashtawari, an influential government-sponsored gunman for help. “After few days Kashtwari told us to search for him at Ganderbal police station,” says Zahoor. “There we saw a body of a 25-year-old who was fished out from River Jhelum. Though the body was not my father’s, it made me suspicious about Kashtawari.”
For about a year, while police was conducting a non-serious investigation, Kashtawari was misguiding him, Zahoor says. After many visits to different army camps and renegade posts, Zahoor heard about abduction of his father by Papa Kashtawari. “He (Kashtawari) later admitted to have kidnapped him and demanded three lakh rupees for his release,” says Zahoor.
Zahoor owned a small shop of steel boxes at Nishat in the outskirts of Srinagar. He could not arrange the money. “I gave him 1.5 lakh rupees in instalments of 40, 50, and 60 thousand over the next two years but Kashtawari didn’t release my father,” he says.
“One day in 1999, I visited his camp; one of his companions told me it’s futile to search for my father there. I approached another renegade commander Kuka Parray, to inquire about my father and paid him Rs 35 thousand,” he says.
In coordination with SP Pulwama, Parray questioned some companions of Kashtawari, and one of them disclosed that he saw Mir at Kashtawari’s Camp on 26th of June in 1996 with another renegade Maqbool Sheikh.
Police arrested Maqbool. During questioning, Maqbool disclosed that Mir was not ready to donate three lakh rupees to Kashtawari for contesting parliamentary elections in 1996. On Kashtawari’s order, he had kidnapped Mir from Brain Nishat and brought him to Kashtawari’s camp at Shivpora. Kashtawari, along with three other renegades, had killed Mir and thrown his body into river Jhelum.
Though police arrested Kashtawari’s accomplices, Kashtawari was roaming free. Police soon released the detainees without any trial.
“There was something brewing behind the scene. Police were in collusion with Kashtawari who had bribed them,” says Zahoor.
Instead, he was being discouraged. “SP Pulwama and SHO Nishat advised me not to challenge Kashtawari who was working under the central government’s patronage. They said he had links with powerful politicians. Police can’t arrest him,” he says adding that another SSP Gill even asked him to save his life and stop pursuing the case.
After five years, Zahoor‘s search for justice was getting tougher. At every step, he was threatened with dire consequences from Kashtawari. Poverty and lack of legal knowledge added to his sufferings. “Five years of search had not affected me physically, but had crippled me financially.”
“Like other victims, I was also advised to file a case at DC Pulwama’s office for ex-gratia relief. After investigating into the matter, DC asked me to submit my father’s death certificate. I contacted SHO Nishat and SP Pulwama for the same. They declined to provide the death certificate.”
The callous approach of police forced him to continue his fight. He sought different means to carry on his struggle. “I had no money left to hire any lawyer. In 2006, I met Parvaiz Imroz, a human rights lawyer, he helped me to file a petition at High Court Srinagar. It took two years for the High court to direct a police investigation. Court also sought an explanation for not lodging an FIR against Kashtawari,” says Zahoor. In the meantime, Kashtawari’s wife Hafeeza offered him Rs 10 lakh to withdraw the case. He refused.
On March 29 in 2007, Zahoor finally succeeded in lodging an FIR against Kashtawari, a month before the Pampore Revolt when residents of this central Kashmir township rose against Papa Kashtawari for encroaching part of a local graveyard. Police finally arrested Kashtawari. At present, Kashtawari is booked under sections 346, 343, 120 and 302 Ranbir Penal Code.
But Zahoor’s fight continues. The unlettered shopkeeper recently filed 23 other cases of murder by Kashtawari in State Human Rights Commission. “My fight is not only against Kashtawari. It is against the insensitive atmosphere created by authorities. My only grief is the silence that people adopted. They need to speak up,” Zahoor says.
(Some photographs were added to the story in 2020)