Caught in the vortex of multi-polar violence, Razia Sultan’s fight to trace her disappeared father on both sides of LoC is of epic proportions. Arrested and tortured, she lost her husband to the situation and now survives as a small-time MNEREGA contractor. On International Human Rights Day, Sameer Yasir profiles the lady, whose search incidentally led to the discovery of mass graves.
On a cold November morning, a group of labourers had begun work to build a small flood canal in Bela, Uri in north Kashmir when they noticed a tall woman with a round face approaching the site. Razia Sultan’s eyes were focused on the workers and she spoke with authority.
Sultan is the only women in Uri, who was awarded a contract for constructing the flood canal under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, a scheme, which guarantees employment to poor people living in rural India. But her impoverished life is studded with tragic twists which have made her a popular figure in north Kashmir.
In a tragic way, Sultan has come to symbolize the fight of nearly 8,000 families who have seen their relatives and loved ones vanish into thin air over the last 23 years of conflict in Kashmir. Razia was barely 13 when her father, Raj Ali Mardan, went missing on May 13, 1990.
Mardan was heading home after closing his cooperative shop in Bela. When he was walking on Bela bridge, Ali vanished in thin air. A man who had crossed the bridge before Ali had noticed a white jeep without a registration number parked on the roadside.
“There was an army camp headed by Major Thapa between the bridge and our house. No one saw my father after that,” she said. Sultan and her mother filed a complaint against the Army at a local police station but there was no reprieve. Since then, she has been searching for her father.
The fight for ensuring justice has been a herculean task for Razia, a sole-earning woman in a family of four. Life has never been rewarding and every day has brought new tragedies and twists which have gradually shaped her life. But it was an incident in September 2010 which changed her life forever.
Razia was helping her younger sister in their kitchen garden when a young boy shouted at them. Pointing his finger towards a hill, the boy told Razia that a group of monkeys gathered on top of a hill were making peculiar noises and attacking any human passing by.
This was something which, Razia says, was unusual. Monkeys would never make inroads into the residential areas before, no matter what! But this time, as Razia realized later, they were attracted to the smell of human flesh.
When she climbed on a steep low hill, just behind the police station in Bela, she was shocked to see the skull of a man lying on a freshly excavated grave.
She went to the site and found scores of freshly dug pits with 17 human bodies in them. “The monkeys were trying to extract and eat flesh,” she recalls. The loose graves covered by mounds of earth had been dug in a hurry. The scene horrified her and she started crying which attracted local people towards the site. They started digging the graves deep enough to properly bury the unknown bodies.
“One of them was identified and taken to his hometown Sopore in north Kashmir and buried there. There was shock and awe in the entire area,” she said.
But Razia was not surprised. She has been witness to similar scenes since the conflict erupted in Kashmir valley in 1989. Over the last 22 years, death, destruction, graves, mutilated faces, bruised bodies, headless bodies; she has seen it all.
In June last year, her husband, Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, left the house with cash to purchase some items for the home. He never returned back. “There is no clue about him. I have a daughter to take care of. I do small jobs to take care of the household. There is a missing report filed in his name but the police have not told us what happened to him,” she says.
When I asked her how she dealt with the disappearance of her husband she looked down and, in a broken voice, said, “It is my daughter because of whom I am alive today.” The disappearance of her husband has broken her completely. But that is not all! –
A Father Goes Missing
The fight to trace the whereabouts of her father has been tormenting for Razia. Over the last two decades, she claims that she has been jailed four times over a number of reasons. “But it kept me alive, even in jail. When I imagined my family sleeping hungry while I was in jail since there was no one to feed them, I felt pity for myself,” she said.
On a normal encounter with Razia, it is hard to differentiate her from a normal village woman. But her determination, her grit and an act of relentless courage to pursue the case of her missing father have made her a woman with a difference.
“He was leaving for his cooperative shop in Boniyar when he saw me and hugged me. That was the last time I saw my father alive. He never returned,” Sultan said, keeping her head down; her left hand bearing torture marks wiping the tears from her eyes.
“Look here,” she says, pointing towards her hands, “The police cut my wrist in Cargo (A notorious torture centre in Srinagar) during interrogation. The blood was oozing profusely but they couldn’t get any proof that I was involved in any militant activity. They never released that I was innocent,” she says. “I had gone to the house of a holy man along with my sister who was not doing well. But he informed me that the Army had taken his son away. He advised us to stay for the night as it was already dark. Suddenly, the Army knocked on the door. They were asking one by one who belonged to which area. When my turn came, I told him that I was from Bela. Major Thapa asked me about my father and what he was doing,” she said. “He asked me whether my father returned home every day. I nodded. Then he told me that my father had not come home today. We started crying,” she added.
Major Thapa was right. Her father didn’t return home that day. “I lodged a missing person’s report but the police told me that he might have crossed the LoC (Line of Control). I was shocked. He didn’t need to because he had a government job. Anyway, he was too old to go for arms training,” she says. Reliable sources in J&K police still maintain Ali might have crossed over to PaK.
J&K police’s official spokesperson, Manoj Sheeri said he was unable to find out the details of Ali’s case.
When the police refused to search Ali, Razia took it upon herself to trace her father. This made her a suspect in the eyes of rebels as well as government forces. “I knocked the doors of police officials, politicians and bureaucrats which become a reason for militants to brand me as an informer. Then they started looking for me. I had become a suspect. I didn’t want to come back home and started living in Srinagar. I thought they would torture me,” Razia recalls.
She was threatened by militants against visiting police officials. When the threats from militants stopped, the Army started harassing her and arrested her brother.
“The Army had pasted posters on the walls everywhere in the village, asking people to provide information about me. I got really scared and came back to Bela. I then went to the Army camp with village elders. They kept me there for some days and left without saying anything. I told them I was not a militant, ‘why are you creating problems for me’. It was a pressure tactic to stop me from searching my father,” she said
A battalion of Rashtriya Rifles arrested her in Laridora, Baramulla. They took her to DIV Headquarters and handed her over to police. “During the interrogation, they beat me with an iron rod. Once they hit the back of my head and I got 13 stitches. Sometimes I lose my memory and don’t remember anything. The interrogation was done by both men and women police. There was a senior police official in Cargo who kicked me in my abdomen because of which I can’t have a child. They kept asking me why I was looking for my father, why not my other siblings,” she says.
In May 1995, she was arrested and put under trial for nine months. She was then slapped with PSA and finally released in September 1996. “The cuts and marks on my hands and body are even today visible. They alleged that I was providing shelter to militants. Those allegations were baseless. Everyone who comes to Bela is checked before you enter the village. An Army camp stands just before you enter the area,” she said.
Even after her release, her search did not stop. She visited almost half of the Indian jails and wanted to go to Pakistan in pursuit of her father but she was denied a passport. “I had applied for a passport in 2002 but the police didn’t give me the mandatory security clearance because I had filed a case against the Army. Then I sent my mother and my sister to Pakistan but they couldn’t find him there. Tired, they returned hopelessly,” she recalls.
Razia’s mother and sister made a trip to Muzzafarabad in Pakistan administered Kashmir where they were hosted by their uncle. When Raja Hashmat Ali Khan heard that his brother was missing, he suffered a massive heart attack and died.
Since then, Sultan has visited many graveyards, police stations, torture cells and militant hideouts. She visited places where unidentified militants would be buried. The police started questioning her and then put her in jail in 2002. After her release from Central Jail in Srinagar, she wanted to start her life afresh. With some money, she started a poultry forum but it didn’t work. She tried other business but nothing changed. “I thought of opening a boutique with my friend. We settled the deal with a Srinagar-based businessman who promised to provide us a shop. I took Rs 70,000 and was going to Srinagar when the STF arrested me,” she said.
In 2003, she was arrested again and put under detention for six months. The case is still going on in a court in Baramulla. After some political intervention, she was released. “When Taj Mohi-ud-Din Sahib (a local legislator) heard what had happened to our family, he got her out of jail.” Hakim, Razia’s brother said. “The police had presented false witness against me that I was giving shelter to militants. But they all retracted,” she said.
Her determination to search for her father didn’t die down. It led her to many places in the Boniyar-Gulmarg belt where unidentified graves had been dug. When the October 2005 earthquake struck the divided part of Kashmir, a team of human rights activists led by the J&K Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) reached Bela in Boniyar with relief.
It was Razia who informed them about the presence of mass graves. “I knew where these graves were and in which area. I would always count them and see pictures to check whether my father was one of them. This has kept me alive even today,” she says.
“After the report was published by JKCCS, many police officers came to my house and asked me how I knew about these graves. They tried to pressure me but I always resisted and told them I would never stop the search for my father. Even today they accuse me of holding meetings with militants,” she said.
JKCCS Coordinator, Khuram Parvaiz said, “When the graves were identified in her area, she was one of the main sources in her area. She has kept a count of graves. She would go to every place wherever someone was killed. She provided a lot of help.” “I am not asking for something special. I am asking for the remains of my father. The government’s report was aimed at burying the past. This is something which Kashmiri society can never afford to forget,” she says Sultan lives in a two-storied house owned by her in-laws with her daughter who is studying at a college. She is waiting for a court to settle the case in which her house was taken over by NHPC. “I have to talk now, to tell the world what happened to me, even if it comes at the cost of my life,” she says.