Vexed Volunteers

As dead bodies kept piling with the prelude of armed struggle in Kashmir in 1989, washing and burying the dead became the order of the day. This gave birth to volunteers in many parts of Kashmir who would perform the last rites of deceased out of moral obligation. But as Bilal Handoo finds out, these volunteers ended up becoming target of the society whom they served. 

grave-diggers

In mid-nineties, a loud bang shook the residents of Khanyar area in old Srinagar. It was late evening and most people had already retired to their homes. On the onset of dusk those times, the public movement remained curtailed due to restrictions imposed by government forces. Soon a word spread in the area that one lady has been left dead by the explosion. As fear had already gripped locals, it was unlikely for them to beckon gravedigger to bury her. It was then some youth in the area volunteered to dig a grave for the slain lady.

One of the volunteers was Basharat Mir, then in his early twenties. This average built man with grey stubble dug scores of graves since then. In the autumn of 1997 itself, Mir dug 10 graves. “Five out of them were local militants, who were killed by paramilitary forces in an encounter,” says Mir, who is currently running a cosmetic shop in Srinagar’s Lal Bazaar area.

The memory of that day in early September is still fresh in his mind when a person namely Mohammad Sultan fell to stray bullets during an encounter between militants and paramilitary troops near Shiraz Chowk, Khanyar. Sultan was in his mid-forties at the time of his death. It was Mir who washed his body and buried him in a local graveyard.

“As we all know it, death wasn’t uncommon those days,” Mir says. “Many a time slain persons would be sent to the police control room and later identity checks would be carried out by locals.”

As dead bodies started piling up, Seraneger (people who wash dead body for a living) and Malkheej (gravedigger) weren’t available round the clock. This triggered a sense of moral obligation among people, who would come forward to perform the last rites of the deceased voluntarily. Mir was one such volunteer.

For the next two years, Mir kept performing last rites of such people voluntarily till he lost the count.  “I was doing it out of religious belief and on humanitarian grounds,” he says.

As Mir neared his marriage age, many families made rounds of his locality to enquire about him, which is a norm in Kashmir. Parents of prospective brides would come and disappear without showing up again. This continued for almost two years. Slowly Mir’s parents got worried over the delay of his marriage. “God knows, what is wrong with all these people,” his anxious mother told him once. “I am sure somebody in our neighbourhood must be misinforming people about us. Yes, I bet. Otherwise, what is it that we lack?”

Mir’s mother was right. One week after the conversation between mother and son, one of his friends Showkat Bhat informed him: “Booze baya, cze kate sedey ghare, meha booz keh nafar cheye cheyanen wechan waalen wanaan ki ye chuve seraane goeur.” (Listen I heard some people in the locality are telling parents of your prospective bride that you wash dead bodies).

The revelation left Mir and his family seethed with anger. As their anger subdued, Mir was told bluntly by his family: stop volunteering for the last rites of the people. Keeping the reputation of his family members in mind, he obliged like a good son. Within one month after the incident, Mir’s family shifted from the locality. They are now living in Lal Bazaar.

“Obviously, not everybody is responsible for what I and my family had to face. We all knew it, black sheep are everywhere,” Mir says. “I know I wasn’t doing anything wrong, yet I had to suffer along with my family because of some spiteful elements in our society.”

Mir is now happily married for 10 years and is the father of two kids, 8-year-old Zarka and 5-year-old Nakshab. In the new place among new people, Mir doesn’t want to bother his life and that of his family with the reminiscence of his ‘awkward’ past. “To be the part of noble service sometimes can go against you,” he says. “So it is better sometimes not to stick around.”

But Mir isn’t alone who faced the spitefulness of certain section of society for performing last rites of the dead, Jamsheed Ali, 27, is equally grieved. Hailing from Buchpora on the outskirts of Srinagar, this post-graduate in Islamic studies was mere 17-year-old when his neighbour died in an accident. “He had gone to the picnic to Pahalgam along with his friends in the later part of 2003. He left in the morning with excitement on his face. When he returned, all excitement had vanished. He was dead.  His untimely death gripped the whole locality in mourning.”

Being his childhood friend, Ali took it on himself to wash his body. He also dug up his grave all by himself. He hadn’t a sniff then that it wouldn’t be the last time for him to perform last rites for somebody. Few months later, he was again busy performing last rites. This time it wasn’t his neighbour, rather another local who became ‘collateral damage’ in an action carried by paramilitary troops against militants in district Ganderbal.

As many deaths followed in and around his locality, Ali would be leading from the front to perform the last rites. All this lasted till people started talking behind his back that he has become default Malkheej and Seranegour. “After sometime, I couldn’t withstand it anymore and succumbed to talks,” Ali says. “I was made to believe that some sections in the society could go to any extent to tarnish one’s image. I made up my mind that I wouldn’t be volunteering for the last rites of the dead anymore.”

Apart from the trials of Mir and Ali, the account of Hilal Shiekh, 33, from Karan Nagar in Srinagar reflects the rot in the society.

Shiekh first volunteered for last rites when an elder in his locality was found dead one morning in his house. The elder was living with his wife. His progeny had settled outside Kashmir and would pay a visit to their aged parents once in a while.

“I remember, it was the month of December in early 2000, when he breathed his last,” Shiekh recalls. “As his children were not around, I washed his body. And yes, of course, every good neighbour would have done the same.”

Unlike Mir and Ali, Shiekh was already married and was happily living his life. But his life was about to change. He had no idea about incoming times. The first signal of change unfolded when one day his friend, Farooq dropped a message at his home that someone has passed away in a nearby locality. Shiekh rushed to the spot. People gathered at the residence of the deceased man requested him to wash the body. He did it. Later when he returned home, he faced his irate wife.

“Look I don’t wish that tomorrow people would hurt my children by telling them that their father is Serangour,” she retorted her husband, who was in a fix over her behaviour. “Why only you honey, let others discharge their sense of community service. I can’t tolerate earning bad names for me and my family.”

“I understand what you are trying to say, but aren’t you getting swayed by the public perceptions,” Shiekh replied.

“No, please don’t try to be an idealist. We are living in a real-world where perceptions matter. They might not matter to you but they matter to me,” she replied back.

At the end of the lengthy conversation filled with resentment and concern, Shiekh had to give in for the sake of his children and wife. “Alright, be happy. I won’t do it again,” he told his wife.

But the sense of prejudice doesn’t end there only. In the largest cemetery of Kashmir, Malkhah in old Srinagar, a sense of resentment is palpable. Apart from the countless dead, the cemetery houses over ten families who wash, bury and carve out tombstones for dead since centuries. These people call themselves Aakhoons.

It was a sunny afternoon of September when I met Abdul Sultan, an elder among Aakhoons at his residence. Seated near the freshly carved out tombs, this aged man in his early seventies kept puffing hookah (hubble-bubble) for a while. After some time, Sultan broke the silence: “We are living somewhat ostracized life within the society due to prejudice linked with our job. This perception has already forced many of us to switch to other jobs, where such perceptions don’t bother us and our children. Our children aren’t pursuing our line due to the stigma associated with it.”

During peak militancy in Kashmir, rush to the cemetery was reluctant to die down. Sultan remembers one after another, people would be taken to the cemetery for burial. “It was the early nineties and death was dancing over the lives of people,” he says. “I remember one young martyr, who was taken to the cemetery for burial. I was told that he belonged to a certain militant outfit. His body was perforated with bullets. I buried him without charging anything.”

“Many deaths followed, but we ensured proper burial to each one of them in most hostile conditions. Even then, we were never spared from prejudice by certain sections of society.”

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