Mushtaq Ahmed shovelled the soil on a recent cold winter day in occupied Kashmir, laboriously digging a grave for his teenage son. There was no body, however, to be lowered inside.
Stunned, in disbelief, a group of onlookers waited. Ahmed, however, continued to dig, now knee-deep within the half-dug grave.
Then he stood, straightened his back, and, enraged, faced the crowd.
“I want my son’s body,” he howled. “I ask India to return my son’s dead body to me.”
Police said government forces shot Ahmed’s 16-year-old son, Athar Mushtaq, and two other young men fatally when they refused to surrender on Dec 30 last year on the outskirts of Srinagar. They described the men as “hardcore associates of terrorists” who opposed Indian law.
The relatives of the victims say that they were not terrorists and that they were executed in cold blood. There was no means of verifying any assertion separately.
“It was a fake encounter,” screamed a weeping Ahmed, as the crowd clustered around him in the southern Bellow village graveyard chanted slogans demanding revenge.
Authorities buried them 115 kilometres from their ancestral villages in a distant cemetery.
Indian authorities have buried hundreds of people, all of whom authorities say were rebels, in unmarked graves under a campaign launched in 2020, refusing their families proper funerals. The proposal has contributed to widespread anti-India discontent in the country.
To maintain power over the portion of Kashmir it administers, India has long relied on military action. It has fought two wars with Pakistan over the region, which also claims mountainous territories.
Tens of thousands of civilians and freedom fighters have been killed by an armed rebellion since 1989 against Indian rule and subsequent Indian crackdowns.
The killing of Athar came months after the Indian military’s rare acknowledgment of misconduct, which conceded that soldiers violated their lawful powers in the deaths of three local citizens.
The police concluded that, after robbing them of their identity and tagging them as hardcore criminals, an Indian army officer and two civilian military sources killed the three employees. The cop has been arrested for murder.
The worries and anger of Kashmiris over such events have been compounded by the current policy of not naming those killed or their collaborators and refusing to send their bodies back to their families.
The strategy is aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus, officials argue, but rights activists and citizens say it is an effort by the government to discourage big funerals that spark further anger towards India.
In a recent interview with The Hindu newspaper, Police Inspector General Vijay Kumar said that the programme not only prevented the spread of Covid diseases, but also stopped the “glamorising of terrorists” and prevented possible problems with law and order.
Officials, however, have not prevented state-sponsored funerals for government troops killed in battle with the insurgents.
It is a humiliation for mankind not to return the bodies of the slain,’ said Zareef Ahmed Zareef, a civil rights campaigner and famous Kashmiri poet.
Distracted families of freedom fighters and civilians killed by government forces have consistently requested that final rites and respectful burials in ancestral villages under the Muslim faith be permitted by Indian authorities, who are primarily Hindu.
The pleas were consistently refused. Occasionally, families visited the distant graveyards discreetly and marked their kin’s graves with stones and scribbled their names with paintbrushes.
Until last April, Indian forces had handed the rebels’ bodies over for burial to their families. Since then, 158 “militants” have been buried at remote sites, according to the police.
The last one refused last year to relatives was Athar’s body. When Ahmed got news of the killing of his son on Dec 30, he rushed to a police hospital in Srinagar where Athar’s body was being kept. When the police later moved the body to a remote mountain for burial, along with those of the two other men, Ahmed followed.
He was stopped numerous times along the way, but begged Indian forces to encourage him to see the face of his son one last time, he said. He was broken when he eventually approached the grave spot.
Contrary to conventional procedure, in which they are dug by shovels and normally marked with marble gravestones, Ahmed said the graves had been dug by an earthmover.
He said, “They were not graves but hurriedly dug pits,” “I myself lowered my son into that pit.”
The refusal to send bodies to families is a felony, say scholars and rights campaigners.
“It is an outright violation of international law and against the Geneva Conventions,” said a leading human rights lawyer, Parvez Imroz. “This is even against local laws.”
The killing and remote burial of Athar attracted mass mourning, with thousands asking that the bodies be returned on social media.
The mourners surrounded Athar’s weeping mother at his family’s small house in Bellow. His sister screamed, “Mother, have patience. He will return. He has promised me he will.”
In the cemetery, the grave that Ahmed had dug for his son stood vacant.