How an army officer takes the light out of a family’s life and then has the gall to offer a bargain lest his promotions suffer.
One night last summer, when a fiery agitation raged in Kashmir, Indian soldiers mounted a raid in Khrew, a small township just outside Srinagar, and tore two brothers away from a family. They sent one of them back early the next morning, beaten to death with a spiked club. And the other has been trying to repair his mangled arm ever since he was released from captivity. A year later, with its wounds still raw, the family has been traumatized afresh by an offer of blood money.
“I will give you so much money that you can live in luxury for the rest of your life. All you have to do is to withdraw the case against me. It has hampered my promotion for some months now.”
No one in Masarat’s home had expected this. The phone call sends a chill down their spine. The man the family considers to be Shabir’s murderer is in fact offering it a hefty bribe.
“Can your money bring my brother back?” Masarat’s curt reply forces the caller to cut the bargaining short and hang up.
Shabir was the elder of Masarat’s two brothers, married just two-and-a-half-years ago, and newly become a father. His killing has left the entire neighbourhood in shock, and everyone asks the same question: Why was the home, the Mengu family as it is known, targeted? Shabir had never been seen in a protest. He lived a quiet life, was bound to his books, and had been aspiring for a career in academics. No one remembers him ever getting into trouble.
How could the killers have summoned the courage to call them and try to buy their silence? Masarat fights to suppress her grief and anger, recalling how Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti had assured investigating the case and putting the culprits behind bars.
“But do you think that he will ever be punished?” she wonders amid sobs. “No. Never. All they will do is fine him or suspend him, and force us to close the case.”
“And to think that many shameless scribes have accused us of taking money as compensation. I swear, we have not taken a single penny. Money can buy us a mansion, but will that heal our wounds?”
Bitter experience, over long years, has taught Masarat how things work in conflict zones. From raids to killings, from accusations to justice. In his book Blood On My Hands, Kishalay Bhattacharjee shows what drives the politics of promotions in the army: “More kills means more ranks,” he quotes an army officer as saying. But, for this commanding officer, it has worked in reverse – a “kill” has hampered his rise.
The Night of Aug 17, 2016
Sharshaali is a sleepy village perched about a kilometer above Khrew. A single-storey house next to the local middle school houses the Mengus, then a family of five: Shabir, his wife, 15-month-old son, younger brother, sister and father. The siblings had lost their mother when quite young. Everyone even in surrounding villages knows what befell them that night, and asks the same question. Why Shabir and his brother?
A lecturer at the Amar Singh College in Srinagar, Shabir had recently been selected for a doctorate in Gwalior, and had brought home another load of books to prepare for a prestigious examination. His brother owned a cab and drove it to earn his living. Masarat herself had given up school in Class 10 as coping with books and housework had become impossible after their mother’s death.
That night, the air was thick with slogans from mosque loudspeakers. Protests were still on over the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani in Kokernag the previous month. Shabir’s wife was at her parents’ house along with her son. The family had finished dinner, and the lecturer was returning to his books and computer after performing wuzu, or ritual ablution, a long-standing habit of his before retiring for the night, his sister recalls, when they are jolted by a loud banging on the door.
A group of army officers bursts in, armed with guns, iron rods and knives. They have slashed the tyres of her brother’s Sumo standing outside, and smashed its windscreen. Shabir’s books are sent flying through the air, his laptop broken to pieces.
They grab the two brothers by their neck and drag them out, raining kicks and blows all the while.
“We pleaded, and begged, but the soldiers paid no heed,” Masarat breaks down at the memories. “They just took them away.”
“No one in the neighbourhood as much as opened a window. No one came to our rescue. Rather, every house switched off its lights.”
They cannot call anyone on phone as all networks have been down for weeks. Shaking with fear, all they can do is weep, and pray for their sons’ return.
The night stretches on. They call out to the two brothers, in desperation, fighting off horrible thoughts that assail their hopes. Young boys and men returned from custody battered and broken, or not at all, are all too common in Kashmir. Merciful God! Save our sons.
Daylight comes, towing the wails of a siren. It is a quarter to six in the morning. An ambulance is rushing into the village, its lights flashing pain and anguish. The village peeps out in alarm, from behind curtains, through chinks, and through doors opened a just small fraction.
Suddenly, the terrible truth dawns. They have brought Shabir back. Dead. Murdered. Men and women pour out of their homes, aghast. Screams rend the air. The news spreads fasts. Soon, Shaarshali is a sea of people. Thousands surround Shabir’s house. Relatives come stumbling, falling, staggering. Word has already been sent to Shabir’s wife – that she has become a widow. Young Nuvaib is too small to understand what has happened, or what is going on.
“It is heartbreaking to see him go to Shabir’s room and pull out his things,” Masarat comes back to the present. “He keeps on looking for his father.”
“It was clear that Shabir had been beaten with a spiked club. His legs were all black and blue,” says Masarat. “No one can survive such brutality. His heart must have given out. He was dead when brought to hospital.”
The younger brother is lucky to have escaped with his life. He has not regained the use of his arm, even after surgery.
“They turn into monsters, these soldiers,” says their cousin who too had been rounded up along with sixty other boys and taken to an area called Vir Dej where, according to him, they were beaten to pulp.
“I kept shouting that I was an M Phil scholar and had never been part of stone-pelting, but they wouldn’t listen.”
‘“We know,” they would say. “But this (your wounds) will send a message to others as to what awaits stone-pelters.”’
Life after the Night of Aug 17, 2016
By losing Shabir, the family has lost its freedom, its azadi, says Masarat. It is as if life had turned into hell. They can’t bear the way Nuvaib looks when other kids play with their fathers. “Baba,” he calls out to satisfy a longing he can’t express.
“We are losing our loved ones. Our children are turning into orphans, wives into widows. These deaths must stop.”
They are thinking of a marriage between her surviving brother and Shabir’s widow.
“That way,” says Masarat, “at least Nuvaib won’t have to go away.”
But will that soften the fresh blow his father’s killers have dealt? That they take money and forget about justice for Shabir?