“We know about every massacre that has taken place close to the present, but the ones in the distant past are like trees falling in the forest with no one to hear them.”Steven Pinker.
Hiagam a small hamlet, barely 20 kilometres from the District Headquarters Baramulla, is world famous for the wetland Rakh-i-Hiagam . This village still struggles with the memory of a gut-wrenching massacre, that unfolded on the ill fated day of 15th of February 2001.
Few days before, a comrade of mine Whatsapped me the list of massacres that have taken place in Kashmir in the recent past. It was heart-breaking for me not to find the Higam massacre in the list.
15th February, 2001 was a slightly cold and cloudy morning. A dull sky hung over the plains of Hiagam. People wearing pherans and holding kangris underneath could be seen whispering on the shop fronts. A thick mix of fear and sadness could be easily read from their dismal faces. Few days before, a charismatic young man had been picked up by the uniformed armed forces, and he was still untraced and feared dead. Jaleel Ahmad Shah, a tall and heavily built young man in his late 30’s was running a medical store to prior to his arrest. In conflict zones like Kashmir, where several lawless laws including AFSPA, PSA etc are in force, arrest of an ordinary civilian rings alarm. The consistent culture of brutal custodial killings only increases the likelihood of death. Hiagam had already sensed the death of it’s son and rightly so! Jaleel was already dead.
Finally the scattered gatherings reached a consensus. Moments later, loud speekers of Jamia Masjid Hiagam could be heard appealing people to launch a peaceful protest in solidarity with the killed civilian and to demand his dead body. In Kashmir, it is a routine on the part of the armed forces to deny dead bodies in a bid to brush aside their crimes. People of Hiagam had every reason to believe this double tragedy. The next moment saw main Chowk of Hiagam dotted with people. Men, women and children of all ages thronged in from the narrow lanes and by lanes of Hiagam to lead a protest march. People from the adjoining villages of Aali Bagh, Amberpora and Bulgam also joined in solidarity.
After marching through a two-kilometer long link road, the rally of some 700-900 people reached the Srinagar-MuzafarAbad National Highway near Bulgam, a village located on the other side of Highway. Slogans of freedom and peace were the only weapons people of Hiagam had brought along. It is a universally established fact that in conflict zones, the occupied people rely on peaceful protests to highlight human rights violations. Javed Ahmad Wani, a young man then, who now teaches at a local private school was part of the march. “We raised slogans in solidarity with the killed civilian and demanding his dead body back.” Moments later the traffic came to a halt. “The idea was to block the road, and invoke the attention of administration to seek the dead body that was denied to then”, recalls Wani. The practice of road-blocking in Kashmir is still in vogue even to demand drinking water or electricity. It was a different story then. A lone bread-winner of a modest family had been picked up, killed in custody, followed then by a persistent denial of his dead body.
Soon the local Station House Officer could be spotted on the scene. A few village elders apprised the officer about their demand and pleaded for the dead body. Nothing concrete emerged from the meeting. And hours passed by without a breakthrough.
The protest continued till an army convoy going towards Baramulla arrived on the scene. “They alighted from their vehicles and enquired about the blockade”, recalls Showkat Ahmad Mir, who had joined the protest like the other Mohalla boys. Post massacre Mir woke up in the hospital in a wounded state. “The village elders talked in a polite tone with the army Major and put forth their demand”, remembers Mir. The army Major sought an immediate withdrawal of the road blockade to which civilians objected and reiterated that they will not withdraw the blockade till the dead body is handed over to them. “We briefed the army Major about our just demand and conveyed to him that we are not here to harm anyone, to which he agreed”, Wani recalls again.
The next minutes passed by without any development except the insignificant presence of SHO. The unjust killing, denial of dead body and now the prolonged indifference on part of both the police and civil administration on handing over the dead body had already paved way for spontaneous anger. Although angry slogans were raised nothing untoward happened. Despite hit with the tragedy, people waited for hours together to retrieve the dead body. They waited with patience, the same did not go well with the army who perhaps perceived it as an insult to their credentials. They were also armed with the immunity provided to them by laws like AFSPA and PSA.
Army forced their way to unblock the road. People resisted and all hell broke loose as the trigger-happy forces resorted to unprovoked firing. Bullets rained. The intent was to kill as many as they could. Like a hunter hunting down a dense flock of frightened pigeons. In the mayhem people ran helter and skelter . People fell down one after other. Blood spilled all over the dull and grey road. Under the mute apple trees too.
Grief overburdened the small lap of Hiagam, which was handed over five dead bodies. More than twenty people received severe bullet wounds. Two bubbling youths namely Safdar Ahmad( Bulgam) and Manzoor Ahmad(Amberpora) came back dead. Hiagam scripted down another tragic page of our collective bruised history by making it to the list of female martyrs. Bilqees Maqbool (Hiagam), a would-be bride came back lifeless. Fate replaced her baraat with a painful funeral. Ateeqa Begum , a caring mother, in her 40’s also came back dead. “Her hands bore thick flour layer as she was preparing bread for the family before she rushed to join the march”, as another young man who lives close to hers etches his memory lanes and proudly calls her aunty.
Justice has it’s own interpretation in a colonized state like Kashmir. The demand for getting a dead body was fulfilled by handing over a pile of them and scores of injuried. For the perpetrators they might well be just numbers. A few insignificant numbers added to an unending list of killings. But for us, Jaleel, Safdar,Manzoor,Bilqees and Ateeqa are the ever illuminating stars in the galaxy of our martyrs, who scarified themselves to rule for ever. Forever.
May peace and blessings shower upon all of you.
Muhammad Muzaffar is a Sopore(J&K) based freelancer. He is a Computer Science post Graduate from Kashmir University and can be reached @ bhatmuzaffar272@Gmail.com