Rights

The Disappearance of Three Men is Rekindling Old Fears in Kashmir

When militancy was at its peak in Kashmir, thousands of men disappeared only to get reduced to statistics in government records. Aware of this grim reality, their families want only one assurance from the government.

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Jana Begum, wife of Ghulam Jeelani, and their 10 children at their home in Surja Nari, Dardpora. Credit: Special Arrangement

Kupwara: On 17 November 2015, three men in their mid 40s disappeared from Kupwara, a border district in Kashmir. The disappearance occurred soon after Manzoor Ahmad Khawaja a member of the 160 Battalion of the Territorial Army (TA) persuaded them to join him for an “urgent meeting”.

When the trio – Ghulam Jeelani Khatana, Mir Hussain Khatana and Ali Muhammad Sheikh – failed to return to their homes, their families grew suspicious of Khawaja’s role, a suspicion that grew stronger after he went into hiding. Unable to get any answers from Khawaja, the families sought judicial intervention and registered a case with the police. The incident, a grim reminder of disappearances in Kashmir’s yesteryears, occurred at a time when the army was in the midst of a month-long operation in the Shamsbari forest range, close to the Pakistan border, to flush out a hiding militant group.

While Khawaja is now behind bars, the police investigation has not yielded any substantial information about the disappearances. The victims’ families have held frequent protests, accusing the police of “deliberately slowing down” the investigation.

The disappearances

Comprising of a few Gujjar families, Surja Nari is located on a hillock in the village of Dardpora, also called the ‘village of widows’ (130 km from Srinagar).

Brick and mud single storey houses dot the face of this remote territory in Kupwara. On one of the numerous snow covered ridges is a broken wooden stairway that leads to Jeelani’s two-room house.

“Manzoor came looking for Jeelani and took him away,” his wife Jana narrated to a group of women from the neighbourhood.

An hour later on the fateful day, Jana received a call from her husband, saying he would be away with Khawaja for the next two days.

That was the last time Jeelani contacted his family. Of his 10 children, his eldest daughter, 22-year old Aisha, is visually impaired. So is Ikhlaq, his 10-year old son. Yearning to hear their father’s voice, they listen carefully to every new visitor in the hope of some good news.

The story of Jeelani’s family, like many others in the area, is one of abject poverty. Jeelani was one of hundreds of men from Dardpora and surrounding villages who were enrolled by the army as porters to carry rations and other essentials to far flung border posts in early 2015. This job fetched him Rs 12,700 per month.

This season, however, he failed to make it to the list of porters, forcing him to take up casual employment. His interactions with Khawaja from uphill Satteboyan grew. Khawaja would often come to Jeelani’s house, where the two would meet behind closed doors, according to Jana.

“Let them tell me my husband is fine, I don’t need anything more,” sighs Jana as her children anxiously huddle around her. When militancy was at its peak in Kashmir, thousands of men disappeared only to get reduced to statistics in government records. Aware of this grim reality, Jana wants only one assurance from the government.

Looking at the fear-struck faces of his siblings, Jeelani’s teenage son Ishfaq tries to console the others by telling them everything will be fine.

But his mother understands how things could change for the worse.

“What will happen to my family, who will look after these kids,” she cries. “Why can’t they make Manzoor speak the truth?”

Her views are shared by Saleema, wife of one of the other men who disappeared, Hussain, and mother of six, including four daughters.

Both Khawaja and Hussain come from Satteboyan.

“He (Khawaja) called my husband on his mobile at around 1 pm on November 17 and asked him (Hussain) to meet him down the hill. Hussain immediately left home for the meeting,” remembers Saleema.

Less than two hours later, Saleema too got a call from her husband, saying that he was “going for some urgent work with Khawaja” and would return a day after.

That both Jeelani and Hussain were last seen with Khawaja and the third missing man, Ali Muhammad from Trehgam, before they went missing has been corroborated by Jeelani’s cousin, Ghulam Nabi Khattana. Khattana had gone to the market in Kralpora to buy medicines when he saw the trio having tea with Khawaja at a local tea shop. “Manzoor even requested me to join them for a cup of tea but I declined,” Khattana told The Wire.

Haseena, Muhammad’s wife, also offered the same explanation, saying that several neighbours had seen the trio with Khawaja in the Kralpora market.

She and three of her sons, joined by a group of women from neighbourhood, were protesting in Trehgam Chowk, seeking the whereabouts of her husband.

Hussain’s father echoed Jana and Haseena’s frustrations on the “delayed” investigation. “He (Khawaja) is in police custody for more than two weeks now but still there are no answers. Why such a long delay?” he questions.

Narratives, doubts and assertions

Soon after the disappearances, the people of Kupwara grew suspicious that the TA soldier had handed the victims to the army for “fake gunfights” in order to earn awards – a grim reminder of the fake gunfight in 2010 in Machil, the border area of nearby Baramulla district, in which three labourers were killed by the army. The killings triggered a summer of unrest that year, in which 120 civilians eventually lost their lives.

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Haseena Begum, wife of Ali Muhammad of Trehgam, Kupwara, and their three children staging a protest to demand the whereabouts of Muhammad. The family was joined by locals in the day long protest. Credit: Special Arrangement

In their complaint to the police, the families have blamed Khawaja for the disappearances while alleging the men may have been killed in a fake encounter.

Almost two months after the disappearances, another narrative is now gaining ground in Kupwara: that the men, who had been working with the army, have been sent across the border as spies.

“We too heard they have been sent to Pakistan. Has somebody seen them cross and who will guarantee their safety?” asks Jeelani’s nephew, Khursheed Ahmad.

As per police records, Hussain and Muhammad had crossed the border for arms training but surrendered later and started working as sources for the army in Kupwara, a militant stronghold in the past. Today, the army and other forces have a strong presence in this district. People here, owing to lack of employment opportunities, depend mainly on the army for jobs as porters.

“They acted as guides to help militants infiltrate to this side of Kashmir in the past while working with the army as well. Jeelani too had developed close links with the army,” says a senior police official, not wishing to be named. The families, however, refuted the charge that the men were working with the army.

Substantiating his point, the official said there are cases of militancy registered against Hussain and Muhammad dating back a few years. He also questioned the delay on the part of the families in approaching the police to register a case. This was done on November 28, exactly 11 days after the trio had disappeared. “Why did they wait for such a long time? It gives rise to many questions,” argued the police official.

Inspector General of Police (IGP) of Kashmir, Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gillani, said the investigation was ongoing, and that there is a possibility that the three men may have crossed the border. “We are investigating this angle too,” the IGP told The Wire.

Fake encounter?

The army has outrightly denied the possibility of the three men being killed in a fake encounter.  Describing their alleged abduction as sub judice, an army statement on December 9 said,  “We will fully cooperate with police for investigation into the case.”

General Officer Commanding of Srinagar based 15 Corps, Lt General Satish Dua, said the army has ordered a probe into the disappearances, reiterating “zero tolerance” to human rights violations. “If the role of the army is established, action will follow,” Dua said.

Aware of the ramifications of this case, the police released photographs of the four militants killed in the district till November 15 (two days before the disappearances) to the families, to clear up “any fears”. While the families denied any resemblance with their men, the fear in Kupwara continues to grow with each passing day.