Amid Communication Blockade, Kashmiris Robbed of the Right to Mourn Their Dead

"She raised me like her own child in my early years of life. I was not around to shoulder her coffin on her last journey.”

Srinagar: Azee Begum’s younger daughter, Mahjabeen learnt of her mother’s death three days after it happened when a relative arrived at her home in Pattan – a township 30 kms north of Srinagar – to inform her of it.

“On the fourth day, she (Mahjabeen) came here wailing and beating her chest,” said Mahjabeen’s nephew Riyaz Ahmad at Azee’s home in Aanchar locality, on the outskirts of Srinagar. “She banged the doors and hit the walls. We all watched in helplessness until she fell unconscious.”

Forty-five-year-old Mahjabeen’s is one of many such heart-wrenching tales from Kashmir, where relatives did not get to know of the death of their loved ones in time due to the unprecedented communication blockade.

Kashmir’s residents have been without internet and mobile services – two main sources of communication – for the past 34 days.

The communication gag was imposed after the India government read down Article 370 on August 5, a move that stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status. New Delhi also bifurcated the state into two union territories.

The prevailing scenario has cut off Kashmiris living in different districts. They have hardly any information about each other’s well-being.

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Azee Begum

Though the government said last week that it restored landlines in most parts of the Valley, only a small portion of the population owns that facility.

According to Indian Express, there are a total of around 50,000 active landline connections across ten districts of the Valley, meaning that mobile services remain the most widely used means of communication. There have also been complaints about the landline service being erratic.

“Nobody in Kashmir would have imagined these times. Authorities are depriving us of the right to mourn our dead by blocking phone services and making Kashmir incommunicado,” said Gulzar Ahmad Baba, a mourner at Azee’s house.

According to him, many relatives of the bereaved Aanchar family still do not know of Azee’s death.

“In the prevailing situation when everything is shut and strict curbs are in place, how can one go out to inform relatives about the tragedy?” Baba said.

Seventy-three-year-old Azee, who had developed a tumour in her head a year ago, was rushed to Srinagar’s Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences on the evening of August 27 after her condition deteriorated. She breathed her last late on the night of August 31.

Owing to the volatile situation in their locality, Azee’s son decided to stay back at the hospital for the night, even though their house is barely a kilometre away.

The next morning when they arrived home with the body, family members were drinking their morning tea and preparing for the day.

“We all were having tea and my uncles entered the house carrying the body of granny,” said another family member. “The sight of the body left us shell shocked.”

Aanchar has been the epicentre of protests against the government’s move to scrap Article 370. For the past month, security forces carrying automatic rifles and wearing riot gears have controlled the road and intersection leading into the locality to prevent the protests from spilling over to adjoining areas.

At Malkha, the largest graveyard in Srinagar, a gravedigger, Muhammad Maqbool said these days it takes an entire day to bury a body.

Malkha, the largest graveyard in Kashmir, located in downtown Srinagar. Photo: Mudasir Ahmad

“Normally, it takes three hours to prepare a grave and bury the body. Now, it takes an entire day for burial as family members insist on waiting for relatives,” said Maqbool. “There have even been instances when relatives didn’t turn up owing to lack of information and the ritual was completed with only a few present.”

An elderly man, who makes epitaphs near Malkha, said many have visited the graveyard days after the burials of their relatives to offer prayers.

“All of them had the regret of not making it to the funeral due to lack of information,” he said. “It is so tragic. They (the relatives) arrive here in tears only because they came to know about it (the death) very late.”

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The attendance of people in the funerals has also thinned at Malkha, as only close relatives and people from areas surrounding the graveyard are able to join in for the last rites.

“How will a family communicate about death? It is not possible to physically visit every relative,” said the man.

The bearded gravedigger talked about the deaths of relatives of two known personalities – a bureaucrat and a doctor – over the past two weeks.

Shops making epitaphs near Malkha, the largest graveyard in Kashmir, in Srinagar’s downtown. Photo: Mudasir Ahmad

“Their family members initially insisted on delayling the burial by a few more minutes hoping for more relatives to arrive. However, in the end, they had little choice,” he said.

The absence of public transport, in protest against the August 5 decision, has also meant there is no communication between the relatives.

Though the authorities have eased the restriction in most parts of the Valley, only private transport has been running.

A senior Kashmiri journalist who works with a New Delhi-based daily said he came to know through a local newspaper about the death of his maternal aunt.

The family had informed the relatives about ‘Chahrum’ – a ritual when people assemble to pray for peace to the departed soul – on the fourth day after the death.

“When I saw her picture in the newspaper and read about her death, I was frozen for a moment,” the journalist said, wishing not to be named. “She raised me like her own child in my early years of life. I was not around to shoulder her coffin on her last journey.”