Lost Lives and Blank Ballots

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In terror-afflicted Kashmir, the tragedy-stricken will vote only if it helps them come to terms with their acute sense of loss

The knock came soon after the 2003 Cricket World Cup final match turned one-sided in favour of Australia. It was about 10.30 pm when the 12 Kashmiri Pandit families of Nadimarg village in Kashmir’s Pulwama district switched off their TV sets, knowing well that India now stood no chance of winning the Cup. Mohan Bhat had just slipped into the warmth of his quilt when he heard noise outside. And then an eerie knock on his door. Sensing danger, he leapt for the door, pressing his body hard against it. But he was overpowered. As the door came crashing in, Bhat jumped out of a window, hanging on to a wedge along the roof. But his father, mother, sister and uncle would have no escape. Within seconds, there was gunfire, and Bhat turned numb.

It was a massacre. Of the 30 Hindus present in the village that night, 24 were killed, many of them women and children. “The terrorists were accompanied by some policemen who guided them towards our houses,” Bhat says. After dangling outside the window a few minutes, he had jumped to the ground below and run towards a nearby field where he saw his dead father, his head resting against a chinar tree. Bhat’s uncle lay in his lap. His mother and sister lay dead inside the house. From a corner of the village, he saw the terrorists flee. “They heard a child crying, and one of them shouted to another in Kashmiri, ordering him to silence the child,” Bhat says. There were more gunshots; the command had been obeyed. 

Six years later, Mohan Bhat still wakes up in the dead of night in a cold sweat. After the massacre, he moved to Jammu, where he now works as a laboratory assistant in a government school. Two years ago, he went back to Nadimarg with his wife. “But I did not enter my house,” he says.

Bhat lost everything that night. “But still, life has to move on, and that is what I tried to do,” he says. But even after all the trauma, his nightmare is yet to end. Police parties from Kashmir keep visiting him in Jammu, asking him to identify an arrested foreign militant, Zia Mustafa. “They threaten me, saying I will have to do it at any cost,” he complains. The police, he says, have taken occupancy of his house for which no rent has ever been paid despite repeated requests. Mohan Bhat is a bitter man today. He is particularly angry at the words of the then Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. “He told me that he would like to see what my ‘Hindu brethren’ will do for me in Jammu,” according to Bhat.

Pulwama is part of J&K’s Anantnag parliamentary constituency. But Bhat really doesn’t care for that little piece of electoral detail. “Vote? Vote for what, and for whom?” he asks. A few hours after his whole family was wiped out, a local man from his village was caught selling a piece of his mother’s jewellery at a marketplace. “That piece, which is all what remains of my mother, is still lying in the court’s custody,” he says. “At least, they could give me that back.” If that happens, perhaps he would “think of putting that ink mark” on his finger.

Some 50 km away from where Mohan Bhat’s life came to a standstill, Mogli Begum dreams of Kashmir’s tallest leader, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah. In Srinagar’s Habbakadal area, Mogli, who doesn’t remember her age, lives alone in an old house. She hardly leaves her room on the first floor, half of which she uses as a kitchen.  

Mogli’s world faded in 1990, but all she remembers is that it was a Saturday, in the month of September. Her only son, Nazir Ahmed, a teacher by profession, left as usual for duty. “He ate his lunch, and said he was leaving,” Mogli recalls. He would usually come back by five in the evening. But that day he didn’t come back. Mogli waited till late night. And then the search began. The entire locality searched for Nazir Ahmed. In police stations. In Army and other security camps. In graveyards. In hospitals. In the local mental asylum. Ads were released.

But there was no trace of her son.

“My husband left me for another woman when Nazir was still suckling my breast,” Mogli says. “After that, I treated him like a bulbul,” she says, “and that day, the bulbul just flew away.”

Before leaving on that Saturday, Mogli’s son had given her Rs 30 for buying vegetables. She still has the cash with her.  “I would have liked to vote for Sheikh sahib (Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah),” she says, “but he too is gone. Who do I vote for, then?” Years of yearning for her missing son have taken a toll on Mogli. Her vision and hearing have deteriorated. “Maybe Nazir would return before I close my eyes forever.” All that remains of her son is a black and white passport photo, faded over long years of caressing. “If Nazir returns, I will vote for anyone you ask me to.” And then she goes silent. The very thought of a ballot machine dissolves in a well of tears.