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A tale of two neighbours

Aamir Nazir Latoo, like many fellow Kashmiris, lived and died with the lasting dilemma facing Kashmir

A tale of two neighbours

Aamir Nazir Latoo was born on September 24, 1993. On July 12, 2016, at the tender age of 22, he was allegedly killed by the Jammu and Kashmir Police in Bijbehara, the hometown of Mehbooba Mufti, chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. The bullets had ruptured his internal organs, including liver and lungs.

After battling for about ten hours, he died at the surgical intensive care unit of the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Memorial (SMHS) Hospital in Srinagar.

As if the pain of his violent death was not enough, the police hijacked the ambulance carrying his body, took it to the Police Control Room, Srinagar and forced the bereaved out on the streets. After three hours of unimaginable pain and trauma, the police finally gave back the body, after fearing uprising in Mufti’s hometown.

A news bulletin on the official radio, Radio Kashmir, attributed his loss of life to a cross-fire between the militants and the police, a blatant but often-employed lie to whitewash officially enacted murders.

Despite the claims that several people saw him falling to the bullets, his family has yet to register the First Information Report (FIR). When I inquired, Nazir Ahmed Latoo, the father of the deceased, responded with a hopeless and depressing forecast: “Justice is not possible under this system. We know it from our observations and people’s ongoing experiences. We don’t believe in this system.” Besides, some family members told me, they are afraid the police might harass them, particularly Aamir’s two younger brothers.

Aamir’s life was short and uneventful like so many of his fellow Kashmiris. In his death, however, he did attract attention, well beyond his sphere of influence. His funeral attracted more than 20,000 people, making it one of the biggest memorial service in the living memory of the town.

Due to the severe restrictions on public movement, I could only visit the Latoos six days after they had buried their son. Still, one could notice a flow of mourners from the adjoining villages offering their condolences and prayers for the departed. One of my first question to them was about how they felt?

“We are a people of modest means with little or no influence. But thousands of people turned up at Aamir’s funeral despite strict curfew. We are thankful to Allah that so many people turned up, tens of thousands more than that of Mufti sahib, who was the chief minister and had invested all his life courting and coopting people”, said a senior family member.

Like most Kashmiris, Aamir’s life was signposted by macabre highlights. Barely a month into this world, his hometown was struck by a great tragedy, known as the Bijbehara Massacre. On October 22, 1993, about two dozen soldiers of paramilitary Border Security Force (BSF) fired bullets at a peaceful demonstration. Bijbehara was painted scarlet — about 40 civilians were killed and hundreds more injured.

At the time, Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, the former chief minister and father of Mehbooba Mufti, the current chief minister, was in currency as a leader of import in New Delhi. Only a year or so back, he held the coveted job as the Indian Home Minister. Many of the victims or their families were known to Sayeed as his workers, or sympathisers, but he failed to convey even the customary condolences.

Instead, there were reports that, as a patriotic Indian politician, Sayeed had censored the victims, accusing them of provoking BSF, a refrain her daughter’s government is currently using to justify the ongoing spate of civilian murders.

Aamir’s uncle, Syed Hussain, was about 12 years old and was present at the demonstration. He is an eyewitness to the massacre, but only so much. “All I know is running and stumbling across the dead and the injured who were desperately crying for help. I ran for my life, and when I reached home, I fainted”, recalls Syed about the most gruesome incident recorded in the history of the town. “That day, my world fell apart. I knew no Kashmiri will ever again be safe in his own land”, an epiphany that would taunt him decades later when he accompanied his nephew’s body to its final journey to the martyr’s graveyard.

On that fateful day, Nazir Ahmed had arrived home just after the Jummah prayers when he heard an unending noise of the gunfire. As the word about the people being felled spread, Nazir rushed to the scene, about a thousand yards away in a locality known as Gooriwan. With the help of a friend, he collected seven people, piled them in a hand cart and rushed towards the hospital. Unfortunately, BSF targeted anyone and everyone trying to save those felled and injured. As a result, they couldn’t get any medical aid and all of them died.

Twenty three years later, Nazir would re-enact the nightmare when he had to ferry his injured son in a handcart to the same hospital that he had tried to reach on that fateful afternoon. This time around, though he managed to reach the hospital, he was unable to save his son, because like in the past, the paramilitary forces obliterated all his chances to arrange for the time-critical treatment.

After administering a quick dose of first aid, the doctors at the local hospital hastily summoned an ambulance to rush Aamir to Srinagar. As the ambulance carrying the injured was leaving the hospital, it was viciously attacked by the police. First, they attacked the ambulance with large stones and batons, breaking its windscreen and the windows, and injuring the driver who fled from the scene. Then they attacked and injured Aamir’s father, uncle and one of his brothers as well as other attendants with another injured person. Finally, they roughed up the injured Aamir and ripped out his infusion chords. They were held for nearly half an hour and allowed to go when the police ascertained the injured won’t survive.

The Latoos and the Muftis are neighbours; barely 500 yards apart. As the Muftis grew in their political influence, and the wealth started to flow in, so did the distance between the neighbours, because a new class division emerged. But the Latoos remained full of warmth and care.

When Mufti Muhammad Sayeed passed away in early January this year, Syed Hussain, the uncle of the slain Aamir Nazir, participated in the funeral. This is interesting to note that the townsfolk showed crass indifference to Mufti’s death. Muhammad Suhail, reported in the daily Rising Kashmir that it was business as usual in Bijbehara with shops open as normal. “People’s Democratic Party (PDP) workers used public address systems to plead for a shutdown. Repeated announcements made for shopkeepers to shut and be a part of the funeral procession went unheeded.” After a whole day of trying to mobilise public, that too with the full support of the state machinery, the funeral was a dismal show. According to a leading Indian daily Indian Express, around 4,000 people attended the funeral.

When I asked Syed Muhammad what prompted him to join the funeral, he was candid: “Mufti sahib was our neighbour. As a Kashmiri and a Muslim, it is our convention and duty to share the grief of our neighbours and offer condolences,” a view not shared by many in the town as testified by low public attendance. A local government employee, who attended the funeral, attributed the mass public indifference to Sayeed’s wrong political choices. “Mufti Sahib was a great politician, but he made a huge mistake by aligning with BJP. In the end people saw him as an agent of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayem Sevak Sang]”, a right-wing Hindu extremist group affiliated to BJP.

The neighbourhood had supported the Muftis even in their most trying times, in the early 1990s, when the pro-freedom militants literally ruled over Kashmir and dictated social order. It was the time when Ghulam Hassan Khaki, Sayeed’s maternal uncle was murdered by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), who falsely accused Khaki as a mukhbir, a pejorative term for a so-called Indian agent, and threatened people not to attend the funeral. The people in the vicinity rejected the JKLF diktats and joined the funeral of Khaki, a man of remarkable character and appeal.

The fate incited a role-reversal 23 years later, as the Latoos faced a similar situation with Aamir’s death, when the paramilitary forces imposed a strict curfew and blocked all the roads leading to the martyr’s graveyard, in an attempt to bar people from joining the funeral. The townsfolk broke the siege and more than 20,000 people attended the janaza, over four times that of Sayeed’s state funeral. Interestingly, no one from the Muftis attended.

Nazir Ahmed Latoo is usually a quiet and unassuming character, always busy with his work, applying tilla, a golden or silver thread, using needlecraft onto women’s garments such as shawls or shalwar kameez.

Despite their modest means, the Latoos sent Aamir to Delhi. They wanted him to concentrate on his studies, away from the ever-so-often flare-ups and troubles. Last year, after completing his Bachelor’s in commerce from Zakir Hussain Delhi College, in New Delhi, Aamir was now going into his second year of Masters in commerce at the historical Aligarh Muslim University. He was doing well, much to the satisfaction of his uncle and mentor, Syed Hussain, himself a commerce post-graduate and a government employee. A week after his death, news came that he had scored 76 per cent marks in his second semester exams.

Aamir literally grew under the shade of sufi shrines. His parental house is located in the vicinity of Ala’ Dad Rishi’s (RA) shrine, a well-known local sufi master. When he fell to the bullets, he was just outside the courtyard of the tomb, a few yards from his house. Just across the road from where Aamir fell, lies the tomb of Läl Dêd (RA), Läl the mother, Kashmir’s most venerated woman. An early 14th century saint, Läl is known for her revolutionary poetry called vakhs, challenging the corrupt social order of the time, while stressing for self-purification through love and devotion to God and His creation. Further down the road, towards the south, near the Muftis, lies the imposing shrine of Baba Naseeb-ud-Din Ghazi (RA), the patron saint of the town. According to a popular legend, Ghazi, a native of Sialkot, Pakistan, came flying in his casket to be buried at his present place of rest. As a child, Aamir would play with other kids in the courtyards of these shrines, gathering blessings.

He retained the fragrance of his formative milieu and expressed it in simple but artistic tastes like music, photography and poetry. “He used to love singing and would hum a song for ages without a pause”, his aunt told me. Then his father pulled out his phone to show me a video clip of Aamir singing at his former institute, Zakir Hussain Delhi College. He can be seen enjoying the attention of his colleagues as he sings an old Bollywood melody on stage.

Aamir’s social media imprint makes his engagement with the dilemmas facing Kashmir as evident, but he tries to deal with them subtly. In one of his Facebook posts, dated December 2, 2014, he highlights the oft-complicated commitment of Kashmiris with the sentiment of azaadi and their simultaneous engagement with India: Kashmir: ajab teri siyasat, ajab tera nizam/ Yazeed say bhi dostee, Hussain ko bhi salaam. In a later entry from October 2015, he reposts a photograph of a small Kashmiri kid holding a stone in his right hand, a symbolic but strong testament to Kashmir’s spirit of resistance and resilience.

His fascination for life’s unpredictability is evident from his post: “In the blink of an eye, everything can change. So forgive often and love with all your heart. You never know when you may not have that chance again :-)

He makes his final Facebook entry on July 6, at 06:09, six days prior to his death: “May Allah bring us joy, happiness, peace and prosperity on this blessed occasion. Wishing you all Eid Mubarak :-)

When I visit the martyr’s graveyard, the earth on his grave is still moist and unsettled, adored by a confetti of freshly showered rose petals. The black granite tombstone, encased in a bricked frame, with the yellow and white inscription marks the end of his journey with this Urdu couplet:

Maout woh hey kary jis pe zamana afsoos, warna marnay kay liyay hi tu sabhi a’atey hein.

Murtaza Shibli

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The writer is a journalist, author, and communications and security specialist. He lives between London, Lahore and Srinagar in the Indian-occupied Kashmir, where he is currently stuck.

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