May 21, 2011

Auschwitz in the old city by Sameer Bhat

Yeh kiska lahu, kaun mara
ai rahabar mulko kaum bata

~Whose blood is this, who died?
Oh leader of my nation, speak up
[My translation of Sahir Ludyanvi’s verse lines]

Word was out, like a lion that hadn’t eaten for days. Early Monday morning three gunmen had barged into the Lake view home of Kashmir’s Mirwaiz – Chief preacher and spiritual leader to more than five and a half million Kashmiri Muslims – and went straight to Maulvi Muhammad Farooq’s alcove. The men had the mental maps worked out and knew exactly where to find the head priest.

A hugely influential but controversial leader, Maulvi Farooq was quite urbane and classy. He would appear in Srinagar’s historical Jamia Mosque at noon-time on Fridays clad in an intricately embroidered gown and a Karakul cap with trademark black glasses. A thousand eyes would look at him in awe as he slowly ambled towards the pulpit of the 600-year old perfumed prayer hall, ornate in exquisite Indo-Saracenic architecture. All 370 wooden pillars in the mosque stood upstanding. The chandeliers pendulated.

But when have gun-barrels respected superior lineages? The men, who entered the Mirwaiz house, on May 21, 1990, pushed their way into his study and even before the 11th Mirwaiz of Kashmir could understand what was happening, a volley of bullets hit him. Centuries old reverence was brutally violated. Always pro-Pakistan, Maulvi Farooq had recently fallen out of favor with the hardliners. A meeting with India’s Kashmir affairs minister and subsequently calling the kidnapping of Rubiya Sayed ‘un-Islamic’ acted as an immediate provocation.

By the time the reverend was wheeled to the Sher-i-Kashmir [Lion of Kashmir] institute of medical sciences, a hospital ironically named after his bete-noire Sheikh Abdullah, with fifteen gun-wounds to his head, chest, stomach and legs, Mirwaiz was dead. Kashmir’s grand abbot was no more, slaughtered by his erstwhile followers. Irate crowds began to gather outside the hospital as news got around. Governor Jagmohan – recently dispatched to tame Kashmiris – got into a huddle with his security advisors at Raj Bhawan, a few kilometers away. Indignation rained.

There was some scuffle over Mirwaiz’s dead body. The hospital authorities were hesitant to hand it over. People took forcible control of the slain leader’s body and carried it in a procession through downtown Srinagar. The crowd swelled as more and more people joined the cortege. Sloganeering hastened. Women wailed. Near the Islamia College of science and commerce, located at Hawal, the 69th battalion of CRPF intercepted the marchers. Suddenly, skittish like stupefied horses, troopers aimed their guns on the mourners. A curtain of fire followed. 57 innocent people were cut to an instant death.

The pallbearers were all dead. Mirwaiz’s body fell off the coffin, on the road. Two more bullets hit his mortal remains. The air was rent with terrifying screams and more bullets, which seemed to ricochet off the walls and hit even more people. In less than three minutes, the funeral procession was reduced to a pile of dead. The road outside the college resembled a concentration camp, with bodies scattered all over, a blood-soaked coffin, hundreds of slippers, bedaubed in blood. Hawal was Srinagar’s little Auschwitz in that hour.

There are conflicting reports about what happened afterwards: Eye-witnesses who spoke to foreign media said that as soon as the CRPF guns fell silent (having exhausted their ammunition), around six to seven men -- from the procession -- collected Mirwaiz’s body from the roadside and placed it in the coffin. By all accounts they ran with the casket to Mirwaiz’s office. The cleric was later laid to rest in Srinagar’s Martyr’s graveyard. Those who perished in the blood-bath were buried the same day. Sometimes in history mourners can swiftly become mourned.

Ironically the man alleged to have led the hit squad to assassinate the Mirwaiz, Abdullah Bangroo, was killed less than a month later by troopers. In an atmosphere as malefic and morbid as Kashmir it is hard to sift through the official and unofficial versions. Often both are contradictory. Call it a quirk of fate, Abdullah Bangroo lies buried very close to Mirwaiz's tomb in the Martyr’s cemetery in Srinagar.

No one was ever charged or punished for the May 21 killings. Governor Jagmohan, under whose watch the mass murder took place, never showed any remorse.

Blood, bought for a song.

© 2010 Sameer

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