By Suhail A. Shah for Youth Ki Awaaz:
In these days of unrest, a group of 200 men are hard at work from morning till evening in a children’s park in chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s hometown of Bijbehara in south Kashmir.
The park, which has been turned into Martyr’s Graveyard, no. 2, lies in the middle of the town.
Some young and others middle-aged, the men have been at it for the last five days, with loudspeakers blaring songs of freedom and martyrdom.
As the Kashmir valley simmers, with no let-up in protests despite curfew restrictions, these men assemble at the break of dawn and work tirelessly and selflessly throughout as if on a ‘mission’.
The mission: beautify the graveyard, “our only legacy.”
The workforce includes doctors, engineers, lawyers, research scholars, businessmen and students apart from masons and carpenters.
What’s more, they aren’t doing it for money.
The rich and poor of the town have donated to the cause. Cement, sand, boulders, angle-irons, machinery and every other essential has been donated by the people of the town.
“We have received donations ranging from a 100 rupees to a truckload of cement bags,” said a lawyer who has been working as a labourer for four days.
Kashmir valley has been tense since July 9, a day after Burhan Muzaffar Wani was shot dead by security forces in an encounter in Anantnag district. At least 45 civilians have been killed so far and more than 2000 injured, with over a 100 of these in danger of going blind from pellets fired by security forces.
In Bijbehara a 23-year-old student, Aamir Nazir Lattoo, was shot dead by the police on July 12. Aamir was buried in this Martyr’s Graveyard, which first came into being following the infamous Bijbehara massacre of October 1993.
On October 22 that year, the 74th battalion of the Border Security Force (BSF) fired indiscriminately on unarmed civilians, protesting against the siege of Dargah Hazratbal mosque in Srinagar. Different government, independent agencies and media reports put the death toll between 33 and 51.
32 of those slain are buried in this graveyard, which was till then a newly constructed children’s park. People were forced to convert the park into a graveyard after they were not allowed by the BSF to move to the existing Martyr’s Graveyard No. 1 (which lies on the western end of the town) to bury their dead.
At present, Martyr’s Graveyard No. 2 has 43 graves. Out of the 11 which have been added over the years, seven are of militants, and two of Pakistanis; one of Aamir and another of Nazir Ahmad who was killed by police during the unrest of 2010.
“A couple of days after Aamir was buried at the graveyard, militants appeared late one evening and fired multiple aerial shots as a mark of tribute and respect to the martyrs,” a local said.
The next day, he went on, a bunch of youth came and started cleaning the graveyard of filth and garbage that had accumulated over the years.
“That was the beginning,” the lawyer said, “soon the whole town came together and decided the graveyard needs an overhaul, and a makeover.”
It has been an expression of solidarity of sorts at the graveyard, since. It has been cleaned, and every grave marked with a little green flag. A three feet high concrete wall has been erected, and an iron grill will be installed on top of the concrete wall. New pillars have been erected for a gate to be installed and a large signboard is ready to be put on the gate.
The graveyard is adorned with banners carrying pictures of those slain glorifying their contributions to the cause, as the people see it.
There is a joke on among those at work in the graveyard: “If government issued tenders for the work it would have been over 15 Lakh rupees and would have been a 5 year project.”
A research scholar said given the number of people getting “killed at the hands of India”, it would not be long before the graveyard is full.
“And I might be one of the dead. I want to rest at a well decorated place,” the scholar, who has not donated for the cause, said. “I wish I could donate something as well.”
Some of the people who have been working and donating, have their loved ones buried in this graveyard. Like a 32-year-old businessman who has donated a truckload of cement bags and has also provided logistics for the mission (local carriers, cement mixers and even a bulldozer).
“My brother was killed in the Bijbehara massacre. This is a small way to pay tribute to our martyrs,” he said.
Others say the graveyard is a reminder, “a reminder of Indian atrocities in Kashmir” and they want the next generation to know the legacy left behind by the dead, and get them “acquainted with our fight for freedom, from occupation and from tyranny.”
Women of the locality have been participating by preparing food for the people who are at work. There is a continuous supply of tea, turmeric rice, fruits and other eatables to keep them well fed.
“The ones who lie buried are our heroes and the ones standing outside, working, are no less. We have to take care of them,” said a woman who has been regularly supplying food.
The working men are politically very aware and are taking care that “opportunists” do not take advantage of what they see as an acknowledgement of their personal grief – the act of working together to beautify this graveyard.
A household politically associated to Mehbooba Mufti’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) wanted to supply food to the workers but the offer was turned down amid pro-freedom, anti-India, anti-PDP and anti-National Conference slogans.
“We do not want to make people associated with mainstream politics a part of this unless they shun the mainstream,” an engineer working at the site said.
Generally, in the Kashmir valley, such initiatives of the people are met with stiff resistance from the police and government. In January this year, Pulwama town remained shut at least for a week after local youth wanting to erect hoardings eulogising militants were thwarted by the local police.
In Bijbehara, this time around, no such steps have been taken as passions are already running high and any interference on part of the police will mean further escalation of violent protests.
The police are in fact happy with the development. “This means we have 200 people less to confront out on the streets,” a senior police official said, on condition of anonymity.
The people working at the graveyard, however, say the protests will continue “once the work here is completed.”
About the author: Suhail A. Shah is Kashmir based journalist and a senior member of 101reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. His work has appeared in Tribune India, Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Life, Satyagrah. He has been covering conflict in Kashmir for past five years.