By Gulzar Bhat:
A strange kind of quiet had fallen over the Eidgah. There was also an overwhelming sadness and an underlining restlessness. This was the special prayer meeting organised by Shakeel Ahmad Ahanger in Shopian, south Kashmir, where hundreds had gathered from across town to remember two of its daughters. It was as if they had no recourse left but to seek divine intervention. “Let us repose our faith in almighty Allah as He only knows our helplessness,” stated the cleric leading the service. Recitation of Quranic verses was followed by a heartfelt speech remembering the young women even as several members of the congregation became misty-eyed, while others broke down.
It’s been almost eight years of distress, tears, anger, grief. Ahanger, his son and other family members have still not been able to come to terms with the untimely, violent death of Asiya and Neelofar. Sister, mother, aunt, friend… the two women had a special place in their heart and it disheartens them to know that their killers have not been punished yet. The Shopian rape and double murder case had been well-reported but that hasn’t resulted in speedy justice. Meanwhile, Ahanger continues his lonely quest for justice, peace and normalcy.
On May 30, 2009, as a pleasant spring sun heralded a new day, the tranquility of the small town was shattered as word spread about the rape and murder of the two young women. The lifeless bodies of Asiya, 17, and her sister-in-law Neelofer, 22, were discovered near the shallow Rambi Ara stream. The two had gone to work on their small orchard across the Rambi Ara the previous day. When they did not return till late, the family sent out frantic search parties before finally reporting to the authorities. The following morning, their bodies were mysteriously found – deeply wounded, their clothes in tatters. The locals allege that they had been ravished and murdered by the security forces present in the area.
Ahanger, who is Neelofar’s husband and Asiya’s brother, believes that they are not wrong in suspecting foul play. According to him, after reporting the matter to the police, he, along with a police party, had thoroughly searched the entire area but had been unable to find even a trace of the two women; it was as if they had vanished into thin air. The police officially called off the search at around 2 a.m. but Ahanger was asked to report back at dawn.
“When I went back at first light and we resumed our pursuit, within minutes an officer pointed towards the stream and told me: ‘there is your wife’. Her body was lying on the boulders. I would have collapsed in shock right there but I gathered myself and ran towards her,” he says recalling that horrific moment. “Just as she had vanished, her body appeared out of nowhere, right next to a high-security CRPF camp that remains under surveillance with armed soldiers patrolling at all times. So, when only a few hours ago we had searched the spot thoroughly how was it that her body was dumped there without anyone noticing,” questions Ahanger.
While he found his wife in the morning, his sister was discovered several hours later near Aarhama, more than a kilometre downstream. In a matter of 24 hours, Ahangar’s life changed completely. Overwhelmed as he was with the anguish of losing two women closest to him, he knew he had to find out what had happened to them. He decided he wouldn’t rest till he had all the answers. Their bodies were taken to a local hospital for autopsy. As public pressure mounted, on the orders of the district magistrate, a three-member team of doctors was called in from the nearby Pulwama district to conduct the autopsy. The team confirmed that both victims had been raped. A report issued by the Forensic Science Lab Srinagar also confirmed the rape and murder on June 6, 2009.
The police and administration, however, continued to out-rightly reject these findings and maintained drowning as the cause of death. Consequently, an enraged people of Shopian took to the streets to protest and demand justice, compelling the then government, headed by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, to appoint a one-man enquiry commission of retired Justice Muzaffar Jan to further probe the case. The Commission recommended administrative action against some police officials for mishandling the case. Finally, four months on, on September 9, 2009, the state government handed over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). As part of their investigations, the agency exhumed the bodies and took samples. Eventually, the CBI, too, concluded that the women had died from drowning and denied the possibility of rape.
Years have passed and Ahanger can’t seem to let go of the feeling of anger, betrayal and hurt. “I have co-operated with every agency and Commission instituted by the government but the matter gets hushed up. I don’t know how to keep up the faith,” he says. In strife-torn Kashmir, accounts of women suffering in the aftermath of violence abound but Ahanger’s is an unusual situation. The last seven years have been quite unbearable for this father who runs a small furniture shop to make ends meet. Not just his emotional well-being but also his economic condition has taken a severe hit. He has spent many a sleepless night – “when I close my eyes there are memories to contend with and then the sight of their mangled, exhumed bodies” – and during the day, he has other worries – “my work has suffered a lot and I have had to sell out my share of the orchard to keep afloat.”
Ahanger has many duties to juggle as well. Besides keeping up the fight for justice for his deceased wife and sister, he actively takes care of his seven-year-old son, runs the shop, and, whenever possible chips in with the household chores. But of all the tasks he has on his agenda, working to keep the case alive and holding authorities accountable has proven to be the toughest. “In a violence-hit region like Kashmir, there is a plethora of practical problems one is up against. The continuous rounds of curfew and other risks are anyway difficult to deal with. The common man’s life gets affected and my experience has been no different,” he remarks.
In 2010, when the Valley had witnessed a particularly intense spell of violence in which 112 civilians had ended up losing their life, including an 11-year-old boy, the then Congress-led UPA government had appointed a team of three interlocutors to strike up a sustained and inclusive dialogue with all kinds of people. This team, comprising Dilip Padgaonkar, Radha Kumar and M.M. Ansari, had visited Ahanger and his bereaved family and promised him justice. “They had come home and spoken to my son and me. But nothing came out of it,” he rues.
Likewise, Ahanger is disappointed with the inaction of the new state government. In the run-up to the 2014 assembly elections, Mehbooba Mufti, the current Chief Minister, had been very vocal about securing human rights and had made “justice for Shopian double rape and murder victims” a central issue in the area. She had promised justice if her party was voted to power. “Two years have passed since the PDP took over and the issue has barely found any mention in the corridors of power,” he laments.
Ahanger says he may be tired of the struggle but is not ready to give up. Earlier this year, before the long spell of curfew had gripped the Valley, he along with his son, had organised the mass prayer meet as well as a sit-in to bring the long-drawn delay to wider notice. “I have decided to doggedly stick to my path of demanding justice,” states firmly.
The writer is a National Foundation For India, New Delhi, fellow. This article is part of his fellowship.