“I had five sons. Three are dead; one is disappeared, and one in prison,” Shahmaal says
After massive signboard, from Security Forces, welcomes one into the ‘Trehgam Garrison’ (not Trehgam village) the road passes by a pair of quite graveyards, and glides downhill into a narrow stretch, reaching the house of Maqbool Butt.
Maqbool’s family, or what is left of it, live here, in a small concrete house next to the bigger and unsafe mud and wood house that Maqbool spent his childhood in. The snow in the courtyard crushes under our feet and we are welcomed by three women from the house and soon are joined two men from the neighborhood.
It is February 9 and Kashmir is observing a shutdown to commemorate the second hanging anniversary of Afzal Guru, the second Kashmir to be hanged. Maqbool was the first Kashmiri to be hanged in 1984, and his anniversary was two days away- on February 11.
Maqbool Butt, a Kashmiri revolutionary fighting for an Independent Kashmir, was hanged in Tihar Jail on February 11, 1984. But his body was not handed-over to his family and instead was buried in Tihar Jail.
And more than a decade later some construction work has been done to erase his grave in the jail itself.
And in his house, there are no men on Monday; there hardly are any men left. It is a house almost exclusively of women and children.
A generation of men is missing from the house, and in their perpetual absence women have become men.
“Last year, when I went to the Court to meet Zahoor, my youngest brother, the Superintendent of Police asked me who I had come with,” says Mehmooda, Maqbool’s sister. “Then he asked the same question to me in the Central Jail when i went to see Zahoor again, both times his voice was laced with a certain moral tone, insinuating, as if, a woman should not visit these places alone.”
“I looked at him for a moment and said that the men we had, you and Indian government killed them all. Now I am the man in my house,” she says. “And we are both the men and the women in the house.”
Mehmooda is now in her 40s and mother of four daughters. Married in the same village, she plays man of the house; she travels and follows all the legal cases of the family. Mehmooda is the one who remembers what happened to whom and when. She is called every time someone comes to meet the family to tell what happened and when.
The he story of resistance and suffering in Shahmaal Begum’s house precedes the majority of households in Kashmir by several decades where tragedy descended after 1989 when Security Forces started their military operations to stomp the political rebellion in Kashmir.
Shahmaal has forgotten lots of things in her own story and, she says she often messes up the dates and the chronology of the deaths in her house.
“I had five sons. Three are dead; one is disappeared and one in prison,” Shahmaal says.
Born in 1938, Maqbool was the eldest child of Ghulam Qadir Bhat who, after the death of his wife few years later, after she had given birth to two more sons, married Shahmaal. Shahmaal raised the orphans along with her five children she bore in the marriage.
“Maqbool was different of all my eight children. He spent most of his time in his room with books,” Shahmaal remembers.
After completing his early education in his village, Butt graduated in History and Political Science from Saint Joseph’s College in Baramulla. He later went to Pakistan and did his Master’s in Urdu literature from Peshawar University.
Maqbool, after spending a long time away from home and in several Indian and Pakistani prisons, was was hanged in 1984. But even before Butt’s hanging, his younger brother, Habibullah Bhat, disappeared from Jammu in 1966-67, where he had gone to meet with Butt who was lodged in a jail then.
In 1988-89, the third brother, Ghulam Nabi Bhat, a political activist for Independent Kashmir, was killed in a mysterious accident by unknown men. He left behind a wife a daughter.
“The family was looked after by Manzoor, the fourth son, who had a government job and understood very clearly that he had to take care of the family and the widows and orphans in his house. Also by there were militants everywhere and he felt he was needed more at home,” says Manzoor’s widow Haneefa.
“But then the search operations and night raids by Indian soldiers and counter-insurgents became routine at the house. Everyday he returned home to hear that Security Forces had come here again, harassed and interrogated us.”
The Manzoor too picked up the gun in the 1990 and survived for five years till 1995.
Shahmaal lives in a concrete single-story house with Haneefa and her two children. The widow of his another son, Ghulam Nabi Bhat has just moved to her father’s house.
The youngest of all brothers, Zahoor Ahmad Bhat was too scared to live in the valley. He crossed over to Pakistan and settled there. Few years ago he retuned home with his family to be arrested and put in jail. His Pakistani wife and a daughter struggle hard to survive in his absence.
Unlike in the majority of Kashmiri houses, where men recount stories of torture by the Indian security forces, here it is the women who have stories after stories of being tortured.
“I have been tortured a few times,” Shahmaal Begum says, giving out an ironic toothless smile. “They broke all my teeth one day.”
Shahmaal recounts, one afternoon three days after her fourth son, Manzoor Ahmad, was killed in a gun-fight with the security forces, when scores of soldiers along with the police barged into their house and dragged her into one of the upper rooms: the same room where Maqbool used to live in as a child and which they now have reserved for his flex posters, and memorabilia.
While the Indian security forces kept asking her for guns that belonged to her recently slain son and information about the hideouts of any other guns, she kept replying that she knew nothing and that her son had been killed with his gun on him.
“Then they fixed a rope on the ceiling and hung me from it, and beat me up. They broke all my front teeth and I kept bleeding, and they kept beating me,” Shahmaal says. “But there was nothing to say, nothing to say after my four sons had been killed by them in different ways.”
Among the many stories in Kashmir that have not been researched and numbered is the abuse of women, including the use of torture on the women by the Armed forces to draw information about the militant men in their families or in several cases to abuse them before the men in their houses to break them.
These stories are hidden under painful silences, and almost all women and their families bear the burden of those memories alone.
But here, in Maqbool Butt’s house, there is certain openness not only about what the family suffered in the last half a century but also about what happened.
As three young girls from the family rehearse the speeches they intend to make about Maqbool Bhat on his anniversary, the women quietly cry while the girls go on making the speeches about the costs of resistance and the greatness of it.
Manzoor’s widow Haneefa sits silently against the wall. She remains frozen and expressionless all through the conversation. Terror and anxiety of frequent raids have taken a toll on her mental health and made her to seek help of antidepressants.
“I get scared,” Haneefa says. “Sometimes I just get sacred.”
After Manzoor was killed, soldiers demanded arms and ammunition from the family which they believed were hidden in his house. One day, when they came to search, they found Haneefa alone. She was taken upstairs in the old house and interrogated.
“They forced two buckets of water into her and beat her up. She lost consciousness during the ordeal. Since then she fall sick often, talks less and gets scared easily,” explains Mehmooda.
Like Haneefa, her elder sister-in-law Sayeeda Begum, also went through a series of tortures. Sayeeda now lives at her father’s house house with her daughter to avoid her panic symptoms that aggravate in the house.
Maqbool’s anniversary is the big day in the house, and two days away, there is a certain sense of possibility even in the stories of abuse and torture the women tell.
“What we suffered is because of the independence we believed in and fought for.