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Fatal Accidents of Birth

By Harsh Mander

Click here to buy Fatal Accidents of Birth

The Broken Threads of Life

The Jhelum flows not far from the home of Shameem, a middle-aged widow who lives in a village in the mountains of Kashmir. On some particularly desperate nights—Shameem confided in me as we sat in her small house, talking—she would tie stones to her body and consider jumping into the river. She longed for rest and solace, and the only place where she felt she could attain them was at the bottom of the Jhelum. But, each time, she would be held back by thoughts of her teenaged son, unsteady of mind and body.

In the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, an interregnum during which the worst fires of the violent upheavals which rocked Kashmir Valley were somewhat stilled, I spent a few weeks meeting families across the Valley and encountered bitter sadness everywhere. But of the many harrowing stories that I heard in those months, none was as excruciating in its utter hopelessness as that of Shameem’s.

Shameem did not initially suspect that her husband Tanveer Mohammed, a pharmacist, had joined the militancy in 1989. Or maybe she did, and wilfully deceived herself. There were many times when she found his bed empty at night, but he told her that that he had been away tending to patients. He ran two successful medical stores and was called in by patients not only to dispense medicines, but also to treat them for small ailments. There were times when he would leave home for days at a stretch but this, he explained to her, was because of his duties with the state government which employed him as a medical assistant.

It was only when soldiers raided their home during one of her husband’s increasingly frequent absences that she realized with cold shock that her husband could have become a militant. She confronted her husband on his return, and he confirmed her fears. Shameem reasoned with him. ‘Come back,’ she said, ‘think of your family.’ But this was a commitment he was unwilling to pull back from. It was then that Shameem learned to live with dread. Three years passed this way.

One day, Tanveer Mohammed shared with his wife the frightening predicament into which his life had fallen. By that stage, many militant groups had fragmented into rival factions and blood feuds ran rife. Tanveer Mohammed’s own splinter group had been reduced to a minority and he feared that the insurgents of other factions would take his life whenever they found the opportunity. Shameem’s father had retired from the Indian armed forces. The couple went to him for counsel. He said that Tanveer’s only hope was to surrender to the army and become a counter-insurgent renegade, or what were locally called ikwani (which, ironically, translates into ‘brother’). The Kashmiri people bitterly hated the ikwani, sometimes even more than the armed forces. Armed by the security forces, the ikwani had become a law into themselves, arbitrarily looting and killing like mercenaries whom no one could control.

But it was only with the protection of the army, Shameem and her father believed, that Tanveer had any chance of survival. Shameem therefore persuaded her husband to heed her father’s advice. Because he had himself served as a soldier, her father arranged for him to meet the local commanding officer. Tanveer was given arms and a security guard as protection by the armed forces. Shameem said that her husband did not harass the village folk like many other ikwani did. He only wanted to live his life.

But this slender thread by which Tanveer Mohammed desperately held on to his life nearly snapped when, late one night in 1995, a militant faction attacked him when he was at home, raining bullets and grenades in a gun battle that lasted four hours. Tanveer Mohammed returned fire, and survived, but the battle left his young daughter dead. Shameem’s younger brother and four other ikwani who were visiting also fell to the militants’ bullets. Tanveer’s older son was badly injured. Bereaved and badly shaken, Tanveer still held fast to the threads of his life which were fast snapping. But a year later, when he was walking in his orchard, he was shot at again. His security guard died in this attack and Tanveer took a number of bullets in his leg.

A distraught and desperate Shameem took the army’s help to rush him to a hospital in Srinagar. Months later, and after three surgeries, the doctors pronounced that they had no option but to amputate. ‘I loved my husband a lot,’ Shameem told me. ‘I could not bear to see him suffer this way.’ She refused the doctor’s advice and went back to Tanveer’s colleagues who had also surrendered, and to officers in the army, begging for help. When no one came to their aid this time, she sold all their agricultural land and used the money to bring him to Delhi for prolonged treatment. She spent seven lakh rupees in all and saved his leg.

But while they were away, the factional blood feuds between militant organizations persisted. Shameem’s father and other brother were killed in their own home.

Shameem returned to their village in 1998, with Tanveer Mohammed on crutches. He published an advertisement in the newspapers, begging everyone for forgiveness, and announcing that he had snapped links with every organization, whether militant or renegade. He pleaded only for another chance to live.

But this was not to be granted. One night, his former comrades who were still part of the militancy came by his home. Tanveer offered them hospitality. They ate his food but, before leaving, fired a volley of bullets into his one good leg. His second surviving daughter, who was then a small girl, witnessed the encounter and later recalled that Tanveer called back the departing militants from his door. He unbuttoned his shirt and shouted that if they had to kill him, they should do it with one blow, not bit by bit. ‘We have sold our lands and all our belongings to save one of my legs. How will my family look after me now? If you will not let me live in peace,’ he pleaded, ‘shoot me in the heart.’ This was the one appeal that his erstwhile colleagues heeded. They fired into his chest and he fell dead even as his daughter watched. His youngest son, then still a baby, was in the same room.

~

Shameem was left alone to feed and raise her children. For many years, she laboured in people’s homes and farms for a living but at times she herself ate only once in three days. She pleaded with the army officers and, eventually, found employment in a government office as a peon.

But the family was ostracized by the village as traitors, and boycotted. Her eldest son Aftab, then all of thirteen, disappeared on his way home from school one day. It was only later she learnt that, unable to bear the taunts of being a traitor’s son, he had decided to join the militants to redeem himself. But, within the first few days of his joining, an army contingent attacked his unit and most of its members were killed. The soldiers held and tortured all the survivors, but eventually let Aftab go because he was still a child. In terror, he quickly abandoned his plans to redeem himself in the eyes of his village by becoming a ‘freedom fighter’. He returned to his mother one night, three weeks after he left home.

Shameem was now afraid not just of the militants and the people of the village who shunned her, but also the army. Having been caught once, he would always be vulnerable. She felt that her best bet was to hand him over to the Kashmir Police. ‘At least they are our own people,’ she reasoned. The police held the boy for a few months in police stations and in jails before returning him to his mother. Aftab does not speak to his mother about what happened to him during those months. But, since then, he lost his mind and never recovered. In a desperate and ill-conceived bid to distract and to heal Aftab, Shameem found him a bride when he was fourteen years old. She also married off her daughter as a child. When I met Shameem, Aftab was nineteen and the father of a four-year-old son. Nothing would give him peace. He did not study or work and had taken to drugs and alcohol. He would often fall into a fury and destroy articles in their home. He would be periodically picked up by the security forces. After one such raid, he was returned with a broken leg.

The only thread that still bound Shameem to life was her younger son, still a baby when his father was killed. It was her withdrawn, timid and unsteady youngest child in whom she invested her last hopes and dreams.

As nations fight momentous battles—on the streets and from bunkers—to control the destinies of the people of the Valley, Shameem was defeated in her own valiant battle to control her own destiny. A woman who would weep if she saw an injured bird had been struck cold when faced with death all around her. She had wanted an ordinary life: A loving spouse with whom she would raise her children and let them out into the world when the time was right, as good and happy human beings. It is the tragedy of her homeland that this humble aspiration was so completely unattainable.

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