Dealing in death

S By Mark Magnier

sRINAGAR, India – While pundits hope a recent election here in the Indian-held part of Kashmir will help end 13 years of secessionist violence, Mohammed Maqbool, 60, says he knows better. Maqbool takes his cue from his work, and the five or so tombstones he carves each day for “shaheed,” or martyrs, show no sign of a letup.

“I’m sure peace won’t come for a long time,” the gravestone maker said, chipping away at a chunk of a local rock called devar. “I’ve become an old man hearing about peace over and over again. I doubt I’ll live long enough to see it.”

A few blocks away, a cemetery devoted to martyrs on the edge of Srinagar’s Idgah fairgrounds has only a few plots left. A sign near the entrance reads, “Lest we forget, we have given our `Today’ for `Tomorrow.”‘

Mohammed Yaseen, 32, a gravedigger, says Islamic ritual calls for a body to be washed at home, wrapped in a white shroud and brought to the graveyard. In the case of shaheed, however, washing isn’t necessary because the body already is considered pure.

“The hardest part are the bodies that arrive without limbs, a head or the mutilated torsos,” he said. “Unfortunately, I’ve had to become used to it.”

In mid-October, voters here in Jammu and Kashmir state ousted the entrenched National Conference party. Since then, India has pulled back some of its troops from its tense border with Pakistan, which has pledged to do likewise. But Islamic militants continue to call for independence from India, vowing to keep up a struggle that has cost 60,000 lives since 1989.

Mohammed Yousef, 32, a local businessman, visits his brother’s grave at least once a week. As he points to a simple Arabic-inscribed headstone slightly larger than a legal pad, he details his brother’s death nine years ago as though it just happened.

“The army took him in for questioning and shot him in cold blood,” he said. “We heard reports on the radio one night in early 1993 that a big, important leader had been killed with lots of weapons in his possession. It turned out to be my brother. It was all trumped up. He was never a radical, and he had no weapons. He was just a businessman.”

Most shaheed gravestones have an inscription from the Koran saying that while mortals might not be able to see martyrs, they remain alive, said Sheik Shaukat Hussain, a law and Islamic studies professor at Kashmir University.

The past decade of strife has made death almost routine. But it also has redoubled popular support for independence, Hussain said, given how much people have sacrificed.

“We miss (our brother) so much,” Yousef said. “How can I ever support a government that killed my brother and lied about his being a terrorist? It’s just wrong.”

Other mourners tell similar stories of injustice, which are difficult to corroborate. Pervez Imroz, president of Srinagar’s Association of Parents of the Disappeared Persons, adds that Indian-held Kashmir has seen widespread human rights violations at the hands of government security forces.

But Kumar Rajendra, inspector general with the Kashmir police, said all allegations of human rights violations thoroughly are investigated.

Either way, the anger and resentment that quickly well up in many pro-independence Kashmiris suggest how little trust exists in a region that has been the subject of two wars between India and Pakistan since 1947.

“My brother is buried here, because this is where martyrs belong,” said Mohammed Ismael Kaloo, an auto rickshaw driver visiting the grave of his brother, who he says was shot by state security forces last year. “We’re determined to show the world Kashmir’s will to be free.”

Yaseen, the gravedigger, gives an impromptu tour, highlighting headstones of the most prominent of the graveyard’s 1,400 occupants.

“There’s Maqbool Bhat, one of the founders of the Kashmiri independence movement,” he said. “We keep a space for him, but he was hanged in (New Delhi’s) Tihar jail and his body never came out.”

“And here’s Lone,” he said, pointing to a large headstone of a moderate politician who espoused independence through nonviolence. It reads: Abdul Ghani Lone, Martyred on 21st May 2002 for Espousing the Cause of the Kashmir Nation. “He was shot just a few hundred (yards) from here,” Yaseen adds.

With most of this graveyard’s plots filled, more families are burying their dead on the outskirts of Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, in one of the several hundred new cemeteries that have cropped up in recent years.

In a sad commentary on how bad things have become, the gravestone business is among the few industries doing well these days.

“We’re handling tombs mostly for young people,” master carver Maqbool said, adding that 100 young men have been killed in his neighborhood.

The price of a headstone has remained relatively constant over the past decade – $10 to $12 for a small, flat plaque and as much as $750 for a top-of-the-line tiered memorial. But the huge number of deaths has caused an explosion in the number of companies and employees.

Carvers say Srinagar has 50 gravestone companies – often little more than a couple of guys crouched next to a roadside rock pile – up from five in 1989.

Abdul Aziz, 50, another master carver, scoffs at claims that the militant movement is weakening due to the government’s counter-insurgency tactics. “How could it be dying out?” he says, pointing to a large pile of rock. “Look how many stones I have to do today.”

As a large truck backfires nearby and sitar music blares from a small radio, Aziz takes a breather. “I hope this ends someday,” he says. “Even if it destroys my business, I’d still hope peace will come.”