Death and ‘spy’ pigeons in Indian-administered Kashmir

Even ordinary things like funerals and pigeons have become political in Kashmir, where ongoing conflict disrupts normal life.

Imran Khan blog Kashmir
A pigeon flies near an Indian policeman in Srinagar, Kashmir [File: Reuters]

In Kashmir, on either side of the Line of Control that separates Indian-administered and Pakistani-administered Kashmir, seldom is anything simple.

Even burying the dead has become political.

Indian authorities are refusing to hand over the bodies of those killed in ongoing fighting between the Indian army and Kashmiri rebel fighters to their families.

They have given the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for not handing over the bodies.

“Whilst there is the threat of coronavirus, the bodies will not be handed over,” the inspector general of police in Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, told Al Jazeera in early May. 

That is causing emotional pain to the family of Hazim Shafi Bhat, a disabled teenager who was killed by Indian troops near his village in the Wangam area of Handwara in the north of Indian-administered Kashmir on May 4.

Indian authorities kept his body but allowed his parents to attend the funeral some 35km from their village. While the distance may not sound like much, when you have to navigate checkpoints, curfews and the daily security procedures of the area, also adding in the expense of travel, it becomes very difficult. Put simply, they cannot visit his grave like they would if he were buried in his local cemetery.

The authorities buried Bhat in an unmarked grave in a cemetery reserved for the bodies of unidentified rebel fighters. This, despite there being no evidence that he was a rebel fighter; even an Indian police statement refers to the 14-year-old as a civilian. According to his friends on social media, Bhat was physically disabled and suffered from a speech disorder.

Bhat’s mother Meema Begum is upset about the situation. She tells Al Jazeera she fears other families will go through the same pain.

“If they had handed us the dead body, the family members, his father and his sisters, sometimes could visit his grave,” she says. “In the future, such attacks will happen again but we demand that this practice shouldn’t be repeated with other people.”

But it is already happening. Since the Indian authorities began refusing to hand over bodies in April, local media has reported on at least eight families suffering similar ordeals. Given the remote nature of the area, security clampdowns and curfews, that figure is likely to be higher.

The Indian authorities are now routinely burying people away from their homes – sometimes without any funeral.

One rebel fighter known as Wakil Nabi Dar was buried in a government-designated graveyard in Sonamarg, some 120km from his family home in Pulwama, 25km from Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. There was no family funeral for him under the new rules governing the handover of the body, and because he was a rebel fighter, his family was not allowed to go to the government graveyard. In contrast, fallen Indian soldiers who have died in the fighting are given full military honours and buried with their family members in attendance.

The authorities say they do not want the large gatherings that funerals attract, for fear of the spread of infection. 

But human rights groups are sceptical.

“The main issue for the government is that they are very scared of the spectacle which these funerals create,” says human rights activist and chair of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, Khurram Parvez, who spoke to Al Jazeera from Srinagar.

“Thousands of people come out and mourn these dead militants and rally behind them. They don’t want to show people of India and internationally that anything is happening in Kashmir, so … they are taking an excuse of COVID to implement a policy which they otherwise would have not been able to do.”

The ‘spy’ pigeon

But if death is subject to politics then perhaps it is not surprising that even the humble pigeon is not above suspicion.

On the May 25, a pigeon, perhaps unaware of the de facto border, entered the airspace of Indian-administered Kashmir from Pakistan, causing the Indian media to scream “Spy” because it had been marked with dye and had a ring attached to its legs – a common way for owners to identify their pigeons, and one used the world over. The pigeon was captured by residents who claim it was carrying a coded message.

As of the time of writing, the whereabouts of the pigeon remains unclear. However, a Pakistani villager claims ownership of the alleged feathered James Bond and has spoken to Pakistani newspaper Dawn, appealing to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to return the bird to him, saying it was a symbol of peace, not a spy.

Burials. Pigeons. It seems that everything in the disputed region is subject to spin and politicking.

But once the coronavirus pandemic is over, the Indian authorities will be faced with a choice, whether to continue to bury rebel fighters and others killed in government burial grounds or hand them over to their families as before.

Many Kashmiris under Indian administration are not hopeful there will be a reversal, given the Indian government’s recent moves in the region. These moves included revoking the special status given to the area in the Indian constitution that guaranteed special rights, including the autonomy to make laws except on matters that concern foreign policy, defence and communications, and an ongoing curfew that began in August 2019.

Whether it is burials or pigeons or any number of other things, if it happens in Kashmir on either side of the Line of Control it is automatically political.

In an under-reported move on May 27, the Indian authorities extended the ban on 4G mobile internet in Kashmir until June 17. The authorities say it is to hinder the movements of rebel fighters who rely on the network.

But ordinary Kashmiris speaking to local media say all the ban does is hamper their efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic, the same pandemic the Indian government says is the reason they cannot hand over bodies to their families to bury.

Follow Imran Khan on twitter at @AjImran


Source: Al Jazeera