Police officer buried in graveyard for Kashmir's 'martyrs'
Fencing separates them from the two freshly dug graves that sit next to each other. A group of half-a-dozen children are playfully hanging round, watching the elders pray in murmers and in unison.
In Kashmir, which has witnessed the deaths of thousands of people - civilians and militants alike - every town or cluster of villages has a separate graveyard reserved for those killed by Indian forces. They are known here as the "martyrs' graveyards".
This graveyard in Ashtengu is one of them.
Inside, four men sit around the two graves, their heads hanging low, in quiet prayer. The prayers are same for both the deceased.
One of the graves, covered with a polythene sheet to keep the rain water from seeping in, houses Shahzad Ahmad Sofi, a police officer who had been posted to Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital. In the next grave, already covered with green grass, lies a civilian, Naseer Ahmad Sheikh, who worked as a welder, also in Srinagar.
The Jammu and Kashmir Police has been instrumental in containing protests since a 2008 mass uprising.
In the process, they have been accused of killing, maiming and arresting hundreds of civilians.
Across the road, right opposite the graveyard, is a government-run primary school with a large playground. Sofi and Shiekh were cousins, and grew up here playing cricket and volleyball. Villagers remember them as two best friends, who, despite their disparate professions, preserved their friendship even to death.
On the afternoon of June 15, 2017, a group of protesters hurled stones at a convoy of Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) [India's armed border force] vehicles near Srinigar's old airport. Twenty-five-year-old Sheikh had moved to Srinagar a month earlier to work on a contract. When the clashes began, he was returning to his workplace after offering Asar prayers in a nearby mosque.
"He took shelter in a shop. While chasing the protesters, the forces fired at them. One of the bullets hit Naseer and he was greviously injured," said Ghulam Mohidin Sheikh, Naseer's father.
Naseer was taken to a hospital where he was declared dead. Medical reports said his left lung and stomach were lacerated and his spleen ruptured due to the bullet.
The same evening, on the new airport road, barely six kilometres from where Naseer was shot dead, Sofi was boarding a police vehicle to return to headquarters after staffing a checkpoint on the road all day.
When he was near the vehicle, some unknown person(s), under the cover of darkness, shot at him. He lay there, soaked in his own blood. Though nobody claimed responsibility for his killing, police blamed rebels.
Such killings, on an almost daily basis, has become a new normal in Kashmir. However, the deaths of these two young men, who lived in the same village, so close to each other, did not pass off as "normal".
When Sheikh's body arrived in the village, it was welcomed by crowds chanting fervent pro-freedom and pro-Pakistan slogans - as is common in Kashmir for every funeral of a civilian or militant killed at the hands of Indian forces. The body was shrouded in a Pakistani flag.
|Sheikh was killed as troops chased protesters
A few hours later, when Sofi's body arrived in a casket draped in an Indian flag, accompanied by a group of police officers, it appeared that his funeral would get a cold response. However, the locals immediately tore off the Indian flag, broke the casket, and draped Sofi's corpse also in a Pakistani flag - a highly unusual sight at the funeral of a police officer.
Mohiudin Sheikh said the locals did not discriminate the two deceased on the basis of the profession they had chosen.
"They were both the sons of the village and both of them had grown up together," he said.
When Sofi was being carried to the graveyard, all of Ashtengu reverberated with chants of freedom and affection for Pakistan.
Erasing the line between a man who had joined the police - a force accused of commiting grave human rights abuses in Kashmir against those who dissent - and a civilian with strong pro-independence sentiments, the locals decided to bury both of them together in the martyrs' graveyard.
"For us, both of them are martyrs. We know both of them wanted freedom for Kashmir," Mohiudin said.
Sofi is survived by his wife and twin sons. When he struggled to meet family expenses, he joined the police in 2010. His wife admits that Sofi joined the police out of compulsion.
"He had to support the family and this was the only job he could get. He, otherwise, endorsed the view that police were committing atrocities on Kashmiri people," she said.
Sofi's brother, Azad, said the deadman had the same sentiments as most Kashmiris: "He also wanted freedom for Kashmir."
Sofi and Sheikh's friends said that on the third day of the funeral, the Central Reserve Police Force arrived in the village and went on the rampage.
"They broke the window panes of every house they came to on their way and beat anyone their eyes fell on," said one of Sheikh's neighbours.
The police arrived at the house of Sofi, their fallen comrade, and tried to ransack it, but the villagers protested, protecting the family home and forcing them away.
The village remembers the funeral of the police officer as one of the biggest in the history of Kashmir's armed conflict. The sight of a police officer's grave in a martyrs' graveyard might amaze an outsider, but the locals see it as normal.
The line between a civilian and a police officer, a divide that has defined the two sides of a war ongoing in Kashmir since 1989, fades in this quiet graveyard in Ashtengu.
Haziq Qadri is a multimedia journalist at Barcroft Media. Bylines in Guardian, Mail Online, Daily Mirror, Telegraph, BBC India & The Caravan.
Follow him on Twitter: haziq_qadri