SHOPIAN, Jammu and Kashmir — One day in September this year, 65 year old Manzoor Ahmad Waghay rented a bulldozer from a local contractor and dug deep into the soft earth near a bridge in Landoora village in Kashmir’s Shopian district in a desperate search for his 24 year old son.
The bulldozer churned the earth, but there was no sign of Rifleman Shakir Manzoor Waghay of the 162 Battalion of the Indian Army who has been missing since he disappeared on 2 August this year. A week later, the militants claimed to have killed him in an audio clip.
“We can understand his family’s pain but we can’t return his body to them because of coronavirus — so that a lot of people don’t gather for his funeral, in the same way that the army hides and buries the bodies of dead Mujahideen in unmarked graves. That is why we performed his last rites and we can’t return the body to the family members,” said a male voice in the clip.
Since then, the Waghay family has been on a tragic quest for closure.
Ever since the coronavirus lockdown was enforced in March, there have been reports of the Jammu and Kashmir administration not returning the bodies of the militants killed by the security forces, citing concerns about the spread of infection.
Over thirty years, the conflict in Kashmir has claimed tens of thousands of lives — soldiers, militants, and civilians. The disputed territory has witnessed mass killings, encounter killings, explosions, and war. Political actors in India, Pakistan and Kashmir have seized upon this grisly toll to call for airstrikes, justify cross-border infiltration, and call for independence.
Yet some deaths, like that of Rifleman Shakir Manzoor Waghay — a 24 year old Kashmiri who decided to join the Indian Army despite local resentment over its continued deployment in Kashmir — pass by unremarked upon. Bombastic news anchors on government-friendly television channels did not call for his death to be avenged; hashtags demanding justice for Shakir did not trend on Twitter.
“Pardon me if I say anything wrong because I have lost my mind,” said Waghay, a fruit trader. “My son was abandoned by his colleagues, police and government.”
“Pardon me if I say anything wrong because I have lost my mind.”
Shakir, Waghay said, could have been alive had the Indian Army tried harder to find him. In the six days from his disappearance, Waghay said he passed on tips, leads and information to the Indian Army about his son’s whereabouts. While the Army did conduct some search operations, Waghay felt more could have been done.
“When we common people can collect so much information through our personal investigation, how is it possible that the army and police with advanced technology and sources couldn’t find our son?” Waghay said.
HuffPost India sent the Indian Army a detailed questionnaire on the efforts to look for Rifleman Shakir Manzoor, whether a funeral ceremony had been arranged, who were the militants that abducted him, and whether his family was entitled to compensation.
In response to the questions, Army spokesperson Colonel Rajesh Kalia said that a search operation for Rifleman Shakir Manzoor was launched immediately after he went missing on 2 August, 2020, and the Indian Army along with other security forces continue to make all efforts to trace the soldier. “All actions have been initiated as per rules and regulation on the subject. Indian Army is in regular contact with the family. All possible assistance is being provided to them during these trying times,” he said.
HuffPost India sent a detailed questionnaire to Jammu and Kashmir Police, but did not receive a response.
In a press conference on 28 August, Inspector General of Police Kashmir Vijay Kumar said that two militants, Shakoor Parray, and his associate Suhail Bhat, who were involved in Shakir’s abduction, were killed in a joint operation of security forces.
“Incidents of abduction and then killing were very rare. It is a more recent phenomenon,” Deependra Singh Hooda, who headed the Northern Command of the Indian Army until 2016, told HuffPost India.
““My son was abandoned by his colleagues, police and government.”
Shakir Manzoor Waghay
Shakir Manzoor Waghay, born on 5 May, 1996 in Harmain-Reshipora village to Manzoor Ahmad Waghay, a fruit trader, and Aisha Bano, a homemaker, was one of six siblings. He went to school at the Army Goodwill Public School and Government Higher Secondary School in Kulgam, and did a year at the Government Degree College in the same town before enlisting in the Army in August 2016.
A month earlier, in July 2016, the Indian army had killed Burhan Wani, a popular leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen, plunging Kashmir into months of civil strife.
Shopian, where Shakir grew up, is a well-known hotbed for militants. His family opposed his decision to join the Army and cautioned him against the dangers, but Shakir was adamant.
“He did not listen to us,” said Meena Jan, his sister. “He was passionate about joining the Army right from his childhood.
“He was passionate about joining the Army right from his childhood.”
On 2 August this year, Shakir set out from his home in the village to the Indian Army camp in Balpora-Shopian where he was stationed. When he phoned Shakir after he left, Waghay said that Shakir told him that he had met an old friend and it would take him longer to return to Army camp.
When he called Shakir 30 minutes later, Shakir’s phone was switched off. He called his son’s commanding officer at the 165 Battalion.
The officer, whose name Waghay does not know, suggested his phone battery may have run out.
The next day, Shakir’s car was found by residents of Rambhama, a village, 10 kilometres away from their village, Harmain-Reshipora. The vehicle had been abandoned and set on fire.
Shakir’s family say he was probably intercepted by militants who emerged from the orchards near their village and drove off with him, before eventually abandoning the car.
“One of the militants knew our brother. His relatives are our neighbours,” said Meena, tears rolling down her face. “We believe militants were monitoring his movement the moment he left home.”
When Waghay last spoke to his son on the phone, he must have been in the car with his captors.
On 3 August, the Waghay family posted a video on Facebook, pleading with his captors to release Shakir.
“If he is alive, do forgive him. If he has died, please give his body. That is our right” Waghay pleaded in the video. “My son was in the Army. It is your job to fight them. I have no complaints against you if you have killed him, but I will have a complaint if his body is not returned.”
Waghay was stunned by some of the vitriolic comments that were posted in his response to the video.
“People responded to me saying that my son was a dog and he died like one,” said Waghay, his eyes brimming with tears. “Three months after the catastrophe, I believe that my son was really a dog because no one, including his colleagues, bothered to look for him.
“Three months after the catastrophe, I believe that my son was really a dog because no one bothered to look for him.”
On 7 August, the Waghay family was visited by an acquaintance who told them that he had seen militants beating Manzoor in the apple orchards of Landoora village — three kilometres from their Harmain-Reshipora village — on the previous evening.
That afternoon Waghay phoned the army and the police, and drove to Landoora along with his relatives and neighbours. The family found Shakir’s clothes in an apple orchard in the village. Local police officials and the army conducted a search in the area but did not find him, he said.
“My son was in the army. Your work is to fight the army and I have nothing to say about that. You have killed him. But if the Mujahideen has abducted him, please return his body to me. If they have not done it, then send a message to me,” he is heard pleading in videos that were uploaded on Twitter, while holding his son’s clothes.
“The buttons of the shirt he was wearing at the time of abduction were still closed,” he told HuffPost India. “It looks like the militants had forcibly pulled off his clothes.”
The next day, 8 August, Waghay spoke with his friend’s daughter who said she had seen Shakir being beaten in an apple orchard in Nildoora village, four kilometers away from their village, Harmain-Reshipora. This woman, the family said, told them that Shakir was wearing black underwear, he was blindfolded, and his hands were tied behind him.
Waghay told the police and the army, who conducted another search — this time with a drone.
Later that day, an audio message, with Shakir’s photograph in the background, posted by militants went viral on Facebook claiming that they had killed him, and they would not return his body amid the coronavirus pandemic.
A male voice in the clip said that anyone seen to be supporting the Indian government, the Indian army, or working for the Bharatiya Janata Party would meet a similar fate. “It should not be that your families have to beg for your bodies.”
The Indian Army is yet to conduct an official funeral ceremony for Shakir, his family said.
“We did everything and are still doing whatever we can in order to know something about him,” Meena, Shakir’s sister said, adding that she and her sisters had donated their gold ornaments to a holy man in a bid to know if Shakir was still alive.
Then over a month later, on September 20, Waghay said the local police told the family that the militants had buried Shakir in Landoora village near a bridge which connects Landoora with the district headquarters of Shopian.
That’s when Waghay paid out of his own pocket for the bulldozer — but to no avail.
Now as winter arrives in Kashmir, Waghay has been asking imams to perform his son’s last rites so his soul may rest in peace. Each has said they first need his body.
“I’m burning inside,” said Waghay. “He is buried somewhere in Kashmir. Please help me find his body.”