The last time Mushtaq Ahmad Hurra saw his son alive was on April 11, 2018. Sajad Ahmad Hurra, then 21, had left his home in Daramdora village in South Kashmir’s Shopian district for a job in Saudi Arabia, or so his family thought. He was accompanied by another boy from his village, Adil Bashir Wani.

“For two days, we were in touch with him,” said Mushtaq Hurra. “He said they had reached Delhi. After that, his phone was switched off. On April 15, we lodged a missing complaint at our local police station.”

For the next two years, the family would hear rumours that Sajad had become a militant. “People would say that he was sighted there or here; had spent the night in this or that village,” said Mushtaq Hurra. “They were all rumours. But then the army and police would also come and ask us about him at times.”

Then, earlier this month, the picture of a militant killed near the Line of Control in North Kashmir’s Kupwara district went viral on social media.

He had been killed in a gunfight that started on April 1. A group of five militants were allegedly trying to infiltrate the Kashmir Valley when they were intercepted by the army in the Keran sector of Kupwara district. The operation lasted for days. By the time it ended on April 6, all five militants had been killed, the army said.

Departing from usual practice, neither the police nor the army identified the militants. All five were buried at an undisclosed location in Kupwara, 141 kilometres away from Shopian district.

But Mushtaq Hurra recognised his son from the pictures on social media. “We got in touch with the local police station and then with the Shopian deputy commissioner’s office,” he said. “We wanted to see his body and bury him in our own graveyard.”

A change in protocol

It proved to be easier said than done. Days after the gunfight, Mushtaq Hurra reached Kupwara, armed with travel passes from the Shopian district authorities. But in North Kashmir, he found himself referred from one officer to the other.

“Eventually, we met a deputy superintendent of police in Kupwara,” said Hurra. “He told us to wait till the lockdown was over. We agreed because of the pandemic situation.”

The Hurras are one of at least five families who approached the authorities looking for the bodies of militants they believe to be their sons. They had been killed in recent gunfights. While Kashmir, like states across India, is under a lockdown to contain the coronavirus, gunfights between militants and security forces continue.

Earlier, local militants killed in gunfights would be identified immediately and their bodies handed over to families so that they could be buried in their native villages. In the past, thousands gathered for the funerals of militants, chanting pro-freedom slogans.

People gather for the funeral of Shahid Khar, a suspected militant who was reportedly killed in the gunfight with security forces in Kulgam district on January 28.

But recent weeks have seen a change in protocol after the gunfights. “After the ending of the encounter, dead bodies of killed terrorists are being brought to Srinagar and post mortem and lifting of DNA samples are being done,” said Vikay Kumar, inspector general of police, Kashmir.

Families seeking to claim the bodies need a travel pass from the authorities in their district to reach Srinagar for identification, Kumar continued. If the bodies cannot be identified in Srinagar, the families would get another chance at the burial site.

“If they identify [the bodies] in the presence of a magistrate, we allow them to participate in burial as per religious practices,” said Kumar. “We take photographs for record. Even unidentified killed terrorists are being buried as per religious practices.”

The new measures were put in place to ensure that lockdown guidelines were followed, Kumar explained.

“If we allow for identification at encounter sites and permit burial at their native places, huge gatherings might spread infection of Covid-19,” he said. “As per several orders of the government of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir in view of the Disaster Management Act, we have to ensure strict lockdown even during burial. To avoid such situations we are doing burial at safer and isolated places. Being police chief of Kashmir, it’s my legal duty to ensure the safety and security of people.”

Two recent incidents may have prompted these new measures. On April 4, four militants were killed in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district and on April 8, Sajad Nawab, a local commander of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, was killed in North Kashmir’s Sopore town. In both cases, the bodies were identified, handed over to the families and buried in their native villages. They drew hundreds of mourners, prompting the local police to file FIRs against the crowds for violating the lockdown.

According to the Sopore police, the “legal heirs had given in writings that they would adhere to social distancing when the body was handed over to them after completing medico legal formalities.” Days after the massive funeral, they arrested at least 10 people for participating in it.

In Kulgam, the funerals were held at night but still well attended. “We filed a case for the violation of Covid-19 guidelines and roughly 100 people were arrested,” said a police official in Kulgam.

Missing sons

For some families in Kashmir, the new protocol has meant a painful quest to prove that their sons were among those killed in recent gunfights.

Two other families accompanied Mushtaq Hurra to Kupwara. One was the family of Adil Bashir Wani, who had left the village with Sajad Hurra in April 2018. “Apart from Sajad, the faces of other bodies in the picture were covered,” explained Mushtaq Hurra. “But since Adil had left along with Sajad, his family thinks he might be one of the other four militants who were killed.”

The family of Sartaj Ahmad, from the Yaripora area of Kulgam district, is also looking for him. Twenty one-year-old Ahmad had been a second-year undergraduate student when he left home for Delhi in December 2017.

“He said he had to go for a government-funded training programme in Delhi,” said a cousin who did not want to be named. “After some days, his phone went off. Since then, we have had no information about him.”

Unlike the established ritual, no pictures of Ahmad floated up on social media to announce that he had joined militant ranks. “In the last three years, not a single picture of him was released on social media,” said his cousin. “Only after the Kupwara encounter did we see a picture of him carrying a gun. Was somebody from across [Pakistan] trying to tell us that our kin is among the dead?”

Last calls

Other families feel they have conclusive evidence in social media photographs and final phone calls. On April 17, for instance, two militants were killed by security forces in Shopian district. A tweet on the Kashmir Police Zone handle only said “two unidentified terrorists” were killed in the operation.

But two families from Shopian district claimed that the militants were their kin. “Around 5am in the morning on Friday [April 17], I got a call from my brother from an unknown number,” said Rafi Ahamd Dar, who lives in Shopian town. “He told me he’s trapped in an encounter at Dairoo. I didn’t tell my family about the call until the encounter was over. I called the Shopian police station and told them to please give us the dead body when it is over.”

His brother, Asif Ahmad Dar, had left home to join militant ranks in March 2019.

On April 17, Rafi Dar and his family prepared for one last glimpse of Asif Dar. “We were waiting until evening for the body,” he said. “We went to the DC’s office as well. Because of the lockdown we weren’t allowed to move much. We just made calls from home.”

Later in the evening, the family heard the police claim of “unidentified” militants. “We called the police and asked them why we could not go to the police station and see the body for ourselves, but they didn’t let us,” said Rafi Dar. “Later, we came to know that they had been buried in Baramulla.” Baramulla district in North Kashmir is about 110 kilometres from Shopian.

After the gunfight, the images of the two slain militants went viral on social media. The family says they recognised Asif Dar as one of them. “The police are 100% wrong when they say the militants are unidentified,” said Rafi Dar. “We even assured them that only a few people would attend the funeral.”

Ghulam Nabi Magray, who lives in Ganawpora village in Shopian district, claims that the other militant killed in the gunfight was his nephew, Ashiq Ahmad Magray.

“He had attempted to call us [when the gunfight started] but since it was early in the morning, our phones were switched off,” said Ghulam Magray. “We came to know about it when another militant, Asif of Shopian, called home. Asif told his brother that Ashiq tried calling home, too, but couldn’t get through. He told Rafi to let Ashiq’s family know and ask for forgiveness on his behalf.”

The Magray family also identified Ashiq Magray from the pictures on social media. “After we saw the photo, it was clear that it was him – we have no doubt about it,” said Ghulam Magray.

The two families got travel passes from Shopian and went up to Baramulla on April 21 to ask for the bodies to be exhumed. “In Baramulla, we moved an application before the deputy commissioner,” said Magray. “He said that he would need a report from Shopian police before he could proceed. He took our contact details and assured us that he would contact us once he had information from the Shopian police.”

But there was more trouble in store for the families. As they did rounds of the various offices, they were booked by the Shopian police for violating the lockdown. “Section 144 is in place and people can’t gather in large numbers,” said a police official from Shopian district. “We file FIRs for violations every day and it was not an FIR against the families specifically but all the violators. It’s an open FIR and we haven’t made any arrests in the case so far.”

Blood relations

According to Kumar, DNA samples are being collected from all the militants killed in gunfights. “If any family claims later on, we would take their DNA samples and match them with the killed terrorist’s DNA,” he said. “If samples match, the family may approach DC for exhumation as per law. Reburial at their native place is subject to the decision of competent authorities.”

But the three families who claim the bodies from the Kupwara gunfight as well as the families who say their kin were killed in the Shopian gunfight say the authorities did not reveal where the burials took place. No samples had been collected for DNA testing either, the families claim.

“I requested DC sahib [the Baramulla deputy commissioner] – we have travelled a long way –- give us some passes to allow us to perform prayers at their graves,” said Ghulam Magray. “He said it was not up to him, he had no proof that we were related to the buried militants. He advised us to call the Shopian deputy commissioner.”

The Shopian deputy commissioner told them to be “patient”, the administration was trying to solve the matter.

In two recent gunfights, however, the police have conducted discreet funerals with family members who identified bodies.

On April 22, four militants were killed in a gunfight in the Melhoora area of Shopian district. “Three bodies were identified by families and they participated in burial in presence of the magistrate at Ganderbal [in Central Kashmir],” said Kumar.

On April 24, two more militants were killed in Kulgam in South Kashmir and buried in Ganderbal. A gunfight in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district on April 25 killed three – two militants and a third person the police claim was an “overground worker”, a non-combatant member of militant groups. They were buried in Baramulla.

“Out of five killed terrorists, four were identified at burial sites and families participated in burial in presence of the magistrate – we took photos too,” said Kumar.

Two fresh gunfights took place in Kulgam district on April 26 and the intervening night of April 26 and 27, killing three militants and one “terrorist associate”, the police said. But security forces are yet to identify the bodies. A blast at the site of one gunfight also injured seven, including six children.

Funeral of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani in 2016.

Mourning and militancy

But lockdown concerns may not be the only reason the authorities want to stop large militant funerals, which have historically been a flashpoint for anti-government sentiments. Police officials in Kashmir say that these public outpourings of emotion fuelled militancy to a “large extent”.

There have always been officers within the government and police who have been against these funerals,” said a senior police officer who did not want to be named. “It’s a kind of a rallying point, a sort of an occasion.”

Often, such funerals featured speeches by militants or clerics which would “ignite passions further,” he added. “There were OGW [overground worker networks, particularly in South Kashmir, which would mobilise people [within a radius of] 10 km-20 km to come out,” said the officer. “Even if somebody didn’t want to join, he had to go due to the fear of stigma.”

The large turnouts encouraged young people to idolise militants, according to the officer. “Everybody’s in awe when they hear that so many people participated in the funeral,” he explained. “It definitely impacts young passionate minds. Young minds take impressions very easily.”

Public funerals for foreign militants have been prohibited for years now. The government decision was prompted by the massive funeral for Abu Qasim, the Pakistani commander of the Lashkar-e-Taiba who was gunned down in Kulgam district in October 2015. Since then, security forces have quietly buried foreign militants in the frontier town of Uri in North Kashmir.

The funerals of local militants have long been a concern for the administration, as is evident from a confidential report prepared by the crime branch in 2017 and submitted to SP Vaid, the director general of police, Jammu and Kashmir. The year before, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s funeral had drawn record crowds and triggered a season of mass protests.

“[The] massive gatherings that are being witnessed in funerals of killed local militants post-2016 unrest is a serious concern which has to be addressed,” said the report, seen by Scroll. “These gatherings romanticise and glamourise the terrorists and give boost to militancy.”

While the police were advised to crack down on local militant funerals, they were still allowed. But many in the Valley fear that the new restrictions and the refusal to hand over the bodies to family could persist beyond the Covid-19 lockdown.

“It’s not a policy now but it should become a policy,” said the senior police officer. “Ultimately, when we are preventing funerals, we are preventing youth from joining militants. Once he’s a militant, he will be killed. Therefore, we are actually saving lives.”

Kumar remained non-committal: “I can’t comment on any future course of action but presently we are doing this in view of the Covid-related lockdown and for the safety of the people.”

But distraught family members of militants are not convinced. “It is a globally recognised right that the dead body has to be handed over to the family,” said a young man who claims his cousin was killed in one of the gunfights. “They are snatching our rights of mourning.”