Not a single day in Manzoor Ahmad Wagay’s life passes without digging some land.
The 56-year-old farmer is in search of the dead body of his son.
Around 11 every morning, he heads out in his car, its trunk laden with shovels and spades. Not far from his home in Reshipora village in Kashmir’s Shopian district, he walks into a vast landscape of dense apple orchards and mulberry trees. He spends hours digging, then returns home around 4 in the evening, empty-handed.
This has been Wagay’s daily schedule since August last year.
“My heart says he lies buried within a radius of seven-eight kilometres from home,” said Wagay, a soft-spoken man with salt-and-pepper hair.
On August 2, his son Shakir Manzoor, 24, a rifleman with the 162 Battalion of Indian Army’s Territorial Army unit, had come home to celebrate Eid. He was driving back in his car to a nearby army camp where he was posted when he went missing.
A statement issued by the Indian Army the next day said that Manzoor’s burnt car had been found in neighbouring Kulgam district: “It is suspected that the soldier has been abducted by terrorists. Search op in progress.”
Five days after Manzoor’s disappearance, his family found his blood-stained clothes in a nearby orchard. The bark of a tree also bore blood spots. “He had been tied to the tree and tortured,” surmised the father, who said eyewitnesses – whose identities he did not reveal – told him they had seen his son in the custody of militants.
But that is where the trail ended.
In the eight months since then, there has been no further breakthrough. Manzoor’s family alleges the police and army have done little to help them in their search for his body. Every now and then, they travel to Srinagar to petition the authorities and register their protest, but they say everyone has given up, except them.
A tit for tat
In recent years, militants in Kashmir have targeted several off-duty policemen and army soldiers by abducting them from their homes and killing them.
A week after Manzoor’s abduction, an unverified audio clip went viral on social media. In the clip, a man who claimed to be a militant and identified himself as Abu Talha took responsibility for the soldier’s death. While the veracity of such recorded messages is difficult to establish – government authorities have never confirmed them – they are widely believed to be authentic.
The voice in the clip sought to justify Manzoor’s killing – and the decision to bury his body at an undisclosed location.
“We understand the pain of the soldier’s parents and his relatives,” the voice said. “The body was not returned to his family to avoid Covid spread. We did what the Indian forces have done by denying bodies of Mujahideen and burying them at unknown places.”
Earlier, militants killed in gunfights would be identified immediately and their bodies handed over to their families for burial in their native villages. The funerals would often attract thousands from nearby villages who would chant pro-freedom slogans.
But in the past year, there have been at least 158 militants whose bodies were not handed over by the administration to their families, citing coronavirus safety protocols. The bodies were buried in remote places, under tight security, in the presence of close family members.
A fearless young man
Photographs show Manzoor to be a tall, strapping young man.
He was barely 20 years old when he joined the Indian Army in 2016. His father said he did not have the capacity to fund his education. “I told him to look for a job and since he was passionate about joining the army, he joined it,” said Wagay. While working for the army, he enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in science in Kulgam, said his younger brother Shahnawaz Manzoor.
For most part of his career, Manzoor was posted in Srinagar and Bandipora districts but two days before his abduction, he was transferred closer home to the army camp in Balpora. This is what allowed him to come home on August 2. “His camp had asked him to drop mail at another nearby camp and then go home for the day to celebrate Eid,” his uncle, Nazir Ahmad Wagay, recalled.
Fearful of being attacked by militants, Kashmiris employed by the Indian army or the Jammu and Kashmir police usually keep a low profile in their villages. Particularly in the volatile southern districts, families of soldiers urge them to avoid coming home.
But Manzoor was an exception. “He would come and go at will,” his uncle said. “He would stay for a month or 20 days at home and spend most of his time outside with local friends. He never felt that he would be touched by anyone.”
This was partly because he had a reputation for being affable and helpful, as many residents of Reshipora vouched for. “Since the last two years, he must have donated around 42 pints of blood,” said his uncle. “We don’t know how many people have his blood circulating through them at the moment.”
A resident of the village, who requested anonymity, said, “He is such a boy that if, at this moment, there is a clue about him, the entire village, along with kids and women, would rush to the spot to trace him.”
A solitary search
For most part, though, Manzoor’s father has mounted a solitary search for his son.
“You can say that what is unexpected for a civilian to do in a place like Kashmir, I did that,” he said, summarising his eight-month long struggle to investigate his son’s disappearance.
Within days of Manzoor going missing, Wagay said at least three people told him they had seen his son with some unknown men in his car. One of them was his youngest son Shahnawaz Manzoor. “I was returning home on my motorcycle when I saw his car moving towards the other direction. When I called him, he told me to return home,” Shahnawaz Manzoor recalled.
Other people, said Wagay, saw his son’s car getting intercepted at a desolate spot outside Reshipora. “Around 3-4 cars and two motorcycles were involved in the abduction,” he claimed. “Some of them got into his car and asked him to move. Some of the abductors followed him in other cars.”
Wagay said this account was based on the testimonies of eyewitnesses, some of whom had seen militants torture his son. One of them, a farmer, led him to the orchard where he found his son’s blood-stained clothes five days after his abduction. “He had been tied to a tree. When I went there, I found his clothes buried in a pit.”
If this account is correct, then the chances of finding where Manzoor was buried are bleak. “Of the four gunmen who abducted my son, three have been killed in various encounters since that episode,” Wagay said. “All of them hail from our neighbouring villages. Only one of them is alive.”
In his desperation, Wagay even contacted the families of the militants allegedly involved in his son’s killing. “They expressed helplessness. They said they are not in touch with their kids.”
In police records, Manzoor’s status remains that of a “missing person”.
A First Information report filed in Shopian police station the same day the soldier went missing accuses unknown people of kidnapping him with intent to murder. The police also listed offences related to the use of prohibited arms and sections of the anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
In December, the police sent an update to Manzoor’s Commanding Officer: “During the course of investigation, several persons/suspects were interrogated in order to unearth the whereabouts of the abductee but nothing fruitful could be achieved so far,” the note said.
A police officer in Shopian, on the condition of anonymity, said the case is still under investigation.
A statement by the Indian Army’s Chinar Corps said regular search operations were still being undertaken to find Manzoor. “The operations and efforts are intensified whenever any leads are received.”
The soldier “was presumed dead after six months from the date he was reported missing (02 August 2020) as per the existing Army orders in vogue,” the statement added. The pension and other benefits due to his family were “under process”.
With the passage of time, Manzoor’s family have felt both alone and disillusioned. They say the government has shown lack of empathy for them.
“Had he been a non-Kashmiri soldier,” said Wagay, “they would have turned the entire world upside down in order to search him. But they didn’t do anything to find my son.”
“My demand was that this case should be investigated by CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation],” he added.
In Reshipora, residents said nine young men were working in the Jammu and Kashmir police. Manzoor, according to residents, was the first to have joined the Indian Army. But now many are having second thoughts.
“If this is how they treat their own man, why would I send my kid to join the police or the army?” asked Abdul Rashid Rather, a village elder.
A father’s resolve
Wagay continues to look for his son’s body. He has spent nearly seven lakh rupees in his search, he said.
Often, his digging schedule is disrupted by the news of an unidentified corpse being found somewhere in Kashmir. “I make sure I reach there and get a look at it,” he said.
Just weeks after his son’s abduction, while searching through the orchards of Shopian, Wagay had stumbled on a corpse, which turned out to be that of a sarpanch affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party. He is believed to have been kidnapped by militants from Srinagar’s outskirts ten days before his body was found in the wilderness.
A day before this reporter had met Wagay at his home in mid-March, he had rushed to a remote forest village in the Kapran area of Shopian district. A mutilated corpse, in a decaying condition, had been found there. “It was of a shepherd. His face and other body parts had been eaten up by animals,” Wagay recalled.
This was the fourth unidentified corpse the farmer had seen in his quest to find his son’s last remains. His phone is full of gory images of these corpses – along with pictures of his good-looking son.
Wagay said he is determined to find his son’s body so that the family could bury him at a graveyard outside their home.“I will keep searching for him till the morning of the day of judgement,” he said.