SHOPIAN, Kashmir — A strange quiet had fallen over the Eidgah, a sacred space and martyrs’ graveyard. The sadness was overwhelming, but there was also an underlying restlessness. A special prayer meeting had been organized by Shakeel Ahmad Ahanger and hundreds from this small town had gathered to remember two of its daughters, one of them Ahanger’s wife. It was as if the mourners had no recourse but to seek divine intervention.
“Let us repose our faith in almighty Allah as he only knows our helplessness,” said the cleric leading the service. A recitation of Koranic verses was followed by a heartfelt eulogy.
It had been seven years of distress, tears, anger and grief for Ahanger, his son and other family members. They still have been unable to come to terms with the violent deaths of Asiya and Nellofar: their sisters, mothers, aunts and friends. It disheartens them to know that the killers of the two women have not been punished. The Shopian rape and double-murder case has been well reported but has not resulted in justice.
On May 30, 2009, as a pleasant spring sun heralded a new day, the tranquillity of Shopian was shattered when word spread that two young women had been raped and murdered. The bodies of Asiya, 17, and her sister-in-law, Nellofer, 22, had been discovered near a stream. The two had gone to work on their small orchard across from the stream the previous day. When they had not returned later, the family sent out frantic search parties, then notified the police.
The next morning, the women were found fatally wounded, their clothes in tatters. Local people alleged that the women had been ravished and murdered by security forces in the area, where demands for independence from India have led to violence.
Ahanger, who is Nellofar’s husband and Asiya’s brother, said he, too, believed the villagers and suspected foul play. According to him, after reporting the matter to the police, he and a police party thoroughly searched the entire area the night the women disappeared but had not found even a trace of them. It was as if they had vanished. The police officially called off the search at two in the morning but asked Ahanger to report back at dawn.
“When I went back at first light and we resumed our pursuit, an officer pointed towards the stream and told me, ‘There is your wife.’ Her body was lying on the boulders,” he said. “I gathered myself and ran towards her. Just as she had vanished, her body appeared out of nowhere, right next to a high-security CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force, an Indian national police force] camp with armed soldiers patrolling at all times. How was it that her body was dumped there without anyone noticing?” Ahanger’s sister’s body was discovered several hours later, downstream.
In 24 hours, Ahanger’s life was changed completely. Overwhelmed with anguish by losing two women closest to him, he knew he had to find out what had happened to them.
Their bodies were taken to a local hospital for autopsies. As public pressure mounted, the district magistrate ordered that a three-member team of doctors be called in from an area nearby to conduct the autopsies. The team confirmed that both victims had been raped. A report issued by the Forensic Science Lab in Srinagar, the Kashmiri summer capital, confirmed the same thing.
The police and administration, however, rejected the findings and maintained that drowning was the cause of the deaths.
The enraged population of Shopian took to the streets to protest and demand justice, compelling the government to appoint a further inquiry by a retired justice, who recommended administrative action against some police officials for mishandling the case.
Finally, four months later, the state government handed the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Indian equivalent of the FBI. The agency exhumed the bodies, took samples and concluded that the women had died from drowning, denying the possibility of rape.
Ahanger cannot let go of his feelings of anger, betrayal and hurt. “I have cooperated with every agency and commission instituted by the government, but the matter gets hushed up,” he said. “I don’t know how to keep up the faith.”
In strife-torn Kashmir, the Indian-claimed part of a territory still in dispute between India and Pakistan, accounts of women suffering in the aftermath of violence abound. For Ahanger, the last seven years have been unbearable, as he runs a small furniture shop to make ends meet. He has spent many sleepless nights.
“When I close my eyes, there are the memories to contend with and the image of their mangled, exhumed bodies,” he said. During the day, he has other worries. “My work has suffered a lot and I have had to sell out my share in the orchard to keep afloat.”
Besides keeping up the fight for justice for his dead wife and sister, Ahanger takes care of his seven-year-old son. But of all the tasks on his agenda, keeping the case alive and holding authorities accountable has proven to be the toughest.
“In a violence-hit region like Kashmir, there is a plethora of practical problems one is up against,” he said. “The curfews and other risks are anyway difficult to deal with. The common man’s life gets affected.”
Ahanger is disappointed with the inaction of the new state government. In the run-up to the 2014 State Assembly elections, Mehbooba Mufti, the current chief minister, was vocal about securing human rights and had made “justice for the Shopian double rape and murder victims” a central issue.
“Two years have passed since the PDP [Mufti’s party] took over, and the issue has barely found any mention in the corridors of power,” Ahanger said.
© Women’s Feature Service