The Unending Struggle of Jana and Bilkees

  • Nausheen Naseer
  • Publish Date: Mar 11 2016 12:44PM
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  • Updated Date: Apr 2 2016 9:35PM
The Unending Struggle of Jana and Bilkees

On the cold night of January 18, 2002 the counter-insurgency troops of 35 Rashtriya Rifles allegedly knocked on the door of 35-year-old Manzoor Ahmad Dar’s house in Srinagar’s Rawalpora locality. Dar, who ran a chemist shop near his house, answered the door. Outside, it was dark and the men were carrying torches. According to Dar’s family, the men dragged him out and took him to Cargo—one of the most dreaded torture centers in Srinagar—for questioning. Dar never came back home again.
For his wife and four children, the youngest then only in third-grade, this was just the beginning of a painful ordeal.
“It’s been a nightmare, which we have somehow managed to survive,” says Jana Begum, as she struggles to fight back tears.After her husband’s inexplicable disappearance, Jana became a ‘half-widow’. She was barely 32.
Instead of giving up, she decided to fight back for justice. “And I will keep fighting till the accused are put behind bars and I get my husband’s body back,” she says.
Jana lives with her two sons in the same house from where Dar was picked up by troops 14 years ago “for sending Kashmiri boys across the border for arms training”, a charge she denies. She has married off both her daughters.
In 2002, when the family lost its sole breadwinner, Jana’s elder son decided to quit studies and run his father’s medical shop in order to make ends meet.
Her teenage daughter, Bilkees Manzoor, also started missing her classes at school as she had to visit army camps and police officials with her mother in order to find out what had happened to her father and whether he was even alive.
“My teacher once told me that I should not bother about coming to school anymore and should just stay at army camps,” recalls Bilkees, who is now 28 and a finance graduate.
Jana says she did not want her sons to get involved in this fight for justice. “They were young and I did not want to lose them, too.” So while her younger son went to school, the elder one managed the shop. “Bilkees and I took care of the court visits and other legal work,” she says.
The police officials and Indian army officers she met and talked to, alleges Jana, either gave her cold shoulder or just lied to her about Dar’s whereabouts. “It was clear to me from the beginning that they knew where Manzoor was, but they just wouldn’t tell me,” she says. “It was frustrating.”
But their indifference to her suffering, instead of weakening her resolve, strengthened her will to relentlessly pursue the truth.
When the local police ‘blatantly refused to register a case against the army’ after Dar’s disappearance, the family and some locals protested for days outside their house. This forced the police into action. Jana then filed a writ petition in the High Court seeking an inquiry into Dar’s disappearance. The court directed Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), Budgam to hold an inquiry into the case. Its report concluded: “… the said Manzoor Ahmad Dar has been lifted by the RR personnel during the intervening night of 18/19 Jan, 2002, from his home situated at Rawalpora and is unheard thereafter.”
Later, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court constituted a Special Investigating Team (SIT) to probe the case. During investigation, the name of Colonel Kishore Malhotra (now Brigadier), who was the Major of 35 RR in January 2002, came up. It was suspected that Colonel Kishore had led the raid on Dar’s house on January 18.
A man who also had been picked up by the Indian army on January 18 and then let off told Jana that he had seen Dar at Cargo, where he, Dar and another person had been allegedly blindfolded and beaten. “He told me that they had been kept in three separate rooms,” says Jana.
It was also around this time that the family started getting calls from unknown people who claimed to know what had happened to Dar. Bilkees alleges that these were Indian army officers who did not like the turn the investigation was taking and wanted the family to take the case back. “They even offered us money and a house near the airport,” says Bilkees.
Once a high-rank Indian army officer called the family and told them that Dar was in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail. “He also said that my father’s legs had been amputated after being severely tortured,” says Bilkees. The family, however, did not believe him and decided to go ahead with the case.
Another time, a caller who claimed to be an IB officer asked them to meet him by boarding the car without a number plate near Rangreth. The family did as they were told and the car took them to a camp where they were questioned about the night of January 18 and asked to identify the men who had barged into their home that night. “They kept asking each one of us the same questions repeatedly. We also realized that they were the same men who had raided our house,” says Jana. After that, she adds, a jeep came out of nowhere and drove around them for a minute. “We were told that Manzoor was inside it and that he was watching us.”
Bilkees says when she informed the police about these unknown callers, they gave her a SIM and a new phone, which they told her would be tapped. “But these tapped recordings were never produced by the police anywhere. They just disappeared,” she alleges.
The police also allegedly told her that Dar had been killed and that he was buried in some village. When the family asked for proof, they had no answer. “These were all tricks to fool us and keep us from finding the truth about my father. The Indian Army thought it could break us down and force us to give up, but they were wrong,” says Bilkees.
Meanwhile, Colonel Kishore was questioned by SIT but he denied his involvement in the raid and was left free. The High Court ordered a fresh investigation into the case and in July 2008 asked the Colonel to appear before the SIT again for questioning. A SLP (Special Leave Petition) filed before the apex court by the Union of India challenged the High Court’s orders but the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal in 2009 and asked Colonel Kishore to appear before the SIT.
In July 2015, the High Court observed that the SIT had “failed to realize that Manzoor Ahmad Dar has not been seen after he was picked up by Major Kishore and other armed forces of 35 RR” and directed the investigating agency to arrest the colonel and subject him to custodial interrogation.
“Instead of approaching the authorities concerned for prosecution of Major Kishore for offence punishable under section 364 of the RPC, the SIT should have arrested Major Kishore and subject him to custodial interrogation and should have taken the investigation ahead to find out circumstances (under which) Manzoor was picked up and whether he was subjected to custodial disappearance,” observed the High Court.
To evade arrest, Colonel Kishore went to the apex court to challenge the order. The Supreme Court stayed his arrest but asked him to cooperate with the SIT.
Throughout this time, Jana and her family suffered silently. But sometimes a ray of hope would enter their bleak lives and make them feel that someday they would be reunited with their loved one. In 2007, the United Nations Organization (UNO), which was probing enforced disappearances in Kashmir, accepted Dar’s case. Bilkis hoped they would be able to find something. “But they never called us, even after taking up our case,” she says. When news of the DNA tests of bodies found in unmarked graves in the valley reached her, Bilkis says she expected the police to contact her for DNA testing. “But even that never happened.”
Jana, who is a diabetes and hypertension patient, says the thought that her husband might have been killed never really crossed her mind. “I refused to believe it,” she says. “My heart told me that he would return.”
But last year something happened that forced her to stop hoping for Dar’s return.
In November 2015, the SIT closed the investigation in the case and concluded that: “The custodial disappearance has occurred nearly about 14 years ago which clearly indicates that the disappeared person could have died in custody of 35 RR.”
“During custodial questioning, the accused did not admit the custody of the victim and nor lead to recovery of the body, which clearly indicates that the accused could have disposed of the body and also offence 201 RPC is invoked,” reads the status report filed by SIT in the High Court. Subsequently, the accused was charged with abduction, murder and destruction of evidence.
When they read the status report, Jana and her family were forced to believe that Dar might have been killed in custody. On January 19, exactly 14 years after his disappearance, they held funeral-in-absentia and sit-in protests for Dar outside their home in Rawalpora. Relatives and neighbours started gathering at their home on January 18. Bilkees also put up posters of her father around the neighbourhood and posted on Facebook to ask people to join her and her family. Hundreds of men attended the funeral prayers while many women protested with Bilkees.
“I did it to show everyone that I’m not alone,” says Bilkees. “I wanted people to stand by me and raise their voices against enforced disappearances.”
On January 21, just a day after her son’s funeral prayers were held, Dar’s 80-year-old mother passed away. “She had been unwell for quite some time,” says Bilkees. “My father’s disappearance had shattered her and also taken a heavy toll on her health.”
As Bilkees mourns the death of her grandmother and continues her fight in the Supreme Court against those “who were meant to protect her family”, thousands of others who have also lost their loved ones to the bloody conflict in the valley and are awaiting justice look up to her and Jana for inspiration.