Atta Mohammad Khan, Kashmir’s gravedigger believed to have buried 235 unidentified bodies that the police brought to his village during militancy, died at his home in North Kashmir’s border town of Uri on Sunday night. Khan was 73.
Khan, a farmer of Chahal Bimbyar village, was battling asthma for the past few years.
“He was in the hospital, but we recently brought him home. He died of kidney failure,” said his son, Manzoor Ahmad.
Khan was a known face in the civil society circles in Kashmir Valley after his help to uncover the existence of unmarked mass graves in Kashmir in 2008 and 2009.
In 2013, he documented his testimony in a book of essays titled ‘Of Occupation and Resistance; Writings from Kashmir’, which was compiled by local journalist Fahad Shah.
Khan wrote that he buried more than 235 bullet-riddled and mutilated bodies of unknown people, whom police would hand over to him claiming they were foreign militants. He wrote that some of them later turned out to be locals.
“The army used to hand over bodies to local police stations and the policemen had to bury them. The policemen in turn used to come to gravediggers like me with the bodies. From 2003, the brutal period started, which lasted till 2006. It used to be one body, three bodies or sometimes more than six per day. It continued for years and I would bury them here in the same graveyard,” he wrote.
Two civil society bodies under the banner of Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) have acknowledged the role of Khan for his courage saying their reports, documenting the presence of unmarked graves in Kashmir, would not have been possible without his help.
The reports, published in 2008 and 2009, documented the presence of some 2,700 unknown, unmarked, and mass graves, containing 2,943 people in three northern districts of Kashmir Valley, close to the Line of Control.
After an enquiry, the reports were acknowledged by the State Human Rights Commission in 2011, admitting the presence of 2,156, unidentified bodies buried in 38 sites in north Kashmir.
JKCCS programme coordinator Khurram Parvez told Hindustan Times that Khan was one such “brave Kashmiri, who despite an atmosphere of militarisation and repression, continued to speak truth”.
“Many other gravediggers didn’t cooperate with civil society bodies, but Mohammad did. He faced threats, yet he came forward,” he said.