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Business of death runs into bad days

The elderly gravedigger who has buried hundreds of bullet-ridden bodies is idle. Times are changing: the business of death has run into bad days in Kashmir. Militancy-related fatalities have dropped considerably, reports Neelesh Misra.Spl: Kashmir moves on
By Neelesh Misra | Hindustan Times, Srinagar
UPDATED ON JUL 18, 2008 12:26 PM IST

The tombstone maker is carving marble name plaques for new homes. The elderly gravedigger who has buried hundreds of bullet-ridden bodies is idle. And the post-mortem man in his spotless white coat now only deals with jilted lovers and jobless youth.

Times are changing: the business of death has run into bad days in Kashmir.

From the 4,510 deaths in 2001, the highest number for a year in the insurgency, militancy-related fatalities dropped to about 890 in 2007, officials say. This year, 84 people have been reported dead until mid-June.

So 20 years after the deaths began, three different men in different parts of Srinagar, with similar glazed emotionless eyes — Mohammed Maqbool Tramboo the tombmaker, Abdul Kabir Sheikh the gravedigger and Mohammed Maqbool the post-mortem man — have little to do.

“Until a few years ago, there were times when I used to be working day and night, continuously. There is no doubt, the number of militancy deaths is much less and the levels of violence have gone down drastically,” said Mohammed Maqbool Tramboo, 37, a tombmaker who left his home in Anantnag town 15 years ago to make a living in Srinagar.

Militancy-related violence is fading out in Kashmir, where at least 40,000 people according to official estimates — mostly civilians — have died in the insurgency in shootouts by security forces, grenade attacks and remote controlled bombings by militants, crossfire and custody deaths. Anti-government groups say the casualties are twice that number.

That is a sign that things are on the mend in Kashmir, but not a signpost that things are “normal” — simplistic mathematics often attempted by authorities.

Barricades, bunkers and body searches still crowd the day-to-day existence of ordinary Kashmiris. Hundreds of thousands of army and paramilitary soldiers are still on duty.

“I have lifted a lot of bodies. I have buried up to 20 bodies together. The graveyards are overflowing,” said Abdul Kabir Sheikh, father of one of the earliest and famous militant commanders Abdul Hamid Sheikh. Kabir Sheikh works as a “malkhosh”, digging graves and arranging burials for hundreds of people.

One day in 1987, Sheikh's son left home to trek cross the border into Pakistan and by summer next year, the young unemployed Hamid Sheikh had transformed into one of the famous militant commanders of the time, one of the men who founded the insurgency.

The father walked the reporter to the graveyard.

“Yes, my son was a militant. When he didn’t get a job, he picked up the gun. After two-three years, he became a martyr,” Sheikh said.

One day in 1990 across the city, at the police hospital, another young man came face to face with the bullet-gored body of a militant. As he began the post-mortem, Mohammed Maqbool had also started a seemingly unending journey.

“I even did post-mortems in trucks — up to eight bodies at a time,” Maqbool said, his eyes bloodshot. Bodies arrived with no limbs, no faces, or in pieces.

He could not sleep at night, acquired a bad temper, became a chain smoker and used to go into a strange frenzy before a post-mortem, screaming at his colleagues. He was often pulled away from dinner with his wife and children — two sons and a daughter — by a phone call from work.

Now he often gets cases related to Kashmir’s new realities — suicides by security men, or by civilians who drown, poison or hang themselves amid rising numbers of suicides in Kashmir.

As the militancy raged, deaths became everyday. Sheikh the gravedigger helped set up the first graveyard that came up for militancy-related deaths in Srinagar. There were so many bodies that a new layer of soil had to be laid, with a new set of graves on top of the old.

That was around the time when Tramboo the tombmaker moved to Srinagar. His father had died when he was a teenager, and his mother sold vegetables to support the family of seven — four sons and three daughters. Tramboo began to work etching on marble.

There were many deaths to document on stone.

“Most of the dead were young people. Many days were very painful,” Tramboo said, and gave a religious interpretation to the two-decade insurgency. “What happened in these past 20 years was because we dropped the veils from our conscience. We stopped obeying Allah's teachings.”

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