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Thursday, Oct 24, 2019

Blood speaks: I was a boy when I saw a militant murder my father in Jammu

A son recounts the night when his family had gathered for a wedding. Within moments joy turned to grief when a militant gunned down his father.

opinion Updated: Sep 01, 2017 17:58 IST
Sohil Sehran
Sohil Sehran
Hindustan Times
Children cross a temporary check point during curfew in Srinagar.
Children cross a temporary check point during curfew in Srinagar.(AP Photo)

Fourteen years ago, on this day, I was a 13-year-old, home from boarding school, and excited to attend my aunt’s wedding.

In 2003, Chamalwas, 10-km-away from the town of Banihal in Jammu, was still a sleepy hamlet. There were no DTH televisions or mobile phones. All we knew of was a landline, installed at our Jammu home, solely for the use of my politician father. We had migrated from Chamalwas to Jammu and Kashmir’s winter capital in the late 90s after Papa received death threats. He did not seem bothered about such trivial matters as his life being endangered, however, and continued dedicating himself to the service of the people with unabated vigour. Nevertheless, I digress.

It was the night of September 1. A gang of cousins, including this writer, sat glued to the television watching ‘Suraag’, a popular detective series telecast on Doordarshan those days. Once Sudesh Berry as the protagonist CID officer had conveniently solved the latest crime, we dispersed: some to lend a hand with the wedding preparations, some to nick sweets when elders were distracted, some, as most adolescents are wont to do, to flirt with young women. Being Papa’s boy, however, I did not join in any of these uninteresting (at the time) pursuits and instead chose to tail Papa as he walked around the house, inspecting the arrangements and discussing them with his brothers.

The family elders and I ended up in the kitchen and had just settled down to cups of hot tea, when someone knocked on the door. The door opened and a militant armed with an AK47 gun entered the kitchen. Without any preamble, he asked Papa to step outside. The atmosphere in the kitchen turned from joy to fear swiftly. As Papa rose from his seat, his brothers rallied around him. Don’t get up, they whispered imploringly.

“Tche wal sa nebyar, commander saebas che kath karin (Come out, our commander sahib wants to speak to you),” the militant told Papa. Heeding his brothers’ plea, Papa remained where he was. The militant backed out of the room and I started to cry. Papa looked at me and said, “Tche ma wad mai gaes ni kehn (Don’t cry, nothing will happen to me).”

Before he could say anything else, the militant was back. He repeated his order aggressively. My uncles had already conferred amongst themselves in quick whispers and one of them now approached the man, talking to him in the soothing, charming manner of a gracious host, inviting him to sit down and eat dinner with us, assuring him Papa would be with him after we were all fed and watered. As the man appeared to capitulate and started to sit, a distinct sigh of relief seemed to go around the room like a breeze. The next second, however, the man opened fire.

Three bullets hit my father. As my uncles converged upon the militant, other family members came running into the kitchen. Six other militants who had been waiting outside stormed in and started firing indiscriminately.

To this day, I do not know how I survived. All I recall is the haze, the screams, the stench of smoke, bullets and blood, and a hand -- I will never know whose -- seizing me and throwing me out of the kitchen. After centuries, it seemed, the screaming stopped and the wailing began. My grandmother had limped into the room, whose very walls seemed to be painted with blood, only to find half her sons murdered. I crawled over the bodies of my 15-year-old cousin and my pregnant aunt to get to Papa. I closed his eyes, unhooked his wristwatch, removed his wallet and walked unseeing into the other room. People were starting to barge into the house -- the firing had roused the entire village and enough time had lapsed that the villagers were confident the militants had disappeared into the darkness, and any immediate danger of slaughter had passed.

Three bullets hit my father. As my uncles converged upon the militant, other family members came running into the kitchen. Six other militants who had been waiting outside stormed in and started firing indiscriminately.

I stood outside the kitchen, guarding what, I don’t know until I saw my brother and sister running towards me, my mother in the lead. I held her off. For the first time in my life, I realised I had become taller than Mumma. Papa’s dead, I told her baldly. I needed to tell you this before you went in, before you saw -- she collapsed in my arms.

Five people in my family died that night. Nine children lost their fathers and two their mother. A night that was too long, a night whose dawn we feared would never come. And even if it did, who cared?

Every year since, the night of September 1, I recall the horror. The helplessness, the hopelessness. And Papa’s last words to me. Every year, the grief catches me unawares, never lessening in its intensity, rising and ebbing like a tide, buffeting my heart this way and that, while I am powerless to stop any of it. Just as I was powerless to stop it the first time.

A couple of months after the night are a blur. Most memories tinged with ringing wails and quiet mourning. One memory stands out: My seven-year-old cousin, nonplussed, pulling at my shirt. “Sab ro rahe hain, par bade ho ke to sab marte hain (Everyone’s crying, but everyone dies when they get older, don’t they?).”

I didn’t have the will to explain the difference between a peaceful death and murder to an innocent.

Qatil Ne Kis Safai Se Dhoyi Hai Aasteen

Us Ko Khabar Nahi KI Lahu Bolta Bhi Hai

(How meticulously the murderer has washed his sleeves, he has no idea blood leaves marks deeper than just the stain)

-- Anonymous

(Sohil Sehran is a correspondent with Hindustan Times, covering the National Capital Region. He tweets @SohilSehran)

First Published: Sep 01, 2017 17:57 IST

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