The endurance of the dead Kashmiri

Syed Ali Shah Geelani addressing a crowd at the Pather Masjid in the old city of Srinagar, in September 2010. The neighbourhood, which used to be the hub of National Conference during the time of Sheikh Abdullah, had not seen a prominent leader address a crowd since Abdullah's death. Geelani had gone to the mosque to read the namaz. On the demand of the people, he gave a speech, after which a large rally was taken out from the building. Kashmir's tallest resistance leader, Geelani died on 1 September 2021. He was buried under the strict supervision of Indian security personnel, in the middle of the night, amid movement restrictions. Shahid Tantray

Like most old cultures, we honour and celebrate our dead in elaborate, sometimes ritualistic ways, for days on end. Apart from the pre-arranged swatch of earth in the neighbourhood or the ancestral graveyard (they can be one and the same but not always) and the commissioning of an elaborate or austere gravestone, there is the selection of poetry for the epitaph (Urdu or Farsi, we must consult with Syed Saeb, because “taemiss chhu ath saet jaan”—he knows about this stuff); the early morning recitation of the Fateha and Sura Yaseen (among others) at the grave; and the not-unimportant decision of what flowers shall grow by the graveside. Besides all this, we Kashmiris simply like to get and live together after a death in the family, as people in many cultures do.

We like to cook a lot of food; we like to feed a lot of people. Some relatives, brought together by the glue of remembrance and a collective catharsis, refuse to leave for weeks. We talk and talk about the deceased—someone or the other always ends up mimicking the way they spoke. All this alongside daily visits to the graveyard, extended Qurankhwani sessions in the house, and poignant consolations among the grieving. Someone or the other always faints from exhaustion or a surfeit of tears. Some of us also take flowers and candles, lots of flowers and candles, to the grave.

In this way, we both adapt to and kind of adopt death. We own it. Neighbours and residents of the larger area, represented by that most marvellous and munificent of institutions, the mohalla committee (often headed by a wise, fearful, cranky, or somehow idiosyncratic sadr,Sakh kaek magar aemiss warai hekne kahiin karyith”—He is very finicky but no one else can do it), participate in all this from the time of the first distress call. Amid ceaseless rounds of tea (“Samavar-as gov nae thakiyy!”—We had to keep the samavar going forever!), at least half a dozen genres of our Kaeshir bread are consumed in limitless quantities. The holy Quran is recited every night by the kin of the deceased and at least once a week by Moulvi Saeb and ensemble, accompanied by a feast involving insurmountable amounts of meat cooked by the local waza.

It is all comforting—do not judge—we pay tribute to and commemorate the one we have lost. As days pass, conversations begin to feature discussions about the number of people who came to the burial, to the fateha, and the chaharum. Depending on how loved, important, or well-known the deceased was, or all the above, numbers are cited and argued over.

Kam-az-kam aess 40 saas!” (At least forty thousand were there!)

Hai kyah chhukyh wanaan, teet na aess!” (How can you say that? There weren’t that many!)

“Chhhe kate chayy payy, chhe ousukh behosh pyeth. Khor traavnus aes nae jay, poutus pyov byaakh khaeme dyun, Gaash laal ne!” (What do you know? You had passed out! There was no room, we had to put up a second tent at Gaash Laal’s!)

When the 91-year-old Kashmiri leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani died on 1 September after many years of incarceration at his home, none of the aforesaid acts of honour and celebration took place. As is more than clear by now, a soulless, humourless and mindless state interfered in the most sacred and beloved of our practices: the series of commemorative events after the death of a family member.

It was a pre-scripted, ruthlessly executed, forced burial. The state, fearful of Geelani’s unparalleled sway over his people, both in life and death, buried the old man under the cover of darkness, against his and his family’s wishes. The family, the relatives, the children and the grandchildren were not allowed to perform the last rites. The people of Kashmir, many of whom would have marched from near and far, could not and were not allowed to participate in the farewell of a man many called Bab, the father.

The state—I use the term loosely to denote the Indian political and military apparatus, the various life-sucking regimes in Delhi, and the local administration and its range of executors—had done its drills well. It managed to stage a quiet funeral for Kashmir’s most popular political and resistance leader by a mile.

It was a professional act of cruelty that seems to have marked two broad political and philosophical moments. One, the state lost to Geelani’s politics of resistance a long time ago, more pointedly since the National Conference government decided to park itself outside Geelani’s home to enforce his prolonged house arrest, falling further from the graces of the Kashmiri people. It seems clear, too, that it was, in fact, Geelani who held the state captive for years, by forcing it to contort in the face of his defiant stance. Two, in preventing a mass public celebration of the veteran’s life and times, or more specifically, in thwarting a sea of people from gathering at Eidgah—where he had wished to be buried—to offer collective prayers for his soul, the state reinforced the importance of being Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

Geelani commanded the respect of people across political and sectarian divides. Barring a small-minded few, even his rivals showed grudging respect—perhaps even the armed policemen deputed to snatch his corpse knew the significance of the moment. I would not be surprised if their hands trembled as they followed what was decreed in Delhi. In successfully preventing a public send-off for Geelani, the state also staged its own defeat to the man’s steadfast will. “Na jhukne wala” Geelani—the man who does not bend, as he was called across Kashmir—had made his opponents stoop very low.

In Kashmir, we are often surrounded by the dead. Graves, mausoleums, shrines everywhere. Neighbourhood graveyards, martyrs’ graveyards, unnamed burial sites, and mass graves everywhere. We live in proximity to our dead. We almost socialise with our dead. In my childhood, a Thursday evening visit to the marguzar was a familiar, normal thing. I was even part of the grave digging team when my grandmother, Baaje,’ died. I remember standing in the half-dug grave with a spade; I remember the colour of freshly dug-up earth and its peculiar fragrance.

Before it was fenced in, we sometimes also played cricket and hide-and-seek in the same graveyard. Older kids showed off how to rest casually against a tombstone. Death, and the presence of the dead, remains an ordinarily familiar thing—mournful and sombre, of course, but commemorative at the same time. In the same graveyard, we would light up hundreds of gravestones with thousands of candles on shab-e-barat. It was almost a rite of passage when you were first given your own bundle of candles to carry to the marguzar, your palms redolent of new wax. The whole place would turn into a luminous mad zool for the community of relatives, neighbours, and friends underground. Everybody sipped sharbat or lemonade, brought in buckets to the burial ground. Of course, all this was preceded by reciting the Fateha in low tones, and quiet reflection on what it all meant.

Indian security force personnel at the grave of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, two days after his death. According to his family members, police personnel forcibly took away Geelani's body and buried it, in the middle of the night. The police late denied this claim. Sanna Irshad Mattoo / Reuters

The link from those intimacies of the graveyard to the political dead, to our national politics and aesthetics is, therefore, already made—pre-written. That is the reason Kashmiris have not forgotten the body of pro-Independence leader Maqbool Bhat, buried after his hanging in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, nor Mohammed Afzal Guru’s secretive burial in the same prison, which, too, the state organised with such professionalised cruelty that his wife and son were not even allowed a last glimpse. Both men have in-absentia graves waiting for them at home in Kashmir—powerful totems with which to remember them. And if there is one thing you can put a blind bet on when it comes to the Kashmiri soul, it is her memory. We do not forget anything. More than four hundred years after the Mughal badshah Akbar imprisoned Kashmir’s last free Muslim ruler, Yusuf Shah Chak, we still talk about the act of treachery and the fact that our man, after his death in 1592 in Bihar, was buried far from home.

There exist other kinds of our famous dead and their gravesites among us. Away from Geelani’s graveyard in upper Srinagar, across the city and down by the shore of the Dal Lake near the Hazratbal Shrine, lies the marble-topped grave of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah—one of Kashmir’s most significant political figures, who bartered Kashmir first to Nehru and then to Indira’s India in return for a personal seat of power. His grave, too, is under armed guard, and has been so for many years, for fear that Kashmiris who feel betrayed by him might desecrate it. Srinagar will now have two guarded gravesites, for two of its most popular leaders—Sheikh held sway far and wide in his heyday. One, to stop people from venting their anger, and the other to prevent people from paying tribute. Such is our history. But one thing is clear: both these sites signify a defeat of the Indian state in its long war against the Kashmiri mind.