Photo: Kashmir Ink
Death sentence to Muzaffar Ahmad Parray by the Kolkatta High Court has stunned his poor parents. They have fewer means and money to fight his case. Will Kashmiri political and civil society groups look beyond hartals and condemnations and step up to the challenge?
The wait for his ‘lost’ son had ended for the first time when Abdul Majeed Rather held fatiha - prayers in absentia – in a far-flung village of Khee Jopgipora in South Kashmir’s district Kulgam. For more than a year the Rather family had tirelessly searched for their teenage son’s whereabouts but, without success. Five years after his son had gone missing; a village head knocked at Majeed’s door to inform his that his missing son is still alive.
Stoned to silence, the news rekindled Rather family but it was only short-lived.
Their son Muzaffar Ahmad Rather was caught thousand miles away from home in West Bengal’s Petrapol Village near the Indo-Bangladesh border.
“Still, we were happy that he is alive,” Majeed recalled. It was the beginning of another spell of wait in the household.
Muzaffar’s family suffered another jolt when they heard he has been sentenced to death by a Bengal court earlier on January 21.
A student of class 8 in a nearby government school in Kulgam’s Katroosa, Muzaffar had left for school as usual with his year older sibling Riyaz Ahmad. The parents had no complaints about their younger son. He was, seemingly, not in any ‘bad company’. “He was good in studies,” Majeed shared.
But, then on a day in October 2002 as the time for the brothers to come back from school arrived, their mother readied four cups of tea and placed them on a Dastarkhan – a table cloth– for four siblings including the eldest, a daughter, who had left school to help the family in earnings.
“I saw him at school and I left with my friends for home. He would come with his friends,” Riyaz said.
Muzaffar never came back.
“I had gone out in the village. He had left with his school bag. The cup of tea had turned cold,” Muzaffar’s mother Nafeeza recalled.
The family finally filed a missing report in a local police station thinking the teen may have been kidnapped or picked-up by someone.
“I had even lost my mind for some time due to grief. I missed my son,” Nafeeza said. For five years, she had no idea of his son’s whereabouts.
In April 2007, days before the village head had informed Majeed about his younger son, three people were arrested by Border Security Forces (BSF). The official documents claimed that two fake identity cards, 200 dollars cash, 15 anti Indian leaflets, one cardboard box containing some light brown sticky substance suspected as explosive were seized from their possession.
The police identified them as 50-year-old Mohd Yunus, 24 year old Mohammad Abdullah – both Pakistani nationals – and Muzaffar Ahmad Rather. The security officials claimed their fourth associate Abdul Nayeem of Maharashtra fled away. Muzaffar had allegedly joined the militant ranks of Pak based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) outfit.
In a fast track court in Bangaon, Kolkata Judge Binoy Pathak sentenced the accused to gallows. The three inmates were charged under a series of sections including under Section 121 for Waging war against the state and 121A for conspiracy to wage war against the government of India.
Muzaffar left his home when he was only 13-years-old. His family was shattered due to his loss. Burdened by financial constraints, they managed with the help from local MLA MY Tarigami. The CPI (M) lawmaker gave a reference letter to the family addressed to the jail authorities in Kolkata for a meeting.
Majeed recalled he could not recognize his son when he looked for his son inside the jail. “He waved his hand for me so I can stick my gaze at him,” Majeed said.
Majeed confessed due to his financial condition, affording a lawyer was ‘totally out of question’. “We left him at God’s mercy,” he said.
The family met Muzaffar only few times in last decade. They could not afford to travel far to the East. The expenses were unmanageable given their financial state.
The Rather family lives in a small rural-archetype house with three rooms and a kitchen, to enter the house, they have to pass, in a zig-zag, through several courtyards shared by four other neighbors. A part of Rather house is shared by another family.
The family could never recuperate from troubles since the day Muzaffar abandoned his home. His family says there was ‘no reason’. “All the problems began after he left,” Majeed said.
Their home was raided several times by the armed forces. The family was interrogated. “Our household was ransacked many times by the forces. Most of our things were destroyed. Except for once, when an army official told me take a look at my son’s picture. He knew I was in pain,” the mother recalled.
Muzaffar’s father Majeed continues to work as a mason even as he has visibly turned old for labor. The eldest was married off in a neighboring village. Riyaz, a year older than Muzaffar, works as a teacher in a local private school. To aid his Masters in Physical Education degree, Riyaz had to borrow a loan which he is paying off from a monthly salary of Rs 3200. The youngest Mohammad Shafi left studies in Class 12 to work as a tailor but ended up in depressed state.
Before he was sentenced to death, Muzaffar had asked his family to visit Bengal. “He told us the judgment will be delivered soon and that he will be let off,” Riyaz said. They booked a railway ticket and began planning to get Muzaffar back until he called again. “This time he said he may be sentenced to imprisonment again,” the brother added. The incarcerated son of the family still expressed optimism as he spoke with his family over telephone. He was sure about the trial going fine.
“The third time Muzaffar called he struggled for words. He said he needed time,” Majeed said.
Clueless about defence counsel, Majeed who struggled daily to meet his ends, the sentence was an additional burden. No one had ever come to aid the family in the last decade. As his son was held captive on ‘terror’ charges, a galaxy-far in his words, there was no legal or financial support system that he could avail.
But, this time people had begun to rally around Muzaffar against the death sentence. Dozens of relatives and locals from nearby villages visit the family, pledge their support.
After the execution of Maqbool Bha and Afzal Guru in 1984 and 2013 respectively, Muzaffar has become another rallying point among all locals, separatist leaders and mainstream political parties.
The police and paramilitary had to resort to mob control after clashes erupted in the village against the death penalty. The locals joined in protest in support of Muzaffar.
The village committee in Khee Jogipora has since been collecting money for them. A poster, attested by a village head, calling for help to Muzaffar has been circulated in villages.
The sentence has invoked condemnation from former state ruling party National Conference (NC). “All necessary steps should be taken by the government to ensure’ that the family can avail the best legal help,” a party spokesperson said.
The Hurriyat Conference, Dukhtaran e Millat’s Asiyeh Andrabi, Muslim League’s Mushtaq ul Islam, all claimed they will provide the legal and financial help to the family. The solidarities developed after Muzaffar was sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, his brother and uncle are visiting him in Bengal to make an appeal against the judgment in a higher court. After the local support, even in their state of abject poverty, the family seems determined to fight back.
They want Muzaffar back.