Srinagar’s martyr’s graveyard

Kashmir's 17-year-old insurgency has seen many unique developments, but one of the oddest has been the abrupt conversion of parks into cemeteries. The first of these parks-turned-graveyards in the Valley came up in the traditional Eidgah grounds, in downtown Srinagar. Around 1000 people now lie buried here, all of them having fallen victim to the conflict. This plot of land, now encased in concrete and iron, used to be part of a vast playground.

The identity of the first person buried at the Eidgah 'martyr's graveyard' is not known; the epitaph on that grave simply reads Shaheed-i-Namaloom (martyr unknown), dated 20 January 1990. Habibullah Khan, caretaker at the cemetery, says he knows little of the identity of that first arrival: "They had brought the body from Uri. He was probably a militant belonging to JKLF, which was then the only militant outfit operating in the state."

Immediately to the right of the Shaheed-i-Namaloom lies the second grave – Mushatq Ahmad Malik of Srinagar, who was buried here on 21 January 1990, the day after the unknown martyr was interred. According to locals living in Eidgah's vicinity, a signboard announcing Beehist Shuuda (Martyr's Heaven) was erected at the former park in the early 1990s, as the eruption of armed insurgency killed more and more people.

"It was presumed that whoever would fall prey to the bullets of Indian forces in Kashmir Valley would be buried here, and that the process would continue till freedom was achieved," recalls Mohammed Shafi, a local knowledgeable about the martyr's graveyard. "However, this did not work for the people living in far-off villages, and people began to bury their dear ones in their respective localities. For city dwellers, too, the spirit of bringing martyrs to Eidgah died down slowly. Today you have a martyr's graveyard in every nook of Kashmir. There are said to be some 300 such graveyards in Kashmir."

At 70 years of age, caretaker Khan has watched the trans-formation of the open green field of Eidgah. He has devoted himself to the service of the graveyard, and several times a day can be seen making his rounds, tending the flowers blooming on the graves. He can remember most of the dead and the circumstances under which they were brought here. Two-year-old Saquib Bashir was hit by a bullet in the chest while his mother was breastfeeding him. And then there is 102-year-old Ghulam Mohammad Magray, who now lies besidehundreds of youths.

Caretaker Khan says he does not know what has kept him going, having assisted in more than 1000 burials here.

Chasing peace

Eidgah is where Srinagar's Muslim population used to gather on Eid to offer prayers. In a sense, the cultural significance of Eidgah has only grown since the area has become a site for offering Jinazah and Fateh Khawani, prayers offered during the last rites.

Besides hundreds of civilians, many Kashmiri political leaders have also been buried at Eidgah, including Mirwaiz Moulvi Mohammad Farooq, Abdul Gani Lone and Peer Hisamuddin, as well as renowned activists such as Jaleel Andrabi and Dr Ahad Guru. A grave with a black epitaph also awaits an occupant: that of JKLF (Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front) founder Mohammad Maqbool Bhat, who was executed at Tihar Jail in Delhi in 1984. As soon as the Indian state provides the body, it will be transferred to Eidgah for burial.

During the 17 years it has been in existence, the cemetery has twice needed to be enlarged. Its initial 120×120 ft space was quickly filled to capacity, and was sub-sequently doubled, then quadrupled. With the continuation of unrest, Habibullah Khan says he foresees the graveyard being extended yet again. Graves are not dug at Eidgah, but rather soil is raised around rock plinths. Even today, more than 30 graves have been kept ready to hem in the fresh ones. Khan says that at times, so many bodies have needed burial that he has had to dig joint graves, interring three or four bodies together.

Walking the lines of graves at Eidgah, the successive epitaphs delineate a clear timeline of the conflict in Kashmir since 1990. Relatives and friends continue to throng the graveyard, offering prayers, shedding tears, showering flower petals and rice grains on the tombs for the peace of the departed souls.

Despite his dedication, however, there is little peace here for Habibullah Khan. "Once, I buried nine people in a day. Once, it was 20. It was painful, burying the young people."

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