In Yaripora, Father Votes In Memory Of Lost Son

17 December 2008
The Hindu

YariporaYaripora: Six years ago, Abdul Ahad Pandit threw a burkha over his clothes, and darted down the narrow lane leading to the polling station. His wife, Saeeda Pandit, followed. “We sat up awake for the next three nights,” Mr. Pandit recalls, “waiting for death to knock on our door, a Kalashnikov in hand.” Back in the autumn 2002, just five Yaripora residents cast their votes in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections which brought the Congress-People’s Democratic Party alliance to power - all hidden inside the all-enveloping cloak for fear of being identified. Nestled below the southern reaches of the Pir Panjal mountains, Yaripora was for all practical purposes ruled by jihadists. Both the Hizb ul-Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Taiba had put up posters warning that those who voted would be shot - and had demonstrated their ability to deliver on the threat, killing dozens of political activists across the region. On Wednesday, though, hundreds followed where the Pandits had led: almost three in four registered voters - 1,481 of 2,073 - cast their vote, in a graphic demonstration of just how the decimation of jihadist groups in Jammu and Kashmir has transfigured the State’s political life. Local residents say their decision to queue up on a bleak winter day was driven by hopes that their elected representatives will upgrade the town’s school, complete construction of the hospital, pave the roads and ensure regular power supplies. Abdul Ahad Pandit and Saeed Pandit lined up on Wednesday morning too - but with different motives. “I hope to see my daughter-in-law and granddaughter once before I die,” Mr. Pandit says, “and I hope my grandson will see his father for the first time. That is why I risked my life to vote in 2002, and that is why I have voted again.” In the spring of 1995, Mr. Pandit’s 13-year-old son, Aijaz, crossed the Line of Control to train at a Hizb ul-Mujahideen camp in Pakistan. Mr. Pandit wasn’t surprised. Aijaz, though he had never been to school, aspired to a life more exciting that of his father - a small peasant who spent the summers tilling the family’s small plot of land, and the winters working on farms around Patiala, in Punjab. “I’d given him Rs. 10,000 just that March,” Mr. Pandit recalls, “and asked him to enjoy himself. But it wasn’t enough for Aijaz.” Late in 1995, Aijaz was infiltrated back into the State, and began serving with a Hizb ul-Mujahideen unit in the Shopian region. He soon realised, though, that the road he had taken led to certain death - and resumed contact with his family. In 1996, soon after the Assembly elections that marked an end to years of Central rule in the State, Mr. Pandit launched an effort to bring his son home. Helped by a newly-elected Member of the Legislative Assembly, Mr. Pandit arranged for the police to arrest his son - but go soft on his prosecution. After just nine months in prison, Aijaz succeeded in securing bail. Soon after, he married Bogund village resident Sakina Aijaz, and set about rebuilding his life. But Aijaz’s homecoming soon turned into a nightmare. The Hizb ul-Mujahideen unit with which he had served demanded Rs. 100,000 for the assault rifle he had surrendered to the police. Mr. Pandit was obliged to sell the family’s land to save Aijaz’s life. Despite handing over the Rs. 95,000 raised from the sale, though, the harassment from the Hizb ul-Mujahideen continued. Frustrated and fearful, Aijaz agreed to rejoin the jihadist group. He left for Pakistan once again in 1997. His son, Adnan Aijaz, was born two months later. Ironically enough, the Pandit family sends Adnan to a Jamaat-e-Islami-run school - an institution run by the political organisation which gave birth to the terrorist group which ruined the child’s father’s life. “We have no money,” Mr. Pandit says, simply, “the school pays for his uniforms and books.” Aijaz is now married again, to Rawalpindi resident Safina Aijaz, and has a two-year-old daughter, Munizae. His savings from driving buses and taxis, Mr. Pandit says with pride, have enabled him to start a small property business. Every few months, Aijaz writes home, enclosing photographs of his new family. “I don’t want to see photographs,” Mr. Pandit says, “I want to see my son. Unless we have peace, that will never happen. And unless we elect good leaders, we will never have peace.”