SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR - On the night of September 27, the Reshi family of Samboora, a village located in the south of Indian-administered Kashmir, went to bed unaware of a gun battle between Indian troops and separatist insurgents at the other end of their village.
When they woke up the next morning, their son, a militant, was dead.
“People told us that my son had been martyred,” Azzi Begum recalled as she sat in her living room.
“We did not receive any phone call from Aijaz when he was encircled by the security forces, nor were we approached by the authorities to convince him to surrender,” she added.
Security forces in the region sometimes bring family members to encounter sites to convince militants to surrender rather than fight to the death.
Hours later, family members were approached by police to identify the body.
“It was the first time I saw him in four years,” Begum told VOA, adding, “He did not visit home after joining the rebels because our area is surrounded by Indian troops on all side(s).”
Aijaz Ahmad Reshi had left his home in 2016, the year when the killing by security forces of a popular militant commander, Burhan Wani, led to riots and mass protests in Indian Kashmir.
He joined a Pakistan-based militant outfit, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), to fight the Indian control of Kashmir.
Kashmir, a Muslim majority Himalayan region, is a disputed territory between South Asian nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan. Both countries control parts of it and have fought multiple wars over it.
Muslims living in Indian Kashmir have long complained of human rights violations by the hundreds of thousands of security forces deployed in the area to maintain peace.
A separatist insurgency has simmered in the region for decades, flaring up every now and then when an incident triggers mass rallies and protests.
India blames Pakistan for enflaming unrest by training and sending militants from across the border to carry out attacks on Indian security forces.
After Reshi’s body was identified, officials told the family they could not take it home. Instead, it would be taken to north Kashmir for burial. The funeral was restricted to family members only.
Militant funerals in Kashmir have been a concern for Indian authorities for many years. They routinely turn into anti-India political rallies attended by tens of thousands. The bodies of the militants, often draped in the Pakistani flag, are carried out as processions that usually chant pro-freedom, pro-Pakistan and anti-India slogans.
People, including women and children, negotiate their way through large crowds to have a last glimpse of the insurgents, often touching their face and feet as a sign of respect.
A 2018 intelligence report from Jammu and Kashmir police said the “glamorous funerals of killed militants glorify militancy,” and must be “prevented” to avoid Kashmiri youth from joining the insurgency ranks.
Since April this year, citing the spread of COVID-19, Indian authorities have stopped giving bodies of militants to their families. The change in policy started after thousands of people attended the last rites of local militant commander Naseer Ahmad Teli in north Kashmir’s Sopore town.
Rights activists have called that a violation of rule 114 of the Geneva Convention dealing with the “Return of the Remains and Personal Effects of the Dead’ in wartime or armed conflict. Locals have labeled the practice “shroud theft.”
Indian authorities refute the accusations.
"It is incorrect to say that we don't give bodies of militants to their families. The bodies are given to them, but burials don't take place the way they used to happen," said Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police Dil Bag Singh.
He said prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, militants would form large crowds.
"Their (militants) priority in funerals was to emotionally blackmail people and to motivate them so that they could recruit more people in the terrorists’ ranks," he added.
In August, the militants retaliated.
An Indian army soldier, Shakir Manzoor Waghay, was returning from a visit to his family in south Kashmir. The militants abducted him and set his vehicle on fire. Days after the abduction, the militants claimed they had killed him but would not return his body.
“We can’t return the body to avoid the spread of coronavirus at his funeral,” an audio message from the militants said. “We performed his last rites the same way as government forces do when they deny bodies of militants to their families and bury them in unmarked graves.”
At least one other similar case has been reported.
Families of militants told VOA burials in far flung areas made it difficult to visit their graves. “Not everyone can afford to re-visit,” said a cousin of a militant wishing not to be named.
“If funerals pose a threat of spreading COVID-19, why are hundreds of people allowed at funerals of security people killed by militants? Why are official ceremonies held for them?” he further asked.
When Altaf Hussain, a police constable, was killed by militants in central Kashmir in October, Indian media reported that hundreds of people participated in his funeral prayers in Srinagar.
Kashmir based political analyst Sheikh Showkat said that every dead body had a right to a decent burial.
“Dead bodies can’t be denied to families using COVID-19 as an excuse,” Showkat said.
“If COVID-19 poses a risk in the burial of combatants of one side, it should be true for the other side as well,” Showkat added. “Geneva Convention should be implemented without any discrimination.”