A recent hanging of a dissident in Iran stirred up the nightmare of harrowing hangmen in “Iran-e-Sagheer”. Those forgotten characters of Kashmir’s executed past would drum death on the streets of Srinagar and direct oppressed people to show up as cheerleaders.
AS morning news on December 12, 2020 flashed the execution of an Iranian dissident Ruhollah Zam, Abdul Aziz, 84, instantly traveled decades back, in the tumultuous era of forties, when as a seven-year-old boy he was forced to witness “his life’s first public hanging”.
It was early 1940s and his homeland was reverberating with “Quit Kashmir” slogans—challenging the mighty Dogra regime in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.
In his hometown Kokar Bazaar, he would see his tribe quivering in fear when frightening Parag Watul would proclaim: “Aaj Khash-Khash Bagh meai Phansi Ha” (Today, hanging will take place in Khash Khash Bagh).
The death-drummer would leave behind a trail of terror and commoners would coop in their houses like frightened chickens.
But in Dogra-dominated Kashmir, such ghoulish street specters were a different Olympus, where participation of the public was made mandatory by monarch.
In that circa of political circus, Aziz saw Parag Watul vanishing from the scene after raising his petrifying pitch.
Bogeyman in Town
In the city where defiant as well as tax-burdened souls would often find themselves hanging from the fabled bridges, the terror tribe of Parag Watul was being patronized on the regime order to instill fear among masses. Among those harrowing men was Boud’i Watul.
The legend of Boud’i Watul remains a shrouded chapter in Kashmir’s dreadful past. Some historians, in fact, draw parallels between this secret terror-militia raised by Hari Singh with Hitler’s Dirty Dozens.
“They were mindless bunch of musclemen who would do anything to protect the crown regime,” Yasir Amin, a history scholar researching on “Quit Kashmir” era, comments on Boud’I Watul. “It won’t be wrong to say that they were Kashmir’s band of bandits let loose to terror commoners.”
Boud’i Watul came from gravedigger community of the Central jail, who would show up as hangman in Khash Khash Bagh, whenever a condemned prisoner was to be executed.
Locals had a loathsome name for him—Mar’ri Watul—the slaughterer. Over the period of time, the name has stayed in Kashmir, making many believe that the hangman’s legacy is still intact.
As a full-time gravedigger and a part-time hangman, Boud’i Watul was the Dogra regime’s hatchet man. Some loose historic documents reveal that he would be paid according to the size of the convict.
“His ilk would stay low-key for a reason,” Yasir, the history scholar, continues. “Despite being dreadful, these dirty men of the regime had families. So they completed their job with complete secrecy without anyone knowing, except the jail authorities who knew about their uncovered reality, due to fear of divulging their real identity in front of the locals.”
After monarchy perished in the bloodcurdling fall of 1947, many hangmen would be rendered jobless in Sheikh’s “Naya Kashmir”. But after his dramatic arrest in 1953, and gradual erosion of the region’s autonomy, some of the regime’s dirty men would find another assignment, this time, in the middle of covert Operation Gibraltar.
That Summer Execution
Legend has it when Pakistani soldiers in plainclothes reached as far as to Secretariat in a bid to “liberate Kashmir”, Srinagar was getting ready for an uncanny execution.
In that tumultuous year of 1965, someone like Zareef Ahmad Zareef would be overwhelmed by the “word of mouth” bravado of Pakistani air-soldiers about whom it’s being said they even plucked Lotus from Nigeen.
But more than an eager war spectator, Zareef would dread witnessing the same notorious Boud’i Watul on the slaying job.
“That year Boud’i Watul was unleashed on a BSF inmate awarded a capital punishment in a fratricidal case,” Zareef recalls Kashmir’s flaring summer. “During his posting in Ladakh, that condemned paramilitary man had pulled trigger on his colleague and killed him.”
Soon the Boud’i Watul would seal his fate with his “Waqt ha Wou’ti” pitch.
“That high-pitch of Boud’i Watul was a unique way of invoking fear in the hearts and minds of the condemned prisoners,” Zareef, a living witness of Kashmir’s executive past, recounts.
In the times of some notorious band of bullies—like Bakshi’s Gogga—unleashed on the society, Boud’i Watul and his tribe were equally living up to their harrowing reputation.
“The condemned prisoner would dread and die once, but those alive would reel under the fear of hangman again and again,” the poet says. “They were demonic figures raised as the fear symbols.”
Inside Kashmir’s Blank Archives
Some dusted articles and moth-eaten books in Kashmir’s archives faintly detail some of the horrors unleashed by those hangmen on the strife-battered society when it was trying to set itself free from Dogra regime and getting into the groove of the new order inflicted by the bloody partition.
Exhaustive trips to Srinagar’s shrinking libraries didn’t yield any details about these hangmen. Even the custodians of these so-called treasure troves were oblivious about these characters.
“You’re knocking at a wrong door, son,” says one chief librarian. “We don’t have any such record here.”
Such curt refusals came from many others, suggesting that state archives have no room for Kashmir’s executed past. Why? Well, that’s some other story.
But whatever details one could find made it certain that the jail manual required no pre-or-post psychological counseling for the executioner except an indispensable knowledge of making noose and knots in the hanging rope.
Akin to Kashmir’s blank archives, prisons are equally devoid of details.
Even as it’s believed that Bou’di Watul alone hanged around 30 people over 25 years, no official data in this regard exists in his parent body—the Central Jail of Srinagar—where the current curators made it curt and quick: “We don’t have any such data.”
The last officially-recorded hanging in Kashmir took place in the year 1935 but the testimonies from civilians indicate that hanging was a pertinent part of Kashmir even during the 1960s.
“I have a very bleak memory about the BSF man’s case but certainly he was hanged in Kashmir after 1960,” Ali Mohammed Watali, former DIG J&K, who survived the first militant strike during late eighties, says.
Inside Hanging Capital
When the day of BSF man’s hanging approached, Zareef makes mention of that momentous day in 1965, “one could see fear Boud’I Watul’s invoking in that BSF personnel. He looked benumbed with his rope-tied hands.”
One needs to understand the timing of that execution, a retired police officer, now spending his days playing golf with politicians and retired bureaucrats in Srinagar, says. “Kashmir was rallying for plebiscite movement and such occurrences would only cripple the gullible lots of the valley.”
In pre-1947 Kashmir, such public hangings would make Srinagar a hanging capital for many chroniclers.
Convicts on death sentence would be shipped from different parts of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir to Srinagar for execution.
This norm of Dogra era would stay as a tag with the Sun City where treacherous turn of events mostly made life uneasy for the natives.
Day of Hanging
Along with his playmates, Gul and Ismaal, Abdul Aziz rushed towards the Khash Khash Bagh to witness the first hanging in his life during “Quit Kashmir” era.
That day heavy traffic was piled towards the hanging ground as people desperately wanted to see the last glimpse of the murderer before execution. After exhausting themselves running, the trio boarded a Tonga that was traveling towards the gallows.
The tonga driver drove through the narrow street leading towards the Khash Khash Bagh where men from the nearby areas were “packed like sardines”, pouncing on each other for a sight of ground’s centrum. Opposite to them was a local bread-maker selling his freshly made bread and adjacent to him was a group of wailing women execrating the murderer.
That “condemned prisoner” was a Gujjar man from Doda living as tenant in Srinagar. He was accused of murdering his wife and the Civil Court of Srinagar headed by the then Judge Radha Krishan Koul and his jury members Mufti Azam Molvi Kaam Deen and Sanaullah Shawl had decreed him a death penalty.
The Gujjar-man after being lodged in dark dungeons of Central Jail was brought out of the condemned cells guarded by five local police warders – who got him ready for the gallows. He was wearing a white kurta-pajama, his hands were tied to a rope and his head hung in shame.
From the dungeons to the gallows, a warden had his hand consistently on the accused’s shoulder in a caressing manner.
On the gallows, Boud’i watul was entangling the noose and tightening another end of the rope to the top of the Phan’si Kou’t. This was his third noose in twenty-four hours. He had already tested his skills on two nooses a day before the hanging to ensure that the coir would hold the convict’s weight.
The accused was brought to the gallows with his hands tightly cinched and his head covered with a black cloth. The man was made to climb on to the wooden bench placed parallel to the noose before Boudi’ Watul had put the “hangman’s knot” around the doomed neck.
Concealing his identity with a tightly wrapped cloth on his face, hangman Boud’i came closer to the convict’s bench and solemnly asked the cleric standing near the gallows to recite Kalima.
The venerated Muslim cleric promptly turned his face towards the gigantic mass of people and loudly recited the Kalima. The Islamic phrase came to an end and so did the breath of the convict.
Boud’i had vigorously kicked the wooden bench from the convict’s underneath. The doctor, who was mandatorily supposed to be present whenever a hanging was scheduled, checked the pulse of the convict. After sharing his conclusion with the jail superintendent, the condemned Doda convict was declared dead.
“After the hanging, these hangmen would flee in such a manner that no one ever perceived their real identity and maybe no one will ever know the reality behind the disguise of a Mar’ri Watul,” recalls Ghulam Nabi Khayal, Kashmir’s veteran writer of Progressive Writers Movement’s era.
While the crowd was contemplated with the hanging dead-body, Boud’i Watul had absconded, evading everyone’s gaze.
This secrecy is the reason why history books, among other things, don’t have a chapter called Mar’ri Watul of Kashmir.
Zeenish Imroz contributed reporting
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