‘Shroud Stealer’ Returns in Kashmir’s Swoop Series


Representational Photo

Back-to-back bank heists and political shifts have resuscitated a slang tossed at some social outcasts in Kashmir’s contemporary conversations.

GROWING defection and disintegration of his patron’s party has left Mushtaq Amin bitter. In the troupe retreat rendering ranks of his outfit hollow, this city foot-soldier sees the resurrection of the bygone tribe known for their riggings and regroupings.

“If our ship is sinking today,” Amin says, “the blame goes to those ‘Kafan Chuurs’ (shroud stealers) who once used to break bread with our patron for their political launchpading.”

The resounding phrase further resurfaced in Kashmir talks amid the recent wave of bank robberies in the valley.

“Although these money heists are nothing new, but their frequency in the highly-guarded ‘Naya Kashmir’ is troubling,” says Shariq Mehraj, a banker from south Kashmir. “It seems as if ‘Kafan Chuurs’ have returned to rob from poor Kashmiris battered by back-to-back lockdowns.”

Legend has it that the slang was often used in bygone Kashmir to describe opportunists and aggressors. However, the history behind this name-calling seems stranger than the name itself.

Back in Dogra days, as “patrons of resistance” found themselves hanged from the fabled bridges or jailed in the dirty dungeons for their defiance, one GA Rather of Srinagar, it’s said, started spreading the “Kafan Chuur” connotation.

But this wasn’t the first time that Kashmiri locals had come up with this form of resistance against the “band of bandits”.

In the early years of Kashmir’s subjugated history filled with persecution of the locals, when the Mughals interred their legs in Kashmir affairs—after Yousuf Shah Chak was overthrown and exiled by emperor Akbar—local population was lucrating through their resources.

But when the crown raised its scorns, even though the economy was profitable, a sense of terror gradually started to instill among the locals resulting into defiance that was soon crushed by the monarchy’s musclemen.

The population was barred from challenging the Mughal autocracy, which gradually became the reason for the rise of “Pougi Moa’gal” (Petty Mughal) connotation.

“When challenging the establishment became a crime,” says Javeed Aziz, a Kashmiri scholar studying Medieval Kashmir, “the physical resistance became extremely difficult. So, such terms that highlighted the ghoulishness of the rulers gained more and more popularity among the locals.”

GA Rather had already informed his confidants about the larger consequences of using “Kafan Chuur” against any of the patrolling royal guard, regime’s local enforcers.

The hothead, as Rather’s son Abdul Ahad terms him, wasn’t the originator of these words but had heard them from a local baker who was later hanged from a bridge. “The baker’s body was kept hanging for seven days,” says Ahad, a retired tourism official.

Whenever these crown enforcers would pass through Srinagar, the defiant Kashmiris hiding inside the serpentine alleys of Dalgate would shout “Kafan Chuur ha draav” (Shroud stealer has set off).

This reciprocation within just a few days of its reuse, spread like a wildfire across the area and made its way into the Maharaja’s court.

Nav Narayan, one of the most important people of the regime in the valley, on a pitiful day was called into the courtyard of Maharaja Hari Singh.

Singh’s sources had informed him about Narayan’s illegal activities of looting from the royal treasure. The monarch, immediately after seeing Narayan in his court, asked the police to lock him in the dungeon. But the monarch’s anger turned vicious when Narayan shouted back: “Kafan Chuur”.

In return for his challenging words, Nav Narayan was decreed with a death penalty and hanged from the same bridge where he had read the decree for the baker.

“Words like ‘Kafan Chuur’ stemmed from the suppressive atmosphere of the valley and were enough to anguish and trouble the evil rulers,” continues Ahad while reliving his childhood memories.

Even though many considered this a futile way of passing their time while being confined in their houses or in their business, for GA Rather these words represented a full-fledged resistance against the ruthless regime.

While the exact origin of this connotation remains another shrouded chapter in the chequered history of Kashmir, chronicler Zareef A. Zareef believes that “Kafan Chuur” was just a mythological character that had made its way into the vale’s turbulent politics through Persian and Urdu languages.

“There’s no concrete evidence in the few shrouded chapters in Kashmir’s history,” Zareef, seconded by some scholars, says. “The only available evidence one can find, is the word of mouth.”

Interestingly, “Kafan Chuur” made its entry into Kashmir at the same time when the population was being fed upon by the regime raised dirty-men, that accustomed a dreadful character that the locals had given a loathsome name, “Mar’ri Watul”.

They were a bunch of musclemen, who were patronized by the monarch to instill fear among the masses but as the rumours had it, they were not the only enforcers raised to prey upon the already manhandled locals.

“Whenever a dead was buried inside a cemetery, a person during the ambient darkness would exhume the dead body and remove its white shroud called Kafan in Kashmiri,” says writer ZG Mohammad, who had also heard the story of shroud stealers from a word of mouth of his elders.

“The dead body would then be left naked on the ground for the next day until the grave-diggers had informed relatives of the dead.”

The same shroud that the dead was robbed of, was later on, sold to a cloth merchant who would have paid a few pennies to the dreadful character.

The obscurity of these “Kafan Chuur” was such that people had already started to imagine that this new dreadful tribe that had unleashed its terror on the dead, was another ghoulish character raised by the Dogras to suppress the Muslim populated region.

But when the Dogra rule perished in the petrifying fall of 1947, many of the regime’s dirty men absconded forever but the obscure “Kafan Chuur” had once again made its way into early nineties when an “emergency emissary” arrived in the defiant valley.

Through the dark misty clouds, dense fog and on ground waiting cops, guard of honour and the civil servants, on the night of January 19, 1990, Mufti Sayeed’s “go-getter” finally landed in the erstwhile state. Among his host was inspector Shafi.

“When I saw him coming, I told my colleague, ‘Kafan Chuur hai aav’ (The shroud stealer is here),” says Sheikh, now in his early 70’s and retired.

“That reaction wasn’t an abrupt resentment but had a long, blurry history that still perennials in Kashmir.”

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Zaid Bin Shabir

A media graduate from LPU, Zaid Bin Shabir is a Srinagar based journalist whose works have appeared in many local and international publications.

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