Kulgam, Indian-administered Kashmir – On Friday evening, Shoaib Bashir Mir called his friend Muhammad Abbas from an apple orchard in Avil village in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Kulgam district.
Mir asked Abbas to upload a video he had made on social media. In the video, the 24-year-old had recorded his last message.
“I am sacrificing myself for all those teachers who have been deprived of their salary for two and a half years now, so their problems are solved… My father’s salary has been withheld and our life has become wretched beyond imagination,” he said, his voice choking.
Mir, who was in the second year of his master’s degree in psychology, said he was ending his life by consuming poison and asked his family to be patient.
Mir was taken to a hospital in the main city of Srinagar, where he died two days later.
Mir’s death brought to light the plight of government employees in Indian-administered Kashmir, including his father Bashir Ahmad Mir, whose salaries have not been paid for years because of their past links with the armed rebellion in the disputed region.
The Himalayan region of Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, who rule over portions of the Muslim-majority territory but claim it in full, since the two nations gained their independence from British rule in 1947.
When an armed rebellion against Indian rule took shape in Indian-administered Kashmir in the early 1990s, thousands of young Kashmiris crossed over to the Pakistani side to undergo arms training.
Thousands of rebels have since died in gun battles with Indian security forces, while hundreds gave up arms. Those who surrendered were inducted into government services in the past two decades.
However, the situation changed after India in 2019 scrapped the region’s special status and brought it under the federal government’s control.
Since then, New Delhi has tightened its grip over nearly 500,000 government employees, citing the “state security”. In the past two months, at least six Kashmiris were terminated from their jobs.
In the region’s education department alone, officials say there are nearly 150 teachers whose salaries have been withheld for nearly two years, 65 of them ex-rebels like Mir’s father, Bashir.
Bashir sits in a small tent on their lawn in Avil as mourners stream to his house.
Police records show that Bashir is a former rebel who crossed over to Pakistan for arms training in the early 1990s.
According to the records, he was arrested in 1996 under the Public Safety Act, a law under which a person could be jailed for up to one year or more without bail. In December 1999, a local court acquitted him of all charges.
He was appointed a temporary teacher for the meagre monthly salary of 1,500 Indian rupees ($21) for the first five years. In 2013, his services were made permanent, with the police report referring to him as “presently silent and busy with his job”.
“My husband worked really hard as a teacher. He teaches tribal kids. Even in times of online classes, he goes to their homes because they don’t have a smartphone,” Bashir’s wife Jameela told Al Jazeera at their home.
“Even the police in its report said he was busy with his job,” she said, adding that her husband was receiving his salary regularly till March 2019 when it was stopped by the department for “re-verification of his past links with militancy”.
Jameela said her son was “forced to take an extreme step” of taking his own life because of the “government’s harassment of the poor like us”.
Bashir’s family had been strained financially in order to meet the educational expenses of their three children. Mir was pursuing his master’s, his older brother Ehsan recently completed his engineering course, while their younger sister is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in arts.
Jameela said they had taken an educational loan for the children, and that they are unable to pay it now.
“Both of my sons got education after we got the loan but now we have no resources to pay back. In recent days, the bank has been making calls asking us to pay. My son felt frustrated and helpless,” she said.
After consuming poison in the orchard, according to Jameela, Mir walked to his home a kilometre (0.6 miles) away and hugged her for the last time.
“His face had turned pale and his eyes looked black. I asked him what happened. He just said: ‘Mother, why are we so poor?’” Jameela said.
“I held him close and said we are healthy and we will overcome these hardships. I cried and screamed but he had already lost his voice. These were his last words to me.”
Abbas, Mir’s best friend in the village who studied in the same class, told Al Jazeera his friend was supposed to pay 2,500 rupees ($34) for the last semester of his master’s course, but he had no money.
“I saw him doing all kinds of odd jobs, driving a tractor, lifting cow dung in the fields, carrying bricks, teaching kids, picking apples but still he was unable to make ends meet. He would study at night and do all the jobs during the day,” Abbas said.
“He would hide from the village shopkeepers whom he owed money, he would promise them that he would pay once his father’s salary comes but it didn’t come. He was not dishonest, only unable to fulfil his word.”
The region’s director of school education, Tassaduq Mir, told Al Jazeera a number of teachers had been transitioned in 2019, which meant they had to be re-verified.
“There was a transition of teachers in 2019 from one scheme to another and as per the order, there had to be a verification like you do for new appointments. The department acts as per government directions,” he said.
“Now, the government will decide whether his (Bashir’s) report is adverse or not. After this incident, I have briefed the government in detail about the issue.”
Another official who was privy to the recent developments regarding government employees told Al Jazeera, on condition of anonymity, that there is a “belief in the new establishment that some former rebels got jobs by getting their verification reports altered”.
“The exercise has been started to assess such cases and weed out such elements,” he said.
Rafiq Ahmad Rather, chairman of the local union the Teachers Forum, said many teachers are not getting their salaries despite performing their duties.
“If you are asked to render services for free of cost, it is injustice,” he told Al Jazeera.
Rather said the employees are not being paid despite working in the middle of a pandemic and “risking their lives, giving assignments to the students and providing them with midday meals”.
“There is one teacher whose mother is a cancer patient and his father is sick but he has no money to buy medicines for them. I have been pleading with the government for them for the last two years,” he said.
“We know they had links of militancy, but when they got their jobs, they were given clearance by the government. They don’t have any cases against them currently.”