For the anniversary of the International Day of the Disappeared, our writer reports on Kashmir’s “half widows” and their unaddressed needs, which threaten to fuel further insecurity in the volatile region and globally.
By **Mallika Kaur**
On the International Day of the Disappeared, which was observed on August 30, the International Committee of the Red Cross has noted that “[t]he tremendous impact that disappearances have on the daily lives and long-term prospects of the families, and indeed of entire communities, is still largely overlooked.” Overlooked also is how such apathy towards the “disappeared” in fact fuels the type of insecurity that continues to threaten sustainable peace. Kashmir’s “half widows” are a case in point.
Bilquees Begum* repeatedly asks whether my tea is too sweet. She smiles and adds how her husband Ahmed told her that city people liked their tea tasteless. But her smile disappears as she opens a brown suitcase, which the family keeps under lock and key. Inside are all the legal papers that Bilquees cannot read, but knows by heart.
Bilquees describes how her 35-year-old Ahmed “disappeared,” in front of his entire family, on July 20, 2003. “There was a wedding function in the family… And then, there was a raid. I responded to a knock on the door. When I got out, the Army was everywhere. They separated the male members of the family and started a parade… they asked, ‘Who is the eldest son?’ It was the 22 Rashtriya Rifles counterinsurgency division of the army. They took him in front of us all.” Bilquees and the family were told that Ahmed would be returned the next day, after some questioning. Eight years later, Ahmed has still not returned. “We recognize the men who came that night, we even know their names. We went and asked them and they refused knowing anything about my husband. We looked everywhere, we even rented a shikara [a Kashmiri raft, often seen in glossy tourist photographs of Srinagar’s Dal Lake], in case he was killed and his body thrown in the water.”
Bilquees is one of Kashmir’s “half widows”: a woman whose husband has been “disappeared” and never heard from again, leaving her shrouded in uncertainty as to her marital status. Enforced disappearances have been recorded in Kashmir since the early 1990s and local civil society groups, such as the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, estimate about 8,000 enforced disappearances and about 1,500 “half widows” in Kashmir.
Now, in August of this year, a State Government agency, the State Human Rights Commission, has announced the existence of “mass graves” in the Indian-administered Kashmir Valley: it has recorded multiple graves containing 2730 bodies. The report acknowledges that many of the graves contain civilians who had “disappeared”—574 of the 2730 have been identified as locals—rather than only “unidentified cross-border terrorists” as per the Indian government’s prior claims (even this official position is contrary to the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit torture and mutilation and call for proper burial of fallen combatants). While the skeletons in mass graves evidence suffering of the past, they are also stark reminders of continued suffering of women like Bilquees, who do not know whether their husbands are in the mass graves, or alive somewhere in captivity.
Bilquees shares her story in the family common room at much prompting by Haseena, Bilquees’s neighbor, also a “half widow.” Haseena explains that Bilquees’s in-laws are very wary of Bilquees talking about Ahmed with any “outsiders.” “They think if someone is going to give some money or help for Ahmed’s family, it should go to them. This happens with a lot of us, we aren’t seen as a part of the family anymore and the parents prioritize their own pain over ours.” Bilquees adds, “This is a poor family. There isn’t much, and we spent lots of money bribing army and police “messengers” to get us some information about my husband. Now, we have a legal case pending for some ex gratia relief… and though I have four kids, my father-in-law believes he is the rightful claimant to that relief… for his old age support. If they had more, perhaps they would take better care of me.”
The first road-block to concrete measures for improving the situation in Kashmir is the misidentification of the nature of the prevailing conflict.
Though Kashmir makes international headlines in the context of the Af-Pak tensions and the “war against terror,”civilians like Bilquees and Haseena exhibit the grave and growing insecurity in the region that continues to be unacknowledged and thus unaddressed. Symbolic gestures to the Muslim world; troop deployment in regions of increasing anti-Western sentiment; and diplomatic overtures toward countries made important by the geopolitical situation, all fail to address insecurity in Kashmir, the contested region between nuclear India and Pakistan and a symbol of anti-Muslim oppression for much of the Muslim world.
The first road-block to concrete measures for improving the situation in Kashmir is the misidentification of the nature of the prevailing conflict.
When asked about the “terrorism” in Kashmir, Haseena responds without hesitation, “Oh, there is no terrorism here… it’s not what you read in the Indian newspapers. It’s sons like mine, who have only seen broken promises since they were born, who are taking to the streets… Look, my younger son had walked out of our home here, just out of the house, and the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] beat him. The same thing happened with my elder one. He wasn’t throwing stones… why did they beat him? Because they [CRPF] are scared. They are scared the boys will come out hurling abuses and worse, stones. So they go from house to house picking up boys. And with the women, well, they misbehave.”
Haseena is referring to the violent unrest in 2010, when Kashmiri civilians, a majority of them young men, took to the streets in protests, demanding azaadi, freedom from India. These sustained protests lasted for months, and occurred much before the famed Arab Spring. Kashmiris, given their many summers and springs of civil disobedience, look quizzically at those commentators who wonder why the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere did not prompt a greater response in Kashmir: “The Indian government is not the Egyptian government,” said one young student at Kashmir University, under the condition of anonymity—her Facebook account is already strictly monitored, she went on to explain.
Haseena remembers, “When they were beating my sons, I threw myself on the boys, and then they hurled abuses at me. And do you want to see the time they hit me with a baton…? I have the mark. My sons know, our kids know, that we don’t just throw stones like that. But when we watch TV, or radio, or when all that has been shut by the government, and we just talk to people, it’s all about bloodshed. And my kids say, ‘This is all the same bloodshed that took our father… now, we want to fight this.’ So are these kids the terrorists India is scared of?”
The conflict in Kashmir, which has its roots in the 1947 decolonization and partition between the current states of India and Pakistan, entered its bloodiest phase in 1989. Popular disenchantment with the Indian electoral system spurred a groundswell movement for Kashmiri secession from India. Simultaneously, armed militants, some backed by Pakistan, became the violent face of the self-determination movement. Indian government passed security legislation giving armed forces sweeping powers to suppress insurgency and significantly fortified military presence in the region. The exceptional legal and militaristic treatment of Kashmir continues even today, though by the government’s own estimates, the number of active militants in the Valley does not surpass 500. The past 22 years of conflict have seen more than an estimated 70,000 dead.
In her assessment of the situation, Haseena does not comment on the armed militancy, which continues even today, at a comparatively miniscule scale. But her omission is not out of fear or even strategy, but rather honesty. In Srinagar, and now most of Indian-administered Kashmir, the conflict is not between armed militants and government forces. It is in a large part between Kashmiri civilians, disgruntled men, women, and children, and the government’s deployed forces.
“Disappearances” fuel disgruntlement. They are most often explained by the Indian government as cases of men having slipped across the Himalayas to Pakistan-administered Kashmir, for arms training. However, Kashmiris and human rights activists explain these “disappearances” as scare and punishment tactics of the armed forces—not unlike those employed by forces in Punjab or Argentina or Sri Lanka or the Philippines. “Now they say we didn’t disappear anyone. That is also a lie, clearly, because see all the dead bodies that have been found in mass graves? Who are those people… so many of them?” asks Haseena.
When I walk into Haseena’s home, she rushes to apologize for the mess of withered orange peels on a rickety plastic chair. Her one-bedroom home is otherwise spotless. Everything has a place, and every bit of space made the best use of. Haseena does several odd jobs to meet her family’s expenses. She makes paper bags from old newspapers for a neighborhood shopkeeper; does darning for a local tailor; and provides “beautification” at her home for local women who cannot afford beauty parlors but can afford her home-made orange peel “beauty scrub.” Haseena, or “beautiful,” thus seemed an apt pseudonym for this vibrant woman who lives with her two sons, 19 and 12, while her 15-year-old middle child is away at “hostel.” A hostel for children without fathers, she explains.
Haseena’s husband “disappeared” one morning nine years ago: “It was 2002. Militancy had decreased so much. And my husband was busy with his own work… he was a mason. That day, he left to find work in the Delhi. He said he would call from there. But I heard nothing. In those days there were no cell phones”—Haseena’s cell phone is obviously a prized possession; it rings frequently and she enjoys animated conversations—“and I didn’t know what happened to him. So I went looking at my in-laws. At other places. But found out nothing. The last person who saw him was a little girl on the first bus he had taken during his trip… he had given her some chewing gum. After he got off at Srinagar to change buses, no one saw him again.”
Attention to “disappearances” is a humanitarian as well as political imperative. The struggles of “half widows” may not make headlines, but their plight is urgent and present.
Haseena’s experience subsequent to her husband’s “disappearance” is not much different from the norm, she explains. “After I searched everywhere, I tried to file a FIR [First Information Report, a crime report the police are required to file]. The police kept sending me away saying this kind of thing was common… I should just wait for him to return. Two years later, a lawyer filed a writ for me for free, just for this FIR. That is still pending. And then, whenever I went to search in jails, the police men would give their advice, ‘get married again… you need a man to take care of you,’ and such nonsense. I began wearing a burqua to such places, to government offices. Who can take this constant lechery and disrespect?”
Bilquees also recounted her burqa-wearing days. “At one point I had to turn to begging on the streets to feed the kids. I wore a burqua for that…” Haseena interjected, “You must have read how ‘radicalism’ is on the rise among us Muslims here… but what about these women you see in burqas who are covering out of such necessities… to protect against the army men, or against social shaming by their neighbors?”
Bilquees’s daughter silently slips through the front door and sits beside her mother. Unlike the older woman, Sameena wears a hijab, a headscarf. When she hears Haseena Aunty’s burqa comment she chimes, “Well, do I look radicalized? Or oppressed by someone? I wear this because I am a proud Kashmiri Muslim. I am proud to be on the right side.” Haseena prompts Sameena to tell me about her “Brigadier Uncle.” “That man… no Uncle of mine! See, when I was about thirteen, and my father had just been taken, our entire family went to an Army camp to see a Brigadier, the highest officer we could dream of getting access to. He asked me to come forward. He asked me about school. My mother interjected, with folded hands, reminding him that it was my father that we were there about. He kept talking to me, told me to study hard, and that I would go far. Then he gave me a pen, as a present. I threw it at his head… really, it hit his nose!” Haseena chuckles as Bilquees looks at her daughter worriedly. “My mother scooped me up, but the Brigadier smiled and told my mother not to be scared. He gave me his mobile number and said he would look for my Papa… Actually, look, he probably felt bad for this little girl. These guys are humans. But what can I do for his pang of guilt? Forgive the Indian Army? Of course there are some good guys, but they’ve been sent here to do bad things, like take my father… petrify my entire neighborhood. People like him, in high places, need to tell India to stop sending them here to do such things!” Bilquees sent her daughter to the kitchen to make me a cup of namkeen (salty Kashmiri) chai. She worries Sameena’s temper and outspokenness will land her in much trouble in an environment where those who voice dissent are persecuted.
Haseena and Bilquees both believe that their society has been somewhat unfair toward them following the “disappearances.” “When people wanted to hurt me they say things like ‘your face was like this, which is why your husband disappeared.’ And my children have faced taunts growing up as well. They envy other children, who see their fathers, get things from their fathers, have security in their lives,” explains Haseena. “People are too afraid to voice anger against the actual perpetrators, so they turn against us… it’s easy, we are easy targets, aren’t we?” Bilquees adds quietly.
“Half widows” and their children are also an easily identifiable population for those seeking true engagement and change in Kashmir. In response to the mass graves report, Kashmir’s Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has proposed a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that will, among other things, “probe the disappearances [and] the issue of half widows.” However, urgent responses to the socio-economic situation of half widows are also needed: whether in the form of self-help groups that provide some financial independence through cottage industry, or scholarships for their school-age children (often removed from even government schools due to inability to pay for stationery or uniforms), or vocational training for them and their children. Similarly, the psychological trauma faced by “half widows” calls for immediate attention, both in the form of accessible medical treatment as well as remedies that provide truth as well as justice for the underlying reason of the trauma—the unresolved “disappearance.”
Attention to “disappearances” is a humanitarian as well as political imperative. The struggles of “half widows” may not make headlines, but their plight is urgent and present. Further, “half widows” represent various forms of insecurity, signify rights violations, and stand as a constant reminder of alienation, thus impeding resolution in Kashmir. The current cycles of violence in this strategically vital region will inevitably continue as long as closure remains elusive. “I dreamt of him just last week, walking into the kitchen, hungry for some food,” confesses Bilquees, still holding hope for Ahmed’s return, eight years later.
*Names changed for protection
Mallika Kaur (JD/MPP, Berkeley/Harvard) is a lawyer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the United States and South Asia. She traveled in Kashmir as the 2010-11 Harvard Sheldon Traveling Fellow, speaking to women and girls caught in the conflict.