Zulm, Zakhm, Azaadi … The Voices of Kashmiri Women
Today is sixty days of the clampdown in the Kashmiri Valley.
A four-member team from Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) (Kiran Shaheen, Nandini Rao, Pramodini Pradhan and Shivani Taneja) visited Kashmir Valley from September 23-28, 2019. The aim was to interact with people, especially women and children, to listen to their voices and understand the present conditions since the abrogation of Article 370 by the Indian government.
The team traveled across the districts of Srinagar, Shopian to the South and Kupwara and Baramullah to the North. We were able to speak to people of various walks of life – older and younger women stuck in their homes, school teachers, hospital functionaries, hawkers, scrap-dealers, roadside vendors, shopkeepers, orchard owners, taxi drivers, auto drivers, lawyers, journalists, activists and school and college students. We visited villages and mohallas as well as schools, courts and hospitals. The visits were made at random and were not guided by anyone. We consider the views we share as being fully independent.
The entire Valley is reeling under a silence that is anything but normal. Security forces stationed at every few meters ensure terror in people’s minds about who they can speak to, who can step outside the home etc. The risks of being picked up are real. People are hesitant to speak about everyday realities to the media or to anyone for fear of being visited in the evening either by the JK police or any of the security forces (including the Indian army, Border Security Force and Central Reserve Police Force) positioned in the Valley, threatened and possibly detained. This has been the experience of many. Freedom of speech has been severely curtailed. Speaking out and sharing stories that cast doubts on the official narrative invites the wrath of the forces.
The Indian state and the Indian media refuse to acknowledge the pulse of the people as expressed in their demands and protests. Zulm (oppression), apne gharon mein qaid (jailed in our own homes), zakhm jinka koi marham nahi (wounds that are beyond healing) and azaadi (freedom) are the words on everyone’s lips, irrespective of age or gender.
The act of abrogating Articles 370 and 35A has been a crucial blow to India’s relationship with Kashmiris. They see the abrogation and the revocation of these constitutional provisions as an assault on Kashmiris by the Indian government. Many drew attention to the manner in which it was done: no consultation with Kashmiris, no scope for debate and discussion in the Parliament and the timing (just before Eid-al-adha, right before winter sets in, during the peak season for education and economic activities). This has created a sense of anger, outrage and strong anti-India feelings among people across the Valley.
People understand that in many ways, over the years, Article 370 has been shorn of any real substance. Even so, the abrogation is seen as a final nail in the coffin – a ploy to take away property and other resources and open the gates for non-Kashmiri people to occupy their land. This view has been bolstered by repeated assertions and statements made by elected representatives and public figures.
Today marks sixty days of the shutting down of mobile phone and Internet services across the Valley. People are constantly anxious as they cannot communicate with loved ones within Kashmir or with those who live outside. The government claims that landline connections have been restored. However, the majority of the limited connections that exist are in government offices, army camps and police stations, and not with common people. Students’ internet-based studies, filling of forms or any regular communication which is the norm of the 21st century, have been curbed by the state. If there had been communication blockades in any other city for even a few days, there would have been chaos and a flurry of response from media and state functionaries. But there’s been no response to their plight.
People are furious with the Indian media for disseminating wrong and absolutely misleading news about Kashmir by showing a “return to normalcy” that the state wants to project. The broadcast of such news is seen as an outcome of the propaganda machinery of the Indian government. There is no formal gagging or censorship of media in Kashmir, but in actual terms, press freedom has been curtailed in many ways. There is strict surveillance on journalists and they get phone calls in their offices from the police/authorities if they write anything different from the line taken by the “mainstream” media.
Our experiences were very different from what the Indian state and media have portrayed. Far from the truth of 5 detentions of minors, as was claimed by the High Court appointed Juvenile Justice Committee, the team met various families where children had been picked up, detained and sometimes tortured for days. Some are sent back home in a state of terror and others continue to be in the custody of the security forces without any official entry being made of their detention. Those who have been formally arrested are usually slapped with the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA). Families do not know whether their young men and boys are being detained in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan or Haryana. Demands ranging from Rs. 6000 to 2 lakhs are often made from families to release their relatives from the clutches of the forces.
An elderly man was informed that his nephew was in Agra, but the women in the family could not go to meet. Only two men could go, and they were not even allowed to speak to the detained nephew in their own language. Another woman sat quietly with tears in her eyes; her husband had been in army custody for almost a week with no recourse to the law. These few interactions were indicative of the plight of many women like her.
Faced with such repression and clampdown on their basic rights, people have been on hartal or strike. Economic activities have come to a halt, with unpicked apples ripe on trees, as people protest the Centre’s move. In some pockets, we saw shops being opened for two hours early in the morning for bare essential purchases. But the clampdown is evident for all by about 9 a.m. Educational institutions are shut down, with all schools and colleges being boycotted. Some government teachers said they went to the school for sake of marking attendance. Public transport has completely stopped. Courts have low attendance with clients unable to reach there. Although hospitals are functioning, people go only there in case of serious ailments. Even those with private vehicles find it difficult to commute safely or to inform relatives. A government functionary or an entrepreneur or a professional or ordinary people; everyone is upset. They say children and work is suffering, but they have all suffered for generations now; there has to be a final resolution and therefore they will continue the hartal.
But the Centre has remained apathetic to the suffering, silent protests and struggles of the people of Kashmir. Today, 2 full months later, political parties use this act to garner votes in state elections.
In some areas of Srinagar and in villages, forces have been barging into houses at night and picking people up. Women and girls live in constant fear of molestation and abuse. Across the areas we visited, they were terrified of speaking out, fearful of what the night would bring.
We met a young 10 year old girl, diffident amongst her playful siblings, who had been kicked around by the security personnel while asleep. In localities of Srinagar, women and girls would be sent to sleep in ‘safer’ zones where police raids were not so frequent. Due to fear and uncertainty related to the future, there is a severe impact on people’s mental and emotional health. The psychological stress caused by the continuing occupation has led to high levels of anxiety and depression levels. People consume anti-depressant drugs and carry them on their person at all times.
The repression on people is widespread. A person can be detained even while crossing the road, playing football, sleeping or having tea. News of deaths of women, men and minors came to us. In Srinagar, on his way back from football practice, a 17 year old boy was checking to see if the roads were open and if he could go for his tuitions, when the security forces encircled him. They pushed him into the river even though he kept pleading that he could not swim and he drowned. Two months later, not even a complaint has been filed as the police just ridicule and send his father away. What could possibly heal his parents, grandmother, siblings and family? How many more people have been whisked away in this manner? How many more will be eliminated? Who will give the people these answers?
The Indian security forces in Kashmir enjoyed complete impunity over the years and more so today. Cases of encounters, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, illegal detentions, torture, entering houses at any time of day or night, breaking windows and destroying property, use of pellet guns, has proved to Kashmiris that they do not matter to India. Impunity offered through AFSPA, PSA and other draconian laws, ineffective judicial mechanisms whenever justice is sought, and indifference continues unabated. It is thus today that many people have lost faith in the judiciary. They say that even habeas corpus petitions are not being heard by the J&K High Court.
This complete alienation was expressed time and again to the WSS team.
A young post graduate girl astutely said that if Kashmir is an integral part of India, then how come what is happening in one part of your body does not affect the others? Do Indians care about us? Another person wanted to know if two neighbours can decide what should be happening in my house? Why is our voice not being considered?
There was a young woman (about 19-20 years old) with deep sadness in her eyes, looking totally despondent and helpless. She aspired to study further and work outside the home, but was not sure if she ever would be able to. Her 12 year old brother had been picked up by the forces a few days ago and “returned” to his family in a state of terror.
A woman lawyer we met was talking about a village in Kupwara where the army barged into someone’s home. When the women protested this intrusion, the soldiers threatened them, “Do you know what happened in Kunan Pushpora? We will do the same with you all”.
It is in this context that many people cutting across all sections feel that azaadi is the only way to live a life of dignity. For the last 70 years they have seen what Government of India is doing to the people of Kashmir. In the last 30 years, thousands have lost their lives. They have had enough of detention, torture, terror and humiliation. Today, there are already signs that the repression of the 90s is coming back and in the absence of protection from the four pillars of democracy, people could be pushed towards militancy. India needs to listen to what people have to say about the way forward. On one hand, ripping off Jammu and Kashmir from its statehood and converting into two union territories, bringing it into direct control of the Centre and on the other hand, ordering for panchayat elections and suggesting decentralisation, is a joke on the Kashmiri sentiment.
The Kashmir Valley has a uniquely Kashmiri spirit. This is evident as they collectively stand together in the face of new challenges, in the way they respect women and people of all economic classes, even strangers like us, and tourists or migrant workers of all regions and religions. What is our Indian spirit? What do we stand for?
WSS believes that the way forward in Kashmir can only be carved out by the state listening to the voices and aspirations of the people, and responding to the demands they are making. WSS stands for the people of Kashmir to access their fundamental rights, including the most basic right to life, safety and equality, to speech and expression and to peaceful assembly, and more so ever, their right to self-determination. The Indian state needs to ensure justice in crimes committed by security forces who swarm across the Valley. The present situation is that it continues to be an “occupation” of Kashmir Valley with the use of force. The Kashmiris cannot be ruled on the might of the gun.
Conveners, WSS – Ajita, Nisha Biswas, Rinchin, Shalini Gera
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