The Shocking Tale Of Half Widows And Half Orphans: Enforced Disappearances In Kashmir!

Posted on December 17, 2013 in Specials

By Ana Kandwal:

While I was in Kashmir, I was hoping to witness the beauty of the paradise but what I witnessed instead were the gloomy stories hiding behind a beautiful veil. Seldom does any tourist, who visits Kashmir to feel the beauty around Dal lake, houseboats, Gulamarg and Sonmarg get to feel the touch of reality. I am quite sure that people have observed the disturbance which one can sense now and then, which comes with the endless Indian military convoys that passes by or the sight of jawans or Jammu Kashmir police supervising at every nook and corner, and of course those graffiti that one can see sprayed up on the walls, especially near Lal Chowk that talks about the stories of rebellion and revolutions that are enough to give jerks and prick in your rose tinted glass.

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We sensed the same fear, disturbance, confusion and were incapable to understand the setting. But as they say, ignorance is bliss. We preferred to move ahead by making assumptions about the natives of Kashmir to calm down our conscious. I think we have become habitual of making assumptions. Isn’t it the easiest way to run from the reality or from our duty? Or maybe we are fed to assume since childhood, turning us into ‘Educated Zombies’ who believe in things that established institutions want us to believe, who see things just the way they teach us to see. Since childhood, we were taught that Kashmir is a part of India, that it’s a paradise on earth. What we were never taught was that Kashmir is a disturbed area where people still believe in not living under colonized rule. What we were never taught is that Manipur is a disturbed area. What we were never taught is of the reasons why such things actually take place. What is it and why some people want self determination? What is it and why some people want to repeal AFSPA? We were never taught that there are Dalits who are still living under slavery. We were never taught that why actually Naxalism took its birth. We were taught only beautiful things that made us patriotic and anyone or anything that talks against these beautiful teachings or tried to cross check the reality are labeled as anti-national.

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And here I was, at the place which gave me many reasons to be bothered. I was ripped off my own so called identity and beliefs.

The Kashmir that I always believed to be mine was not so mine. Till Jammu, everything was just like India but when we reached Srinagar, I started sensing that I am in a different country. There was nothing like India except that the Indian military could be seen at each and every place. Our whole lives we read something, accepted somethings and the reality seemed to be starkly different. Something that shocked me was the graffiti on the walls stating ‘Go India Go’, ‘Free Kashmir’, ‘1947: Indian independence or occupation?’, ‘Revolution is loading’, ‘AFSPA license of offence’ etc. I was aware of the disturbance in Kashmir valley through all those media news which we get to hear of but was completely ignorant about this different angle of the whole issue. It did hit me hard when I realized that the natives of Kashmir consider Indian military as colonizers. I was filled with disgust, sadness and to be honest, with anger too. Just like any other Indian, I was unable to understand what is it that makes these people hate India so much? They have been part of us since so long, then why do they want to separate or what is it they really mean when they say Indian military should stop atrocities on them. Yes, I did hate them for being so because they made me feel like a stranger in my own country. I took this as their sheer anxiety to merge with Pakistan. But I knew just the one side of the coin and was on the course to understand the other side which most of us Indians deny to see.

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That day on the cold yet a bit sunny morning, on 10th November to be precise, I went out to roam the streets of Kashmir with my friends. It was a perfect weather, cold yet the sun had started shining its warm rays on us. I had started to fall in love with the place in spite of all the differences. We were walking around Lal Chowk and as we passed by the cloth stalls put up on footpaths; on our left hand side there was this park where we saw this view. There was a group sitting in a circle holding pictures and posters of men and boys. Just behind them, there was a huge poster with the sketches of faces of men; each face different from the other but the thing that seemed common about them was they all looked forgotten, hazy, and gone. Our curiosity took us into the park where those people sat silently holding pictures while some media persons roamed around taking pictures. The group comprised more of women and a few men. Women were draped in Pheran and covered their heads with hijab. Some people also got their children along with them.

All these people looked tired, exhausted and most of them possessed uncountable wrinkles on their faces symbolizing their wrinkled hopes. I also saw one man who must be in his 60s taking medicine, when someone standing near me offered him biscuit showing concern about his declining health, the man declined plainly saying –‘ab hamari zindagi me bacha hi kya hai kharab hone ko.’ (‘There is nothing left in my life to get worse.’)

And here I wondered what it could be? Who are these people on posters? And why are these people sitting here holding these pictures? Just then I saw a board stating ‘No one shall be subjected to enforced disappearance.’ Above the poster there was a palm drawn on its left side, but the palm had only four fingers on it. It seemed like the finger had deliberately been cut or had gone missing leaving the whole palm in chaos and incomplete without it. They were those who had been fighting for justice since years to know the whereabouts of their loved ones but in vain. Mothers, sisters, wives and fathers of the disappeared have organized themselves in bringing peace and justice to the disappeared ones and hold peaceful protest on every 10th of the month.

By conservative estimates, there are around 1,500 half widows in Kashmir. Half widows illustrate one of the starkest forms of the general insecurity in Kashmir. The term ‘Half Widow’ is very common in the valley. Those women whose husbands have ‘disappeared’ but not yet been declared deceased or whose husbands’ whereabouts remain unknown are labeled as half widows. Similarly, those children whose fathers have ‘disappeared’ but not yet been declared deceased are said to be ‘Half Orphans’. Out of the 1,417 it was the Indian armed forces that picked out male members of the family from their own houses in a search and cordon operations. Moreover, most of the disappearances have occurred in the rural areas where a woman is still struggling for empowerment.

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Moreover, the women have to depend on the next in kin or their in-laws, their property custody rights are largely undermined. Further, the uncertain nature and duration of the absence opens women to scrutiny and policing by their society as well as threats, extortion, and manipulation by those in external positions of power. Many a times the half-widows are forced to leave their in-laws’ house and settle back into their own, and at both the place they are seen as economic burdens. Many a times they are rendered homeless and even if they do get ex-gratia from governments, it is seized either by the in-laws or by the paternal family. Some half widows are also left with no options but to beg on streets. Generally, the half widows end up envying widows, as at least the latter one receives some form of administrative relief, even if the legal system stalls and fails.

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Besides the violence inflicted directly on their bodies, women also face other forms of gender violence. Direct violence is proportionately inflicted on males because they are imagined as threats, resulting in indirect suffering for females, as is reflected in the experiences of the half widows.

I will narrate some experiences that I got to encountered personally while I interacted with half widows and half orphans. The half widow Yasmeen (name changed) told me that hers was a love marriage, after 11 years of marriage her husband disappeared leaving her and three children behind. Her eyes were moist when she said she still remembers the last goodbye. She used to work in homes as a cook but was genuinely worried about her elder child who is very aggressive and goes through psychological ups and downs due to their painful and distinct history. She said these problems are common among half orphans as they inculcate the feeling since childhood that injustice has been done to them and it turns them into an aggressive youth. Now, her only wish is to get justice and to see her children well settled in their life.

Another woman said that her husband disappeared and whenever they hear of unidentified mass graves in the valley, they shiver with the thought that they might find their dear ones in these new found graves. It’s a traumatic feeling for them; on the one hand they want to know the truth and on the other they wish not to see them dead. The hardest part they say is this endless wait. They have been waiting since years and reached nowhere.

Its not that the people have been disappeared just by the military, there are even cases where people have been picked up by militants. According to a woman “The militants took him saying that he was an army informer. If he was, wouldn’t we at least have a pucca (concrete) house to show for it?” (Interview report by Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons).

This shows the picture of innocent Kashmiri civilians who are mashed up between the wars. A woman told me that she doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘freedom’. She said I don’t understand what they are fighting for? If the fight for this so called freedom leads to blood and where our dear ones are slaughtered, we don’t want this freedom. She said for her, freedom means ‘justice’, which the Indian Government has consistently denied us.

In between 1989-2009, the actions of India’s military and paramilitary forces in Kashmir have resulted in 8,000 enforced and involuntary disappearances and 70,000+ deaths, including through extrajudicial or “fake encounter” executions, custodial brutality, and other means. Lawyers have reportedly filed 15,000 petitions since 1990, inquiring, largely unsuccessfully, into the location and health of detainees and the charges against them.

“Mourning the dead is a usual repetition of opposition amid Kashmir civil society. The conventional and recognized cemeteries that hold Kashmir’s dead are maintained and cared for by local people and organizations. Alongside these cemeteries are other clandestine graveyards, often unnamed, unmarked and undecorated. They exist amid habitations, next to schools and homes, by the roadside and town square, in prayer grounds and forests, at the edges of fields and community cemeteries across rural and urban space.” (Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked and Mass-Graves in Indian Administered Kashmir; International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian administered Kashmir)

Today, 7000 unmarked graves exist in the Indian administered Kashmir. According to a recent finding, in a particular district of Kashmir, 53 graves were found and after the exhumation of the bodies it was found that 49 bodies were of the local villagers of the nearby villages who had disappeared, 3 were unidentified and 1 was that of a militant. The finding itself is so chilling that it shows the extent of the violation of human rights and the degree of the ignorance of the institutions and urges the Indian government to cease such activities and call for justice. There is no denial that in many graveyards, unmarked graves may exist of militants but such eye opening figures do raise questions on grounds of humanity. A grave digger, Atta Mohammad of Bimyar, has buried 235 bullet ridden unidentified bodies, which includes a six month old girl. He is the 70+ year old witness of tyranny, continues to testify the truth about the dark days despite various ailments and abject poverty. This bullet ridden body of the six month old girl is the concrete answer to government’s claim that all those people who were disappeared were only militants. The government denies justice to people under this claim .

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This research into unknown, unmarked, and mass graves was conducted by the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir between November 2006 and November 2009. The graveyards we investigated entomb bodies of those murdered in encounter and fake encounter killings in between 1990-2009. The graves are hyper-present in the local imaginary, but rarely spoken of in public. As a gravedigger in a rural town stated, “They [graves] are there to be noticed and to make us fear them [security personnel]. We all know what they are, where they are, but we cannot say so. To speak of them is treasonous.”

Today, Kashmir continues to be a disturbed area in spite of the decline in militancy as that claimed by the state and central institutions. I, at no level, disregard the fact that Kashmir has seen loss of our soldiers who have fought bravely to defend India against foreign invasion but atrocities and tortures of such large magnitude cannot be accepted nor can they be ignored especially keeping the charters of human rights into consideration, and also the Indian constitution into sight which protects and provides inalienable rights to all the citizen. Moreover, something that I keep thinking is; who has really gained out of this war? We lost our soldiers and civilians keep dying and keep living in fear. Indians are scared to settle down in Kashmir or even visit Kashmir. Arms can win no love, no hearts; as we can clearly see through the shattered picture of Kashmir. A coin has two sides and many of us have read of the beautiful side with a shining history but have ignored the other side of the coin that I have brought out here and which has consistently been cast aside and trodden upon to hide it from the world. To talk about the reality is the least we can do.

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