The interviews included here were conducted by Pamela Bhagat for the Violence Mitigation and Amelioration Project (VMAP) being carried out by Oxfam in different parts of India. Under the gender subtheme in this project (and gender is only one of the aspects being explored), Oxfam is attempting to look at how the escalation of ‘collective’ (i.e. not individual) conflict in India in the last several years is impacting on the lives of women, and through this to locate ways of preventing, resolving or ameliorating conflict.
Kashmir is one of the regions where interviews were done with women who have lived through conflict, and each interview draws our attention to different and often overlapping aspects of the situation. For example, while we have often seen women as victims of conflict we have not paid much attention to how, when conflict and violence become a way of life, they draw women too into the ambit of violence. Similarly, when men in the family are drawn into or willingly participate in conflict, the task of keeping the family together falls on the women.
In Kashmir, many women have lost sons either to the militants or to the security forces; as a result several of them have decided they do not wish to expose their children to the same dangers and children have been pulled out of school and kept within the home. Because money is short, children are often then put to work inside the home, thereby adding to the numbers of child labourers. Interviews in the valley and in the Kargil area have shown how the different kinds of conflict taking place there affect the health of women and how, when medical services are reduced or absent (many doctors and other medical personnel have actually left Kashmir) there are serious, long-term effects on women’s health.
Nor does conflict affect only the principal communities involved in it: thus, while the Kashmir conflict may be, at one level, a religious battle between two communities, there are others – Christians, Sikhs, Parsis – on whose lives the situation has had a deep impact. One of the aspects of conflict that needs to be addressed is that of the loss of family members: how do families cope with such losses? How can they accept disappearances as ‘final’ without any evidence to confirm what they are told? How can they give up hope?
As the interviews below show, it is time we turned out attention to these long-term consequences of conflict, for it is only when we understand how and why they take place, that we can begin the task of addressing them and seeing how they can be prevented.
PARVEENA AHANGAR is Chairperson of the Association of Relatives of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir, a title that she would any day exchange for her missing son and nine long years of anguish.
A short, fair, medium built woman of forty, Parveena is unusually lively and effusive, probably in the hope of somehow getting information about her son. The sheaf of calling cards and correspondence she displays of people who have visited her over the years include international news agencies and welfare organisations – CNN, Le Mode and L’Express of France, National Post, New York Times, Sunday Times of London, Amnesty International, National Human Rights Commission, International Red Cross. Though nothing concrete has come out of her wide spectrum of interaction, she is not bitter or discouraged. She is a fighter and along with 300 other similarly affected families who together formed this association in October 1996, plans to continue the quest for the missing.
She displayed a certificate dated 27 March ’98, that says ‘J&K High Court Bar Association is pleased to confer Presidential Award to Mtr. (Mohtarma) Parveen Ahangar in recognition of her unrelenting efforts for pursuing the cause of tracing out missing persons.’ This is indeed ironic since their success rate till date is zero. She commented, ‘What we need is power of their office, not this paper.’
‘I was born into the family of a mechanic who worked at the local bus stand. I had a happy though frugal childhood. I was one of two brothers and four sisters and our mother was an illiterate housewife. I was sent to the local school but allowed to study only till fifth standard. No one knew my exact date of birth but at the time of my marriage I was 12 years old. I was married to 20 year old Ghulam Ahangar who ran a small metalworks shop. His family lived in Zainakadal, close to my parents and consisted of his parents, six brothers and one sister.
‘By the time I was 13, I had a son to care for, something that I wasn’t initially very good at or happy about. After this point my life was a blur of household chores, child-care, arrival of more babies and the move to a larger house in Batmaloo. I gave birth to four sons and one daughter and never resorted to any form of contraception since my husband forbade it.
‘My problems started in 1990 when there was a raid on our house by the security forces. On 2 June, my 14 year old son, Mohammed, was taken away. There was a curfew on so we couldn’t follow him. The next day my husband and I went to the local police station expecting to see him there. We were not allowed to meet him and were told that he would remain in custody till proved innocent. Soon we heard that he had been moved to Udhampur. We went there that very day and were allowed to meet him. He was gaunt and dirty and cried all the time. We were given heartening news – he had been found innocent and would be released soon. At this point we didn’t know that it would ultimately take a year for him to be freed.
‘At 3 am on 18 August, the same year, there was another raid in our locality and this time Javed, my 16 year old son, was taken away for interrogation. That was the last that we ever set eyes on him. We went to the police station at daybreak and were told that he was in the local military hospital. We followed the trail but it was a dead end – he wasn’t there. A few months later a Gujjar boy from Lolab told us that he had been with Javed in Bharuchili underground jail, along with 80 others. Again our attempts at locating him failed. For many years we ran from pillar to post at the slightest hope of seeing or locating Javed, but to no avail. By now we had filed a case in court and had approached various officials in the state government, security forces and political machinery.
‘By the end of the year we had two sons in detention. Mohammed was accessible and we continued to visit him frequently but could not stay near him in Udhampur since we had not yet traced Javed. Mohammed requested us to file his application for the approaching matriculation examination, confident that he would be released by then. We did not tell him about his brother, Javed.
‘It was in June 1991, exactly after a year of detention that Mohammed got freedom. He was shocked to hear of his brother’s disappearance.
‘That was the most trying time for the family. Javed was still missing and we didn’t want to lose Mohammed too. We wanted to ensure that he was not permanently scarred by the loss of his brother and his own experience of torture in detention, even before he had grown a beard. But Mohammed seems to have been strengthened by the experience. He went on to complete his matriculation and graduation but, like thousands of youth in the valley, is yet to find suitable employment.’
Every time that Parveena mentioned Javed’s name, she couldn’t control her tears. He was her second born and had a congenital speech condition. ‘He had a slight stammer but maybe because of that God had blessed him with a sunny disposition. He was very affectionate and the last person to ever take up the gun. He loved the family and helped in all the household chores including washing clothes and cooking. He was good in studies too and had just completed his PUC.
‘Javed being taken away by the security forces is a case of mistaken identity. His name is Javed Ahmed Ahangar and our neighbour’s son, a militant activist of the same age is Javed Ahmed Bhat. They most probably came for him but nabbed my Javed instead. Bhat has since become a reformed militant with a flourishing agricultural business, a comfortable home, a wife and has recently been blessed with a son. Everytime I see him, I don’t grudge him his happiness but I can’t help thinking of my Javed.
‘Since that fateful day in 1990, the family has split up. My daughter was taken away by my parents and is being brought up by them. There is no contact with other relatives since no one wants to be associated with a family in distress and under a cloud. My youngest son studied only till school level and is working with his eldest brother at their father’s shop. My husband has since been dogged by health problems. He suffers from a chronic back problem after having suffered a slip-disc several years back. He had a major operations for nerve disease in his hip and right arm. His toes too had to be amputated. Now he is laid up at home and looks older and infirmer than his years. I shoulder all the responsibilities of family and chasing the case in court.
‘Since Javed was taken away, nine years ago, I am obsessed with finding him. I have had no time for the rest of the family or bothered about the house which needs serious repair works. I just don’t have the will to involve myself in these things – it seems so unimportant and futile.
‘In October 1996, a group of similarly afflicted families formed the Association of Relatives of Disappeared Persons. We have a 300 strong membership. We meet regularly at each others house to extend physical and emotional support to each other. We exchange experiences, information and share hope that some day we will see our loved ones.
‘I get letters from all over the world and from various organisations to attend their conferences and meetings but so far I have not gone any where since I cannot afford it and nobody is going to fund us. But now I have made up my mind. I plan to go to Nepal for something that is happening later this year – I want people to know about us.
‘Our association suffered a huge setback last year when the Vice Chairperson, Halima, and her young son were shot dead. We suspect pro-government militants, the "renegades", but nothing has been proved and no one has been booked till date.
‘I am not intimidated. What is there for me to lose now? I have already lost everything. The government is trying to offer me some compensation but how can I sell my son?’
LALIJI BUTT’S is a strange story of abduction and rehabilitation. According to her, cases like hers have never received any attention since there are far more important and pressing issues in Kashmir.
Dark complexioned and tall, she does not look like a local. But she has schooled herself to blend in by speaking Kashmiri and learning the ways of the women here. There are many more like her whose poverty and helplessness in a strange place has been exploited. Their condition has been further aggravated by the lack of acknowledgement of their existence. Lalji was brought from West Bengal as a ‘comfort woman’. Such women have continued to be brought to Kashmir to be sold to the highest bidder.
‘I was born in the month of Ramzan (November) about 30 years ago into a very poor family in Murshidabad. My father, Alawas Khan, was a daily wager. I had three brothers and two other sisters. Since my parents could barely afford to feed us all, my married sister adopted me when I was very small, probably because I was the youngest.
‘My sister, Feroza, was relatively well off and her husband was a very kind man. My brother-in-law ran a grocery store and my sister used to make a lot of money rolling cigarettes. They had no children despite having been married for many years. My sister was grooming me to be the second wife of her husband because she knew that sooner or later he would have to marry again since she could not have children. He too was happy with the deal. One day they went to take the advice of a "Peer Baba". He advised against it and said it was haraam to marry someone you had brought up in your own house.
‘Soon after this, when I was about 15 years old, a frequent visitor to the house, a woman called Kolli and the mother of my sister’s neighbour and friend, asked me to accompany her. She told me that she would teach me some work but I would not be able to return for a year. I agreed but did not tell my sister anything because I was scared that she would stop me from going. Since that day my life has never been the same.
‘We travelled by train and bus for days and I was ultimately brought to Srinagar. I used to cry all the time. On reaching our destination, I asked her where she was taking me and that is when she told me that I was to be sold. On reaching Srinagar I realised that this was her business and that she had been doing this for a long time. I met many Bengali girls like myself.
‘She knew some people in the HMT factory area and that is where we stayed initially. Then I was sold to a woman called Ayeshama for Rs 5,500. She had apparently bought me to marry her brother who was very old, ugly and lame, so he couldn’t find a bride amongst his own people.
‘She kept me with herself for six months during which period she taught me to cook and keep house. She was happily married with children. I attempted to run away but she gave my photograph in the police station and was soon brought back.
‘Then our nikkah took place. She put mehndi for me, gave me clothes and a burqua. My husband, Ghulam Nabi Butt, was 40 years old when we were married. I didn’t like him and have never learnt to like him. He used to be a bawarchi (cook) in Delhi and had recently returned to Srinagar because of poor health. He used to work in a poultry and constantly stank. I used to run away all the time. My husband was advised to make me a mother so that I would have ties to bind me to the family. Since I didn’t like him, she used to lock me indoors with him. The last time that I attempted to run away was when I was carrying my first child.
‘I soon gave birth to three girls and a son. I am very proud of my children and live only for them. My eldest is a daughter who asks many questions but I don’t tell her very much, how can I? I plan to work very hard and give them very good futures, not a destiny like mine. I intend educating them even though their father and I are both illiterate. After the third daughter, I insisted on getting operated but I wasn’t allowed till I had a son. The situation here was very bad and nobody was willing to perform the operation. So I went to Jammu and had a tubectomy.
‘During this period my husband used to earn about Rs 1200 a month. We were able to rebuild our house by selling some of the trees his family owned. Now, for the last few years he cannot move at all, he gets breathless if he does.
‘After the birth of my children, I did go home to Murshidabad along with my husband and the children. What I learnt about my family was very painful and I wished I had never gone or got to know. I learnt that after my disappearance my brother-in-law blamed my sister for getting rid of me. She suffered so much after this accusation that after remaining very ill for three years, she committed suicide by consuming poison. My brother-in-law filed a case against that neighbour’s husband, Idris, for my abduction and he was jailed for six years. He also went looking for me to Bihar, Benaras and Kashmir but returned disappointed. My mother went insane and used to roam the streets before she died.
‘Now my home is here in Kashmir where I have to bring up my children and protect them from this air of militancy. We have not been harassed during this period, probably because we are too poor or maybe because we live so close to the cantonment. But we used to hear a lot of firing and bomb blasts – I couldn’t sleep for nights on end. My husband is an acute asthamatic and too ill to do anything. I work in the cantonment as a domestic maid and hope to get a permanent appointment as a sweepress or something. Working in the cantonment gives me protection and respectability.
‘My life has turned out far better than the rest of my family. I have been fortunate in the people who bought me. Another girl who came immediately after me was Rahima. She was abducted along with her two children, a son and a daughter. Her son has remained with her but her daughter was sold off separately. Rahima is my neighbour now but has been miserable ever since because she has not been able to trace her daughter. The man who bought Rahima did not marry her.
‘Recently another girl was brought from Bengal by three women. Her case was different. Her parents sold her. The rate for such girls is very low now probably because outsiders are not so welcome here anymore, even though we are of the same religion. She was sold off for just Rs 8000.’
MARY KAUL is the quintessential school teacher – ever smiling, comfortably plump with a rough voice but pleasant mannerisms. Daughter of a migrant priest from West Punjab, she was born and brought up in Amritsar, Punjab. Since her marriage to Ved Prakash Kaul in 1977, she has been in Srinagar. She stands out in any crowd here because she has continued to don the saree.
She was one of the very few who had the courage to blame the militants for her present situation and volunteered to speak about the trying times she has faced during the years of violence in the region. She insists that hers is the only Christian family that has suffered such loss and is bitter about the indifference of the Church and Christian community in Kashmir.
‘I was one of five sisters. My father was a Christian priest and my mother was a housewife. I had a normal, happy childhood with emphasis on studies and academic achievement. I did my B.Ed and was teaching in St Francis Convent in Amritsar when I got married.
‘Ours was an arranged marriage. My father had come to Kashmir for a conference and that is when the Reverend here told him about my husband and his family. My husband lost his mother when he was just a year and a half old. My father-in-law, Dina Nath Kaul, used to work with Gandhiji in Wardha where a Mr Brown got him married to a Christian lady. It was she who converted him and my husband to Christianity.
‘In 1952 they returned to Kashmir and started a school, Vidya Bhavan, in Navakadal. I joined the family in running the school after my marriage in 1977. That was till my father-in-law died in 1984. After his death my mother-in-law not only took over the school but also turned us out. We were left with the house in Alikadal where we opened a junior school up to the fifth standard. By now we had a daughter and a son.
‘In 1990 the problem started and since ours was a predominantly Pandit area, we were severely affected. We were the only Christian family there. Due to the Pandits leaving, the strength of our school and income were greatly reduced. So I requested the Father in Tyndale Biscoe School for a job. I was appointed as an ad hoc teacher on 5 June 1990. My husband continued to run our school with 40 to 50 students.
‘On the night of 4 July there was an attempt by some miscreants to enter our house. I yelled for my neighbour and her son came and took us to their house. She advised us to leave the locality because she said even she wouldn’t be able to protect us for long. The next day I went to the Principal, Mr Kaul and asked him for some accommodation within the campus.
‘He refused and said, "This is not a Mission compound and besides you have been with us for only a month." I was shocked at his reaction since I had known him from Amritsar where both of us had worked in St. Francis School. Apart from that all the bachelors accommodation, at that point of time, was lying vacant. That one decision could have saved my husband’s life.
‘On 16 July when I was returning from school with my children, a child from our own school ran up to my daughter and said "Sir has been shot." I thought she meant one of our employed teachers till she said "Ved Sir has been shot." We rushed to our house and were amazed to see that everyone in our neighbourhood had locked their houses and run away so that they would not be called upon to help or be questioned. Apparently the militants singled out my husband and told the rest of the teachers and students to run away and then shot him.
‘I sent my seven year old son to bring a three-wheeler to take my bleeding husband to hospital. They all refused to help a victim of militants. So I went myself and stopped an approaching three-wheeler by spreading my arms across the road. I told him that my daughter has acute stomach ache and I needed to rush her to the hospital. He agreed to go but the moment he saw my husband he refused. Then seeing us in such a desperate situation, he ultimately removed his number plates and took us to the hospital but literally threw my husband’s limp body there and sped away.
‘The doctor examined him and said that he had lost a lot of blood from the gunshot wounds in his waist and hip and would need four pints of blood. I asked someone there to donate some blood and he demanded Rs 2000. I didn’t have that kind of money since my salary at that time was only Rs 1400 . I had no one to turn to so I requested the blood bank to take a pint each from my minor children and two pints from me. They refused till I insisted and said that I would take the responsibility since saving my husband’s life was my immediate concern.
‘All this while my husband was alive but could not speak. They took him to the operation theatre but he continued to be in the same state. At about 5 am in the morning he was very restless. So I went to call the doctor but by the time I returned, he was no more. He was just 42 years old. That is when the doctor told me that they hadn’t performed the surgery at all and that the bullets had not been removed. Apparently militants had entered the operation theatre and threatened them with dire consequences in case they tried to save him because he was a Pandit.
‘Then he was taken to the Safakadal Police Station where they had a post-mortem done and declared him dead. In the report they stated that all efforts had been made to save him which wasn’t true. I bathed his body before the funeral and I saw that the bullets had not been removed.
‘I was told not to moan too much because these things happened all the time and that I would be given compensation speedily. I was advised not to go back to my house. So, with my children, I stayed in the Church for three months with absolutely no belongings, only the clothes on our backs. On 13 October I heard that even our house had been burnt down. Then I approached Ved Marwah, the security advisor to the Governor, for some accommodation since I was a genuine case of having suffered due to the conflict environment. He was instrumental in getting me a one room flat in the special security Jehangir Chowk area. Since then I have been living there.
‘It took me three months to get compensation of Rs 1 lakh but did not get anything for my house. It is nine years now that I have not visited that downtown area or my house.
‘In 1992, a group of militants approached me to sell my house plot to them. I refused because I wanted to wait till I could get a good price. But they threatened me by saying that if I wanted to live in Srinagar, I would have to do as they said. By now I had nowhere to go. My mother had died long back and my father died of a heart attack the moment he heard of my husband’s murder. My sisters were married. So I gave away the land at a ridiculous amount of Rs 60,000. Today the value of that plot is Rs 6 lakh.
‘I put that amount in fixed deposit which matured in 1997. I have invested that Rs 2 lakh in a DDA flat in New Delhi. I don’t intend leaving this place ever because here I am a special case and have a lot of entitlements. The government authorities are approachable and sympathetic. But just in case I am ever forced to move, I must have some place.
‘The common people here are uneducated and totally unaware of people beyond the Banihal Pass. They know nothing about Christians. Anyone who is not a Kashmiri Muslim is supposed to be a Punjabi Hindu. I have often been harassed by groups of young boys who cannot be identified because they cover their faces below their eyes. A few years back they stopped me and asked why I didn’t wear a bindi. I told them that I was a Christian and even took out my cross and showed it to them. Then they asked me why I always wore sarees to which I replied that this was the dress that I was used to. Then they told me that I should either wear a bindi or a burqua. I refused, at which they advised that I should not tell anyone that I was a Christian. In fact, I was to give my story to the press when they threatened me against it.
‘My tormentors were from the Hizbul Mujahideen. Recently I met one of my neighbours from Alikadal and she told me that the boys who shot my husband were killed in a bomb blast. This does not give me any sense of satisfaction or happiness because my suffering and loss continue.
‘My children have never been approached or threatened but they suffer from deep psychological trauma. My daughter is very submissive and withdrawn. Immediately after my husband died, she would often run away to go and sit at his grave. I have been very troubled by her condition. She does not talk or laugh like normal children. She is physically and mentally weak. She fears loneliness and is timid but average in studies. My son is quite normal and is in the 12th standard now. Both of them are entitled to government jobs under the special article of the state government – SRO 43 – for militancy affected cases. My own life has been very lonely.
‘I am very bitter about the attitude of our Christian community. Nobody in the hierarchy helped me. There was no such thing as charity or help for my children’s education, uniforms, books. We have subsisted on my salary. Once the Bishop was visiting from the North India Diocese of Amritsar and I approached him. He said, "There are many women like you. How many can I help?" So I decided to pin all my hopes on God.
‘Reverend Yunethan Paljer of Srinagar is most uncharitable and self-serving. He has politicised the Church here. He was supposed to retire seven years back but is still carrying on because he does not allow anyone else to take over.
‘I do not feel anger for anyone, only deep regret. Why did I come here at all?’