By Saroj Nagi
Their’s is the voice that gets drowned in the cacophony; their emotions swamped by the battle-cry for “self-determination” on the one hand and the gun shots of militants and security forces on the other. Two decades of living under the shadow of militancy and security forces has taken a toll of women in the sensitive border state of Jammu and Kashmir, with no firm data available on the number of semi-widows—women who are not sure whether their husbands are alive or dead—and widows in the state, who have been left emotionally traumatised, mentally disturbed and economically impoverished as they fight a lonely battle to seek elusive justice and social rehabilitation and try to rebuild their barren lives, with hardly any help either from the government or from major political formations in the state. The story of orphans, child rape and violence is equally heart-rending, but the first glimmer that parties may start focusing on this human tragedy may now be on the anvil.
Estimates vary from about 27,000 widows and 22,000 orphaned children as victims, as given out by the state administration, to about 32,000 widows and one lakh orphans as put out by a study by Professor Bashir Ahmad Dabla of Kashmir University in 2009. According to him, the number of widows increased from 16,000 in 2000 to 32,400 in 2008.
Not surprising, virtually no attention has been given to contentious issues, like reducing the waiting period for a semi-widow before she can remarry, or on the woman’s right within the family, including that of property. The big question is who will bell the cat? Who will get the ulemas on a common platform to discuss, deliberate and arrive at a consensus on these issues? As the Mirwaiz (religious head), Umar Farooq, who heads one of the two factions of the Hurriyat Conference (M), may be suited to take the initiative but it will be a long and tricky haul.
The tortuous road to seeking justice is perhaps best exemplified by Parveena Ahanager, who after unsuccessfully trying to trace her son who disappeared after his arrest, finally set up the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in 1994 to give a voice and a platform to those in a similar situation. Or the tragic tale of a 16-year-old rape victim, who lodged an FIR, but failed to get justice even more than a decade after the incident. Today, she continues to hide her face with a dupatta even while talking to other women.
There is broad agreement among civil society groups and most political parties, including major Kashmir-based parties, that draconian laws, including the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, must be withdrawn because when such laws are in place, it is the woman who is most affected. Indeed, this along with need to set up special fast track courts for speedy trial and justice to rape victims and punishment to security personnel and all others accused of rape and molestation topped the list of 10 demands made at a convention on Peace and Justice for Kashmiri Women organized by the Centre for Policy Analysis (CPA) on October 30 at the Kashmir University in Srinagar.
But there is no middle ground insofar as hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani of the Hurriyat Conference is concerned. The atrocities against women is taking place in Kashmir because of the presence of AFSPA and the “occupation force of seven and a half lakhs”, he alleged, dismissing all talk of a civilian government, deliverance of justice, development or role of militants in the atrocities as misplaced. His one point demand: locals be allowed to decide their future through a referendum; everything else will follow from that.
Farooq admitted that “gender and human rights issues are important.” But in an interaction with a CPA delegation, he emphasized the context of these violations and the need to accord primacy to issues like the withdrawal of AFPSA and the question of ‘disappearances” and mass and unmarked graves agitating the Kashmiris.
Although he claims his organisation has been trying to agitate against the atrocities on women and rehabilitate the victims, the extensive human rights violations far outrun their efforts. In the absence of an effective support system, he expressed his willingness to work with the CPA, women’s groups and other civil society outfits to put the issue of widows and semi-widows on the national agenda, perhaps by even sending some victims to join the proposed demonstration organized by some women groups at the Jantar Mantar in December.
The willingness to join forces could partly stem from the fact that as the religious head, he has a duty towards his people. But equally important are two other developments taking place in the region—one, the painstaking attempt by the armed forces to acquire a social profile along with its military role through activities like building schools or restoring shrines; and two, the emergence of non-governmental agencies trying to work among the people though there is no reliable data available on the number of such groups.
Both trends would appear to worry state leaders, including Farooq. The first because the army is now trying to become play a role that is not its role and the second because they believe the credentials and funding of some of the NGOs could be “suspect” (read government-sponsored). Besides, they think, some of these outfits are encouraging sectarianism by propagating the Berelvi school of thought against the more hardline Deobandi and Wahabi schools rooted in the region.
Observers believe that while the situation in the Valley has improved of late there is no telling when things might explode again. Given that, it has became even more imperative to focus on the other demands raised by the local participants and organizers of the October convention: demilitarisation, rehabilitation of widows and half widows, compilation of details of missing persons records and time-bound investigation into the cases, appointment of a commission of inquiry under an impartial judge and experts into the present condition of women in J&K, with time-bound implementation of recommendations; setting up of hospitals in different towns to treat women of physical and mental disease, providing employment schemes and opportunities for widows and half widows and rehabilitation and resettlement of Pandits. (IPA Service)