Women are everywhere in these troubled times in Kashmir, and not in the places traditionally assigned to them
On a summer morning this July in Srinagar, tear gas from the troubled streets of Batmaloo began to roll into the first-floor home of Fancy Jan. The 24-year-old went to draw the curtains to screen the room from the acrid smoke, her mother told a reporter later, then turned away from the window and said: “Mummy, maey aaw heartas fire (my heart’s taken fire, mummy)”. Then she dropped dead, a bullet in her chest, the casual target of an anonymous soldier’s rifle. Fancy Jan was not a ‘stone-pelter’. She was a bystander, like many of the 50 people killed in the last two months. She is not the first woman to be shot by the security forces in 20 years of the troubles. But her random death, almost incomprehensible in the presumed safety of her family’s modest home, coincides with a vigorous unsettling of the way women have been represented in this conflict.
Until the other day, Kashmiri women were little more than a convenient set of clichés, shown as perpetual bystanders in houses that overlook the streets of protest. When seen outside of that protected zone, they were cast as victims, wailing mourners, keening at the endless funeral processions. For an occasional frisson there is the daunting image of the severely veiled Asiya Andrabi, chief of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, a women’s group whose high media visibility seems inversely proportional to the modest numbers who adhere to their militant Islamic sisterhood. In black from head to toe, Andrabi always makes for good television, her arms and hands concealed in immaculate gloves, only her eyes showing through a slit. For the Indian media her persona insinuates the dark penumbra of Kashmiri protest, signalling the threat of ‘hard-line’ Islam, a ready metaphor for ‘what-awaits-Kashmir-if…’
But now an unfamiliar new photograph of the Kashmiri woman has begun to take its place on newspaper front pages. She is dressed in ordinary shalwar kameez, pastel pink, baby blue, purple and yellow. Her head is casually covered with a dupatta and she seems unconcerned about being recognised. She is often middle-aged and could even be middle-class. And she is carrying a stone. A weapon directed at the security forces. Last week, in a vastly underreported story, a massive crowd stopped two Indian Air Force vehicles on the highway near Srinagar. At the forefront were hundreds of women. The airmen and their families were asked to dismount and move to the safety of a nearby building. Then the buses were torched. This is not a rare incident: women are everywhere in these troubled times in Kashmir, and not in the places traditionally assigned to them. They are collecting stones and throwing them and assisting the young men in the front ranks of the protesters to disguise themselves, even helping them escape when the situation gets tough.
The government’s narrative of ‘miscreants’, of anomie and drug-fuelled teenagers working as Rs 200 mercenaries for the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, has meanwhile started to appear faintly ridiculous. A more reasonable explanation is being proffered to us now: it is anger, we are told, the people of Kashmir are angry at the recent killings and that’s why the women are being drawn in. That is true but only partially. For this is no ordinary anger but an old, bottled-up rage, gathered over so many years that it has settled and turned rock-hard. That accumulated fury is the stone in her hand. To not understand this, to fail to reach its source – or fathom its depth – is to be doomed to not understand the character of Kashmir’s troubles.
Two events will provide useful bookends for this exercise. In February 1991 there was an assault on Kunan Poshpora village in North Kashmir, where a unit of the Indian army was accused of raping somewhere between 23 and a hundred women. And then, a troubled 18 years later, the June 2009 rape and murder of two young women in Shopian, South Kashmir. In the case of Kunan Poshpora, bypassing a judicial inquiry, the government called in the Press Council of India to whitewash the incident, allowing its inadequate and ill equipped two-member team to summarily conclude that the charges against the army were “a massive hoax orchestrated by militant groups and their sympathisers and mentors in Kashmir and abroad”.
The travesty of the investigations into last year’s Shopian incident involved innumerable bungled procedures and threw up many glaring contradictions till the government of India roped in the Central Bureau of Investigation to put a lid on it. They promptly concluded that it was a case of death by drowning. (In a stream with less than a foot of water.) The case remains stuck in an extraordinary place: charges have been filed against the doctors who performed the post-mortems, against the lawyers who filed cases against the state, against everybody except a possible suspect for the rape and murder, or the many officials who had visibly botched up the investigations.
In the absence of justice, the space between Kunan Poshpora and Shopian can only be filled with the stories of nearly 7,000 people gone missing, of the 60,000 killed and the several-hundred-thousand injured and maimed and tortured and psychologically damaged. The men of this society took the brunt of this brutalisation. What of the price paid by the women? It is when we begin to come to terms with their decades-long accretion of grief and sorrow, of fear and shame, that we will begin to understand the anger of that woman with the stone in her hand.
The current round of protests will probably die down soon. The mandarins of New Delhi will heave a sigh of relief, tell us that everything is normal and turn their attentions to something else. But only their hubris could blind them from noticing what we have all seen this summer in Kashmir. This is not ordinary anger. It is an incandescent fury that effaces fear. That should worry those who seek to control Kashmir.
This article was published in The Times of India on August 8, 2010; http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com
Archived from Communalism Combat. July-August 2010, Anniversary Issue (17th).Year 17, No.153 – Cover Story 2