WHO KILLED MY SON: The Wounded Spectators of the 1990s — An Excerpt from Freny Manecksha's Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children (Rupa Publications, 2017)

Aug 31, 2021

Inverse Journal presents Chapter 3 of Freny Manecksha’s seminal text on the women and children of Kashmir, that as much as a book is also a map of human stories bearing witness to suffering, struggle, perseverance, and hope. Inverse Journal has included a visual bibliography on articles, reviews and media relevant to the book and its author. This excerpt from Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children (2017) is published in our Books section with permission from its author and by courtesy of the book’s publisher, Rupa Publications.

It was Shazia Yousuf—a journalist and a professor in media studies at the Islamic University, Awantipora, pursuing a Panos fellowship on war and women—who opened my eyes to the nuanced ways in which militarization had impacted everyday life and larger events like birth and death. She recounted how her mother had been advised, because of certain complications, to go to the hospital for the delivery.

But on the day Shazia was to be born, a curfew had been imposed and the movement of vehicles restricted. Even as the women of the neighbourhood began discussing how they would get a pregnant woman to the hospital—what they should tell the soldiers—Shazia’s mother protested. Raised in a conservative household, she could not tolerate the idea of unknown soldiers peering at her belly or commenting on her cries of pain. She refused to go. Much to everyone’s dismay, she gave birth to her daughter at home. Shazia, in an essay titled ‘The Hidden Damage’ movingly captured this moment:

In the end, I was born in my childhood home, without any medical assistance, in the same room where my elder siblings were born. ‘I have no good memories of your birth,’ my mother tells me. ‘It only reminds me of the horrors.’[19]

The horrors of curfews and crackdowns were, not just disrupting the routine lives of Kashmiri women, but also violating their norms of sensitivity and dignity especially in a traditional milieu where it was taboo to speak of bodies and feelings, menstruation and sex.

Shazia has written powerfully about this invasion of privacy when troops ransacked private spaces so that ‘cupboards and chests would lie open like fresh wounds, bleeding secrets of the family.’ Her aunt used to cringe when troops would deliberately scatter ‘intimate objects’ like sanitary pads, tweezers and cosmetics. Once a village elder was called by the soldiers to read aloud the stashed-away love letters of a young girl.

 

***

 

Even as private selves were being made public, violence was being perpetrated at many levels. Homes were razed, families were torn apart and horrific massacres of entire neighbourhoods took place. For women, the scars ran deep.

In remote areas like Lolab, the plight of women was particularly precarious. Roshan Jan told me how troops would keep barging into her home even after her husband was picked up and presumably killed. One day, her home and belongings were burnt to ashes and she was compelled to flee to Srinagar—where she lived for many years.

In the multi-layered conflict, other women and children were caught up in the savagery unleashed by Special Police Officers (SPOs) and the army on families connected to militants. Many of them were almost acts of personal vendetta like the Salian massacre of 1998—in which nineteen people, including eleven children and five women (one pregnant), were shot dead[20] followed by a massacre in Mohra Bachai less than a year later.

On the morning of 3 August 2015, I witnessed the frail figure of Zahida—the sole survivor of the Mohra Bachai massacre—summoning up every bit of courage to join a few men in a silent protest near Press Colony. Zahida, in her statement, which has been recorded before the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir (IPTR), recounted the blood-soaked events of 29 June 1999, in which fifteen members of a joint family, including six children, were massacred at night in Mohra Bachai, a village in the Poonch district of Jammu. The alleged perpetrators include SPOs, personnel of the Indian Army and a deputy superintendent of police who is still holding a high post.[21]

While Zahida (and her unborn baby) miraculously got away, she lost her young husband Nissar and most of her in-laws. She is still haunted by what she saw that night—the way the gunmen tried to raze the house and, in doing so, dispose of the bodies of the dead.

 

***

 

Then there were ‘half-widows’—a curious word that became a part of Kashmir’s lexicon during the nineties, and that persists till date—to describe women whose husbands have gone missing or have suffered enforced disappearance. These are women compelled by circumstances to live not just in emotional limbo—forever uncertain if their spouse is alive or dead, if he has been detained or if his remains have been hastily buried in an anonymous graveyard—but also under precarious socio-economic conditions.

In the 1990s, men were the chief bread earners in Kashmir— so the disappearance of a husband made a wife dependent on her in-laws or her maternal home. Moreover, since the husbands of half-widows were not officially declared dead, there remained a great deal of confusion over inheritance, property rights and bank transfers, all of which require death certificates.

Under such circumstances, to make ends meet, many half-widows were forced to seek employment, but since the majority lacked education or vocational skills, they remained unskilled labourers. To supplement their meagre income and run the household, their children would be forced to drop out of school and work in the carpet-making or affiliated industries.

Economic problems were only compounded by social isolation. It was not uncommon for the in-laws to blame the hapless wife, term her as unlucky, refuse shelter to her and her children, or offer a home only to their male grandchildren.

It also was not uncommon for a half-widow to subsist under a cloud of suspicion—she was now a single woman— and for society to exert control over her movements, or for her in-laws to force her to remarry within the family—a tradition that found wide social acceptance.

The subject of remarriage was in itself fraught with uncertainty, with clerics disagreeing on the number of years a half-widow has to wait before remarrying. At one point, it was seven years but, in 2014, some clerics decreed that remarriage was permissible after four years. Today, there are half-widows who say they rejected the idea of remarriage because they do not believe their children, especially their daughters, will be wholly accepted by a new husband, or because they fear that matrimony will get in the way of their full-time struggle for justice.

Not surprisingly, many half-widows carried severe psychological wounds. Sabia who works with the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) spoke to me of medical problems half-widows confronted, especially in remote districts. Practically imprisoned within the four walls of their home, they were known to suffer from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders. When they needed psychiatric help, such intervention was riddled with societal stigma—which meant that few women sought mental health care. Another social worker spoke about how there was social friction at home after a distraught woman took sedatives that had been prescribed to her. So, there would be complaints that she was sleeping too much, not making breakfast for the children, and neglecting her maternal and familial duties.

During one of my many visits to Kashmir, I accompanied an internee with APDP to the house of a half-widow. She revealed how helpless she felt in the early years after her husband went missing. Her parents wanted her to remarry but she resisted because she had children, one of them a girl, and most men would demand that she abandon her daughter.

Another half-widow M (name withheld on request), who was living with her in-laws, told me that she had been two months pregnant in 1997 when her husband had been picked up; he never returned. She scoured every police station she knew after the birth of her daughter. Someone told her that her husband was alive in Udhampur jail, but was offered little else by way of information. Finally, she pleaded with the jail staff to pass on a message to her husband, wherever he happened to be—that he was now a father of a baby girl. She is not sure if he ever got the message.

At this point the sister-in-law interrupted. All the family sought was a simple answer—was the man alive or dead? She said that the household had paid lakhs to mukhbirs (informers) for news, but it was all in vain. Her comment underlined a dubious industry that had erupted to exploit the phenomenon of men disappearing—a coterie of ‘messengers’ who made thousands of rupees by purportedly carrying missives for those who had vanished. In cahoots with them were fortune tellers and ‘holy men’, who preyed on the people who lived in doubt.

Even while agonizing over a question that could never be fully resolved, M found strength in her own way. She told me furtively—and begged me not to relay it to her sister-in-law— that she now had a cellphone with which she could network with other half-widows. She added that she believed she had only one true relative in the world—‘Jiji’ or Parveena Ahanger who heads the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, an organization that had been instrumental in securing an education for her daughter.

M’s resilience is commendable. There are others who have found themselves getting pulled into a vortex of grief and penury, from which they cannot emerge. Even the ex-gratia relief that has been extended by the J&K government seven years after a spouse goes missing can create a wedge between half-widows and their in-laws.

For, according to the Muslim personal law, a wife is entitled to only one-eighth of the amount and the rest is given to the deceased’s parents. Besides, many parents and half- widows disagree over whether state-sponsored relief ought to be accepted. By taking such money, can they rescue their household from destitution, or are they, in fact, dishonouring the memories of those potentially dead?

 

***

 

This brings one to a very important question. How Kashmiri men and women view government aid and ex gratia relief. The answer is layered. There are times when they choose to accept relief but declare that it cannot be seen as a compromise—that their fight for justice will go on, which is a stance adopted by Zaheeda, survivor of the Mohra Bachai massacre.

There are other occasions when relief has been welcomed— when the amount of compensation offered is seen as an acknowledgment of the heinousness of the crime committed. In 2011, Judge F.M. Ibrahim Kalifulla, in his verdict on the enforced disappearance of young Mushtaq Ahmad Dar—who had been picked up by the 20 Grenadiers of the Indian Army in April 1997—ruled for a compensation of `10 lakh to be awarded to the family. He noted that it was a crime of such grave magnitude that it shocked the conscience of the court.[22]

Then there is the story of Mehbooba, survivor of the Mashali Mohalla carnage, who was the first woman in the state to have been given ex gratia payment. Shazia Yusuf, who documented Mehbooba’s story[23] told me how it marked the beginning of her own career as a journalist with a gender perspective. Shazia thought Mehbooba’s story would be a routine one but realized it was much more. At one level, it was a poignant tale of a woman, who watched three members of her family get killed on 6 August 1990, when a battalion of the Border Security Force (BSF), under the garb of conducting a search operation, brutally attacked civilians in their homes in Mashali Mohalla, Srinagar. On the other, it is also about ways in which a patriarchal society could inflict grievous wounds and cause enormous hidden damage to the psyche of a woman and her children.

Mehbooba recalled the night, before the catastrophe, when she had been preparing dinner for her husband Bashir Ahmed Baig and two children—six-year-old Aijaz and seventeen-year-old Muzaffar. Two children, Nazima and Muneer were spending the night at their uncle’s home in the neighbourhood. While Mehbooba was tenderly feeding chicken to a sickly Aijaz, coaxing him to eat, she heard loud noises, gunfire, shouts, and the shattering of window panes. Even as Mehbooba tried shielding her trembling children, the door burst open and security personnel stormed in. Some tried to disrobe her, and as she closed her eyes, she heard a volley of gunfire. Abruptly, the men let her go. When Mehbooba opened her eyes, she found her family lying in a pool of blood.

Hurriedly she approached her husband who was barely conscious and told him that she had escaped a rape bid. She spotted Muzaffar but his body was pock-marked with wounds. Aijaz lay with a bullet in his chest, his mouth open with, partially chewed food dribbling out. Mehbooba quickly wiped away those morsels, hoping to hear gasps of breath. When she did, she yelled for help. One soldier came back—not to help—but to shoot her in the shoulder. Mehbooba crumpled, her family dead or dying around her.

Through the night (and many nights after) she wondered: Was her husband comforted when she conveyed to him that she had not been raped? Did her young son get any sustenance at all from the few morsels of food she had put into his mouth?

It was only the next morning that Mehbooba was found and hospitalized—her two sons and husband were dead. When former Divisional Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah met her in the hospital and proposed monetary compensation, Mehbooba’s first instinct was to refuse the offer—and she did. But then, she faced a series of difficulties—her husband’s family refused to grant her shelter saying that she now had no right over her husband’s property. Also, her embroidery work was not enough to sustain her—so, finally, she approached Habibullah to ask for the compensation he had promised.

Shazia Yousuf notes that Mehbooba not only became the first person to receive ex gratia relief from the government but her case compelled the ‘then divisional commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, to devise a formal procedure of providing jobs and ex gratia relief to the families of victims.’[24]

Habibullah, in his book, My Kashmir, states:

The prospect of restitution opened the door for people to approach the commissioner’s office for relief, [and] the relief process became a tenuous thread that linked the government and the general public. Does Mehbooba know that she initiated the first hesitant step towards the restoration of peace in Kashmir?[25]

Shazia’s report quotes Habibullah but also weaves in Mehbooba’s counter-narrative. ‘I didn’t want to rebuild my life with the money of a country whose people killed my family. But then everyone told me, it is the money of our state and not theirs.’[26]

***

 

Then, there are grief-stricken Kashmiri women who have refused to touch a rupee of the compensation offered, denouncing it as ‘blood money’. It was in Shopian that I met Kulsum and her husband Nazir Ahmed—a retired employee of the Jammu and Kashmir fire service department, who had been honoured by the state for saving lives during the attack on the Kashmir Assembly in 2001.[27] The honour notwithstanding, the conflict ruthlessly engulfed the family. Kulsum and Nazir lost all their three sons.

I was graciously welcomed into their home in Shopian where, despite being busy with last-minute preparations for a Hajj pilgrimage, Nazir and Kulsum made time to speak to me at length. Their saga of grief began on 3 March 2003, when the second of three sons—the spiritually inclined Naseer (or Gashe as he was affectionately called)—left their house after lunch to offer prayers at the mosque. He failed to return home. His disappearance sparked speculation, with some suggesting that he had joined the militants, and others like Kulsum claiming that he became a victim of custodial violence after being picked up by security troops for interrogation. What was clear was that Gashe became one more statistic in Kashmir’s long list of the ‘missing’.

Eventually, Kulsum got news about Gashe when her eldest son, Nevli Hilal, aged nineteen, received a phone call from an unknown person informing him that his missing brother had been shot dead by an army official. Nevli collapsed on hearing the news and suffered a heart attack. He was declared dead when brought in at the hospital.

Five years later—according to Kulsum—the youngest and only surviving son, Sajjad, aged seventeen, who had been making his way back home after offering prayers at his elder brother’s grave, was shot dead by the much feared Special Operations Group near Jamia Masjid. It was a Friday, the town was tense because of the ongoing Amarnath land row, and Sajjad, who happened to have rushed to douse a fire near the mosque, got targeted, and died before he could get assistance.

While Kulsum and her husband kept asserting that the use of firearms on protesters and bystanders was totally unjustified since no curfew had been declared, officials from the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) presented a new set of facts—they accused Sajjad of being a stone-pelter and added that he had died a week later. The couple vehemently denied this and Kulsum’s husband approached the Shopian SHO. Here, he was informed that an FIR had been filed not only against his dead son but also against him for trying to attack a police station.

Two years later, Kulsum and Nazir were told that the state was granting them 1 lakh rupees as ex gratia relief for the death of their youngest son. Both categorically refused to accept the sum and gave a statement to the effect before the magistrate’s team. Nazir and Kulsum said, ‘I told them not to rub salt on our wounds with the offer. What would we do with the money? We would rather beg than accept this.’

As I left Kulsum’s home, she told me that in her twilight years she wanted nothing but justice for her youngest son, and the truth behind her second son’s disappearance. Her friends informed me that Kulsum still clung to the hope that somehow Gashe was alive, and that, one day, he would walk in through the doorway.

 

***

 

Sometimes it is not just the militant but his family that has to pay the price of rebellion with relentless oppression on family members continuing even decades after he has been killed. I came upon one such story in the picturesque village of Laroo in Kulgam district. There, I saw two stately houses built with the small bricks that are peculiar to the Valley. I was informed that there used to be three such houses—the first ‘pucca’ constructions in the village. In one such house lived Zareena, her husband Mohammed Ayub Ganaie and their extended family—until the house was razed to the ground. The inhabitants had fled to the fields and escaped when troops entered the village.

I was now led into a more humble home inhabited by the Ganaie family, and was swept into an enormous bear hug by Zareena. After the customary round of formalities, she began narrating her story in fragmented anguished outbursts, with her husband, daughter Shaukya and daughter-in-law occasionally intervening. A young boy, her grandson, sat quietly in a corner.

In 1991, said Zareena, one of her sons, Khursheed Ahmed Lone, joined the thousands of youngsters crossing the border. Three years later, he returned as a militant and would make quiet visits to his family home. He also began imparting the teachings of the Koran to villagers, said Zareena. Khursheed was also perhaps involved in a recruitment drive and by 1996, at least half the population in the area was linked to the militancy.

There was a camp of the Rashtriya Rifles close to the village that must have got wind of Khursheed’s activities. The reprisals were swift and Khursheed was killed in an encounter.

Yet, even after his death, Zareena claimed, persistent attempts were made to intimidate the family. On one occasion, Khursheed’s father and younger brother Riyaz were picked up from the fields for interrogation. ‘The troops said they would keep them prisoners till we revealed Khursheed’s whereabouts. But my son had already been killed. My husband was subjected to electric shocks, force fed water, beaten severely and burnt—his leg is permanently damaged.

‘Soldiers would come to my house and smash all my pots and cooking utensils; one placed the butt end of his gun on my shoulder and abused me. Whenever we could, we’d run away and hide in the fields.

‘At other times, we women watched, helpless. First, they took away my fifteen-year-old son—it was a day before Id— and his hands were tied behind his back. Then, they targeted Nazra Begum, a relative particularly fond of my Khursheed— by barging into her room at midnight just two days after she had delivered a child. They also prevented the wife of one of our sons from returning to us after she had delivered a child at her parents’ home. She waited for two long years to come back to her husband. Finally, our house…’

The destruction of the house spelt economic ruin. It also spelt the demise of a social support system. The neighbours, fearing the wrath of the state, stopped associating with the Ganaie family and the village sarpanch refused to issue identity papers. Since no Kashmiri can step out without this vital document, the family cannot leave the hamlet and seek employment. They are forced to work as labourers. ‘We remain faceless, identity-less,’ said an anguished Zareena.

 

Notes:

[19] ‘Hidden Damage’, Guernica, in <https://www.guernicamag.com/daily/ shazia-yousuf-the-hidden-damage/>, 2 October 2014, accessed on 3 June 2016

[20] ‘The survivors, who are also witnesses of the case, said their family members was [sic] eliminated by four special police officers (SPOs) and personnel from the Army.’ In Naseer Ganai, ‘CBI Slammed by Survivors for “Inaction” over Salian Massacre’, Daily Mail, in <http://www.dailymail. co.uk/indiahome/article-2715018/CBI-slammed-survivors-inaction-Salian- massacre.html#ixzz4AEHSM4Mh>, accessed on 31 May 2016.

[21] ‘Families of Salian, Mohra Bachai Massacres Protest in Kashmir’, Kashmir Times, in <http://www.kashmirtimes.in/newsdet.aspx?q=43609>, 3 August 2015, accessed on 1 June 2016.

[22] Ishfaq Tantry, HC’s Landmark Judgement, in <http://www.jammu-kashmir.com/archives/archives2011/kashmir20110402c.html>, accessed on 3 June 2016.

[23] Shazia Yousuf, ‘After the Dark Night’, Kashmir Reader, in <http://www. kashmirlife.net/after-the-dark-night-660/>, 22 July 2010, accessed on 25 July 2016.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid. Quoted from Wajahat Habibullah, My Kashmir: The Dying of the Light (New Delhi: Penguin, 2011).

[26] Shazia Yousuf, ‘After the Dark Night’, Kashmir Life, in <http://www. kashmirlife.net/after-the-dark-night-660/>, 22 July 2010, accessed on 25 July 2016.

[27] See also the author’s essay ‘No Place for Picnics’, Himal, 4 April 2013.

Relevant Links

Conflict and Women: A Study of Kashmir Valley

TAJAMUL MAQBOOL BHAT | December 9, 2017

The paper will try to examine the impact of armed conflict on the women of Kashmir especially those women who lost their loved ones.

 

Freny Manecksha: Documenting the voices of Kashmiri women suffering in an endless conflict

Raqib Hameed Naik | September 1, 2017

To document such narratives of women’s and children suffering Freny wrote a book, “Behold, I Shine” which moves beyond male voices and focuses instead on what the struggle means for the Valley’s women and children; women whose husbands remain untraceable; children whose mothers are half-widows; people who confronted the wrath of ‘Ikhwanis’, or the scrutiny of men in uniform, and what it means to stand up to it all.

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