March Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

The baby cried as Hameeda wiped the dirty rag across the dented aluminium bowl. She was hungry, but Hameeda was too busy heating milk for her elder daughter, who lay in another corner of the hovel that was home to the three. The eldest had been down with a raging fever, and Hameeda had to cater to her first. The five-year-old lay in a huddle, her emaciated body further crumpled by weakness. As Hameeda lifted her ailing daughter, her one-year-old cried even louder. Hameeda looked helplessly at me, then yelled at the baby, and then while muttering under her breath, continued to feed her daughter. But the baby continued to wail until Hameeda rushed over and thrust a nipple into her mouth. The shawl she was embroidering, which had to be finished in two days time, lay neglected on a corner of the bed.

Hameeda’s is a strange case. She is married, but without a husband. Neither divorced, nor a widow, she is one of Indian-administered Kashmir’s many ‘half-widows’ — women whose husbands have gone missing, and no one knows where they are. In essence, the married Hameeda has become a single parent — and there is little she can do to change her fortune. She can neither re-marry nor claim any compensation, for no one is sure if her husband is dead. She is living in a twilight zone, waiting for the moment her husband, Mehraj, comes walking back in through the door. Yet with every passing day, her hope of seeing Mehraj fades a little more. In the surreal world that exists in the Kashmir valley, she lives on without looking back. For here she is one of many.

A few days later, I met Sahar. She was attending an open house meeting that Asiea Naqash, a member of Srinagar Municipal Corporation and Secretary General of the women’s wing of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), was holding with women of her ward. Sahar looked younger than her 25 years. Her large eyes stared back at me from an emaciated face, around which a pink dupatta was draped. Sahar’s husband, Mushtaque, used to be an autodriver. Five years ago, he had left for his ancestral village near Pahalgam to visit his parents, but never returned. Sahar later heard that Mushtaque was seen in army custody, but that is all the information that she could gather. She visited many army camps and police stations, seeking information about her husband, but had come up against a blank wall. She visited Naqash in the hope of finding employment — she has three children and is living with her elderly parents.

Ever since militancy began in the state, women have been the worst sufferers. They constitute 48% of the valley’s voters, and the literacy rate, according to Dr. Hameeda Banu, a professor at Kashmir University, is about 32%. Most Kashmiri women work in the unorganised sector. With the conflict raging there since 1989 and claiming the lives of hundreds of men, more and more women are becoming breadwinners.

The half-widows of Kashmir are a unique phenomenon. They are women whose husbands have simply disappeared, and there is no proof that they are dead. But then neither is there any proof that they are alive. So who are these disappeared people and where have they disappeared to? Most of them are men above the age of 18, who come from lower income groups. Twenty-three-year-old Shaukat Ahmed went missing in the Lal Chowk area one summer afternoon in 2003 when he was returning from college. His father has been running from pillar to post since then, visiting every police and army post, and spending two lakhs of preciously earned rupees to trace his missing son, but all his efforts have been in vain.

According to the Public Commission of Human Rights, there are approximately 8,000 — 10,000 persons whose whereabouts are unknown to their kin. And while Mehraj, Mushtaque and Shaukat are all Muslim, Muslims are not the only victims. Hindu labourers from Jammu have also disappeared. Similarly, while most disappearances take place in Kupwara and Doda, border districts where the militancy in Kashmir began, disappearances occur across the state.

There are three main causes of disappearances, points out Abdul Rashid Hangura, a member of the State Rehabilitation Council and chairman of Yateem Trust. The Trust works to help women and children who are victims of militancy in the valley. The victims also include half-widows and their children. “From some of the cases we have handled, we can say that the disappeared people have either crossed the border into Pakistan to undergo arms training, been picked up by the Indian security forces and are languishing in jail or been killed,” says Hangura. Killings could be at the hands of militants or security forces.

This phenomenon is also tied to the recent scandal on disappearances and “fake encounters” that have brought to light the killing of innocent Kashmiris by security forces. The dead men are then passed off as militants and given a hurried burial under a false name. The authorities have been denying any connection to the disappearances, saying that most of the missing have gone to Pakistan for arms training. Parveena Ahangar’s 16-year-old son, Javed Ahmad, was picked up more than a decade ago by security forces and is still missing. Ahangar epitomises the anguish of parents who are forced to deal with missing sons. Determined to find out the truth, Ahangar has brought together relatives of missing persons to form the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. For 15 years, the group has been trying to spotlight the issue and find the whereabouts of their missing relatives.

Widows in Kashmir are especially hard hit. The low status accorded to widows is embedded in Kashmiri society, cutting across class, says Naqash. And for half-widows the stigma is even worse. They have to take up the cudgels of running a family with little or no education. Many have never worked outside their homes before. Moreover, they can neither claim compensation from the government that other widows are entitled to, nor inherit the property of their husbands. In many cases, they have been made to leave their in-laws’ house and either return to their parents or try and eke out a living on their own. According to some estimates, there are 2,000 — 6,000 half-widows in Jammu and Kashmir. It would be more accurate to locate the actual figure somewhere in between. There are about 12,000 children who do not know the whereabouts of their fathers.

Pointing at Sahar, Naqash says “I had asked the government to declare her a widow, but the government refused, saying that they had to abide by the law.” The law that the government is abiding by is based on religion. Most of Kashmir’s half-widows are Muslims. “As per Islamic law, a woman whose husband has disappeared has to wait for seven years before she can be declared a widow. If her husband is still missing after seven years, only then can she claim the status of a widow and remarry.” The government thus is forced to make women wait it out. They are not about to start defying Islamic law just to help out Muslim women, especially when defying the law of one of India’s major minority groups could lead to a big political backlash.

Even after the completion of the mandatory seven-year period, the process is not simple. The half-widow has to approach a court of law to be certified and declared a widow. In one instance, the husband of a ‘declared’ widow returned home after seven years.

Half-widows have no recourse to justice or provision of aid, especially in the form of employment. There is only one government scheme, but it is so paltry and saddled with red tape that it does not alleviate the plight of these helpless women. The State Government Revenue Department doles out one lakh rupees to a half-widow, but she has to sign a bond whereby she commits herself to returning the amount if her husband reappears at any time. But to get to the stage where she is eligible to receive the amount demands a Herculean feat. An aspirant needs to get clearance from four different government departments — a process that is slow, cumbersome and in some cases even lewd. The entire process takes two to three years.

No other help is forthcoming. All initiatives are those of private, non-governmental or charitable organisations like the HELP Foundation, the Yateem Trust, the Maqbool National Welfare Association (MANWA), the Srinagar branch of the SOS Children’s Village and others. They launch various projects and employ women for embroidery, weaving or other handicraft projects. The organisations take resposibility for educating their children and tend to their medical, nutritional and other needs.

In the round tables held last year on Kashmir, the prime minister announced that a working group would be constituted to look into the issue of victims of militancy, which could have been a ray of hope for the half-widows too. But nothing concrete has emerged from it as yet.

Though there is a long list of human rights activists who are vocal about transgressions in Kashmir, the plight of half-widows remains neglected. The only spotlight on their situation comes from the half-widows themselves, through silent vigils. Ahangar’s association organises groups of half-widows to hold a sit-in protest in a Srinagar park once every month. But this is not enough. Many women don’t know about it, and many are not able to make it to the vigil every month. The action is too feeble to make a difference to their situation.

And so, in this twilight zone, theirs is a long wait.