Women are the silent sufferers in the war over Kashmir.
Women have been the worst hit in the war in Kashmir. They have been killed in crossfire, shot in public demonstrations, blown up in grenade explosions or in shelling along the line of control (LoC), and have been raped by the security forces, by anti-government militants and by pro-government militants.
Though incidents of militancy overall may have declined, especially in urban areas, there has been greater terror and social violence. The ‘success’ of the Indian counter- insurgency strategy, drafted by the former head of India’s intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and then governor of Kashmir, Girish Saxena, depended on infiltration and subversion of militants. But the appearance of renegade militants, the naqli mujahids as they are called, and the pro-gov-ernment militant has destroyed not only the political movement for azadi (freedom), but also Kashmiri society. That puts women at greater risk.
There is a new trend of “unidentified militants” breaking into homes in villages and shooting the women. Before the insurgency flared up in 1989, kidnapping, molestation or killing of women were rare. That is why there was shock and disbelief in 1989 when Rubaiya Sayeed, the daughter of the then union home minister, was kidnapped.
Subsequently, both the security forces and the armed militants started using rape as a weapon to punish, intimidate, coerce, humiliate or degrade. Investigations by human rights groups into allegations of gang rape by the security forces show that it was being routinely used in search-and-cordon operations.
Women activists like Anjum Zamrood, general secretary of the Muslim Khawateem Markaz, say that if Kashmiri women had become mujahids, they would have faced the full repressive might of the security forces. “It’s a good thing they never picked up the gun. It would have legitimised women becoming the targets,” said Zamrood.
The most dreaded agency is the Special Task Force (STF) of the J&K Police and the worst offenders are the special police officers (SPOs), drawn from the pack of surrendered militants. Some of the worst excesses against civilians, and women in particular, have been at the hands of the STF. And, as they have the backing of the security forces, villagers play it safe and don’t register any complaints. Said Asiyah Andrabi, head of the Dukhtarane Millat, “For the Indian forces, it is difficult to recognise who is who.”
The lawlessness has left thousands like Mehjooba victims. On 31 July 1998 at 11 pm, the STF led by a “renegade”, an informer who had once worked for Mehjooba’s father, barged into the house accusing the 21-year-old woman of hiding four guns. “A rag was stuffed in my mouth and I was beaten and given electric shock. Unable to take any more, I told them the guns were hidden by the river. There were no guns there but I had to tell them something. They held me down in the river till I was half dead. Brought back I was beaten again. I knew nothing to tell them.”
The renegade militant, recruited as an SPO, then pointed to the next house, saying the guns must be there. An elderly neigh-bour was hearing this through the common wall and was terrified that her daughter would face a similar ordeal. The elderly lady suffered a heart attack and died. The incident made headlines in print and on TV. It brought Mehjooba further harassment. A few months later, the family moved away to escape the STF.
Wives, sisters and mothers of militants have been particular targets of intimidation. The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) chief Yasin Malik’s two sisters, Abida and Amina, live with him in the heart of Srinagar. They had never been physically attacked until October 1997, when a contingent of STF climbed in through the first-storey window late at night and brutally beat up the women. Malik was away. “No, our neighbours did not come to help us. If they could do this to us, what would they do to them?” asked Abida. The women of the house, including Yasin Malik’s aged grandmother were again attacked in October 1998.
In the last couple of years, violence against women have taken a new form: rape is not usually a part of it. In an incident in the Surankot area of Poonch, late at night, militants knocked on the door of Abdul Gani. No male member was at home. The two women inside did not open the door. The militants broke open the door, lined up Latifa Bee and Khatija Bee and shot them.
In another incident in the Mahore area of Udampur, three militants entered Maisina Begum’s house and kidnapped her son, Majid, as a possible recruit. Maisina approached her brother, a member of the local Village Defence Committee. Armed, he chased the militants and freed the boy. The militants came back and killed Maisina Begum. Police said that she was killed on suspicion of being an informer.
More and more Kashmiri women are being seen as mukhbirs, or informers, and becoming targets of the militants. In the early years of militancy, there were reports of women branded as mukhbirs being raped and killed. These tales of atrocities by the militants were cashed in by the J&K propaganda cell to deflect accusations of human rights violations by the security forces. The BSF, at a press conference in February 1993 organised for visiting journalists from Delhi, highlighted the case of Shahina (19) who was accused of being an informer. Shahina explained that the militant group Ikhwan ul Muslimeen had kidnapped her younger brother, hoping to recruit him. Desperate to secure his release, she went to the BSF camp. Her brother was rescued and two militants taken prisoner. Shahina then was kidnapped, first, by the JKLF and punished with 41 lashes, and later by Ikhwan militants who repeatedly raped her. Shahina escaped, and eventually joined the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) as a constable.
Women who go to the security camps to get their sons or husbands released run the risk of being branded informers. But, as a senior Kashmiri journalist put it, in the last few years there has been increasing suspicion in the people’s mind of women as mukhbirs. This has been reinforced by the image of burqa-clad women going into the STF camp near Bakshi stadium in Srinagar. They are in fact CID or CRPF constables, but this is enough to label them as mukhbirs. The burqa, once the ideal cloak for subterfuge in the service of militancy, enabling the smuggling of arms, explosives and even wanted militants, now has come to further confuse affiliations.
At the same time, it has to be said that some women may also turning informers for the money. A toll of 60,000 dead has meant the loss of a great many male earning members. There are at least 15,000 widows and thousands of semi-widows of the disappeared.
Attacks on women definitely appears to be on the rise, especially in the hill districts of the Jammu division. This could be because women are turning their back on militancy. In the Kashmir conflict, it has been a truism that women have formed the backbone of the struggle. In the early phase of populous public protest, women in flowing burqas and chador were massed in front of every protest demonstration. When repression pushed the struggle underground and armed conflict became the metaphor of protest, women would open the doors to militants, and in some cases, protect them by calling them sons-in-law. But as the militancy got corrupted and the politics of extremism became an end in itself, women began to shut their doors to the knock of the militants.
Culture of impunity
It was no longer easy to make out the real mujahid from the naqli one. Victoria Scofield in Kashmir in Crossfire quotes a Kashmiri student telling her the story of his next door neighbour. The militants knocked at her door one night and asked for money. “In the old days she would have asked them in and given them food. This time she refused and shut the door in their face. So they pushed the door in and shot her.” Why are Kashmiri women, once privileged in society, and beyond violent attack, becoming victims of excesses? Is it the increasing presence of foreign militants who are not linked to Kashmiri society and therefore not constrained by its mores? There have been press reports of “command marriages” at the point of a gun where foreign militants have sexually exploited local women. However in one of the worst cases of atrocities as in Sailon massacre when 18 people, mostly women and children, were brutally hacked to death, three SPOs backed by an army unit posted in Bafliaz, were implicated. It reflects the brutalisation of a society over 10 years of armed conflict.
It is a fact that mass rape by the security forces has been a major propaganda plank in the pro-separatist campaign to indict the Indian government for human rights abuses in Kashmir in the international fora. But it is also a fact that there is generally a pattern of impunity and non-accountability when it comes to incidents of rape or violence. Investigations are more a cover-up than an inquiry.
Earlier, every reported incident provoked wide public outrage. But now, as terror and intimidation have taken their toll, protests are few and far, and the guilty go unpunished. The state government and the army discredit the complainants, and the offenders—pro-government militants, the police, para-military forces or the army—are left free. The restoration of electoral politics in 1996 has not seen a break in this culture of impunity. Even as you read this, in all likelihood, a woman is being raped or killed in Kashmir.
“US OR THEM?
lieutenant General Krishan Pal, commander of the Indian Army’s 15 Corps stationed in the Srinagar Valley, has a reputation for being a straight-talking officer, something which has often dragged him into controversies. Rita Manchandaspoke to Gen Pal about the Indian Army’s success reducing the army-militant “kill ratio”.
• In New Delhi, there was great enthusiasm about the India-Pakistan bus diplomacy. As someone who has to deal with the daily ground reality in the Valley, are you cynical? It goes without saying that, ultimately, differences will get settled through dialogue. One must not be cynical. In any case, we don’t lose anything in accepting to dialogue. However, as regards the ground situation in the Valley, there is no change commensurate with the kind of diplomacy they are talking about. If anything, there is renewed effort at infiltration.
• The two prime ministers are committed to intensifying the dialogue on Kashmir and to build mutual confidence and trust…
I’d like to see that translated on the ground. We [field commanders of both the sides] should be able to talk. Prime Ministers Sharif and Vajpayee are talking. Then why are they firing? Can they change the status of this line [LoC] by firing? Can I? No, we can’t. It’s a futile exercise, unnecessarily creating tension and exposing our men.
• Don’t confidence building measures extend to some kind of regular contact between field commanders to defuse tension?
We are supposed to have a hotline between Uri and the other side. Even that communication link remains disrupted. We want to be able to use it. But they are not maintaining their end. My perception is that the other side is not interested in allowing field formation contacts. Every time the line is out on our side, we maintain it, they don’t. Communication is possible only through Delhi.
• It is generally understood that the foreign militants are battle hardened and very ‘competent’.
If they are so battle hardened, then why don’t they stage an ambush? There has been zero ambush. They are scared to even snipe at convoys. They are cowards. They only fight when they are cornered.
• They don’t surrender?
They have no business to be here. They will be shot. The local boys we give a chance to surrender. The question is, why is he here? He is not a part of this society. We are not enthusiastic about his surrender. We want to send a message: You come here, you will be shot!
• What is the strength of local militants vis-a-vis the foreign militants?
Some 47 percent of the militants killed were foreigners. From that we can deduce that the number of foreigners active make up about 70 percent of the militants. The local component is about 20 to 30 percent. I have gone to every village and mapped the local boys missing. The largest group has about 400 to 500 active militants.
• There have been strong rumours of the Taliban being active in Kashmir. Is there a reason to be anxious?
There are no Taliban on the ground. We’ve killed close to 700 militants this year. At least one of them should have had a Taliban linkage. As of today, there is no Taliban activity. In any case, it is not a matter of concern. Kashmir society is suffused with Sufism. They are more liberal and better educated than Afghan society. The Hanafi and Wahabi influence there make fundamentalism more acceptable. Here, who will accept the Taliban? Not the women.
• Human rights activists accuse the army of blasting houses and killing civilians.
You have to understand. In one instance in south Kashmir, there were three militants in a house. The people from the adjoining houses all came out. The owner of the house in which the militants were hiding, was a known sympathiser. He didn’t come out. So what do you do, leave the house alone? The militants keep firing. Who is using civilians as shields—us or them? Earlier, my troops would enter and search the house. We lost so many men in the process. For what purpose, it is stupidity of the highest order. What can be done with a bullet need not be done by a man entering and exposing himself.
• But in the process, you are alienating civilians.
No, wherever a house was blasted, the people said, it was necessary. We even reconstructed the houses. Houses can be rebuilt but I can’t get back my men.