Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist, published in Himal Southasian and The Times of India: Crest Edition, among other publications, who has reported extensively from Kashmir, covering human rights and development issues. She has also worked with The Times of India and The Indian Express. Freny lives in Mumbai. Below you can read an excerpt from her book, ‘Behold, I Shine’. Courtesy: Rupa Publications.
It was, more precisely, in 1988–89—that a whole generation of Kashmiris, disillusioned with India’s ‘broken promises’ and electoral politics, crossed its borders and returned as armed militants. In the early 1990s, the popular imagination of Kashmir—fired as it was by dreams of freedom through militancy—was marked by passion or ‘jazbaa’—a highpoint of emotion that has not quite been matched since. The sound of Kalashnikovs wielded by militants was in sync with the full-throated cries of ‘azadi’ from the huge crowds that spilled into the streets. Songs like ‘Jago, jago, subah ayee’ (‘awake, awake, the morning has come’) inspired people to believe they were at the cusp of a new tomorrow.
During this period, militants were idealized, welcomed everywhere and seen as heroes—to the extent that their outfits became quite the fashion statement. Meenu, a woman from Anantnag/Islamabad, told me that back then, her young brother Nasir had to be physically restrained from hurling himself into the Jhelum—the river that flows between India and Pakistan. In his childish enthusiasm, Nasir thought that its currents would carry him straight into the arms of the militants with whom he felt a sense of solidarity.
Human rights activist and writer Zahir ud Din narrated to me a similar anecdote. A young man, he said, tried (unsuccessfully) to impersonate the JKLF commander Sheikh Abdul Hameed and flirt with a nurse, hoping to reap benefits of the adulation that Kashmiris heaped on the militant! Zahir ud Din, with a wry smile , explained that such was the passion, the ‘madness’ of the nineties. Among the contributors to the madness of the nineties or what was commonly called the tehreek (movement) was Anjum Zamrud Habib of the Muslim Khawateen Markaz (MKM), a women’s outfit, that now falls under the umbrella of the All Party Hurriyat Conference.
At her home in Parraypora, Zamrud outlined the history of the MKM that was founded in 1990 by Bakhtawar Behenji, Nuzwat Rawanda (popularly known as Nunsie), Mehjabeen Akhter, Masooda Qureshi, Mehmooda Baji, Meena Rawanda, Bilquis Mir and Zamrud herself.
Elaborating on the josh (zeal) that defined the nineties, she said, ‘We were absolutely committed to the ideal of azadi. We threw ourselves into the struggle. Bina kissi siyasat se iss field mein the. (We were out there without any political designs).’
Zamrud’s commitment to making women a part of the decision-making narrative came to the fore well before the turbulent nineties, when, as a college-student, she brought together her classmates and raised her voice in protest against the quality of food in her hostel.
Later, as a lecturer at Haneefa College, when she heard of a dowry death in the region, she decided to act: ‘My friends and I were sitting on the lawns when news trickled in. As a group, we felt strongly about issues such as women empowerment, and were impelled to do something—even though, at that time, we weren’t certain what we could do’.
Zamrud and her friends decided to start an awareness drive and hold a meeting of students, teachers, other likeminded women and even those unemployed. They even sought the involvement of the Kashmiri Pandit community which was directly impacted by dowry harassment. ‘We managed to bring in two hundred members in a single week. Every lane that I walked through brought forth women eager to participate. In 1989, we formally registered the Women’s Welfare Association and began charging a sum of 50 rupees for membership.’
But the fight for azadi meant that gender issues had to take a backseat and Zamrud threw all her energies in organizing women with the MKM. Like Asiya Andrabi who heads the radical Islamic organization, Duktaran-e-Millat, Zamrud is clear that they did not advocate that women actually pick up the gun but participate in different ways like honing their skills in nursing (the MKM trained women in this field) and by urging them to get involved in demonstrations. Zamrud believed this is where the MKM’s strength lay—it could reach out to the families of those martyred, mobilize thousands of women and get them to actively resist. ‘That was our biggest weapon. Clearly women were not useen or unheard then.’
A case in point was in March 1990, when women—at the forefront of dissent—hurled kangris15 at troops outside a stadium in Anantnag/Islamabad—where young boys, picked up during a crackdown, had been detained. ‘I was also picked up and labelled as a woman whose home was frequented by militants,’ Zamrud said. ‘But the security troops let me go and then denied having held me when a call was made to the deputy commissioner of police.’
Acknowledging the contribution of women as a powerful force in the struggle for azadi in 1990s, Zahir ud Din spoke of how a former Border Security Force (BSF) commander had told him that the difference between handling militancy in Kashmir and Punjab was that in Kashmir the troops always had to factor in the huge numbers of women who would confront armed guards on the streets whenever an announcement was made from the mosque.
Zahir ud Din went on to recollect how his neighbourhood, Magarmal Bagh Chowk in Srinagar, used to be viewed as a ‘liberated area’ up until 1994. Almost every day, there would be demonstrations, with women out in full force and security troops resorting to lathi charge.
Nasir Patigaru of Anantnag/Islamabad also recalled how during his childhood when the army would conduct raids and detain dozens of boys, the women of the locality would march into their camps and shout slogans—a practice they continued until the violence increased so significantly that they were forced to back down.
Besides vociferously rebelling, Kashmiri women began evolving a language of resistance reinforced by humour. Uzma Falak, a writer and filmmaker who I interviewed extensively, recalled: ‘The troops couldn’t understand Kashmiri, so women would make snide remarks or bait them with jokes. I heard accounts of how troops would be greeted with ‘murga chor (chicken thief)—they had a reputation for stealing poultry— and it would freak them out. Yes, women could mobilize themselves and fight back with wit, despite all the surveillance.’
Not only were Kashmiri women demanding azadi, many were also actively supporting the militancy. ‘We cooked for them,’ Zamrud revealed, ‘washed their clothes, ferried supplies and provided logistical help. We could even chide them if we disagreed on something; kareebi rishta, tha (our ties were close).’ Women acted as couriers for militants and conveyed vital information—roles that came with grave repercussions. But Josh tha, jawan thay!’ (‘We were passionate, we were young!’) was how she managed to shrug off many dangerous consequences.
During crackdowns and cordon-and-search operations men would be compelled to gather in the streets or in the fields. Women, left alone, would have to deal with military personnel hunting for concealed weapons or militants in their homes. ‘There would be frequent searches,’ Zamrud told me. ‘The troops wanted to know why we were storing large supplies of rice, salt, sugar or dried vegetables. Were we stockpiling essentials in preparation for a war, they would ask us.’
Mubeena also narrated how crackdowns were particularly intensive in 1991. The slow build-up of a military matrix meant that her village came to be surrounded by camps on all four sides that would take turns to raid the homes. ‘They would ask us where the militants were holed up, vandalize the kitchen, turn storage bins and jars upside down, smash utensils and leave a trail of strewn spices and grains behind them. We, as teachers, would discuss this in our school. One day, we decided to protest in our own way. I, and others like me, refused to clear the mess on the floor after a bunch of soldiers left. The next night, when another group of security men came in and asked us what happened, I told them that this was the handiwork of their fellow soldiers. They were free to inspect the damage, I added. I was not going to clean up.’
Kashmiri women also had to bear the abusive behaviour of troops along with the men. Mubeena recalled, with agony, the day her husband and other men of the village were taken to the banks of a mountain stream and flogged until the ‘last traces of self-respect were rinsed out’ (in the words of her son, Arif, who wrote a poem dedicated to his mother).
During this beating, Mubeena was subjected to abuse and taunts. ‘I was told that I was receiving a salary from the government and people like me had no right to think of azadi. When my husband was brought back with injuries on his back, I was told, ‘Here is your azadi!’
This overwhelming participation of Kashmiri women in the azadi struggle and their resistance, however, did not translate into political space as Zamrud regretted. Women still do not get these spaces, she added.
At first, she had believed that it was possible to interweave gender concerns and the movement for azadi but later developments proved her wrong. ‘In 1993, the Hurriyat had given a call for all social and religious organizations to come under one umbrella. The MKM responded and I assumed that women would continue being involved with decision making— but the fact is that we were not given that chance.’
While Zamrud maintained that she respected the Hurriyat, she could not get the executive members to understand that giving women space in the fight for self-determination would only bring more vibrancy to the movement; that women had the innate capacity to rebuild fractured societies; that they could add gentleness to the tehreek. Most of all she could not get them to see that ‘women represent more than fifty percent of the population and if they are denied a voice it amounts to denying freedom to more than fifty percent of the inhabitants of the place.’ Nor could she make them realize that the feminist movement and the struggle for azadi could not be delinked.
15 Kangris are earthen pots with coal embers that Kashmiris use to keep warm in winter.