Kashmiris beg for Survival as India Tightens Grip on the Region

Sheikh Saqib
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Bilal’s photo on Hameeda’s bed. She cherishes this photo of her son and keeps it close to her bed. She takes a satisfying look at the photo before falling asleep every night. Photograph by Zaid Bashir.

Hameeda, 60, wailed inconsolably on a pathway that runs along the Jhelum River in Lal Chowk area of Srinagar, the capital city in the Indian-administered Kashmir. Living in the highest militarized zone on the planet and having survived the longest military siege, she had finally found a way to rush to the city center to seek alms from passersby.   

 

On 4 August 2019, the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government imposed an indefinite civilian curfew along with a telecommunications and internet blockade all across the state. The next morning, on August 5, the Indian Parliament revoked Articles 35A and 370 of the Indian constitution that guaranteed semi-autonomous status to the Muslim-majority state, and divided the region into two union territories- Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Ladakh. In the meantime, hundreds of pro-India politicians and pro-Kashmiri leaders were either put under house arrest or imprisoned in makeshift detention centers to prevent them from challenging this writ from the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. During this process, thousands of Kashmiri children were tortured and incarcerated while the entire state was turned into a military garrison.  

 

“India has not been able to assimilate Kashmir and that’s why they have to take off and on steps to emasculate the voices over here. Revocation of these provisions of the Constitution was a reaction to their failure to curb the mass movement in Kashmir and they thought they should destroy the state which culminated in the form of ending such constitutional guarantees to the people of the state,” Dr. Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a law professor, and a political analyst told me at his residence in Srinagar. 

 

“I don’t think our major political uncertainties will end in the near future. Instead, things will get more complicated for us. Misadventures of New Delhi will continue. I don’t have any immediate hopes. And globally the situation at this juncture is intricate; the United Nations (UN) is either defunct or is silent because of the precarious situation it finds itself in as its very nature suggests. Even the global hegemony is crumbling and it seems that there is a situation of ‘might is right’. In the present situation, geopolitics might compel India to rethink Kashmir as they have created a hostile neighborhood because of their own actions,” he added.

 

Since 1947, Kashmir has been a disputed region, contested by three nuclear-armed countries: India, Pakistan, and China. Remaining unresolved by the UN, the conflict has taken its toll mostly on the civilian Kashmiri population. With this recent amendment in the Indian Constitution and the restrictions on the movement of people that followed the action, people like Hameeda found it even more difficult to survive on a daily basis to the point of being driven to begging for subsistence. 

 

In December, most people remained indoors to avoid trouble with the heavy presence of police and military personnel on the streets. Hameeda could not avail of such options as she was forced by compulsions to move out and seek help from people. To conceal her identity, she sat in her pheran (a traditional cloak) with her face wrapped in a green woolen cloth. "It was a conscious decision,” she told me. She wanted to keep it a secret that the “mother of a martyr was begging on the streets.”

 

“It’s a matter of honor,” she said. Her grief-filled appeals were breaking the silence of the deserted street: “Help me; please. India killed my son and my husband.” 

 

She held up a white cotton bag tightly gripped in her hands. “These are the death certificates of my son and husband.”

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Bilal’s death certificate. Photograph by Zaid Bashir.

I was curious to know more about Hameeda, so I promised her a visit at her house in the volatile Nowhatta area of Srinagar, a place that remains densely restrained by the continued presence of Indian paramilitary forces. 

 

A few days later, I was at the doorsteps of her humble abode.

 

It was afternoon. Hameeda sat preparing hokhe syun (dried vegetables usually stored for winter), an ideal solution not only for the harsh winters that we generally have in Kashmir but also for the long enforced shutdowns and curfews imposed on the populace. 

 

The soiled walls of the house reflected the family’s continuous tryst with destiny after losing two members of the family to the conflict and being left to fend for themselves without breadwinners. 

 

Ulfat, 32, Hameeda’s elder daughter, used to work at an embroidery store but due to the prevailing lockdown she also lost her livelihood. “Everyone was locked up in their homes. No one could visit me for artwork orders. We had no option left but for my mother to beg for our survival in the streets,” Ulfat said.

 

Kashmir has lost nearly USD 5.3 billion since the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A in August 2019. Months of severe curfew in the region was followed by another lockdown in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, making many wonder how difficult it could get for people to survive in ‘a lockdown within a lockdown’.

 

“The agenda of development in view of the existing situation and the injured financial condition of locals would only appear to be segregationist and predatory in nature. An environment requiring a heavy presence of troops armed to the teeth, curtailment of basic liberties and choking regulations which has left Kashmiris reeling cannot be conducive for their development,” reads the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s (KCC&I) preliminary economic loss assessment report on Kashmir.           

 

It was in 1990 when Hameeda’s son, Bilal, alias Zabardast Khan, left their home at the age of fourteen for arms training in Pakistan. “He came back a year later and was actively resisting the occupation. After every encounter between guerrillas and troops, the Indian forces would raid my house and destroy the family’s belongings. This would happen often mostly at night and the troops would throw all the food supplies of the family onto the road outside and then trample over it several times so it could not be salvaged nor be fit for consumption” Hameeda said. Sometimes these types of raids would go beyond such excesses, as Hameeda told me, and they would steal money and jewelry as a sort of sadistic punishment for Bilal’s revolt against the state. “This thievery plunged our house into poverty and forced us to do menial jobs that came our way. Even my children had to eventually leave school and help running the house,” she added.

 

Frequent night raids propelled a mental health crisis among her children while Hameeda and her husband, Habibullah Kak, grew weak within. Over the years, her husband’s heart condition worsened “due to the crackling sound of tear gas shells and gunshots in their volatile area, which subsequently resulted in his death after he suffered a sudden heart attack in 2017,” Hameeda told me. Until then, Hameeda’s family was at least able to maintain the premise of two meals a day. Being a daily wager, Kak’s daily wages would amount to Rs. 1500 a month. Now with him deceased Hameeda has been struggling to keep her house running all by herself.

She remembers one night when Indian security forces allegedly raided her house and took her and her sister-in-law outside. "They locked the other members of my family inside the house, leaving them there to panic and shout helplessly out of fear that the forces would rape us. Once out, we were surrounded by armed forces in their usual combat uniforms with assault rifles ready, all in an effort to bait Bilal to come and rescue us from the wrath of the soldiers,” Hameeda said. But the lack of proper channels of communication during those days prevented the news from reaching Bilal. “It was horrifying, all alone in the middle of a bunch of army men. All this while, I kept staring at a shrine (locally known as astaan) nearby and prayed to God for our protection. They could have done anything to us. They weren’t accountable to anyone and they still aren’t. My only hope was Allah,” Hameeda recounted amid tears. They were finally let go in the morning. “It still sends chills throughout my body to think the panic that overtook us, thinking about the rest of the family locked inside our own home,” she said when I enquired about how it feels when recollecting the details of that night. Kashmir has witnessed the first mass rape perpetrated by soldiers of the Indian armed forces in the twin villages of Kunan-Poshpora. In one case, as recorded by different human rights organizations, a young bride, Mubina Gani, was gang-raped on her wedding night by the Indian Border Security Forces in South Kashmir. Her aunt was also raped. As such, there is a mass scale fear, mistrust, and even hatred within the Kashmiri civilian population towards the Indian army and its many factions given a repeated history of such violations against Kashmiris.

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Hameeda holds the picture of her son, Bilal, while he poses for a picture – in a distant past. Photograph by Zaid Bashir.

After a few weeks, the Indian forces finally captured Bilal when he had come to meet his uncle briefly at his shop, a mere kilometer away from Hameeda’s house. “An informer passed on this news to them after which they reached the spot immediately. One of the army personnel charged at Bilal’s head with the butt of his gun, leaving him unconscious. They took him to Papa 2 at Hari Niwas—Kashmir’s most feared torture center—where they tortured him severely,” Hameeda added.

 

After a few days of intense torture there, Bilal managed to escape from Papa 2 and reached Srinagar’s Rainawari area after hours of running barefoot. “On reaching there, some of the locals who knew him had taken him to a safe place where they managed to dress his wounds,” Hameeda recounted. The news of his escape reached Hameeda after some locals from the area, who knew Bilal, came rushing in an auto-rickshaw to her place and took her along to see Bilal. “When I reached my son, I saw people had sacrificed a lamb to express their gratitude to God for his safe escape. He had a huge following in the city. He was 16 and was standing against injustice. And when we saw each other, he started crying and told me how he gave a slip to the troops,” she said. That was the last time Hameeda saw her son alive. 

 

Bilal was being regularly shifted to different households by local people in order to evade army raids. One day in the Nishat area of Srinagar, an old lady had helped him hide in water tank to escape being arrested. “But he could not evade the pursuit of the army for long,” remembers his childhood friend.

 

In 1992, his dead body finally reached Hameeda’s doorsteps. He was later buried at the Martyrs’ graveyard in Srinagar.  

 

On a lazy afternoon in September last summer, I visited Bilal’s grave where I met one of his childhood friends, who wished to remain anonymous. After praying for Bilal’s soul, he walked me to the large playfield adjacent to the cemetery. He lit his cigarette and we sat facing each other. “Bilal was a young, fierce boy who worked tirelessly for Kashmir’s freedom movement. The government forces were mad after him and launched tens of crackdowns in different areas to capture him, but he always managed to escape. He died while fighting Border Security Forces (BSF) in the Khanyar area of Srinagar in 1992. At the time he was killed, I heard strangers talking about how high-ranking officials paid respect for the bravery teen Bilal possessed,” he said of Bilal between puffs. “He was just 16-years-old,” he added.

 

“But even death couldn’t diminish his popularity among the natives,” Hameeda said proudly. After Bilal’s death, some shopkeepers in the neighboring localities would sell his photos to teenagers who would feel inspired by Bilal’s courage and strength to fight the Indian forces at such a young age. “He was our inspiration and we would keep his photographs in our wallet,” one of Bilal’s neighbors said.  

  

Briefly, after his death, Hameeda started receiving offers of help to get the rest of her children government jobs, which would secure their monthly income. But the family always turned them down. “How could we sell the blood of our son? Our son fought for justice. I am proud of him. How could I have let him down by accepting any such thing?” Hameeda said, adding, “I can accept begging as my only option to survive but I cannot betray the freedom movement for which my son gave his life.”

 

Hameeda is presently survived by her daughters, Ulfat, Fozia, 24, Gulshan, 30, and son, Mushtaq Ahmed Kak, 40, who works as a scrap dealer. A few years ago, Mushtaq fell from a building at work and had to undergo several surgeries. Today, he is either frequenting hospitals for treatment or sitting home as he is unable to cope with his disability caused by severe injuries. “He is not able to contribute much to the family,” his sister, Ulfat, said. While Fozia helps Ulfat, with handiwork, Gulshan lives with her laborer husband in the Dargah area of Srinagar.  

Just adjacent to Hameeda’s house is a huge playground that has been named after her son Bilal. “This is the only memory of him that keeps me alive,” she says as she looks towards the playground.

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Hameeda watches young boys play in a playground named after her son, Bilal, from her window. Photograph by Zaid Bashir.

Sheikh Saqib is a student and writer based in Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir. He is a graduate of University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, 2019, and has reported on arts, human rights, social justice, environment, and public health for various reputed publications and media houses in the world.

Zaid Bashir is a Journalist from Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir. He is completing his Masters Degree in Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Kashmir.