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On the journey into Kashmir: Why it all happened

Unlike other children my age, I did not grow up listening to stories from myDida (maternal grandmother). Oddly enough, Dida, an avid reader (even now, at the age of 90!) and immensely progressive for her time, is a scribbler. Armed with an obsessive proclivity for note-taking, she is also an unwitting feminist. When I was growing up, I found her copious notes — quotes from the books she loved, notes on the books she didn’t quite like, lists of books she planned to read, bundles of recipe-notes — all sticking out of her mahogany night-stand that we were all forbidden to explore but did anyway. She wrote at night before sleeping, she scribbled in the mornings, she took notes in between meals. Dida bought me books, tons and tons of them, but never told me any stories. There were always some anecdotes here and there, but never complete stories. I thought it odd in the beginning, I think I even took a little offence. Little did I know, however, that Dida’s parsimoniousness with stories would make me an amateur-storyteller (and not to forget, a habitual note-taker too).

With an urge to formally foray into the realm of transitional justice academia, in 2014, in between (hardly) writing my master’s dissertation and taking several university credits in an alien city, I began annotating copiously. Checking out massive amounts of books from the library, I was feeding myself as much Teitel, Ní Aoláin and Buckley-Zistel as I could. I wrote pages after pages about what I read — my lists became notes, my notes became scribbles of ideas that had been done to death in academia. At some point, I realised I had become my Dida, obsessive note-taker, without any possibilities of interesting stories. Then, one day in my Human Dignity class, I had something of a breakthrough (while scribbling, of course) —- I wanted to go to Kashmir, where transitional justice (in theory) makes perfect sense. Transitional justice, in essence, would not only look at the Kashmir problem from a legal accountability perspective, but also further conflict transformation through the realisation of socio-economic measures that any transition requires for sustainable peace.

The region of Kashmir has witnessed one of the most protracted conflicts in the world. India and Pakistan, at several points in time, have claimed control over the territory since the 1940s. In the 1980s, this conflict grew complicated when a movement for azaadi (independence) began in Indian-administered Kashmir. This armed insurgency had both domestic as well as foreign dimensions —- Kashmiri youth were reacting to an internal pressure that came from the Central government’s propensity to politically impose on the state, and an external pressure that coloured the movement later when it started changing from an indigenous insurgency to one that allegedly involved Pakistani support.

In a bid to curb the area, the central government imposed governor’s rule in January, 1990. Later in September the same year, the Disturbed Areas Act was invoked by the governor and the state was declared “disturbed”. On September 11, 1990, the infamous Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act or AFSPA was enacted, and it was enforced on the state retrospectively from July 5, 1990. The AFSPA confers extraordinary powers which have been allegedly abused by the military, paramilitary and police personnel to commit gross human rights violations throughout the years. Despite strong opposition from political and civil society activists, the draconian Act is still in force. The AFSPA has been deeply entrenched in Kashmir, creating what many scholars, including Arundhati Roy, call the ‘Indian Deep State’, the notion of a “state within a state”. Roy writes about the phenomenon in her work, ‘Listening to the Grasshoppers: Field notes on Democracy’ – “How does a government that claims to be democracy justify a military occupation? By holding regular elections, of course.”

Between the AFSPA and the growing militancy, the population reeled under the abject violence. The notion of human rights crushed under curfews, questioning, arrests, custodial torture. Human rights violations were rampant, legal fictions were created to continue the culture of impunity. Encounters killings, rapes, torture, molestation, harassment became commonplace. Among these, what hurt the people of Kashmir the most were the disappearances. Men were taken away from their homes, workplaces, schools and streets, both by the armed forces and the military alike —- but dubbed “unidentified group of men” —- on pretexts of questioning, and they never came back home.

As a researcher, I admittedly felt like a voyeur. These disappearances were intriguing to me; more so, because India, and by extension Kashmir, does not prescribe ‘enforced disappearances’ as a crime. India is a signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) but has not ratified it, and thus, is not bound by its provisions. For a long time, I wanted to work on these disappearances. Margaret Atwood said in relation to literature, and I unabashedly use it to my advantage, “[w]hat a lost person needs is a map of the territory, with his own position marked on it so he can see where he is in relation to everything else.” This is what I wanted to do in Kashmir — chart out the position of the disappeared in relation to the politics, the socio-economic problems, and with transitional justice and the role of the AFSPA, things would, I thought, get easier.

However, days later, in an obscure article on the internet, I found the term ‘half-widows’ mentioned carelessly. I googled the term for hours, chancing upon reports, articles, even books in written in honour of half-widows. Half-widows, or (more respectfully) wives of the disappeared, through some twist of fate, became my focus of research. In September 2014, during the most devastating floods in Kashmir, trapped in a dilapidated room with an injured shoulder and two phenomenal “half-widows”, I scribbled and doodled and scribbled some more on a kleenex —- I had to know about them and this knowledge had to surpass the things that the media tells us. They told me that they liked to read more than they liked to cook, they told me (affectionately) that I reminded them of their children, one even told me that she fell in love with the army officer who had come to raid her house. I took notes profusely, I had to put it all down, I told them. Unfortunately, I lost these scribblings on my way to the airport three days later, and I lost contact with these two women — even though, I remember them both vividly.

It was after this that I decided to explore Kashmir more humanistically, instead of from a research perspective. I wanted to write about these women, who were more than just victims. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories of their hometowns, their children, their favourite books, to my part of the world. I wanted their identities to become disparate from the AFSPA, the politics that surround Kashmir, their disappeared husbands, and the myriad human rights violations — and hopefully not through my scribblings.

Through my stories, perhaps. Guess that makes me a storyteller (thanks Dida!)

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