continued double lockdown imposed by Narendra Modi-led fascist government since August 05, last year, has multiplied the miseries of half widows.
Half widows are the women whose husbands went missing in the custody of Indian troops and police after their arrest but have not been declared dead. Indian police and troops have subjected over 8,000 Kashmiris to custodial disappearance since January 1989.
Modi government imposed strict military lockdown in occupied Kashmir on August 05, last year, when it revoked the special status of the territory. The restrictions were intensified in March, this year, after the outbreak of coronavirus.
Habla Begum in a media interview in Srinagar said that she, as a half widow, used to get Rs 1,000 monthly assistance from some welfare body but after the imposition of the lockdown, she had been struggling to survive. “Last summer’s crisis followed by coronavirus made it tough for us,” Habla Begum, sounding sullen, said. “My son is an electrician. He doesn’t get work regularly. We’re struggling to manage amidst this lockdown,” she added.
Habla’s daughter, Muskaan, recalled her family’s 22 years of unending agony, “There were times, when I used to stay hungry at home and wait for my mother the entire day to come back and feed and cuddle me, while she ran pillar to post in search of my father.”
Muskaan, daughter of a disappeared man from Sopore, is a college student and one of those thousands of children who were never fortunate enough to meet their father. Muskaan was six-months old when her father, Abdul Majeed Guroo, a plywood businessman, was picked up from his house by Indian troops.
Muskaan’s mother recalled that on the morning of December 22, 1998, she was away with her elder daughter to buy some medicines and when returned home, her mother informed her that the Indian army took away her husband for some inquiry at around noon, and promised to send him back by 4:00 in the evening.
“Three to four uniformed personnel had come to our house and asked my father to accompany them to the police station,” Muskaan translated for her mother. “When he asked for the reason, those men blindfolded my father and took him to an undisclosed place in their van.”
Habla searched for her husband for years, running from police stations to the district court but her pleas went unheard.
Occupied Kashmir is classified as the world’s most militarised zone due to heavy presence of Indian troops. Many commentators call the conflict zone as a chamber of secrets, buried with mysteries and tears of women whose sons, husbands and brothers have vanished without a trace.
“My five children would wait for me the entire day, while I went out in search of my husband,” Habla continued to voice her anguish. “On most days, I would return at night. We’ve spent days without eating as my husband was the only earning member of our family,” she added.
After her father’s disappearance, Muskaan’s uncle sold off their plywood machine to help Habla financially. One by one they started selling off all the other items of their house. Habla’s son, now 26, had to leave his studies and work in warehouses to help his mother.
But all these years, Habla has gone through a lot of struggles. She did everything she could to help her kids. She got her elder daughters married and continued financing Muskaan’s studies. She doesn’t want Muskaan to face difficulties like she has been facing due to lack of education.
On her part, Muskaan didn’t know about her father’s fate until she was 15. Whenever she asked about his whereabouts, her mother would tell her that he is working somewhere outside Kashmir. “I lived with this false belief for a long time,” Muskaan said.
But Habla’s guarded secret eventually ended when her daughter returned tearful from her school one day. “Tumhaare Abbu ka intakaal hogaya hai, woh kabhi nahi ayenge wapas (Your father won’t come back. He has died),” she was told by her friend. That day, heartbroken Muskaan demanded answers from her mother.
Habla then narrated the entire unfortunate incident, and said that as a mother, she was just trying to protect her. But now, the sensible daughter wants to be her mother’s support. Years of search for her husband has made Habla physically weak, yet she’s the strongest woman Muskaan has ever seen in her life.
Habla hasn’t still given up on her fight. With a lump in her throat, she hoped that her husband will return to her someday.
Many of the Kashmiri half-widows do not remarry in the hope that their husband will return someday.
“Inshallah,” Muskaan said, her voice quivering with excitement, “one day I’ll be able to see my father’s face and cook for him.”
Hafeeza Begum’s husband Ghulam Nabi was also subjected to enforced disappearance. Before becoming a battered widow, Hafeeza was a 20-year-old shy bride, when her husband disappeared in Indian Punjab during a trade trip. Years of struggle has taken a toll on her. To feed her children, she kept working in fields and financed her daughter Tabassum’s education. In lockdown, the family today is silently suffering.
Earlier, some NGOs would help Hafeeza’s family financially, but since last Eid, her family hasn’t received any help.
“This time I took a loan from a neighbour to submit my MA fees,” said 27-year-old Tabassum. “Ammi remains ill most of the times. I don’t know what has happened to her. She’s mostly tired now.”
Behind her falling health is her years of agonized search and wait for her husband, Ghulam Nabi Baba, a cloth merchant from Kupwara. In November 1992, he was disappeared by Indian police in Punjab and later, the family was told he died in a “cross-firing” incident. Even Kupwara police informed Hafeeza about Ghulam Nabi’s death after a few days of the dreadful incident. At that time Hafeeza was pregnant with Tabassum. She ran from one police station to another, filed an FIR, but all in vain. She waited for her husband’s body but never received it. All these years, however, she hoped that maybe, one day, her husband will return and see his younger daughter’s face.
With time as Tabassum learned about her father from her relatives, her mother fought hardships, battled depression and yet never gave up her hope. Like others half widows, she mostly found herself alone in her struggle.
“Ammi is very strong, she never gave up on Abbu, she still awaits his return,” Tabassum continued. “I’m waiting for the day my father will return, that will make me the happiest person on this earth. I’ve never seen him. I don’t even know how he looks. Hum har din khuda se dua karte hai ki hamari musibat khatam hojaye (We beseech Allah every day to end our agony).”
Since half widows can’t prove the death of their husband, they remain ineligible for widow welfare pension scheme. They face enormous financial difficulties, as they’re ineligible for ration cards and the bank accounts of their husbands. Disappearance of their husbands marginalised their economic status even more.
But as there’re often no records of such cases, many half widows of Kashmir grapple with a host of issues. Over the year, however, Kashmiri women have overcome the trauma and risen like a phoenix – like Nagina Begum.
Nagina’s son Firdous was 7 when his life was disrupted after his father was subjected to enforced disappearance in 2006. His father was a special police officer (SPO) in Kashmir police.
Some 14 years ago, Nagina’s husband got a call from some army officers, she said. He followed the order and left home. That was the last time Nagina saw her husband. After that, she searched for him everywhere – from the DC office to army authorities but of no avail.
When his father disappeared, Firdous was studying in an army school and staying in the boarding facility. For a week, nobody informed him about his father’s disappearance.
“I never imagined that our happy life would suddenly come to an end,” Firdous said. “We slowly lost everything.” From Gulmarg, they shifted to Latifabbad, a small village near Baramulla.
Nagina would spend her day and night in search for her husband and simultaneously look after her six children. She didn’t lose her hope and will. She fought in court and kept on banging the doors of authorities and asked for justice.
“I still believe my father will return,” Firdous said. “I was really young when I last saw him.” And soon he had to leave his school to support his family.
Firdous sometimes works at an apple orchard or in warehouses. The perks they used to enjoy were snatched from them in one swipe.
“My mother doesn’t get any pension,” he said. “So I would mostly work at an orchard, but due to the lockdown, the business has come to a halt which has affected us tremendously. Now, my uncle helps us at times.”
Today, even as lockdown is escalating trouble for these conflict-torn families of Kashmir, their resolve for the reunion remains their lasting hope.
“I still look through my window in hope that someday I might catch a glimpse of my loved one,” Nagina concluded.