As the military lockdown in Kashmir appears unrelenting, a gradual sense of weariness seems to be creeping in discourses on Kashmir in mainland India. This is happening while Kashmiris continue to endure unprecedented suffering brought about by the conflict in general and the current lockdown in particular.
Shahnaz Bashir is one of those young literary voices who, in recent years, have taken it upon themselves to narrate and “write back to the centre.” That “centre” which has remained oblivious and indifferent to the collective suffering of Kashmiris.
Shahnaz’s novel, The Half Mother, is one such narrative which attempts to highlight the predicament of Kashmiris living under the debilitating shadows of military repression. The focus is clearly on the adverse impact of the conflict on Kashmiri women who have endured a tough existence under the military siege -- an aspect of the conflict that has been neglected by the world.
The novel is set in the Kashmir of 1990s, when it erupted in an armed uprising against Indian rule. However, it is also reflective of the situation that Kashmiris are currently grappling with, as the lockdown confines them to their homes, unlawful detentions that separate sons from mothers and husbands from wives, and other forms of repression that continue unabated after Article 370 was abrogated on August 5 this year.
Just as Shahnaz describes in the novel: “As the insurgency in the valley intensified, the government resigned, paving the way for governor’s rule. Tears, blood, death and war followed, as did curfews, crackdowns, raids, encounters, killings, bunkers, an exodus of people, burning markets, schools and buildings…Hundreds of thousands began to march on every street and road in an endless stream of processions. Men, women, children, old, young—all. Their green headbands, the banners they brandished, the flags they waved, the placards they held, the slogans they shouted and painted on the walls repeated the same word over and over: Azaadi”(P.32)
The novel brings to centre-stage a recurring case in Kashmir during the 1990s— the issue of enforced disappearances. The tale of Haleema’s teenage son, Imran, arrested by the Indian Army and subjected to enforced disappearance, forms the locus of the narrative. There are no charges against Imran; he is just a bright teenager who had nothing to do with militancy. Yet, he is picked by the military. This scene is repeated all over Kashmir as the authoritarian Indian state, represented by its powerful military, is pitted against common Kashmiris.
In the novel, State brutality is symbolised by Major Aman Kushwaha, who wants Kashmiris to “see what happens when” they have dared to “rebel against India.” Imran is not the only victim of ‘enforced disappearance’; there are many other Kashmiris who have met the same fate, resulting in thousands of “half widows”, as they are called in Kashmir, and also, as the title of the novel tells us, “Half Mothers.” This dreadful reality is brought home by the creation of Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in Kashmir, which estimates the number of ‘enforced disappearances’ in Kashmir between 1989 and 2009 to be between 8,000 and 10,000 people.
The women in the novel, largely symbolised by its main character, Haleema, appear as suffering beings. In any state of conflict, children and women are always the worst victims because of their susceptible situation in the society. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, an academic who specialises in gender studies, interprets the predicament of women caught in the midst of various forms of turmoil, “Women have never been secure within (or without) the nation state-they are always disproportionately affected by war, forced migration, famine, and other forms of social, political, and economic turmoil”.
In conflict zones, such as Kashmir, it has been often found that violence on the bodies of women, in the form of rape or other forms of sexual assault, serves as a mechanism of political suppression. Militants are also reportedly guilty of killing, molesting and abducting girls on the pretext of being labelling them as ‘informers’. Such acts of bodily violence are underscored by the idea of keeping a woman in complete confinement and submission.
As illustrated by the lives of Haleema and others like her in The Half Mother, women are also put under extreme emotional pressure by detaining or killing their nearest relatives. Human Rights Watch investigations and other studies in Kashmir and other conflict zones have revealed that rape and sexual assault of women are integral parts of these conflicts. Since most of the patriarchal cultures put weight on women’s sexual “purity and honour”, the oppressive forces attempt to violate that purity and honour in order to weaken the whole community.
The existence of draconian laws in Kashmir, like the Armed Forces Special Protection Act or AFSPA, which give complete impunity to soldiers, authorises sexual assault and molestation of women and suppresses their fundamental right to dignity and safety. In Kashmir, rapes and molestations by Indian security forces have been mostly reported during crackdowns, cordon-and-search operations, during which men are held for identification in open fields away from the residential localities.
In the novel, Haleema’s father is brutally killed before her eyes by the security forces for the minor offence of daring to argue with the soldiers. As if this was not enough, her son, Imran, the only family member left in her family and life, is subjected to ‘enforced disappearance’ by the same forces. After this, Haleema’s life becomes a trail of deprivation, helplessness and oppressive loneliness, the “absurdity” of which “was difficult to express in words” (P. 4).
The extreme emotional and psychological turbulence that grips her, stems from not knowing about her son’s fate. She goes to every prison, detention centre, army camp, and police station in search of her son. She comes across callous authorities, cheap politicians, helpless civil officials, amputated justice system, and a partisan media. She takes illusionary solace of finding some light amidst all the darkness that surrounds her life. She tries to draw comfort in the Imam’s words, who tells her, “The greatest of sufferings bring the greatest of hopes, the greatest of miseries, greatest patience, and the greatest of uncertainties lead to the greatest quests” (P.69). She ties a knot at a shrine praying that “the knot will be untied when I will have found him, perhaps” (P.80).
As portrayed in the novel, Haleema’s suffering becomes an embodiment of the suffering of the people of her nation living under the shadow of oppression. She is forced into submission and depravity by her oppressors. Haleema’s story reverberates beyond her individual story and becomes representative of the tragic lives of the people of Kashmir. Her emotional numbness and psychological turmoil correspond to the collective voicelessness and dispossession of a people numbed into silence by military oppression.
The representation of Kashmir’s armed conflict in the official accounts and media have never truly echoed the happenings on the ground. As a consequence, many vital aspects pertaining to the conflict have been confined to obscurity. In the novel, this aspect is reflected in the words of Haleema’s father, Ab Jaan, who tells Imran after the latter is scolded by his Pandit teacher for daring to ask about Kashmir’s history: “Everything has a history. And we have a firm history. Our own history. Except the fact that it has never seen the light of day…Because some people don’t want it to be there. Not a bit of it. They don’t want us to know ourselves. They don’t want us to learn about who we are” (P.34).
The novelist, through these words, is alluding to the history of Kashmir which has been appropriated by India and Pakistan to suit their respective hegemonic designs. These two nation-states have become storytellers of master narratives in the context of Kashmir.
Shahnaz’s novel, like that of his many fellow compatriots, belongs to a genre of literature that resonates with the struggling Kashmiris’ nationalist aspirations and the current conditions of military siege that they are locked in. The novel strives to reclaim the lost records, and in Salman Rushdie’s words, “enters such arguments, because what is being disputed is nothing less than what the case, what is truth is and what untruth.” The novel aims to bring to light the voices and aspirations of a suppressed people.
Basharat Shameem is a writer and blogger based in Jammu & Kashmir. The views are personal.