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Dialogue of pain

KALPANA SHARMA


Women in Kashmir ... the need to heal.

THAT dreaded "K" word kept popping up all over New Delhi last week. Not in security-related meetings. But in conclaves of women, where there were no barriers between the personal and the political. As a result, they focussed on the human dimension of conflict, something that is so easily and conveniently overlooked by policy-makers, think-tank-wallahs, and the media.

Thus, last week in a distant suburb of the national capital, a group of women sat together and pondered over the problems of their home state, Kashmir. They were Muslim women, who lived in the valley, and Hindu women, the majority of whom had once lived in the valley. Most of them had never met each other before. Some of the younger women from the valley had never listened directly to Kashmiri Pandit women and their tales of how and why they left the valley.

The dialogue was not easy. It was full of pain. There was much that remained unspoken. But there was more that was said than would have been possible under normal circumstances. This is because the women wanted to talk about their pain, wanted to convey their different perspectives, wanted to strive for some kind of solution.

What was particularly fascinating in the brief encounter I had with these women was the gap between the younger and older women. For the young, the valley has been a different place for the last decade and more. There are not many Hindu families left. And all they know of the days that led to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandit families from Srinagar was what they were told by their elders.

For the first time, these young women heard older Kashmiri Pandit women, many of them respected professionals, narrate how they fled one night with just the clothes on their backs and a small suitcase, how their Muslim neighbours sheltered them and helped them and yet could not give them any assurance of a safe future if they chose not to leave. Most of these women have never been back to see what has happened to their homes.

Others, who have returned, even though they left the valley before the current problems set in, recall the emotion and sentiment with which they were greeted in their old neighbourhoods. But they also noted the reserve and coldness of the young, who saw them not as part of the fabric of Kashmir but as outsiders.

Such dialogues might seem immaterial when the issues are being determined by the politicians and armies of two countries. They might seem a needless attempt to open old wounds better forgotten. After all, the women who were forced to leave have found ways to cope with their loss in the last decade. Therefore, why remind them when there is no solution that seems imminent?

Yet, one can hope that such dialogues could be one small brick in the foundation on which the dream of a peaceful Kashmir could be built. For while politics remains central to finding a solution to the problems faced by the people of Kashmir, even if such a solution is found, there will still be a great deal of healing that will need to be done.

At another meeting in the capital, which is always abuzz at this time of the year with seminars and workshops on a dizzying array of subjects, the facts about the price of conflict on the lives of women was presented. In a paper prepared for a conference on widows, Dr. Hamida Nayeem told the story of the 20,000 widows in Kashmir. She reminded us, for instance, that while August 31, 1988 is considered a significant date marking the beginning of militancy in Kashmir, women had confronted the authorities earlier on issues such as erratic power supply and increased electricity rates.

She also recounted the hardships families faced when round-the-clock curfew was imposed. Many organisations were formed to help families meet the shortage of supplies. Some of these were linked to political groups and subsequently forced to close shop. Ironically, even a branch of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, which had begun disbursing funds to orphans, closed down. In contrast, local religious organisations, which had sufficient funds, gave just a pittance to only 60 of the thousands of widows in need.

This is the other reality in Kashmir, the minimal presence of civil society and non-governmental groups that can be the neutral conduit to ensure that people, and particularly destitute women, get their entitlements. It is an uphill struggle for most groups. Their sources of funding are closely scrutinised for political connections both by the state and the militants. In the process, many urgent needs of ordinary women and men are not being addressed.

Tragically, even funds without an obvious political agenda are not being released by the State Government, says Dr. Nayeem. For instance, journalist and Rajya Sabha MP, Kuldip Nayar has apparently given some of the money from his constituency development fund to help victims of violence in Kashmir. Although this money was given in 1998, it is still with the Deputy Commissioner in Srinagar, says Dr. Nayeem.

Apart from the monetary compensation, what remains a much greater burden is the social ostracism that young widows, in particular, must bear. Dr. Nayeem points out that while widows are not treated as outcastes in Kashmir, the "sin" of being a young widow follows her everywhere. Such women are not allowed to mix with men, they are looked upon with suspicion and quite often they are forced to marry men who are old enough to be their fathers.

Life is a casualty in Kashmir, in every sense of the word. Injecting new life is a job that governments are certainly incapable of doing. The task remains that of concerned individuals and groups outside the terrain of politics. This is where dialogues, such as the one between Muslim and Hindu Kashmiri women, become important.

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