Who are called half-widows? - The Historical Background Violence in the Kashmir Valley has continued since the 1920s in some form or the other, involving different actors. However, 1989 saw the beginning of an armed insurgency between the rebels loyal to Pakistan and the Indian troops. This led to the deployment of over 5,000,000 Indian troops in the region.
The scale of violence that followed was a saga of untold miseries and unimaginable consequences. So much so, that the Guinness Book of World Records, in the year 2009 had declared the Kashmir insurgency to be "the planet's largest militarized territorial dispute".
Apart from innumerable sufferings borne by the people due to the incessant clashes between security forces and rebels, civilians in this part of the world, especially those inhabiting the regions close to the Line of Control, live under constant threat and fear of their lives.
Over decades, armed conflicts have become more internalized leading to mass casualties of civilian lives. The Kashmir issue has led to indeed new and unique problem: that of "forced disappearances" and increase in the number of a new category of women called "half-widows."
Article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance defines an enforced disappearance as:
"the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law."
Thus acts of enforced disappearance may be done by security forces by labeling an individual as a "foreign rebel", or a militant who must surrender or coercing them to join militancy. On refusal, they are arrested, detained or abducted.
This phenomenon has resulted into this class of women called half-widows. They are called so because the whereabouts of their husbands are not known and the State does not declare them as deceased. It is the locals who see them as half-widows.
According to a Report titled "Half Widow, Half Wife? Responding to Gendered Violence in Kashmir" prepared by Ehsaas, a civil society group and Jammu & Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS), there are about 2000-2500 half-widows in Kashmir.
Their issues and concerns This category of women is indeed unique and so is the problem faced by them at all levels: social, economical, legal and psychological.
Internal armed conflicts affect both men and women, although the suffering may differ. While men fight on the frontline, women go through an indirect form of suffering, which is not directly related to the conflict. They become victim of sexual violence like rape, molestation, torture, etc.
Their sufferings are long term and are usually invisible or are not acknowledged.
Economically, these women suffer the most because of the loss of the breadwinner of the family. They are illiterate with hardly any contact/exposure to the outside world. On the disappearance of the husband, they undergo financial hurdles and insecurity regarding the future of their children. They stare at an uncertain future. Most of the times, the resources are exhausted due to expensive search operations conducted to find their husbands.
Moreover, these women now have to undertake new roles and responsibilities especially if they have children. There arises much difficulty in raising the household. They have to venture out and seek work. They lack skills and much of the work is done depending on their physical strength which over a course of time, takes a toll on their health.
Socially, these women face ostracism. Often, her in-laws refuse to accommodate her further in their homes and she is ousted from her in-laws' place and forced to return to her parental home. The relationship between her and her in-laws change who wish to alter/sever relations with her, for no fault of hers.' She then becomes a "burden" in that home, forever dependent on her parents.
In the conservative Kashmiri society, a woman who "lives alone" is feared and even her relatives refuse to extend any help to her. A woman is always supposed to be associated and be with her husband. This kind of social censuring/social policing takes a toll on the psychological well-being of the woman. Her grief remains unresolved and an absence of a symbolic remembrance like a grave deprives her of closure. The fact that no funeral rites were performed makes the healing process and the subsequent reintegration back into the society a process laden with emotional stress. She endures perpetual sadness.
The search missions, undertaken to find her husband becomes a traumatic experience for her. The sudden loss of her husband and the breadwinner of the family leave the entire household in a state of fear and confusion.
It is only recently (2013) that religious clerics (who are Islamic scholars called Ulema) issued a fatwa that half-widows are entitled to remarry after a waiting period of 4 years. Muslims follow the Sharia Law that has many schools of thought. Hanafi School, the most rigid one) stated that a widow could remarry only after a waiting period of 90 years. Considering this to be impractical, the Shafi, Hanbali and Maliki Schools prescribed a waiting period of 1-4 years and if the woman has no sustenance, she can remarry immediately. On the other hand, under the Indian Legal System, the waiting period for remarriage for a woman whose husband's whereabouts is unknown, is seven years.
This confusion prevailed and for about 25 years since the beginning of this violence, such women could not remarry. The declaration of this fatwa, according to most of them, has no relevance as this has arrived too late.
To seek economic relief, like ration cards, or the transfer of property which are in her husband's name or from his bank accounts, producing the death certificate of the deceased is mandatory. The husbands of these women have not been officially declared as dead; hence, producing a death certificate is impossible. In the last 25 years, not a single husband has reappeared. Thus, these women are denied their rightful share in their husband's property. Because of the inability to produce a death certificate, these women are also deprived of monetary compensation and considering the fact that they are not proper widows, even seeking the Widow Relief Pension from the Government is a big hurdle for them. They have to mandatorily wait for a period of 7 years to claim the pension.
Fear remains persistent on the ground that police force does not render them much help. They refuse to lodge FIRs (First Information Report) and the same are dismissed on the ground that the person concerned has crossed the border or has become a militant.
Sometimes, pensions are refused on the absence of any official record of arrest/detention. They refrain from knocking the doors of the court due to financial problems or ignorance regarding formalities of approaching the courts of law. Most of these women do not resort to the Indian Legal System to avoid waiting for 7 years. Moreover, the fact that for them to acquire the property it has to be in the name of her husband only and not even the father-in-law, deprives them of their inheritance rights as long as the father-in-law is alive.
Dardpora (abode of pain), situated 140 km, north of Kashmir, in the Kupwara district of Srinagar has the highest number of half-widows, as this district is close to the Line of Control (LoC) where encounters often take place between the Indian troops and the rebels. It is believed that the disappeared persons either join the Indian security forces or cross over to the rebels' side.
Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), started in 1994 is an organization of the relatives of people (over 300 members) who have disappeared after taken into custody. More than 10,000 enforced disappearances have taken so far.
Conclusion It seems apart from a few NGOs or other civil society groups; no one is actually concerned about the plight of these half-widows. Even the relief of remarriage has come after more than two decades of violence. The Kashmir issue is an unresolved conflict but the Government should stand up and take note of the fact that, the grief of these widows does not remain unresolved.
Remote accessibility or prevalence of perpetual violence should not be a deterrent for the Government to introduce and implement beneficial schemes for the welfare of these women.
Physical and social infrastructure could be set up or existing ones should be improved. But most importantly, there must be a political will to end their sufferings. Mere reporting of their grief by the journalists by conducting their interviews will no longer serve their purpose. Mainstream India is very much aware of this problem.
The Government must also acknowledge their grief and negotiate as to how their lives can be improved. All monetary compensation schemes or those pertaining to widows must be made available to them easily and the process must not be cumbersome so that they have to run from pillar to post. Most importantly, unfettered power given to security forces in the form of immunity and shoot on mere suspicion by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1990 must be curtailed at the earliest.
I have read the article. Although the article prima-facie appears to be logical, in actuality it is highly emotional and gives fallacious argument. For example, the author states:"Thus acts of enforced disappearance may be done by security forces by labeling an individual as a "foreign rebel,....". How does the author know that these persons have been arrested/eliminated by the security forces? Isn't it possible that these men have crossed the LoC and willingly gone to POK to take part in so-called jihad? What is the purpose of the author to initiate the vilification campaign against the armed forces of India?
Moreover, how can Central Govt. give special treatment to the so-called 'half-widows' of Kashmir? The rule position is same for the spouses of disappeared persons all over India. Can any sane person support special treatment to the spouses whose husbands crossed over the border to indulge in anti-Indian activity?
So far as social stigma is concerned, this is the duty of religious leaders and society elders to change the situation. In this connection, I would like to state that in 1971 Indo-Pak war, 54 hapless army and air force officers and jawans of India landed in Pakistani jail although the country has officially refused their presence. The author may kindly think about the condition of their families including their spouses, many of whom were newly-married at the time of the war.
I don't think the Central Govt. has much to do in such cases of willful disappearance. I strongly advise the author not to indulge in vilification campaign against Indian armed forces in this platform.
The author would like to state that the title of the article is “The tragic tale of the half-widows of Kashmir.” From the very title, it should be pretty clear that the very intention of the author was to depict their tragic lives and hence the emotional tone.
Regarding the accusation of initiating a “vilification campaign”, the author would like to advise the person concerned that he/she read the sentence in entirety and construe them properly. In the sentence, I quote again, “Thus acts of enforced disappearance may be done by security forces by labeling an individual as a "foreign rebel" or a militant who must surrender or coercing them to join militancy”, the author has used the word “may” to suggest an uncertainty and ambiguity. In legal parlance (the article is a legal one), words like “may”, “shall” mean extremely different things and proper interpretation of the same must be done.
Regarding the question raised “Can any sane person support special treatment to the spouses whose husbands crossed over the border to indulge in anti-Indian activity?”, the author would like to ask, how can you be so sure that of the thousands of persons who have disappeared in the valley, all of them have crossed the border to indulge in anti-India activity? What is the authenticity of the statement?
The article is not the product of an empirical research. The conclusion of the author is based on the review of existing literature i.e. reports etc. prepared by NGOs and individuals who have personally interviewed these women. These women have claimed of security forces barging inside their homes and dragging the men out of the house. Despite such reports, the author has exercised caution and used the word “may.”
Furthermore, the author would like to highlight the following instances that led her to suggest the above sentence:
On 2 November 2000, in Malom, a town in the Imphal Valley of Manipur, ten civilians were shot and killed while waiting at a bus stop. The incident, known as the "Malom Massacre", was allegedly committed by the Assam Rifles, one of the Indian Paramilitary forces operating in the state of Manipur (where AFSPA is in force). The victims included Leisangbam Ibetombi, a 62-year-old woman, and 18-year-old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Bravery Award winner.
The infamous 2004 Manorama case in Manipur. A woman suspected to have links to members of an underground rebel group was killed while in custody of the 17th Assam Rifles operating under AFSPA. Her body bore clear marks of torture and sexual assault allegedly carried out by the same forces. However, because of the operation of AFSPA, culpability was never assigned either for the killing or the charge of rape.
Justice J.S Verma Committee had reported that “sexual violence against women by members of the armed forces or uniformed personnel must be brought within the purview of the ordinary criminal law.”
Even a Supreme Court-appointed Judicial Commission has noted that the Act has failed to tackle insurgency and that the armed forces were indulging in gross violation of human rights by operating under the shield of the controversial law. If such eminent personalities can come to such findings, how outrageous does it sound to say that the same security forces “may” (emphasis applied) be responsible for enforced disappearances?
Former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, who has been advocating partial withdrawal of AFSPA from areas more peaceful in the state, did agree that as long as Army was involved in internal security duties, it needed a legal cover to operate. In his words: “So long as you are using army for internal security duty, they need legal cover to operate. I think we need to differentiate between legal cover and impunity. The sort of cover they get now is they can do whatever they believe without fear of consequences. I think that fear of consequences has to be built back into the system.”
The point of the author, by highlighting these instances is that the security forces have indeed indulged in acts of misdeed and any statement made against them is not with the sole intent of vilifying them or maligning their image. Any respectable citizen of India harbors utmost respect for them. Being a resident of Assam (where AFSPA is in force), the author understands the gravity of the situation and has resorted to take a balanced-approach.
The article is on the so-called plight of so-called half-widows in Kashmir. Then why did the author suddenly shift to North East and AFSPA? Despite stories of excess (most of which are frivolous), the armed forces have brought back normalcy in North-East. In those cases where the culprit is caught, he has been dealt with firmly and court-marshalled.
AFSPA allows security agencies to use force of any measure if need be and are granted legal immunity from its repercussions. In India, this law has been mostly in force in North-Eastern and Jammu and Kashmir states.
Apart from the so-called human rights issue, the critics opine that If the aim of AFSPA was to restore normalcy in disturbed areas, it has failed. However, according to its supporters and retired Officers of the Army, AFSPA is essential in present Indian scenario, They point out that in a democracy, solving an insurgency is not the task of the army. What and army can do and has done in the Indian context is to keep the insurgency down to a level where the civil administration can carry out its functions. To achieve this purpose in future also, AFSPA is essential. So, for the sake of the integrity of the country and keeping in view of the excellent human rights record of the Indian Army (which is one of the best in the world; many activists opposing AFSPA will be astonished to know), we must accept AFSPA as a necessary evil.
Additionally, although it is not fully relevant to the context, I would also like to state that I had the opportunity to reside in the beautiful state of Assam for some time and I visited this state time and again. I simply love this state and its beautiful people with diverse culture ('Mahabahu Brahmaputra maha milonor khetro'). So, I am deeply pained when I notice short-sighted political leaders, for the sake of vote bank, encourage influx of people which has ultimately caused demographic change of the state. This demographic change forced the simple-minded Bodos to take up arms against the illegal settlers at Kokrajharh, two years before.
The author fails to understand the use of the prefix "so-called". Are not the plight of these women real?They have no proper legal status. Their marital status is uncertain. In that case, it is not difficult to fathom the consequences.
The author shifted to North-East to demonstrate the fact that even members of the armed forces have committed misdeeds. That's all.
I understand AFSPA being called a necessary evil, but at the same time please kindly go through the words of concern expressed by Mr. Omar Abdullah when he says that "fear of consequences" must be imbibed in the AFSPA as it stands today.
Security forces act as if they fear no one. This is the tone set by Mr. Abdullah himself and not my personal opinion. How on earth is the shooting down of people at the bus-stop justified?
Once again, both North-East and Jammu and Kashmir are AFSPA-imposed states. Hence, the analogy. Once again, this shift was made to demonstrate the fact that armed forces can and has done misdeeds. The author has just highlighted them. There is no vilification campaign going on here.
I am not going to prolong this discussion further. I would like to congratulate the author because she has presented her side of the argument quite well.
The author has mentioned about a political leader of Kashmir. Although this leader belongs to a renowned political family, he does not have much credibility left. During Srinagar flood, he left the state at the first available opportunity (helicopter), while Army Chief General Sihag and NDRF Chief were personally present and managing the rescue operation. Oh yes! the rescue operation also included family-members of top Kashmiri separatists, who happened to request much-maligned Indian Army to rescue them (of course with folded hands)!
Once again, the author has the deepest respect for the armed force. What they did during the Uttarakhand crisis, the Kashmir floods or the Assam floods (which is an annual event) reflects humanity.
The author has only highlighted the actions of a few of the army jawans in the context of AFSPA only. They represent a miniscule portion of the huge Indian Army. And the respect that we have for the Indian Army cannot be tarnished by a few who are on the wrong side of justice.
The author would not like to make any comment on the credibility of the political leader, however his statement on this issue seemed extremely relevant. Hence the quotation was done.
After reading this article my sympathies and my concern to the half widows of Kashmir has risen because there is no one to bother about them. Kashmir has been the target of Pakistan and it is bent upon creating a divide within the valley where in pro-Pakistan activists would play havoc with our Indian supporters and the end result is the many innocent civilians are orphaned and those who lost their husband in the melee are the worst affected. Here I would blame the separatists living in Kashmir who always instigate violence against the Indian government but never ever thought about the plight of half widows as to how they are going to cope up their rest of life. Indian government should create special corpus fund for this purpose and through Aadhaar linked accounts, they must transfer assured amount every month until normalcy is restored and confidence in peoples comes back.