Routines of Resistance

Three generations of women’s rebellion in Kashmir

01 October, 2018


CHILLAI KALAN, as the period from the last week of December to the end of January is known in Kashmir, is the best of the valley’s winter. Kashmir turns white and frosty, and the sun all but disappears. People sit in kitchens around kangris—earthen pots with fire embers—seeking warmth. Occasionally, one sees a few men and women walk purposefully across market places. In late December 2016, we woke up to a film of white that had settled on every visible surface. In July that year, Kashmir had lost and found its second great martyr in Burhan Wani, and his death had spurred resistance in ways similar to those seen in 1984 that followed the execution of Maqbool Bhat, the founder of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. The valley was still in mourning. The perfect calm of the morning was broken only by the sounds of birds and later by empty cans heard from our hosts’ kitchen garden.

Outside, next to the snow-covered garden, sat the seven-year-old daughter of a family we were staying with. She was squatting, etching her name in Urdu on the snow-covered floor with a small wooden handle. Soon, she began collecting snow to make a figurine. The neighbours’ 12-year-old daughter stood watching close by, playing with her at times and teasing her. “Boed gaseth kya chui banun?”—What do you want to be when you grow up?—she asked the girl, but only received a tight-lipped smile. Keen to hear a response, the neighbour’s daughter tried again, providing possible answers. “Doctor cha banun?”—Will you be a doctor? The younger one shook her head in disapproval. “A teacher? Like papa?” She replied with a “nav”—no. “Engineer?” she asked. This time the reply was “awa”—yes—with a smile. In a coy yet determined way the younger one added, “Telli hakhneh beh mujahid baneth”—That’s how I can become a mujahid. The neighbour’s daughter, pressing her index finger between her incisors, let out a laugh. “Since many militants in the valley today are engineers or were students at engineering colleges, she feels that it’s a natural transition from one to the other,” she explained to us.

The seven-year-old’s aspiration, as extraordinary as it may have seemed, did not appear out of place in that moment. In those surroundings—the snow-covered ground, the mourning and the growing hum of the maolud shareef prayer from the mosque—the beauty and ugliness of Kashmir appeared to coexist seamlessly.

MOST WRITINGS ABOUT KASHMIR, ever since militancy began in the valley in the late 1980s, has confined itself to issues of human-rights violations or national-security frameworks. It has not documented the changes that have occurred over the last three decades in the daily lives of Kashmiris—in their beliefs, dreams, friendships, livelihoods and even notions of honour and shame. Kashmir’s children have changed, and so have the games they play. People’s fears and their ability to trust and love have altered. The ordinary moments of their lives unfold in the presence of extraordinary garrisons of the Indian state, set up across the valley since 1990s. Resistance has become part of their routine and renders their lives exceptional.

Kashmiri society has lived far too long under the shadow of death and brutality. The battle for Kashmir’s territory has also led to the demonisation of its people’s faith, while their efforts to defend it have fostered religious orthodoxy. Many kinds of Islam now contend for supremacy. Amid everyday violence and the hyper-masculine discourses of nationalism and religion, the space for women has shrunk, and much that was progressive and valuable in the cultural traditions of Kashmir has been degraded or lost. The left-liberal writing on Kashmir misses this nuance, and tends to criticise the militant movement for the lack of women in it. Kashmir’s many women soldiers have long been fighting from within but their struggles seldom grab attention.

Last year, in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing by Indian security forces, young women made headlines for pelting stones at security forces and were reprimanded by the leader of the militant organisation Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. He instructed women to sit back at home since “their brothers are yet alive to fight on their behalf” and went on to blame their public protests for the “curse of occupation in Kashmir.” The protests have not ceased. They have demonstrated a new aspect of Kashmiri resistance, as it matures and enters a different phase.

As part of an ethnographic study, we travelled and lived in Kashmir intermittently between 2014 and 2018. We interviewed many people, especially women, and observed and documented their daily lives. These are the stories of three generations of women in Kashmir, and how they continue to resist, survive and nourish their dreams and struggles for azadi. The stories of these ordinary women are central to the vocabulary and imaginations of Kashmiri resistance today.

ONE MORNING, a few days after we landed in Kashmir in December 2016, we decided to take a walk across villages in the southern part of the valley. Negotiating bylanes in Kashmiri villages during the monsoon is challenging. The mud here sticks to your shoes with a determination that seems a characteristic of most things Kashmiri. Walking demanded all of one’s attention, even though children moved through the snow and mud with ease.

Walking around Arwani in Kulgam, we heard loud banter nearby. “Aai kya chu amis, trath heu. Khatarnak aai!”—The most exquisite throw, the most perfect aim—a kid shouted. An 11-year-old girl in a muddy green pheran stood with both arms stretched above her, while others around her clapped, cheered and danced. Young children stood on the peripheries, watching with excitement and curiosity. A boy in yellow sneakers exclaimed loudly “Hum kya chahte?”—What do we want?—but the group had not heard him. He repeated himself, more forcefully, this time with a contorted face, eyebrows coming together, fist in the air, “Hum kya chahte?” Swiftly, the cries of “azadi” picked up. Followed by “Go India, go back!”

The girl in the pheran and her friends were practising to be “sang baaz”—stone-pelters. Her friends referred to her as kann-e-machine—the stone machine—an allusion to her skill at pelting stones. One of the children later told us that a group of them practise every day when they go out to play or swim in the river. At the other end of the field, an inverted broken bucket supported a log of wood, and on it was balanced a stone as big as a fist. It is the “target,” we were told, the “army wael sund buth”—the face of the guy in uniform. “If one hits the stone on the top, one hits the bull’s eye,” a boy explained. “For a good throw and aim, the right aai”—stance—“is very crucial,” the girl in the pheran, who had the most hits to her credit, explained. Her elder brothers had taught her to throw at varying angles and how to take cover during retaliation. Even though she was too young to be allowed on the frontlines of protests, she and her gang of friends helped with procuring, piling up and delivering stones to the ones in the front. Talking to us, they relived some of their proud moments, memories of when they “mattered” and “contributed.” “Guel channah asseh te sadan”—bullets hit us too—was how the girl responded when we first asked her age. She added, “Hindustan chu asseh choab dewan, azaab karan, aes te chekeh aalaj karan”—Indians beat us, punish us, so we give them a suitable treatment. Her friends chuckled, and then agreed with her.

Children in Kashmir love to play “military-mujahid” or as they call it, “Mintry-Mujahid.” It involves an elaborate “war” between two sides. Each side designates an end of the village as its territory. There are often bitter quarrels over which side is forced to play the role of the Indian military. The game lasts an entire day, or at times an entire week. During the next game, the winning team claims the right to be mujahids. The girl in the pheran proudly proclaimed that she has never had to play as the military. We watched them play, divide into camps and fight over choosing teams. They brandished wooden AK-47s, slung on their shoulders. Painted bright green, the guns were prepared by local carpenters, or carved at home. Some of the children carried toy stein guns with disco lights that went on and off, sparking off sirens and sounds of gunshots. The mujahids led a small march through the village, raising slogans such as “Azadi, Burhan wali azadi,” and “Naara e taqbeer, allah-u-akbar!”—Slogan of the divine, Allah is the greatest! The girl in the pheran had named her weapon Burhan Azadi. Other guns carried labels including “Pakistan Zindabad,” “Freedom,” “Hizb” and HM. Some had tiny Pakistani flags painted all over.

The girl in the pheran was chosen as the commander of her team, the mujahids. A worthy male rival was chosen as the military commander of the opposition. The military team quickly tucked their shirts into their pyjamas and track pants, in imitation of soldiers. They all took up positions. We split ourselves too, each taking a different side. An “armed” combat erupted between the two parties across the lane that ran through the village. Projectiles were fired from both ends: water balloons, followed by mud cakes. The Mujahids pelted stones, and so did the military. Some passersby changed their routes, some stood watching, some others commanded the children to stop, while a few simply requested safe passage. To those hurling mud and taking shelter from air-borne balloons, the lane seemed to evaporate from visual and mental horizons. In Kashmir, that’s often the fate of middle-paths.

Shrill firing sounds of dah-dah-dah, dsh-dsh-dsh came from each side. It seemed like an even contest. Slogans were the choicest weapons of the mujahids, while the other side seemed devoid of such artillery. They struggled to improvise, hurling half-baked Hindi abuses that they were familiar with: “Maaro saale ko,” “bahenchod Kashmiri,” and so on. Mujahids retaliated with “Bharat teri maut aayi, lashkar aayi, lashkar aayi” (India your death beckons, here comes Lashkar-e-Taiba).

The contest escalated. Some kids used kosh-bombs, saw dust wrapped in polythene, which led to a temporary dust storm and caused a good deal of commotion in the military camp. The army side retaliated in a similar fashion. One of them slipped and fell onto the street, the no-man’s land. Five mujahids lunged out to drag him into their camp. He was a “prisoner of war.” They hit him when he tried to run, poked him with their AK-47s and asked him to surrender. They tied him to a tree, while one mujahid kept watch. An hour later, he wriggled out, after cutting the thin string that held him. He managed to keep his clothes on, but lost a sock and shoe.

Just as the sound of prayers from the village mosque grew, there was a ceasefire. The Mujahids formed a queue and marched through the village to an elevated plot of land. They sat in a file, with one child in front leading the prayers. They offered nimaz, but could not remember the suras. The younger ones were poorly synchronised. They struggled to keep up and looked to the older children for guidance. Four mujahids stood guard, brandishing their weapons to ward off attacks from the army. They pushed away onlookers and requested them not to disrupt their prayers. Passing villagers laughed at their game and joked about the way the youngest of them sat.

As they stood up and marched back, the contest resumed. The military took positions and shouted out instructions to attack. Just then, their commander yelled, “Thahar! goel mat chalav!”—Hold fire! So that the mujahids could take positions too.

The battle went on for many hours. After the nimaz break, they took breaks for lunch, tea and tuition, and finally retired into the night after a last, late-evening stand-off. One of the mujahids was attacked on his way to a tuition teacher’s home. He fought valiantly, but his face, hair and pheran got plastered with mud brought in polythene and hidden in pockets. Two from the military camp were captured by the other side. They were beaten and made to sit on their haunches, and their weapons were seized. The mujahids won the game. The team lifted their commander, the girl in the pheran, on their shoulders and took out a victory procession. She waved to a visibly cheerful, indulgent neighbourhood.

A keen onlooker invited us to his house for the night. He told us that some years ago, while playing this game, children had hung a local boy by a drawstring from a tree. The kid was the commander of the army camp. Luckily, villagers caught glimpse of this and rescued the boy. “They play with such passion!” He laughed with an unmistakable sense of pride. We watched a video on his phone, which showed the girl in the green pheran performing ragda—a rhythmic form of protest specific to Kashmir. It is led by one person in the middle, who shouts slogans while the rest clap and circle around her. We were told it had gone viral.


IN JUNE 2017, we travelled down to a village near the town of Sopore, to meet a 45-year-old former militant, whom we had heard of from common friends and acquaintances. She invited us into her modest, single-storied brick house and offered us noonchai—salt tea—with bakarkhani, Kashmiri bread. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of her kitchen, she looked like many Kashmiri mothers—a long nose studded with a star-shaped nose-pin, cheeks hollowed out in a way that detracted from her light complexion.

“There was a time when militants used to march around in the streets and women would sing wanwun”—folk songs of Kashmir, traditionally sung by women on auspicious ceremonies such as weddings—“showering flowers while walking along with them. I have seen such times, even though I was very young then.” The time was also marked by violence. Some of her memories, she told us, still make her scream with horror in her dreams. “As I grew up, we saw terror engulf our lives,” she said. “Numerous army camps came up all across the valley. Each nurtured a reputation of terror and impunity. Medals and rewards were showered on officers who killed. It was a competition. I can’t forget sights of mutilated bodies dumped in our village. Such barbarity, such terror. What can I say about it now? How do I describe what we went through? You’ll never understand. It’s never happened to you, the way it happened to us.”

She kept attempting to describe the stench of rotten flesh or the sounds of the cries of the tortured and the wailing of mothers, but words seemed to fail her. “My cousin’s son was so petrified of midnight raids, all the beating and burning, that he stopped sleeping at night after he was 14,” she said. “His friend had been taken by the army, brutally tortured, and his body dumped in the forest. My nephew saw his body, three weeks after he was taken, rotting in the forest.” The body was bruised all over and mutilated: the skull was cracked and nails pulled out. The nephew was a school boy in the tenth grade at the time. “My nephew was traumatised for months. He stopped eating, going to school or meeting with friends.” She withdrew to adjust the stole over her head, her face frozen with fear and her eyes vivid with recollections. She got up to check on her younger son, who sat towards the other end of the L-shaped kitchen, working his way through his mathematics homework.

“In the 1990s, many men left to join the militants and crossed the LoC to get weapons and training”, she continued. “Be te drayas, kalas chenirekh kareth”—I too shed the fear of death and joined them—she said with a subdued laugh, as she picked up crumbs from the carpet beneath.

The 45-year-old had joined Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, or HM, while she was still in school. “Those days were different. There was optimism,” she said. “There was such passion for freedom. We felt as if independence was just around the corner. I too joined the upsurge.” Was she ever scared? “Yes, of course. We were all scared. Fear was all around us, all the time. But I was doing something to fight.”

She did not know much about the organisation. “But they were the only ones fighting in our area,” she said. She was not interested in advancing up the ranks. “I simply wanted to help, to contribute.” She knew that her cousin had been in contact with the area commander of the outfit. She approached him and expressed her urge to join, but he reprimanded her and told her that women are not suited for this kind of work. “He told me, ‘You will be jeopardising their cover since you’re silly and too young,’” she said. “It wasn’t because women weren’t doing that sort of work, there were numerous such women. He said so because I was his cousin and it would earn our family a bad name in the village.” She added that women were not allowed to do certain kinds of work. “If your father is alive, he shouldn’t let his daughter get into this,” she said. Her father kept trying to stop her after he found out about her efforts. “I was always difficult, even as a child. I couldn’t tolerate injustice,” she said. “My mother would tell you that her hair greyed because of me … I would always pick up fights,” she said, smiling. So when parents, relatives, siblings demanded that she stop, she didn’t. “It was a duty call,” she explained.

Despite her cousin’s admonition, she persisted. “I was young and stubborn,” she told us. Her fights with her family increased and she almost stopped visiting her relatives. “It was tough, to work without much acknowledgement or reward. My friends who worked with me praised my skills and encouraged me often. That was enough.”

She approached HM through a friend of a friend, who ran a shawl-weaving centre in a neighbouring village. As an apprentice, she would deliver letters, coded messages, fake identity-cards and information. Gradually, she was approached for other tasks—managing hideouts for militants in the locality, corroborating the identities of individuals and sharing information on suspected informers. She felt proud at being perceived as reliable, honest and courageous. They recognised it and she was satisfied. Her regular assignments were delivering AK-47s, hand grenades and Kalashnikovs to desired locations. She did this successfully for three years. “I used to carry weapons in my burqa and once had to use a basket full of cow dung to smuggle out weapons,” she recalled with a smile. “I had to be quick, they were coming to search the house. So I hid them in cow dung and walked out to the fields.”

She began knotting her stole as she revisited a night that still brings back horrific memories. We asked her to continue only if she wanted to. She responded, “Kath gasse wannen saerei”—a story must be told in its entirety. “One winter in 1997, I had arranged shelter for four militants in a nearby village,” the 45-year-old said. “I stayed on in the same house that night, since it got late and very cold. I couldn’t sleep well that night because I had fever and a cough.” Around 3 am, she heard some movement and quickly alerted everyone. “Army”—Rashtriya Rifles—“surrounded the entire village and cordoned off the house they were in. Fortunately, the militants managed to escape but one got shot in the leg. Armymen later killed him and burnt the entire house down. They took me by my hair, dragged me into the van and drove away.” Villagers gathered and ran after the vehicle to rescue her. She was taken to a nearby army camp and was “mercilessly and repeatedly beaten, molested, tortured.” She told us that her “clothes were torn and I became unconscious after a couple of hours.” The locals managed to have her released in the evening. The army had questioned her repeatedly about locations, hideouts, the identities of certain militants and so on, but she did not reveal a thing, she told us proudly. “A woman gave her pheran to me when they came to take me away,” she said. She could not have betrayed her people.

Her life since has been difficult in a different way. She has to work hard to feed her family since her husband does not have a steady job. Once she decided to fight, her battles began multiplying. “The police and army used to frequently barge into our house, threaten my younger sisters and brother, harass my parents and keep a close watch on my family,” she said. They would also frequently threaten her parents if they didn’t cooperate. The everyday harassment, suspicion and surveillance that her family went through because of her “broke her back,” she said. Her family drifted away from her, since her siblings, particularly her younger sister, blamed her. Her father passed away two years later. She and her sisters found it immensely challenging to get married. “Here it is difficult for a woman to find a good match if it’s known that she was picked up,” she explained. “I knew it then, but I didn’t care. Who knows what that means until you face it? I was young and burning up from inside.” She thought she would never get married. “Earlier, lots of men used to propose to me and had expressed their desire to marry me. I turned them down.” Six years later, in June, 2003, she married her cousin, who she said was kind enough to accept her as his wife. “He’s a religious man,” she said. “He has never discussed any of this with me after we married.” She told us she had no regrets and still supported the movement in her heart. “Kashmir must be free,” she said. “They don’t belong here. It’s our home.” There were many such women who gave up their normal lives and risked everything to be part of the movement, she told us.

Khuda chu zaanan dillan hend haal”—god knows what I have in my heart—she said, “and he has rewarded me. I have two sons and an honest husband. I have always done what I thought was right and just. We have little but we live with dignity.”

We asked if she still wanted to participate in the movement. “I’m a married woman now,” she said. “There are other younger ones out there. I have responsibilities towards my children and husband. I’ve done my part.”

Today, some may see the 45-year-old as a living martyr of the movement. Her life is a testimony to the zealous participation of numerous Kashmiri women in the struggle for freedom: those who fight with guns, stones, or simply with their hearts. It is time we acknowledge their routines of resistance.


AROUND THE TIME WE MET the 45-year-old former militant, we came across another astonishing tale of resistance that took place in a small village near Dooru in Anantnag.

By 1993, HM had become a popular force. People helped them in every way they could. “They would often come, groups of five, at times even ten or twelve, and we would feed them, give them shelter and keep them safe,” baaji, a 58-year-old resident of the village, said. “They were like my sons. Some were as young as 15, younger than my son was then.” Baaji, as elderly women are referred to in Kashmir, explained to us the people’s support for HM: “They are fighting for us after all, why wouldn’t we.” She added, however, that people were also risking their lives constantly to save the militants. “They must not cross certain boundaries,” she said, firmly.

One night that year, the militants visited one of her neighbours, who lived down the lane. “One militant made unwelcome advances towards one of his daughters,” she told us. “She resisted and told her mother about it the next day. She was understandably upset and scared. Those days were terrifying, as incidents of militants killing for petty reasons were not rare. People were too petrified to refuse them anything.” She said that while some of the militants were kind, a few were “mawael,” or goons. “They were looking for instant power,” she said. “One had to be careful. How does one just question men with guns?” Most people, afraid of getting into conflicts with the militants, would simply ignore any misdemeanours, which is how her neighbours also tried to handle it. “They hoped it would not happen again,” she said. “But he started stalking her, sending messages, threatening her with consequences if she didn’t agree to marry him. He did unspeakable things to their young daughter. The family was distraught and going through much trauma. This was outrageous and unacceptable.”

Around the same time, a group of militants, including the commander for the area, came to visit the 58-year-old’s house. She decided to confront the commander. “I picked him up by the collar, hit him and dragged him out of my house,” she said. “I did not care if they shot me. I had daughters in the house, and even though I supported the militants always, I was not willing to risk my daughters’ lives.” The area commander was furious, but wanted to know what had made her angry. “By then the neighbours had gathered,” she said. “I told them they are not welcome in our village since one of their men was responsible for harassing a girl who was like a daughter to me. I threatened him and asked him to never return to our village.” She hoped that they would view her actions as genuine criticism of the movement. “But I was scared,” she admitted. “What if he shoots me in anger?” She convinced the entire village, and nearby villages, not to help the militants in any way. Three days later, the girl’s stalker was found dead in the local market. He had been shot in the head and his penis had been chopped off. “HM announced a public apology from the mosques and sought forgiveness,” she told us. “They assured us that their organisation does not support such behaviour and would deal with such acts in the strictest possible manner.” The incident gave HM unparalleled popularity, which still endures.

When we asked her about her life over the last few decades, her response was poetic, “Aes chu wuchmuth taaf te bae shuhul te”—We have stood witness to the sun and the shade. Baaji spends most of her time farming, but the label of a farmer does little to convey the exceptional resolve and nerve that is needed to lead an ordinary life in a Kashmiri village. Baaji told us that she was one of only three women from the village who continued tilling their fields during the horrific period in the 1990s and early 2000s when Ikhwan—a state-sponsored militia used for anti-insurgency operations—ruled the countryside as if it was a fiefdom, and used state power to settle personal scores. She said she was too poor to stay indoors.