On 5 August 2019, the Indian government annulled Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and split Indian-administered Kashmir into two federally-administered territories. Astonishingly, the promotion of women’s rights was invoked as one of the discourses to justify the revocation of Kashmiri autonomy, whilst at the same time there have been widespread reports of gender-based violence by Indian troops.
In the run up to the abrogation, the central government mobilised a million troops across the territory of Kashmir in parallel with the unlawful arrest of over 4,000 civilians (especially young boys), widespread use of torture, sexual molestation and harassment of Kashmiri women, together with a climate of extraordinary repression against the local population. Curbs on the media have restricted public access to information on Kashmir.
In addition to these measures, the central government imposed a crippling communications blackout: internet, landline and mobile services were cut off; Kashmiris could no longer stay in touch with each other or know what was happening to them, or indeed about them in Kashmir, or in the world at large. Landline and mobile services have since been partially restored but the ban on the internet continues.
Kashmir is the world’s oldest unresolved conflict in the world. Partitioned between India and Pakistan without popular consent in 1948, the territory of Jammu and Kashmir in India, or Kashmir as it has come to be known, transformed into an international dispute between both states. The attempt to contain a political conflict through military means has been synonymous with large-scale human rights abuse by state forces including high levels of gendered violence over seven decades.
As Kashmir transformed into the world’s most militarised region, the challenges of Kashmiri women were multiple and daunting. A report by Médecins Sans Frontières on women’s health in Kashmir noted that Kashmiri women were subject to high levels sexual and gender-based violence including rape. Indian security forces were indicted for rape and sexual assault. In February 1991, army soldiers allegedly raped more than 30 women in Kunan Poshpora. In July 2019, a UNHCR report affirmed that no progress in the investigation had taken place even as the state authorities continued to thwart the survivor’s struggle for justice.
In addition to forms of direct violence, the conflict has extracted a deadly and tragic price from Kashmiri women by way of, among others, the loss of the family breadwinner and male kin, large numbers of widows and half widows, the emergence of female-headed households, threats to women’s bodily and sexual integrity, a rise in women’s economic vulnerability, especially of underprivileged women, a mental health crisis among Kashmiri women, and the social exclusion and marginalisation of widows.
In 2019, gender has been deployed in political discourse around the abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomy. Among the justifications for rescinding Article 370 was ‘gender inequality’ in women’s property rights. Proponents of revocation argued that the Article disallowed Kashmiri women married to non-Kashmiris from inheriting or holding property in the state. This particular argument however was factually incorrect. A 2002 High Court ruling affirmed the right of Kashmiri women marrying non-Kashmiris to own property. Another key public justification for rescinding Kashmir’s autonomy was the stated ‘backwardness’ of Kashmiri women – a claim belied by the consistently superior social indices for women in Kashmir as compared to their counterparts in India.
Apart from the instrumental use of women’s rights to legitimise state action in Kashmir, the ruling party’s post-revocation statements have been infused with racist and sexist metaphors. Members of the ruling party hailed the removal of Kashmir’s special rights as an opportunity for greater Hindu access to (Muslim) Kashmir’s land and Kashmiri women’s bodies. A ruling party legislator declared his party workers were excited they could now get married to ‘fair Kashmiri girls’. Nivedita Menon, a feminist academic, underscored the imperialist, sexist and misogynist sub-text underpinning the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy: ‘These are proclamations of conquest and plunder, and reveal the real intention behind the abrogation of 370’.
Kashmiri women’s resistance
Notwithstanding the relentless siege and brutality, the breakdown in civilian life, and the violence and torture, Kashmiri women such as Anjum Zamrooda Habib and Parveena Ahanger have publicly resisted the Indian occupation. Anjum Zamrooda works with families of political prisoners while Parveena Ahanger has transformed her personal tragedy of a disappeared son into a larger civic movement for public accountability for the disappeared. Women’s resistance, however, is often not given the attention or importance it deserves. Kashmir is no exception to this trend. Recent research affirms the multiple and continuing resistance by Kashmiri girls and women across generations in the wake of post-5 August developments: as decoys, militants, stone-pelters and street protestors.
Women’s individual and collective support for the Kashmiri struggle for justice and freedom continues despite formidable odds. A ground report documented women’s spirit of resistance in the wake of the abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomy: a young woman in the capital city of Srinagar said she could not think of anything but ‘our Azaadi (freedom)…we hardly care about any pellet or bullet’. The report further noted the numerous women-only rallies in Srinagar; it also described how young women took to patrolling Srinagar’s rebellious Anchar neighbourhood with men in order to thwart police raids. Rehana, a teacher said:
Our fight is bigger than Article 370. The abrogation of the article stripped us off our identity, however our battle is older than this. We are fighting for Kashmir’s liberation and until that is achieved we will keep fighting, even if it takes several months or years.
Hafsa Kanjwal, a Kashmiri scholar, points out that India’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy has refocused world attention on Kashmir as a political dispute. For the first time in 50 years, the UN Security Council held a closed door hearing on Kashmir. UNHCR reports on Kashmir in 2018 and 2019, recent US Congressional hearings on Kashmir, and the statements of US Democratic Party Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn acknowledging Kashmir as a disputed territory awaiting the implementation of UN resolutions indicate a discernible shift in international political and policy discourse. A recent US House of Representatives resolution called on India to end the communications blockade and mass detentions in Kashmir.
When or whether international opinion forces India to allow Kashmiris the right to determine their political future, as promised to them in 1947, remains to be seen. Kashmiri feminist scholar Hafsa Kanjwal spiritedly maintains:
‘the inability or sheer refusal to see the writing on the wall…has marked India’s position on Kashmir. But the unravelling of this position is giving way to a new movement – one that can no longer be contained.’
Seema Kazi is Associate Professor of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in Delhi. Recent publications include Gender and Governance: Perspectives from South Asia (Zubaan Academic 2019), and Between Democracy and Nation: Gender and Militarisation in Kashmir (Women Unlimited 2009; Oxford University Press 2010)
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