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Mothers of the Disappeared in Kashmir
It's difficult for a journalist visiting Kashmir to return without meeting her, for hers is one face of resilience in the 22-year Kashmir conflict. The unlettered Parveena Ahangar has been the voice of families left traumatized and bereaved in this protracted unrest.
Her placid face masks the ordeal she has endured. But as chairperson of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), she leads from the front. She does not give up hope.
Ahangar's tryst with Indian authorities began in June 1990 when her 14-year-old son Mohammed was picked up by security forces following a raid on their Srinagar home. A curfew prevented the family from venturing out that night, and they were not allowed to meet him at the local police station the following day. The family was told that he would remain in custody until proved innocent. They could finally meet Mohammed at Udhampur, where he had been shifted. They were given the impression that the youngster had been found innocent and would be released soon. This, however, took a year.
Meanwhile, on August 18 of that year, there was another raid in their locality. This time Javed, Ahangar's 16-year-old son, was picked up for interrogation. The last she had seen of him had been earlier that evening when he had left for his typing classes. Then began a night without end. The local police station told them that Javed was in the local military hospital. But he wasn't. Rumors kept trickling in, on and off. Someone would report seeing him in some jail somewhere, but it would turn out to be a dead end. The family kept running from pillar to post. They kept pursuing threads that led nowhere.
Every time she mentions her son, Ahangar breaks down. Having seen the grit on her face earlier, you don't expect her to. "But I am a mother," she apologizes, and carries on.
Police stations, interrogation centers, hospitals—she did not leave a possibility to chance. Distressed but undeterred, Ahangar in 1994 mobilized 300-odd aggrieved families of people who had disappeared. She, with the help of lawyers, established APDP.
"I had no choice but to start this organization, since no justice was done to me. While hunting for my son, I came across many other families who too had been searching for their loved ones. So, I decided to mobilize the women, especially from villages. That's how APDP came to be established." According to APDP estimates, between 8,000 and 10,000 men have disappeared in Kashmir since armed insurrection began in the Valley in 1989. Official figures themselves concede a total of 3,000. "We are bombarded with lies by the government all the time. They make our truths with their lies," she said.
The association's members meet regularly to extend physical and emotional support to each other. They share experiences, information and, most importantly, hope. They organize demonstrations and hunger strikes, and are often assaulted and heckled. In 1998, APDP suffered a setback when an unidentified gunman killed the vice chairperson Halima and her son. Ahangar and her comrades suspect pro-government militants, but no arrests were ever made. Meanwhile, she and two other Kashmiri women were in 2005 nominated among 1,000 women from around the world for the Nobel Prize.
Her personal life remained a troubled one. They had not informed Mohammed of his brother's disappearance initially. They had lost one son, they did not want to lose another to trauma. On his release in June 1991, he was indeed shocked to know of Javed's fate. The family had expected the worst, but Mohammed went on to complete his studies and now works in sales. The daughter, Sayema, then a toddler, today helps in the APDP office. Ahangar's husband, Ghulam, remained plagued by health problems. He suffered a slipped disc several years back, and because of this back problem he mostly stays at home. Ghulam, a mechanic she had been married off to at the tender age of 12, had to undergo a number of operations, including having his toes amputated.
All this while Ahangar resolutely ran the beleaguered household, from tending to the children to chasing up the case in courts and corridors of power. From arm-twisting tactics to offers that sought to buy her out, she had to face every trick in the game. "There was this Col Joshi who offered me Rs 1 million to give up my pursuit. I refused. I told him I don't want jobs or money; I just want my son back."
Twenty-one years later, she remains as unyielding. And as hopeful.
She may have studied only through fifth grade, but Ahangar does her homework well. "As far as I know, laws are meant to be for the benefit of the people. But what are these laws we have here? The Armed Forces [Special Powers] Act (AFSPA) must go. It has only brought untold misery to the people of Kashmir." The AFSPA makes prosecution of armed forces by civilian courts impossible. Special sanction is required to proceed with investigations against them. So far no sanction has been granted. Court martials held in secret provide no opportunity for families to render their testimonies.
Her colleague at APDP, Zahoor Wani, stresses the need for India to ratify the International Convention for Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. Until such time, the crime of enforced disappearances will not be codified as a distinct offense in Indian penal laws.
For someone who needs her own Nobel citation to be read out, Ahangar is extremely media-savvy. "I am always thankful to journalists. Had it not been for the media, tales of our woes would have never seeped out of Kashmir." She makes the point, and in the same breath expresses her gratitude for lawyers who have fought cases tirelessly. "Lawyers fight cases for free. But if judges don't have the power to try the army, what is it that they can do? The AFSPA must go."
Subir Ghosh is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He blogs at http://www.write2kill.in. The APDP website is http://www.disappearancesinkashmir.com/.