Decades of conflict have produced many ‘half-widows’ whose husbands have disappeared but are not declared deceased. Decked by thick deodar forests, terraced corn fields, apple orchards and jagged mountains, the hamlet of Dardpora tucked in the northern rim of Indian-administered Kashmir looks idyllic.
But scratch a little deeper and the wounds of decades of conflict sweeping across the region open up when its 300-odd widows and ‘half widows’ (women whose husbands have disappeared but not yet been declared deceased) describe the pain of losing their husbands in course of the ongoing rebellion.
“His disappearance is still a mystery,” says Begum Jaan, 52, whose husband Shamsuddin Pasal left home for evening prayers in 1998 to never return again.
Dardpora, which paradoxically means “abode of pain”, is almost 140km north of summer capital Srinagar and lies in Kupwara district close to the de-facto border Line of Control (LoC) that cuts Kashmir into Indian-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
This hamlet was once a major transit point for the young Independence-seeking Kashmiris to trek up the treacherous mountains and cross into Pakistan for weapons training in early 90s. Those returning with arms to fight Indian troops would halt in this rural area before melting in the urban Kashmir.
Jaan says many village men joined the rebels and those like her husband were either taken away by unidentified forces or killed in the deadly skirmishes that would often erupt when Indian troops would bump into armed rebels’ hideaways.
“Sometimes rebels used civilians as guides. Other times army forced villagers to lead search operations in the forests. Not many returned to their families. We still wait for our husbands. They may be alive. Who knows? But then they should have returned,” she asks.
Bibi Fatima’s story isn’t different either.
It was in 1993 when her husband Vilayat Shah, a daily wager, left home in search for work. Fatima, 65, waited for his return for ten days but he was nowhere to be found.
“I searched him for months. Except for the army camps I searched for him everywhere. And one day I just gave up,” Fatima says, adding, “We are illiterate people. In this far-away unreported world we do not have any information how to proceed with the case legally.”
Snow-capped Kashmir has been in upheaval ever since the armed rebellion began in 1989.
Over 70,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the disputed territory claimed by both India and Pakistan who rule it in two parts but claim it in entirety.
In 2009, the Guinness Book of World Records declared Kashmir as the “planet’s largest militarised area”.
The unresolved conflict has resulted in untold miseries, including the misfortune that befell the women whose husbands have disappeared without a trace.
Since their husbands are not confirmed dead, they are officially not considered widows. Instead, the locals see them as “half-widows”.
Alive or in mass graves
The government doesn’t have a figure on Kashmir’s half-widows but a report “Half widow, Half Wife? Responding to Gendered Violence in Kashmir” by a key human rights group in the region Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS) estimates the number of ‘half-widows’ at around 1,500.
The report prepared after its survey in north Kashmir’s Baramullah district – one of the 22 districts of Indian-administered Kashmir – also calls on the Indian authorities to investigate the 2700 unnamed, mass graves JKCCS identified in 2009 and find out who are buried in these graves.
Media has only sold our tragedies. We are fed-up with giving out interviews. Will your report bring back my husband?
Bano Begum, half-widow, Dardpora, Indian-administered Kashmir
“These men could be buried in mass graves too,” says Khurram Parvez of JKCCS. “That’s why we are asking the state government and New Delhi to identify the dead in these graves using DNA examination. Apart from half widows, this could also help families of some 10,000 disappeared people end decades-long search and ultimately their pain.”
Many have accused Indian troops of abducting civilians, murdering them in staged encounters and concealing the crime by labelling the dead as unknown rebels when they are handed over to locals for burial.
“We have several cases in which a civilian was buried after authorities labelled them foreign rebels. This is because if the troops kill a foreign rebel, they are paid higher rewards and honoured with medals and promotions. No soldier was ever punished for killing civilians in these cases,” Parvez argues.
Indian authorities deny such accusations and say the disappeared men could be stranded in Pakistan-administered Kashmir after having crossed the LoC to engage in rebellion activities.
“That’s why we floated militants’ rehabilitation policy. We wanted all the men to come back from the other side of the LoC so that we get to know who is alive and who isn’t,” explains Tanvir Sadiq, an adviser to the Indian-administered Kashmir’s chief minister.
“Regarding mass graves, we can’t open them. It’s an Islamic area. It will hurt people’s sentiments,” he told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. “We also want to establish a truth and reconciliation commission which will help reveal everything that has happened in Kashmir during the conflict.”
Sadiq says the government has schemes that offer relief to these women, but the half widows claim they rarely taste the benefits of such schemes.
“Nobody supports us financially. And the government’s monthly 200 rupees (app $3.5) is too little to survive on especially when you have children,” says Bano Begum (55) of Dardpora which is almost devoid of adult males.
Begum’s husband Salamdin Khatana was dragged out of his small hut in 1996 by unidentified armed men. As usual her search began. But it ended when after three days a shepherd informed the family of heavy firing in the mountains in which her husband was killed.
“But I never saw his body,” she says, adding “This area was called then ‘Chotta Pakistan (little Pakistan) because of the presence of large number of rebels and Indian soldiers. We would never venture out in the evenings. The shepherd warned against going up in the mountains. That’s why I didn’t get to see my husband’s body or grave.”
Remarriage: A rare choice
Wives of disappeared men often face various socio-economic and emotional uncertainties. Since most of the disappeared men are from rural Kashmir, these widows usually live impoverished lives. And because of religious and societal pressures, most of the half-widows don’t re-marry.
“I’ve a handicapped son. I couldn’t have looked after him if I had remarried another man,” Bano Begum says, adding “And what if my husband returns?”
The biggest dilemma faced by the half widows is that in the absence of their bread winners, they have to rely on their in-laws or parents for their economic need with their property and custody rights undetermined.
Economic relief such as ration cards or transfer of husband’s property or bank accounts are also difficult to get as these processes require death certificate which of course half widows generally do not have as their husbands are officially not recognised as deceased.
Under Islamic jurisprudence, a widow with children gets one-eighth of her husband’s property. A widow without children gets one-fourth. A half-widow, till her husband is declared dead, gets nothing.
“Second marriage is often considered a taboo in our society. There is a social stigma attached to it. And when it comes to property issues, it is always a death of a husband that makes a widow eligible for property rights. In half widows’ cases such an option doesn’t exist,” explains Dr Sheikh Showkat, who teaches law and human rights in the Central University of Kashmir.
Dr Showkat says the Dissolution of The Muslim Marriage Act legally offers relief to such women who may pursue divorce if “the whereabouts of the husband have not been known for a period of four years”.
“And if after the second marriage, her first husband arrives the first marriage stands dissolved,” he says.
However, there are some different views as well.
According to prominent Islamic scholar, Mufti Abdul Rashid of Srinagar, a woman whose husband remains disappeared has to seek help from a Muslim judge in locating her husband for one year.
“If the judge fails to trace her husband, he can dissolve the marriage and allow her perform another Nikkah (marriage),” argues Rashid, who comes from the Deobandi sect of Sunni Mulsims . “If the first husband appears after her Nikkah, the second marriage will be dissolved.”
Earlier, according to the Hanafi sect of Sunni Mulsims, the wife of a disappeared person was supposed to wait for 90 years after which she can remarry.
Mufti Qamar-ud-Din, another Islamic scholar, however, says the waiting period now stands reduced ( as agreed by Islamic scholars) to four years and ten days.
“So a women can remarry after this time. But if the first husband appears, the second marriage will automatically break. She will have to abandon her second husband and live with her first husband,” he explains.
Rights groups say not a single disappeared husband has returned so far in the past 24 years of conflict.
Meanwhile, their half-widows are at the end of their tether and often take out their frustration against visiting journalists.
“We have become specimens,” says Bano Begum. “Hundreds of people with cameras, pen and copies have visited our place, interviewed us and then never returned like our husbands. They have sold our tragedies. We are fed-up with giving out interviews. Will your report bring back my husband?”
Her anger-laced voice tails off. What festers is her suffering in Dardpora – the abode of pain.
Follow Baba Umar on Twitter at @BabaUmarr