By Basharat Shameem
The armed conflict in Kashmir appears unrelenting, having already taken a heavy toll on human life. The magnitude of the suffering brought about by the conflict is unprecedented. Shahnaz Bashir is one of the emerging indigenous voices that have taken it upon themselves to narrate and to “write back to the centre.” That centre which has remained oblivious to the collective suffering of Kashmiris in the past 27 years. Shahnaz Bashir’s debut novel The Half Mother offers a fresh perspective on the reality of the conflict in Kashmir through literary imagination, by attempting to highlight the predicament of Kashmiris who have lived under the debilitating shadows of military oppression. The focus is clearly on the adverse impact of the conflict on Kashmiri women who have endured a tough existence under the conditions. It is an aspect of the conflict that has been neglected by the world.
The novel is set in the Kashmir of 1990s when it erupted in an armed uprising against Indian rule. It was the commencement of a violent phase in Kashmir’s history when strikes, protests, killings, bomb blasts and encounters became frequent. Just as Shahnaz Bashir describes in the novel:
The year 1990. As the insurgency in the valley intensified, the government resigned, paving the way for governor’s rule. Tears, blood, death and war followed, as did curfews, crackdowns, raids, encounters, killings, bunkers, an exodus of people, burning of markets, schools and buildings. Shafiqa’s sons, Shaheen Bhat (an exceptional student of science and math) and Imran Bhat (budding footballer) are the first two boys in Natipora to cross the border to Pakistan. Her daughter Rukhsana became the first woman in Natipora to be beaten and stripped naked in front of her captured parents by the troops. Shabeer Ahmad was the first in Natipora who was killed by the army by pumping 23 bullets into his body after he refused to remove a Pakistani flag off a telegraph pole. Farmer Ramzaan Dar’s ripe paddy was set on fire when he refused to hand over his son Riyaz to the army. Hundreds of thousands began to march on every street and road in an endless stream of processions. Men, women, children, old, young—all. Their green headbands, the banners they brandished, the flags they waved, the placards they held, the slogans they shouted and painted on the walls repeated the same word over and over: Azaadi.
Among other tragic realities of the oppression, the novel brings to center stage a recurring case in Kashmir during the 1990s—the issue of enforced disappearances. The tale of Haleema’s teenage son Imran, who is arrested by the Indian army and then subjected to an enforced disappearance, forms the locus of the narrative. There are no charges against Imran; he is just a bright teenager who had got nothing to do with the militancy. Yet, he is picked up because the military wants to do all kinds of brutality on the dissenting Kashmiris. This scene is repeated all over Kashmir as the authoritarian Indian state, represented by its powerful military, is against the common Kashmiri. In the novel, this state brutality is symbolized by Major Aman Kushwaha. He wants to let Kashmiris “see what happens when” they have dared to “rebel against India”. Imran is not the only victim of the ‘enforced disappearance’. There are many other Kashmiris who vanished in thin air and resulted in thousands of ‘half widows’ as they are called in Kashmir, and also, as the title of the novel tells us, ‘half mothers’. This dreadful reality is revealed by the creation of Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in Kashmir, which estimates the number of enforced disappearances between 1989 and 2009 to be more than 8,000.
The women in the novel, largely symbolized by its main character Haleema, indisputably appear as suffering beings. In any state of conflict, children and women are always the most awful victims because of their added vulnerability. Chandra Talpade Mohanty interprets the predicament of women caught in the midst of various forms of turmoil thus; “Women have never been secure within (or without) the nation state – they are always disproportionately affected by war, forced migration, famine, and other forms of social, political, and economic turmoil”.
In conflict zones such as Kashmir, it has been repeatedly found that violence on the bodies of women, in the form of rape or other forms of sexual assault, serves as a mechanism of political suppression. Such acts of bodily duress are underscored by an idea of keeping a woman in complete confinement and submission.
As illustrated by the lives of Haleema and other women in The Half Mother, women are put under extreme emotional pressure by detaining or killing their nearest male relatives. Human Rights Watch investigations and other studies in Kashmir and other conflict zones have revealed that rape and sexual assault on women are integral parts of these conflicts. Since most of the cultures put weight on women’s chastity and honour, the oppressive forces attempt to violate that it in order to impair the whole community.
Jennifer Hyndman and Wenona Giles argue, “Gender relations and identities are first deployed in sites of militarized conflict to incite, exacerbate, and fuel violence”. The existence of draconian laws in Kashmir like AFSPA, which give complete impunity to soldiers, openly authorizes sexual assault and molestation of women and suppresses their fundamental right to life of dignity and safety.
In Kashmir, rape and molestation by Indian security forces mostly happen during crackdowns, cordon-and-search operations, during which men are held for identification in open fields away from the residential localities. In one such crackdown in the novel, Rukhsana, a militant’s sister is beaten and stripped naked before the eyes of her parents. Her mother, Shafiqa, is also cruelly beaten. She is also threatened that if her sons don’t surrender, Rukhsana will be kidnapped. Using women as a soft target, this is deliberately done by the oppressors to achieve specific political and military objectives.
Haleema’s father is brutally killed before her eyes by the bloodthirsty forces for the slightest offence of daring to argue with the soldiers. As if this was not enough, her son, Imran, the only family person left in her family and life, is subjected to enforced disappearance by the same forces. After this, Haleema’s life becomes a trail of deprivation, helplessness and oppressive loneliness, the “absurdity” of which “was difficult to express in words”. She tells Izhar, “Dear, something more tragic has happened since Ab Jaan’s death, and it has not given me even the time to mourn him properly. Something more painful”.
The extreme emotional and psychological turbulence that grips her stems from not knowing about her son’s fate. In desperation, she goes to every prison, detention centre, army camp, and police station in search for her son, but he is to be seen nowhere. She comes across callous authorities, cheap politicians, helpless civil officials, unresponsive justice system, and partisan media. A police official, expressing abject helplessness in the face of military domination, tells her, “It has been a long time since we filed an FIR. A long, long time. Actually, we cannot lodge an FIR against the army. Our job is now confined to identifying, carrying and delivering dead bodies to their families”.
If anything, the police official’s words are an indication of the grim reality of the life in Kashmir in 1990s; Indian army managed and controlled everything. In all this Haleema is confronted with an excruciating longing for her son, but she refuses to dread the worst. She takes an illusionary solace of finding some light amidst all the darkness that surrounds her life. She tries to take comfort in an Imam’s words who tells her, “The greatest of sufferings bring the greatest of hopes, the greatest of miseries greatest patience, and the greatest of uncertainties lead to the greatest quests”. She ties a votive thread at a shrine praying that “the knot will be untied when I will have found him, perhaps”. In spite of her immense struggle, Haleema has a realisation deep inside her heart that she is fighting a lost battle.
Haleema’s suffering becomes an embodiment of the suffering of the people of her nation living under the unbearable shadows of oppression. She is forced into submission and depravity by her oppressors. Haleema’s story reverberates beyond her individual story, and becomes representative of the tragic lives of the people of Kashmir living under India’s military siege and oppression. The narrative is as much about Haleema’s self as about the space she inhabits. Her emotional numbness and psychological turmoil corresponds to the collective voicelessness and dispossession of a people numbed into silence by the saga of military oppression about which the world has chosen to close its eyes. Haleema is changed from a psychological and subjective being into a historical agent actively taking part in the historical action. Through her narrative the perspectives of other Kashmiris – of children, the fathers, the sons, the daughters, the mothers, the wives, and even of the repressive establishment, also come to fore. These different perspectives put up variedly enunciated points of view regarding the particular historical situation faced by Kashmiris. All characters in the novel become active participants in a historical process.
The representation of Kashmir’s armed conflict in the official accounts and media have never truly echoed the happenings on the ground. As a consequence, many vital aspects pertaining to the conflict have been confined to obscurity from the eyes of the outside world. In other words, an important historical phase of the oppressed Kashmiris has got confiscated in the hands of their oppressors since the latter are in control of everything pertaining to Kashmiris.
In the novel, this aspect is reflected in the words of Haleema’s father, Ab Jaan, who tells Imran after the latter was badly scolded by his Pandit teacher for daring to ask about Kashmir’s history: “Everything has a history. And we have a firm history. Our own history. Except the fact that it has never seen the light of day…Because some people don’t want it to be there. Not a bit of it. They don’t want us to know ourselves. They don’t want us to learn about who we are”.
The novelist, through these words, is alluding to the history of Kashmir which has been appropriated by India and Pakistan to suit their hegemonic designs. These two nation-states have become the tellers of master narratives in the context of Kashmir.
According to critic Barbara Harlow, “the writers of the resistance movements consider it necessary to wrest that expropriated historicity back, re-appropriate it for themselves in order to reconstruct a new world-historical order”.
Shahnaz Bashir’s novel like that of his fellow compatriots aims to do the same in the context of the ‘charged’ historical situation of their motherland. In doing so, they are producing literature, which in Ghassan Kanafani’s words “rejects the old sentimental outbursts and emerges with a unique feeling of profound sadness more commensurate with the realities of the situation”.
This kind of literature resonates with the struggling Kashmiris’ nationalist aspirations. It strives to reclaim the lost records and in Salman Rushdie’s words “enters such arguments, because what is being disputed is nothing less than what the case, what is truth is and what untruth.” Rushdie goes on to put further onus on the writers: “If writers leave the business of making pictures of the world to politicians, it will be one of history‘s great and most abject abdications… there is a genuine need for political fiction, for books that draw new and better maps of reality, and make new languages with which we can understand the world.”
The Half Mother brings to prominence through literary imagination the voices and aspirations of a suppressed people whose lives have been cast into silence.
—Basharat Shameem is Lecturer in English Literature Directorate of Distance Education, University of Kashmir.
—This article first appeared on countercurrents.org