Issues and Challenges

Women Caught Between the Virus and Violence in IIOJK

The international community must wake up from deep slumber and take notice of the lingering siege, intimidation, torture, sexual violence, and lack of education, health and civic facilities in IIOJK. It is now incumbent upon the civilized world to intervene and rescue millions of Kashmiris who have been compelled to live in “the world’s largest open prison.”

India Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) has been a flashpoint for regional peace and security for over seven decades. Kashmir, once known for its bewitching scenic beauty, rightly named by Mughal Emperor Jehangir as Paradise on Earth, is now the most densely militarized region in the world. Life is a constant struggle for Kashmiris, especially Kashmiri women who are at the receiving end of extreme claustrophobic tension due to the lockdown, ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) unilaterally stripped IIOJK of its semi-autonomous status and placed the entire region under a massive security lockdown. 
BJP’s Hindu nationalist government brought in a slew of new laws that critics say are aimed at altering the demographic outlook of the disputed region. In the lead up to the move that sparked widespread unrest, Indian government sent thousands of additional troops, imposed a strict curfew, curtailed public movement, shut down internet and telecommunications, and arrested political leaders. 
The COVID-19 lockdown, has in many ways intensified the already volatile situation in the disputed region. Kashmiri women continue to bear the heaviest load in form of military lockdown and the clampdown imposed by BJP government that is also taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The demon of violence, trauma and depression hovered over Kashmiri women even before the lockdown was placed. They suffered greatly due to lack of education, health and other facilities, and the lockdown is adding to the strain as getting food on the table is tough for them. The pandemic has only added stress to the difficulties of Kashmiri women, and they suffer in silence as the world continues to see human rights being violated without any consequence.
The women in IIOJK are subjected to torture, and rape/gang rape at the hands of occupying forces on the pretext of ‘Cordon and Search Operations’. The monsters clad in Indian Army uniform are using sexual violence as a tool to humiliate and demoralize the entire community, which has left Kashmiris with permanent scars. 
Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) is a network of women and human rights organizations across India that deals with atrocities and repression against women by the state and non-state actors, especially in conflict zones. Soon after the Indian government revoked Article 370 and blocked all means of communication, a four-member team from WSS traveled to several districts in IIOJK and spoke to the women and children. They released a detailed report, which explained the worsening conditions and violations of human rights against Kashmiri women and children. 
Shivani Taneja, a women rights activist, who was one of the members of WSS team that travelled to IIOJK, said that many women told them that the Indian Army often demanded heavy bribes to release the sons and husbands from illegal detention. They met families who paid an estimate of 6,000 PKR to 2 lacs to get their loved ones out of custody and in most cases FIR was not registered against the offenders. According to other WSS team members, many women said that they heard Indian soldiers and officers uttering humiliating and derogatory remarks about Kashmiri women. They keep taunting younger women saying that after the communication blockade is lifted, they all can marry them. Women said that they have seen members of the armed forces make lewd gestures in front of them. The forces also threatened women giving the example of the alleged mass rapes of Kunan Poshpora in 1991. The women are living under a constant threat of molestation and abuse. 
Two leading human rights bodies of IIOJK, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) issued a 560-page report in which methods of torture on women, children and others have been documented in detail. The techniques of torture on Kashmiri women included solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, rape and sexual torture. “During the torture, women detainees are stripped naked, beaten with wooden sticks and bodies are burned with iron rods, heaters or cigarette butts,” the report says. It is pertinent to mention that these concerns have been articulated by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, International Commission of Jurists, International Service for Human Rights, World Organization Against Torture, and International Federation for Human Rights Leagues in a joint statement in Geneva in 2018.
It is not rape and torture alone, thousands of women have lost their sons, brothers and fathers while many have become widows or half-widows. A large number of women are crying for their loved ones who have gone missing. Kavita Krishnan, who serves as the secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), and is a member of the Communist Party of India (CPIM) said that the women in the occupied region were extremely perturbed, given the increased presence of military and paramilitary forces.  “Many women told us that due to total curfew and lockdown, they found it extremely difficult to get even food and medicine. They were also deeply distressed at the illegal mass detentions of teenagers and children as young as nine and ten years old,” she added.
Google showed that soon after the revocation of Article 370, search numbers for ‘Kashmiri girls’ and ‘how to marry Kashmiri women’ spiked significantly in India. Rituparna Chatterjee, an activist and independent journalist said, “It’s deeply sexist. Women’s bodies have been battlegrounds for men for centuries. The latest comments on Kashmiri women are only testimony to this fact.” Nivedita Menon, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said, “These are proclamations of conquest and plunder, and reveal the real intention behind the abrogation of 370.”
Almost two months after the BJP government word split the restive region into two Union territories, central government shut down The State Commission for Protection of Women and Child Rights (SCPWCR) and six other important commissions in IIOJK. The other commissions were dealing with the right to information, human rights, the rights of the disabled, and allegations against public functionaries. Since the SCPWCR was dissolved, victims of domestic violence had no dedicated avenue to report domestic abuse. The entire Kashmir valley has only one women police station, and male police officers aren’t trained to deal with cases of domestic violence. Kashmiri women are no strangers to living under severe restrictions, but today they are under an extreme inhumane siege. They are not only denied basic human rights, but they are also bearing the brunt of navigating India’s tiring legal system to secure the release of their male family members. With a blanket security crackdown and communications blackout in place, families and mothers of detainees had to run from pillar to post to find out where their loved ones have been detained. 
The combination of lockdown and communications blockade in Kashmir has caused severe loneliness and psychological distress among Kashmiri women.  Health experts are of the opinion that continued presence of paramilitary forces on the streets and alleys, and mass arrests of people have led to an increase in trauma and depression, especially among women and children.
Associated Press (AP) mentioned in a report: “The struggle of Kashmiri women during Indian lockdown gives a detailed account of how a mother was unable to get updates from the hospital about her premature newborn. A bride who couldn’t have the wedding of her dreams. The photojournalist who risks harassment by security forces due to her profession and her gender.”
The harsh lockdown imposed by the Indian authorities in March 2020, and the pandemic, further emaciated the local economy. The Kashmir handicrafts sector, which used to be a big source of income for Kashmiri women, also took a hit.  As the condition of livelihood, businesses, and healthcare remains dismal in the volatile valley, the future of education of women remains questionable with dejection, deprivation and helplessness among them. “Our lockdown began way before the world was forced into isolation,” The Diplomat, an international online magazine quoted one of the residents.
The writer of the Washington Post published article India is Using the Pandemic to Intensify its Crackdown in Kashmir Tariq Mir accurately sums up the security and lockdown situation in Kashmir, writing: “The trademark machismo of armed troopers in the street has given the pandemic lockdown a peculiarly surreal feel. It’s as if the virus is a tangible being and there is a hunt underway to catch it. Once they catch it, perhaps they would haul it to one of the torture chambers and make it disappear there, as the authorities have done with many locals.” 
Former UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson stated: “There can be no peace without development, no development without peace, and no lasting peace or sustainable development without respect for human rights and the rule of law.”
What is more depressing than knowing there is no imminent escape from this state of affairs? The international community must wake up from its deep slumber and take notice of the lingering siege, intimidation, torture, sexual violence, and lack of education, health and civic facilities in IIOJK. It is now incumbent upon the civilized world to intervene and rescue millions of Kashmiris who have been compelled to live in “the world’s largest open prison.” HH

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