'Azadi for us means an end to repressive military rule in Valley'

By Subodh Varma of The Times of India.

A cross section of Delhi's civil society and women activists listened in stunned silence as Parweena Ahangar, a middle-aged Kashmiri woman, narrated the torment of a mother whose son "disappeared" 20 years ago. It's believed that he was killed by security forces. Parweena mentioned her son only once. After that she wept for dozens of others, naming them and describing the circumstances of their disappearance. Parweena is in Delhi with a group of Kashmiri women to narrate the horrors of a society at war, and to make another attempt to seek justice. It's a diverse group including university and school teachers, a hospital worker, a journalist and some housewives. They have been invited here by Women's Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WISPA).

Hameedah Nayeem, a professor at Srinagar University, in a counterpoint to Parweena's choking grief, provides the context in staccato objectivity. She says that the current protests that started four months ago are peaceful. ''Protesters throw stones only after police firing or if a woman's modesty is attacked, like security men forcibly snatching away the head-dress, as often happens,'' she says.

Explaining what ''azadi'' — a slogan voiced routinely in the Valley — means, Nayeem says it means getting rid of the armed forces and their repression, and also, the establishment of democracy.

''In Delhi, you can't understand what it means to live with the military for 20 years. They have taken over all the public space — schools, roads, hospitals, cinemas, everything. They can hold up anyone, enter anyone's house do anything that they feel like,'' she says. According to Nayeem, the military has taken over one million ''kanals'' of land legally and another 2 million illegally in the Valley. ''This has destroyed the normal vocations of thousands of people,'' she says.

The women from Kashmir silently weep as Parweena recounts the chilling story of 8-year old Samir Khan who was going to his uncle's house one afternoon and disappeared. His mutilated body was found the next day in the river. Investigations showed that his frail body had been crushed by boots and a metal rod inserted into his mouth. ''Why is the government honouring policemen who are responsible for killing thousands in Kashmir?'' she asks.

Parweena formed the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) to fight for investigation of all cases of what she calls ''enforced disappearance''. According to her, over 8,000 cases of such disappearance are recorded. In many cases investigations have been done and guilty persons from security forces identified. ''But, we have to run from pillar to post trying to get somebody to hear our sorrow,'' she says. The delegation presented a set of demands to home secretary G K Pillai, which included getting women involved in the peace process, demilitarization, withdrawal of AFSPA and PSA, release of imprisoned youth, prosecution of errant security personnel etc.

Whether it is the agony of Parweena Ahangar or the cold objectivity of Hameedah Nayeem, the message from the women of Kashmir is loud and clear — they will continue the struggle for justice and peace, and for end of what they call military rule in Kashmir. ''It's an oath we have taken in the name of Allah. We will not give up,'' says Parweena softly.