• Avin Shah

'The Half Widow': A BBC drama about the the forgotten women of Kashmir.

My 2-part radio drama – The Half Widow – is currently on BBC Sounds. Set against the backdrop of the recent curfews in the Indian Occupied Kashmir Valley and the accompanying internet and mobile phone blackout of August 2019, it focuses on one woman's struggle, dramatizing a phenomenon which has affected thousands, while escaping the attention of the rest of the world.


Half Widow: A term used to describe women whose husbands have gone missing or have suffered enforced disappearance. These are women compelled by circumstances to live not just in emotional limbo, but also under precarious socio-economic conditions – forever uncertain if their spouse is alive or dead, if he has been detained or if his remains have been hastily buried in an anonymous graveyard. How does this manifest itself day-to-day?


In my next post, I’ll introduce you to some of the real stories on which the play’s characters are based, many of which were smuggled out by local journalists who had no internet access, nor mobile phone coverage, while in Kashmir. But this week, we’ll take a brief look at the historical and political background to the recent communications blackout.


5th AUGUST 2019: India Revokes Article 370 Ending Kashmir’s Autonomy


Those political parties who advocate Kashmiri Independence are no longer being tolerated by the Indian government. Prime Minister Modi appears to be imposing a stark choice upon the youth of a majority Muslim region to be labeled, from now on, as either loyal Indians or as radical traitors.


With the accompanying military crackdown and internet blackout of August 2019, the right-wing Hindu BJP who holds power in India claims to be pre-empting and hindering possible militant mobilization and organized resistance to what is effectively an annexation.


The BJP’s move appears to be for economic reasons, chiefly that Indians are now legally entitled to own property in the state. This has been spun as a positive move in the Indian media. This is more likely to mean investment initially, rather than settlement. The Kashmir Valley is almost entirely Muslim since the Hindu Pandit community were forced to flee the valley in the early ‘90s. It would be far too dangerous for a Hindu Indian family to move there or for Pandits to return in the near future.


The tactic of imposing internet and communications blackouts is nothing new. Jammu and Kashmir Valley was last shut down for 133 days only 3 years ago, following the funeral of a popular militant hunted down and killed by security forces. The crackdowns, arrests and curfews are also nothing new. These have been going on for at least 30 years as a counter-insurgency strategy against various groups of Pakistan-trained militants who have been fighting a guerrilla war since 1988.


THE 30-YEAR OCCUPATION


In response to the insurgency in 1988-89, the Indian government began building camps and fortifications in Jammu and Kashmir, until entire neighbourhoods were transformed by militarization. The art of giving directions using landmarks such as trees or civilian buildings, was slowly replaced by the locations of roadblocks, military camps, detention centres and checkpoints.


The Indian security forces in Kashmir – comprised of army, paramilitary and police – were given a free rein to exercise draconian powers over the civilian population since the military occupation was established 30 years ago (citing the notorious ‘Public Safety Act’). There is no authority, nor any enforceable law, that holds them accountable for their actions in Kashmir. One source estimates that one in ten fatal shootings are those of actual militants, while the remainder are considered as human ‘collateral damage’. These authorities have complete impunity to shoot, arrest, terrorize, beat, detain, torture, rape and murder anyone they choose, whether a suspect or otherwise. First Information Reports (FIRs), law suits or habeas corpus applications languish within the very institutions responsible for the oppression.



With frequent curfews in the early 1990s civilians experienced prolonged periods of cowering indoors during waves of arrests and violent house searches, braved streets where violence might erupt at any moment, where death comes from a nervous soldier who shoots a civilian who has been too slow to produce an identity card. There are incidents of the security forces ordering mosques to announce that all men should report to a public square to line up while masked mukhbirs (informers) would point out suspects. These men and boys were immediately detained and tortured. Meanwhile, cordon-and-search operations would be conducted in their homes where women would be alone and vulnerable to the very real threat of sexual violence.


In addition, are the thousands of disappearances: those who have been detained by the security forces whose fate will never be known. They are the husbands, fathers, brothers and sons who never came home, known as ‘enforced disappearances’. Some of these men were arrested in front of witnesses, others simply went out one morning and were never seen again. Hastily-dug, unmarked graves pockmark the countryside: extra-judicial executions and those who have died in detention, often following torture. The wives of these men are known as ‘half-widows’.


In next week's post, we’ll take a look at some real stories which inspired the play's characters, including a resourceful travel agent who offered her landlines as a telephone service for the local community to reconnect with family during the mobile and internet blackout...