Sunday Magazine ~~ December 2 2007
THE OTHER HALF
In a fast-changing city that is still scarred, women from both sides of the border meet to share their experiences.
Where was the difference in these experiences? Only in their geographical location, as there is no instrument to weigh grief…
Small signs of progress: Kashmiri women waiting to obtain travel permits for Muzaffarabad (POK) [Nissar Ahmad]
Cities can change and do. Five years is a long time in the life of a city. It appears even longer when the city in question is one at the heart of a tussle that has ranged over 60 years. Srinagar, capital of Jammu and Kashmir, has seen happiness and sorrow, strife and togetherness, natural beauty and the ugly detritus of conflict.
In 2007, many of the symbols emblematic of the conflict are still in place. The gun-toting security forces in civilian areas, the barbed wire, the sandbags, the pill-boxes, the armoured cars. Also the anger and resentment that spills out on the streets at the slightest provocation. And the deep wounds that sometimes remain unspoken.
But superficially, there are changes. Against the background of the unsettled reality of the State and the region, they seem dramatic. There is a new international airport under construction. The road from the airport to the city is lined with huge and impressive new houses built with the wealth that is now being invested in the State. Srinagar now boasts of a flyover that is almost ready and a railway line that is slowly making its way. The troops are not so prominent now, although they are still a visible and disturbing presence.
The shops don’t shut after sunset as they did five years ago. The beautiful boulevard kissing the banks of the Dal Lake, now sadly shrinking due to a combination of neglect and pollution, is now peopled and not deserted as before. There are Internet cafes and coffee houses. There are shopping malls. And tragically, there is so much air pollution with the explosion of cars on the roads that the sky is not blue anymore. A grey haze hangs over Srinagar. The urban scourge of the rest of South Asia has descended on this picturesque city.
Five years ago, cell phones did not work in Srinagar. Today, you see almost every person holding a cell phone. But you can call anywhere in the world except Pakistan. Pakistanis can reach you if you live in Srinagar. But you can’t call them back. One of those inexplicable decisions based on “security” considerations.
Can this kind of physical change, integration into a national and global economy, more personal investment and wealth, erase the unresolved questions that hover over every conversation in Srinagar? There is a new confidence that is now evident in the young Kashmiri and in the older ones who have suffered through the decades of conflict. Yet, this confidence does not necessarily mean that people have changed their positions about the future of Kashmir. And even if there is superficial peace, the conflict is far from resolved. Reports in the local newspapers, not always relayed to the national press, remind us of the daily incidents that illustrate the extent to which parts of the State remain tense and disturbed.
At the same time, the Indo-Pak peace process, the people to people exchanges, the opening up of meeting points along the Line of Control have raised some hope that permanent peace is possible. Apart from the larger questions, what concerns the ordinary person is finding ways to increase communication between divided families and communities straddling the LoC. This was the question that engaged a group of almost 50 women from both sides of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Fourteen women from the Pakistan side of Kashmir crossed the Wagah border in mid-November, travelled by road to Jammu and then flew in to Srinagar to meet their counterparts on this side of the border. This was the first time such a meeting was held between women from the two sides.
The result was unusual and memorable. For the women from the Pakistan side, it was a deeply emotional moment. Many of them came with preconceptions. They had heard of the sufferings of people on this side of the border. They were upset at seeing the soldiers on the street. They were even more perturbed that they could not call their families and inform them of their safe arrival.
At the same time, they were overwhelmed at meeting long lost relatives and friends, at locating ancestral homes and property, at the flood of memories that were revived after such meetings, and at the obvious commonalities between people who had been forced to live across a dividing line for decades. To an outsider entering the room where the women sat around a table, there was no way of telling who had come from which side of the LoC. Yet, the two days also revealed the differences in experience, in orientation and in how each side viewed the role women could play in building peace.
Who has suffered more? Inevitably, this became an undercurrent as the women shared their personal stories. Zahida narrated how she and her family had to run away from Poonch district after the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, and how her parents never fully recovered from the shock of dislocation. The women on this side also spoke of sons who had “disappeared”, of the constant tension of living in an area of conflict, of the loss of loved ones sometimes caught in the crossfire. One woman from the Pakistan side narrated how her mother had slipped into the past and refused to acknowledge that she had lost her husband and some of her children. Kashmiri Pandits recalled how many of their kin had gone into permanent and virtually irreversible depression and denial after their forced departure from the Kashmir valley. Where was the difference in these experiences? Only in their geographical location, as there is no instrument to weigh grief and to determine whose trauma is greater.
The way ahead
Differences apart, the women finally concluded that there had to be an end to violence as it was women who bore the brunt. Women’s suffering and sacrifice is often discounted. This had to be acknowledged and recognised. They also felt that women, who had largely been excluded, must be an integral part of the peace process. They demanded that there should be many more chances for them to meet, to talk, to share. Only then could misconceptions be removed. This was a first step, a very tentative one. But its importance lies in the fact that it was taken.