The representatives of a secular State are as much responsible for the humiliation of Kashmiri society — especially its women — as are the upholders of a fundamentalist version of Islam the organisation and mobilisation of Muslim collective identities become a source of anxiety not just for the gurus of secular modernity, but also for the upholders of a fundamentalist version of Islam.
Secular nationalism has been deployed as a tool just as oppressive as religious fundamentalism by State-sponsored institutions in politically turbulent area like Kashmir. In such murky political scenarios, the rhetoric propounded by secular nationalism does not provide a substantial corrective to the ideology disseminated by religious fundamentalism. In fact, it reinforces a new kind of orthodoxy that not only validates the agendas of rightwing organisations but also constructs Islam as the exact opposite of secular modernity and liberal democracy.
In today’s Kashmiri society, for instance, the question of the role of women in the nationalist scenario remains a vexed one. The only women’s reactionary organisation in Kashmir, the Dukhtaran-e-Milat, claims that the image of the woman as a burqa-clad, faceless and voiceless icon is sanctioned by the religious scriptures this vigilante group subscribes to. The Dukhtaran-e-Milat uses intimidating tactics to raid houses that allegedly have been converted into brothels and brutally censors romantic liaisons between college-going boys and girls. They make a facile attempt to reconstruct historical and cultural discourses to inspire the kind of cultural nationalism that fundamentalists politics requires.
The organisation advocates the creation of a homogeneous culture devoid of the freedoms that Kashmiri women have traditionally enjoyed. Their draconian methods to enforce purdah, reinforce a patriarchal structure in which an unaccompanied woman is rendered vulnerable, and curtail the mobility of the youth is an attempt to Arabise the syncretic ethos of Kashmir.
Such reactionary organisations, as well as regional and national administrations ruled by various political parties, seem to be insensitive to the diverse interpretations of religious laws — pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance rights, etc — and to the rich heterogeneity of cultural traditions. In its initial years, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s National Conference enabled the emergence of a well-educated, politically aware generation of Kashmiris. But in the 1970s and the 1980s, Indira Gandhi’s Congress regime characterised every demand for local empowerment as being potentially insurgent, discouraging the growth of a progressive generation of Kashmiris.
The vociferous members of the Dukhtaran-e- Milat would better serve the female population of Jammu and Kashmir by campaigning for quotas for women in the legislative assembly, the legislative council, Parliament and the judiciary. An increase in the female representation in these institutions of authority would facilitate a cultural shift in terms of gender role expectations, allowing a defiance of the normative structure.
Today, no thought is given either by the state authorities or by insurgent groups to women who have been victims of paramilitary forces and those belonging to militant organisations. Horrifying narratives of women and girls being humiliated and brutally interrogated in remote villages are absent from official records. In 1991, for instance, more than 800 soldiers of the 4th Rajput Regiment raped scores o women in the course of one night in the village of Kunan Pohpura in Kashmir. These soldiers raided the village on the pretext of interrogating the local men who were allegedly insurgents. Another such gruesome incident occurred in Handawara village in 2004, where a mother and her minor daughter were sadistically raped by a major of the Rashtriya Rifles.
In Mattan in south Kashmir, an Indian army subedar and his bodyguard of the 7 Rashtriya Rifles were involved in a rape case against which necessary governmental action is yet to be taken. Women representatives of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and those of its ally, the Congress, are quick to make visits accompanied by their entourages to isolated villages or towns in which the Indian army has outraged the sensibilities of the women there.
The PDP, while in opposition, raised the issue of human rights abuses which, until then, had not been given much credence by the National Conference government. But it has been unable to advocate reforms specific to women. No stringent and timely measures are taken to redress those wrongs.
Nyla Ali Khan is Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Nebraska, Kearney, United States. She is Sheikh Abdullah’s granddaughter.