Author: Sadaf Munshi

Ateeqa Bano: an unsung hero of Kashmir


Ateeqa Bano, January 2015

Situated in the heart of the pristine Sopore town and away from the clamor of the city life is an incredible treasure trove called Meeras Mahal. An extremely modest building, Meeras Mahal is an abode of numerous artifacts of historical and cultural importance that are yet to be disseminated to the outside world. The materials collected over more than three decades of relentless efforts by a legend, an unsung hero of the time — Ateeqa Bano. Born in 1940 in the same town, Ateeqa Ji spent most of her adult life serving as an educator and collecting and curating cultural artifacts of a myriad kind. Before her retirement from government service, she served as the Director of Libraries and Joint-Director Education (Jammu & Kashmir). 

It was a pleasant morning in January 2015 when I set out for the historic town of Sopore during a ten-day trip to Kashmir to discuss the plans for a proposal to digitize the manuscript collection at Meeras Mehal. The meeting and the transportation was arranged by personnel at INTACH Kashmir, my collaborators on the proposed project. DSC03917Ateeqa Ji’s eyes glimmered with joy when we arrived. I had explained the purpose of my visit earlier on telephone; she was expecting me. She greeted us with great fervor and high expectations. Wearing her usual “burqa coat” over a green pheran while a light cotton dupatta lay loose over her head, it seemed she were all set for the meeting. We started our 3-hour long journey in her little compound around midday — a small office space with very modest furnishing, no heating and no curtains in the room in the cold season. As Ateeqa Ji gave an introduction of the museum over a glass bowl filled with dried fruits —  almond, cashew nuts, pistachio and dates, a little girl with a scarf woven round her head kept sneaking in and looking at us from out the window. The window opened into the walkway leading to a series of similar-sized rooms in a row. An associate pulled a table from one corner and set it beside another one of slightly different dimensions in front of us. Ateeqa Ji opened a roll of plastic sheet with golden patterns and spread it over the tables for tea and more snacks. Thereafter, she took us for a tour of the museum, from one room to the other, walking us through history and revealing to us an enormous treasure of several generations.

DSC03941Ateeqa Bano’s Meeras Mahal is a repository of items illustrating Kashmir’s ongoing cultural history in a visual format – rare manuscripts, ornaments, pottery and terracotta utensils, metal works, wood works, stone crafts, traditional dresses and jewelry, a coin collection, some calligraphic works, and different kinds of tools. Each item in the repository has a name, a story, and Ateeqa Ji knew it all. Words that have fallen out of use in the language, items no longer seen in the Kashmiri households, are some of the various attractions I was impressed with during my few hours of experience at Meeras Mahal.  DSC03964Picking up an item in her hands and demonstrating its importance in an exuberant manner, telling its story to the audiences – Ateeqa Ji had it all, the incredible motivation to explore and the passion to preserve Kashmir’s remarkable past, its rich cultural history. Our next stop was the manuscript collection — my primary interest in the museum. Ateeqa Ji handed me a copy of the inventory and we went through the list — item by item. Manuscripts were maintained in a pretty good condition given the limited resources she had had at her disposal.

As we sat down for a second course of tea and snacks towards the end of the meeting, Ateeqa Ji produced a document, a proposal for the creation of an institution of enormous potential. DSC03927She showed me the map of a proposed little township with many aspects including a proposed site for an “artists in residence” program she wished to set up as part of her efforts. It was a spectacular idea and I was fascinated, but it needed resources which had been consistently denied. Over the many years of her work on collecting and curating the artifacts, Ateeqa Ji had been desperately seeking financial support from the government and other sources for the maintenance and upkeep of the museum, for hiring trained staff, for infrastructure to preserve the artifacts, and for the upgrading of the building structure.

DSC03945“If this kind of work was done by a man, he would be supported and recognized. Our society does not recognize women’s contributions, she said to me in a humble tone as her associates moved their heads in silent admission. I knew she was right. I had nothing to offer before I left except for a promise to be fulfilled.  

Ateeqa Bano was a woman of incredible motivation, an inspiration, an institution of her own. I could not help but fall in love with this woman of enormous potential and zeal.


© Sadaf Munshi, October 6, 2017.

Kashmir quagmire: How to interpret the worsening situation?

In October 2010, a 15-year old class 10 student, Burhan Wani, suddenly disappears from his home at Sharifabad, a nondescript village in the remote Tral area of Kashmir one fine day. This happens after he and his brother Khalid were intercepted and thrashed by the Indian security forces when they were on their way to some place. Earlier that year in summer major protests were held throughout Kashmir amidst enormous clampdowns by the government forces. About 117 people were killed in Police firing and many more injured. Numerous arrests were made, many of them random and vindictive in nature. There were allegations of the police exacting money from the families of the arrested youth, threatening of slapping the Public Safety Act upon them unless they paid huge sums in bribes. In many cases the youth were allegedly released only to be arrested again.

Five years later, in 2015, Wani makes a dramatic appearance on the social media, posting pictures and self-recorded YouTube videos. Posing in army fatigues, sometimes with a bunch of friends and peers of more or less his age, mostly from the same area as him, the young man becomes a heart-throb for many young Kashmiri boys. These are children of conflict, born and raised in and after the 1990’s, vulnerable to influences from radical forces and ready to be used as cannon fodder by Kashmir’s conflict industry which survives and thrives on instability and on the abuse of power by the state forces.

In June 2016, Burhan appears in a video, surrounded by weapons, boasting of a kārvāyi (‘action’) “last month in which our men targeted the army and the police personnel,” threatening of more such kārvāyi “without any warning” as the latter had not acted as advised, he says. Apni banduk ka rukh India ki taraf kar do (‘Turn your guns at India’), he directs the local police in a matter-of-fact tone. While he makes a statement assuring the “protection of the Amarnath Yatris” (because “they are our guests,” he says), he also adds a warning against the formation of the proposed colonies for sainiks (‘soldiers’) and “composite colonies” for the rehabilitation of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits – proposals which many Kashmiri Muslims, especially the separatists, saw as an attempt to “turn Kashmir into an Israel-like occupation in Palestinian territory.” Recall that much hullabaloo and paranoia was created after the newly-formed state government announced the two proposals which have since been set aside.

In yet another video footage that appeared later, Wani is seen with five other young boys in black-n-white kaffiyehs wrapped around their heads video-taping themselves during a private moment in a forest near Kolgam – a scenic village of Kashmir located at a distance of 68 km from Srinagar. In the footage which is more pretentious and comical in nature than it is terror-inducing in character, the friends are seen hugging, joking and calling each other names like “hato, Lashkar waalyah” (‘Hey, Lashkar man’). One of them, in a boyish way, turns: “You videotape me and I will videotape you.” Towards the end of the amateur video, Wani makes a reference to Rajauri being “very close” and maintains “Pakistan is on the other side of (a nearby) “baagh’ (‘garden’)”. Among the group, Wani is the most good-looking and soft-spoken one. He could very well be an actor from a cheesy Bollywood movie or perhaps a prospective fashion model.

Soon after the videos appear, the mainstream Indian media pounce on the opportunity to turn Wani, an otherwise non-entity who hardly anyone knew before, into a most-wanted and dreaded terrorist – khunkhār ātankvādi is how a national television channel describes him.  Though he never crossed the border nor reportedly conducted any operations himself, he is introduced as a “commander of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen”, a terrorist outfit based in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir. A bounty of Rupees ten lakh (i.e. Rs. 1000,000) is soon announced as a reward for any information leading to him. A similar coverage is given to several other youth, including Zakir Rashid Bhat (also “Zakir Musa”) of Nurpura (Pulwama). Recall that Zakir had just joined the ranks of Burhan in a dramatic way: at the end of a vacation in Pehelgam and Gulmarg with his college friends from Chandigarh where he was pursuing a degree in civil engineering. “Don’t try and look for me. Jihad is the only way forward. It is the only way to deal with the atrocities faced by Kashmiris,” Zakir wrote in a note for his father before he disappeared.

This was a time when the rise of the Indian right was being discussed in heated debates on the national television. In Dadri, a village in Uttar Pradesh, a 50-year old Muslim man, Muhammad Akhlaq, was mercilessly lynched by an angry mob inspired by the right wing RSS ideology after a rumor spread that the family had eaten beef. In a similar incident, Zahid, a trucker was attacked on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway with petrol bombs on suspicion that he was carrying “cattle for slaughter”. On his death, the murderer of Akhlaq received a hero’s funeral, wrapped in the tricolor. Several such ruthless killings took place in the name of “religious sentiments” since and the rise of the Hindutvavadi forces continued across the country mobilizing into vigilante groups and cracking down upon various groups and vulnerable populations on one pretext or another.

“Why is (Kashmiri) Muslim youth knocking at the doors of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen?” — Harinder Baweja of the Hindustan Times took up the question in December 2015 and traveled to Pulwama inquiring about the “Tral boys”, Naseer Ahmad Pandit, Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, and Afaq Ahmad Bhat. Nasir Pandit, a young Jammu & Kashmir police constable, Baweja maintains, was the “first to cast his vote” (in the assembly elections) and “among the few who cheered for India during an India-Pakistan (cricket) match” that had been held in the recent past. Yet, one fine day in 2015, Pandit disappeared along with his service weapon. In a press release, Pandit was “claimed as a trophy” by the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. His father referred to the incident of the trucker burnt alive on the Jammu-Srinagar highway as one of the possible reasons behind his decision. In fact, Burhan’s father too made a reference to the two incidents related to the beef controversy as some of the reasons behind his son and boys of his age joining “Jihad”. “Beef is halal for Muslims,” he says on camera, “pehle khuda, phir bet̩a, Islam hamein yehi sikhata hai (‘First God, then the son; that is what Islam teaches us’).”

Wani was gunned down by the forces on July 8 2016 in what they called an “encounter”. An ocean of people attended the militant’s funeral. The dead body was carried without a shroud, his wounded face visible through his bloodied clothes and his uncovered feet on the wooden pyre as mourners attempted to touch him on all sides before his final rites. It was a spectacle. His brother Khalid had been killed in yet another “encounter” only a year ago when he went to meet Burhan at his “hideout”. But he wasn’t even a militant we were told. “Then how did they carry out an encounter of his brother?” people wanted to know.

Reit ki deewaar ko ek dhakka aur do; BJP sarkaar ko ek dhakka aur do (‘Give another push to the wall of sand; give another push the BJP government’) slogans such as these reverberated in the streets of downtown Srinagar in July 2016. The rise of the right wing parties in the Indian mainstream had made many people nervous about the “special status” of the state and the status and future of Article 370, which the BJP openly advocated to abrogate – a slogan it sort of relied its victory upon in the Jammu province. The newly formed PDP-BJP alliance didn’t go down very well with many Kashmiri Muslims, including PDP’s support base, who saw the alliance as a “sell out”, a “stab in the back”.

The role of the media in covering the situation in Kashmir has been pretty dubious throughout, providing only a murky picture for two parallel discourses have served different audiences. While heart-wrenching images of teenage boys and minors – dead, injured or blinded in firing by the security forces, wailing mothers and sisters, graphic images of injuries – took the front pages of the local newspapers in Srinagar, the national media generally glossed over much of the details of the ground situation in Kashmir, often not even covering it at all. Instead, they focused on such trivial issues like whether or not a certain Pakistani actor should be allowed to stay in India because they had “not condemned the Uri attack.” While the separatists and their supporters, including some valley-based newspapers, used exaggeration and hyperbole in whipping up sentiment in the valley, the mainstream Indian media would rather downplay the police atrocities on the citizens. At the same time, many nationalist Indians, chose to put the blame on the victims themselves, feeding into the discourse of hatred against Kashmiris, calling them “jehadis”, “Islamists” and “terrorists” on social media.

Close to a hundred young lives were silenced and many more injured in firing by the police and security personnel during protests and processions in Kashmir in the 2016 uprising. Many received life-changing injuries, and the majority of those affected were youth, including several minors. A large number of people, many of these youths indulging in violent stone-pelting protests and also many government employees and separatist leaders were arrested during the unrest, causing much outrage in various circles. “A state of anarchy” was how a senior journalist based in Srinagar described the situation when I talked to him on phone during the third week of my six-week long visit to Kashmir last summer.  Not to mention the enormous losses incurred by the endless shutdowns.

The 2016 unrest had the undertones of the uprising which took place in the aftermath of the notoriously rigged 1987 elections when the Muslim population of Kashmir felt disenfranchised and many young men crossed the border in a state of frustration and deceit. “Entire ballot boxes were thrown out the window,” a Srinagar-based senior journalist said in an interview to researchers at the Kashmir Oral History project. Many activists of the otherwise winning party, the Muslim United Front (Muslim Muttahida Mahaaz) ended up crossing over to Pakistan for arms training to protest against what was an outrageous failure of the democratic process.

Fast forward to early 2017. While more and more incidents of atrocities by vigilante forces continue to take the headlines of newspapers and television screens at the national level amidst a sense of fear among the minorities which was confounded by the outcome of the legislative elections in India’s biggest state (Uttar Pradesh), a parliamentary by-election in April triggered another spat of violent protests in the Kashmir valley. Voting machines smashed by the protesters, dozens of incidents of stone-pelting and several more young lives lost in retaliatory action by the paramilitary forces. Youth locking soldiers in polling booths and the soldiers using civilians as human cover against angry mobs — sentiments have been high and so have tempers.

In May 2017, Sabzar Bhat, who had succeeded Burhan Wani as the “Hizb commander”, was killed in a similar “encounter” followed by massive funeral processions and calls for Azadi and Nizam-e-Mustafa. More recently, we have seen attacks by militants on the police forces killing many, buildings set on fire by the soldiers after more “encounters” with the militants, and soldiers posing next to charred bodies of the slain militants in photo ops. We have also witnessed an angry mob lynching a lonely policeman mercilessly to death outside the grand mosque of Srinagar on what ought to be the night of prayers and value during the holy month of Ramadhan.

Again Kashmir is shrouded in grief. Every other day is yet another day of violence and uncertainty. More and more youth are on a suicidal path romanticizing militancy and gun culture, occupying places of worship and instigating violent protests, and cracking down upon institutions of learning and intellectual growth. Strengthening their grip on to symbols of a radical ideology, many of these “freedom fighters” are advocating a homogeneous society under the aegis of an Islamic state and the enforcement of Shariah (Islamic governance), thus shaking the very foundations of the syncretic culture that the Kashmir of yore boasted of. With a worsening situation at the hands of the vigilante groups elsewhere in India, the space for Kashmir’s liberals and secularists is fast shrinking. So what has really been achieved over the years and where are we heading? Some food for thought…


Luuka-mot (A Kashmiri Poem)


Yi gav lūka-mot
Lūka mətis kyah karizi
Yi čhu tufānah andɨ-god̩ rotsh
Apɨzis poz ta pəzis kor apuz
Zyaw nyanglə̄w tɨ əčhen ditsɨ pači

Gāmɨ-shahar yeli krekɨnād sapud
Mōsum bačɨ gəy dam-phuttẙ
Ta phryakh kheyi nōtvānav

Tse čhuy zan kunyar sanyōmut
Adɨ kava rōvukh pānsiy andar
Dopmay dapān hyenar hyetin grazin
Vyethi hund āb ti mā gav hokhyith?
Prath vati čhi vāndar kala tulith
Asān ta grāyi divān
Lači gilvān

Tse ditsɨth tshāl, mye lej və̄niji thaph
Nindrah trāvɨha ama sokh mā čhum
Kati kōr və̄tsɨs yath sahrāvas manz
Krenjlen āb barān, vatapeyd tshāran

Reshvāri hund Nunda mot kot sana gav
Mye vɨčhmay Lalded shām pətẙ
Ačhev khūn hārān
Shamshānan manz
Nāla divān

That Fable of Kashmiri Cultural Ethos

It is 18th of May 2013. A beautiful morning in Texas! I wake up to a message in my mailbox: “Hi! I must tell you this! Just a while back I was hosting you and your little girl in my Kashmir home. It was so real…. You are in a reddish sari looking really pretty and I bump on to you in our driveway. First, I pass by you without realizing that it is you, but in a few minutes we recognize each other and hug, etc. Then I see your cute daughter. I hug her too and invite you inside. My mother starts cooking [making] some nice snacks and then I wake up. I had to tell you this because the scene is still playing in front of my eyes.”

I read the message twice and respond: Oh! That is SO SWEET. Soon after I feel a strange kind of uneasiness gripping my soul deep within and my eyes burst into tears. Perhaps the dream would not have been as disturbing had I been the host and she the guest. I wish she hadn’t seen the dream. And why did she see me in a sari? That is not how I dress in Kashmir! I speak to myself. The message keeps bothering me, embarrassing me for hours before I sit down and grab a pen to write about it. The message is from a Facebook “friend” I have never met before; a “friend” who lives thousands of miles away and yet there is a strong and invisible connection between the two of us. I do not know a lot about her, but what binds the two of us together is a profound longing to reconnect with our roots, our homeland where we do not live any longer. Yet there is a stark difference that sets us apart. I am a “Kashmiri Muslim” and she is a “Kashmiri Pandit”. This religious identity, whether by personal choice or by default through inheritance from our parents and forefathers, is what makes us very different individuals when it comes to our personal experiences, our history and our connection with that dreamland, that “paradise on earth” we all, almost irrationally, continue to fancy about in great nostalgia — KASHMIR. It is that Kashmir which is so exceptionally “beautiful” and “serene” in our imagined reality that all the worlds’ beauties put together are rendered pallid in comparison.

Namrata lives in Delhi, only an hour long flight to Srinagar, and I live all the way across the globe in Texas in the United States of America. Yet she feels she is far more removed from the “homeland” than I am. While I visit Kashmir every year and stay with my family there, if Namrata wishes to go she must find a hospitable “host” or stay in a hotel like any other tourist in a place, which was once her hometown and where she grew up and spent her entire life until that fateful day when her family and her relatives had to leave Kashmir not knowing they would never return.

A friend of mine in Kashmir said one day, “Kashmiri Pandits should come back. We will welcome them wholeheartedly.” But the story on ground is quite different and disappointing. Only a week earlier, I called my father back home to arrange for a room for rent for another Kashmiri Pandit friend of mine. Ajay has a research project to work on in Kashmir. He needs to stay over an extended period of time. I try to look for an affordable place for him to stay before I arrive the following month. My father says to me on phone: I will do my best, but it is difficult. You know the situation here. If I cannot find a room, he is more than welcome to stay with us but at his own risk. This is Downtown, you know.

I am disheartened and decide to call one of my uncles who lives in another part of the city. The room is not a problem but the food, I mean….. I think my family may object to a Hindu eating with us in the kitchen. If he can cook his own meals……..ummm…… I tell him I would call again and disconnect. When Ajay finally arrives, like any other foreign visitor to the valley, he puts up in a guesthouse near Dalgate.

Ajay has an old ancestral house somewhere in Pulwama — a far-flung area in Kashmir. The house has been “taken care of” by some of his distant family who chose to stay back in those times of mayhem in the early 1990’s. Ajay and I visit the village, Sirnu (Siryun in Kashmiri) and his ancestral house a few weeks later and take pictures as souvenirs. We meet the Pandit inhabitants who tell us stories about their survival, their well-being and their times of struggle in what has become a largely homogeneous society.

Chuni Devi, an old lady of wit and humor, likely in her late 60’s, is eager to show us around. I take a picture of her standing in the doorway – she is defiant and confident. As Ajay meets some of his old family, Chuni Devi and I walk through a very narrow passage and cross over a barricade of jumbled outgrowth of bushes into her little vegetable garden across the corner. Fresh yellow blossoms adorn an array of huge green prickly leaves on the branches of squash hanging from over a prop. The witty lady shows me into the house of one of her close family and introduces me with the womenfolk. Most of them are housewives and spend their time largely at home. A young boy in his early teens comes in. I ask him about his school and his friends. “I don’t have many friends,” he tells me. He is probably the only Pundit boy in his classroom.

Later in the day, we are set to visit the village temple. Chuni Devi is the caretaker of the temple. She has also been actively involved in local village elections. Though there are only a handful of families there, she is steadfast in fighting for the minority rights in her area. As we move around, people of the neighborhood keep wondering, “Who are they?”

As we arrive near the temple premises, we see children of the locality bathing in a natural spring while Lord Shiva stays silent by the side in the muggy water. A small, old and dilapidated temple stands locked, facing the newly built mosque nearby. I ask Chuni Devi to open the door and she does. She shows us the remnants of the temple paraphernalia that had been vandalized many years ago and are still in the same condition. Mushtaq (another friend) and I exchange a few sad glimpses of embarrassment over the plight of the temple. We take some pictures and leave.

As I write about these experiences, I am deeply perturbed. It seems to me perhaps we have reached a point where cultural and religious harmony is a misnomer in Kashmir. Kashmiri society has become so homogeneous that it is hard to fathom a situation with a truly pluralist culture in the near future. This blatant fact manifests itself in more than one way. No doubt there are handfuls of Pandit (and other minority) families living in various neighborhoods, including some remote areas, but they live in considerable social isolation, with a degree of fear and suspicion. There is limited social and cultural contact even with neighbors and friends, and quite a few have sought police security. The only places where people of different religious backgrounds are to be seen in substantial “harmony” are tourist resorts, hotels and rental apartments, and some posh areas of the city, such as Rajbagh and surroundings. It seems the idea of cultural pluralism in Kashmir has largely relegated itself to memories and mementos as of now. Let’s hope it won’t stay that way.

© Sadaf Munshi



Casualties of the “Freedom” Struggle

It was April 1990. Everyday life in Kashmir was under siege. Schools and colleges were closed most of the time. I spent my days tending to the household work in the kitchen with my mother and my sister or reading in my room. We hardly went outdoors during those days, and when we did, we were apprehensive. There were militants and armed forces everywhere. Even sitting in the garden or basking under the sun was not acceptable anymore, especially for girls. People killed time chatting with neighbors, reading newspapers, or making plans for the grocery. In the evenings, we sat diligently in front of the television to listen to the news — everyone’s daily obsession and one of the primary sources of information about the incidents happening in town besides listening to BBC radio and the hushed gossip of friends and neighbors. It was one of these days when everyone in the family was alerted as my father came in after a neighborhood chat. A neighbor’s car had been stolen.

That evening, like every other day, we switched on the television for the news. “Professor Mushir-ul-Haq, the Vice Chancellor of the Kashmir University has been kidnapped by unknown gunmen.” Everyone was shocked to hear the news. “His personal secretary, Abdul Ghani, and an orderly were accompanying.” The incident happened on a Friday, when the VC was leaving for his prayers in a white ambassador car. A group of four armed men had stopped the trio at gunpoint as the white ambassador was turning towards (now) Sir Syed Gate of the University. The men forced their way into the car and ordered the driver to move as directed. When they reached a certain place in the old city, the gunmen shuffled the kidnapped into a standing red Maruti.

Four days later, on April 10, the bullet-ridden bodies of Professor Haq and his secretary were found near a canal on the roadside at a place near the Airport Road. The entire academic community was shocked. My uncle was the Public Relations Officer of the university then. We had heard a lot of things about Professor Haq which he would share with us. The student wing of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the gruesome murder. Haq’s body was quickly flown to his hometown in New Delhi where he was buried.

Later that year, our neighbor Waheed, the owner of the red Maruti van, was arrested from his house during a nocturnal crackdown. While the neighborhood was asleep, the security men “barged into their bedroom from the window. The couple was in bed at the moment.” Everyone was in total awe for many days. There was no news of Waheed for months. About six months later, suddenly Waheed came home, a completely different person. He looked withered and old, and his hair had turned gray. “They had to pay money to rescue him. You think they would free him otherwise?” somebody said. Waheed had been tortured in custody. “His kidneys were damaged due to the physical torture during the interrogations,” said a family member.

In 1991, when militancy and the sentiment for azādi (“freedom”) were at their highest peak in Kashmir, I took my Higher Secondary Part I (i.e., Class 11th) exams amidst extreme tension and turbulence, like many others of my generation. My school, the Government Girls Higher Secondary School at Soura, had been burnt down and many of our classes were held out in the open or in makeshift rooms. I still remember the charred logs and wretched beams and the deadly cold winters. Our hands would freeze while writing in absence of any heating arrangement. Right before the exams we were warned by somebody that there was “no need to study this time”.

On the first day of the exams, when the question papers and answer sheets were distributed, one of the examiners came forward and said: taamath bihivu ithay paeth, pata bihiv raundas manz ikwatta ‘Sit properly like this for now, in a little while you can make a circle together’ – words that resound in my memory in the same order even after literally two decades. My eyes almost popped out of my sockets when she instructed the girls to bring their notes and materials from their bags so that they could copy their answers in the answer sheets. A handsome young man was standing guard at the entrance to the examination hall holding a pistol. Tears fell from my eyes, perhaps not at the state of affairs that had unfolded but because I could not bear the fact that the girls who barely managed to pass in the previous examinations might receive a higher score than I could possibly make despite having worked very hard. My friend turned to me, “You are insane! Why don’t you do what others are doing?” I kept quiet and wrote my answers half-heartedly.

The next few years of school and college were no better. With a large number of teachers from the Kashmiri Pandit community having fled the valley, we had to make-do with the leftover teaching staff complemented by ad-hoc staff. A number of quick hirings were made at gunpoint or at sifaarish. Besides the hundreds of lost school days, the quality of education offered deteriorated drastically. Consequently, a monstrous private-tuition industry propped up and flourished, while the burning of educational establishments continued over the years.

I still remember the day when my college was partially burned. It was a cold winter night of February 6, 1996. We were watching a local television channel when I suddenly stopped at the horrific news about a “mysterious” fire that had broken at the Government Women’s College, M.A. Road. As I saw the footage of the flames on the television screen, tears began to roll down my cheeks. “Two cylinder blasts,” someone said. The Old Science Block and the Auditorium were gutted down after the blasts were heard. I wasn’t able to visit my college until after the winter vacations in spring. “Why educational institutions?” was a question that bothered me just like many other people, but there was no answer.

A huge number of educational institutions were sacrificed for the “freedom” struggle in the coming years. Although many non-government establishments were also attacked, the main targets were the government-run colleges and schools. In fact, not only were a large number of schools and colleges burnt down, many government buildings, bridges, museums and libraries were also targeted as part of the “freedom” struggle. When the Islamia College of Arts and Sciences was put to flames in the October of the fateful year of 1990, I saw tears in the eyes of some of my neighbors, my uncles, and my older cousins who had received their education in the college. It was a catastrophic fire that engulfed the entire college complex. A monumental structure in the heart of Srinagar by the foothills of Hariparbat, the Islamia College had housed some of the rare books and manuscripts. “Everything was burnt to ashes; nothing was left,” said people who were able to visit the college campus later.

Incidents were also reported about explosive devices planted or set-off in Tyndale Biscoe and Mallinson schools. Attempt to set ablaze the Burn Hall School was reported earlier on March 17 of 1990. In the same year, Srinagar’s famous D.A.V. (Dayanand Anglo Vedic) School at Rainawari was burnt down. “My high school was burnt with petrol stolen from the cars of our village. We never attended school during rainy days; there was no room with a roof,” a friend from Anantnag narrated to me many years later in December 2012.

I also witnessed multiple attempts to burn a local boys’ government high school situated just a block away from my home at Shri Bhat. During the first few attempts the locals succeeded in dousing the flames as soon as the fire had started, but in the final attempt a heavy amount of petrol and probably also kerosene in big cans was used before the school finally burned down to ashes. We saw the flames from a second storey window facing the school. It took many years for the government to build a replacement.

On July 5 2004, the historic Islamia School situated near Rajouri Kadal (the area and its surroundings were renamed Shahr-e-Khaas in the later years) was also set on fire by “unidentified gunmen”, possibly by the use of petrol. I was doing fieldwork in Srinagar and also working as a columnist and sub-editor for the daily Kashmir Observer.

The loss in education was an irreparable damage; it took a heavy toll on our society. While a number of voices of dissent were either warned from time to time or even silenced, a lot many people chose to leave the valley in pursuit of education and for jobs and never returned. Hartals and shutdowns became a norm crippling all of our civil institutions – education, economy, and healthcare. Often we were forced to stay indoors for months at a stretch as schools and colleges were closed. My peers and I lost two precious years of school during a five-year period in the 90’s. Consequently, many of us started looking for opportunities outside the trouble-torn valley. Few of those who left found a path to return.

Looking back today, it seems our next generation is going through exactly what my generation did. The cycle of loss is simply getting repeated over and over again with very few dividends. A blind leadership of a limping struggle isn’t really leading us anywhere; it’s only making circles amidst a façade of a “movement” which is making rounds without making any advances. The cycle must break so we can determine a path of progress and prosperity for our children, our future generations. This is what wisdom asks of us, and this is something we really owe to our future generations.

Published in the daily Rising Kashmir on November 18, 2016:
Reproduced in the Pakistan Observer on November 20, 2016:

Ladishah – Kashir 2016 (II)

Ladishah Ladishah, ma sa kar graav
Yekya aayi Azaedi, “calendar” draav

Dohas beh penji pyeth, nindrah traav
Nata myen saddkay, yaa syeri phuttraav

Madrasan daftaran kuluf dyith bodd
Yedd thav keyn, tul athas kyath tsodd

Masjidan manz thovukh bait-ul-maal
Koytth phuytt ada roav zachyen taam naal

Yus baraan chanda tay khyevaan mongaddal
Moaj Kashir chhey tamis kyuth khal

Kaem-kaar traewith ays karav taqriir
Haraamuk harsyi khyath parav takbiir

Mokhta benyi rath phott koachi wothraan
Potur chhus buth tulith aychh trakraan

“Azaedi” hunduy ays ganddav partav
Jandda tay kundda hyeth naara dimav

Yusah log buthi tay su boryuun “jail”
Sarkaar chhuy dapaan wuchiv soan khyeil

Yemis lagi tamis lagi sarkaeriy
Mahraaj Saebyin zimmadaeriy

© Sadaf Munshi, Oct. 19, 2016





Is there a conflict between Fiq’h and Uniform Civil Code?

In the past few weeks, we have seen a lot of hue and cry lately among many Indian Muslims, men in general and clerics in particular, including All India Muslim Personal Law Board and some socio-religious organizations claiming to represent Muslims, against “politicizing the issue of triple-talaq”. People have posted fiery lines on social media advising against “any interference into matters of religion”. “I reject Uniform Civil Code; I support Muslim Personal Law” is one of the Facebook profiles some people have adopted to register their protest. And some even went to the extent of equating attempts to publicize the matter with a “nefarious design to annihilate Islam”. In fact some so-called liberals have also jumped in to join the band wagon as advocates of “freedom of religion”. Well, I do not think Islam as a religion is so weak that its foundations will be shaken by a very welcome decision of adopting a uniform civil code that provides justice, equality and dignity for all — notions that Islam has no conflict with. Abolishing an ages-old tribal practice such as triple-talaq, which finds no authenticity in the religion itself, is indeed a commendable step in this regard.

The practice of triple-talaq is not just regressive and anti-women, it finds no historical basis in Islam. There is no evidence either in Qur’an or in the hadith (‘tradition’) that supports its validity in the religion (Note that a number of spurious “traditions” have been claimed to be of Islamic origin but these need to be questioned and rejected wherever necessary). Triple-talaq is a tribal practice inherited and adopted by certain sections of the Islamic world which was packaged in a religious garb just like a number of similar other cultural/tribal practices, such as female genital mutilation, etc. Thankfully the practice has been abolished in much of the Islamic world. Now that the Muslim women of India have finally spoken and spoken so vocally, it is high time the nation comes forward with its full support to reject this outdated practice. It needs to be highlighted that triple-talaq is among several other lies that were propagated by many clerics over generations in the name of “Shariah” and “Islamic law” to keep Muslim women permanently subjugated and deprive them of a dignified life that would otherwise be guaranteed to them had the very essence of the idea of Ijtehad – continued reform and reinterpretation – been implemented in practice as one of the central tenets of Islam.

It is no surprise that the Islamic world often gets mired in controversies in the context of women’s issues, when their role in the public domain is very restricted. Women find it extremely challenging and near impossible to have a powerful and effective voice on matters related to social and religious practices that primarily affect them. While few steps that could allow their participation in the matters of religion are taken, gender-segregation makes things extremely worse and often impossible. Thus, their role in the fiq’h, the Islamic jurisprudence, which is literally and technically based on “deep understanding and broad consensus”, is simply non-existent. Consequently, most of the “Islamic” rules and regulations, often termed as “Shariah Law”, are neatly anti-women – both in structure and in practice.

Now, take a look at the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which claims to be representing the Muslim voice of India as far as matters related to religion are concerned. Last time I checked, all the 41 members of the Board were men, few with any formal education other than in the religious schools they follow. Furthermore, while all the AIMPL Board members are primarily from the majority Sunni community, a great majority of these belong to the Deobandi sect (notorious for its extremist interpretations of Islam), and exclude Shias and Ahmedis. I even went to do some research and checked the AIMPLB website – page-to-page. I read about a number of events, saw scores of pictures, read about the organizers of various events – not a single woman is visible anywhere. This is no coincidence but a deliberate attempt to “keep women where they belong” – behind the four walls of the house, taking care of children of their men, doing their household work, wrapped in layers of fabric concealed from any outside influence, being good wives, and serving their other needs. And it is also reflected in the shrinking space for women in religious places, mosques, and sufi shrines where more and more women feel increasingly unwelcome and often give up and stay away.

Here I don’t need a lesson on “emancipated Muslim women” – that is a personal journey and a very difficult one for every single Muslim woman who sets her foot firm and refuses to bend against social and cultural pressures. Many people will try to justify the Muslim Personal Law on flimsy groups and give some examples of women’s participation and their role in the social and political issues. But, let’s be honest. How strong is the impact? Equal rights for women are not a given but an ongoing struggle. No doubt there are many progressive Muslim men out there but more often than not they have little say on matters that affect a large number of women. Few of them are decision-makers as matters pertaining to religion are concerned. In fact, a great majority of Muslim men literally have nightmares if their women were to be their equals. This is not to imply that other men of other religions are any better in their treatment of women, but here we are talking about Muslims.

As far as Fiqh (‘Islamic jurisprudence’) is concerned “deep understanding, expansion and reinterpretation” (foundational goals of Fiqh), can only be achieved through “consensus” – the very basis of the human understanding of Shariah (the divine law). It is because the AIMPL Board is inherently pro-men (and, therefore, anti-women), not only in its composition but also in its themes and objectives that an independent body of All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board had to be created but the latter have unfortunately failed to garner any significant support from the government of India or from the Muslims (read “Muslim men”) in general. In fact, few Muslim men are willing to even treat the Board with any seriousness. Women’s voices are often muzzled and at the most ignored as far as religious issues are concerned. There can be no consensus in Fiqh on matters primarily related to women without complete involvement of women. As an all-male body, AIMPL Board loses its validity and credibility in claiming to be the voice of the Indian Muslims in general and of Muslim women in particular.

Finally, the idea of “freedom of religion” cannot supersede nor should it be in conflict with individual freedoms, justice, liberty and equality. Fortunately, there is no conflict between Islamic jurisprudence and the notion of a uniform civil code both of which are in principle based on a board consensus and aim to provide dignity for all, including women. The very fact that women aren’t given a representative voice in the Muslim Personal Law makes the body of AIMPLB unqualified to speak on behalf of Muslim women. Providing a national platform to such an undemocratic body and entitling it to determine the fate of half of the Muslim population of India is not only unfair but also unconstitutional. The Board has no moral or constitutional right to represent all the Muslims of India. As an informed Muslim woman and as an Indian national, I support uniform civil code and reject Muslim Personal Law in its current form. I also reject any such law which legitimizes loopholes that can be used as tools to continue women’s subordination and subjugation. Any attempt to scuttle the much awaited effort of providing justice and dignity to all Indian women amounts to pushing them in a path of continued hardship and heartache, and should be strongly resisted by every responsible citizen of the country. A healthy discussion on this topic will be the way forward.
© Sadaf Munshi

(Versions of this article appeared in the daily Rising Kashmir (Oct. 20, 2016) and (Oct. 24,2061). The URLs are for these are: )



Ladishah: Kashir-2016 (I)


Ladishah Ladishah kot sana draakh
Zangan chhey raz tay hattis pyetth shraakh

Saddkan kochan pyetth chhe doara-doar
Prath doha yeti chhey laar kati-koar

Ayk loag curfew ta bey hartaal
Awaamas zaejikh anza-manza taal

Kaala-pagahiy chhuy yeti “blackout”
Kar sa maali jal-jal kashiri checkout

Shuyr chhiy laatthi hyethiy nyeraan
Roaba daabah tay drangal karaan

Prath doha wuchhmay kanyan hund ruud
Ath na sa saad tay na chhu kanh suud

Police tay army karyekh reemaath
Tear-gas, goli tay pellet-gun shot

Yeti kanh qonoon na samaajah
Gundan badmaashan hund chhu raajah

Teli oas aasan zyitthan hund paas
Az karaan lokttyen tay badyen khallaas

Telephone internet akhbaaran tthaakh
Yi chha kanh zindagi yath korukh ddaakh

Khaandar tay daawath karyikh mansoakh
Naattan kabaaban pyetth ta lej roakh

Mareezan zayeefan lanji-loar gaw
Gaamu shahar chhu haeraan lukaw

Tshottyik chhiy khetmyit saddkan ddyer
Nas thaaw band tay hoar kun phyer

Raatas haz hoanyaw duniyah tul
So kas aayi nindir, ada subah ti phol

Curfewas manz khets luukan naas
Baana phuytt hamsayan, lejan leyg ttaas

National channelan pyetth chhi debate
Prath akha banyomut yeti chhuy myetth

Paekistanan koruy taqriir
Aes hasa nimoan mulki Kashmir

Hyundustan wothukh ays kadoakh lang
Yi chhu soan haq tay attuutt ang

Aelwa gandda sabzii tay phal
Sarkaar dapaan yuhay gaw hal

Mosuum gobran metsi manz jaay
Kar bozyi day soan asyi andi nyaay

Ladishah Ladishah kot sana draakh
Zangan chhey raz tay hattis pyetth shraakh

Srinagar, August 2016.

© Sadaf Munshi

No Lessons Learned from the Past?

Will New Delhi continue to resort to procrastination or has the past experience offered any hopes for a lasting solution to the Kashmir imbroglio?

Dr. Sadaf Munshi

A continuing cycle of seemingly endless killings by the security forces, public protests against human rights violations, unending shutdown calendars put in place by the separatist groups, and unjustifiably severe restrictions on people’s movement and communication imposed by the government in response – words fell short of describing the situation in Kashmir in summer 2010, which was no less than chaotic. It was the third consecutive year that Kashmir had erupted again – each time in response to a unique incident, leaving many critics dumbfounded. The situation deteriorated every passing day and the valley turned into a virtual prison where people were literally crippled indoors. While indefinite curfews were in place, killings and protests continued. The use of disproportionate force by the police and security forces to “control the protestors and unruly mobs” resulted in more and more deaths and further protests, with ordinary people being unnecessarily harassed, bashed and beaten.

Given the immediate consequences of the 2010 crisis and the immense psychological stress resulting from continued hadtals and clampdowns, the situation was almost on the brink of turning into a humanitarian crisis. The problem, however, was not merely a law-and-order situation resulting from human rights violations or growing unemployment among the youth, as the then government initially tried to project it, but a complex interaction of the political problem of Kashmir and the failure of the administration in addressing political issues in a timely manner. A total of at least 117 people were reported dead and several hundred injured in police firing in summer 2010. A majority of those killed were students and youth including at least two minors aged 8-9 years and a young girl in mid twenties.

Fast forward to July 2016, we find ourselves in an exactly similar, or perhaps worse, situation given the intensity of happenings of the past many days and the severity of the restrictions. As I write this piece, over 45 civilians are confirmed dead and hundreds injured, including many minors in a matter of ten days. No words of criticism shall suffice to condemn the atrocities by the police and armed forces nor the authoritarian and oppressive measures of the government where the common people have literally been subject to the worst kind of psychological torture one can imagine in the modern world. With complete information blackout and almost all modes of communication snapped for so many days on the pretext of “public safety”, the government yet again demonstrated its utter incapability in opening up any possibility of effectively addressing a political crisis. Beyond any doubt Kashmir feels like a prison where the entire population is at the mercy of different agencies attempting to outdo each other at their incompetence in dealing with the political problem. Calling the government response to the non-stop shutdown calls by the separatist elements “counter-productive” will be an understatement.

To any naïve spectator, it has been a senseless ideological contest between the administration on the one hand and the separatist agencies on the other as to who wins the game or who succumbs first. In total frustration at its failure to contain public anger and protests, the state government’s response has merely been reduced to countering the hartal calendars by curfews, thus keeping the entire population of the valley literally under arrest causing much frustration and inconvenience. By disabling private mobile and Internet services, the government has demonstrated an utter disrespect for people’s fundamental right to access information and to freedom of communication. This is in addition to the restrictions or excesses on press, print and local news media, which are the only alternative outlet under such circumstances. Such desperate actions on part of the government reflect its failure in safeguarding the democratic rights of the very population it claims to represent.

Recall in 2010 that a total of 71 days of government-imposed curfews were reported at one point against 65 days of hartals. Amidst continued killings, protests, hartals and government clampdowns, the situation had turned to a point where there was a complete breakdown of communication between the administration and the people of Kashmir. Owing to an absolute disregard for public opinion or expression and complete apathy to people’s sentiment and suffering, the government totally distanced itself from the masses then, and it is doing the same this time over. Amidst such circumstances, the ordinary people have suffered enormously. As a result of strict curfews and continuing shutdowns, people have had very limited access to basic amenities of life such as food and medicine, ailing people have been unable to seek medical help in time, hospitals are running out of staff and medication, educational institutions have been defunct, and daily-wagers, laborers and small business owners have been deprived of their fundamental right to make a living.

It has been 27 odd years that Kashmir has been burning. We have seen different phases of instability and different means of expression of public opinion, dissent, and dissatisfaction, which include the re-emergence of militancy, and this time, homegrown. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost over the years and half a million people displaced or emigrated; no need to comment on the psychological loss incurred on the people of Kashmir. It is high time that all the concerned parties shun their dirty politics and work for a lasting solution rather than avoiding it for eternity and passing the problem on to generations. In order to initiate the process and regain credibility, the government must take the first steps sooner than later – both short-term and long-term. For the short-term, it must immediately relieve the population out of the severe restrictions on movement and communication. And for the long-term it must take a number of bold confidence-building measures in practice rather than on paper, which include: performing fast-track, unbiased and fair investigations of a number of pending cases and excesses, removing the Army and CRPF from the civilian areas, removing or amending the draconian laws such as AFSPA which have resulted in gross human rights violations, and refraining from the use of mean political tactics aimed to evade responsibility.

Just saying that “Kashmir is an integral part of India” at the top of your voice on national television channels does not necessarily make it so; you must prove it in action by treating the people of Kashmir with empathy, dignity and respect. One of the most crucial measures that need to be taken by the government is an absolute stop on the use of brutal force on unarmed civilians, which have resulted in many fatal or life-changing injuries. The next important step is the initiation of a sustained dialogue with the people of Kashmir while simultaneously reaching out to the various sections of the population; any procrastination or misstep at this critical juncture will lead to further alienation of people of Kashmir from New Delhi, causing enormous damage to the measures that have been taken up in the past. Can this be done without further delay and without indulging in cheap digressions as seen on the national television channels? If not, the government of India cannot and should not expect any change of stand or sentiment on part of the people of Kashmir.


(This article was published in the daily Rising Kashmir, July 23, 1016. Available at: )

India using an iron fist in Kashmir

Why are Kashmiris doing this? Let us all walk the path of wellbeing! This was the statement of an old friend of mine from the Indian mainland in response to the prevailing political crisis in Kashmir. I looked at her in silence and hopelessness. It was August 15th and I was in New Delhi, on my way back to my adopted home, the United States of America, after a month-long harrowing experience in Kashmir. I had left during the wee hours of the 14th morning in an attempt to avoid any “untoward incident” on my way to the airport in Srinagar.

Today is August 22nd. After over 44 days of senseless killings, there seems to be no let up in the political crisis. While the two South Asian nuclear powers India and Pakistan mince no words in flexing their muscles and bellowing at each other claiming their rights on the fated land, over 66 civilians are killed and thousands injured in different parts of the Kashmir valley since July 8, 2016. Scores of youth and many minors have received dangerous injuries from pellets impairing their vision. While any violent protests by public cannot be condoned, no words of criticism suffice to condemn the excesses by the police and armed forces. Amidst the authoritarian and vindictive measures of the government and the police forces, common people have literally been subject to the worst kind of psychological torture one can imagine in the modern world. Kashmir feels like a prison where the entire population is at the mercy of different agencies attempting to outdo each other at their incompetence in dealing with the situation. Calling the administration’s response to the non-stop shutdown calendars of the separatists “counter-productive” and “insensitive” is an understatement.

In total frustration at its failure to address public anger against the many killings the government’s response to the situation has been reduced to countering the senseless hartals by stringent curfews and restrictions. By disabling private mobile/Internet services, and more recently extending the curfews to nighttime, the government has demonstrated an utter disregard for people’s fundamental right to access information and to their freedom of movement and communication. Such desperate actions only reflect the government’s failure in safeguarding the basic human rights of people and ought to be condemned in the strongest terms.

But this isn’t the first time that this happened. A continuing cycle of killings amidst enormous protests against human rights violations, unending shutdowns, and unjustifiably severe restrictions – words fell short of describing summer 2010. It was the third consecutive year that Kashmir had erupted – each time in response to a unique incident, and I was to witness each of these uprisings firsthand. The situation deteriorated every passing day turning the valley into a virtual prison for three months. The use of brutal force by the police and the security men to control angry protestors and stone-pelting youth resulted in many deaths, with ordinary citizens being unnecessarily harassed and beaten, and public properties destroyed. At least 117 people were killed and several hundred injured in police firing. A majority of those killed were students, including two minors.

Given the immense psychological stress resulting from stringent clampdowns, the situation is again on the brink of turning into a humanitarian crisis the political consequences of which could be far more devastating than the previous years. Rise of homegrown militancy and increasing public sympathy for slain militants is only one such consequence. Continued and unchecked abuse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is one of the primary factors contributing to the further alienation and radicalization of youth. Any attempt to justifying its use at the pretext of the “worsening situation” is naïve, if not dishonest, and utterly disturbing. And far more disturbing is the criminal silence of the country’s Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi who has offered few words of sympathy for the families of the victims in the current spate of violence and unrest. Under such circumstances it is hard to imagine if things will move in the right direction any time soon in Kashmir.

August 22, 2016.

(Published in Rising Kashmir, August 25, 2016. )