The Walking Dead

  • Zahir-ud-Din
  • Publish Date: Jun 26 2016 2:34PM
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  • Updated Date: Jun 26 2016 2:34PM
The Walking Dead

Countless widows and half-widows are living destitute lives. Don’t we even care?

Sometime ago, a young reporter walking along a posh street in Srinagar saw an old lady, clad in little more than rags, rummaging through an overflowing garbage dumpster. Curious, the reporter stopped to see what the woman was searching for. Good God! She picked out leftover food stuff, looked here and there, and walked away. The reporter was shocked and decided to follow up on the woman, only to realise she was an “abandoned widow”. The lady had run out of ration a few days ago, and overcome with hunger, taken to eating discarded food.
 
This is, perhaps, an extreme case, but the condition of a vast number of widows and half-widows in Kashmir isn’t much better. Abjectly poor and getting barely any organised support from the state or the society, most of them are compelled to fend for themselves or depend on the generosity of strangers. Those with young children are particularly vulnerable. This is a story of a few among them.
Naseema is a half-widow originally from Vilgam in Kupwara district. She doesn’t know her age, or even when her husband Saeed Anwar disappeared. “I am illiterate, I cannot remember dates,” she says. All she remembers is the year. “It was 2000. My husband was a painter and he also earned a few bucks driving an autorickshaw for an acquaintance. One day that year, he went to work and never returned. I am still waiting.”

Her husband left Naseema with a year-old daughter Shazia. The girl has no memory of her father; she is more worried about her mother, who, she says, has nobody to fall back upon for support. Shazia may not know it, perhaps, but the worry she sees consuming her mother is on her account; Naseema is desperate to see her girl has a future beyond the penury that has been their fate. That’s why she is so determined to give her an education. She makes only about Rs 1500 a month working as a domestic help in downtown Srinagar, yet spends a big chunk of it on Shazia’s education.
 
Naseema often wonders what could have been had she and Anwar not moved to Srinagar in search of a better life. “We were happy at Vilgam. But we had bigger dreams. We rented a few rooms in Fateh Kadal and moved,” she says. “But the migration did not suit us.” And then tragedy came knocking, and in an instant the life she had dreamed of vanished. Naseema knows better, of course, yet she, like so many half-widows, can’t bring herself to accept that her husband is never coming back; that he’s dead.
***
Shameema was married to Manzoor Ahmad of Eidgah, Srinagar. It was a content, happy life, she says. She had a beautiful family, they were doing well enough to provide for a decent education for their two sons. Until, that is, it all unravelled. Manzoor had been involved in the resistance politics and, despite Shameema’s counsel, was devoting ever more time to it. So, when their house was raided by the armed forces one night in 1996, her worst fears came true. Manzoor was shot dead in front of her and their minor sons. It left her first son, Zahid, mentally unbalanced, and Shameema destitute.
 
As Shameema struggled to provide for her young family, Zahid’s condition worsened by the day, to the point that she had to tie him up whenever she left home – mostly, in the initial years at least, to run from state office to another seeking justice for her husband. She could barely afford to pay for Zahid’s treatment. Although her brother and some other well-wishers have been helping her ever since Manzoor was killed, she says, they can only do so much.

In 2004, Zahid died. “I don’t know how to express my feelings. I miss him so much but then I think death ended his misery,” she says, sobbing. Cruel is her fate that she can’t even cry her heart out; she sobs quietly lest her children see. Was it that she poured her tears out day after day, night after night that her sight went? Perhaps, she says. All she remembers is that she woke up one morning to get Zahid ready for school and realised she couldn’t see. Just like that. A few well-wishers had raised some money to get her treated in Delhi and Amritsar, but it was all in vain. “She can never see again,” the doctors said.
 
Still, despite everything, Shaheema, now 47, has made peace with fate. “My slain husband’s face will remain in my heart and mind for ever. I do not wish to see anything else,” she says.
***
The spring of 2000 was deceptively pleasant in Kashmir. Hardly anybody saw it as the harbinger of a summer of drought it would soon prove to be. In Zampathri village in Pulwama, almond orchards were in resplendent bloom. It gladdened the heart of Hasina, a 37-year-old mother of four. But gloom was about to descend. Hasina remembers that it was pleasant evening when two militants Shabir Kohli and Qasim Kohli barged into her house, which she shared with her in-laws, looking for her husband Nazir Husain. Hasina watched helplessly as the militants took Nazir away.
 
Hasina and her family went searching for Nazir all over the valley, and as far away as Poonch and Rajouri. They couldn’t find him anywhere although until after two months of the abduction they would keep hearing that he was alive and well. Hasina was not only worried Nazir would be harmed by his captors, she feared that his “forced association” with the militants would send “wrong signals” to the security agencies. That’s indeed what happened: the family’s house was raided several times and the members harassed and even beaten up.
After about two months, the militants who had abducted Nazir came to see his father. “Why are you wasting your money? We have disappeared him. Abandon your search or we kill all of you,” they threatened. Hasina’s fate was sealed. Just a few days later, Hasina was thrown out of the house with her children, the youngest of whom, Shahid, was less than a year old. It was only on the intervention of some village elders that her in-laws gave Hasina a room, where she now lives with her children. Destitute and with nobody to turn to for help, she has turned to begging in Pulwama and Kellar.
 
Shabir Kohli and Qasim Kohli were both killed by the army not long after they disappeared Nazir. But Hasina says it didn’t bring any relief to her. She continues to suffer. Perhaps her only succor is a high-yield cow that an NGO has gifted her. “It has been a great help,” she says.
***
Far away in Ganderbal lives another Hasina. She isn’t a widow but her story bears telling here for she represents a not dissimilar category of women who have, and continue to, endure as much suffering. Hasina is the ever-grieving mother of an only son who was snatched away from her in the prime of his youth. Naseer was killed by operatives of the counter-insurgency militia the Ikhwan in 1998. Hasina was shattered, and she lost her mental balance. Medicines didn’t help, nor did faith healers.
 
Many a night after Naseer’s death, Hasina would slip away from her house, take a shovel from the tin shed in her courtyard and head straight towards the graveyard – to dig out her son. The first time she was caught by the village watchman, and at least thrice afterwards by relatives who were staying with her. When the watchman stopped her, she told him, “Leave me. I want to see my son’s face.”
 
It was only after an international NGO arranged counselling for her that she started to get better. After three-odd months of counselling, the NGO, on the advice of the counsellors, gave her a pair of sheep. “I would take them out and spend the entire day with them in the nearby fields, and bring them back in the evening. After eating dinner, I would go to bed. There was no time to think about my son,” Hasina says, explaining how the intervention helped. “Previously I would think about my son all the time. I felt a vacuum in my chest. My relatives would console me but it wouldn’t help. But now I remain busy with the sheep.”
 
She is all praise for her counsellors. “But for their help, I would have taken out my son from his grave,” she says, matter-of-factly.
***
Hasina’s case can serve as a guide for how the civil society, beyond the odd NGO, can help alleviate the suffering of our destitute widows and grieving mothers – something it has largely failed to do.
 
As for the state, the less said the better. According to data provided by the J&K Social Welfare Department, 1,50,000 applications for pension under various schemes, a good number of them from poor widows, are pending clearance. Under the Integrated Social Security Scheme alone, pension applications of 13,051 widows are gathering dust, most for years.
 
According to a widow from Srinagar who did not want to be named, while the state government keeps boasting of launching schemes for widows, the reality is that only some women benefit from such programmes – that is, if you count Rs 400 a month as “benefit”. In fact, many of the beneficiaries do not get even this much. They are given Rs 200 a month, if that. “How can they make ends meet with such a meager amount?” the widow asks.
 
A former minister told Kashmir Ink that many people die waiting for their applications for pension to be cleared. “It takes years to clear a file, which defeats the very purpose and object of the pension,” he says.
 
If the widows are expected to be grateful for peanuts, it is even worse for half-widows. They are not treated as widows by the state and are thus not entitled to pension benefits. It’s past time we did a serious rethink.

(Full names have not been disclosed to protect identity)