“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,

Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.”

Translation:

"If there is a paradise on earth,

It is this, it is this, it is this.”

Gulmarg, the "Meadow of Flowers"

My initial fascination with Kashmir most likely stemmed from the fact that I was convinced it was the most beautiful place on earth. Many of my childhood years were spent watching Bollywood movies set in Kashmir and marveling at the lush greenery, rugged terrain, snow-capped mountain ranges, crystalline lakes and fields of saffron and wildflowers. It was, in my mind, truly the closest thing to paradise on earth.

My initial fascination with Kashmir most likely stemmed from the fact that I was convinced it was the most beautiful place on earth. Many of my childhood years were spent watching Bollywood movies set in Kashmir and marveling at the lush greenery, rugged terrain, snow-capped mountain ranges, crystalline lakes and fields of saffron and wildflowers. It was, in my mind, truly the closest thing to paradise on earth.

01 / 05

Captions, above (L-R):

  1. Shikaras (wooden boats, some used as floating homes) on Dal Lake
  2. Horse grazing in a meadow in Gulmarg, one of the top tourist destinations in the region
  3. Villagers in a residential neighborhood close to the city center
  4. Outside Hazratbal Shrine, which is believed to house several relics related to the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH
  5. Villagers of Naranag, in the foothills of the Pir Panjal mountain range

Martyr graveyard for fallen freedom fighters

The Fight for Freedom

In reality, however, Kashmir has been plagued by wars since 1947 and is the most heavily militarized zone in the world. Still a disputed territory today, 43% of the state (Jammu, Kashmir Valley, Ladakh, Siachen Glacier) is currently administered by India, 37% (Azad Kashmir, North Gilgit, North Baltistan) is administered by Pakistan, while a portion (Aksai Chin) has been claimed by China. In addition to that, several nationalist groups within Kashmir have been fighting for complete independence from all three countries.

The Fight for Freedom

In reality, however, Kashmir has been plagued by wars since 1947 and is the most heavily militarized zone in the world. Still a disputed territory today, 43% of the state (Jammu, Kashmir Valley, Ladakh, Siachen Glacier) is currently administered by India, 37% (Azad Kashmir, North Gilgit, North Baltistan) is administered by Pakistan, while a portion (Aksai Chin) has been claimed by China. In addition to that, several nationalist groups within Kashmir have been fighting for complete independence from all three countries.

Although most of the anti-Indian sentiments around Srinagar have been cleaned up by order of the Indian government, one can still easily find many remnants of the city's past during the peak of its turbulence, scrawled angrily on public property.

A "martyrs' graveyard" honors and remembers fallen freedom fighters and victims of conflict. Inscribed on the entrance gate is the phrase, 'Lest You Forget We Have Given Our Today For Tomorrow of Yours'.

JKLF: Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, a military nationalist organization

Enforced Disappearances and Half-Widows

Among the many problems brought about by the state of turmoil in Kashmir is the reality of enforced disappearances. In 1989, an insurgency against Indian rule swept across the state. To suppress this uprising, the Indian army deployed large numbers of counter-insurgency security forces to Kashmir and granted them the power to take into custody anyone suspected of militancy. Many times, relatives of the arrested were promised the safe release of their loved ones after the questioning, but this promise would usually go unfulfilled with the army being shielded from accountability by impunity laws imposed by the Indian government. These include the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, Disturbed Area Act, National Security Act and Kashmir Public Safety Act. The realization that anyone at all could be arrested without trial instils fear and insecurity among the Kashmiris and aims to paralyze the dissent and resistance against Indian rule.

A half-widow is a woman whose husband has been abducted by the Indian army in this manner. They face the trauma of not being able to grieve properly or find closure as they are left in a state of limbo—legally married, yet single. These half-widows often come from impoverished backgrounds and struggle financially after the disappearances as their husbands were usually the sole breadwinners of the family. Most of them spend their entire life savings trying to obtain information on their husbands' whereabouts and, being illiterate, often do not know how to initiate or navigate legal procedures.

For articles on the plight of half-widows:

“"There is a law for everyone. If there is a law for militants, why isn't there any for the army forces?"”

Ezabir Ali

Ezabir Ali  is the Project Coordinator of Ehsaas, a non-profit organization and civil society initiative. She has spent over 20 years dealing with psychosocial and economic issues affecting women in Kashmir. I met her during an APDP event and she became a most valuable source of information to me, as well as a wonderful friend.

Parveena Ahangar

Parveena Ahangar is a lead activist against enforced disappearances in Kashmir. Her own son was taken away by Indian security forces 20 years ago. He was only 16. She never heard from him again. Fueled by her desire for justice and supported by many others in similar situations, Parveena founded the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in 1994. The association is a movement that aims to heighten awareness of enforced disappearances and provide relatives with legal advice. A conservative estimate of 8,000 cases of these enforced disappearances have been recorded by the APDP.

Interview with Ezabir Ali and Parveena Ahangar


Shamima's Story

Shamima

  • Disappeared: Shabir Ahmad Gasi
  • Year of Birth: 1977
  • Date of Disappearance: 21 Jan 2000
  • Occupation: Banana Vendor
  • Monthly Income: 3,000-6,000 Rupees
  • Assistance from APDP: 3,400 Rupees in 2010 alone
  • Additional Details: Unable to file First Incident Report (FIR), No court case, No assistance from J&K Police

Shamima's nightmare began when her husband, Shabir Ahmad Gasi, disappeared in 2000. He was 23 at the time and was a banana vendor. He left behind two children - Waseem, now 13, and Bisma, now 11.

Since her husband's disappearance, Shamima has been living with her father-in-law, Ghulam Nabi, and his second wife. His first wife (Shabir's mother) was severely depressed and passed away soon after the loss of her son. She died of a broken heart, Shamima tells me. Shamima and her children share a bedroom on the second floor of Ghulam Nabi’s three-storey house. She does not mingle with her in-laws even though they live in the same house.

Like many other half-widows, Shamima refuses to lose hope that she may someday find out what happened to her husband and be reunited with him. She continues to attend protests against enforced disappearances in and around Srinagar.

Shamima with her children, Bisma and Waseem

Shamima's kitchen on the second floor

Shamima's bedroom, which she shares with Waseem and Bisma, is almost completely bare except for some mattresses and two boxes of personal items

Ghulam Nabi's second wife prepares a meal in her kitchen on the ground floor of their three-storey house

Ghulam Nabi runs a small shop set up by the entrance of his house

Waseem plays a game of hide and seek with his friend

The only photograph Shamima has of her husband, this has appeared in 'Missing' posters countless times


Rafiqa's Story

Rafiqa with her daughter, Farzana

  • Disappeared: Mushtaq Ahmad Khan
  • Year of birth: 1973
  • Date of disappearance: 13 April 1997
  • Occupation: Casual Labour (Social Forestry, Forest Department)
  • Monthly income: <3,000 RUPEES
  • Assistance from APDP: 2,200 RUPEES IN 2010 ALONE
  • Additional details: FIR lodged Successfully, Court case filed in High Court

Rafiqa recalls vividly the night her husband, Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, "disappeared". It was in 1997 and she was pregnant with Farzana, now 14. They were fast asleep when uniformed soldiers from the Indian Security Force broke into her home and seized him. When she tried to stop them, one of the soldiers shoved her out of the way and threatened to shoot her. Their three older sons witnessed the whole ordeal.

Since Mushtaq's disappearance, Rafiqa has been working to support herself, her four children and her mother-in-law.

The courtyard of Rafiqa's home

Rafiqa and Farzana

Making Kashmiri chai

Peering into her room are her son, Fazil, and her mother-in-law, Rathe


Rahat Ghar

Rahat Ghar is a shelter dedicated to more than 80 militancy-affected widows (or half-widows) and their children. Run by the Guild of Service, it is a three-storey building with eight large bedrooms, a kitchen and dining room, and an activities area where several life skills are taught. In order to maintain a family-like structure, each mother takes care of 6 children. The children attend a public school nearby and the Guild supplies most of their uniforms and books.

Children in Rahat Ghar learning to read the Qur'an.

The kitchen in Rahat Ghar

Some time is set aside daily for the children to take part in outdoor activities

This playtime helps them build friendships and cope with their psychological trauma


Snapshots of Kashmir

Cooks at a wedding
Srinagar alley
A lovely family who insisted I joined them for chai in their home, which was still under renovation.
A street in Boatman Colony, a residential part of Srinagar.

* Pyar: Love


Features:

  • Platform Ten 2011 Annual Showcase, Sinema Old School, 4 October 2011
  • PLUG & PLAY Slideshow Night by Invisible Photographer Asia, IPA Gallery, 25 January 2012

Awards:

  • Singapore Young Photographer Award 2012 Merit Prize for 'Themed Body of Work'

Contact:

Please contact Nadia for more information on this project and for permission to reproduce any material on this page.