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POLITICS-INDIA: In Kashmir, Tensions Put Life on Hold

Athar Parvaiz

SRINAGAR, India, Aug 18 2010 (IPS) - The doctors at the hospital that Khalida Begum’s husband brought her to in the frontier district of Kupwara knew she was in a dangerous state. They thus recommended that she be transferred soonest to the maternity hospital here in Srinagar, where she was sure to receive far better care.

Begum’s husband Nazir Ahmad quickly heeded the doctors’ suggestion. But there have been on-and-off curfews in Srinagar in the last three months, and the ambulance rushing Begum here soon found itself running through a veritable obstacle course.

Recounts Ahmad: “Our ambulance was stopped by security men at a number of places even as my wife was screaming in pain.”

In the end, Begum and Ahmad lost their child. Ahmad says, “We were told by the doctors that if we had reached in time, the baby would have been saved.”

Staff at Srinagar’s Lal Ded and JVC Hospital say at least a half-dozen similar cases have occurred recently – yet more proof of the destructive impact conflicts like the decades-old one in Kashmir have on people’s everyday lives, including that of women and children.

Psychologist Malik Roshan Ara observes, “The unending cycle of violence is telling upon the psychology of Kashmiri women. That is why they are also seen joining the protest demonstrations now, a phenomenon not common in the past phases of violence.”

Kashmir’s troubles date back to 1947, when Britain granted India independence and the Muslim-dominated areas became part of Pakistan. A U.N. resolution, meantime, gave Kashmiris the option to join either Hindu- dominated India or Pakistan or to become independent. But Kashmiris had no chance to make a choice as their homeland is claimed by both India and Pakistan.

Roughly a third of modern-day Kashmir is administered by Pakistan while the rest is under India. But it is an arrangement that has not been accepted by many Kashmiris, and some youths living in the Indian side rose up in arms in 1989.

For most of the last 30 years, Kashmir has been the site of violent clashes between authorities and those demanding independence from India. Official estimates put the number of those killed as 50,000, but the figure most likely excludes fatalities like Begum and Ahmad’s baby.

A later count, though, may include the death of Tufail Matoo, a 17-year-old student who was apparently killed in the crossfire in June as police and local protesters fought in the streets of Srinagar.

It was Matoo’s shooting, in fact, that triggered the current round of violence, which in turn has led to authorities to impose curfews whenever they smell a protest in the air. But demonstrators against India’s security rule and presence have been undeterred, even though authorities’ response has led to casualties.

Few had foreseen violence to be staging a full-strength comeback following the peaceful elections in November 2008. Yet since June, more than 50 people have been killed – including a nine-year-old boy, a woman, and dozens of teenagers – as a result of clashes between Indian security personnel and protesters.

The present situation is giving Kashmiris a dreadful sense of déjà vu. Experts say that women in particular seem to be reliving the pains of the past in which their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers either disappeared or were killed.

The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) says past violence had made thousands of women “half-widows”, meaning they have no knowledge if their husbands are alive or dead.

“For the last 10 years, we stage a sit-in protest on 25th of every month to seek the whereabouts of our dear ones,” says APDP President Parveena Ahangar. “But the authorities don’t tell us anything about them, whether they are dead or alive.”

“But we have not lost hope,” she tells IPS. “We will continue our struggle.”

Mustaq Margoob, a leading psychiatrist in Kashmir, meanwhile says that more than 60 percent of those seeking psychiatric treatment in the valley are women. He explains, “Most of these women have witnessed people getting harassed, tortured, maimed, and killed. (This) has caused depression among them.”

For sure, though, the experience of Khalida Begum shows that there does not even have to be a violent incident for the conflict to inflict pain and suffering.

Hospital attendant Abdul Rashid, for one, complains about the “lack of compassion shown by the security personnel who do not spare even the ambulances” during curfew periods. He says bitterly, “We the people of Kashmir, are simply being treated as cattle.”

Rashid himself has a sister who was stopped by authorities while she was being rushed to the hospital.

“She complained of high blood pressure and we attempted to take her to hospital, braving the curfew restrictions,” Rashid relates. But they reached the hospital “too late” after having to negotiate through the security barricades; his sister Ameena lost the baby.

She has yet to stop crying since. “It was a male baby for which we were aspiring for years,” Ameena says, sobbing. “We have three daughters and my husband desperately wanted a male child.”

Her grief-stricken husband Mushtaq is also finding it hard to come to terms with the tragedy. “It simply means God had gifted me a male baby,” he says, “but the security men denied him the entry into the world just because they wanted to ensure strict curfew restrictions.”

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