7 May 2021
In the summer of 2017, a picture of 57-year-old Naseema Akhtar holding an assault rifle, intently looking into the camera, as she sat next to her young son, in whose lap laid another assault rifle, went viral on social media.
It wasn’t out of the ordinary at the time. A new generation of militants after the 2010 uprising had taken up arms, they were social media savvy and unlike their predecessors had dropped their masks to own their identity and fates.
Her son in the photo, 24-year-old Tauseef Sheikh, had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2014 and was killed in a gunfight in 2018. But the photo brought Naseema, whose extended Sheikh family has given fifteen men to the militancy, on the radar of the government forces.
Three summers later, on 20 June 2020, Naseema was arrested from her home in the Qaimoh area of south Kashmir’s Kulgam district in a raid by government forces after midnight. The forces also wanted to arrest her daughter, Raafi Jan, then 20-years-old, but she had fled.-
“The photo is just the beginning of her criminal involvement,” the Kulgam police had said after her arrest. “She is involved in much more serious offences and her role has surfaced in recruiting at least two youth into militants ranks, arranging arms ammunition, communication and logistics for militants and terror organisations.”
In public perception, the role of women remains limited to that of couriers, when not as mothers or sisters, of militants. The arrest of middle-aged Naseema, a mother of six including a slain militant and also a sister of a militant, many still believe is retribution for the choice made by men of the Sheikh family.
But the Kulgam police strongly disagreed. “Just because she happens to be a woman or the mother of a killed militant does not make her immune to arrest,” the police had said in the statement. “Anyone who wishes to challenge the decision is free to approach the court of law for redressal.”
In a stark contrast from the common discourse wherein Kashmiri women are merely seen in relation to their male militant kin, Naseema and her daughter are accused of directly being involved in the militancy — an allegation that the family, however, denies.
Jailed but determined
Naseema is the head of the household with her husband, Salam Sheikh, and five children. “She would make the decisions and run the household,” said 22-year-old Insha Jan, Naseema’s youngest daughter. “She would sell saplings and earn for all of us.”
When the government forces raided Naseema’s home, her family pleaded with them. “We told them we had a brother, he attained his martyrdom. Now we have nothing to do with it [militancy] anymore,” said Insha. “But they referred to the photo…”
Like several other young Kashmiris who had rebelled against the state, Tauseef occasionally visited his family. “The photo was taken near home,” said Insha. “He [Tauseef] had casually asked for a picture and told her to hold the weapon, she [Naseema] agreed and took it. The photo went viral months after it was taken.”
Naseema had never attempted to convince Tauseef to surrender, said Insha, adding that her brother had joined the militancy out of his own volition and without informing the family. The police, however, believe Naseema recruited her own son.
Born and married in the same village, Naseema’s life has revolved largely within Qaimoh’s Rampura village. The extended Sheikh family’s tryst with the militancy over generations had meant repeated bouts of raids on their homes but it stopped, for now, with Naseema’s arrest.
Since then the responsibility of running the household had fallen on Insha, a tenth standard passout, who along with her elder sister Rafi embroidered pherans at home to supplement the family’s income, until their other brother was released from detention.
Rafi is on the run with the police still on a lookout for her. “We would have sent our sister to answer their questions but they [police] always say they [the summoned] will be released soon,” Insha said, adding that this was how her mother and brother were arrested. “We don’t trust them.”
Naseema has been booked under six sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), and is currently being held in the Srinagar Central Jail, more than seventy kilometers away from Kulgam. She has been charged for advocating and abetting the commission of “unlawful activity” punishable with a term upto seven years; “raising funds for terrorist act” that is punishable by a minimum of five years in prison or life imprisonment; conspiracy to commit “terrorist act”, again punishable by five years in prison or life imprisonment; harbouring “terrorists”, punishable with three years or life imprisonment; supporting a “terrorist organisation”, punishable with up to ten years of jail.
About fifteen kilometers from Rampura, in the Frisal village another woman was booked under the UAPA after a video of her confrontation with the Army trooper, who had raided and entered her home with their shoes on, went viral.
In a fit of anger, the woman who couldn’t be seen in the video remarked that if there were militants hiding in her home, “they would have opened a burst of fire.”
The police identified the woman as Saima Akhter, a Special Police Officer. The news of Saima’s arrest, like in Naseema’s case, again pitted the police’s action against the tide of public opinion — including that of former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti.
In Frisal, Saima’s family said the raid at their residence was the fourth in nearly a year. The police said that their home “is a suspected shelter point” of a Hizbul Mujahideen militant, who Saima has personally known for several years before he became a militant.
Saima, in her late 20s as per her family, is the only earning member of the family of three. Joining the police for a steady income was a matter of survival for her family — both her parents are ailing and unable to work.
While some in the village disparaged her as an “informer” for the government forces owing to her job as a police personnel, now the police had accused Saima of siding with the militants, said Ghulam Nabi Rah, her father.
Sitting in the small guest room of their one storey house, silver haired Rah was visibly distressed. His wife broke down several times as she spoke. Her pheran, she pointed out, was embroidered by Saima — the skill supplemented her income from the police department.
With their daughter in detention, Rah and his wife are in constant agony. Rah was already on medication for his poor mental health, because of which he had also given up his profession as a scrap dealer. “We have nobody to look after us now,” he said, pushing back tears.
In the absence of a popular government’s oversight, the police have so far refused to relent. “The uttering made on-camera was broadcasted on social media with the intention to cause disruption of an ongoing operation and to incite disaffection. This is punishable under the Indian Penal Code and UAPA,” it said in a statement.
The use of the UAPA has increased in recent years as the government shifts its focus to prosecution instead of merely keeping individuals “out of circulation” with the use of draconian laws like the Public Safety Act.
Critics of the Indian government have also pointed out to the widespread misuse of the law and the vague nature of accusatory terms such as “anti-national”. It is also not surprising that the law has been freely used against Muslims and critics of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Footnotes to headlines
In Kashmir, however, Naseema, Rafi, and Saima are not the first women to be booked by the police for their roles, alleged or otherwise, in the political as well as armed Kashmiri pro-freedom movement — even if they remain in footnotes.
In 2018, a woman was arrested with twenty grenades on the outskirts of Srinagar.
In 2020, 23-year-old Insha Jan was arrested for her alleged role in the 2019 Pulwama suicide bombing that led to the killing of at least forty paramilitary personnel. A picture of Jan holding an assault rifle, sitting next to a Pakistani militant had also gone viral.
In the 1990s, the militants were believed to have widely used a network of women who acted as couriers, transporting items and information through the military infested streets of Kashmir. In 2006, a young woman allegedly carried out a failed suicide bombing in south Kashmir’s Awantipora area.
The role of women, however, isn’t limited to militancy alone. Kashmir women have played significant roles in the political movement, unionist as well as pro-freedom, and the struggle for ensuring human rights and seeking accountability from the government.
Zamruda Habib, a social and political activist, was among the founding members of the pro-freedom conglomerate Hurriyat in the mid-1990s. Parveena Ahanger of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons is leading a decades-long campaign for justice for the thousands of disappeared Kashmiri youth.
For years, the mainstream discourse has restricted women to roles in relation to their male counterparts, witting or unwittingly depriving them of their political agency. However, more and more examples of women standing up to challenge the status quo continues to emerge.
Imprisoned for the past nearly ten months, the family visits Naseema every fifteen days. “She has lost a lot of weight, but she never complains… Even if she wasn’t doing well, she wouldn’t say it,” said Insha. “Everything is dull without her. We missed her deeply on the first day of Ramzan, it is a big day [of reverence] and our mother wasn’t with us.”