UNTIL now, voices of many Kashmiri men have been frequently aired in support or against the young and educated locals picking up guns in the restive India-held Kashmir with the aim to challenge the poli­­tical status quo in the disputed Himalayan region.

Not many female voices have been heard.

It is equally important to view Kashmir’s armed struggle through a gender lens to hear diverse voices of women; what they think of the gun-wielding Kash­miris, the choices they make, impact of daily violence on children and adults alike, the absence of a meaningful political intervention to resolve Kashmir issue, and the path ahead.

When the armed uprising broke out in held Kashmir in 1989, some Kashmiri women could be seen eulogising the fighters in wedding songs. They almost hero-worshipped active militants. And they also romanticised the almost romantic notion of armed struggle and fighters after they were killed by government forces in encounters.

Faakirah Suraiya Irfan, a law student and activist based in Srinagar, argues that the young and educated boys of Kashmir are “children of conflict who have grown up seeing killings and rapes of innocents for last three decades”.

“They have seen civilians losing vision (due to pellet guns). This generation of Kashmir has fought against injustice with politics, peace, stones and guns. We can’t blame them. These boys are a product of a deteriorated system called conflict,” Faakirah says, adding that “the idea of life can only be sold in Kashmir when our schools are without military bunkers, when no civilian is tied to the bonnet of an army jeep and used as a human shield, and when no bullets kill a civilian and when no pellets snatch vision of the young”.

Another Kashmiri woman Mantasha Binti Rashid, who is a Kashmir Administrative Service (KAS) officer and also a gender rights activist, believes that “gun is never a solution”.

“Violence — institutionalised or non-institutionalised — is a scourge for any society,” Mantasha says, adding that “the idea of life, liberty and peace shall prevail”.

How can that be done?

“It isn’t easy,” she replies. The path ahead, she argues, is “sincerity, (a strong) political will and readiness for negotiation and accommodation and flexibility from both the state and non-state actors. Nothing else but a meaningful political intervention is the way forward.”

Sarah Hayat Shah, additional spokesperson for Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, is of the view that the young and educated boys are not picking up arms to protest the lack of employment opportunities or to demand infrastructure development, construction of bridges, building of roads or facility to clean drinking water, etc.

“These boys are demanding a solution to the long-pending Kashmir issue. For a peaceful and durable solution, Kashmir needs a political intervention, dialogue with all relevant stakeholders and players, and sincere efforts from both Islamabad and New Delhi,” Sarah says. “Deaths only bring destruction,” she adds.

A young Kashmiri woman working as a media professional in New Delhi is of the opinion that “the young and educated boys picking up the gun is only tragic”.

However, she adds on condition of anonymity, “had Kashmir been a normal society sans a violent political conflict, our young boys would have been cream of our society. But a brutal militarisation leaves them with little or no choices. I respect their choice; they do what they deem right. I am nobody to snatch the agency from them.”

She also contends that in Kashmir “the battle is not between the idea of life and the idea of death; it is about existence and a right to live with dignity in our own land. Everything loses meaning when our civilian population is surrounded by 700,000 armed forces.”

A Kashmiri woman entrepreneur based out of Delhi strongly makes a case that “those who make peaceful resolution impossible will only make violent revolution inevitable”.

“That a generation of educated youth has been humiliated and defeated in their mind, pushed into a corner so far up against the wall that the only recourse left to them is to counter violence with violence by picking up gun,” she says, adding that “this shows a complete failure of the state and New Delhi government’s policy on Kashmir”.

She argues that no one has a right “to mock at a young Kashmiri’s rightful aspiration for a legitimate resolution of the Kashmir dispute”.

About selling the idea of life, she bluntly says “in today’s Kashmir there seems more dignity in death than in life”.

“How do you sell the idea of life to a generation that has witnessed nothing but violence, militarisation and enforced custodial disappearances and human rights abuse on a daily basis?” she asks.

The overt expression of support and love for the armed Kashmiris can be measured by the fact that in less than a year at least 42 civilians have lost their lives by going near encounter sites with the aim to save the trapped fighters.

This aspect of civilian support for the fighters in Kashmir is unprecedented.

Rabiya, a Srinagar-based teacher who teaches English, says that the gun culture has to stop anyhow.

“It is not about the educated boys alone. It is about one and all. It is about us,” she says, adding that “all lives matter. Everyone has a right to life. Meaningful dialogue is the only way out”.

As per the Kashmiri culture and tradition of welcoming a bridegroom by throwing candies and almonds at him, some Kashmiri women would also welcome the fighters in a similar fashion in the early and mid-1990s.

Even after being killed in a gunfight, the close relatives of some slain fighters would apply henna on their little finger and pay tribute by singing the songs of approval.

Bodies of fighters are either wrapped in green or white shrouds. People in large numbers participate in their funerals. This is how the fighters are hero-worshipped in Kashmir.

In recent years, the trend appears to have drifted to newer heights. Now members of civilian population go closer to encounter sites with the purpose to save the armed Kashmiris from being killed by government forces. In some cases, even elderly Kashmiri women have formed human chains along the Jhelum embankments to sing songs “to boost morale” of the armed men fighting the government forces.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2018