A Sunbeam Lent To Us Too Briefly

  • Freny Manecksha
  • Publish Date: Apr 30 2018 2:05AM
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  • Updated Date: Apr 30 2018 2:05AM
A Sunbeam Lent To Us Too Briefly

Remembering Aasia Jeelani, the brave Kashmiri activist who was killed this month 14 years ago.

 

 

On April 20, as the heavens opened up and rain pelted down, I joined members of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society at the house of Aasia Jeelani to pay tribute to the woman activist who was killed this day in 2004, when the car which she was travelling in was blown up.

Her mother said it gave her solace that her friends and colleagues in the JKCCS unfailingly visited on Aasia’s death anniversary every year, and the way she lives on in their hearts. 

Her colleagues recalled how it was also raining the day Aasia was lowered into her grave. It was a day that Pervez Imroze, the head of the JKCCS, describes as the “longest one in my life”.

Aasia had left home early that morning to participate in an election monitoring exercise for the parliamentary election. She had indicated a day earlier that she might not be able to go because she was ill. But so strong was her sense of commitment, almost to the “point of obsession”, that she felt impelled to join the fact-finding team that the JKCCS had formed along with local volunteers and groups from India.

The holding of elections has been persistently showcased by the Indian state as an example of the Kashmiri people’s faith in India’s democracy, especially since admitting to shamelessly rigging the 1987 assembly election. But as the JKCCS had revealed through a similar exercise during the 2002 assembly election, free, fair and inclusive elections weren’t feasible in a heavily militarised place. Its fact-finding team’s report had been quoted in many international fora and, accordingly, it has planned another exercise for the 2004 election.

“We set up an improvised control room in the office as mobiles had begun to be freely used and teams had set out for various districts of North Kashmir where polling was taking place,” Imroze recalls. “I was in Kupwara when I first learnt of the land mine blast and I knew it must be serious since the driver Ghulam Nabi Sheikh was killed on the spot. I learnt that both Aasia and Khurram Parvez had been seriously injured and some volunteers hurt. I still didn’t expect subsequently to hear of Aasia’s death. I had initiated this election monitoring and had anticipated some beatings or detentions, but nothing as horrific as this.” 

Imroze says it was his first time using a mobile phone and he was getting constant updates about the tragedy. Returning to Srinagar, he had to shuttle between SMHS Hospital, where the injured volunteers were hospitalised, and Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Science, where Khurram Parvez, then a senior activist of the JKCCS who was travelling with Aasia, was admitted with a head injury and horrible leg injuries that necessitated amputation. 

One of the most poignant “survivors” of the blast is an exercise book Aasia had been carrying with her. Its pockmarked pages carry the numerous jottings she had made of the last few hours of her life. They show her intense concern with the way the elections were being carried out and what it signified for Kashmiri people. There’s also a photograph taken just about half an hour before the blast. 

As they got into the car, Aasia traded places to be near the window. Four army vehicles passed them and as they were heading towards Chandigam, Kupwara, they had to wait while the army vehicles turned back. Two minutes later, their car was blown up remotely.

“The car went up in the air. When I tried to open my eyes I found it difficult because it was full of dust. Everyone seemed to be covered in blood. Sadiq Ali and Jalees Andrabi, who were among the seven people in the car, were trying to pull us out of the wreckage. They were shouting angrily at the people of Sogam, who they felt had been participating in a fraudulent election. Army personnel on the road did not help us. Aasia was calling out for her mother. It was a deadly sight,” recalls Khurram.

Half an hour later an ambulance arrived from Sogam PHC. At the PHC, a doctor said Aasia had received terrible injuries and would probably not survive. She was rushed to Srinagar but died on the way, possibly near Narbal.

Initially, it was believed the blast was caused by militants. But in 2006, the mysterious death of whistleblower Captain Sumit Kohli, who had written a letter about a fake encounter that took place on the same day and same place as the blast, has moved the needle of suspicion in another direction. An investigation has been ordered.

For those who were caught in the blast and their associates, “it was utter devastation”. “We had lost a colleague, a close friend, someone with whom I had made plans to expand our non-violent resistance movement and make it attractive for the youth,” says Khurram. 

What was Aasia’s contribution in the resistance movement generally and to the legacy of Kashmiri women’s struggles particularly? Imroze points out how Aasia broke through the confines of an upper middle class background and schooling to get a strong understanding of the reality of Kashmir.

Holding a mass communications degree, Aasia worked with the AFP news agency and interned with a leading English daily in New Delhi but then returned to Kashmir.

She approached the JKCCS and joined it in 2003. Here she came in touch with half widows, women who had suffered sexual violence, women whose husbands had died in custody. Her understanding of gendered violence grew with her engagement with these women and extensive field trips. At a time when the situation was risky, Aasia, an unmarried young woman coming from a conservative society, did not hesitate to go out and get her learnings.

Voices Unheard, the quarterly newspaper she launched, articulated the suffering of women, from Dilshada Begum, a half widow, to Shameema, who had been abducted and forcibly married to an Ikhwani renegade.

“She had courage and a great ability to interact,” Khurram recalls. “She could talk and laugh with the women of Kunnan Poshpora or Dardpora but could also empathise with their enormous suffering. I remember her great distress when a woman from Kunan Poshpora said she had chosen not to recount her ordeal of sexual violence lest her husband, a policeman, lose his job. Aasia saw this as another ‘sacrifice’ that the woman had made. She believed the suffering of women could, in that sense, never really be completely documented.”

“And yet,” Khurram adds, “she was fun-loving, a bubby person who often declared she wanted to make activism a much more attractive proposition for the young. She could reconcile her personal desires with the collective aspirations for Kashmir. A woman who enjoyed small celebrations and who once declared ‘I live in the moment’.”

Her life and death show how intensely she did just that. 

 

Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist based in Mumbai and author of Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children.