“In the Middle of a War, we Have Become Best Friends”- Kashmir Funerals: Fostering Friendship Amongst Girls

February 02

As the guns fall silent in Kashmir valley and the cries of humans recede, people go out looking for neighbours and close friends, checking to be sure, the other has survived the latest round of Clashes between Government Forces and locals.

Having friendships usually takes a backseat in most people’s minds, especially when they happen to be in the middle of a war. After all, how can one expect to carry on a decent conversation with bullets whizzing over their heads? Yet some of the most unexpected tales of friendships came amidst the madness of war.

Nusrat is a young Shopian girl whose parents are into apple business. She lives in her house, which is inside one of the most troubled areas of Kashmir, Sugan in Shopian. She has made friends with a young girl, Ulfat who is from the nearby Kulgam District.

Ulfat lives in Redwani, which is dotted with Military establishments. Her father was killed in a previous, skirmish in early 90s and she is being raised by her mother.

The two women share some fundamental qualities: “Both of us had grown up in communities that told us who we were going to be but have managed to rebel. “… They have both made it out through education. Nusrat has the help of her father against the barrier of culture; while Ulfat has the help of her schooling against the barriers of the Society.

Kashmir since the killing of a local Militant commander, Burhan Wani on July 08, 2016 has been on the edge. One of the major aspect that has evolved since has been the Militant funerals, where women and men in huge numbers gather to reflect the ground reality of the day in Kashmir.

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Women have been worst affected by conflict. They often become targets of sexual violence, their husbands and children may be killed – leaving them without support. As the conflict moves into the nooks and corners of the villages and the towns, women themselves are often the majority of casualties of war.

In a society where a large number of women stay indoors while their husbands take on the role of breadwinner, women like Nusrat and Ulfat have found a space to express their anger during funerals of slain Militants as the number of women in funerals continues to swell with every passing day.

In 2017, the protest movement witnessed a new turn where college girls were witnessed clashing with police and throwing stones at security personnel. These young women were called as the new face of protests.

Through bullets and pellets, Ulfat decided that she needed to travel to Shopian, some thirty kilometeres away from her home. It was a ballsy decision, considering that doing so may result in her death. Walking her way through intense tear smoke shelling and pellet firing, Ulfat reached Heff village of Shopian on 05 May. Thousands of people, some on rooftops, few climbing tree tops amid high pitch pro independence sloganeering had gathered here to offer funeral to Saddam Padder, a local Militant killed during an encounter with Indian Government Forces.

Struggling to make her way out, she met another young lady, Nusrat Jan, who often visited funerals, and the two struck up a friendship. Although they went their separate ways at the end, an incredible turn of events saw them reconnect many years months in Kulgam. “That was the first time, i attended a funeral, I was a little nervous because I didn’t know anyone around. But then I Nusrat, and it was all ok,” says Ulfat. Nusrat spotted Ulfat, doubtful and nervous, held her hand. “Come i will walk you across the street.”

Ulfat took this as a bit unusual, though it was the first funeral she attended. “Among a crowd of thousands of people, a girl comes without saying a word and offered me her hand, helped me to get to the crossroad. The two later sat in a nearby orchard and spoke for hours together.

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“There really isn’t much point to our conversation, is there, my friend?” Ulfat’s eyes were downcast as she responded to Nusrat, “Well, dear, I guess there isn’t since it is inevitable that soon many will call me and invoke my name in slogans. Each day that goes by, I feel that something in me dies. I’m afraid my last days too are coming soon.”

Nusrat responded, “My God has done everything! In His name, neighbors love each other, In his name, families live together, children are brought forth in love, cities will be built, crops planted, His creation will be respected, and love will thrive among nations throughout the world.”

They didn’t just settle, though. Their kind ear and understanding was a friend they both sought. They swapped stories and peppered each other with hard questions and listened closely to the hard answers and advice.

In a space where there are various instances in which some humans carry the shooting of a young girl at a point blank range as their trophies, the two are from a generation that has grown with a value system in which all differences, love or hate are over, once a person dies. The corpse is supposed to get the respect it deserves.

“I liked the sound of that laughter — Nusrat’s and mine. I carried it with me when I left. It was better than sentiment, better than the sound of trumpets and drums. Maybe it meant a kind of closure — a definitive end to the accumulated weight of sadness and nostalgia that Nusrat and I had both carried under the pressure of a years of memories, So much for so long. I would be ready to settle for that,” Ulfat recalls.

Ulfat and Nusrat don’t meet weekly or even annually at this point of their lives. But the bond is still there, and they have turned an unknowable time of their life into a warm, wonderful one.

They became good friends over time and they mostly meet during funerals of Militants in South Kashmir. “In October, last year, Ulfat visited my house,” Nusrat recalls.

“It is not always serious: we speak about books and life in Kashmir. Nusrat knows her stuff, and her room back in her house at Sugan is packed with books: she may be the only person I actually believed when she said she had read all of “Infinite Jest.”

In this Himalayan Valley, nearly half of the population suffers from mental or health disorders, women, because of the stigma attached to seeing a psychiatrist, keep themselves away from treatment and the major impact has been on the young girls who struggle to adjust to denial of self-expression and young widows of slain men accused of militancy.

Ulfat and Nusrat, both have grown up in a world where women find less space to express their emotions, the anger. “I too was angry with Forces killing our people, a new generation of Kashmiris is being hunted down in the name of national security, we are angry too,” Nusrat says. She thinks there is less space for women to manifest their anger. “I was broken up with grief knowing that i cannot even express my anger and then i met Ulfat,” Nusrat recalls.

A few days post their first meeting, they again met at a funeral in Kulgam. With a broad smile, Nusrat, greets Ulfat, who hesitantly walks towards her and takes out a sheet of white paper, and hands it to Nusrat before leaving. “i am dealing with a lot of stress and hopelessness in my life”, the paper read.

“The love and care she gave me. I’m lucky I met her and luckier that I paid attention to her memories. More than anything else, the girl behind those memories gave me a second chance at life at a time that seemed impossible.” In a time of great despair, when all Kashmir seems to be getting is dead bodies, Nusrat helped Ulfat’s way out of stress.

“We talk about our families, and while she is humble about herself and her own accomplishments, she has never hesitated bragging about her family members,” Nusrat says.

Each of us has a case, a story of loss to tell and each of them out there puts a case to you, over and over again, and you listen and nod and sympathise with what they have lost in the conflict.” You can’t help being confused, though”, Nusrat says. You can’t help thinking that they’re really fighting over nothing, and should get over it.

Kashmir largely remains a patriarchal society where masculine hegemony can be ascertained from the reports of violence against women. To some extent, this picture is changing but with less momentum. Such hegemonic binaries need a serious deconstruction and a rationalistic endeavour to start re-thinking a gender-sensitive public sphere.

“I had a dream to teach at the university, but my memory of the dream is vague, I teach at a nearby school and find peace in helping these young children who have been deprived of peace in their lives. People appreciate me for my work”

“Kids as young as 11, add Tiger as the suffix to their name. Madam, i want to be like Sameer Tiger,” the students at the school often tell Nusrat. The Students often carry wooden AK-47s, slung on their shoulders. Painted bright green, the guns prepared by local carpenters, or carved at home.

We as teachers, as mothers, as sisters have stood with the resistance struggle, she says. “Militancy and the Resistance movement could not have sustained for such a long time without women’s support, but why are the sacrifices of the martyr’s mother and martyr’s wife barely acknowledged in the Long term?” Nusrat asks.

Ulfat says that many women like her have found a space to express her anger.

“Nusrat’s company gives me peace; i can express anything to her. Perhaps our personal stories inspired a greater closeness between two of us as, our friendship challenges the notion that  anything might ever work during a conflict.”

Ulfat, has learnt, she says, that friendships can find an escape route from everyday’s harsh realities.

Sometimes, when I feel sad, she always cheers me up to make me feel better. We like to go out to fun places. We respect each other and we care about each other. In a place, where conflict has dehumanized values, we have rediscovered our faith in honesty and truth.”

They have only known each other for eight months, but their lives were deeply intertwined. Life before Ulfat felt distant, muted and dull. Life after Nusrat was, well, life, as it’s meant to be.

“Funerals, protests have given a space for Kashmiri women to express their anger and emotions, we too are pained at each death, through the advent of funerals women like me and Nusrat, find a space to vent out our anger,” Ulfat says.

There are many such women who have given up their normal lives and risked everything to be part of the resistance movement. “We are fighting at micro and macro levels to ensure peace, whether it’s through small household chores or participating alongside men in protests on the streets or in the funerals.”

Nusrat says that there is so much turmoil around, women mostly have taken their small steps of courage for granted, and this lowers their self-esteem.

She feels that women share daily struggles, complaints, triumphs, and, most of all, laughs. “This lady (Ulfat) responds non judgmentally to whatever I tell her, allowing me to be as vulnerable as I please.” Conversely, it’s a blessing to help her through their difficult times.

“I do not have to be a brilliant actress anymore, one who only broke down when doors were shut. At the same time, I had become a pessimist, questioning my purpose in life as the bullets rained outside, as the corpse of humans lied down.” Nusrat says she had nightmares of people dying and being tortured and she could not go out to help them, after which she was afraid of sleeping, “I developed insomnia.” Ulfat’s friendship has helped me, come out of distress of the blood on the streets and the chaos.

The unlikely bond of friendship during a time of rampant conflict stands as a testament to our human capacity to reach out to one another even in the darkest times. And it shows that friendship which may appear to be a fragile flower can still flourish even in the bleak and rocky landscapes.

The Himalayan region is beset with a territorial conflict between India and Pakistan that has been going on for seven decades. An estimated 90,000 people have died since the outbreak of an armed insurgency against Indian rule in 1990. Women have been always an inseparable part of the political voice that is omnipresent in Kashmir.

Other than the “traditional Activist Circles”, thousands of nameless women are fighting pitched battles with armed forces on streets and or in political spaces, younger women are challenging narratives, breaking the long silence.