Life behind bars

Life behind bars

When a book is as provocatively titled as Prisoner No. 100 and the author is a female founding member of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, the separatist conglomerate in Kashmir, then there is no limit to the expectation the reader has. This, perhaps, disadvantages the author as the overwhelming feeling at the end is that too little has been said.

Almost all writing that has emerged in recent years from the Kashmir valley has been by men. While Kashmiri women have often been written about, their narrative in their own voices has been few and far in-between. Works by those like Nyla Ali Khan have been academic in nature with a limited readership.

Yet, Kashmir’s women had actively participated, in this or that form, in the movement for azaadi in the valley. In a convoluted way, conflict in Kashmir has also resulted in the empowerment of many women who had remained confined to the home and hearth — inevitable as men folk were lost to the violence. Yet, women’s varied experiences in Kashmir have, however, unfortunately neither been documented not translated into any organised women’s movement. The only two well-known women’s organisations, but whose authority has constantly been on the wane, are the Dukhtaran-e-Millat (preaching a regressive religious and political identity, and not averse to engaging in violence at times) and the Muslim Khawateen Markaz, a women’s welfare organisation and a member of the separatist Hurriyat. (Parveena Ahangar is another Kashmiri woman who has organised families of victims of forced disappearances around the politics of motherhood. Her organisation, strictly speaking, is not a ‘women’s organisation’).

It is in this context that Habib’s potential to amplify the voice of Kashmiri women becomes apparent. Belonging to a family of influential public servants, Anjum Zamarud Habib is a highly educated lawyer and founder-member of the Muslim Khawateen Markaz (MKM) in 1990. The MKM became known for the physical protection its members gave Kashmiri militants, as they held up the advance of security forces while giving time to militants to escape and hide. In particular, Habib, or ‘Behenji’ as she is popularly known, won great recognition when, during her term as president of the MKM, she rescued the badly wounded Hamid Sheikh, the then Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front chief. In 2003, she was picked up in Delhi by the police for receiving money from the Pakistan High Commission for alleged payments to militant organisations in Kashmir.

How did this learned woman come to such a pass? How did she get drawn into the whirlwind of azaadi and what is her idea of it? What has been her personal contribution to the cause of women? How did she negotiate her way within the patriarchal structure of the Hurriyat and what course of action did she decide upon, when she realised how little the men who constitute it, care for the Kashmiri woman? For throughout her imprisonment, not a single Hurriyat representative visited her or intervened on her behalf. All of this is sadly missing in the book.

Prisoner No 100 has rather preferred to focus on the inept and tiring Indian judicial process which agonises and traumatises those who are caught in it. Thus, for a couple of years, Habib does the rounds of the courts simply for a bail application. What for many of us is hearsay here assumes a human face. There are other interesting and intricate details of prison life — the hierarchy that exists among the prisoners and the jail staff, the dominance of the Habashi (Black African?) women prisoners over the others; the smuggling that exists and so on. Habib also draws attention to how a Kashmiri prisoner is prone to be treated with particular disdain and suspicion for being ‘anti-national’. This, however, is also offset by her narratives of the many friendships she strikes with Hindu prisoners, and the encouragement of those like Kiran Bedi and sometimes, some other prison staff.

Since much of the above is known to us, the overwhelming feeling after reading this book, for this reviewer at least, is that this is an opportunity missed. The style is otherwise engaging, the text interspersed with beautiful Urdu couplets, all impeccably translated from Urdu to English.

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