Bishakha De Sarkar, The Telegraph, Culcutta
When Asiya Andrabi leaves home, she unplugs the wire that connects her computer to the Internet and carries it with her. When Farah Yusuf leaves home, she takes packets of condoms.
Andrabi’s elder son is 13 years old, and the founder of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, or the Daughters of Islam, wouldn’t like him to surf the Net when she is not around. Yusuf, who runs an organisation called Better World, goes into the mohallas of Srinagar to talk about sex and HIV, and generously doles out condoms to those who need them.
Andrabi and Yusuf are the two sides of a people in flux. Both believe they are working for Kashmir. And neither is surprised about a sex scandal that’s been rocking the Valley.
For the last three weeks or so, the people of Kashmir have been talking of nothing else. The scandal, locals say, had been brewing for long, but erupted after a newspaper wrote about it. Ministers, police officers and bureaucrats were a part of the racket that involved young Kashmiri girls, some of them minors. The subsequent arrest of the alleged kingpin, a 30-something woman called Sabina, blew the lid off the scandal.
Sabina, the police says, lured women into prostitution. Many of the girls came from poor, rural families and needed the money, but quite a few went into it willingly, the police holds. Some were blackmailed and intoxicated — usually with a cough syrup — and sent to high-powered clients. And then there were a few college students who took the morning flight out of Srinagar and to cities such as Delhi to return the next day.
Andrabi believes that there was a rate card, according to which women were paid, depending on their looks. “Some did it to survive, and some because they had a lifestyle to maintain,” says a police officer.
Stories — each one more horrifying than the other — are spreading across Kashmir, along with CDs and MSN clips of sexual acts that the ring leaders used, apparently both for sale and blackmail. And Kashmiris, out in the sun after years of gloom, are worried about its impact. “People are angry,” says a resident. “And the sense of outrage is more because the entire thing is out in the open,” he says.
Clearly, the scandal is more than just that. Medico Farah Yusuf believes that prostitution has always existed in Kashmir but is appalled at the nexus between the ring leaders and the establishment. For human right activists like Pervez Imroz, who heads the Srinagar-based Coalition of Civil Society, it’s a sign of “counter-insurgency,” a war crime perpetrated by the government on the people of Kashmir.
Andrabi, whose 15-year-old organisation has been urging women to don the burqah, laments that it’s a sign of changing times. “If you observe purdah, people see you as pious,” she says. “Purdah is the security of Muslim women.”
Out on the streets, though, there are few signs of the burqah. Women are modestly clad and many have their head covered. But quite a few school and college students move around in a salwar kameez with just a dupatta draped around their necks. The cyber cafes are full of young men and women, as are the gardens of Kashmir.
There’s more. According to one estimate, there has been a 30 per cent rise in the number of women students in colleges every year. And a surprise check in one cyber cafe, conducted by a team of police officers recently, found that most young people surfed the Net for information on jobs and education.
In a region where watching television or cinema was once banned, there are two cinema halls and numerous private channels. And the soaps that the rest of India is glued on to every evening have their share of eyeballs in Kashmir too (see box). There was a time when drinking liquor was unheard of in the Valley. Today, there are three liquor vends in Srinagar.
Not everybody, of course, sees these as symbols of a normal life. “Shops closing at 10 at night is not a sign of development,” argues Pervez Imroz. “On the ground, nothing has changed. The level of suppression and oppression is just the same.”
Clearly, a sense of disquiet persists. Residents fear that there will be a reaction to the opening up of Kashmir after 15 years of strife. An enraged crowd razed Sabina’s house — an imposing building squeezed between dilapidated houses — after she was arrested. “People take a far more dim view of moral corruption than financial corruption,” says National Conference Member of Parliament Omar Farooq. “For even a glimmer of guilt can damn you for life.”
Out in the markets, supposed lists of people who were said to have been a part of the sex ring are being sold. There have been attacks on women carrying mobile phones. Boys walking with girls have been manhandled. Beauty parlours are being forced to shut down, VCD and video rental shops have been raided and Andrabi’s group wants cabins inside cyber cafes and restaurants to be dismantled. “Do we fear the Talibanisation of Kashmir,” an observer asks. “It’s not a threat, but it exists. It’s at the doorstep,” he says.
Yet it is equally clear that people are seeking to get on with their lives. “We can’t postpone our lives any further,” says Yusuf Tarigami, a Marxist member of the Jammu and Kashmir legislative Assembly. To bolster his argument, Tarigami points out that scores of people came out in protest against the kidnapping of a villager by a militant group two weeks ago. A police officer stresses that the number of militant attacks, as well as infiltration, is on the decrease.
Another indicator of the changing times is the high level of participation in the four Assembly by-polls that took place in Kashmir last month. The Election Commission says that there was 60 per cent voting in a poll largely described as fair. Pattan and Sangrama — both in the Valley — registered a 16- point and a 22-point increase, respectively, since 2002.
Even on an issue such as sex, there is a certain openness. Sex, Farah Yusuf says, is no longer taboo as a subject. Though Kashmir is considered a low-risk area when it comes to AIDS, Yusuf discusses with ease issues such as sex, AIDS, contraception and related problems with people of different age groups and backgrounds. “Once, while discussing sex-related diseases, a young boy said to me: ‘Ma’am, I think love on the sms is a much better idea,’” she says.
Yet some say the sex scandal is by itself a reflection of the changing times. Though Yusuf points out that people in Kashmir never go to bed on an empty stomach, want is also on the rise. Joblessness, Abdullah stresses, is a serious concern with the educated youth. “The government has failed in its social obligations,” he says.
Years of war — and the killing of thousands of young men (about 80,000 says Imroz) — have led to an unprecedented number of homes with no men. A survey being conducted by Imroz’s organisation on the number of killings has found that 6,000 people lost their lives in the district of Baramullah alone. “We will have to deal with families where there are only women,” says Member of Parliament Mehbooba Mufti.
For the time-being, though, the measures being taken are all short-term. The government has been trying to persuade owners of beauty parlours to keep their shops open in the tourist season, while doing away with the practice of men applying henna on women’s hands. Cable TV operators have been reminded that the industry supports some 20,000 people. “We have been talking to mohalla committees and vyapar mandals (trade bodies),” says the police officer.
At another level, there are
some who fear that the sex scandal may lead to serious trouble in the government. The two main partners — Congress and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — are brawling openly. The PDP, which had to give up the chief minister’s post in favour of the Congress, has been raking up the sex scandal issue since its members don’t figure in the scandal. The Congress, whose ministers figure in the list, has been highlighting the fact that the Mufti government seemingly sat on the report when the issue first came out two years ago.
Both Andrabi and Yusuf, however, are happy — though for different reasons. Andrabi believes that the morality blanket that the scandal has shrouded the Valley with will bring people back to the tenets of Islam. And Yusuf sees the scandal as a stripping off of a shroud that sought to cover issues such as sex. It’s all out in the open now, they both stress — for better, or for worse.
GLUED TO THE TUBE
Dish antennae bloom like wild roses in the Valley. And that’s not surprising, for when dusk comes rolling in, cable television takes over Kashmir. In Srinagar, people still fondly remember the coup that they plotted to make a popular, if occasionally off-key, singer emerge victorious in a TV music contest last year. “We sent scores of sms-es to ensure (local boy) Qazi Tauqeer’s victory,” a resident reminisces.
That is why, when four militant organisations pushed for a ban on cable TV in Kashmir last week, there were few takers. On the contrary, for the first time in recent memory, hundreds of cable TV operators came out on the streets to protest against the militant dictate. In two days, cable TV was back.
It’s not quite known why the militant groups sought a ban on cable TV. Some believe that it’s because cable TV has blurred the lines between Kashmir and the rest of India. “It’s a weapon of assimilation,” says a Srinagar resident. Even Qazi’s victory, hailed by Kashmiris at large, was seen in some quarters as the region being engulfed by India’s cultural mainstream.
But, clearly, popular soaps know no boundaries. Some months ago, when Mufti Mohammed Sayeed was the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, an associate remembers calling on him at his residence, and finding the chief minister sitting all by himself. “Where is everybody,” the friend asked, enquiring about the women in the family. “They are watching Kyunki Saas Bhi…,” Mufti replied.
In Kashmir, where conspiracy theories abound, there are some who believe that it’s the government which manipulated the ban because it wanted to distract attention from the sex scandal. And to counter this, some of the local groups, including the Hizbul Mujahideen, spoke against the ban.
Cable TV is back, and no one quite knows the true story. All that eight-year-old Rakeeba knows is that cartoon TV is on air again.