Shamima Gasi, a 34-year-old “half widow” from Indian-administered Kashmir, has a calendar hanging on her living room wall that features the image of her disappeared husband.
“Public memory fades quickly,” Gasi, a mother of two, said, as she explained the importance of having a calendar with a picture of her husband. Women whose husbands were forcibly disappeared during the conflict are known as “half-widows” in Kashmir, since it’s a mystery whether they are dead or alive.
Shabir Ahmad Gasi, her husband, was a fruit vendor. In January 2000, Indian soldiers belonging to the Rashtriya Rifles, a much-feared army unit, allegedly picked him up for “questioning” from the Bemina neighbourhood of Srinagar, the summer capital of India-administered Kashmir.
He never made it back home.
Some 8000 men such as Shabir Ahmad Gasi have been forcibly disappeared in Kashmir – a source of tension between Pakistan and India since 1947. An ongoing armed rebellion against New Delhi’s rule that began in 1989 has claimed nearly 100,000 lives, mostly civilians. Rights bodies have named the Indian army, paramilitary, and policemen as being behind these forced disappearances.
The calendar on Shamima Gasi’s wall is a form of protest, offering a counter-narrative against another wall calendar sponsored and printed by Jammu and Kashmir Bank, a leading financial institution in Kashmir that works closely with the local government.
In early January, the local government inaugurated a bank calendar titled Pride of Paradise, which featured a dozen men and women who earned fame by doing well in sport and culture, or by cracking India’s prestigious civil services examination.
Haseeb Drabu, a pro-India minister serving in the local government, made a provocative statement on the inauguration ceremony: “This calendar is sending a very powerful message out and that is about the aspirations of youth.”
Kashmiri people began to view the bank calendar as another expression of state propaganda that showcases the benefits of being a law-abiding Indian citizen. For them, it was an insinuation that youth with a pro-independence ideology are doomed to fail in life while those who pursue sports and India’s civil service will prosper.
This led to an underground group of online activists called Aalaw (The Call) and the civil society Association of Parents of the Disappeared Persons (APDP), to each come up with their own counter-calendars. The APDP, a group that brings together relatives of disappeared people, documenting the kidnappings and gathering evidence, put out a calendar featuring Kashmiri men who were forcibly disappeared at various stages of the Kashmir conflict.
As far as our counter-calendar is concerned, we firmly believe those who stood up against the mighty Indian tyrannical forces for the rights of their brethren and laid down their lives in pursuit of this sacred goal are the true heroes of the society – Anonymous member of Aalaw
The Aalaw calendar carries pictures of pellet victims, political prisoners, and Burhan Wani – a young rebel commander whose killing in July 2016 triggered six-month pro-independence demonstrations in the region.
“As far as our counter-calendar is concerned, we firmly believe those who stood up against the mighty Indian tyrannical forces for the rights of their brethren and laid down their lives in pursuit of this sacred goal are the true heroes of the society,” one Aalaw member said, in a phone interview from an undisclosed location, speaking under condition of anonymity.
Aalaw, a popular online group of activists, came under police radar for reporting on the human rights abuse allegedly carried out by the Indian soldiers while tackling 2010 anti-India uprising in Kashmir.
APDP’s calendar is dedicated to raising awareness about the issue of disappearances. On the January page of its calendar, there is Gasi’s picture, followed by a brief text about the circumstances of his disappearance. The February page shows the image of Nazir Ahmad, a street vendor, who also disappeared after Indian soldiers detained him.
“Through these calendars we take a pledge that we will not allow the state to erase the memory of our disappeared relatives,” Parveena Ahanger, who heads the Srinagar-based APDP, said.
Until 2017, the calendars sponsored by Jammu and Kashmir Bank were sought-after in Kashmir. They were almost always apolitical, featuring street life, religious sites and picturesque destinations of the region. Every year people stood in long queues outside its office buildings to get a free copy.
What prompted the financial institution to so openly take a stance in Kashmir’s turbulent politics? An Aalaw member accused the local government of pushing the bank to produce a calendar with political undertones in an attempt to regain the support of disaffected Kashmiri youth.
Last summer, the government in India-administered Kashmir faced region-wide protests. Kashmiri people poured onto streets in large numbers, demanding independence from India. The government, which is run by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), a local political group, with the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party that currently rules India crushed the dissent with brute force, killing over a hundred people and blinding many others including women, children and bystanders.
It is these protests and the PDP’s handling of it that made the party highly unpopular in 2016.
How can a militant be a role model? Role models are those who excelled in the sports and civil services or the girl who appeared in a Bollywood movie – BJP spokesman Sunil Sethi
Young people like Arshi Javid, 28, even accuse the ruling parties of creating a wedge between Kashmir’s youth.
“The state and the bank’s complicity is visible in terms of deepening the binary[polarisation] of good Kashmiri versus bad Kashmiri,” said the Kashmiri student, who is pursuing doctorate in New Delhi. “That is why Aalaw and APDP calendars are an excellent response to the government initiatives.”
Local media reports say the PDP-BJP government is already irked by the counter-calendars. It has allegedly ordered the police to detain the members of the Aalaw group.
One government official who News Agency spoke with denied the charge.
“There are specific people who seem instigating for violence but overall we are okay with these [alternate] calendars. We will not consider the distribution of these calendars as criminal,” said Waheed-ur-Rehman Para, the PDP spokesperson.
But the PDP’s ally BJP has a more hard-nosed view on the issue.
“How can a militant be a role model? Role models are those who excelled in the sports and civil services or the girl who appeared in a Bollywood movie,” Sunil Sethi, the BJP spokesperson, said.
“All those responsible for making these counter-calendars should be arrested. They are anti-national. This is being done by Pakistan and its sympathisers in Kashmir.”
Somewhere between the narratives and counter-narratives, the tragic irony of Kashmir can been seen in the juxtaposed pages of the bank’s calendar and Aalaw’s counter-calendar.
While the bank’s calendar celebrates the success of the young Kashmiri artist Insha Manzoor, Aalaw’s features the 14-year-old Insha Malik, who lost her eyesight after Indian soldiers sprayed pellets all over her face in the 2016 civil uprising.