SRINAGAR - Wives of Held Kashmiri men who have disappeared during the region’s long-running conflict should be allowed to remarry once four years have elapsed since their spouses went missing, Islamic scholars have ruled.
The religious edict issued on Thursday is designed to ease the plight of more than a thousand so-called ‘half widows’ who have been left in limbo since their husbands disappeared in parts of Kashmir controlled by India.
“These women should have to wait only four years for their husbands and if they fail to get any information by that time then they are free to remarry,” said the edict by a local panel of religious scholars.
The edict still needs the seal of approval from religious leaders before it becomes a binding fatwa, one of the members of the panel told a French new agency on condition of anonymity.
But Khurram Pervaiz of the Coalition of Civil Societies, which has conducted surveys on the numbers of disappeared, said the move could benefit some 1,500 half-widows. As their husbands are not officially recognised as dead, the women face huge obstacles in getting access to ration cards or their spouses’ bank accounts and thus become dependent on their parents or in-laws.
Rights groups say as many as 8,000 people, mostly young men, have been ‘disappeared’ by Indian security forces in Held Kashmir since an armed struggle started in the Muslim-majority region in 1989.
The Indian military and Kashmir’s police deny extra-judicial killings while the civilian authorities argue that most of those listed as missing may have crossed over to Azad Kashmir.
Kashmir, a strikingly picturesque Himalayan region, has been the subject of two of the three wars fought by regional rivals India and Pakistan since their independence in 1947. The decision on re-marriage of such women was taken by various scholars from different schools of thought at the conclusion of consultations over the issue, organised by ‘Ehsaas’ - a civil society group in Kashmir on Thursday.
Mohammad Saeed-ur-Rehman Shamas of Anjuman-e-Nusratul Islam said a detailed ‘fatwa’ or religious decree in this regard will be issued soon.
“The ‘Ulema’ (scholars) reached a consensus in the light of Islamic teachings that any half-widow who intends to remarry can do so if their spouse remains untraced for four years,” he said.
“We discussed the issue threadbare in the light of Islamic teachings in accordance with different schools of thought and reached a conclusion that any half-widow who intends to remarry can do so after their husband remained untraced for four years,” Shamas, who was among the scholars at the meet, said.
The Ulema also resolved that the issue of property in respect of such women should be resolved according to Islamic law, Shamas said.
The decision assumes significance as there had been no consensus among the local Islamic scholars over the re-marriage and property rights of the ‘half widows’, a term used for women whose husbands have gone missing and it is not known whether they are alive or not.
The state government has established a screening committee under an order which says ex-gratia relief can only be accessed by “half-widows” after a period of seven years of disappearance of their husbands.
“His disappearance is still a mystery,” says Begum Jaan, 52, whose husband Shamsuddin Pasal left home for evening prayers in 1998 to never return again. Jaan says many village men joined the freedom fighters and those like her husband were either taken away by unidentified forces or killed in the deadly skirmishes that would often erupt when Indian troops would bump into freedom fighters’ hideaways.
“Sometimes freedom fighters used civilians as guides. Other times army forced villagers to lead search operations in the forests. Not many returned to their families. We still wait for our husbands.
They may be alive. Who knows? But then they should have returned,” she asks.
It was in 1993 when her husband Vilayat Shah, a daily wager, left home in search for work. Fatima, 65, waited for his return for ten days but he was nowhere to be found.
“I searched him for months. Except for the army camps I searched for him everywhere. And one day I just gave up,” Fatima says, adding, “We are illiterate people. In this far-away unreported world we do not have any information how to proceed with the case legally.”
Snow-capped Kashmir has been in upheaval ever since the freedom struggle began in 1989.
Over 70,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the disputed territory claimed by both India and Pakistan who rule it in two parts but claim it in entirety.
In 2009, the Guinness Book of World Records declared Kashmir as the “planet’s largest militarised territorial dispute”.
The unresolved conflict has resulted in untold miseries, including the misfortune that befell the women whose husbands have disappeared without a trace.
Since their husbands are not confirmed dead, they are officially not considered widows. Instead, the locals see them as “half-widows”.
The government doesn’t have a figure on Kashmir’s half-widows but a report “Half widow, Half Wife? Responding to Gendered Violence in Kashmir” by a key human rights group in the region Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS) estimates the number of ‘half-widows’ at around 1,500.
The report prepared after its survey in north Kashmir’s Baramullah district - one of the 22 districts of Indian-held Kashmir - also calls on the Indian authorities to investigate the 2700 unnamed, mass graves JKCCS identified in 2009 and find out who are buried in these graves.
“These men could be buried in mass graves too,” says Khurram Parvez of JKCCS. “That’s why we are asking the state government and New Delhi to identify the dead in these graves using DNA examination. Apart from half widows, this could also help families of some 10,000 disappeared people end decades-long search and ultimately their pain.”
Many have accused Indian troops of abducting civilians, murdering them in staged encounters and concealing the crime by labelling the dead as unknown rebels when they are handed over to locals for burial.
“We have several cases in which a civilian was buried after authorities labelled them foreign rebels. This is because if the troops kill a foreign rebel, they are paid higher rewards and honoured with medals and promotions. No soldier was ever punished for killing civilians in these cases,” Parvez argues.