The housewives taking on militants in Kashmir

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Neelum valley

  • Published
Protesters in the Neelum valley facing off against a soldierImage source, Khwaja Fayyaz Hussain
Image caption,
The stand taken by the women of Athmuqam inspired a wider protest in the town

Tucked away in the northern-most recesses of the insurgency-hit region of Kashmir, a community is fighting a little-known battle to keep Islamist militants at bay. And the charge is led by none other than a band of housewives.

During the last three years, these women have conducted a sustained and vociferous street campaign to shun militants from their native district of Neelum, a river valley located on the northern fringes of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

This summer has been no less dramatic.

In mid-August, the police stopped a bus-load of these housewives at the main road of Athmuqam town, the headquarters of Neelum district. They led it to the police station and confiscated its registration papers, ordering the driver not to transport his passengers.

The angry women descended from the bus, brushed aside some policemen attempting to stop them, and started to walk on foot to their destination - the nearby army camp, some 6km (4 miles) away along the Line of Control (LoC), a de facto boundary that divides the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan.

They were carrying hand-written placards demanding an end to militant activity in the area which they say provokes Indian firing on their towns and villages.

A crowd of local men had started to gather, and fearing public unrest, the policemen held back, letting the women pass.

I meet one of their leaders, 60-year-old Sarwar Jan, at her house in a village near Athmuqam.

The courtyard where we sit extends into a small patch of farmland where a maize crop has just been harvested. There's an empty cattle shed in one corner.

In front, high on top of the green mountains across the river, I can see a tiny grey spot which she says is an Indian border post.

This entire area seems to be lying open before the Indian guns up there.

"In recent weeks the [Pakistani] army had been telling people to build bunkers, which amounts to telling us that bad times are about to return," she says, explaining the reasons behind the August protest.

"There was also increased visibility of militants in our area. We were afraid that an attempt by them to infiltrate the LoC would invite Indian fire into our area. We had to do something."

Image caption,
Local pharmacist Mohammad Khurshid was one of those who led the traders' strike

Unlike other parts of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, where villagers affected by insurgency can move back from the front line when tensions rise, people in the Neelum valley are trapped by Indian positions on one side and the mountains on the other.

It is this desperate situation that has prompted the women of the valley to take action.

Two incidents that followed the women's protest illustrate the deeper undercurrents of the movement they are leading.

Firstly, on the night following the protest, a group of militants tried to cross the LoC and sparked an armed clash with Indian border guards some distance east of Athmuqam, with locals saying they could hear the firing and the shelling.

The next morning, as well as the women marching to the army camp again, the town's traders also pulled down their shutters and held a protest rally in the centre of the town, which was joined by the lawyers from the district bar council.

"The entire district seemed to be up in arms, which made the government officials nervous," says Khwaja Fayyaz Hussain, a local journalist.

Days later, an attempt by militants to cross the LoC was frustrated by none other than the residents of a small village, Ban Chhattar.

"Some three or four armed men tried to cross the river in a rubber boat at night, but were spotted by a villager who raised the alarm," says Malik Naseer, a resident of Ban Chhattar.

The villagers stoned the boatmen and forced them to turn back. Someone also called the police who arrived half an hour later. The suspects had disappeared by then.

But can the Neelum women, and the society that stands behind them, keep the militants at bay forever?

Image caption,
Sarwar Jan (right) and the other women say they bear the brunt of Indian reprisals

Fires rekindled

Analysts say the Neelum housewives are only a tiny factor in the wider geo-strategic war games that the Indian and Pakistani militaries have been playing in Kashmir since their independence in 1947.

In 1948, the two neighbours fought the first of their two wars over Kashmir, leading to the division of the region and the establishment of a ceasefire line - now called the LoC. However, both countries still claim the region and there are often clashes across the LoC.

In 1989, separatist groups supported by Pakistan started an armed insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir which continued until 2003 and claimed more than 50,000 lives, but failed to shake Indian rule there.

Down the years, the insurgency evolved from a nationalistic war of independence by indigenous Kashmiri groups, to a jihad, or holy war, against India, led mainly by outsiders, predominantly militants from Pakistan's Punjab province.

By the late 1990s, the Kashmiri fighters had become largely disillusioned with the fighting and withdrew from battle, leaving the field open to the Pakistani groups.

A ceasefire was put in place in 2003, and initially the Pakistani military put the Punjabi militant networks under tighter control. But in recent years there has been a build-up of Punjabi militants along the LoC.

"Fires have been rekindled in the kitchens of some abandoned militant camps, and there are more frequent sightings of their vehicles on the roads, especially after dark," says a top official in Athmuqam, requesting anonymity because he is not authorised to speak on matters of national security.

Analysts point out that such militant activity along the LoC has tended to coincide with signs of improvement in India-Pakistan relations.

The recent tension along the LoC dates from January when the Pakistani government was close to granting preferential trading status to India.

The situation worsened after May's elections which were won by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has publicly supported normalisation and greater trade relations with India.

Analysts feel that elements in Pakistan's powerful military establishment consider the politicians' overtures to India as premature, and that their surrogate militant groups view tension on the LoC as a means to slow down the process of normalisation.

Most recent clashes along the LoC have taken place further to the south, away from the Neelum valley.

This is quite unlike the past when the geographical isolation of the Neelum valley made it the most favoured spot for militants to launch attacks into Indian-administered Kashmir.

For the Neelum people, this isolation meant they found themselves in an information black hole, in which they suffered countless miseries for 14 years without making headlines.

The valley is an arc-shaped narrow strip of land that runs for some 150km (93 miles) in an east-west direction. It is hemmed in by the Himalayan mountains to the north and east, and by the Indian positions to the south.

The majority of its roughly 300,000 inhabitants live in villages and towns along the Neelum River which flows through the length of the valley.

Most of the main population centres are exposed to Indian fire, and they bore the brunt of the insurgency in the 1990s.

Through the decade, houses and government buildings were flattened by Indian shelling, and underground bunkers multiplied. More than 2,000 civilians lost their lives, while nearly 5,000 were injured or maimed.

"For several years we didn't have a single moment when we could sit out in the open without the fear of a mortar shell landing on our heads," says Khwaja Fayyaz Hussain.

"In 1998, the shelling was so intense it forced us to stay permanently in bunkers. I don't recall when the winter ended and the summer began."

Mohammad Khursheed, a pharmacist who runs a medical store in Athmuqam, says the war gave the people arthritis, a disease which he says is normally rare in mountainous regions.

"We have been treating hundreds of arthritis patients in recent years. They got it because they were forced to spend long hours - sometimes up to 18 hours at a stretch - sitting on damp ground inside the bunkers."

Image caption,
The road connecting the valley to the outside world was shut during the fighting

Trying to rebuild

The insurgency also brought economic misery.

The only road connecting the valley to the outside world passes through a narrow corridor at its south-western tip.

Shortly after the start of the insurgency, Indian fire brought traffic on this road to a halt, bottling up the valley. It stayed that way for 14 years.

An alternative road built by the Pakistani army over the mountain passes to the north could only be used by all-terrain vehicles, and increased travel time from two hours to over six.

"There were times when people had to pay 20 times the original price for stuff like cooking oil, bread and vegetables shipped in through this road," says Mr Hussain.

While prices soared, local agricultural production fell sharply because constant shelling by the Indians made farming difficult.

The insurgency also kept the children of the valley away from school for 14 long years, "making them strangers to the alphabet", he says.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
India says a large haul of weapons were seized in the Keran sector from militants

Since the ceasefire in 2003, people have been picking up the pieces. Many have rebuilt their houses, but many more are still without the means to do that.

And the spectre of militancy has been raising its head again in the valley.

Despite the mounting opposition they face in Neelum, militants managed to cross the LoC in late September from that area and spent two weeks fighting Indian forces on the other side.

The clashes were going on as the two countries' prime ministers met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

There have also been reports, but few details, of numerous militant forays across the LoC to the north-east, near the town of Kel.

Whether or not the people of Neelum valley will succeed in forcing the authorities to eliminate militants permanently is a question only time will answer.

What is clear is that the women of Neelum valley are in the driving seat in the community's fight against the menace, and for good reason.

"As compared to men, they are less likely to be assassinated by militants or painted as spies by the military, as this would create a scandal and fuel more anger in the wider society," says Arif Bahar, a scholar and journalist based in Muzaffarabad.

And they have a powerful voice, shorn of the restraint that the men sometimes have to show.

"We are poor people. We don't give weapons to the militants. It is the army that gives it to them, and gives them the expenses, and orders restaurants to send them naan bread when they are in town," says Sarwar Jan in a firm voice.

"But when the firing begins, it is us poor people that suffer. This has to stop."

Mohammad Khursheed agrees.

"We can't fight India or Pakistan, but we will stop the militants any way we can, even shoot them," he says.

"If we don't do that, they will drag us back to the life of the 1990s, which is not worth living."

Image caption,
People in the valley have been in the firing line for years