The Other Half
Mothers and sons
If you happen to be the mother of a teenage boy in Srinagar, your anxiety levels will have hit the roof. Since the beginning of this year, seven young men, the youngest being 13-year-old Wamiq Farooq, have been killed on the streets of Srinagar. The city is literally seething, on the boil, with not a week passing when some incident brings all life to a standstill.
For mothers, the trauma is particularly poignant. Tufail Mattoo, the 17-year-old killed ostensibly by a tear gas shell, although that theory is being contested, was an only son. He was reportedly on his way to tuitions. His mother, who was busy cooking on that day, had never imagined that something like this could happen to him. She realised that something had happened when she saw the crowd outside her house.
Tufail’s mother is inconsolable. Other mothers wonder how to keep their young boys off the roads. One woman, mother of a 14-year-old, told me that she and four other women have pooled their resources to ensure that their children get driven right up to the school gate, are escorted in, and collected from school. Although her son longs to join young boys playing football in a field across from her house, she dare not let him go. So he spends his time in front of a computer or the television or reading or playing in their garden. She says that when he heard the news of Tufail’s death, he burst into a rage, kicked the furniture in the house and screamed at his mother, asking her to let him take a gun and shoot all those responsible for what had happened. How many more such young boys sit locked up in their homes? How many are joining the ranks of the defiant young men who mock and dare the security forces and pelt stones?
The woman quoted above is a professional and leads a comfortable life. Yet the fallout of the Kashmir conflict spares no one, not even people like her. Thus while Tufail’s mother mourns the loss of her only son, other mothers spend their nights dreading the next day and wondering if their children will return home safe from school. Suddenly, conflict is not about “militants” or “insurgency” but the safety of day-to-day existence.
Even a couple of days in Srinagar reminds you that the story of that city, that conflict, that beautiful region, is never fully told in the “breaking news” reports about stone-throwing, deaths and strikes. You can smell the anger, you can taste the disappointment, you can see the disillusionment with talk of “peace” all around you even as on the surface the streets of some parts of the city are crawling with Indian tourists happily escaping the stifling heat of the plains and providing good business to the locals.
At the other end of India, far away from Kashmir and its unending problems, lies the state of Manipur, beautiful and remote. For over 60 days, as we are finally being informed by a media that in the past ignored this region, there has been an economic blockade that has prevented the flow of goods into the state.
This translates itself into unimaginable hardships for people who have learnt to live with a higher degree of daily crises compared to people in most parts of this country. On a good day, in the capital Imphal, people feel lucky if they get electricity for four hours. Like their counterparts in Srinagar, they live with the reality of unexpected hartals and strikes where everything closes down. They have known the struggle to survive and keep their lives running even when there are long spells of dusk-to-dawn curfew. Somehow, people work around all these hurdles and get on with their daily lives. Children go to school – although they miss days on end when there is a disruption. People go to work in government offices and banks, run businesses, big and small, and report for the local and national media. The difficulties journalists face each day with the absence of basic infrastructure are compounded by the insecurity of dealing with literally dozens of militants groups who think nothing of gunning down a journalist they think does not toe their line. This is a “normal” situation.
But the last two months have gone way beyond this “normal” situation. It will take months before things actually become normal. We read news about trucks finally entering Manipur. What we do not read, in any kind of detail, is how ordinary people survived these 60 days, how mothers who delivered babies during this period are doing without essentials, how the elderly are managing without medicines, what people are eating, what is the fuel they have used to cook in the absence of cooking gas – which in any case is always in short supply. “Normal” is a situation they will not experience for a long time to come.
Sometimes people think you are drawing too many far-fetched and even irrelevant conclusions if you try to focus on women in such situations. But it is an angle that is unavoidable in both Kashmir and Manipur. Women are at the centre of it – the mothers of the boys killed, the mothers of the boys who are getting bolder as they hurl stones at the security forces and the mothers of the boys who are now being kept at home for fear they might join the others. Similarly in Manipur, it is the mothers on both sides of the ethnic divide who have watched their children become militants, get killed, get disillusioned with the political system, get killed even if they are uninvolved, stand up and fight for peace and a resolution, and get killed for daring to be different.
So while men decide when to talk and when to fight, when to provoke violence and when to be conciliatory, when to stick to a cause and when to consider other viewpoints, thousands of women, and their young children, live out the reality of conflicts without any end in sight.