In a freewheeling and poignant chat, Anjum Zamarud Habib, author of “Prisoner Number 100: The Story of My Ordeal in an Indian Prison”, speaks about a life in confinement, the women’s movement in Kashmir, and our misplaced notion of patriotism.
The first time I met this gutsy looking woman was at a book reading session, amidst a small coterie of women writers and book lovers. When it was time for her to read an excerpt from her book, she insisted, “I am an ordinary, middle-class, educated Kashmiri woman. I am no writer and I do not know what the art of writing is. I wrote what I could, but at times I felt that my mind registered much more. It seemed like the thoughts were flowing and it was difficult to capture all of it.”
Anjum Zamarud Habib is the founder of the ‘Muslim Khawateen Markaz’, an organisation established in 1990 to lend a voice to native Kashmiri women. Falsely implicated under POTA in 2003, jailed and released in the winter of 2007, the years of appalling torture at the Tihar Jail and her tryst with the other inmates led to the book – “Prisoner no.100: The Story of My Ordeal in an Indian Prison.”
What was meant to be a chat about her book grew into a very frank and intimate conversation about being a woman, days in prison, an entire population’s struggle to live in a battered state, nationalism, Kashmir, and above all, an encounter with sheer resilience and spirit that completely moved me. Edited excerpts:
“Being a woman and that too from Kashmir makes your life in jail a living hell”
Habib explains how she was verbally stripped by Delhi police officials during her time in incarceration: “You are a separatist leader of the Muslim Khawateen Markaz; we will strip you naked, take snaps and distribute them all over India, defaming you forever.” When she entered the jail premises, she was the only Kashmiri woman; the hostility of the other jail inmates, she says, will remain etched forever in her memory.
Life in jail transformes one in many ways, she says. “Incarceration can bind physically but cannot bind one’s conscience; no jail can cuff one’s thoughts or imagination.” Being a high risk prisoner whose movements were restricted, getting even a paper and a pen was hard; the urge to document however continued to increase with every passing day. While she had all the time to gestate on her emotions, writing was the only way to vent.
“When you stay in a constrained space for a long period of time, you share everything – your pain, your longings, your desires, your aspirations and even your silence”
Habib says that her stay in jail has made her more determined and strong willed. The women in jail are all from assorted backgrounds, she says – some are hard-core criminals, some claim to have been framed, a few are small-time thieves while others ran brothels. “Jail culture has rules and regulations of its own. There are customs one needs to follow.”
Habib narrates her experience with a coterie of sadistic women who took immense pleasure in abusing and playing pranks with others around who were emotionally fragile. They targeted her too, but initially due to language problems, she did not understand that they were abusing her. When she slowly began to comprehend and responded, it didn’t make things any easier for her.
“I shared a very strange relationship with the people in there. We used to fight and then talk. You can’t escape people — sooner or later one has to come to terms with the other.” After a point the fights, the faces, the food, and the excuses became typical and repetitive. One just learnt to deal with grief. Deep inside though, each one only wanted to get out and prayed that they don’t see or meet the others ever again. “Nobody is interested in anyone else’s life beyond those four walls. All one wants is to move on. The absurdity of it all is a learning experience,” she says.
Negativity all around also made it extremely difficult to remain calm. The police officials always stared at women from bottom to top; it was very difficult to tell them to mind their own business. Habib was once called upon by a male superintendent, the in-charge at Jail no.2. He asked her if she were from Pakistan, to which she replied, “No, from Kashmir!” He then shockingly remarked, ‘Do you know that we make cocks out of Kashmiri men in that jail?’
“It is mind-wrecking every time you are presented in front of the court and given a date. The unending wait is a spine-breaking experience”
There are four to five dates for each prisoner every year, dates you wait for hoping that it might just be your turn. “‘Tareeq’ means a lot in the life of a prisoner; it decides the fate of the prisoner. A court date is a very unnerving process.” There was a time when she was in jail and there was a strike for almost three months. It may be a very normal thing for people outside, but for a prisoner who has been serving a sentence for years on end, it is a matter of life and death. “When you’ve been waiting for those 4-5 dates in the year, hoping that it might turn out to be ‘the date’ for you, and then you come to know of a strike, it ruins everything.”
On a regular day in jail, Habib’s regime comprised getting up by 5.30 am, getting ready and saying prayers followed by morning tea and some chores. A mandatory class then ensued before lunch. 12 to 3 pm was time inside the cell. Teatime came again at 3.30 pm, and by 5.30, it was lockup time again.
Habib was assigned the task of teaching – “There was some big project which had come up from Jamia Milia University, so they told me to take that up. I started to teach Hindi which I was not that good at, but I taught nonetheless.”
“Many prominent writers have praised my ‘brave act’ of documenting my sufferings in jail”
Habib’s tryst with writing led her to being a panelist at the prestigious Jaipur Literary Festival 2012 last month at Diggi Palace. “A few days back, I was conversing with a local Kashmiri woman and she told me, ‘it seems you haven’t been able to come out of the pain completely, yet’, which is true. I told her then, that now in this moment, I am sitting here at a literature festival attempting to narrate my tale. But for a span of five years, I was unaware of any part of this world and that one day I could even be sharing my story with thousands of people.”
“Sitting here and talking about my experience is not that difficult a task, but going out there in Kashmir and convincing people to take an active part in the movement is the real deal”
Habib says that in Kashmir there are many women who have now been coming out on the streets in protest. “For how long will they suffer the loss of their husbands, sons and brothers in silence? We have been suffering the bloodshed for over 20 years now.” Women like Parveen Ahangar, an unlettered woman who started the ‘Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons’ (APDP), are the real heroes, she says. Ahangar lost her son in 1990 and since then has been active in the movement, giving confidence to many others to raise their voice against atrocities.
Habib has a close-knit network of women that works with honesty and optimism, which is saying a lot. People in Kashmir have a collective memory of ruined lives, and even though they are traumatized and shattered, most of them do not have the courage to be a part of the mass collective or an uprising as they fear that it will only lead to more gory incidents. “Blood boils” when women are raped, sons are killed in encounters, husbands are beaten, and children go missing. But then, with time and politics at play, things are made to ‘appear normal’. Children are so used to conflict, bombing and warfare that they take it as ‘a matter of fact’.
“I think that today’s youth are also much more active and understand the context of the movement as they have witnessed the episodes and have grown in militancy prone areas of Kashmir. I think that youth who want to be a part of the movement should be welcomed gracefully as they will be the ones who would take this forward. I do not want women who take part in the movement to suffer like I have. I feel immensely blessed that the younger generation accommodates me so much.”
Habib hopes that the movement continues to grow and puts a full stop to this massive bloodshed. “I wish that the toil and suffering helps us attain justice. I have made a conscious choice to be a part of the movement and have no regrets whatsoever.”
“What kind of democracy is it, where you have one military man standing against every seven local residents?”
The issues are essentially political and need to be resolved through the same medium, declares Habib. It is important to be politically active and be able to critique and question the stand point of various groups and the government. Politicizing events in Kashmir to throw some light on the actual occurring is imperative. Enforced disappearances and fake encounters are a matter of grave concern but these lose importance when the Kashmir issue comes into question. Habib questions, “How is one supposed to react, when one finds two women battered and torn apart, lying somewhere and the home minister reacts to the situation stating, “Kashmiris take things too seriously”?”
“It is astonishing to find that whenever the Kashmir issue is brought to the table, people’s sense of nationalism awakens. Without knowing the intricacies of the Kashmir issue, what patriotism are people talking of? They are clueless about the price a Kashmiri has to pay for his ‘being’. I feel that the notion of secularism weighs heavily on the shoulders of Kashmir.”
It is important for everyday people to understand the Kashmir issue in depth and negotiate this understanding of patriotism, she says.
“Well, patriotism to me is no less essential, it defines you and your sense of belonging. But then, with the rampant killings and brutal activities happening in Kashmir, it makes it almost impossible for an average Kashmiri to say I belong. Politicizing the Kashmiri discourse is one part but solving it is what needs to be worked at.”
A year after her release from prison, Anjum Zamarud Habib founded the Association for the Families of Kashmiri Prisoners (AFKP) and is currently conducting a survey on Kashmiri prisoners in India and their families. She was a part of the panel “Prison Diaries” at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012 along with Ifftikar Gilani, discussing her book ‘Qaidi No. 100 Bharati Zindan Mai Mere Shab-o-Roz Ki Rudad.’
Anjum Habib’s book is published by Zubaan Books and can be purchased here.