A series of events led to Anjum Zamarud Habib becoming the only woman leader in the Hurriyat Conference in Kashmir when it was formed. Anjum, in Calcutta to attend the People’s Literary Festival held recently, is part of a panel on the first day of the event with two other activist-writers. It is the day after the Pulwama terror strike.
The literary festival is organised thoughtfully and efficiently by a group of young persons belonging to the Calcutta chapter of the NGO, Bastar Solidarity Network. What inevitably comes up is the phrase “state repression”. But the words need disambiguation, says Monalisa Changkija, a panelist from Nagaland; non-state actors are as good as the state at executing it. Sometimes, she says, it is difficult to point out which is the biggest force to contend with — the state, religion or patriarchy. And resistance movements often reproduce the same structures of control.
This could have been the perfect cue for Anjum. While working with the Hurriyat Conference on behalf of her own organisation, Kashmir Tehreek-e-Khawateen, she was convicted and spent four years in Tihar jail. She wrote the book Prisoner No. 100: An Account of My Nights and Days in an Indian Prison (originally written in Urdu, published in 2011) on her prison days. Anjum felt let down by the Hurriyat leadership during her trial and her stay at Tihar. She wrote about it. The lists of names of other jailed persons that were being forwarded to authorities with requests for release did not include her name. She felt overlooked because she was a woman.
Yet Anjum does not say much on the subject on stage. One day later, however, at the interview, she opens up. Over our conversation I also learn that her silences are important.
Anjum is a tall, handsome woman in her late fifties. Her head is covered with a dupatta. She looks piercingly at her interlocutor, and with some scepticism, it seems, but before it becomes unnerving, her face breaks into a broad smile and her eyes sparkle. It is clear from the beginning that whatever she says often goes against the grain of the resistance movement she is part of.
“They are discussing censorship here. But what about the censorship we use on ourselves,” she asks, as if thinking aloud, as we walk out of the small auditorium in Phoolbagan in east Calcutta, where the festival is being hosted. We stroll into the foyer crowded with book stalls and grab two empty chairs.
Prisoner No. 100 is her most celebrated book, but she talks about her latest, Nigah-e-Anjum. It is an account of her life, written in Urdu, which she says will be translated into English as well. It means what the stars are seeing, but it is also, quite clearly, a play on her name.
Anjum is also the author of two other “data-based” studies that she documented. One is on Kashmir’s war widows and the other on the forgotten prisoners of Kashmir. Both were published in 2009 in English.
So does she regard herself as a writer? Anjum looks stunned. “Writer? I am not a writer at all,” she asserts. Then what about these books about her own life? “They are about what happened,” she says. Writing is an act of imagination, she implies. She has only transcribed her own life. Unlike in other kinds of writing, there is no gap here between what happened and what was expressed, because all of it is completely political. But it is also her life. Can her autobiography then be called “personal documentation”? She loves the phrase.
It seems, she had not set out to be in politics, or in the “resistance” — her word — in Kashmir. After finishing her postgraduate studies, Anjum had joined Hanfia College in Anantnag city, about 50 kilometres south of Srinagar, as a teacher of Education. Soon after she joined, a dowry death occurred in the area. It disturbed her tremendously. Though dowry is not practised extensively among Muslims, Anjum realised that she needed to act. She says, “From my childhood I had wanted to do something for women. We decided to form a pressure group. Within 15 days, 200 to 300 women had joined us.” So began the Women’s Welfare Association, Islamabad — the local name for Anantnag.
In two or three years, what Kashmir calls its resistance movement and authorities in India call militancy would erupt in the Valley. By that time, the women’s association had taken root and become stronger. Anjum’s sympathies were with the resistance. So when the United Hurriyat Conference was formed in 1993 as a political outfit to advocate Kashmiri independence, her association, Kashmir Tehreek-e-Khawateen, also signed up. This was the only women’s association in the group of 26 and Anjum was the only woman leader in the Hurriyat.
It was not easy, from the start. “We were not given a place in the executive body or in the decision-making process.” This is the way, she says, women are left out from the big decisions, “individually, collectively, formally, informally.” She adds, “We, the women of Kashmir, want to live, we want to exist.”
Being alive and yet not feeling as if they exist is not a feeling that is peculiar to women in Kashmir. In Tagore’s story Jibita o Mrita, the female protagonist, Kadambini, had to commit suicide by jumping into a well to prove that she was indeed alive.
In the Hurriyat, Anjum was put in charge of the human rights cell. She looked at women’s issues. At the same time, she stresses that no issue can be separated from the political uncertainty and nothing is more important than the lives being lost in Kashmir every day. “We raised slogans of azadi. We want better political change. We are against the killing of innocent lives,” she says.
Everything else takes a backseat, she feels, when “our boys are disappearing every day. We don’t know when the men leave in the morning if we are going to see them again.” Kashmir, she says, is being denied the beauty and promise of life. “Women are singing wedding songs at the funerals of their unwed sons. War has destroyed not only the physiques of our young men, but also their psyches, their souls.”
By the late Nineties, Anjum was very much in the public eye, wanting a peaceful negotiation towards separation for Kashmir. “I was always very bold,” she says, and smiles. “I was active, I was courageous. I was visible, vibrant and vocal,” she says, still smiling, as if savouring the alliteration. “And don’t forget, I was young, and beautiful. Very beautiful,” she says with emphasis.
In 2003, she was arrested and charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), and thrown into Tihar jail in Delhi till end of 2007. This is something she has written and spoken about a lot, and perhaps that is why she does not want to talk about it much.
“I lived in misery,” she says, a cloud passing over her face. She does not mind repeating that the Hurriyat leadership had not stood beside her, but it seems she would rather not dwell on the subject. She remains quiet for a while. “I was born for resistance,” she says, when she looks up again. “I have great respect for (Syed Ali) Geelani [chairman of the Hurriyat Conference],” she adds. Back in Srinagar, after Tihar, she returned to her political work and writing. “The youth love me. I discuss with them everything without politicising issues because I am not a politician. Politics makes tricky and negative things strike your mind.”
In Calcutta, Anjum was also supposed to address a meeting the following week organised by the human rights organisation, Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights, but could not because there were apprehensions that miscreants would try to attack her.
What does she make of Pulwama? She is silent again for a few minutes. “We are against the killing of innocents,” she says, and continues, “India and Pakistan should come forward peacefully to negotiate the Kashmir problem.”
“No one can portray the right perspective. No one can portray your perspective other than you. My writing is my resistance,” she says, as if going back to the conversation about writing. And what does an incident like Pulwama point at? “We will go where our politicians will take us,” says Anjum. Getting up briskly, she says it is time for tea in a bhaanr from a roadside stall. She sips on it quietly and then declares — “Wonderful.”