Rahul Bhat, a PM Package employee working in Kashmir valley was shot dead in cold blood in his office in the Chadoora area of Budgam district on May 12. This triggered an unprecedented reaction amongst the employees who have been continuously protesting since then, for their right to live and right to earn a livelihood without the fear of gun looming on their heads. The focus of this six-month long protest has been denial of genocide, conflating employment package with rehabilitation package and atmosphere of fear that has gripped the employees serving in the valley. What has gone unnoticed is what this package has done to the women employees who serve in Kashmir valley and their struggles of living in an Islamist society. Epilogue got an opportunity to speak to one such female employee who is currently in Jammu protesting for her right to live. The facet of continual genocide that comes out from her narration of events is blood curdling and tragic. We reproduce the conversation with her below. Epilogue has changed the name of the employee in order to protect her identity. Her answers are reproduced exactly as she voiced them with minor changes only for grammatical purposes.
Epilogue: What is your experience of living in valley as a PM Package employee?
Girija: Being a Hindu lady in Kashmir, I feel like I am living a life of a “famous innocent criminal” – “famous” because where ever I go, people stare at me as if I am a different species, “innocent” because I have not done anything wrong but I feel I am being watched all the time, and a “criminal” because I am a Hindu. This is not my singular experience. Every Kashmiri Pandit woman serving in the valley goes through this. We feel that we are under constant surveillance and our Hindu faith makes us a target every single day. It is impossible to live in isolation. We do come in contact with the local population and the experience is far from pleasant. The fear of being outed or identified has destroyed our mental health.
Epilogue: Have you made any effort to mingle with the local population? How is possible that the entire local community shuns you and every single person comes across as a threat to you?
Girija: You have to live there yourself to understand. No matter how hard we try we are othered and given an impression that we are not one of them or we are outsiders in the valley. They call us names and harass us for no reason. There are taunts and barbs thrown at us like it is nothing out of ordinary. E.g it is common to hear, “oh yes! She’s a gift for me from India, she came here for us only, Migratory birds have arrived after vacations” so on and so forth. Many of these barbs are explicitly sexual in nature and makes us very uncomfortable.
Epilogue: Does this happen only with women employees? Are men also subjected to taunts and insults?
Girija: Everyone is but with men they use generic taunts. With us, the taunts are explicitly sexual and therefore the correct term to be used is “verbal sexual abuse”. We are harassed for our faith, our helpless situation, our minority status and our gender. It is a common knowledge across the valley that such verbal sexual abuse exists everywhere. And it is not new. Even in 1990, I have heard that sexually explicit genocidal slogans were used. ‘We want Kashmir with Kashmiri Pandit women but without their menfolk’ was used. My mother has personally heard it. So, there is precedence for sexually loaded slogans and harassment.
Epilogue: This is horrendous. Are you however telling me that every single woman employee, regardless of age or nature of job description is subjected to this sexual harassment? If that is so, why haven’t you spoken before?
Girija : Kashmiri Pandit women are targeted every single minute of their existence in the valley. Someone or the other is constantly scanning our every move, every word we speak, every opinion we might accidentally voice. They make fun of our pronunciations, our belief systems, and even our choice of clothes. If we wear a tight legging, it is assumed we are inviting male attention, if we leave our hair untied, it is assumed that we are trying to arouse passions in opposite gender and we are told by leaving our hair untied or wearing clothes that they don’t approve of we are being a bad influence on the local children. I have not lived in Taliban regime, but what we go through on a daily basis, doesn’t seem any different. We have always tried to voice our concerns, but who is interested. It is only now after Rahul Bhat’s killing, attention is focused on us and we are making one more attempt to speak up.
Epilogue : This seems like you are being made to adhere to an unofficial but mandatory dress code.?
Girija: Absolutely. No written fatwa is issued but what we are subjected to is verbal fatwas. When subjected to such extreme harassment, most women end up wearing what local women wear so as not to invite any attention. E.g We cannot wear jeans or use make up because that invites hostile reaction from the local community. The think that we are being a bad influence on their young girls who may follow our life style. As if wearing jeans or wearing make up makes you a ‘bad woman’ but that is the primitive mindset that operates in Kashmir valley in 2022. I don’t know how Taliban can be any more different. Married women are subjected to same abuse.
Epilogue: Is your life there even worse than male employees?
Girija: Yes because a pandit woman is easily identifiable. Particularly married women. They wear a bindi on their forehead and wear a dejhor in their ears as is the custom for thousands of years. Married women are often asked_ ‘Where is your husband” ? ‘Why are you working?’ ‘Why are you traveling alone?’ ‘Why do you wear a bindi? ‘ ‘Is that bindi a permanent feature or is it a pimple?” . The questions are demeaning and downright disgusting.
Epilogue: Are you able to follow your religious rituals in your private space at least?
Girija: There is a huge problem with that also. Hindu faith today seems foreign in valley. Our hindu rituals are vibrant and totally different from them. But if you are living in the valley there is a sort of self-censorship out of fear. One of my Hindu colleagues was once told by her landlord to remove all pictures of Hindu deities in her small make shift prayer area made inside her room which was her private space. She was told not to pray even in her private space or she would have to find another rented accommodation for herself. Such incident was very common during the early years of so called “rehabilitation”, as there were a smaller number of accommodation options provided by the Government. Even now those of us who live in private rented accommodations have to face this discrimination. Indian constitution allows every citizen right to worship as they please. This is not applicable to us in the valley.
Being a Hindu in valley means you are a traitor and an outsider. They forget we are the Aboriginals of this land.
Epilogue: How has all this affected the children of Employees since they are at the most vulnerable stage of their lives? –
Girija: Our children are the worse hit. They have no option of proper, secular schooling. They are also subject to harassment in classrooms and on streets. How much and how long can we shield them? We have to send them to local schools where they are subject to religious and cultural indoctrination. It is a tragedy that has befallen our young children for no fault of theirs.
Epilogue: What would you like to tell the Government of Jammu and Kashmir?
Girija: If this was the promise of rehabilitation by our government, then they have failed spectacularly. We were forced to leave our homes once on gun point amidst slogans like, “chaliv, raliv, ya galiv” which means flee, convert or die. Even today we are being targeted, selected and killed even in our offices Government is adamant that situation is peaceful there and we must continue our duties, but the ground reality is totally different. I believe they would definitely understand everything that we are saying, if only they lived with us incognito, without security, for 24 hours.
Thank you for talking to Epilogue News Network.