Veiled threat

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am

As revolutionary leaders go, Aasiyeh Andrabi is not what you would expect.

The mother-of-two's slight frame and quiet demeanour make her one of the unlikeliest candidates to be at the helm of Indian Kashmir's first and only women's separatist movement. But her appearance belies a determination that's unwavering.

'I do not believe that Kashmir is Indian, and we will fight, Inshallah [God willing], to get Kashmir free from India,' the 45-year-old says. 'India has illegally occupied Kashmir. We are not Indians. I am Muslim. I don't believe in nationalism. My identity is Muslim. Nationalism changes. Islam does not change.'

She turns tasselled prayer beads carefully through the fingers of her left hand, sitting cross-legged on the floor in her Srinagar home. Her train of thought is disturbed by the sound of her two mobile phones interrupting the ebb and flow of her words.

Once the phone conversations end, she is instantly back to her message and her mission to force social and political change in Indian Kashmir through Islam.

Ms Andrabi founded Dukhtaran-e-Millat (D-e-M), or Daughters of the Faith, in Srinagar in 1981. Funded through donations, the movement established Indian Kashmir's first madrassa school for women and girls, Madrassa Taleemul Koran, in Srinagar a year later.

A quarter of a century on, the group has thousands of female members and runs 75 schools throughout the Kashmir Valley, educating students about Islam and the rights and responsibilities they have as Muslim women.

But along its nascent journey, when in the late 1980s the insurgency in Kashmir started and armed militants began fighting against Indian control of Kashmir, D-e-M's social activism became intertwined with an ideological struggle centred on a belief that Indian Kashmiris should support 'jihad', or holy war, against Indian control of the disputed mountainous region, which she believes should be part of Pakistan.

It was an evolution that led New Delhi to ban the group as a terrorist organisation and Ms Andrabi to become Indian Kashmir's only female separatist leader.

'If we accede to Pakistan, our Islam is one unit. Allah says that Muslims are one unit. Keeping this unity in mind, we have the chance to unite with Pakistan ... or maybe we could become independent and then be governed under sharia law.'

Though D-e-M members have never taken up arms, the group is ideologically linked to the banned pro-Pakistan armed Islamist movement Lashkar-e-Taiba, or Army of the Pure, that is reported to have sent mujahedeen to fight the Indian army in Kashmir. Ms Andrabi's political and moral support for jihad is a prism through which she views life.

It was faith that fuelled Ms Andrabi's decision to make D-e-M a reality.

Born in Nawpara Khanyer, in Srinagar, a love of sciences led her to do a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry, bacteriology and therapeutic nutrition at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar. At 18, she wanted to study for a master's degree in biochemistry in the north Indian city of Dalhousie, but her older brother refused to allow her to leave home, saying it was not 'proper' for a Muslim woman to travel.

Though hurt at the time, the refusal marked a crossroads in her life when she stumbled across the writings of American Jewish woman Margaret Marcus, who converted to Islam, adopted the name Mariam Jameela and is now an author.

Leafing through the pages struck a nerve. 'When I read that, it was a turning point of my life,' Ms Andrabi says.

'Being a Muslim woman, I was shocked, I was totally ignorant regarding Islam and Islamic readings. I was very grateful for that book, so that people like me could come to know what Islam is ... So at that time I made up my mind that, Inshallah, I would sacrifice my life for Islam.'

The seeds of social and political struggle had been sown. She studied for a master's degree in Arabic at the University of Kashmir and D-e-M was born.

At first glance, Ms Andrabi's stance appears unusual in a society as patriarchal and conservative as India - an incongruous mix of women's rights, politics and Islam. But for her, there is no contradiction between conservative social behaviour, radical politics and women's rights; the thread that ties them together is religion.

Her views, including open support for Osama bin Laden and the Taleban, are, at the very least, controversial, and she has been arrested several times.

When D-e-M members painted over what they believed were 'obscene' images of women on film posters outside cinemas in Srinagar in 1987, police tried to arrest her. She went into hiding for 21 days.

Six years later, once the insurgency in Kashmir had taken root, D-e-M began to voice public support for armed resistance against Indian control of Kashmir.

She was arrested along with her husband, Mohammed Qasim Faktu, now 39, and eldest son Mohammed Qasim, now 15.

Ms Andrabi was charged under the Public Safety Act for supporting the militancy, creating anti-Indian sentiment and being a harbourer and mobiliser of the mujahedeen. She denied the allegations and was held in custody for 13 months in the Indian city of Jammu before she was acquitted. She and her son were released in 1994. Her husband, charged with conspiracy to murder, is serving a life sentence.

But Ms Andrabi's respite was short-lived. After two days of freedom, police raided her Srinagar home and she went into hiding, running D-e-M as an underground movement.

For 10 years she was on the run in Kashmir, never using her real name. Her second son Ahmad Qasim, now eight, was born during this time and she sent her older son to study in the western Indian state of Maharashtra in 2002. But the price of living underground and of being separated from Mohammed Qasim was one she was no longer willing to pay and she returned to Srinagar with her children in 2004.

'It was a very difficult [thing] for me to put myself and my children through. My children are OK now. Before we lived in fear. I used to get picked up by the police,' she says.

D-e-M's public social campaigns meant Ms Andrabi was arrested again in 2005, along with seven D-e-M members, for what critics had labelled as a campaign of 'violent moral policing'.

Her crime, she says, was to try to prevent young Kashmiri men and women who were meeting in Srinagar's restaurants.

'It was just an open restaurant, there were some cubicles, when we saw them, the curtains were hanging. We just removed them, and we saw a couple, 18 or 19 years old. She was totally naked. So we pulled the boy out. We told the woman to get dressed quickly. Then the police came.'

Ms Andrabi was in custody for six months before charges against her were dropped. But she and her husband are never far from scrutiny and D-e-M's political activities led the Indian government to ban it in 1990 as a terrorist organisation. The movement was outlawed again in 2002 amid accusations that D-e-M had accepted funds from Pakistan to foment a jihad in Kashmir.

New Delhi also said that 60 rehabilitation centres D-e-M was running in Jammu and Kashmir were actively supporting the militancy. Ms Andrabi denies the claims, saying the centres were places where widows and orphans of the mujahedeen were taught skills, like sewing.

She revels in the furore she has created. But the steely facade drops momentarily when she speaks of her husband's continued imprisonment and the break-up of her family. Though they've been married for 17 years, the couple have spent barely two years together.

Ms Andrabi says she now visits her husband in Srinagar's Central Jail, taking their sons when she can, once a month.

'I'm trying my best to be a faithful wife to my husband and to be a dutiful mother, but I'm too much involved in my movement at this time, I think,' she says.

But she is willing to accept being apart from her husband and being maligned by many in Indian society as a trouble-maker and a militant for what she sees as the greater good of fighting for Kashmir's freedom. Her support for the insurgency is unequivocal.

'Mujahedeen will have to work until the last Indian gun leaves Kashmir,' she says. 'I am giving moral support. We don't provide money or food.

'Kashmir should get free from India. It was never part of India. The Indian government has occupied Kashmir forcibly without Kashmiris' permission. We have never given a vote in favour of India.'

Sovereignty over the disputed Kashmir has been an open wound since India and Pakistan were carved out along religious lines in 1947.

Though many in Indian Kashmir would welcome a vote to settle the issue and support the territory's independence from India, how much grass-roots support they would give to Ms Andrabi's vision that the region be handed over to Pakistan is open to question.

Most want Indian Kashmir to be self-governed.

As well, Indian Kashmiris have never been hard-line in their interpretation of Islam, and her attempts to instil what she says is 'Islamic morality', including trying to force women to observe 'purdah' - to dress modestly according to the Koran - are seen as extreme.

It's a sore point Ms Andrabi is aware of, adding she is willing to forgo her belief that Indian Kashmir becomes part of Pakistan as long as the region is not governed by New Delhi.

Her ire for politicians is unrelenting. She is particularly critical of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, whose support for Pakistani rule of all of Kashmir has cooled in recent years.

'Musharraf is a pet of the CIA,' she says. 'It's the policy internationally, about Kashmir now, that Kashmir should stop the 'anti-India' struggle, that there should be compromise now. For that they've used Musharraf in Pakistan. Here in Indian Kashmir they have used the Hurriyat.

'They are trying to stall this issue under a compromise. They have betrayed the Kashmiris ... but there will be no compromise.

'Maybe the insurgency is a bit quiet today. Maybe it looks like this movement has been checked by India and the mujahedeen are nowhere, but that's not actually the fact. The movement is based on ideology that never dies.'