Until October 2005, Roubia Kousar, 14, a Gujjar tribal girl, lived a placid life in the remote Lurkoti village, district Rajouri on the Indo-Pak border in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Her life changed drastically in October when she was abducted by a group of Lashkar-e-Toiba militants and forcibly married to a militant. She was brutally gang-raped by her 'husband' and his militant friends for two months and shifted from one hideout to another. One day, when they lowered guard, she escaped. Her family had to flee their native village and move to Jammu, the winter capital of J&K.
The militants have now announced a reward of Rs 50,000 (US$1=Rs 44) for her
- dead or alive. Jammu-based lawyer A K Sawhney filed a public interest litigation in the High Court seeking protection for her. On January 30, 2006, Justice Parmod Kohli of the J&K High Court ordered the Deputy Inspector-General (DIG) Rajouri-Poonch to conduct an inquiry into the matter and to provide Kousar with protection because she faces a "major militant threat".
Kousar's is not an isolated instance. Militants have abducted many young girls in J&K and forced them into marriages at gunpoint. While there are no surveys or studies on this, even the state police records place the number at over 50. This is probably a gross under-representation because most people do not come forward to report the matter to the police for fear of incurring the militants' wrath.
Forced marriages are a relatively new phenomenon. Initially, militants would just abduct women at gunpoint. This led to severe opposition from the locals. There were also several reports of fighting among militant groups, particularly the indigenous Hizb-ul-Mujahideen group and the foreign Lashkar-e-Toiba group. The local militants were strongly opposed to the exploitation of Kashmiri girls by foreign groups. It is also believed that the mentors of militant groups have sent out stern directions that the militants must not offend locals, for fear of losing their support.
A police officer posted in the Ramban area of Doda district also believes that "marriage is convenient for the militants, because it helps them evade suspicion when they move around with women and children. The family structure is an easy shelter for them."
Zaitoon Bano, 15, from village Bajoni, Doda district was forced to marry Nazir Ahmed, a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant, in December 2005. Her family was asked to choose between death and marrying off their daughter to him. The marriage was performed by a local Maulvi (Muslim priest) with a gun pointed to her father's head.
Satvir Gupta, former DIG of Police, Doda, says that these crimes are all too common. However, most parents are too scared to approach the police. Gupta asserts that wherever the police have come across such instances, every effort has been made to recover the girls.
There any number of cases that one could cite, though. Tahira Banoo, 16, was forced to marry Barkat Ali, alias Yaseen, a 'divisional commander' of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. The girl and her family were abducted at gunpoint from their house in Dewari village in Doda. They were taken to a remote place, Behar Nallah in Dhar, Doda, where the militants forcibly conducted the nikaah (wedding). The girl's parents were later let off.
The people of Kashmir say that terrorists, especially foreign terrorists, are forcing the women into submission by threatening their families. Shamim Akhter, 25, of Salora in Rajouri was to be married in mid-November 2004. A known militant had wanted to marry Akhter, but she had turned him down. She had to pay the price of that refusal with her life and that of her brother and father.
With the conflict in J&K showing no signs of abating, the gun culture dominates. And for girls and women in J&K, this has come to mean forced, unnatural marriages to gun-totting illiterate youth or people twice their age. Kashmiris complain that militants force young girls into 'mutah' (temporary marriage) for a couple of years; these ceremonies have now come to be known as 'command marriages'. In August 2004, police rescued Shami Mukhta, 17, of Ramban, saving her from a 'command marriage' to a militant twice her age.
There have been several reports of Maulvis being kidnapped and asked to sign fake nikahnaamas (marriage certificates). When a conscientious Maulvi refused to acquiesce in 2003, he was severely beaten up by a young militant, who asked, "Do you think we won't get a Maulvi?"
The young girls who survive these marriages face an uncertain future after their militant husbands are eliminated. They have no monetary support to fall back on, and many people avoid them due to the stigma attached to their association with a militant. The police of Doda cite Shamima Ansari's case. She was forced into marriage by Farooq Ansari, a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander in the Kishtwar area of Doda in 2000. He was killed in an encounter in Anantnag in 2004. Ansari is now a widow in her 20s, with three children, and is living with her parents in Doda.
Many parents are today fleeing their villages and marrying their daughters off quickly, even to unsuitable grooms. Rehana (name changed), a college student and daughter of a Srinagar-based doctor, was married off to a widower with two children when the family cook, who had militant links, asked for the girl's hand. The family fled Srinagar to settle elsewhere in India.
There are also reports that parents are marrying their daughters off earlier to save them from militants. Earlier, even in the remote areas, Kashmiri girls were married off at 17 or 18 years of age. Increasingly, the age of marriage is moving back to about 12-13. Riyaz Wani (name changed), a former militant who assists the Indian security forces after his surrender, says, "I have five daughters and one son. I have married four of them off at 12-14 years of age, because militants would have abducted them otherwise. The youngest one is only 11 and, already, I have ensured that she is engaged to a boy in Udhampur."
Bashir Ahmed of Anantnag, who worked with a bat manufacturing unit, fled his home when he discovered that local militants wanted to marry his two daughters. "It is better to live in penury than live tensely in luxury (with monetary support from militants). At least I am not leading a life on the run. Nor is it riddled with the anxiety that news of death could come at any moment," says Ahmed. Today, he works as a daily wage labourer in Jammu.