The disappeared artist and the seamstress: her wait ended with death

“Since the day her husband disappeared on June 16, 1992 till the day she closed her eyes, she only faced hardships.”

It was a long wait typical of thousands of half-widows in Kashmir, who spend their lives in hope and despair. Dilshada Begum waited for 26 years for the return of her husband but he never came. Neither did much of any help come. What came were hardships and multiple illnesses that finally killed her in March this year.

In 1992, she was just 31 when her 32-year-old husband, Bashir Ahmad Sheikh, went missing. He was an artist. His painting of the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina, and the shrine of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani in Baghdad still hangs in their house in Zakur, in north Srinagar. “He left home to buy some paints only to never return,” says Nazir Ahmad, Begum’s brother.

The loss of her husband meant extreme struggle for her in more ways than one. She had to raise a family of three sons – Mohammad Altaf Sheikh (12), Riyaz Ahmad Sheikh (10), and Imtiyaz Ahmad Sheikh (2). With no source of income to provide for the food and other needs of her young family, she took to stitching and tailoring.

“Since the day her husband disappeared on June 16, 1992 till the day she closed her eyes, she only faced hardships,” says Nazir Ahmad. “There wasn’t one easy day in her life.”

The local aid agencies helped her financially in early years, but she mostly fought her battle alone. “Sometimes I would help her or the local Bayt-ul-Maal provided some aid, but mostly she did it all on her own,” says her brother Ahmad.

“The trauma of his father’s disappearance had disturbed his mental stability.”

As if the loss of husband, the emotional trauma and the burden of raising a family were not enough, in 2010, she had to suffer another tragedy. His second son, Riyaz Ahmad Sheikh who was 28 by now, died in a road accident. He had been mentally disturbed for years due to depression following the disappearance of his father.

“The trauma of his father’s disappearance had disturbed his mental stability,” says Shakeela, Dilshada’s eldest daughter-in-law. “He died in an accident near HMT,” the defunct manufacturing unit of popular watch-making company on the outskirts of Srinagar.

With passing years, Begum’s health started deteriorating, perhaps due to the hardships and stress, both physical and mental. In the later stages of her life, she developed diabetes, hypothyroidism and hypertension. Her family says her health worsened after the death of her son; it was a loss she could hardly come to terms with. For the past few years, her knees were disabled too and she couldn’t even walk.

“Parveena Ji provided her with some medicines and other aids,” says Shakeela, referring to the Parveena Ahanger, the “Iron lady of Kashmir”, who founded Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in 1995. “But she received no other help from anyone.”

Dilshada Begum’s story of a lonely struggle and a quiet death may not be rare in Kashmir where thousands of women have faced trauma and violence for the past three decades. But her story does raise questions whether the people of Kashmir as a society failed its half-widows – the women whose husbands have disappeared, most probably killed by government forces, but not yet declared dead.

Dilshada’s son who was depressed and died in an accident.

They are perhaps the worst sufferers in the three decade old armed conflict between Kashmir’s pro-freedom militant groups and the Indian security forces, which has claimed the lives of an estimated one lakh people so far. Besides the psychological trauma, they face extreme financial misery as they cannot even access their husbands’ property or bank accounts since that requires a death certificate. The question of their remarriage has also remained largely unresolved – religiously and socially both.

Kashmir has an estimated 2500 half-widows. Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons puts the number of missing people between 8000 and 10,000, while the Indian government authorities say it’s lesser – approximately 4000.

The health of these half-widows, most of whom are now in their late 40s and 50s and unable to work to provide for themselves and their families, is a matter of concern. A 2015 joint study by Indian Social Institute researcher Paul D’Souza and Aman Trust, Vulnerabilities of Half Widows of Jammu and Kashmir, says 79% of Kashmir’s half widows have some or the other physical ailments and nearly 62% are under regular medication.

“Sometimes I would help her or the local Bayt-ul-Maal provided some aid, but mostly she did it all on her own.”

The report also suggests that 98% of the half widows have a monthly income of less than Rs 4,000, and 65% live in houses with minimum amenities. “Around 95% of these half-widows could not search for their husband due to various limitations. Most of them are living the life of a beggar,” D’Souza had said when he published the study in 2015.

The APDP is one of the agencies that has been taking care of some limited needs of half-widows. They are also helped by relatives, neighbours and even strangers. But an organised community effort to ensure a life of dignity for them has remained mostly missing so far.

Kashmir has an estimated 2500 half-widows. Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons puts the number of missing people between 8000 and 10,000, while the Indian government authorities say it’s lesser – approximately 4000. (Suhail Naqshbandi/GK)

“I do what I can for these women through APDP since they are my only family now,” says Parveena Ahangar, the head of APDP, whose son was allegedly abducted by the Indian security forces in 1990 and never seen again. She combined her own struggle with those of other women looking for their missing sons and husbands to form APDP as a bid to pressurise the Indian government authorities probe the cases of “enforced disappearances’.

“It’s been almost 30 years but there has been no help from the government or anyone else,” says Ahanger.