There are hundreds of non-local brides in Kashmir. While some marry on their own and live happily, a huge number of them are lured, sold, re-sold by an ‘organized system’ serving those who couldn’t find one locally. Aakash Hassan tells the story
On a rainy winter day, Jawaid Ahmad Mir was desperately calling everybody around the village. He went to every house he thought his wife, Ruby could go. But in the silence of the dark he returned to his double storey mud house located on a hillock, freaking and alone.
A day before Jawaid’s elderly mother, Saida begum and Ruby had a fight over some issue and Jawaid had slapped her couple of times for arguing with his mother.
Saida, 80, thought the scuffle was the reason Ruby went missing with her two-year-old daughter. Saida managed to calm down her son Jawaid telling him that his wife might have gone to her sister’s house, living in nearby Hangalgund village of Kokernag.
Next day, Jawaid, resident of Mirpora, Watnad went to police station Kokernag to register missing complaint after his wife was not found at her sister’s place.
It was only after five days that Kokernag police managed to trace the mother-daughter duo on February 27, 2017.
“She was begging at a shrine in Islamabad and was planning to go back to her native place in West Bengal,” police official who traced her said. Ruby, 23, a non-state bride wanted to visit her parents at Lakyandapur village, almost five hours ride from Kolkata.
In 2010, Ruby, who was then 16, came to stay with her sister, who was married in Hangalgund village of Kokernag since last 12-years. After staying for two years at her sister’s house Ruby was reluctant to go back to Kolkata, where her family lived in abject poverty.
Her dream to stay in Kashmir came true when she got marriage offer from Rafiq Ahmad Chopan, a tailor from nearby Bidder village, who was in his forties. It was Ruby’s first marriage.
On a Mehar or Rs 20 thousand, Ruby was married off from her sister’s house, without any festivity. “The marriage was going well and I was happy with my first baby,” said Ruby.
For next two years everything was going right in Ruby’s life. She was happy with her husband, twice her age, till one fine day when a scuffle broke in night.
“I was working in the kitchen at lunch time but my mother-in-law was nowhere around. She was busy in the kitchen garden and didn’t come after my repeated calling,” said Ruby, who then thought to have lunch alone than waiting for her mother-in-law.
Things turned bad as the issue was raised before her husband, Rafiq Ahmad Chopan. “I was beaten by my husband for what he called shameless mistake,” said Ruby, who left the house next day and stayed at her sister’s home.
Waiting for few days for her husband to take her back, however he came, albeit with a surprise.
“He gave me forty thousand rupees and divorced,” she said in her broken Kashmiri accent while covering her feet under Feran.
Her male child then 2-years-old was taken by her in-laws and she was left with no other option than to accept the divorce as her marriage was all a verbal deal.
She stayed with her sister, Rukhsana for one year till family of Jawaid Ahmad Mir, a widower in his forties agreed to marry her. After Jawaid, a laborer, married her she gave birth to another child.
“Only my husband changed but woes remained same,” said Ruby, “I am trying to adjust to the culture, food and other things here but still there is not a day left when I am not cursed for doing something wrong.”
Located at a distance of around 20 kilometers from Islamabad district, Watnad village is surrounded by the green woods. The village has around two hundred non-state brides like Ruby, married with those who are not able to get a local one.
These people are from the poor backgrounds, unable to afford expenses of the local marriage or are mostly bearing some kind of physical disability. In order to get married they have to arrange just few thousand rupees and get a bride.
The trend was started by the people who used to go for work, particularly Shawl vending, in mainland India.
Ruby’s sister Rukhsana, 30, was married fourteen years back to Habibulla Wagay, a laborer by profession who was ten years elder.
But how she reached here is indeed a surprising journey.
In 2004, Rukhsana, then 16, was send to buy some grocery from a store in Kolkata, when her paternal uncle asked her to come along to a local market.
“I went with him and did not realize that he was taking me somewhere far away,” recalls Rukhsana.
“After many days of train journey he kept telling me that we are going for a trip.”
However, she was brought to Kashmir and married to a local man named Habibulla, a man in his late thirties.
“I was unable to understand what is happening. I was in a total shock,” said Rukhsana now mother of three.
But what kept her was her cousin, Shahnawaz Banu, two year elder than her, who was in the same house married with her husband’s cousin.
Shahnawaz, had went missing from her home, couple of years before Rukhsana was brought to Kashmir. She had actually, eloped with Mushtaq Ahmad Wagay, a shawl vendor and married here.
After she delivered her first baby, she went to meet her parents in Kolkata with Mushtaq.
“My parents were so happy to see me and my husband that they came to Kashmir with us when I came back after a month,” said Shahnawaz.
Here her father was told by Habibulla to find a bride for him as well. So when he went back he brought his niece Rukhsana along without telling her parents. Had he told her parent they too might have claimed a share.
After a year, like Shahnawaz, she also went back to home and met her parents with her child and husband.
She refuses to tell how much her husband paid her uncle, but generally, the amount varies between rupees five thousand to thirty thousand.
In most of the cases girls are unaware that they are going to be married, but their parents or sometimes relatives sell them.
Nisar Ahmad, resident of downtown Srinagar, is a broker who manages to bring these girls to Kashmir.
“These girls come from very poor families, mostly from West-Bengal and the surrounding states,” said Nisar who started bringing girls from West-Bengal while he was selling Shawls there.
“Anyone who is unable to find a bride for him here has to look for other options and I just provide them access,” he said, “most of the times we bring these girls to client’s home but some prefer to choose by visiting there.”
In past many years the population of these non-state brides, mostly Muslims from the below poverty line families, has increased in every part of the valley.
Like Watnad village, there are around two hundred such brides in Srinagar’s Boatman colony.
Initially this trend stared in the urban areas within poor neighborhoods, but later grew up in the peripheries as well.
Ghulam Ahmad Bhat, who lives in a Kulgam village, couldn’t get married after a disease left him partial blind.
Then he also went to ‘Madrass’ with his friend and brought a bride for him for twenty thousand rupees. Similarly, Mushtaq Ahmad, an ex-militant from Bandipora was bed ridden for more than a year and had to go through couple of surgeries. Mushtaq had developed physical disabilities after suffering severe torture in jail. After he was unable to find a bride he was advised by a friend to explore options outside.
“I had ailing mother at home and I needed someone who could take care of her,” he said. “Thus it was sort of compulsion for me to pay for a non-local bride.”
However, in most of the cases, cultural and languages differences make their stay difficult as they are unable to adjust.
This often leads to violence against them by their husbands.
Ruby was asked by her mother-in-law, Saida, to help her with work in the kitchen garden. But as she could not communicate with her properly, she did opposite of that, leading to a brawl between the two. When Saida complained about the same to her son, he beat his wife.
“It takes lot of time to get adjusted in different culture,” said Ruby. “Even the way I breastfeed my daughter irritates my mother-in-law.”
Even their children feel harassed for their complexion.
Rafia, a Class 9 student, gets irritated whenever anybody calls her Biharie in the school. “It makes me feel embarrassed and I never felt like part of society.”
Same is the case with these brides as they are often reminded of their colour and roots whenever they enter an argument with a native.
“These ladies are often found in a trap as nobody listens to them. While they face domestic violence, as most of them do, they are helpless,” said Hafeeza Muzaffar, former secretary of State Commission for Women.
“Because of their background and language they face hardships while interacting and sustaining in the environment that is very cold than the places they come from.”
There is no data available to understand the number of such brides in Kashmir. Hafeeza also raises concern in ways they are being brought here.
“Most of them are not aware that they will end up in Kashmir,” said Hafeeza, as she terms it “purely human trafficking.”
In a two-day program organized by Groupe Development and Human Rights Law Network, stated that “Bengali parents sell their minor daughters to Kashmiris due to poverty and people from Valley particularly aging persons or those suffering from any disability prefer young Bengali brides.”
In the seminar titled ‘Migration of Women from Bengal to Kashmir’ activist raised serious concerns about the state of these women.
“The migration of women has resulted in breaking down of communication between them and their families in Bengal which raises an assumption that in most of the cases, either these women have been re-sold or exploited,” an activist speaking at the seminar had said.
Revealing that number of these girls have also went missing the activist said that information has been received from certain NGOs working in Bengal that some of them had no traces.
However in a number of cases these women feel it is better to be here than going back to their home.
“I would have gone to meet my parents and would have come back,” said Ruby, “and if my husband will divorce me I will try to find another one but will not go back.”
She says that due to abject poverty, they can otherwise land in different situations.
“I am thankful to God that I was married here, though I face many hardships but it is better than landing into prostitution or any other similar rackets,” she says.
Rukhsana, and Shahnawaz are also happy brides of Wagay house hold. Both have three children who speak both Bengali and Kashmiri.
“Even our husbands understand our language and we speak both Kashmiri and Bengali at house,” said Shahnawaz, wearing black Feran and head draped with scarf.