Madam X

Whenever a sleaze racked is unearthed in a society cloaked in high morals, the first target is the victim itself. As the investigation in the Kulgam case moves at a snail’s pace, mostly behind the iron curtains, away from public domain, Masood Hussain revisits the bitter memories of Kashmir’s sleazy past

Kashmir right now is indulging in mass gossip. The subject matter is a new Madam, who was caught, according to police, within days after she started making inroads into the bedrooms of the moneyed and influential.

Since police are still investigating the case, although a test identification parade (TIP) is already over, the probe is cautiously moving ahead, there is not much formally in the public domain. This has triggered a mass gossiping. The latest is that the Madam has been an “ambitious power-worshipper” to that extent that she was once seen working with one of her husband’s – she is accused of marrying many times, who was a counter-insurgent. The same gossip suggests her being a distinct character who lost one of her husband’s to the enforced disappearance, rendering her to a state of half-widow.

A video done a few years back displays her surviving abject poverty with four kids, two of them daughters, without any support after her husband disappeared. Law apart, even society did not help her.

By all accounts, the Madam, currently in the police custody, has remained on the margin of society, sometimes because of being part of a negative power structure (the background of which is still unknown) and sometimes by reducing to a mere destitute. But what is true with the entire Madams’ of all the societies is that they remain part of “life” for some time and once the fall takes place, they rarely recover. They become part of the soft leather trade’s sub-text.

In 2006, there was not a single home in Kashmir that did not know the exploits of the reigning Madam, Sabeena. A migrant to Srinagar from a peripheral village, she had acquired a lot of influence during the peak of counter-insurgency by emerging as a tool for providing exclusive comforts to leisure starved influential lot. If one goes by what the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the state police and later by the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) found, her clientele was so vast that it spanned from security grid to politics, industry to retail and fixers to deal-makers. It was her husband who played the pimp, and an influential one.

As the details of the police investigation moved to the newspaper front-pages, a huge crowd that surrounded her old city home. Well before they could disperse, a few men got in and set it afire. With its destruction, all the possible proofs and leads to her clientele went up in the air. It was possibly the only major gathering of that era that was not interrupted by police. This enigma even investigator admitted, later.

But the mass concern forced the government to work. The case went to the court, then to SIT and finally to the CBI. A yearlong investigation created a situation that reputation of hundreds of people was on the road. CBI did arrest some of the most influential people in politics, police, bureaucracy and even business. The then, Home Secretary had to fly to Srinagar to ensure that some of the key assets that had been used as pawns by the system to fight a war remain untouched. Some of the ‘abused lot’ was flown out and away from “harm” for some time.

It is still not known if at all the cartel was the creation of the security situation. But it is a fact that the gang was serving some of the interests of the massive counter-insurgency in its own way. By all means, it was a crime. But the politics on it created a situation that it was linked to the conflict entirely. The outright denial of the defence in Srinagar gave the prosecution a right to shift the trial to Chandigarh. Then the “victims” and the “accused” were allegedly taking the same train and booking the same hotel, till, all of them, were exonerated by the court for lack of sufficient evidence against them, one by one. People who moved out honourably fought elections, got elevations to senior positions with all perks and promotions.

In 2016 summer, Sabeena had a sudden death. She was laid to rest quietly. There was not even a whisper around. Nobody asked if it was a natural death or otherwise. Nobody tried to even seek answers to certain basic questions: Did she die because she knew too much? What was she doing after she was absolved of all charges? Was she right when she claimed she has given up everything and was trying to adopt the modest life as a conservative culture demands?

Benefit of doubt

Sabeena moved into the oblivion of history of a place that has a history of its vulnerable subjects being pushed into the soft leather trade by exploitative regimes. The last battle, a barely two decades ahead of the partition divided the Indian subcontinent, was protracted, laborious and costly. But it ended a “profession” that was helping the regime fill its coffers by a tax and having norms that would prevent “body sellers” resume a normal life.

But what link the two Madams between 2006 and 2018, is the costs their exploits have forced on individuals who know nothing much about the soft leather trade is all about. They are fragile and live on the margins of the society. They are vulnerable as they are too young.

In both the case, the Kulgam 2018 and Habba Kadal 2006, there are two minors at the core of the police case. In Sabeena case was a minor whose exploitation formed the base of the case. In Kulgam case too, the father of the girl who registered the case and who spoke so eloquently on a video, is a minor, according to police. In both the cases, the other similarity is that both the “victims” have been willing players, according to police. Neither of the two minors talked about what they have been doing till they were caught.

“But the girl being minor (in Kulgam case too), her willingness does not matter at all,” a senior police officer said. “The onus lies on the immediate major who uses and abuses a minor, be it pimp or the exploiter.”

In the Sabeena case, the court proceedings concluded with a long judgement that summarised the outcome of the investigations identified the “mighty” that were not touched by the prosecution and suggested the government must help the “victims” in their rehabilitation. The tragedy is that while all “victims” were rehabilitated, the real “victim” in whose case the entire prosecution was based, remained untouched. “I think, all the so-called victims used the connections they already had to get something on basis of the court direction,” one police officer privy to the case and its consequences said. “Last time, I saw her requesting a police officer to help her rehabilitate as the family had shifted from their ancestral place to another locality and were living in abject poverty. I also know that after the accused were exonerated, there was a consensus amongst the exploiters that she should be prosecuted for wrongly framing them, a plea court turned down, fortunately.”

A senior police officer fully briefed about the Kulgam case said the trafficking law in J&K is not “victim friendly”. Not knowing that if any lawmaker is involved in this case, the officer said that the lawmakers will have to put their heads together and revisit the entire process that goes into the detection and investigation of the soft leather cases so that they upgrade the process to the next level. “There has to be a strong element of rehabilitation,” he added.

“These are sensitive cases,” the officer said. “These are so delicate cases that if a victim or a worker name names, the entire investigation goes haywire because the direction of the investigation automatically shifts from probing the crisis to ensuring if at all the named people were actually involved. In these cases, establishing involvement is very difficult and that is exactly what happened in the CBI cases.”

The officer said in conservative societies, the crisis which emerges around the identified people normally creates a new crisis. “They tend to talk too much and pass the buck,” he said. “They think it will help them retain their reputation in the society but eventually it hits them back on a long-term basis.” That is exactly happening in Kulgam case too in which the “victim” and her mother took to the social media in telling their side of the story.

But the moral of the story is not for the official files. Regardless of the fact that whether the “victims” are “willing participants” or the targets of blackmail, they are from Kashmir society. If a “victim” is claiming the destitution encouraged or forced them into getting exploited by the moneyed and the mighty, it is not the crisis for the government alone.

It is a serious issue for the society to tackle. There has to be a very strong movement to revisit the grey zones of the society which live on the margins of resources and work and are vulnerable to get exploited.

Kashmir has dozens of civil society groups. There has to be a few of them who will take care of this serious crisis that has the potential of becoming the new menace. Nobody in the government or the society is willing to see urban poverty as a serious crisis. Kulgam case should be seen as a whistleblowing incident, a symptom of a crisis and not the crisis in itself. For a market that is witnessing weather change impacting crops, floods and situation impacting businesses, there are more chances of vulnerable sections getting exposed to indignities of life. Kashmir is tourist place, where a million odd people are the average floating population a year. Society leaders cutting across party lines must understand it in anticipation of making it a poll agenda or core of their reactionary politics


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