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A Bat Among Crows

Hurriyat founder Anjum Habib’s jail memoir is a raw warning of State cruelty, says Pragya Tiwari

KASHMIR IS a battleground that has spawned a lucrative industry of war. Its daily life is about stone pelters, martyrs, unmarked graves and frantic slogans. But even in this routine of aberrations, Anjum Zamrud Habib’s story stands out. As a founding member of the Hurriyat and a women’s rights activist, Habib’s life plunged when she was arrested in 2003 under POTA and imprisoned in Delhi’s Tihar Jail for five years. In August this year, Zubaan will publish Prisoner No. 100, Habib’s account of those years — an important book in a publishing industry that has come up with very few personal accounts of the Kashmir conflict or of victims of the criminal justice system, especially that of women

Habib, 48, says she wrote the book to confront the bias that exists against Kashmiris in the police, judiciary and the media. The book, translated from Urdu, is confrontational enough to back her claim. Habib alleges her jail term was a conspiracy between the State and Kashmir’s political factions. She was made to sign blank sheets of paper; names of militant organisations were scribbled in her diary; the judge in her case refused to hear her version of the story. While in jail, she wasn’t given the status of a political prisoner and was attacked for being a Kashmiri by both inmates and officials.

Fuelled by considerable indignation and anger, Habib writes of her experience with a personal sense of injustice. The Tihar prison system comes across as corrupt, partisan and severely callous towards human rights — but most of all, it comes across as tyrannical to her personally. This isn’t a distanced analysis but an expose written as a roster of complaints. Its reactionary nature gives it a sense of immediacy but also makes it subject to the writer’s more unfortunate prejudices. Accusing Shaukat Guru’s wife Navjot of ‘celebrating’ her own release despite her husband’s death sentence, Habib writes how “although Navjot had married Shaukat, she had not become a Muslim at heart. I often wonder why our young men marry non-Muslim women.”

Habib’s conversation is far more poignant than her dense prose. She contextualises some of the prejudices that riddle the book, describing her breakdown due to torture in jail: “I couldn’t talk or comprehend things for a while after I was released. Even when I decided to write, I couldn’t go into many details. Reliving it was unbearably traumatic.”

Habib also felt acutely different from her compatriots in jail — a common Kashmiri experience in the mainland. She refers to herself as a bat amongst crows. “My culture, language and background are all different. There wasn’t a single Kashmiri woman with me there,” she says. She also points to how being a prisoner in Kashmir would’ve been different. “The local police know you,” she says. “They wouldn’t stop me from sitting on a chair or meeting my relatives.”

Now back in Kashmir, Habib has resumed political activism. While the book portrays her betrayal, her tone today is largely benevolent. She regrets the breakup of the Hurriyat and how the quest for power weakened Kashmir’s political movements. But mostly, she regrets how the Hurriyat didn’t heed her plea to include more women higher up. “I am a feminist first,” she declares. And in this one aspect, her book’s narrative lives up to the strength of her persona.

Originally published in Tehelka.

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