Kashmir: Holed up in the mountains, terrorists launch Leela was in radiant bridal dress, but no one spoke to her. It was her husband's funeral. She stood cursed and outcast, her eyes dry She had stopped weeping a few hours after terrorists shot her husband Khem Raj and 24 relatives at Champnari on a Friday afternoon.
In the morning Khem Raj and she had become man and wife. The bride's transition to widowhood was swift and brutal. "I was very happy," she recalled the day her father Madhav Lal fixed the marriage a month ago. After all, girls in the mountainous villages of Doda live for the bridal day. Mothers start saving up for dowry the day a daughter is born. Leela's mother, too, saved a part of Madhav Lal's meagre earnings for her four daughters' dowry and ornaments. And his five sons liked the groom he found for little Leela (pic: above). Khem Raj's family owned two shops and possessed more land than Madhav Lal had.
"You are lucky, my daughter, to have got in-laws who are better off than others," the father told Leela, showering his blessings on her as she got into the doli (palanquin) for her journey to her husband's home after the wedding on June 19. Three of her brothers, including Sheesh Ram who had married two days earlier, were in the marriage party.
The palanquin bearers stopped at Champnari, the ladi (bride) remained inside: she was not to unveil her face to anyone, not even to her husband, until she had reached his house. And the giggling, noisy women were to shield her inside the bus that was to take them to Doda, and then to Prem Nagar, across the River Chenab.
Instead of the bus a white Maruti van arrived. Five bearded men in battle fatigues stepped out, guns in hand, eyes bloodshot. No one in the marriage party shrank. Must be soldiers chasing terrorists, they thought. Scalps tingled and hearts stopped when the Maruti men asked who in the marriage party were on the village defence committees resisting the militants. Then they snatched gold and money from the women.
Pulled out of the doli, Leela quickly parted with all her ornaments except a silver ring and wedding bangles which the terrorists did not want. Kirna, whom her brother Sheesh Ram had married two days earlier, too lost everything. "We thought they would go away," said Leela. Instead, they ordered that Hindus stand apart, 39 men stood aside and 24 of them including Leela's three brothers would fall dead. The women started crying, but no one heard it. It was drowned in the thunder of the guns, and then the Maruti purred away.
Leela and Kirna had become bride-widows in a flash. "I have nothing to look forward to," Leela told THE WEEK before she was formally pronounced widow and draped in joyless white. A policeman, while translating her replies in Swangi dialect into Hindi, had a question for her. "Do you think the government can help you in any matter?" he asked. After a moment's reflection, she whispered, "Yes. Money."
It sounded absurd to talk of money when the blood of her husband and brothers had hardly dried. But then life is tough in the mountains, more so for a bride-widow. Life in fact has ended for Leela: never again can she participate in an auspicious ceremony, roam about or laugh out. "She is manhoos (ominous)," whispered many voices at the cremation. She will receive loads of curses and no help all her life. Only money can save her from starvation.
Joy is dying in Doda and elsewhere. It started with the killing of 16 Hindus near Kishtwar in August 1993; in January two years ago several Hindus were killed in their houses in Barshalla. And this year 23 Hindus were killed in Wandhama in Kashmir and 26 at Prankote and Dhakikote in Udhampur.
The killers are Pakistani Punjabis and Afghans, with a sprinkling of the Sudanese, and they have made the mountains their base since the valley is crawling over with security forces. Police say the terrorists' aim is ethnic cleansing in Jammu: provoke the Hindu minority and wipe it out.
Kashmiri Pandits in Delhi's 17 settlement camps have no doubt about it. "The strategy is `'kill one, scare a thousand'. They want to convert our beloved land into an Islamic theocratic state," said Romesh Raina, general secretary of the Kashmiri Samiti Delhi. "Ethnic cleansing started in Srinagar, moved on to Jammu, then to Doda and is on the way to Poonch."
Prem Nagar village of Leela's husband had experienced communal tension after a prominent Hindu there was killed recently. Before cremating him fellow Hindus torched the house of a local militant, who belonged to the group that blighted Leela's life.
Surprisingly, security has been reduced from 20 battalions in 1996 to 13, some 8,000 men short, though the terrorists are well-trained. "From the kind of encounters they are engaging us in, it is obvious that many of them are ex-servicemen," said Gurbachan Jagat, DGP.
The favourite targets of the terrorists are the special police officers, members of village defence committees, and politicians, 60 National Conference functionaries were killed in the last seven months. But Jagat claimed that the village defence committees, trained and armed by the state, had repulsed 37 attacks in the last four months.
If militancy in Doda is worse than in the valley, it is going to be ten times more difficult handling the border districts of Poonch and Rajouri where every other household has a `'double agent'. The people here are caught between the Indian army and the ISI, and get used and thrashed by both. The militants, too, use them as guides in the treacherous terrain.
But Doda's is a sad, drooping face. "Today my daughter has become a widow," said Kirna's father Tota Ram. "Brides are no longer safe here." He is worried that no one will come forward to marry his other two daughters because of the stigma on Kirna. "That is my personal tragedy."
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