The Village That Death Stalked

28 November 2009
Times of India
Mohammed Wajihuddin

Dardpura: Dardpura doesn't look too different from any other village in the bewitchingly beautiful Kashmir valley. Surrounded by forested hills and silhouetted against a craggy mountain, the hamlet, around 130 km from Srinagar in terror-torn Kupwara district, is connected to the outside world by a rough, shrubby tract that stretches down to the Indo-Pak border. Where Dardpura's distinctiveness lies is in a cruel irony: living up to its name (Full Of Pain), it is a place inhabited by only widows and children. All the adult males here, except one activist, have been killed either by the militants or the army. Bringing the macabre truth to cinema audiences is Mumbai-based film-maker Ashoke Pandit, who's just finished shooting a 30-minute documentary on Dardpura called A Village Of Widows. Pandit first read about Dardpura's tragedy through an article in a Kashmiri newspaper four years ago, and says it haunted him no end. 'I thought I would be cheating myself if I didn't tell the story of these women and children,' he declares, adding that the film has been a 'cathartic' experience for him. 'I know Kashmir like the back of my hand,' he says. 'I have recorded its pain, debated its painful history ad nauseum. But nothing has moved me more than the pain of the over 200 widows and 400 fatherless children I encountered during my stay there.' A village of poor Muslims who subsisted on farming before terrorism hit J&K two decades ago, Dardpura was an idyllic hamlet caught in a time warp. Life was never easy, but not as desperate and dehumanising as it is today. When the stirrings of misguided jihad and, through it, cries of azaadi, hit Kashmir, it affected sleepy Dardpura too. Bearded mullahs swooped down, brainwashed the able-bodied men and recruited them for a cause which they claimed was Allah-ordained. Many villagers crossed the border and, while returning surreptitiously, fell to a hostile army's bullets. Pandit's film brings the viewer a mosaic of hauntingly disturbing visuals. One of the widows, Mamta Lone, sits outside her wooden hut, tears welling up in her sunken eyes as she recounts how the army killed her husband because he had joined the Al-Badr faction of the Hizbul Mujahideen. 'He was forced to become a jihadi,' she says. 'Men here had no choice. If they didn't toe the terrorists' line, they would be finished.' Gulzar Begum, another widow, says she last saw her husband alive a decade ago. 'Now Allah is my only hope,' she says, looking heavenwards. Mohammed Iqbal Khan was all of four when he lost his father, Mohiuddin, to a militant's bullets. 'He would visit Pakistan and come back. Then one day we found that he was killed in the crossfire. With him also died my dream of becoming a doctor. Now I am looking for a job,' says the tall, handsome Mohammed Iqbal, as his frail mother Fatimi Bi looks on. Bereft of their main bread earners, the unlettered women are forced to fend for themselves by begging. 'Their desperation is so deep that many women allow their daughters to 'work' outside the village. Here, work is a cover for being sexually exploited. And some women almost admitted it on camera,' says Pandit, who resolves to take his film to world forums, including the UN and Amnesty International. The film-maker, who took the help of a local contact to win the villagers' confidence, says the women's sorrows should pierce the conscience of any civilised society. 'Without schools (a dysfunctional balwadi is a joke in a village where children bawl of hunger and are growing up consumed by anger), the boys are easy fodder for the jihadis who recruit angry, disaffected youth,' he says. Known for championing the Kashmiri Pandit cause, Pandit has captured the trauma of Kashmir's Hindu refugees through Sheen (a feature film) and And the World Remained Silent, a documentary which he showed the UK House of Commons. On the Kashmir issue, his severest criticisms are reserved for the lopsided policies of the state, the Abdullahs and separatist leaders. So why is he now talking about the Muslim victims of a state which more or less banished Hindu Pandits? 'It is true I have aggressively fought for the Kashmiri Pandits, but a victim has no religion,' he replies. 'When the country remained silent on the plight of the village of widows, I decided to speak out.'