By Bharath

Dr Sharon P. Thomas is a criminologist with a specialisation in the field of victimology. After completing her Masters from the University of Madras, she pursued research on the victims of terrorism and armed conflict in Kashmir. She has been invited to speak as an expert on the subject on numerous platforms over the years. Dr Sharon currently teaches at Jain University, Kochi, Kerala.

Have you heard of the term, ‘half widow’? It’s like, you’re a widow; yet, you aren’t quite one.

More than a decade ago, when Dr Sharon P. Thomas chose her masters project as the psychological effects of the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks on the victims, it set her off on a path that would take her to the other side of India. She decided to centre her PhD topic around the victims of the perpetual Kashmir crisis. But a period of extensive research and her interactions with the Kashmiri community in Chennai that followed, also made her reflect on something else. It was to approach the topic not merely from an eye of terrorism, but think of it as armed conflict too. 

Shadow of despair – The psychological impact on victims of terrorism and armed conflict in Kashmir

Dr Sharon’s first research visit to Kashmir was in 2013, during the month of Ramadan, along with Asif – her Kashmiri friend in Chennai. Nearly 70 per cent of her interaction happened during this first trip, which lasted around 1.5 months. She focused more on understanding the culture, people’s sentiments and the issues they faced in general. She gave particular attention to cases involving enforced disappearances during this visit. Her second sojourn was in December spanning the same duration as earlier. She met and talked more to the victims of sexual abuse and rape. 

In total, Dr Sharon notes that she had talked to more than 350 victims during these visits. Around 180 of the interviews were of adult females. 

Early days 

The warmth and hospitality of the people of Kashmir immediately won her over, when she reached there. “I had these five friends, including my friend from Chennai, who took me around. They had arranged a homestay for me in Srinagar for the duration of the visit. Even during the month of Ramadan, I was offered food wherever I visited. It was awkward for me, eating in front of them while they were fasting,” she says sheepishly. 

She understood that except for certain regions of Srinagar which concentrated on tourism mainly for income, most people survived on cattle farming and agriculture, especially towards the rural parts. 

“I had a bunch of questionnaires which would help me analyse patterns of trauma, depression, PTSD and so on. And I’d asked my friends to distribute them to the households across the region. But I noticed soon enough looking at the returned questionnaires that they were repeatedly getting filled by just a handful of the same people. This annoyed me a bit and I conveyed that to my friends.”

Her friends urged her to change her approach rather. They admitted to her reluctantly that it was difficult for them to coerce people when it seemed like she had gone there to sell their lives. That convinced Dr Sharon to move out from where she stayed and stay with her friends, amidst the community. Throughout her two visits, she met people who had lived through a range of traumatic experiences. This included those who had witnessed bomb blasts and attacks, come face to face with death, families of those who had been killed or injured in conflicts and the victims or witnesses of sexual assault. Most of those she interviewed had lost someone near and dear to them. 

Half Widows

She realised soon enough that enforced disappearances by the military were an issue in the region, a product of the heavily criticised AFSPA Act. A UN rapporteur report she had read around that time suggested the military was involved in around 2500+ disappearances, while the Indian government had accepted the count to be only around 500. The report also mentioned about 1500+ unmarked graves. These issues would go on to become a significant part of her thesis later. 

“And that’s how I came to know of the term half widow,” she says gravely. “It refers to a woman whose husband has disappeared without a trace like this. She isn’t eligible to get any compensation from the government until the body is found. It’s like, you’re a widow; yet, you aren’t quite one.”

Conflict and Mental Health Issues

Depression and PTSD were quite common among such women, as in the case of rape victims.

Dr Sharon would later deduce from her findings that nearly 78% of the victims she talked to were affected by depression and 48% showed signs of PTSD. Studies had also indicated that the number of cases related to mental health in the region had gone up nearly five times from the 1980s. Amongst the male subjects, particularly those of 40 years and above, avoidance of trauma seemed a typical characteristic. The men tended to blame themselves for what had happened, believing they could’ve done things differently. 

“I did realise though that some of these men belonged to an ideological spectrum too and that at some point they had entertained different sentiments. While I didn’t have any personal interaction as such, I came to know that there were people who had openly protested against India and supported Pakistan once.”

Dr Sharon learnt the fact that there was a phase when those associated with militant organisations could approach the military and surrender any weapons they had. They had to provide information and lead normal lives henceforth.  

One of the challenges she faced during her interviewing sessions was that most people would immediately shut down if they saw/heard a military vehicle passing outside their home.

“They were scared.”

Conversations of a Hard Nature

While the men resisted opening up about their traumatic experiences, the women were more willing to share them with her over time, she says. She met women who had lost their husbands, sons or other family members. She also met women who were victims of rape and sexual assault. These women faced ostracisation by the society around them. 

“When they talked about sexual assault, they wouldn’t explicitly mention at first who the perpetrators were. And there was an uncomfortable air of silence that hung between us, an elephant in the room,” Dr Sharon notes grimly. 

The Stigma and Ostracisation

A common narrative she observed was in the case of sexual assault victims. There was a strong stigma. The spouses abandoned these women. Their families and children, taken away from them. They were less likely to get emotional and financial support unlike victims of other mishaps. Many of the victims, and their families, were reluctant to share their experiences. 

 “I had interviewed a 35-year-old woman who was living with her grandmother. After we left her place, my friend who had been translating her conversation mentioned to me that the woman had remarked towards the end – When you already know the extent of what must have happened, why do you ask?”, she winces a little as she recalls the incident.  

The Children…

Some of the most straining memories for Dr Sharon from the trips involved listening to the children and adolescents.

The military or the militants used many schools in the conflict zones as their bases. The schools in these regions as a result were in shambles. The kids mostly attended private tuition centres. 

“I remember the experience shared by one of the teenagers. He was attending classes at a tuition centre one evening when the firing happened around them. And within no time, he had witnessed a man shot dead by the forces.

And I realised that this was a typical case of PTSD! He couldn’t open a book and read since the incident because of the triggered traumatic thoughts,” Dr Sharon recounts. 

She recalled the experience of another boy who had witnessed his friend dying during a conflict. He obsessed over the thought that it could have been his life instead of his friend’s, and had slipped into guilt-ridden depression. Another 13-year-old kid she had talked to, had returned from school one evening to find his parents killed inside the home. The news that had spread was that the local militant organisation had killed them, suspecting his father to be a government spy. But the same organisation supposedly denied their hand in it too later. 

“I also met another boy who I was told had been associated with some local militant wing. He was disabled in one of the legs. He told me that his father was part of a group and was killed in an encounter many years ago. Soon after, he was called up by them and asked to join. When he refused, he was taken away and beaten up badly, leaving him with a permanent disability.”

In a conflict-ridden place like Kashmir, Dr Sharon muses, this showed the fix people were in.

Story of an Umbrella

“I visited Ganderbal, which was a little far from where I stayed, with my friends. It was an exciting trip for me as I saw snow for the first time since I laid foot in Kashmir. On our way back, the military police stopped us. I could sense the tension in the air as my friend stepped out to talk to the senior inspector. 

The inspector then walked over to the car and started talking to me. He had made an educated guess that I wasn’t a Kashmiri, and introduced himself as belonging to one of the Southern states. After some general questions, he remarked, ‘What are you doing with them, don’t you know they are Kashmiris? You can’t trust them.’

I was quite taken aback by the judgement in his tone and declined his offer for the military personnel to drop me back to my place. Before relieving us from there, he added to me acidly, ‘You know, this isn’t your Kerala or Tamil Nadu. You shouldn’t take things so lightly.’

The whole exchange had left me a little shaken. But to add to my stress, I remembered something else as well on our way back. Right after I had arrived in Kashmir, Asif had procured me this large, black grandfather umbrella. I used to carry it along with me everywhere, and it was resting in the trunk of the car on that particular day. I couldn’t help thinking that the umbrella might well have looked like a gun at first glance! What if the military had checked our trunk, come across it and a misunderstanding had ensued? 

It nagged me during our journey back, had the event unfolded in such a catastrophic manner, it was probable that I would’ve been able to go scot-free but not my friends. Only because, to the military, I looked “more Indian” than my Kashmiri friends, who ironically belonged to that place!  

Challenges in the Region

Education, as she noted before, was a major challenge in Kashmir. So was the health system; treatment for injuries was not simple. Corruption prevailed, which wasn’t surprising in a region riddled with conflict and issues, she adds. 

The news and information going in and out of the region were filtered by the central department, especially the photos and video bits. The people had restricted accessibility to mainstream channels, except for the entertainment ones. There were only some two or three local newspapers, which again weren’t allowed to report a lot of the things that happened there. 

Personally, Dr Sharon recalls, the biggest issue was the restriction of internet connectivity, quite prevalent even then as it is now. Not being able to contact family or friends for days on end did frustrate her, she adds.

Lack of women’s rights and gender disparity issues afflicted the Kashmiri society, right from basic education and the safety of girls. The crime statistics would indicate the same, but accessing these statistics wasn’t easy due to government restrictions unlike in the other parts of the country.

Dr Sharon had talked to the military as well on various occasions. She realised, they were given clear instructions on arriving at the regions on the “necessary actions” to be taken. In a potentially dangerous situation, failure to do the aforementioned may get them killed, they were warned. 

Many studies in the recent past, she says, have suggested that the general nature of personnel recruited seems to be more of a polarised one unlike a decade or so ago. And this is quite worrisome too, she adds.

The People… The Lives

One of the main narratives that you hear about the Kashmiri people and their protest outside was spun around the act of “stone pelting”, she says. And it wasn’t that they did not protest that way against the military at all. But during her visits, there were several anomalies that Dr Sharon observed, which made her question the filtered manner in which news from Kashmir reached the outside world. 

She points out how this was even stricter in the case of media information, as whenever there was shelling in the region, the coverage only was from the military’s side. It rarely showed what happened at their side.

The politics and conflict had engulfed the people of Kashmir for so long. The suffering had passed on from one generation to the next. So it seemed to her. Contrary to what a lot of people opined from afar, they weren’t looking for revenge. They wanted peace and the justice they deserved. There was indifference towards the military in the regions that seemed to be uniformly shared by all, she observes.

“Imagine the military coming to your house one fine day, offering you some money to move out so that they can use the place as a watchpoint. And you can’t refuse it, because it’s the military. How would you feel?”

She found the Kashmiri culture and society quite unconservative in many ways. “They were spiritual people and it was connected to the land greatly too. Otherwise, can you imagine any other community surviving for so long, holding on to a place so dearly, in such a never-ending conflict?”

Perceptions and Perspectives

She had to take a couple of months off after completing her data analysis. And then she began writing the thesis. “This happens when you work on a topic that can emotionally drain you a lot. And as a researcher, the break helps us to dissociate enough to frame our thesis objectively,” she adds. She handed in her paper in 2015. And also submitted a part of it at an international conference, receiving the best paper award. 

“I concluded my thesis on the idea that there was a need for collaboration in Kashmir, from a social angle. If a country wanted a region to accept it completely, then they had to adopt that place too with all their heart. When the permanent state in there was the military rule, was that even possible?” Dr Sharon questions.

For a Better Tomorrow…

Better education, human rights, health and economic benefits, technological facilities, greater investments and so on were the need of the hour. The root of many problems needs fixing, she highlights.

The police and the military, for a start, could become a better part of the society, she feels. She gives the example of a time when football had picked up tremendously and the military used to play with the locals.  

“But the main issue for Kashmir, unsurprisingly, is that whenever there’s a shift in the politics within the country, Kashmir seems to be impacted severely.”

Having said all this, Dr Sharon thinks that we shouldn’t dismiss Pakistan’s part in the issues over the years either. Everybody’s politics has trapped Kashmir in the middle and the people have suffered, she feels.

Life after PhD

In the six years since Dr Sharon has concluded her research, she has addressed the topic on various platforms. But she prefers to not indulge in the subject too much these days. She speaks only for academic and literary contributions, she says.

“For one, a considerable time has passed since I visited the place and conducted my research. The national politics have changed and, as you know, politically and geographically Kashmir is also being transformed. Yet, sadly, no matter what the politics are at the centre, regardless of who’s in power, you hear the same thing over and again – Discussions are happening in Delhi. But who’s talking? What’s being done for them – the people of Kashmir?”

Being in the Field of Criminology

As is the case with various professions in our society, criminology does come off as a male-dominated field too. Dr Sharon believes that being a woman in this field has given her an edge in certain aspects as well, particularly as a victimologist. She looks up to her PhD guide Dr M Priyamvadha, from whom she learnt to be assertive; a much-required quality in her field of work.

She also laments the lack of importance given to the field of criminology academically and professionally in India.  “Few universities teach the course here, and its application-value is overlooked also. Prevention of crime is about understanding crime patterns. Our law & order experts don’t possess the necessary knowledge for the same,” she notes.

Dr Sharon’s Kashmir research will be part of the book – A Global Perspective of Victims of Crime & Victim Assistance Best practices around the world – published by Bloomsbury Publishing. She currently teaches criminology and crime scene management at the Jain University, Ernakulam. She plans to work on research topics involving victims in future.

*All photos used in this feature were provided by the interviewee

By Bharath