Had Saadat Hasan Manto been alive, he would have written a story about Shahnaz Kausar as moving as his immortal tale about Bishen Singh, the mysterious resident of the Lahore lunatic asylum, who wanted neither to live in Pakistan nor India but Toba Tek Singh, the town where he was born and where he had grown up.
I am merely a journalist and can only tell in plain words the story of this young woman, a single mother with a small child, whom the Indians prefer to keep in jail and the Pakistanis, her countrymen, out of their land that also happens to be hers. I am indebted to my friend, the Indian journalist Mannika Chopra who learnt about Shahnaz Kausar during a recent visit to Jammu and wrote about her in the American newspaper, “Boston Globe”, recently. Truth is not only stranger than fiction but often more moving than fiction. Here is Shahnaz Kausar’s story.
She told Mannika, whose family incidentally comes from what is now our bit of the Punjab, that it took her no longer than a heartbeat to decide to end her life by jumping into the river, a tributary of the Jhehlum, because she could no longer take her husband’s family’s constant taunts about her infertility. So on a sunny October morning in 1995, she walked towards the river from her village of Haryan da Bagh, tehsil Sumani in district Mirpur, Azad Kashmir, and jumped in.
“Before I jumped in the river, I said to it, ‘Please kill me’. If I had died that would have been easier. My life would have been over. Now I feel that I am being punished for wanting to kill myself, which in Islam is considered to be a sin,” she told Mannika.
Shahnaz did not die. She floated down the tributary which took her into the Indian part of Kashmir where she was fished out by a border guard in the Rajouri district of Jammu. She told the guard that she was from Pakistan but she wasn’t a spy. After spending a few days in a rural hospital, she was produced before a magistrate who sentenced her to a year in prison for having entered the country “illegally”without a passport or visa. She was also fined a couple of hundred rupees, money that she did not, of course, have. In line with the majesty of law, as interpreted by courts in India and Pakistan, her term, therefore, was extended by three months. She was moved to a jail in Poonch where in January 1996, she was raped by a warden.
She told Mannika, “When it was happening, I didn’t want to scream for help, because I thought the warden might kill me. And then I thought that even if I shouted, perhaps being a Pakistani, nobody would come.” She did later summon the courage to complain to the warden’s seniors as to what had happened and the rapist was suspended from his post. It was said he would be tried but there is no evidence he was.
And then a strange thing happened. Shahnaz found that she was pregnant. She was offered an abortion which she refused. She gave birth to a girl child she named Mobin which means clear, distinct and bright. “The best memory of my life is connected to its saddest event. It was the worst possible way to have a child, but I felt fulfilled at the same time,” she told Mannika.
Shahnaz served out her sentence but no one told her that she was now free. How word of her predicament got out is not clear, but an Indian NGO, the World Human Rights Protection Council, found her a lawyer, the Jammu-based A. K. Sawhney, but he was unable to secure her release. She was transferred to Jammu jail where she has been held since. In Agust 2000, fresh charges were filed against her under the Indian Public Safety Act. She was tried one more time and sentenced to another two years in prison.
Her lawyer said the Public Safety Act charge was laughable because it implied that she was connected with the Kashmir militancy. He wrote several times to the Indian External Affairs ministry in New Delhi about Shahnaz’s plight but there was no response, while the Pakistan High Commission, as was to be expected, to whom he also wrote, replied that it could not comment “until it had reviewed the matter further.” So from a woman with a small child who was being unjustly held, she had become a “matter” that had to be “reviewed further.” An official told Mannika that in the past year, the Indian authorities had made three attempts to send Shahnaz back but each time she had been turned back at Wagha because her daughter Mobin was an “Indian citizen.”
And why was she being kept in jail? Because she was a Pakistani citizen without valid papers who could not be sent to a home for those with nowhere to go. S. S. Ani, an Indian official, told Mannika, “It is not an ideal situation for her, but under the circumstances, it is the only option.” While her husband has refused to even acknowledge that Shahnaz ever existed, one of her brothers who works in Saudi Arabia has petitioned the Pakistan embassy there several times but without luck. The former ISI chief who represents the Islamic Republic in the Kingdom has obviously more important things to do, such as writing inane articles in newspapers.
Meanwhile, little Mobin who was born in captivity and has never seen the outside of a jail is escorted to a local school by a policeman whom she calls “Policeman uncle”. When the day is done, he brings her back. Mobin is a bright child and can sing the entire English alphabet. “She will be the only one among her cousins who would know English,” her mother says proudly. When General Musharraf went to Agra, in the first flush of what looked like détente, an immediate exchange of prisoners was arranged. Shahnaz and Mobin were among the six chosen to be returned. However, when their turn came, the Pakistani border guards said that while they were willing to take the mother, who was a Pakistani citizen, they could not take Mobin because her father was an Indian.
Like Kashmir, the fate of Shahnaz Kausar and little Mobin who can sing the entire English alphabet, remains unresolved.
This is a regular weekly column filed from Washington DC, in Pakistan weekly TheFridayTimes. Recently, an Indian court ordered Shahnaz Kausar to be released from Jail. Judge granted Indian citizenship for little Mobin.