As Part-I of the series of stories on Panchayat elections in Kashmir, Free Press Kashmir introduces a story of a former Panch from Sopore—who rose and responded to the “grassroot democratic process” call four years ago, only to be left to fend for herself.
When the news about PaK-origin wives of two former militants having won the Panchayat elections uncontested in north Kashmir’s Kupwara broke out recently, over 50 kilometers from where the victory celebrations were going on, Zoona Begum, a former panch hailing from Hardshiva, a small village in Sopore, sat in a dark room—searching for her afternoon dosage of medicines.
Zoona cannot turn on the room-light as it puts a heavy strain on her right eye that cannot tolerate any exposure.
Amid this struggle, she takes one back to that chilling day, four years ago, when a horror struck her life, and changed it completely. Kashmir had witnessed the season’s first snowfall on January 11, 2014, and the chilling cold had put an early end to the day.
Other than the armed men in uniform, who found their way by the gleaming moonlight in absence of road-lights, there was hardly anyone on the snow-clad streets.
Like others, Zoona too had put down the shutters of her general store, which is located right outside her small single-storey residence. Just as she had begun warming herself up with a Kaanger, the sound of rigorous knocking of the entrance door disturbed her. It was around 7:30 in the evening.
Anxious, Zoona, with a chargeable light in her hand went to see the visitor, thinking, maybe, someone in-need must have come to buy groceries. As the creaking sound of the opening door fell silent, Zoona encountered two masked men wearing a military-designed sweatshirt, black pants, leather boots, black hand-gloves, carrying a pistol.
“Despite the dark, their eyes shone bright,” recalled Zoona. With a heavy voice, one of them asked, “Zoona Begum?”
Even before she could reply, the masked man continued in a threatening tone: “Badaa shaukh hai na tujhe election ladhneka? Panch banna hai tujhe? Bahot badi galti ki hai tune” (You want to be a representative? You want to be a panch? Now you better know that you have made a huge mistake.)
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Before he could say anything more, Zoona interrupted and asked both the men to leave. She told them it is “none of their business and they can do whatever they wish” to stop her.
Only if Zoona knew what awaited her fate. Just as she was closing the door, another man, who had been silently listening to his counterpart and Zoona converse, pulled out his pistol and shot at the 49-year-old.
The bullet hit just over Zoona’s right eye, pierced through her mouth and came out from the left of her neck. The sound of the bullet signalled her unaware husband, two sons and a daughter who were inside the house.
“The blood had covered Zoona’s face entirely. The bullet had completely damaged her right eye, and she was lying on the ground screaming in pain,” recalled her husband, Mohammad Ramzan.
And within no time, the entire village was alert. Quickly, a car was arranged to take Zoona to the nearby Hospital. “And all this while, she was conscious and aware about everything going around her,” Ramzan said.
Just as Zoona was being laid down in the back seat of the car, a villager – doctor by profession – advised Ramzan to make sure she remains in a sitting position all the time, as the blood flowing from her mouth could prove dangerous if it goes back inside her body.
Cautious, Ramzan then took a seat in the back of the car as Zoona rested her head on her husband’s shoulder. Amidst heavy snowfall, the car drove past the small lanes of the village going towards the District Hospital, Sopore; the 20-minute journey that night took over an hour.
Zoona was then referred to Srinagar’s SKIMS. The blood-flow from the mouth was so profuse that Ramzan’s entire pheran had turned red. On an average, the human body has to have eight pints of blood, and Zoona was left with only three.
“It was miraculous. She is one strong woman to have remained conscious the entire journey. Had she fallen unconscious, she wouldn’t have been alive,” Ramzan remarked looking at his wife, as Zoona gestured a smile in return.
For the next two months, she remained in the hospital. “Doctors had almost given up, but she fought, survived, and that, without any aid from the panchayat body or the then Omar Abdullah-led government in power, National Conference (NC).”
The family says they have spent around Rs 8 lakhs on Zoona’s treatment, so far. Despite repeatedly knocking the doors of the then Minister for Panchayati Raj, NC’s Ali Mohammad Sagar, not once were they given any sort of financial aid, Ramzan said.
“Months after Zoona was discharged, she paid a visit to the Secretariat in Srinagar and also the NC’s head office, but she was sent back every time with different excuses,” claimed Ramzan.
Recalling her meeting with the then MLA Sopore, Mohammad Ashraf Ganaie, Zoona said: “Ganaie literally banged his hands in frustration and asked me to leave. That gesture was very insulting and I was left really embarrassed.”
“That was the time I decided to not go to anyone for help.”
As per Ramzan, the former chief minister Omar Abdullah had come to see Zoona when she was battling for her life in Srinagar’s SKIMS. He had assured to take care of her.
“But, it was a lie. Not a single penny was given to us,” Zoona said.
The family then had to sell off their lands and Zoona’s gold that cost around Rs 70,000, but, even that was not enough.
“Now, with no help from anyone, we are in debt of about Rs 3 lakhs,” she claimed.
Ramzan and his two sons are labourers, while his only daughter is yet to be married. Every year in January, Zoona has to be taken to an eye specialist in Amritsar and every visit costs around Rs. 1 lakh.
“With no money left”, Zoona has decided to skip the coming visit, which is only two months away.
When asked if she intends to contest in the upcoming Panchayat elections, Zoona smiled and said: “What for? To risk my life, once again?”
“Four years have passed, but that episode still terrifies me,” she continued. “My right eye still hurts mercilessly, my nose still bleeds at times and I still fumble while talking. It took me a lot to step out of my house without any fear. Living a trouble-free life is not in my hands, but I wish to die in peace.”
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