In a Ravaged Kashmir, One Woman's Fight to Give Birth

"I tried to explain to them [security personnel] that we had an emergency, but they had clear orders to not allow any vehicles."

Srinagar: As dawn broke over Srinagar, a sense of gloom hung in the air. An ominous silence, evocative of the multiple calls to prayers from the city’s various mosques, was palpable after the menace that the night before had meted out to the people.

On Thursday, August 8, widespread protests, which turned into violent clashes between the military and protestors, erupted in Kashmir. Witnesses reported that the police opened fire on numerous protestors that included unarmed men, women and children – some as young as six years old. Many were wounded, whilst some were sprayed with buckshot in their eyes, resulting in blindness.

A heavily pregnant 26-year-old woman, Insha Ashraf awoke to this momentary silence. Her water had just broken, and she was going into labour. Amidst one of the most repressive moments in Kashmir’s history, Insha, who was at her mother’s home in Bemina on the outskirts of Srinagar, experienced panic before the delivery of her firstborn. She wondered if she would be able to reach the hospital in time for the safe delivery of her child.

Her mother, Mubeena, rushed Insha and her sister Nisha to their neighbour’s home at around 5:30 am. The neighbour, an autorickshaw driver, agreed to take the distraught expectant mother and her family to Lal Ded Hospital, about 7 km away.

A few meters ahead, they were stopped at a security checkpoint and not allowed to proceed further.

Also read | Stuck in Hospital After Losing a Child, Waiting 3 Days for 1 Call: Life in Kashmir Today

“I tried to explain to them [the security personnel] that we had an emergency, but they had clear orders to not allow any vehicles,” said Insha, adding that she was asked to walk to the hospital through a different route.

“As we started walking, we encountered checkpoints every 500 meters and we were told to keep taking different detours every time,” she said. The security forces ignored all their pleas.

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A pregnant woman on the streets of Srinagar. Photo: Zubair Sofi

Around 11 am, while she was still 500 meters away from Lal Ded hospital, Insha started experiencing severe contractions. She had already travelled over 6 km on foot, unaware of what state her child would be delivered in. When it became evident that Insha would be delivering her child on the roadside, her mother and sister took her to Khanams, a private hospital nearby.

Within 15 minutes of reaching the hospital, Insha delivered a healthy baby girl. The baby was taken out of the delivery room naked, since there were no clothes available in the hospital due to the lockdown in the Valley.

“I took my granddaughter into my arms and wrapped my scarf around her,” said Mubeena. In the meantime, Insha’s sister Nisha went out of the hospital premises and managed to get some clothes for the baby after over an hour.

Insha’s husband, Irfan Ahmad Sheikh, an autorickshaw driver, is yet to be informed about the birth of his child because all means of communication – telephones, cellular phones, internet, leased lines, broadband – are banned and no civilian movement is being allowed in Kashmir.

Also read | ‘I Am More Afraid Than I Have Ever Been’: A Personal Account From Kashmir

His daughter is yet to be named – a birthright that is given to the father, and his relatives.

Insha, her mother and Nisha faced a critical moment that day. But did they really need to endure such gruelling circumstances?

Restrictions on movement 

Things are far worse at Lal Ded Hospital where mothers, who have already delivered their children and have been discharged from the hospital, are not able to leave. Hospital authorities claim they weren’t given any proper directions on how to function under such circumstances.

The courtyard and corridors are filled with relatives of patients who have no place to sleep or eat because they are confined to the hospital premises due to the curfew outside.

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Companions of the patients sleeping in the corridor of Lal Ded Hospital, Srinagar. Photo: Zubair Sofi

Thirty-eight-year-old Rashid Ali, a resident of Uri, a town north of Kashmir in Baramulla district, has been at the hospital for a few days now. His wife, Jana Begum, delivered a boy on August 2, and they were scheduled to leave the hospital on August 5.

Jana Begum – and other women like her – are being kept in a hall on the top floor of the hospital, while their companions occupy the courtyard and corridors. Many of them have run out of money to buy food and are on the verge of begging for basic necessities.

“I ran out of money on August 8 and have nowhere to go to seek help. All the phone lines are dead and I cannot call any family member for money,” said Rashid, a day labourer. “I have meagre savings, and my funds for the journey back home have been utilised to buy food here. I am now begging to collect some money to eat,” he said.

Dr Samreena, a resident physician at the hospital, said that there were many doctors who were working day and night and weren’t being allowed to go home. She also added that other staff members were following the same orders. “Doctors and staff members, who live far away and were off-duty on the day curfew was imposed, are unable to travel and come for work,” she said.

“Ambulances are being used to transport doctors and staff members who live nearby. The hospital has also made arrangements to accommodate members who live far away, in a couple of rooms within the hospital,” said Dr Samreena.

Also read | ‘Even My Call to Almighty Could be Interpreted as Subversion’: Kashmiri Scholar

Relatives and companions of the patients have nowhere to eat apart from the hospital canteen, which they believe does not serve good quality food. An employee at the canteen, Aqib, said that while they usually served about one hundred rice plates in a day, they now distribute about 800-1,000.

Since the intervening night of August 4 and 5, the Valley has been under a tight curfew as per the Central government’s directions following the proposal to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.

Several political analysts concurred that the manner in which the Indian government scrapped these two Articles was undemocratic and unconstitutional. Soon after the news of the revoking of the special status was made public, protests were carried out and the Centre’s decision attracted significant criticism.

In the meantime, in a hospital in Srinagar, wrapped up in new clothes, a new-born girl greeted a world entirely different from that of her mother.

Zubair Sofi is a Jammu and Kashmir-based journalist whose work has been published in international, national as well as local news organisations. He tweets @zubairsofii.