Remembering Mogal Maas, Human Rights Activist

By Ather Zia

I am their Mother, who shall bar me from them?[1]

Mogal Maas breathed her last in the fall of 2009, just some hours short of the 27th of October, a momentous date in Kashmir’s history. In her last days, she was bedridden but not defeated in the long struggle against the grim political reality of Kashmir. She was the mother of a ‘disappeared’ person, as they have come to be known in common parlance; mostly men who were taken into custody by the Indian paramilitary forces never returned and never found. Till date about 8,000 to 10,000 Kashmiri men, both militant combatants, and non-combatants, have disappeared as a result of the counter-insurgency policies.

Moghal Maas had been searching for her son for almost two decades. She lived in a small corner of her home in the innards of old city. Ever since her son went missing she had been up on her feet trying to find him. Her son, Nazir Ahmed had been a teacher whom she had raised as a single mother. He left for the school one fateful day in 1990 and never returned. Mogal Maas kept waiting, the afternoon tea ready, looking forward to hearing about his day. It was never to be.

She heard about his arrest and there was little else to follow. What had happened? Why had it happened? Where had he been taken? Rumors abounded, as they are wont to do after such an incident. There were sightings in a prison, accounts of interrogations, impending release, now dead, now released etc. etc. Mostly hearsay, not deliberate though, and often confused with information about someone else in custody or missing.

Not the one to sit melancholic Mogal Maas’s mourning turned into an effort for getting some information, if not her son. An unforgiving routine took over. She began filing petitions in courts, scouring prisons and interrogation centers, visiting morgues, meeting with countless officials from the administration, police, and anyone remotely perceived to be in a position to help. Nothing ever came to light, but she was not giving up easy. In the ensuing years, Mogal Maas was to become a constant fixture in the Association of the Parents of the Disappeared (APDP), a pioneer group of human rights defenders, mostly women who are searching for their disappeared kin. This association was founded by a mother Parveena Ahangar and Parvez Imroz a human rights lawyer-activist in 1994 after Parveena’s teenage son went missing while in the Indian army’s custody. This group practices an innovative, dominantly kin-based activism (on the surface it may evoke memories of Argentina’s Madres de Plaza Mayo, but it is implicitly a unique cultural process). A strange demography of grief, this group of mothers, as well as wives, who are ironically called the half-widows, (and in many cases sisters and daughters) have become an unprecedented group of activists. They have sustained zero results in retrieving the disappeared or any information about them. In terms of practicing a politics of mourning, they have become meaningful presences and audible voices.

Mogal Maas was popularly known as Maasi, an endearing term reserved for mother’s sister or a mother figure. She was at the forefront of sit-ins, vigils, demonstrations, and meetings to protest and seek justice for the disappeared. Transcending the ‘private’ nature of her grief, Mogal Maas came to manifest the collective trauma and quest. She along with other mothers just like her began to reflect the tragedy of Kashmir. They became a vigorous force in their fight against the coercive state machinery. Mogal Maas lent her voice to many news reports, interviews and documentaries.

The newspapers noted Mogal Maas’s demise. A significant sign, however, the headlines were replete with words like ‘lonely’, ‘mother’, ‘aging’, ‘grief’; no doubt those words surmised some aspects of Mogal Maas’s life, no doubt she did not see herself as a glorified pioneer of any social justice movement (in other words a leader of any kind, nor did she hold any such official position). Nevertheless, the reports seemed overwhelmed by a pitying objectivity. This is a move which journalism often makes in all good faith to cover every angle of human interest, which is dangerously misread as victimology. In Mogal Maas’s case, this tone overshadowed the agency and activism she had practiced all her life. Although she had never called herself an activist, by all definitions she was one.

In this fast-changing world of indigenous cultures, armed conflicts, militarist-democratic regimes (a strange animal, I know but there you have it, democracies which adhere to being democratic through military tactics), local social movements and the specter of universal human rights and cultural rights, the politics of mourning becomes significant. It is an instinctive and basic process, readily accessible. In case of the Kashmiri mothers, as many are prone to think, it is maternal, non-threatening (just a bunch of women after all), informal at most. Apparently, this politics in its practices of grief may bring to mind the images of a family funeral. It seems like an extension of domesticity bubbling with copious tears, dirges, wedding songs sung in a lamenting tone marking the celebrations foreclosed to their lost sons. The snatches of lullabies, displays of baby clothes that have become relics, and new clothes in a favorite color in hopes of a return, may be taken as markings of maternal naiveté. It may look like just a mother’s simple grief however deep down it is unequivocally political. It’s tactical (not conniving), it’s instinctual (not deliberate) and it’s compassionate (not self-serving). It is a politics that may not always be performed for or within offices and thereby may be mistaken or misinterpreted. In some sense, it may also turn meanings of feminism on its head as it seeks to recuperate the model of family, as they had before. The site for this politics is often embedded in the bodies of these women (mothers and half-widows) and the collective life they create. It is this politics of mourning which fueled the first and most visible and for a long time the only human rights organization in Kashmir, and within which Mogal Maas was a pioneering figure.

Going back to the media reports, (and not to stereotypically rally against media), I am not harping that using politically correct words to define her were important. After all, they are ‘only’ terms and in today’s world the notion of leader, activist, or any other which could have been thrown in the mix to convey her life, are under contest as well. However, Mogal Maas’s story needed and still needs to be presented in a proper context rather than propagating the helpless mother or the Mater Dolorosa.

How Mogal Maas transcended into the realm of death is also crucial in understanding how she perceived her struggle. This account can be found in the news reports and is confirmed by close sources. In her final moments Mogal Maas murmured ‘Maine Nazira, aa kha’ which can be roughly translated into ‘My Nazir, you have come / or have you come? This phrase in Kashmiri is used to acknowledge someone who arrives. It is also rhetorical and requires an affirmative response from the addressee (sometimes a simple nod). It involves at the moment when it is uttered only two people acknowledging/addressing each other. Mogal Maas on her deathbed performs this spiritual imaginary through this one phrase conversation with her son. Not finding him in life, she did not even give up in death (in an incorporeal sense even found him).

This intimacy and affect is at the heart of the politics of mourning that Mogal Maas practiced and which has become a key construct in the human rights movement in Kashmir. Maternal surveillance may look simple because it is instinctive, reflexive and biological. Did the mother not retrieve the child, when the child got stuck in the bush; did she not find him when lost in the bazaar? How impossible can it be to retrieve him from the confines of state machinery? On the surface, this process might be misread as a simple mother searching for her son. But it is a deeply political quest, which requires rigor, passion, strategy, motivation, initiative and a sense of brave invincibility against extreme threats to life under the coercive laws (remember Halima and her son); values which were amply present in Mogal Maas and continue to fuel the mothers of the disappeared in Kashmir.

It is important to remember that it was ‘just’ a group of committed-women activists (mothers) in Argentina, apparently frail and naïve who were pivotal in United Nations developing a Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (what that has achieved, can and must achieve is another story for another time).

For the time being rest in peace Mogal Maas, human rights activist.

Ather Zia is a Kashmiri journalist, poet, and writer. She is currently conducting research on human rights and women’s rights issues in Kashmir and can be reached at [email protected].

Related Links:

Watch a short video by Ather Zia on the Enforced Disappearances in Kashmir. Youtube:

Listen to an episode called Habba’s Letter  (2003) in a dramedy series titled Courtyard written by Ather Zia & Debo Kotun and broadcast on Radio Pacifica KPFK.  Youtube:


[1] Loraux ,Nicole (1998), Mothers in Mourning with the essay Of Amnesty and Its Opposite translated by Corinne Pache, Cornell University press, Ithaca and London )


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