The recent scandal in Kashmir exposes a nexus that thrives in the changing social landscape of the Valley Iftikhar Gilani Kashmir A sex scandal involving young girls coerced into prostitution and abused by senior politicians, bureaucrats, police, and security force officials is rocking the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) government and has resulted in a bitter feud within the ruling alliance. The Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) are both blaming each other for hushing up the scandal while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has closed ranks with the Islamic radicals in Kashmir demanding disclosure of the names and punishment of the officials involved. It is reported that at least two Congress politicians close to Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad are involved in the scandal. Asia Andrabi, chief of the ultra-radical women's group Dukhtaran-e-Millat, which raided a number of sleaze centres in Srinagar and its outskirts last week told Hardnews that her group found at least 50 current and former legislators and ministers involved in the scandal. According to Andrabi, about 300 girls from the Valley are working as sex workers. Accusing the government of promoting and patronising prostitution in Kashmir, Andrabi says that when her organisation launched a campaign against sex trade in August 2005, she was imprisoned by former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed himself. For their part, government sources say that this issue is being taken very seriously. "It is no longer just a probe into a sex scam; it is a bigger investigation into the blatant misuse of power by people holding high offices and using it to force teenagers into prostitution," said one official. The case has been handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the High Court is monitoring it on a daily basis. The lid was blown off this scandal when a 15-year-old girl Yasmin revealed that she was forced to become a sex worker by a high-profile woman named Sabeena. Yasmeen and many other young girls like her were forced by Sabeena to serve government officials, ministers, police and security forces officials. The police report says Yasmeen has provided names of 48 people involved in the racket including two former ministers, top office bearer of the Congress party, three SSPs, seven DSPs, a BSF DIG, 10 local businessmen and many other government officials. It all began with a CD that was produced before the police on March 14, 2006 by some citizens of Shaheedgunj locality. "I was a student of eighth grade when I first met Sabeena at a party in Habbakadal. She told me she would arrange a job for me. When I went to see her at her house, there was no one there except a government gunman, Merajuddin, who drugged me. I don't know what happened afterwards," says Yasmeen's police file. She said that soon after this, a salacious CD featuring Yasmeen appeared in the market and she had to drop out of school. Despite this disclosure, police let Sabeena off the very next day because of “pressures from above”. It was only after a national newspaper reported the scandal on April 29 that the state government re-arrested Sabeena. Allegations of important government functionaries and ministers being involved in the sex trade first surfaced in 2004. Sensing the devastating ramifications of a scandal, the then chief minister asked the police to keep the probe results under wraps. Hence, within days after the registration of a case against Sabeena in October 2004, the case was hushed up. But, the Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Hussain Beg refutes such reports. "The case never reached the chief minister. Even after the case re-surfaced the DGP Gopal Sharma told us it is an inconsequential case," he says, blaming local police for the cover up. Police officers, however, say the then investigating team was called by former CM Mufti and told that if they probed the sex scandal any further, it would trigger the fall of the government. Even now, what has been unearthed, say police officials, is only the tip of the iceberg. In December 2004, Jammu and Kashmir police arrested two businessmen trying to finalise a deal with sex workers in Srinagar, an incident that again focused attention on the rise of prostitution in the Valley. The seven people charged with the crime said at the time that accusations against them were baseless and that the police had created the controversy to please their seniors. "That may or may not be true but what everyone knows is that the police is heavily involved in protecting and extorting money from these rackets," says an observer. "In fact, the police are not only supporting the profession but there are now reports that some ‘joints' are being operated by local police women with the 'permission' of their seniors." At the outbreak of militancy, security forces had resorted using honeycombs to trap Kashmiri militants. "Initially 50 girls were recruited and trained, they did a wonderful job and helped in the elimination and arrest of several militants," an official said. But, they were rendered ineffective when foreigners took control of militancy. "They were battle hardened and extremely religious and refused to get trapped by honeycombs," he said, adding these militants even eliminated many such girls. But, many of them remained in prostitution, though they stopped soliciting militants. The government and civil society is talking about zero tolerance towards prostitution, while others are sceptical. "A combination of factors has worked towards the rise in prostitution and unless those factors are addressed and alternative means of livelihood created, it will be naïve to think that the trend could be arrested," believes a social expert. "It makes better sense, while trying to create alternatives, to accept the reality and provide security to sex workers rather than allowing the profession to develop in a black zone of social unacceptability which only leads to exploitation of the women in the trade." A sociologist also blames socio-economic factors like changed criteria for marriages as reasons for the exploitation of girls. "Of late, a good 'catch' is a girl who has bagged a government job. This forces many girls to go to great extremes to get such a job which often has disastrous consequences," said a professor at the Department of Social Sciences. "Despite Kashmir being a conservative society, a well-organised mafia has been exploiting girls in the name of providing government jobs," said another expert. "For the past few years, many abortion clinics have opened up in Srinagar and the police has arrested several lady doctors for performing illegal abortions." According to a study conducted by the Department of Sociology at Kashmir University in collaboration with the UK-based NGO Save the Children, there are 30,000 widows in Kashmir Valley alone, 85 per cent of whom have children. The study reveals that just one per cent have re-married even though most wish to start a new life. In the past 15 years, crimes against women have also increased in the Valley. Associate editor of the Kashmir Times, Anuradha Bhasin, believes that even though the outrage at the crimes against women is justified, the direction it takes does more harm than good for women. "It brings the victim centre-stage as a mascot of stigma and humiliation, after which she is forgotten. There is no attempt to provide her any kind of psychological counselling or rehabilitation," says Bhasin. Interestingly, in this case also, though the police has been discreet about the identities of politicians involved, it has released the names of 45 girls forced into sex trade. A brochure with the names and contact numbers of the girls is circulating in Kashmir. It was withdrawn only after the strict directions from the High Court. Bhasin says that in a couple of these cases, women were abandoned by their husbands or unmarried rape victims failed to get married. "This is primarily because the media seems to define rape within the parameters of honour and dignity," she explained. "Rape is certainly used as a tool in wars and conflict, worldwide, with an intention to seek revenge from the enemy and humiliate his entire race through the bodies of women. But employing the same discourse in support of the women victim has actually done more harm since it questions the inability of the woman, who is simply rendered a symbol of chastity, to maintain her virtuosity," she added.