February 29, 2020
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Reasons For Speaking

Leave no page unturned, no essay or sentence unread. Each word wounds, each story hurts, each incident of molestation and rape angers.

Reasons For Speaking
Speaking Peace: Women's Voices from Kashmir

Edited By Urvashi Butalia
Kali for Women Pages: 340; Rs 350
Few voices out of India speak with such compassion, power, clarity and dignity for women's rights as Urvashi Butalia and Kali for Women, the publishing house of which she is co-editor and trustee. But few in Kali's long list of remarkable books over these years strike the emotional, logical and inner chords in us as does this collection of "women's voices from Kashmir".

Women and children bear the brunt of violence and instability in Kashmir and elsewhere in the world. As a reporter who covered the Kashmir conflagration in its first decade, and earlier Punjab's tragedy, as someone who knows the North East and its sorrows in some detail reasonably and has travelled and written extensively in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan, this document is especially touching and powerful. For in these places as in Kashmir, the unheard --  although perhaps, nowadays, women's concerns are taken more seriously and they are much more visible as images of grief and hurt on television and in print -- voices of women need to be presented, broadcast and rebroadcast time and again.

Although women are rarely the initiators of violence, they are its chief victims -- be it of the States and its manifold agencies or of the extremists and militants who claim to speak in the name "of the people." Yet, they also emerge as strong factors of change, of stability and of individuals and groups, which create their own spaces and develop leadership qualities. 

In Nagaland, the Naga Mother's Association developed in the 1980s as a reaction to the slide toward alcoholism, despair and drugs that many women saw in their children. This situation in turn had its roots in the conflict between the Naga groups and the Indian forces, as well as within the inner divisions of Naga society as economic disparities grew between those who "joined" the system and others who opted out. Corruption and the collapse of values in an older generation were also factors. Today, the NMA, despite its strong tilt toward the main Naga militant faction, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (I-M), is taken as a substantial force for peace, social harmony and civil society initiatives.

In Manipur, we have the Mera Paibis, or women's groups which patrol the streets of the capital of Imphal at night, looking out for drunken men who need to be packed off home. They have mashals (torches) and each woman in a neighborhood is assigned duty nights. Essentially, the Mera Paibis started off as a revolt against alcoholism and drunkenness which was eating into household incomes and causing much domestic violence. But over the years, it progressed into a rights organization protecting ordinary people from the assaults and anger of insensitive soldiers and policemen. In the process, it was also accused of protecting militants on the run, a charge that has an element of truth in it.

These experiences of the North East are echoed to a lesser degree in the Vale of Kashmir as well as its other parts --  the Jammu belt and Udhampur as well as Ladakh. Whether it is Farida Abdulla's moving tales of life in the valley as well as her thoughts, as a Kashmiri living in Delhi, of the questions that confront people of the state and outside or Muzamil Jaleel reports in the Indian Express, the stories tell of horror, despair and an unending cry for justice and equality.

We would do well to note that while these are women's stories, they present a terrible testimony of the way that army, police and the militants (surrendered and those at large) have treated human beings - without mercy and with extreme bias and cruelty.

I would especially commend that readers look at the following extracts of three reports by women's groups or by a woman. These are significant because they are spread over 11 years and tell us tragically, how little has changed but in degree. The first women's team to visit Kashmir was in 1990; another one went in 1994. Uma Chakravarty's Kashmir Diary forms the third part of this trilogy.

But leave no page unturned, no essay or sentence unread. Each word wounds, each story hurts, each incident of molestation and rape angers. And after you put it down, ask yourself this question: how can we even begin to imagine after what has been inflicted on them that "they" would want to be part of "us"?

(Sanjoy Hazarika, a former correspondent of the New York Times, is currently Consulting Editor of The Statesman and Research Professor, Centre for Policy Research.)

(A condensed version of the above appeared in the print magazine)

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