Some Reflections on Possible NGO Interventions in Situations of Conflict: The Experience of the Violent

Urvashi Butalia

India is a country that is seen, by and large, to have retained a kind of overall stability since it became independent in 1947. Although the moment of independence itself was marked by large-scale horrific violence that left nearly a million dead and hundreds of thousands of others permanently scarred, the country has not been seen as a region of conflict in the way that many others – such as Rwanda, Guatemala, Mozambique and more recently Eritrea and Sierra Leone – have. Indeed, in many ways, because of the considerable effectiveness of Gandhi’s methods of non-violence during the nationalist movement for Independence, India’s image has continued to be one of a country of peace and stability (something that is further strengthened by the fact of the country’s size which means that many violent conflicts remain at a ‘local’ level)..

While there is more than a grain of truth in the above assumption about India’s supposed stability, it is also true that if one merely scratches the surface, this façade of peacefulness very quickly disappears, and recent events (specifically the carnage of Muslims in Gujarat) have conclusively proved this. There is little doubt that whether it is in the north or the south, or the east or west, the incidents of collective and violent conflict, both within the country and across borders, are increasing. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since Independence (1965, 1971 and 1999), they have been precariously close to war in 2002 (the last two confrontations being made the more dangerous by their nuclear capability), and in times of peace they are constantly locked in a fierce psychological, and often actual, battle with each other. The Kargil war in 1999 left an estimated 280,000 people homeless, the majority of them women and children. Two strategically located regions, Kashmir in the northwest and the seven northeastern states on the other side, have been in the grip of anti-state, militant, sub-nationalist movements for several years. In different parts of India, the struggle between upper and lower castes has led to persistent, ongoing conflict in which the worst sufferers are the poor and low caste, more particularly women and children. In recent years, these conflicts of a political, ethnic, military and caste nature have been joined by fierce internal battles between different religious communities, particularly Hindu and Muslim, something which has been fuelled and supported by the rise of fundamentalist forces, particularly the Hindu Right wing, and its coming into power at the centre.

Together, these many different kinds of conflict make for a situation in which the warning signs are all too apparent for those who care to see: if attention is not paid to these conflicts and if attempts are not made to foster peace, the consequences for India as a country will be very serious. Despite this, the State and political parties have little concern for such conflict – and more often than not, are a party to them – because it serves their electoral interests to keep people divided. Nowhere is this more clear than in the state of Gujarat where, in recent months, there has been largescale violence against Muslims, orchestrated, organized and supported by the State and State actors both at the level of the state and the Centre, where the same political party, the right wing Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power (it is also noticeable that in Gujarat, while the ruling party is guilty of the worst kind of collusion and neglect, other political parties did not exactly cover themselves with glory, being tardy in even visiting the affected people, but being quick off the mark when they needed to make political capital of their suffering). Indeed, by now it is abundantly clear that in most instances of violent conflict, little can be expected of the State, and it is often up to the people affected by the conflict, or civil society actors, to take the initiative for conflict resolution, mitigation and amelioration. And yet, it is an unrealistic expectation on the part of society and the State that a handful of people can take the responsibility for what must squarely be the burden of the State. By definition, the interventions Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and civil society actors can make, are limited and while they are doubtless important, they are nonetheless often inadequate and can in no way replace the long-term, sustained work that the State is capable of doing (but is more often than not reluctant to do).

This essay mainly describes a project entitled the Violence Mitigation and Amelioration Project (VMAP) on violent conflict which was initiated by Oxfam (India) some years ago. Within this, my essay looks at only one aspect of this overall project, i.e. the sub-project on women and conflict. Briefly, the VMAP project is divided into several sub-projects, which look at the following: (a) mapping conflict (b) law and conflict (c) dalits and conflict (d) syncretic traditions (e) the question of Hindutva (f) the psychological impact of conflict and (g) women and conflict. Two independent projects defined geographically rather than thematically, form part of this group. One is located in Rajasthan where there has been a continuing flow of people (Hindus) coming in from Pakistan, especially at times when relations between the two countries are at a low. The other is located in West Bengal and is concerned with people who are currently living as stateless people in Bangladesh, but are in fact Indians in legal terms. These people, erstwhile inhabitants of small enclaves called chitmahals (which continue to be in Bangladesh ) have, over a period of time, migrated into different parts of West Bengal where they live in small clusters. The project is aimed at assisting these displaced people to set up their own community based organisations to fight for their rights as legitimate citizens of the Indian State.

Each sub-project is coordinated by a consultant who works with locally based groups and the overall aim of the project is both conflict prevention and conflict resolution. My brief within the overall programme is to coordinate the project on women and what follows is a description of what the project is trying to achieve, as well as an analysis of some of the findings and insights that have emerged in the initial stages. I should mention that the views contained in this essay do not necessarily represent Oxfam’s views, but are my own as an independent consultant.

The women and conflict project began by taking as its basis the fact that there had been virtually no work on the question of how women were impacted by and involved in conflict in India and across borders in South Asia. (This situation is considerably changed today when, tragically, the increase in conflict has also generated a wealth of writing which helps us understand the underlying patterns as well as the need for sustained intervention and action). We emphasized that the kind of conflict the project was addressing was not individual, domestic conflict but conflict, or conflicts, of a collective nature, and those in which violence played a major part. (Four years into the project, however, we realized that it was not so easy to make such a separation, but I will come back to this point later) It was becoming increasingly clear that in India, in recent years, there had been considerable escalation of different kinds of conflict and women were involved in these in a variety of ways. To begin with, they often bore the brunt of many conflict situations as they were the ones who were left behind with the burden of holding family and community together. But they were not merely victims of conflict, as had been widely believed earlier, but also often agents involved in the violence of conflict, in furthering it, and sometimes in profiting from it. For women’s groups, the realization that women could turn against women, putting the interests of their community or religious group first, as became evident in every communal conflict that took place in the country, was a sobering one. But between the two binaries of victim or agent there lay a host of other realities. Often, situations of conflict forced women into taking steps they might not otherwise have taken. The poverty created or exacerbated by situations of violent conflict, the loss of earning members, often put an additional burden on women, pushing them into situations of considerable danger outside the home. The paucity of work opportunities could also result in many women taking on sex work in order to keep home and hearth together. Others may be coerced into, or may voluntarily choose to join armies, militants or security forces to make up their cadres. (Indeed, it is clear from accounts of the North East in India, and of the Maoist uprising in neighbouring Nepal, that the bulk of the cadres of militants are increasingly made up of young women.) Often, these were women who had themselves faced some kind of violence at the hands of those in power, or those who were defined as the ‘enemy’. Thus, we felt we needed also to examine and understand the chain of violence which led women into reacting to situations of violenct conflict by taking the initiative to join violent campaigns.

There were other aspects to consider. In situations of war and conflict the losses and casualties are almost always counted in terms of the numbers of those killed, mostly soldiers and their officers. Civilian deaths, or the impact of the violence of conflict in terms of dislocation, are not often considered, as also the fact that the loss of male earning members inside these families imposes considerable burdens on women. Another aspect that was important to consider was that in times of conflict the received wisdom was that violence, whether gender-based or otherwise, always came from the’other’ side, from the ‘enemy’. But research has shown that not only are communities often violent towards their own women (generally in what they see as an attempt to protect them from the violence of the other, such as killing their women to protect them from possible rape) violence outside the home often leads to increased violence within, and women particularly become the targets of this in times of conflict, a reality that is not easily talked about. While these were realities that needed to be looked at, it was also true that in times of conflict, by and large, it was women who where the ones who took up peace initiatives, who formed groups and associations that tired in some way to heal the pain and anguish of conflict, those who felt committed enough to run the danger of trying to talk to militants, to work in hospitals and other institutions in difficult conditions. And yet, they were also the ones who were never to be seen in peace negotiations, when these took place, or when discussions on how peace was to be instituted took place across the table. Two examples will help to illustrate this: in Nagaland, the Naga Mothers’ Association has been at the heart of all attempts at negotiating peace, and at resolving conflict. Yet, no negotating table has seen their presence. Equally, the recently set up Kashmir Committee led by Ram Jethmalani, is made up only of men, and is talking only to men – as if women in Kashmir did not exist or have a voice in what peace means). The tragic irony is that the men on the committee are all men who would like to be identified as emancipated and liberal, but it has not even entered their heads that women can have anything to contribute to conflict resolution. Across the border, in Sri Lanka, the recently negotiated Peace Accord has been an important step in attempting to bring peace to the country, but the quality of peace it looks at needs to be informed by the perspective of those who have had to bear the brunt of violence, in particular women, children, the aged, the minorities.

Thus women’s involvement in violent conflict was both multiple an many-layered. The question before the VMAP team then was: what kinds of interventions can be made by outside groups who are concerned about the spread of violent conflict and its ramifications in the lives of women and children ? How is it possible to spread an awareness of these possible consequences and work with people in order that the early warnings might be recognized and some positive steps taken ? In other words, how can an ‘external’ agency, so to speak, contribute towards preventing or mitigating the effects of the processes that lead to conflict, or address the problems of women and children who have lived through situations of conflict. These were questions that lay at the base of the advocacy that VMAP intended to take up.

Rather than go into areas that were totally new to the organization, the VMAP team felt it was important to work through the different Oxfam field offices that existed on the ground. Most of these had been around for some considerable time, and had build up a good rapport and working relationship with local groups who were, of course, best placed to take on any work in the area. A process of discussions with field offices then led to the formulation of the project on women and conflict. However, there were several things that could be said to be ‘constraining’ factors. Given the constraints of the budget and human resources, any advocacy or action that the project resulted in, had to be thought of in terms of the availability and willingness of local groups on the ground who might be willing to, and who might have the resources to, take on such work. Let me try to explain this with an example. In some of the initial interviews conducted in Kashmir, it became clear that one of the ways in which situations of continuing conflict impacted on the lives of women was in the lack of provision of health services to cater to the kinds of problems generated by continuing violence. Dr Bilkees Jamila, a leading doctor in the main hospital in Srinagar described this in an interview with Pamela Bhagat, a researcher who carried out interviews with women in Kashmir for the project. She said:

When the problem [of militancy] started, 50 per cent of the staff migrated, en masse – doctors and paramedics. We have not been able to recover from the vacuum that their departure created. Another blow was that no post-graduate examinations have been conducted in the last ten years. One was held and out of the five students allotted to me, to our department, only one joined. The rest did not want to work here and left. The staff situation has only been worsening. We appealed to the Health Secretariat and did manage to get some doctors from the waiting lists and even managed to get some staff through court orders, but we are just pulling along.

With such inadequately staffed hospitals, women, who are normally the last to have access to medical care, would have virtually nowhere to go. In Kashmir, because of a diktat against family planning, it became even more difficult for women who had been raped to get abortions. The question before us then was: in a situation of conflict, what kind of an intervention can an outside group make here ? Can a women’s group or an NGO actually provide doctors ? It seems unlikely. Can they lobby with doctors and ask that they go there ? Equally unlikely. What then could be done to tackle such a situation ? There was very little that suggested itself other than creating an awareness of the problem and perhaps working with international donors who might be able to have easier access because they were not seen as being so politicized. One possibility that could have been workable was to hold occasional health camps in villages, but apart from the fact that this was not really an answer to people’s ongoing need for medical care, the question that concerned the project participants was whether the army and the militants would actually allow this. In some areas, as in the Kargil area, this may have been more easily possible, but elsewhere things may not have been so easy. Then there was also the question of whether there would be enough doctors and paramedics willing to go to Kashmir for such work. If the violence had driven them away, could we realistically expect them to return to a region in which the violence had, if anything, worsened. There are no readymade answers to these questions, but what is clear is that the moment such questions come up, we are immediately reminded of the very limited framework within which women’s groups and NGOs function. More recently, these questions have become particularly poignant in Gujarat where the needs of the victims of the State-supported massacre, have now been pushed out of the relief camps that they were living in, and have not even been given the minimum compensation required to set their homes and businesses up again. In a situation of such a scale, and of such seriousness, the powers and capacity of NGOs are limited. This is not to say they cannot make a difference, but clearly they cannot take over what must, fairly and squarely, be the responsibility of the State.

Within Kashmir, the interviews carried out by Pamela Bhagat, suggested other things as well. Fear of continuing violence had meant that their families pulled their children, both male and female, out of schools. Indeed, schools often became breeding grounds for further conflict and a new and younger cadre of militants could be recruited from there. Once children were pulled into the home, something had to be found to occupy them. Also, with the disruption of normal life, and often with the deaths of male members of the family, the source of income of many families dried up. Children were drawn into working from inside the home to supplement a depleting or depleted family income, thereby adding to the numbers of child labourers. Once again, the question that arose was: what kind of intervention was appropriate in a situation like this ? Ought an NGO to lobby with, say, the buyers of carpets and other such goods which are based on child labour ? If so, what would happen to the already precarious economy of a region besieged by conflict ? or, ought an NGO to try and bring in income-generating activities for older children and women in the ground ? Neither is without problems: while women may need the income, they hardly need the additional burden this will impose on them. When big money is seen as fanning conflict, or being one of the key reasons for it, as is tragically evident with the story of diamonds in Africa and particularly in Sierra Leone, things become very much more complicated.

What became increasingly clear in the course of this project – and as the results of our initial research began to come in – was that ‘outside’ NGOs could only address the question of mitigating violent conflict in a limited way, perhaps by making some small interventions, and more effectively by ensuring that the gender aspect of conflict became something that was taken into consideration when looking at conflict. As the activities of this and other, related projects grew, other lessons became apparent. While the women and conflict sub-project chose to take a broad view of conflict and to collect information and build a knowledge base about women’s experiences of conflict in different parts of India, its ‘sister’ project, on the psychological impact of conflict, focused mainly on Kashmir. Here, in collaboration with local organizations, Sahba Husain, the coordinator of the project on the psychological impact of conflict, organized a number of workshops with Kashmiri women, focusing mainly on trauma, stress and the mental health of conflict affected people. These workshops showed how deeply women, men, children were affected and how inadequate the system was to cope with their needs, the more so because medical staff in most of the hospitals had fled, or were overworked, underpaid, sometimes under threat of violence, and often under considerable stress themselves. Such is the scale of the problem that while an NGO or activist organization may be able to conduct workshops which enable people to speak about the kinds of stress and trauma they have had to live through, there is no way that they can actually address the problem in any effective way. Not only do they not have the resources, but they seldom have the staying power.

Two years into the project the two sub-projects (women and conflict and the psychological impact of conflict) collaborated to organize what turned out to be the first meeting between women from Kashmir and women from the North East, both regions which have been in the grip of conflict for several years. During the discussions, it became clear that it was important for women to share their experiences of conflict, in order that they not feel alone and isolated. Kashmiri women in this meeting spoke of how much confidence it gave them to learn that someone else shared and understood their experience, that other women had lived through similar and worse experiences, and that many had coped and survived. It was also clear that NGO interventions in the North East had been relatively more ‘successful’ partly because the group that had done considerable work, the North East Network, was made up mainly of women who could be called ‘insiders’ even if some of them lived outside of the region. But more importantly, women in the North East were able to better organize because they had a long tradition of developing women’s groups on the ground, and these groups had been activated during the conflict years by women who were concerned to find ways of coping. Importantly, groups that were seen to be ‘insiders’ were not only able to cope better but it was easier for them to intervene in a difficult situation and to do so in ways that did not seem disruptive or threatening and that did not endanger the lives of activists and participants.

This ‘inside’-‘outside’ dichotomy is also an important lesson to keep in mind. All situations of violent conflict are immediately mired in the politics of that particular conflict, and any interventions by groups must necessarily engage with such politics, which can have both negative and positive repercussions. For those caught in the heart of violent conflict, an ‘outside’ presence can signal many, often contradictory, things. For the outsiders, it sometimes becomes necessary to tread very carefully to win trust and confidence, both of which are essential for continuing work in conflict areas, but this is not always easy and many NGO interventions fail, or remain limited because of this difficulty. Political conflicts, such as in Kashmir and the North East provide clear examples of this, for any NGOs/ women’s groups who work in these areas, cannot ignore the questions of nationalism and what the State defines as ‘anti-national’ activity. No matter how much they tell themselves that their intervention is merely ‘humanitarian’, there is no escaping the politics of the current situation, and while an understanding of this may make it more easily possible to intervene with some success, it may also work in the opposite way and make things more difficult. Many groups, or individuals within them, for example, may themselves sympathize with the State rhetoric of nationalism and anti-nationalism and therefore it becomes important to ask how this affects any intervention they may make.

I have mentioned earlier that the VMAP project had identified both thematic and geographical areas of work. Some of the situations in which the project tried to make an intervention – as in Kashmir and the North East – were situations of ongoing conflict. Others were those where the conflict itself may have been located sometime in the past, but its long-term consequences were only just making themselves felt. This was true of Rajasthan and West Bengal, and also in Gujarat, where, in the Saurashtra region, because of the absence of a land frontier between India and Pakistan (the ‘border’ being laid in the water) poor fisherpeople living on both sides were often caught when they strayed into the waters of the ‘other’ country, and jailed. While one kind of intervention could be to work with groups on the other side towards the early release of these accidental ‘prisoners’, another was to address the problems of those – particularly their wives and families – who were left behind. Often, women in Saurashtra, wives of poor fishermen, had no way of knowing whether their husbands had been lost at sea or were housed in a jail across the border, when, and if they would return, whether or not to mourn them, how to make ends meet, or indeed how to claim compensation, if at all they were eligible for this, from the State. And these were only some of the more easily visible problems. Many other, more difficult things lay underneath these. Similarly, in West Bengal, inhabitants of the chitmahals, created by the illogical drawing of borders in 1947, and now living in West Bengal needed to be able to access development aid, in order that they might have jobs, schools, food, and security. In Bihar, widows of Dalits and upper castes, victims of the ongoing caste conflict, had similar needs, paramount among which was security and education for their children.

As these things became clear to us in the project as a whole, and in the women and conflict sub-project particularly, we began to understand that NGOs/civil society groups/women’s groups can only make a limited kind of intervention in situations of conflict. These may have to do with things such as bringing the issue to public attention, showing how women were affected and involved and the implications of this for the future, working towards strategies for conflict amelioration and mitigation rather than stepping into situation of conflict, and ensuring that wherever peace negotiations took place, the question of women and children would be central to the agenda. Equally, an important area where such organizations can make a contribution is in the collection and dissemination of information, for this is always among the first casualties in any conflict situation. Much of the time groups trying to make an intervention are hampered by the fact that they know very little about the situation on the ground and are unable to comprehend the turn it has taken. In this sense, the interventions of any number of groups in gathering information about the Gujarat carnage have been very valuable, even if the State and the state government remain indifferent to them. Another realization that has been important in the ongoing work of this project is that interventions in situations of violent conflict must not only take the form of firefighting and that, with increasing knowledge, groups should be able to put in longterm, sustained work that can help to address situations that have the potential to lead to violent conflict. This is, however, easier said than done, for even one rupture in the fabric of social life, caused, for example, by situations such as the recent Gujarat carnage, can carry implications through many generations, and is not easy to address. In the North East, which has been in the grip of conflict for a quarter century now, women and girls will tell you how the fear that their mothers or grandmothers felt, of the army or the militants, is something that they have inherited and they live with. How then can trust be re-established ? This is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges that conflict throws up.

I have mentioned only a few of the insights we have gained after years of work in the field. One of the things that has become clear is that each situation of violent conflict is different and each raises its own problems and needs. There are, of course, questions that are common to all situations, and these add to the complexity of the problem that groups who wish to intervene are confronted with. I want to come back here to a point I had raised at the very beginning of this essay. I had mentioned that when we began work, we focussed on collective conflict, not the individual conflict of the family, or inter-personal relations, but the more ‘external’ forms of conflict that took place largely outside the home. Three or four years into the project we now realize that there is a very clear link between the two that must be addressed by women’s groups and NGOs, and that any such separation is, in many ways, artificial. For example, for women in conflict zones, it is a truism that once the ‘external’ conflict enters the home (and it always does) levels of domestic violence inside the home rise. This has been seen in many parts of the world. And yet, the question of what peace then means for women has yet to be addressed for peace agreements and negotiations only address the visible, ‘external’ forms of violence, not those that continue to take place in the privacy of the home. NGOs and groups wishing to make interventions then need to be aware of these kinds of unseen consequences of violent conflict in order to make any effective intervention.

The VMAP project is still ongoing and no doubt further years will give us better insights into how to address the problems generated by conflict. Most recently, the Gujarat carnage has highlighted another aspect that groups need to address themselves to: the question of the rape of women as a weapon of genocide and war. Women’s groups have been aware of the use of rape as a weapon by men to humiliate other men, and the difficulties of addressing the question of justice for the victims, and every instance of violent conflict has highlighted this. With the example of blatant State collusion in the violation of women’s bodies, and the refusal of State forces to register cases, the question becomes even more urgent, for groups are now forced to think of other instruments of justice (such as international courts, which may or may not be the right answer) and the inadequacy of current laws which do not even recognize rape as a weapon of war. These, and other questions, are things that we will be forced to confront in the future.

I want to end this essay by reiterating that I have not attempted here to provide any answers to the question of how NGOs/women’s groups and other civil society actors might intervene in situations of violent conflict to help ameliorate the situation/mitigate the conflict. Rather, I have tried to record the experiences of one small, and rather limited project, in the hope that it may throw some light on possible ways in which we can intervene in what is becoming a problem of increasing urgency, and scale, in our world today.