Speaking Peace: An Introduction

Published as the introduction to Speaking Peace: Women’s Voices fromKashmir, Urvashi Butalia ed, Kali for Women, 2002

Urvashi Butalia

For more than a decade now, women in Kashmir have been caught in the grip of a conflict which, over the years, has rapidly turned into a conflict between militant forces fighting for self determination or separation for the state of Kashmir, and the Indian government’s security forces who are pitted against them.

There are many interpretations of how this conflict began, and from which point it can be dated. Some go back to 1989, the year in which violence broke out in the valley, while others date the conflict from the accession of Kashmir to the Indian union (itself something which is hotly debated and sometimes disputed) in 1947, and some histories stretch even further back to the beginnings of Dogra rule in Kashmir. Indeed, many of the slogans of the current movement recall similar slogans of many years ago: as the report of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights on the current Kashmir situation points out, the Kashmiris’ fight for ‘azaadi’ goes much further back than 1947 and stretches into the time of the harsh and repressive rule of the Dogras, and the British. It was in the context of such oppression and exploitation, that Sheikh Abdullah emerged as a leader who symbolized the hopes and aspirations of the Kashmiris for their homeland and who, while keeping the focus on the majority Muslim population of Kashmir, did not forget that to include Hindus and Sikhs in his political speeches and actions.

The aspirations of the people were symbolized in the Naya Kashmir manifesto, adopted in 1944 by the National Conference under Sheikh Abdullah. The document stressed the future of Kashmir as a secular, socialist state committed to the eradication of communalism and the rights of women. This document – excerpts of which appear on pp of this book – today reads like a tragic travesty and betrayal of the hopes of the people of Kashmir. A year later, the Dogra ruler, growing fearful of the gathering momentum of the movement, arrested Sheikh Abdullah. By the time protests against the Maharaja had taken the form of the Quit Kashmir Movement, the ruler had become quite fearful of Sheikh Abdullah and he therefore arrested him in 1945. Despite this, the movement continued apace with men and women taking part in it. It was thus that Sheikh Abdullah was in jail when India was partitioned during which time the movement against the ruler continued, gaining increasing support from outside.

In 1947, the Sheikh was still in prison while the Dogra king, Hari Singh, played India and Pakistan against each other as he weighed his options on Kashmir: to join with Pakistan or India, or to stay indpendent. In some ways, the Pakistan-backed raiders’ attack of October 1947 settled matters: the Raja needed the Indian army’s help to protect his kingdom against the raiders as well as against sections of his own people who were rebelling and joining up with the raiders, and therefore he signed the Instrument of Accession by which Kashmir became a part of India. At the time, it was agreed that once law and order had been restored in the state, the ‘consent’ of the people of Jammu and Kashmir would be obtained. This, of course, never happened.

The post-1947 history of Kashmir is a record of an initial uneasy sharing of power between three key actors, Hari Singh, Sheikh Abdullah and the Government of India. Jammu and Kashmir was granted a special status, through Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. It was this, and other provisions that marked Kashmir as different from other Indian states, that became subjects for heated debate in the years to come. Unlike other states for example, Kashmir was to have a Prime Minister, not a Chief Minister and it was to have its own Constitution. This process was, however, derailed when the Sheikh was arrested in 1953 and held in detention for several years, during which time a sort of puppet regime was installed by the Centre.

This all-too brief history barely does justice to the complex and by now convulted web of developments that have led Kashmir to the situation in which it finds itself today. This book does not attempt to retell this history, or to locate it in the the more distant, as opposed to the more immediate, past. Rather, its concern is to look at the recent years of conflict in Kashmir and see how this continuous, ongoing violence has impacted on women’s lives. This concern has its roots in a project run by Oxfam India, entitled the Violence Mitigation and Amelioration Project (VMAP) under which, for some years now, a considerable amount of work has been done to look at situations of different kinds of collective conflict in India and across borders and to attempt to analyse not only their roots and causes, but also look at what can be done to prevent or resolve conflict. Kashmir has been a key focus of this programme.

It is now widely accepted that while women seldom create or initiate conflict, they – along with children and the aged – are often its chief victims and sufferers. Nowhere is this more true than in Kashmir. Yet, despite this, women’s suffering has, until recently, barely been acknowledged. The Kashmir conflict, for example, has generated a vast amount of analytical and historical literature; very little of it actually mentions women. Yet today, in Kashmir, there are large numbers of women who are identified as ‘half widows’ (women whose husbands are assumed dead but there is no proof to show they actually are), widows, mothers who have lost their sons, or those whose daughters have been raped, young women who dare not step out of the house, women who have been pushed out of employment by the fear and uncertainty created by conflict, and those who are suffering from medical and psychological conditions related to stress and trauma.

Nor is this the only reality of women caught in conflict. For there is enough evidence from research and activist work the world over, and specifically in the South Asian region, to show that conflict – whether long-term or sudden – often results in pushing women into the public space, or in their carving out their own spaces in which to come to terms with the changed reality around them. Many of the widows of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, for example, were forced to go out in search of jobs after their husbands died. At first hesitant and uncertain – for they had never negotiated the public space without their men – the women gradually began to feel comfortable, and to learn how to deal with their new realities. In Nagaland, in India’s conflict-ridden north-east region, the year 1984 saw the founding of a unique organization, the Naga Mothers Association which took up a campaign for peace, and coined the slogan: ‘Shed no more blood’. Appealing to militants, the army, security forces and ordinary citizens alike, the Naga Mothers Association has been in the forefront of negotiations for peace. In Kashmir, the setting up of the Assocation of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) by Parveena Ahangar, a mother whose son has been missing for more than ten years now, is another such initiative. With its largely female membership, the APDP has a single point agenda: tracking down the hundreds, indeed the thousands, of missing persons, so that families can either regain their loved ones, or put a closure on their lives. Similar examples abound, not only within India but also in neighbouring Sri Lanka (as with Tamil Hindu women of the LTTE), Bangladesh (as in the Chittagong Hill Tracts), and others.

In a study of Tamil women in the Sri Lankan conflict, Darini Rajasingham Senanayake points out that ‘women’s agency or empowerment is rarely unambivalent in war or peace.’ While some women may indeed gain, in terms of accessing new spaces and learning to negotiate these, it is also true that such access varies across caste and class and, in some cases, can result in placing a double burden on women. More, and here is something that has received much less attention than it should, how do we understand the sometimes willing participation of women in political conflict, the fact that they are increasingly beginning to form the critical mass of violent cadres, and how, further, do we then understand women’s relationship with the nation and nationalism(s), and with the state ? Sometimes there is a direct causal link between women taking up violent ideologies – for example, seeking revenge for a sister raped, a mother killed, a son taken away – and at others, it is a matter of wanting to do something for the country, as one of the short articles (by) in this book demonstrates. In both cases, interventions for peace need to be sensitive to the importance of these different realities.

When the VMAP project began in Kashmir, it took a two-pronged approach. The first was to speak to women in different parts of the state and, through detailed interviews, to try to arrive at some understanding of what they had had to live through, and how they saw their present and future. A number of these interviews – conducted by Pamela Bhagat – appear in this book. The second was to work with locally based groups and to conduct workshops on stress and trauma with affected women, and then to move gradually into collecting more quantitative data, for example on the number of families in a particular place who had lost a family member, the numbers of children out of school, the number of widows who had received compensation and so on. Some of this work is still continuing and an account of it appears in Sahba Husain’s essay where she examines the medical problems that have come about as a result of the conflict. Stress, trauma, depression, spontaneous abortions, miscarriages, these are now common problems among the people of Kashmir, and more specifically among its women, children and the ageing. Essay after essay in this volume refers to this reality, confirmed by the interview with Dr Bilquis Jamila, while the study on Kargil by Pamela Bhagat shows how it takes a similar, but somewhat different form in Kargil where the fear is not so much from militants or security forces, but from the continuing threat – and often the reality – of the outbreak of war.

Clearly, conflict has created a situation of tremendous fear and uncertainty in women’s lives. Kashmir was a state, one woman told us, where if you wanted to kill a chicken you had to ask the permission of your elders, and, she said, ‘look at what it has become today. Violence is a way of life. The gun is like an old familiar – children ask to be given AK47s as birthday presents.’ A statement that is heard time and again today relates to another condition created by the conflict, and that is about the lack of trust. ‘Our fear is as much from the gun,’ we were told, ‘as it is from each other. We no longer know who to trust. Sometimes your closest friend, even your brother, may be an informer, or a militant, sometimes he may be a renegade (the local term used for ‘surrendered’ militants).’ Further, for women, this lack of trust works in other ways. In a dialogue between Kashmiri women and women from the north-east of India, organized under the auspices of Oxfam India’s VMAP project, a number of Kashmiri women, widows and ‘half-widows’ spoke of the suspicion they faced from their own families. Being without an earning member in the family meant that they were forced to go out and seek work, but the moment they stepped out of the home, or stayed away from it, family members would accuse them of being women of ‘bad character’ – a stigma that is difficult to live down, the more so when it is added to the stigma of widowhood (the latter is largely a Hindu phenomenon, but in Kashmir, is conveniently added on to Muslim women as well).

Statistics are hard to come by in Kashmir. There has been no Census there since 1981 – by the time the next Census came round, the trouble had already begun – and much has changed in twenty years. Figures for the number of people killed in the violence, the dead, the missing, women widowed, raped women, children orphaned – all these vary widely depending on where they come from. Government figures are always lower than those calculated by human rights and civil liberties activists. While the lack of ‘proper’ statistics is a problem that needs to be addressed, one does not need statistics to measure people’s grief and suffering, and their desire for peace. If the women of Kashmir, whether Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or Ladakhi, are to be believed, the levels of domestic violence have gone up sharply in the state in the last decade or so. For women, then, the external violence of war or political conflict is not something that is happening out there, but it has made its way into their homes and hearths. Yet, in the hierarchy of violence set up by such situations, the ‘external’ violence of conflict somehow comes to acquire much greater significance than the ‘internal’ violence of domestic strife, no matter that that domestic strife may be generated, or exacerbated, by the external violence. Women who become the targets of such violence, have no one to talk to for to everyone, it is the male who is the hero, whether as an army man, or a mililtant, or simply someone caught in conflict. She does not count.

In this context another question becomes important: that of the nature and meaning of peace. Does the ‘return’ of peace then mean a going back to the conditions that existed – the status quo – before conflict broke out, no matter how terrible those conditons in themselves might be ? For women for whom levels of violence have escalated sharply, a situation of ‘normalcy’ now becomes not the status quo then, but the status quo now, for this is what they have to live with. Will ‘peace’ mean only the end of conflict ‘outside’ so to speak, or can women expect peace to extend within the four walls of the home as well. These are questions to which we do not, as yet, have any satisfactory answers. But it is clear that just as it is important to look at how conflict changes realities in the outside, public world, so also is it important to see the transformations, both positive and negative, that it creates within the home.

While this book has grown directly out of the VMAP project, in some ways its beginning can also be traced to a meeting on Kashmir organized by WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace) in New Delhi a year or so ago. At this meeting a young Kashmiri woman, speaking of the rape of a friend, posed this question to the audience and participants: ‘I want to ask how the militants’ struggle for azadi, for liberation, will be advanced by the rape of this woman. I want to ask how this rape – and the countless other rapes that have taken place – will help in the security and protection of the nation ? Can you answer this question for me ?’ The young woman’s anguished question cannot, it must not, be ignored. Rape has today become a commonplace occurrence in Kashmir and where once, it was the militants and the security forces who used it as a weapon of war, today by far the larger number of offenders come from within the army and the security forces. Protected by their power, and the Draconian laws under which they operate, and protected also by their guns, they use rape, as it has traditionally been used, as a weapon to humiliate the Muslim community through the violation of its women. On the part of the militants, apart from the random rapes in the earlier days, the rape of Pandit Hindu women has been similarly used. Civil liberties organizations are the only ones – along with some sections of the media – who have actually attempted not only to acknowledge the fact of rape, but to bring the issue to public attention. For the others, rape as a weapon of war, rape that targets women as the cultural markers of their community, and is then used to humiliate the community (clearly seen to be made up only of men) through their women, is not something they need even to acknowledge – as is evidenced by a high powered fact finding team sent out by the Indian government and the Press Council of India which concluded, shamefully (and after making a half hour visit to Kunan Poshpora where there had been mass rape women by a unit of the Rajputana Rifles) that the women had lied about this.

Several of the essays in this book document the involvement of women’s groups and individuals ‘from outside’ so to speak, in Kashmir. Sahba Husain and Shobana Sonpar’s efforts are joined by those of Sushobha Barve, Sonia Jabbar, Sheba Chhachhi, Ritu Dewan, Neerja Mattoo and others, and there are women too who are not mentioined here who have been involved in working with Kashmiri women and children for some years. Yet, in the face of the flagrant violation of human rights in Kashmir, and the rapidly worsening conditions of life for its women, children and old people, organized involvement on the part of what we might call the ‘women’s movement’ has been tardy in comong. Until recently, activist groups – who may not be part of a comprehensive women’s movement, but whose work nonetheless, taken together, acquires a sort of pan-Indian character which allows it to be seen as such (for example in the campaigns against rape, dowry, widow immolation) – have been reluctant to join issue with electoral politics. The 73rd and 81st Amendments changed all that, and now the arena of electoral politicis is squarely on the agenda of women’s groups throughout India. But in Kashmir, another issue enters the picture, and that is nationalism, and the nation.

Most Indians – as some of the essays in this book also demonstrate – grow up believing Kashmir to be an integral part of India. Thiis is what we are taught, this is the history we receive, and this is the history we come to internalize. This is why, in the ‘outside’ world, and among those who see themselves as ‘secular’ there is little sympathy for the Kashmiris’ desire for independence, although over the years this has been changing somewhat. Additionally, while there is an almost total failure of the state apparatus in Kashmir, yet the only recourse the Kashmiris have in, say, seeking compensation, or demanding their rights, is the state. Thus, while Kashmiris will be fiercely critical of the state, they will also look to it, as all citizens anywhere do, for fulfilling their demands. This situation is no different from critques of and interactions with the state elsewhere, but it comes to acquire different overtones in a situation of conflict. For feminist activists, the difficulty of intervening in such a situation comes from many things: partly there are the practical difficulties of travelling to and working in Kashmir, but these are minor as compared to the ambivalence that attaches to a situation in which often your own feelings ‘as an Indian’ so to speak, have to battle with the values you hold dear, in which nationalism and the nation-state may not have a place, and perhaps even from the difficulty that attaches to a simultaneous dealing with, and opposition to, the state.

For, while the state has been an important aspect of much of the activism of the Indian women’s movement, and many of the claims and demands of the movement have, understandably, been directed at the state, it is nonetheless true that we have not had, in the movement, a full scale critique and analysis of the state, and it is this that in many ways creates ambivalences in our dealings with situations such as in Kashmir, or indeed in the north east. Manimala, a journalist visiting Kashmir many years ago met a large number of women. Most of them posed one question to her: ‘Why is it that ‘Indian’ women, women who are within the movement, and who have been quick to stretch the hand of friendship to all women affected by violence, why have they not come to us ? Why have they not offered friendship, even sympathy, to us women in Kashmir ?’ Manimala further posed this question to a large group of women in a meeting on Kashmir, and despite the fact that this situation has begun to change in the last few years, there is no doubt that women activists need to ask themselves these questions.

And these, then, lead to further questions. While feminist activists have begun to involve themselves in Kashmir, much, if not most, of their work has been limited to the valley, and more importantly, to women who are victims of the excesses of security forces, and to a lesser extent of militants. Similarly, it is only recently that the plight of Kashmiri Pandit women has become part of the agenda of women activists – as the work of Sushobha Barve who has been organizing dialogues between Pandit and Muslim women shows. But there is still considerable reluctance to involve oneself with, say, the wives of men in the army and the security forces who too are victims of this conflict, no matter that their husbands may be advancing the agenda of the state. In some ways, the difficulties of working with all ‘groups’ of women are not difficult to grasp. If the work is to be done in Kashmir, activists need to have the trust – a rare commodity in these troubled times – of the women they are working with. And yet, working in such a politicized terrain means that immediately you work with one ‘group’, the other looks on you with suspicion. In such a situation, you make certain choices, dictated by your politics and your values, and these are inevitably choices that leave out certain possibilities. Building trust is a long and slow process and women’s groups have only just begun to take the first steps in this direction. In the end then, this is what is important – the involvement of women’s groups in Kashmir has been slow, and hesitant, but it is there, and as many of the essays in this book demonstrate, will only grow.

It is out of concerns such as these that this book has grown. It does not pretend to be a history of Kashmir, or a comprehensive account of the situation of women in the state. Rather, it aims to mark a moment in the history of the conflict in Kashmir and the involvement of the state and militants in it, a moment when the presence of women, whether as victims, agents or perpetrators can no longer be ignored, a moment which makes it clear that any initiative for peace and resolution of the conflict must take women into account and involve them centrally, a moment at which the women’s movement must rethink its involvement with such questions. That there is considerable lack of knowledge of the situation of women in Kashmir, and that the ‘mainstream’ discourse about women represents them in only one way, does not need reiteration. Pictures, it is said, speak more than words. A photo exhibition on Kashmiri women mounted by Sheba Chhachhi, from which we carry a photo essay here, drew a range of responses from different people. ‘How strange,’ wrote one viewer, ‘that we start taking things for granted and lose touch with reality and humaneness.’ Another suggested that the exhibition had made him/her realiize that it was necessary to find a solution that takes people into account, that the best solution lay in peace. A third emphasized that it was time that ‘a people’s story was told to fellow Indians.’

The desire for peace is a thread that runs through all the essays in this volume. Neerja Mattoo describes what political violence has done to one institution, a women’s college, which could boast of being progressive and totally open and secular. She makes an urgent plea for peace, for a ‘return’ to ‘normalcy’. This is a plea that is echoed by Sushobha Barve who, even as this book goes to press, is busy organizing a dialogue between Pandit and Muslim women where they can share their thoughts and experiences, a first step in any movement towards peace and reconciliation. This dialogue resonates with a similar one organized by Sahba Husain and Urvashi Butalia between women from the north east of India and from Kashmir, where, both ‘sides’ for the first time, understood that their pain was not only echoed, but also shared, on the other side. For the women from the north east, the fact that their region has had a long tradition of women’s groups – mahila samitis and others – at the village level, and that, in some instances the Church and village councils have been supportive of their demands – has meant that they have been able to mobilize in ways that seem impossible for Kashmiri women who have no tradition of organizing at the village level, and who face the combined wrath of the patriarchal practices of all men surrounding them, whether militants, or security forces, of their own families, or indeed the state. (Indeed, even the few groups that grew out of militancy, such as the Dukhtaran-E-Milat and the Muslim Khawateen Markaaz, have faded into the background today. More recently, a Pandit group called Daughters of Vitasta has been set up. Their call to Pandit women is reproduced in this book )Thus, an impassioned plea from Kashmiri women to their sisters in the north-east was that they come to Kashmir and help them to learn how to set up women’s groups on the ground, an initiative that we hope to take forward through the VMAP programme mentioned earlier.

While the desire for peace cuts across all classes and groups, it does raise other questions. How will peace return to Kashmir ? It has become all too easy, these days, for people to voice what are increasingly becoming empty slogans: any peace, we are told, must involve the people of Kashmir. The state says this, ordinary people echo it and everyone accepts it as a given truth. Yet, as Farida Abdulla asks in a brief poignant essay, who and where are the people of Kashmir ? As a Kashmiri who lives outside of the state but has family there, would she count as a Kashmiri, or would many of the ‘plains’ Kashmiris who have migrated, or would the Pandits who now live in refugee camps ? And where, Farida Abdulla’s essay implicitly asks, is it possible to find, or to recreate the ideal new community, the ideal new nation ? Can a critique of the nation-state, a movemment away from it, only be answered by the creation of another nation ? These are questions that become more and more complex as the violence in Kashmir escalates and the situation grows worse. Perhaps the only way they can be addressed is by an open and sensitivie dialogue which takes into account the wishes, feelings, fears and doubts of those who are affected by the conflict. Sadly, however, states are seldom open to such dialogue – and certainly not in situations such as the one that currently obtains in Kashmir. In July of 2001 for example, as the leaders of India and Pakistan met for their historic summit, men and women in Srinagar gathered under the auspices of the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons to build a memorial to their loved ones. It is well known all over the world that for grieving families who have lost their loved ones, and have nothing, not even a body, to prove the reality of this loss, symbols. monuments, are extremely important for they provide a way to put a sort of closure, a way of giving their grief tangible form. And yet, despite all its intentions to take the people’s wishes into account, the people of Kashmir were not even allowed this small liberty and force was used to disperse the people gathered there.

The polarization that we see in Kashmir today between communities is a direct contrast to the secular and mixed tradition of the place – indeed, as Yoginder Sikand points out in his exploration of the women rishis of Kashmir, for the Sufis, moving between Islam and Hinduism was something they did with ease, and both in their followers and their gurus, this tradition of peaceful transitions and co-existence was maintained and nurtured. Thus Sufi shrines had Pandit caretakers, Pandit momuments were guarded by Muslim maulvis and so on. A more contemporary version of this sharing, this easy frienship that goes beyond political divides and that has, in more recent times earned the epithet of Kashmiriyat, is evident in Krishna Mehta’s moving account of the raiders’ attack on Kashmir where, despite their differences with the Indian – read Hindu – people of Kashmir, even the leader of the raiders did not hesitate to offer help and support. Today, the tragedy of Kashmir today is that while much of this has gone (and that which remains is hardly noticed), the breathtaking beauty of the ‘paradise on earth’ is belied by the harsh realities, the terror and brutality, the continuing violence, that ordinary people, and especially its women and children, have to live through. It is our hope that the essays and extracts from investigative reports that appear in this volume, will go some way towards drawing attention to this reality, for it is only when it is taken into account, that any move can be made towards peace and reconciliation.

In recent years, there have been varous initiatives both within Kashmir, and outside, to address the many problems raised by the ongoing conflict. Civil liberties and human rights groups who have been in the forefront of raising human rights issues – as the extracts from the reports reproduced here show. But within Kashmir itself, groups such as the Husseiny Relief Committee and the Yateem Trust, as well as the less formal groups formed by citizens, have slowly begun to address themselves to the important problems of rehabilitation, of support for the victims of violence, of dialogue and reconciliation between different communities. It is in these groups that the hope for the future lies.