A cry in the wilderness?

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

Men wage wars but the chief victims of war are invariably women. The truth of this has been so clearly established in Kashmir, which has been in the grip of an insurgency for the last 13 years. Yet surprisingly one doesn’t get to read much about how violence has impacted on the lives of women in that unhappy valley, which many years ago claimed to be the spot where “the world ended and paradise began”.

Over the years a mass of literature has been produced by scholars, journalists, ex-diplomats, legal experts and even retired army generals on the Kashmir issue. But these books focus on the history, politics, the legal disputes between India and Pakistan, the strategic dimensions and so on. The people who are primarily affected by the conflict — an unresolved legacy of the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 — do not figure significantly in any of these writings. As for the women, who have suffered the most since 1989, their voices have not been heard, as though they do not exist at all.

Urvashi Butalia’s Speaking peace: women’s voices from Kashmir, therefore, comes as a ray of light in this bleakness. It tells us how the women of this ravaged state are coping. Their message emerges loud and clear: we have suffered enough; we want peace. Will the powers-that-be listen to their voices in the din of war?

Eighteen writers have pooled together their accounts based on personal experiences, interviews and reports in this book, which makes poignant reading. One has to brace oneself to plough through the stories of brutality, tyranny and misery that fill the 315 pages of Speaking peace, which leaves the most hardened of readers feeling the anguish of the women of Kashmir.

Urvashi Butalia, the editor of this book and co-founder of Kali (a feminist publishing house), captures lucidly the agony of the women who form the subject of Speaking peace. In the introduction she points out that whatever the legal issues, the impact on human lives in Kashmir has been tremendous. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed (the majority being men but these deaths have affected women directly), 4,000 are missing, and 15,000 women are widows/half widows. Rape has been widely used as a weapon of war to humiliate a community, but it has not even been fully acknowledged, let aside being recorded.

Not surprisingly, the immediate impulse for putting together the testimonies of the women in Kashmir came from a meeting of a women’s group, WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace). As there is growing realization of the havoc being unleashed on the Kashmiri women, feminist groups in India are getting involved and establishing links with women in the tormented state. Butalia’s book is an expression of this concern.

It begins with Krishna Mehta’s personal account of the raiders’ attack on Kashmir in 1947 in which her husband, a district officer in Muzaffarabad was killed and she barely managed to escape with her children. Then follow horrendous accounts of the woes of women: rapes on a mass scale with the men refusing to take back their wives and daughters, torture, displacement of populations, collapse of the education and health delivery systems, mothers faced with the trauma of missing children, absence of adequate rehabilitation facilities for the victims, large scale unemployment and, above all, a perpetual sense of insecurity, uncertainty and fear brought on by the ongoing violence.

To comprehend fully the suffering that has been caused, one has to listen to the voices of the affected mothers, daughters and wives:

“Kashmiris have given up living. They have to be content with surviving.” (A young girl whose sister was killed in a demonstration).

“This pain and sorrow is so deep that I cannot sleep at night. I cannot rest. Every time there is a knock on the door, I think that my son has come back.” (Parveena whose 16-year-old son was taken away by the security forces eleven years ago and is still untraced)

“Violence has acquired such a terrifying regularity that we remain conscious of it all the time , even in our sleep.” (A woman traumatized by the security forces)

Normal life has been totally disrupted and human relationships battered. This has had far-reaching repercussions on the social fabric, which was largely secular and imbued with sufistic tolerance. The people lament the loss of Kashmiryat, the cherished social code which was based on the tradition of sharing and governed the relationship between the Kashmiris on a non- communal basis. The economy and politics of the state have also been undermined.

Who are the perpetrators of the violence in Kashmir? It emerges clearly that the women find themselves squeezed between the Indian security forces and the militants. They are vocal in expressing their anger and resentment against the Indian forces who have been brutal and indiscriminately vindictive in their cordon-and-search operations and in killing people who have even vaguely been suspected of supporting the militants. A commanding officer admits that only brutes and desperadoes join the security forces in Kashmir, which operate under trying conditions. Hence their abominable record.

When asked if they had also suffered at the hands of the militants, the women “reluctantly admitted that it was a fact but due to the fear of militants, no one openly held them responsible or blamed them. It was much easier to criticize the security forces”.

The fact is that no clear battle lines now exist in Kashmir. Once violence became the norm, and the youth was radicalized, many interrelated factors came to determine the law and order paradigm in the state. Today there are a number of groups operating simultaneously and one can be caught in the crossfire or fall victim to the brutalities of one or the other of them. There are the security forces, the indigenous militants, the foreign-based mujahideen, the counter-insurgency groups sponsored by the Indian government and the mercenaries who have entered the state to reinforce the militants’ hands. At times the civilians are not involved with any of them but are victimized because their loyalties are suspect.

It is plain that the miseries of the Kashmiris will end only when the violence ceases. Butalia has done well to bring together this book which will hopefully draw the attention of the policymakers in New Delhi as well as in Islamabad to the human dimension of this conflict in which they are embroiled. There is also the need to record the voice of the women of Azad Kashmir. Do they also long for peace?

Speaking peace: women’s voices from Kashmir
Edited by Urvashi Butalia
Kali for Women, K-92 Hauz Khas Enclave, New Delhi-110016
Tel: 91-11-6864497, 6964947
Email: kaliw@del2.vsnl.net.in
ISBN 81-86706-43-7
315pp. Indian Rs350