Bearing Witness: A new report on women in conflict zones

October 6, 2011

The Centre for North East Studies & Policy Research, based in New Delhi and Guwahati, and the Heinrich Boll Foundation, have just released a report on the impact of conflict on women in Nagaland and Assam, two states on India’s northeastern frontier. The study is based on intensive field work and documentation in these areas.

The researchers set out to speak primarily to victims of trauma and PTSD. But in Nagaland, they identified seven kinds of trauma, and found it hard to restrict their conversations to respondents that primarily fit their research design. Their listing of seven kinds of trauma brought home just how profound the impact of conflict can be and how long this impact can last (pages 10-11). Apart from the trauma experienced by individual women when they themselves were assaulted, they also experienced the trauma that others in their family, clan or village suffered or that they witnessed. Moreover, hearing of assault and traumatic experiences, either across generations through family stories or as researchers, also had an impact. Those interviewed experienced the hopelessness of their cause, however righteous, as trauma. Displacement, the loss of place and history, was another source of trauma. Being forced to interact with and adapt to the ways of others—even the ‘other’—contributed to traumatisation.

In Nagaland, the research team found that given the nature of Naga society, trauma was experienced by the village collectively, and people were hesitant to identify themselves individually, as if to suggest their own experience was somehow worse. Naga women drew sustenance from the support system provided by their traditional structures and institutions like the church. Whether or not women knew about the different laws that governed their region, they spoke to the brutality of the Indian security forces.

“All women respondents had stated that conflicts had affected all aspects of daily normal life whether they were socio-economic, health, education, etc. People cutting across class, clans, villages, gender, age, etc., had suffered tremendously over the years due to different conflicts… There were also many discords and tensions in society. There were divorces and broken homes. Conflicts had generated an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion as well as fear.” (page 27)

What the researchers stress is the need for counseling and legal services and for education about the same, so people could seek help. This is borne out by what they learnt in Assam too, except that the research team adds the need to generate and make available livelihood and educational opportunities, the absence of which was identified here as leading to trauma. Timely relief and rehabilitation was also stressed. Where Naga society already has such platforms, it is recommended in Assam that, “Women committees must be formed in conflict affected villages which check any sort of physical or structural violence against women and human trafficking issues.” (page 44)

The importance of this study is two-fold. First, it is based on really sound field research—thoughtful conversations sensitively reported. The report is full of stories that the research team heard and they are the heart of this report, bringing to life the experience of multiple generations living with a conflict that is sometimes with the state and sometimes (or at once) internecine. The research team has used photographs, film and research notes to capture and communicate the experience of women in Nagaland and Assam. This is an unusually comprehensive effort. Second, Nagaland and Assam are important Indian states, but even so, underreported and understudied in the Indian context. A project that begins to look at the marginalized in a marginalized region thus acquires tremendous importance for researchers and policy-makers, but also for other citizens of the same state. And so does the multimedia documentation and communication effort. The research team explicitly points to the limited scope of this project and states that more studies of this sort are needed; they are absolutely right. In the meanwhile, it is important to make this study widely known. Again, it may be accessed at the C-NES website:

Violence and freedom: Responding to the Maoist challenge

June 3, 2010

The debate about the Maoist insurgent groups is also a debate about freedom, equity and violence—do the ends justify the means on either side? And when the price is inequity at one end and loss of freedom at the other, how are state and society to arrive at an acceptable middle-point? This blogpost provides a snapshot of the debate as it is. 


As I write this long-planned post, Arundhati Roy is making headlines for stating that she backs the Maoists and dares the government to arrest her.

Earlier in March 2010, she had published an essay that brought to a head the simmering controversy about civil society support to the Maoist rebels that the Indian government has identified as its most critical security problem. In her lyrical style, Roy portrayed Maoists as rebels who will fight for the alternative vision they advocate:

“I think of what Comrade Venu said to me: they want to crush us, not only because of the minerals, but because we are offering the world an alternative model.
It’s not an Alternative yet, this idea of Gram Swaraj with a Gun. There’s too much hunger, too much sickness here. But it has certainly created the possibilities for an alternative. Not for the whole world, not for Alaska, or New Delhi, nor even perhaps for the whole of Chhattisgarh, but for itself. For Dandakaranya. It’s the world’s best-kept secret. It has laid the foundations for an alternative to its own annihilation. It has defied history. Against the greatest odds it has forged a blueprint for its own survival. It needs help and imagination, it needs doctors, teachers, farmers.
It does not need war.
But if war is all it gets, it will fight back.”

In 2009, Roy had published an article arguing that the state was picking on the Maoists as a cover for its backing of mining interests. Roy’s recent article was published originally with the title, “Walking with the Comrades,” but was circulated also as, “Gandhi, but with guns.”  (She has pointed out in a recent letter that this was a sub-editor’s choice of words, not hers.)

It has evoked a wide range of responses, most notable for revealing the new ambivalence in the Indian intelligentsia about the Maoists, a shift from a few months ago when Kobad Gandhy was arrested. A few weeks before its publication, the Maoists were reported to have wanted Ms. Roy to play mediator between them and the Indian state. (See also Faisal Devji, Why the Maoists want Arundhati Roy, Guardian, March 9, 2010.)

Roy’s writing always evokes strong reactions. This time was no exception, the only surprise was that scepticism and critique came from all quarters.

Anirban Gupta Nigam, Moonwalking with the Comrades, March 23, 2010.
Soumitra Ghosh, A Believer’s Obeisance,, March 23, 2010.
Nandini Bedi, Walk the Talk, Comrade, Outlook, March 29, 2010.
Salil Tripathi, Maostan of Arundhati Roy,, March 31, 2010.
Sudhanva Deshpande, She was here, Outlook, April 12, 2010.
B.G. Verghese, Daylight at the Thousand Star Hotel, Outlook, May 3, 2010.

The Indian middle class is as apathetic as any other, but its preoccupation with everyday matters has been frequently disturbed by dramatically violent incidents in those parts of India where the Maoists are challenging the Indian state. (See, for instance, SATP’s timeline on Chhatisgarh) Arundhati Roy’s piece faced criticism even from those most likely to agree with her, but when the Dantewada massacre took place just days after its publication, criticism yielded to outrage. In the two months since the article and the Dantewada massacre, there have been other incidents, some definitively associated with the Maoists and others alleged to be Maoist attacks.

India’s Minister for Home Affairs, who is responsible for internal security, has said repeatedly that the intelligentsia’s moral support for the Maoists and their ambivalence on the issue of Maoist violence, was detrimental to the government’s efforts.

But for the many “argumentative Indians” who make up India’s intelligentsia, the question remains: Are there now taboo topics in Indian political discourse? Are we looking forward to something like the McCarthy era in the US? Even for those who are not left-leaning, limitations on free speech are unacceptable.

Anuradha Raman, State, Your Cause, Outlook, May 31, 2010.
Avijit Chatterjee, You’re with us or against us, The Telegraph, June 2, 2010.

But as the death-toll mounts, it will lower public resistance to curbs on political freedom, especially freedom of expression. It always does.

Madhavi Tata, Enter the Red Dragon, Outlook, May 31, 2010.

One of India’s oldest and best-regarded journals, the left-leaning Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), has recently carried several relevant articles including an interview with Gopalji, spokesperson of the Special Area Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). (Alpa Shah, “Annihilation is the last choice,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 45 No 19, May 8, 2010, pages 24-29.)

Smita Gupta, “Searching for a third way in Dantewada,” EPW, Vol 45 No. 16 April 17 – April 23, 2010, pages 12-15.
Gautam Navlakha, “Days and nights in the Maoist heartland,” EPW, Vol 45 No. 16 April 17 – April 23, 2010, pages 38-47.

An Economic and Political Weekly editorial, “Can There Be Any Hope?” (April 24, 2010) seems to sum up the challenge:

“Beyond the immediate and the medium term, we need a different kind of Indian state and a different kind of CPI (Maoist). Can we imagine both the State and the CPI (Maoist) respecting and af¬firming the basic rights of citizens? Can we imagine institutions of the State responding to the needs of all groups of citizens and ful¬filling the lofty promises of the Constitution? Can we imagine a CPI (Maoist) that also effects a fundamental transformation and sheds its militarised identity?
On such hopes must rest our imagination.”

This debate about the Maoist insurgent groups is also a debate about freedom, equity and violence—do the ends justify the means on either side? And when the price is inequity at one end and loss of freedom at the other, how are state and society to arrive at an acceptable middle-point? The purpose of this blog-post is to provide a snapshot of the state of this debate in India today.

Still speaking about Shopian…

December 17, 2009

An update on the death of two sisters from Shopian, Kashmir. Also, why this is of interest to us.


The story so far: Two sisters were found dead in an apple orchard in Shopian. In the context of insurgency, this gave rise to allegations of rape and murder by members of the Indian armed forces posted in that area. Investigations were inconclusive, protests rocked the valley and the case was handed over to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation. On December 14, 2009, the CBI reported that it had not found any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the armed forces, saying the girls had not been raped and killed. Moreover, the agency filed chargesheets against a dozen individuals who were said to have tampered with evidence along the way.

CBI files chargesheet in the Shopian case, December 14, 2009.

Predictably, this finding has met with outrage in Kashmir and in civil rights circles around India. Commentary on this issue in the Indian press ranges from support to scepticism.

Bashaarat Masood, Shopian dirt on this dozen, Indian Express, December 16, 2009.
Shopian changes little, Economic Times, December 16, 2009.
Shopian riddle, Daily News and Analysis, December 16, 2009.

Simultaneously, the Independent Women’s Initiative for Justice in Shopian (IWIJ), a fact-finding committee made up of eminent activist-professionals to investigate the incident (Uma Chakravarti, Usha Ramanathan, Vrinda Grover, Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, Seema Misra and Dr. Ajita) released their report: Shopian: Manufacturing a Suitable Story: A Case Watch. (The report is available in pdf format at this link.)

Will we ever know how Nilofer and Asiya died? Probably not. But we can predict that this will be an important political issue for a long time.

Why should writers and readers of the ASI blog care about this obscure pair of sisters in a village most of us had never heard of? There are two reasons this case is important. First, it illustrates the link that scholars make between gender and identity politics. Women’s bodies stand for the community itself, and violence perpetrated against them carries the symbolic value of violence perpetrated against the body politic of the community. This confliction of woman and community reduces the importance of the individual woman and her life and her rights, even as it makes violence against women disproportionately provocative. Disproportionate, I write, not because it is not important but because it is considered important for the wrong reasons: community pride, honour and sanctity. The result is that it is virtually impossible for the individuals affected to get justice.

The second reason is that it underscores that a trust deficit is the biggest challenge in any conflict setting. Nobody trusts anybody to care enough either about the victims of violence nor about justice for its own sake. Every round of investigations is suspect. Every set of circumstances dubious. Addressing specific grievances is far easier than rebuilding trust.

Both of these are reminders that are relevant far beyond this case and the valley. That is why this blogger returns to the Shopian case at regular intervals.

Shopian: A Twist in the Tale

September 29, 2009

A new investigation finds there may have been no rape at Shopian.


The bodies of the sisters allegedly raped and killed at Shopian were exhumed yesterday. Examining experts now think there may not have been a rape at all.

Riyaz Wani and Majid Jehangir, More twists in Shopian: ‘hymen intact,’ doctor ‘admits’ cover-up, Indian Express, September 30, 2009.

We know that this tragedy has fanned political fires in Jammu and Kashmir. It has offered another example of how women become pawns and symbols of political conflict. Much has been written and much has been said, and when it is all over, we may not have an answer to the all-important question: But what actually happened to the two women?

Postscript to a Tragedy: The Shopian Story

September 10, 2009

What’s happened to the investigation of the rape and murder of the sisters from Shopian?


Almost three months after my first blog post on the rape and murder of two sisters from Shopian, we still do not know who was responsible. (See also this statement by visiting women activists from New Delhi.) The case has now been handed over to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation. This followed revelations that the evidence in the case had been mishandled by the state police.

In the meanwhile, it’s politics as usual as leaders from organizations of every hue try to show that they care most.
Vijay Kumar, Futile to pin hopes on investigation in Shopian case: Mehbooba, Ground Report, June 23, 2009 .
India Doing Israel In Kashmir: Geelani, Kashmir Observer, September 10, 2009.

The Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Movement (JKPM) has charged Indian troops with using rape as a weapon of war. A spokesman of the Islamic Political Party (JK) has written in a Korean paper about the “unabated persecution of its natives by 7.5 lakh Indian Armed forces of different hues.”

In this acrimonious, even opportunistic, climate, few attempt a dispassionate look at the situation and counsel integrity in political decision-making.

On a slightly different note, media coverage of Shopian is seen as a reflection of the intelligentsia’s perspective on Kashmir in this analysis. However, media commentator Sevanti Ninan points out that Kashmir fares far better than Manipur where there is more violence but which remains invisible in the Indian press.

A lack of transparency and accountability really cloud our understanding of what is actually happening on the ground. Lack of interest and attention merely reinforce our ignorance and consequently, the alienation of sections of society, who read this for what it is: lack of humane concern.

True or False? Can anyone know?

July 8, 2009

Multiple versions of variously experienced realities appear to characterize the political experience, not just in Sri Lanka, the subject of this post, but everywhere.


A few weeks ago, we were discussing the Sri Lankan debate about bodycounts and refugees in this blog. Now here’s a twist in the tale.

Yesterday, a group of five doctors serving in the conflict areas and charged with assisting the LTTE held a press conference and admitted to exaggerating the impact of government operations on the civilians in the area under pressure from the LTTE.

To the victor, go not just the spoils but the chance to write history on different terms. There are two parts to what the doctors are saying. First, that the LTTE forced them to lie. Second, sustained military operations for almost one and a half years had limited impact on the lives and health of area civilians. The first is not hard to believe; the second is. This brings us back to the question of numbers. What is an acceptable casualty and what is not, in these circumstances, is a political and a humanitarian issue.

The doctors’ account is also at variance with accounts from interested and disinterested parties working in the IDP camps. Chennai’s social sector is awash with anecdotes. For instance, full-term pregnant women arrive at a camp and deliver their babies, but the camps are so poorly-equipped there are no rags to clean the new-born. How do you reconcile this with what the doctors say and what is also being said in expert circles about a well-planned military operation? If the operation was so well-prepared, why were the camps so inadequate to take in the numbers they did, and why are they so poorly equipped? Indeed, if they were well-planned and executed, why was the process of demining not taking place simultaneously as the clearing operations, when it was known there would be large-scale displacement? Landmines everywhere is now the excuse for continued incarceration in camps. Every story yields more questions than answers.

In this climate of confusion and scepticism, the Hindu published an interview with the Sri Lankan president: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3. At a seminar organized by a local think-tank, the editor of the Hindu said he had visited camps on the invitation of the government and found them to be very clean and very well-provided.

Who is to say what the truth is? The problem of knowing is a practical one in such contexts, not an epistemological one. The Sri Lankan situation is like a head of hair full of tangles, where someone smooths down the top vigorously and says with confidence and vehemence, “All done!” And because no one else is allowed to approach the head, no one else can truthfully claim to be sure that is a false assertion. To be fair, all post-conflict situations are a little bit like this.

But if people could go and find out for themselves, how much more confidence we would all have in each others’ words! Darini Rajasingham Senanayake, one of Sri Lanka’s leading scholars, expresses the concern that many feel on two counts. First, it is clear that a continued and growing military presence is going to underpin the post-operation peace in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, even if elections are held. This is a point Indian military experts are also making. Second, the government has been very ruthless about curbing Sri Lanka’s independent media, quelling dissent even to the point now of arresting an astrologer who made an unfavourable prediction. This is the other security dilemma: security appears to mandate constraints on freedom that ultimately undermine security. In the presence of a continued force that can and will be seen as an occupying force and in the absence of free access to information, how can there be peace? Thus, for the Sri Lankan government, it is not merely ‘sanitation’ and rehabilitation that are immediately imperative, but a return to the truly democratic norms and the commitment to social investment that have long made Sri Lanka exceptional by any standards.

In a situation where truth and fiction are indistinguishable, who can honestly claim expertise or foresight? No one really. In the spirit of my previous post, maybe we should just wait for literatteurs and artistes to speak to us.

In the News: “We will spread this fire”

June 20, 2009

Report on Indian Maoists in Times of India.


In this report, Sukumar Mahato starts with a personalized narrative. The article also profiles the average Maoist rebel, estimates their numbers and offers a potted history of Maoist insurgency in India.

Sukumar Mahato, We will spread this fire, Times of India, June 21, 2009.