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.

Special Report: Feminist Flashpoints in East Asia

November 19, 2009

A cursory review reveals that sexual violence is a common issue that is salient domestically as well as in the international politics of the region. One of the real challenges though appears to be expanding the space for political activism among women.


As President Obama travels through East Asia, he provides South Asian feminist scholars with an opportunity to look east and review those issues that have been contentious for women’s rights activists. Each of the President’s stopovers has its own feminist flashpoints that are either consequences of society’s engagement with the outside world or that have consequences for that engagement.

The movement of people is one of the main sources of concern for Japanese feminists. Women’s immigration from other parts of Asia into Japan when legal is largely in the “entertainment” category, with most immigrants working as bar hostesses, in factories, as commercial sex workers or waitresses. International marriages through brokers are known; along with the old pattern of Japanese wife/ non-Japanese husband now there are also Japanese men who seek non-Japanese but Asian wives either for more control in the marriage or for sham marriages that cover up and facilitate exploitation. (See Vera Mackie’s Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 for more.)

The Japanese also have to confront their status both as perpetrators and victims on the question of wartime sexual exploitation. If the use of “comfort women” during Japan’s mid-20th century occupation of Korea is a history Japan has to live down at minimum and apologize and compensate for at best, then Japan’s own experience with the US presence in Okinawa has been similar. Either way, women have simply been the spoils of militarization, not uniquely in East Asia but here this issue has acquired both feminist and nationalist resonance.

Singaporean women’s organizations have to walk a tightrope, calling attention to social inequities without criticizing the state; placing the blame on culture without blaming religion; being political by virtue of working on political questions, but all the while abjuring politics. Reproductive rights have been one arena of activism, but in insider-for-self-correction mode rather than as dissent or critique of the state’s agenda. Many women from other parts of Asia come to Singapore to undertake jobs as domestic workers. Their status and their rights become political issues in their countries of origin, but in my admittedly cursory search, it was not clear how much their presence registered with the local women’s movement. (Lenore Lyons has written a great deal on the women’s movement in Singapore.)

Shanghai is now one of Asia’s showpiece cities; Beijing is one of its oldest capitals. Through much of the twentieth century, women activists were as focused on nation-building and social modernization issues as their male colleagues. State feminism under the People’s Republic did self-consciously address the institutional and many structural issues relating to the status of women. In the public sphere, gender became irrelevant for both men and women in many ways. Since the 1990s, when China has opened up to the world and western feminist writing has been translated and made available, Chinese feminists are now critiquing this same effacement of gender identity and blaming this for the invisibility of women in many spheres.

From a South Asian perspective, what is most interesting is to look at the impact of how China has opened up and grown, on women’s lives, their decision-making frames and freedoms and finally, gendered expectations that they may now face. Given that China’s political opening is yet to equal its economic changes, it is hard to see what the emerging internal critiques and debates are among Chinese feminists. Whatever they are, they matter for international relations for two reasons. One, there are a lot of aspirants to growth along the Chinese model (or should I say, Shanghai model). For them, this could be an early warning of problems they should anticipate and address. Two, insofar as the Shanghai model is identified elsewhere with the replacement by American-style capitalist economics of socialist development models, its failures will be seen as American failures, exported to Asia. It is in US interests to appear introspective and self-critical with regard to socio-economic issues on the home-front.

Two important strands to the women’s activism in Korea appear to be improving working conditions for women and of course, the issue of “comfort women.” As elsewhere, sexual violence—its prevention, protection issues and victim support services—is a priority for most organizations. It was hard to find very descriptive accounts from which I could learn more.

Two issues seem to recur in this region. The first relates to democracy and space in the public sphere for social activism at all: in its absence or where it is strained, how likely is it that activists will prioritize women’s rights over civil rights and political reform agendas? Women are likely, yet again, to have to take a number and wait their turn. The other is that although my post scarcely suggests it, sexual violence is an important rallying point. Reading about Japan, I learned that in some cases, what were originally shelters for refugees were also taking in victims of domestic violence. That to me really underscores the continuum of violence in which most women’s lives play out. And violence in the name of the state—during war, to reinforce state rules, to ensure regime survival—is one stretch on this continuum.

States are bound by international convention to do business with other states. What this means is that when any head of state comes calling, s/he must meet and confer with whatever regime is in power. A strident discourse on human rights and democracy usually becomes background noise as a summit plays out—that’s diplomacy. But where then is the space for women’s rights issues to be raised and discussed in the international arena? Will we have seen something new in the course of President Obama’s international excursions this time and in coming months?

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.

Martyrs, metaphors or wasted lives? Story from Shopian, Kashmir

June 15, 2009

Two young girls were found dead in a Kashmir stream. Outrage and grief have quickly become both political crisis and political opportunity.


Once upon a time, there were two sisters who grew up on an apple orchard in Shopian, Kashmir. An idyllic life did not follow this fairy-tale beginning but even so its end came brutally and unexpectedly. One day, May 30, 2009 to be precise, their bodies were found floating in a shallow stream. They were dead. One sister was pregnant.

How did they die? The answer was not pretty: they had both been raped. Forensic evidence suggests that at least one of them was killed. It is alleged that the perpetrators were Indian army soldiers and the judicial commission appointed to investigate has been questioning soldiers and police.

Yusuf Jameel, A Violent Crime Resurrects Kashmir’s Call for Freedom, Time, June 10, 2009.

It is almost a year since the United Nations Security Council voted to adopt resolution 1820 on Women and peace and security. The Bosnian war put rape on the international agenda although sexual violence is not a new instrument in the struggle for power. The rape and murder of the sisters in Shopian once more raises the question: Why does violence against women, especially sexual violence, become one of the languages in which battles over identity, state and power are fought?

UN Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rape: Weapon of War.
UN Security Council Resolution on Women and peace and security, June 18, 2008.
Two nuns, two Indias and the politics of identity, The PSW Weblog, November 3, 2008.

Rape is an act perpetrated by individuals on other individuals. In every situation however, rape is an exercise or expression of power, and in conflict situations, control over the body of a person or persons from the ‘opposite’ side is tantamount to claims of conquest and subjugation. As feminists put it, the personal is political, and this tragedy is fast acquiring political and security overtones.

Initially slow to respond, both state and central governments in India seem to have understood this in this instance and are hastening to make that clear. But as analyst after analyst asks whether the groundswell in protest against the rapes will become a new groundswell for ‘azadi’ (freedom), we can see that already high politics has overtaken the human rights-human security discourse which would place these and countless other individual women at its centre.

Praveen Swami, Politicians preying on south Kashmir tragedy, Hindu, June 14, 2009.

A sampling of what is being written about this:

Dr. Javed Iqbal, Shopian Tragedy : Questions sans Answers!, Kashmir Times/Kashmir Watch, June 12, 2009
Sanjay Kak, ‘Men in uniform are Kashmir’s problem, not solution,’ Times of India, June 14, 2009.
Arifa Gani, Shopian incident adds to insecurities of Kashmiri women, Kashmir Times/Kashmir Watch, June 14, 2009
Sameer Arshad, Hype, hope and horror, Times of India, June 14, 2009.