Flashback by Urvashi Butalia

“Even though we knew we were fighting the enemy, we didn’t really feel any sense of national honour. All we wanted was warm clothes and reasonable food, and some strategising so that we were not turned into guinea pigs for our two governments”

– Soldier who fought in the Kargil War

Some weeks ago I was at Delhi airport waiting to board a flight to Nepal. Seated next to me in the lounge was a group of soldiers dressed in battle fatigues. Each one wore epaulettes on his shoulders that said simply: INDIA. Both our flights were late and after a while we got talking. Where were they going, I asked them. To Africa, on a peace-keeping mission. One was from Bihar, another from Punjab and a third was from Tamil Nadu. At some point I asked them how they felt about being part of a peacekeeping force. Were they proud to be part of such an ‘honourable’ activity? Did the fact that they were representing India make them in any way feel nationalistic? Did they feel they were doing something to serve the nation? I admit that my questions were loaded. I knew what I wanted to find out. But they replied readily enough. We’re in the kind of job, they said, where you have to follow orders and we’ve been ordered to go, so we are going. They weren’t particularly happy about being sent to Africa. It was the land of ‘habshis’, it didn’t have much to offer, and who knew what fate awaited them there? (The next week I learnt that 500 Indian soldiers were trapped in Sierra Leone and wondered if my airport companions were among them).

The man from Punjab had fought in the Kargil war (1998-99) with Pakistan. “We faced very tough conditions over there,” he told me, “but even though we knew we were fighting the enemy, we didn’t really feel any sense of national honour. All we wanted was warm clothes and reasonable food, and some strategising so that we were not turned into guinea pigs for our two governments.” Instead, they said, it was their wives who felt more nationalistic back in their villages — their homes were looked upon rather differently because they were homes whose men were out fighting for the country.

Photo Courtesy: rick, Flickr

As I left to board my flight two seemingly unconnected thoughts passed through my mind: I realised that this was the second or third time in recent months that I had seen soldiers on their way to or from somewhere. They were getting to be a much more familiar sight in our lives than before: evidence of the greater closeness of war and conflict perhaps. I realised too that in the old days we believed that wars and battles were the domain of men. They went out to fight, to conquer or to protect the interests of the nation, and women stayed home, looking after the family, taking care of the home and hearth and occasionally providing backup services for the sick and wounded. This rather simple picture has become much more complex today. Unless they’re really driven by some strong nationalistic feeling – and this is increasingly difficult in this day and age, except in rare cases – men don’t really want to play the role of fighting for the motherland. And women are much more deeply implicated in wars and political conflicts than just as wives and mothers and nurturers of the sick and wounded.

It was what the soldiers at the airport said about their wives that set me thinking about this. Until now, the narratives of war and conflict we have had construct all women as innocent civilians and all men as combatants, with little exception. And yet, as we see all around us today, between these two binaries lies a whole complex reality, which shows how women and men are touched by war and conflict in different ways.

We don’t need to look very far to see this: our own, supposedly peaceable country provides enough examples. Traditionally, India has not been seen as a region of conflict, and there is, of course, a fair amount of truth in this for India has not been driven by conflict in the way that Rwanda, Guatemela, Cambodia or Eritrea (to name just a few) have. But you only need to scratch the surface and this façade of peacefulness very quickly disappears. In the last several years we have seen the escalation of different kinds of political conflict all over the country: war at one international border, continuing tension at others, military, ethnic, communal, caste and other sorts of conflicts within; the growth of militancy and sub-nationalist movements, increases in weaponisation, the greater visibility of the armed forces and, most recently, the dangerous posturing over nuclear power. The danger signals are clear to those who care to see.

War and conflict are everywhere: in newspapers and magazines, in films, in shops which sell ‘Kargil suits’ for young boys, in books and essays and even in weddings with thermocol cut-outs celebrating the Kargil victory forming the setting for tent-house marriages and even birthday parties! Not a day passes without reports of insurgency, police ‘encounters’, violations of human rights, abductions and rapes – all in the context of increasing conflict. Films about conflict (e.g. Border) draw huge crowds. Even publishers – usually a bit slow to rise to the occasion – have not lagged behind and there are a number of new books that deal with war and conflict in India in recent years. These are important in what they tell us, and in the possible solutions they suggest. It’s clear that conflicts today are very modern conflicts, fought not only with an arsenal of sophisticated weaponry, but also with words and pictures, using the media, with arguments and discussions. They’re battles over territory, sovereignty, homeland, power and above all, control, not only of resources, but also of that age-old thing, the mind.

These realities emerge very clearly in a recent spate of books on war and conflict. The first of these, Guns and Yellow Roses, has journalists reporting on the Kargil war, and we see here the terrible pointlessness and waste that war brings. In a similar vein, On the Abyss: Pakistan After the Coup, a collection of essays (once again journalistic) examines the recent past and the possible future of Pakistan, with one essay making a plea for India to be more tolerant because of its larger size and strength. Then there is Raj Chengappa’s book, mysteriously called Weapons of Peace in which he recreates the steps that led to India’s nuclear tests in May 1999 and you see how politics and political balancing acts enter the picture. In a densely argued book George Perkovich makes an analysis of the global impact of India’s nuclearisation (India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation). These are supplemented by Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik’s masterly work, South Asia on a Short Fuse, which makes an impassioned plea for sense, and lays bare the dangerous consequences of nuclearisation not only for India and Pakistan but for all of South Asia.

 For many years feminists have argued that the pictures they saw of war and conflict were purely male ones, pictures that were not sex differentiated. Where were the women? Today, we can no longer make such arguments: we do see both men and women, and also children, when we see images of people affected by conflict. 

But, with a few exceptions (notably Bidwai and Vanaik’s book, and Muzamil Jaleel’s work in Guns and Yellow Roses) there are things about war and conflict that this body of writing has not addressed; important things that remain hidden under the overwhelmingly masculine and nationalistic rhetoric that always accompanies such discussions, things we need to turn our attention to. How do war and conflict affect the lives of women and children, for example? What do they mean in terms of the increasing insecurity and violence that they bring into society? How do people who have to live in situations of continuing conflict cope with them? What happens to families in such situations? What sort of system does the State have to deal with the problems war and conflicts raise? What happens when the violence of conflict enters the home? What is it about conflict, about war, about the violence that they bring with them that some women are drawn to? What can we do to prevent such violence?

Take Kashmir, for example. So many families have lost young children to the continuing conflict in the state. As happens in such situations, much of what we take to be ‘normal’ life is at a standstill: educational institutions are barely functioning, hospitals run at less than half strength, as do the courts; there are virtually no jobs to be had. Young people are frustrated and have little to do. For those who are out of work, or whose schools and colleges have been shut down, militancy exercises a powerful attraction. The moment they are able to hold a gun in their hands, and to use it, they feel the heady pull of power and in this way, the ranks of the militants continue to swell.

For their part, the Army and security forces are suspicious of every male youngster who is in the likely age group to become a militant. And there are thus false arrests, long periods of unjustified detention, and a growing number of unexplained deaths. What we’ve seldom asked, though, is how the parents of these young men (and now increasingly, young women) cope with their loss and disappearance. Parveen Ahangar runs an association called the Association of Relatives of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir. In 1990, she lost her son to the security forces. Under the aegis of an Oxfam related project to collect testimonies of women in conflict situations, Pamela Bhagat spoke to her.

“My problems started in 1990,” Parveen said, “when there was a raid on our house by the security forces. On 2 June my 14-year-old son, Mohammed, was taken away. There was a curfew so we couldn’t follow him.” When they could get out, Parveen and her husband ran from pillar to post trying to find their son. It took them a year to get him released. During this time, their other son, 16-year-old Javed, got picked up, probably in a case of mistaken identity. Nine years later Javed has still not appeared. As a result, Parveen’s family has fallen apart. Her husband is dogged by illness and is unable to work; her daughter has been taken away by Parveen’s parents, and most of their relatives have abandoned the family because they do not want to be associated with a family ‘under a cloud’.

And Parveen has not been able to mourn, to grieve for her lost son – for she continues to believe (and how can she believe otherwise?) that the boy is still alive somewhere, in detention. “Since Javed was taken away nine years ago, I am obsessed with finding him. I have had no time for the rest of the family or to be bothered about the house which needs serious repair work. I just don’t have the will to involve myself in these things – they seem so unimportant and futile.”

Parveen is not the only one to face such problems. Mahbooba Bhat lost a young son to the militants. Two years after he left, they brought his body home. Fearful of what this might do to her other children, Mahbooba pulled them out of school and kept them at home. The son’s loss hit the father hard: gradually he stopped working and the entire burden of running the home fell on Mahbooba. The ‘compensation’ she was given by the militants turned out to be a bagful of paper with a few currency notes on top. Thrown on her resources, she put her children to work within the home, thereby adding to the numbers of child labourers in the country.

Rajai Zameen’s 18-year-old son Nazeer joined the militants because he was upset when the security forces took away his uncle, Farooq. Nazeer became a committed and hardcore militant and, when his parents tried to advise him to turn away from the path of violence, he threatened to kill them first. “It is commonly believed,” Rajai says, “that the families of militants have flourished because of huge monetary compensation. No such thing happened in our case. Whatever money he used to bring, he distributed it among locals to buy their support or to convert youngsters.” Some years after he had joined the militants, Nazeer was killed in an ‘encounter’. His mother said: “We have never mourned his death. He was better dead than alive because he brought only pain and suffering to the family.”

Rajai may not have wanted to mourn her son’s death, but many other mothers who have lost their children, have been denied even this ‘luxury’ – for grief is a luxury in situations of war and conflict. Some do not have the time to mourn or grieve, others like Parveen Ahangar will not — cannot — do so. How do they put a closure on something when they have no proof that it can be closed? To put it more crudely, how can they mourn without a body?

A little over 2,78,000 people were displaced as a result of the Kargil war. The majority of these were women and children. Forced to leave their homes and their belongings, they had nowhere to go. The burden of the displacement caused by conflict is usually borne by women. All the Kashmiri pandits who have been forced to leave Kashmir now live in small, tenement type, refugee camps in different places. The men can at least have access to the public world – they may be able to go out to work, to walk across to the local tea shop. But it’s the women and young girls who have to stay at home in tight, cramped spaces leading constricted lives.

Wars and conflicts create their own myths. One of them is that the violence is always located somewhere ‘outside’ because that is where the ‘enemy’ or the ‘other’ is. The home, the family, for so many women the site of continuing violence, cannot now be questioned for it is the violence outside that must be fought. So, women not only have to deal with losses of the kind described above, but they continue to face violence at home, which they cannot now talk about. Should the conflict end and things go back to ‘normal’, the normalcy is seen as a state of peacefulness. Yet, what is normal when set against the context of war and conflict, may be a situation of considerable violence in less ‘normal’ times. The same logic applies in the wider world: wars and battles are often fought over control of homelands and territories. Yet, in protecting the ‘homeland’ or fighting for it, we forget to pose the question: was the homeland ever such a peaceful place? How do we address the lack of peace within the home?

The violence of war and conflict creates a powerful iconography. Kargil has already come to be known by the picture of the poor soldier, freezing at inhospitable heights and it is forever marked by that image. For many years feminists have argued that the pictures they saw of war and conflict were purely male ones, pictures that were not sex differentiated. Where were the women? Today, we can no longer make such arguments: we do see both men and women, and also children, when we see images of people affected by conflict. But not only do we learn very little about women, but it’s the kinds of pictures of women that we see that are questionable. For example, Kashmiri women, whether Muslim women or Kashmiri pandits, are known to be strong, secular, outspoken, confident women. They’ve never allowed themselves to be shut up inside the home, they’ve never allowed the public space to be claimed only by men. How, we might ask, do war and continuing conflict transform these women into the weeping, oppressed victims clad in burkha or locked up inside refugee tenements? Where did these strong, modern women go? And it takes time to realise that it’s in the interest of conflict to project women as ‘out there’ now and again (as fundamentalists and communalists, particularly the proponents of the Hindu right do), but at the same time reinforce their place within the home and family. It’s in this sense that wars and conflicts are also about male control over women.

The same iconography makes it impossible for those men who might want to, to opt out of battle. Immediately, they are labelled ‘cowards’ or ‘deserters’ – yet why should we expect that men have some kind of stake in war and battle and that they should be willing to go into the battlefield, knowing that they might be killed, but happy that they are doing so in the interests of the nation. Why should the nation mean any more to men than it does to women? Indeed, the entire rhetoric and vocabulary of war is a masculinist one. How far can you penetrate into enemy territory? Don’t allow yourself to be emasculated by the enemy. Show your virility in conquest. No wonder that raping women becomes so much a part of war and battle. And no wonder that armies do not prosecute their men for this crime – for after all, in their vocabulary, it is very much part of proving your manhood.

Yet, while we may be increasingly aware of the fact that men and women are touched by war and conflict in different ways, what is clear is that while women have to work hard to retain peace within the home and family in times of conflict, when it actually comes to peace making, they have little involvement in it. Political organisations, no matter which side of the picture they represent, never think of involving women in peace processes. Here’s where they don’t count. But here’s where they should count, for who builds and sustains peace in the home? Clearly the women. They are the ones who know how war and conflict enters and affects their daily lives, and the lives of those close to them. They are the ones who need to be brought in when discussions about a ‘return to normalcy’ are taking place. Yet, hardly anywhere in the world has this been done.

This is not to say that women are always victims of war. We have enough evidence to show that in certain situations of conflict, women do participate in the violence of war and conflict. But, for the most part, narratives of war and conflict represent a rather one-sided reality – as if only men are affected or concerned, as if, because the language of war is a male one, the reality of war touches only men, and that too in very specific ways. But here, it might be worth recalling a story that is sometimes told about war situations.

When a warring army goes into a village or a town to conquer, one of the first things they do is to rape the women of that place. While we recognise rape as a weapon of power and control perpetrated by men, over other men through the bodies of ‘their’ women, we’ve never asked why it is that invading armies rape women. The answer is simple: because of course, once they know about the possibility of invasion, the men run away. But the women stay, for they are the ones who have to protect the children, the old and infirm, the wounded. While men leave the battlefield to the ‘other’, the women stay to protect the bedroom. And for this they are raped.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

About the Author

Urvashi Butalia

Urvashi Butalia is an Indian feminist and publisher. Along with Ritu Menon, her long time significant other, she co-founded Kali for Women, India's first exclusively feminist publishing house, in 1984. In 2003, following the closure of Kali for Women, she founded Zubaan Books.

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