16 Days Campaign Theme series: Bearing Witness: Travels in the Northeast, by Preeti Gill

Preeti Gill

Bearing Witness: Travels in the Northeast

The first time that I traveled to the Northeast was in search of writers for an issue of The Book Review –a New Delhi based journal that I worked for at the time. And as I read and interviewed writers from the region, I heard stories that astounded me. Here was a region about which I knew very little and about which I had read even less, I had not one friend from my university years who belonged to this region and I was totally ignorant of what their lives were like. Ignorant of their history, of what had been happening in this remote corner of my country while I was growing up in Bhopal and Delhi and Mussoorie oblivious to the trauma and the sufferings that so many communities there were facing.

Some years later, on my first visit to Kohima, when I’d gone to work on project that was trying to document the impact of conflict on women in Nagaland, I was asked if I had any Naga friends and I said no. I was told then that I would soon make many friends—this has turned out to be true, happily for me. But as I traveled through the hinterland and met people I realized that almost everyone had stories to tell of personal loss and bereavement, of violence and trauma. I had not read of these or heard them earlier so had there been a deliberate silencing of their voices? A certain and complete marginalization of their history?  And yet as we know documentation often works as a political intervention. Analysts say war and civil conflict can be devastating to social and cultural forms because they impinge at the level of the whole society and every person who has survived conflict is aware of the wide ranging ramifications that this environment of violence and insecurity has on them. It takes people and society a long time to come to terms with what has happened and is happening around them.  As one young woman whom I met in Dimapur recounted, she was hidden away in the hollow of a tree for three days by her mother, who was fleeing from her village that was being bombed by the Indian air force. The child lay alone in the dark, hungry and frightened until her mother thought it safe enough to go back and retrieve her. This incident still haunts her and as soon as she was able she decided to join the Naga National army of which her father too was a part. It was only much later that she learnt to come to terms with these terrible memories and turned to the church. I felt completely humbled to be told these stories of private grief and I felt a commitment then as I do now, to bring these stories out to the world because I believe that they work as political intervention, as a way to build bridges between communities and help to open up a little known region and an alienated people. It’s been many years since that first visit—I have traveled in many of the states of the ‘northeast’ through the past 17 or 18 years but something of that commitment has been translated to the publishing of a lot of women writers from the region through the Zubaan Northeast Writers list.

To say that women have faced violence in situations of conflict is to state the obvious but what it means in terms of the short-term and long term impacts is something that is still being studied and analyzed. While the most obvious impact is physical or sexual violence, the psychological scarring as a result of prolonged exposure to brutality and the limitations placed on women in a patriarchal society have even greater consequences for their well- being. And this in turn impacts the whole society; it deeply wounds the whole community and destroys much more than individual lives. Women find themselves at the receiving end of violence on three fronts, from the state, the militants and a corresponding escalation of violence within their own homes. The effects of violent acts like rape, sexual abuse and physical assault and maltreatment has led to a profound psychological and emotional trauma and a very high incidence of what is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Women have to cope with the realities of daily life– they are responsible as mothers of the children, the hurt and the wounded, who are innocent victims to conflicts not of their creation. They are the wives of injured, disabled or missing men, the soldiers of warring factions and the state. They suffer as civilians with their freedoms curtailed and shackled. They are assaulted, beaten, humiliated, raped and murdered during conflicts. The loss that women face in times of conflict is not just emotional, or physical in terms of losing a loved one but also transfers into the economic and social spheres.

Most women experience a decline in social legitimacy and find themselves relegated to the fringes of society with no one to care for them or to speak on their behalf. Since they form the bulk of the unemployed and the uneducated, women find themselves ill-equipped to take on the burden of the household and as a result become utterly poverty stricken. Young widows are forced to head households even though in a patriarchal feudal set-up they have little or no access to land and property. Interviews have shown that during and in the aftermath of violence and conflict there is an increase in female headed households as many men were killed in encounters or raids or have simply ‘disappeared’. In most tribal societies, the economic burden is generally considered the sole responsibility of women and for this reason; perhaps, women get very little help from their own men folk or from the state in the reconstruction of lives after conflict.

Food scarcity, destruction of infrastructure and basic facilities like water, roads, bridges, hospitals, shelters and farmlands have an impact on the entire social structure of the community. Studies have shown that when there is food scarcity, it is the women who suffer most since they are likely to reduce their own intake of food out of concern for their families. The devastation of the natural environment, too, has serious repercussions since in times of conflict with the men engaged elsewhere, the women take on the role of food providers and caretakers, the responsibility of finding alternative sources of food and water and rebuilding falls on them. Often it is they who single-handedly bear the burden of growing food or finding food.

What this meant was a complete turning on its head of the established circumstances, the known life and exchanging it for the unknown, the uncertain, the insecure, and the dangerous. What did this mean to women who were forced to leave the familiar known environments, the villages and towns? How did this experience affect them and their children? What sort of memories do these children of families constantly on the run, have of their childhoods? Did this dislocation mean a destruction of the very fabric of normal life? Of traditional structures?

In conflict zones, women’s spaces become restricted and their mobility severely hampered. They are unable to work long hours in their fields, being forced to go in groups for fear of assault from armed security personnel or other armed groups. Fewer hours in the field mean that their food security gets affected. Most of the country’s development schemes and programmes have made little inroads into these remote hill areas and although the Centre has poured millions of rupees for the state’s development, there is little evidence of its gainful use.

Women’s bodies have become the site of battle with innumerable instances of atrocities and brutality hitting newspaper headlines every now and again. It is a well documented fact that while men who are wounded or disabled or who suffer in war time are given compensation and jobs and treated as heroes, this is not the case with women, who are victims of war and conflict. Women who lose their ‘honour’ find it extremely difficult to lead normal lives and live down the stigma.  In such a scenario then the code of social conduct that once ensured ‘normality’ and what was once understood as ‘normal’ behaviour is now suddenly turned on its head. There are no rules any more–there is a total breakdown of socially sanctioned behaviour and of structures. The role of the state becomes blurred. No longer is it perceived as the protector of the weak and the vulnerable, the arbitrator of right and wrong. Instead the state too has turned adversary and violator. It is important to note here, perhaps, that when the state abdicates its responsibilities alternate groups ‘take over’ the space.

These stories are also something that I want to pass on to my daughters, to younger people in the  so called “mainland” so that they do not grow up as ignorant as I did. To bear witness, has been an extremely painful and troubling experience. Listening to these women and reading their testimonies has been painful and sad because in most cases absolutely nothing has been done to help them, they have had no access to the legal system or even the administrative system. And this to my mind is something that we must face up to–for the unaddressed injustices as well as physical harm and trauma that people in these regions have suffered is something that must be faced by state, non state and civil society groups. The lack of justice has bred a sense of impunity among both state and non state actors. Most of the women I met on my travels and those that spoke about their troubled past were not aware of the mechanisms of the state, whom to approach for help, whom to lodge a complaint with, what their rights were and they had no idea of the state’s role as a protector—and that to my mind is as terrible an indictment as any of our democratic polity.

Preeti Gill, Commissioning editor at Zubaan, a small independent women’s’ publishing house in New Delhi is the editor of “The Peripheral Centre: Voices From India’s Northeast.”

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