From Malala to Handwara


Collateral damage is an oft heard phrase in a conflict like Kashmir, used as a euphemism to justify killings of innocent people in the name of terrorism. Like any other conflict region, women are always part of the collateral damage baggage by default, whether they get killed in action or survive. Tina Brown, a journalist, said of Afghanistan, "we don’t hear much about our obligation to the wretched lives of Afghan women. They are being treated as collateral damage as the big boys discuss geopolitical goals." Similarly, the wretched women of Jammu and Kashmir can become part of the collateral damage without even being killed and within days be so easily forgotten about as if they did not exist. Women bear the greatest brunt of wars and violent conflicts, physically and psychologically not only in their capacities as mothers, daughters, wives and sisters, losing family members to the violence.

The sheer implication of living as a woman in a militarized zone is that it enhances by manifold times the vulnerability of women to sexual violence and societal gender bias. Kunan Poshpora rapes of 1991 best exemplify the multiple ways in which women become collateral damage – raped and brutalized by valorized ‘soldiers’ as if they couldn’t have fought insurgency without groping, abusing, molesting or raping women; forgotten by society without much whimper about their suffering, leave alone protest. The multiple levels of harassment of the women is reflected by this irony: in a land where women have willingly and consciously chosen to become human shields to protect the men, there is not a single case of men acting as human shield to protect the women. Only in recent years, has the Kunan Poshpora case being dug out by civil rights group JKCCS and by two young girls who recently co-authored a book. Otherwise, leave alone the Kunan Poshpora case; the women by a large become part and parcel of a collateral damage without even being noticed enough or without normalizing the process. 

As a panelist on a television channel debate some weeks ago, when I raised the question of the Handwara minor girl and talked about how her rights had been violated and that Handwara incident also needed to be seen with a gendered lens, a retired army general called it an attempt to obfuscate the situation and divert attention when it was already settled that "some youth were provoked into starting the entire trouble". Strange then that the Army and Police should so dutifully oblige them in deepening that trouble by gunning down 4 people including a woman who was not even part of the protest. The protests in Handwara began last month on allegations that a girl had been molested after which army and police shot at outraged mobs turning violent. The girl in question was whisked away by the police in a midnight swoop from her home and next day shockingly a video of her denying the allegations and instead blaming some young men was widely circulated. Whatever the truth of the allegations and counter allegations made, the girl’s rights have been violated by forcibly placing her in custody of police, call it ‘protective’ or preventive, what one may. So convenient, however, to skirt the story and deem her victimization as unavoidable ‘collateral damage’ or part of normal process that did not merit attention. Another retired general on the same show spoke about Army being responsive to human rights abuse and quoted the case of Major Rehman’s suspension in an army court of inquiry. The case pertains to allegations of rape of a woman and her 10 year old daughter. Rehman was let off with a suspension with simple words like ‘misconduct’, not rape, not even molestation. These are typical cases of gender bias, reflecting the patriarchal nature of society and patriarchal nature of militarism, promoting a normalisation of a situation that is exceptional and abnormal. 

It is this patriarchal normalization of the stories of suffering, survival and resistance by women in conflict areas that must have inspired the mighty self styled godman, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, politically influential and owner of a spiritual corporate empire called Art of Living, to peevishly trivialize the efforts and struggles of another minor girl called Malala Yousufzai. No denying that most awards, Nobel inclusive, are often politicized and sometimes, perhaps ill-deserved. But is it a case of grapes are sour that the man who lapped up the highest Indian civilian honour ‘Padma Vibhushan’ and has on his list of Art of Living website scores of other awards has the temerity to say that he does not believe in honours and awards and that he had turned down the Nobel prize? His ‘bhakts’ are expected to believe that after his denial, the award landed in the lap of Malala who has made no contribution to society. Forget the hypocrisy of the ‘godman’, whose credibility is already severely under stress, after his vandalism of Yamuna banks for the sake of a spiritual extravaganza, his refusal to cough up the fine imposed on him by the court and for trying to grab some lime-light by entering on behalf of the entire world with the ISIS militia. Forget, even this bit of megalomania. The fundamentally unethical, peevish and patriarchal nature of his remarks reveal his insensitivity and his inability to understand what women living in conflict zones go through, what their day to day struggles are and how the very bid to survive with dignity is not an easy task. A young girl who braved all threats to carry on with her education and inspire many other girls in Swat, the hot-bed of Talibans, and was shot at is no ordinary girl and needs to be celebrated, far more than a man whose sole claim to fame is his ability to sell his packaged ‘spiritual happiness’, other than the hypocrisy he oozes with. 

This mindset that promotes a discourse of normalising the struggles and oppression of women unfortunately exists in the educated world. During the peak militancy years in the backward Surankote area of Poonch district, I encountered some men from the remote villages who had been partially dislocated due to fear of militants or security forces. They would go to their homes occasionally during the day but come back to town before dusk. The women folk of their family, however, continued to stay back to look after the homes and fields. I posed the question to them if women were not more vulnerable. Their prompt reply: "no what danger can women face?" Women’s struggles and suffering become invisible in the imagination of the people, whether it is the remote villages of Surankote or the ‘spiritual’ world of a self styled Guru with all his elitist education, political influence and his loads of money.

News Updated at : Sunday, May 8, 2016