Under the gun

Print edition : April 28, 2017

Manipuri women celebrating Irom Sharmila having completed 10 years of her fast against the AFSPA, in Imphal on November 5, 2010. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The essays in the book reflect women’s lived realities under state terror, bearing witness to the lasting impact of militarisation on society.

PART reportage, part analysis, Garrisoned Minds is a moving and dignified anthology of essays on the impact of militarisation on women’s lives. The 11 essays in the collection combine journalism and research to portray evocatively the brutalities which women across the subcontinent are exposed to in hostile situations.

Compiled by Mitu Varma of the organisation Panos South Asia and Laxmi Murthy of the magazine Himal Southasian, the essays track the lives of women in four conflict zones: Pakistan’s frontier provinces, which share a border with Afghanistan; Nepal, during and after its decade-long civil war; north-eastern India, under the shadow of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA); and the Kashmir Valley, with its overwhelming presence of the Indian Army. Each essay is preceded by an introduction that provides the political background.

For years now, women’s lives have been turned upside down in these militarised zones, and yet they have remained resilient under the most trying circumstances. They are “ordinary women carrying out extraordinary acts, going about the daily business of survival, displaying superhuman strength in countering a mighty military juggernaut”, Laxmi Murthy explains in the introduction. The book is both an anthropological sketch and a political statement by people who have lost everything, some of them so helpless that memorialising becomes the only way they can get some semblance of a life.


In the heart-wrenching essay “From Ghunghroos to Gunshots”, Farzana Ali, the Peshawar bureau chief of the private television channel Aaj News, recalls the story of Shabana, a 25-year-old dancer who was dragged out of her home and killed in cold blood in the town square, which later came to be known as Khooni Chowk (Bloody Square). Her bullet-ridden body was a gory warning from the Taliban to the people of Banr Bazaar in Mingora City, for whom dance and music had been a part of daily life for many decades. But the killing of Shabana and other cultural artists put a decisive end to the tradition of openness and diversity that used to be the hallmark of the picturesque Swat Valley. Even after the military pushed back the extremists, the performers were not given protection. The authorities, instead, yielded to the Taliban’s demands, and the erstwhile dignity of the artists turned into shame as connoisseurs of art became “customers” and the sounds of music were replaced by those of jackboots in the streets.

In “No Woman’s Land”, Shazia Irram Gul of Radio Pakistan weaves a devastating narrative of women displaced from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and living in refugee camps. For the women of FATA access to justice is rare because they suffer human rights abuses by the armed forces and the Taliban and because of the lack of education, resources and gender parity in their own communities. As far as these women were concerned, the Taliban exacerbated an already bad situation and the military fuelled displacements with routine house raids, air strikes, curfews and targeted killings. The central issue of each woman’s narrative was that of loss: of home, family and livestock. “The stress of a major loss quickly depletes energies and emotional reserves. Unresolved grief can lead to depression and anxiety, which is very common among these women,” said Naleum Ali, a psychologist at a camp.

India is one of the world’s top spenders on defence, which makes it one of the most militarised zones in the subcontinent, ahead of Pakistan, which ranks 27th. While China’s military spending amounts to 2.1 per cent of its gross domestic product, India’s is 2.4 per cent. As in other parts of the world, in India, too, increased militarisation is the result of an aggressive patriotism and a response to the anxieties of nation-building. As the nation is created and reinforced, women’s bodies become arenas of violent struggle and they are humiliated, tortured, raped and murdered. As the military is increasingly used within the country’s borders for domestic repression, women are directly pitted against the authoritarian state.

Providing the political context to the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, Siddiq Wahid, historian and Founding Vice Chancellor of the Islamic University of Science & Technology, Awantipora, foregrounds the Kashmiri perspective, explaining how in the post-Independence period the state dealt with democratic dissent through increasing mobilisation of military power instead of dialogue and discussion.

In “Widowhood of Shame”, Shazia Yousuf, born and brought up in Srinagar, throws light on a rarely discussed topic: the widows of Ikhwanis. The Ikhwan is a militia comprising surrendered militants who collaborate with the Indian Army to demolish militancy in Kashmir for the promise of money or a job or security for their families after their death, a pledge that was not kept. The women, who had no role to play in their husbands joining the Ikhwan, were shunned by their own community and spent the rest of their lives in isolation, grief and shame.

In “Shadows of a Dark Night”, the Srinagar-based journalist Zahid Rafiq talks about rape as an instrument of war by revisiting the mass rapes in the adjoining villages of Kunan-Poshpora. Women, including a 13-year-old and an 80-year-old grandmother, were gang-raped by Indian soldiers as the men of the villages were taken away for an all-night interrogation. With the exception of the Deputy Commissioner of the district, S.M. Yasin, who wrote to his higher-ups saying that the Army men had behaved like violent beasts, everybody else —from Wajahat Habibullah (Divisional Commissioner Kashmir) to the Press Council of India committee that looked into the Army’s actions —tried to cover up or deny that the crime had ever taken place. The women fought not only a system stacked against them but also the stigma attached to them and their villages. Even in instances where the victim identified the rapist, sanction for prosecution under the AFSPA was not given.

While the State government doles out ex-gratia relief when a civilian is killed or a house is burnt down, the other arms of the State would keep denying that such a crime has taken place. “Such contradictions of the Indian state abound in Kashmir and it is not a coincidence, but a strategy,” said Khurram Parvez, an activist with the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, who was arrested for raising human rights issues that made the establishment uncomfortable.

Sexual violence has also been used routinely as a tool for subjugation of people in north-eastern India. The journalist Thingnam Anjulika Samom shows how given the stigma around sexual violence as well as structural impunity for perpetrators, few cases have been successfully prosecuted, and fewer victims have received justice. Yirmiyan Arthur Yhome takes readers on a journey through the Naga hills, uncovering the horror stories that passed from generation to generation and became community memory. Women here become symbols of resistance as “they wave the white flag; walk through jungles to negotiate with hostile armed militia; strip naked to expose the brutality of the Indian Army; weave shawls to commemorate a young woman whose life was snuffed out in the grandiose project of ‘national security’; demand to know where the state has forcibly disappeared their husbands and sons; and go on a fast for the repeal of a draconian security law”.


In the essays from Nepal, the journalists Deepak Adhikari, Sewa Bhattarai and Darshan Karki discuss women’s roles in the Maoist insurgency by profiling combatants and political workers such as Kushal Rakhya, Anoopam, Comrade Namuna and Dharamsheela Chapagain and exploring their convictions in their political beliefs and their role in the post-conflict scenario.

The essays in this book reflect the lived reality under state terror, bearing witness to the deep and lasting impact of militarisation on society. They decry the collective dehumanisation that communities under continued repression suffer.

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