Lived Experiences: Impact of Conflict on Women
While all these were happening, the Naga women were still trying to make sense of the conflict. Nira Yuval-Davis once stated that women have a dualistic relationship with the state: “On the one hand women are always included, at least to some extent, in the general body of citizens of the state and its social, political and legal policies; on the other – there is always, at least to a certain extent, a separate body of legislation which relates to them specifically as women.”22In the case of Nagaland such dualistic nature of women’s engagements with the national and ethnic collectivities led to further discrimination against them. The situation of women in Northeast India shows that in times of crisis women are controlled/victimized not merely by power structures from outside but also by power structures/systems of their own communities. AFSPA is often used as an excuse to rape and brutalize women who appear non-conforming. Unless there is an effort to change such structures/systems with gender-just policies it will only result in cosmetic changes. Feminist interventions in security discourse have helped us in widening the paradigm of “security” measures to be taken in conflict zones. Conflict zones, as we are all aware, produce and reproduce hierarchies instead of resolving tensions. Testimonies bear evidence to the multi-layered gendered nature of violence, physical, emotional and social. They also uncover women’s overarching desire to survive. In the Northeast, the state has often appealed to women to be agents of peace reasserting their role as mothers and sisters. The testimonies below reveal some of the contradictions of the women’s movements and also highlight how women’s political engagement either in democratic political institutions or voluntary organizations provides the scope to bring in their perspective in managing conflict situations and carries the possibility of transgressing stereotypes which often centers on the control over sexuality. Given below are testimonies of Naga women living in Nagaland or Manipur.
I was born after World War II. The Naga Insurgency began during our childhood. When we were in primary schools, we were frightened from all corners. There were frequent encounters between Naga UGs and ARs. Most of the parents warned their children that when you hear gunshots you have to roll down. If Army comes you must not talk too much. For a long time parents advised us to keep our essential commodities ready as at any moment we had to hide in paddy fields. No free movement was allowed in Ukhrul. Ukhrul was declared a disturbed area under AFSPA. My father was called by the Army because he was found in possession of a country-made rifle (licensed). He was a government employee in the Health Department. I was in class two when this incident happened. The court case continued for two-three years and my parents spent all their earnings on this case. Government of India has ignored our area as it is a border district. There is hardly any development at all.
In 2004-2005 I personally met some of the key persons of UG groups and urged them to stop killing. It is important to internationalize our women’s body of Naga women. We need to form a network of Naga and Manipuri women. Women should come out and talk to their respective groups and bring the UG groups on the same platform to enter into dialogue so that we could achieve our larger goals.23
In another instance another woman stated:
We are three sisters. My father was a head teacher. My father was taken away to a detention centre in the month of July-August 1990 with 13 men, of which 12 men were detained for three days and my father detained for 5 days. Army grouping was a common feature. Whenever we heard the noise of the “vehicles” we ran away. We used to shout uniform is here and we would rush back to our homes. Our culture does not treat us as equals. It is with great difficulty I could inherit some property after I fought for my case in Tanghkul Naga Long Court. Our culture does not accept women to take up decision-making roles.24
In another testimony a woman gave a slightly brighter picture:
My husband died in January 2006 in a firing. He went out of the house saying he would be getting money from the bills of his contract work. My house is at Thongu Part II close to Manipur University. I made no demand for ex-gratia. I had never worked before my husband’s death as he never allowed me to go outside though I was always interested in social work. I made no demand for ex-gratia. What would I have done with ex-gratia? After I became a Gram Panchayat member, all eyes are on me. I am now a public face. People come to me with appeals of funds release for NREGS jobs card, allocations, pay etc. BPL cards do not even reach people. Women should be encouraged to take part in decision-making process. I have set an example, people say. When I go for Sports Meet and share the dais with other members they always point towards me. I feel proud when I hear words of appreciation from school children.25
All these testimonies are rife with tales of how women struggle to create pockets of normalcy for themselves and their family and continue their everyday lives and keep their hope for a better future alive. They also show that women’s struggle is never on one front. They battle not just armed violence but also a society that is bent on devaluing their presence and their contributions. They fight against traditions that is bent on marginalizing them and all of these they do in course of their everyday lives. Women have been marginalized within their own ethnic groups and they are constantly fighting for their socio-economic and political rights. Gender is one of the most important cross-cutting issues that work across ethnicity (and race). Thus, the conflicts produced by gendered forms of violence never cease to end. Gender-based violence, particularly reported incidents of “rape” and sexual abuse, has been on the rise in all conflicts in the last few decades. Our research in Northeast India shows how gendered violence has almost become mundane in its everyday occurrence. One particular incident highlights how lightly such incidents of violence against women are taken by the local police who are meant to work as custodians for protection of women. The Telegraph reported that on 27 August 2007, four college students abducted a pregnant woman from Showuba village near Dimapur after assaulting her husband. The woman was then raped in a moving Maruti Swift car. The four youths were arrested after a case against them was filed at a local police station. Reportedly they were all in their early twenties. Showuba Village Council court tried them and let them off after imposing a fine on them of Rs 15 each. The Nagaland Women’s Commission and various other civil society organizations were critical about this decision. A rally organized on 4 September 2008 was reportedly attended by 10,000 people from various Naga organizations which included Naga Hoho, Gaonburahs and Dobashis Joint Forum, Dimapur Naga Students Union, Western Sumi Hoho and various other organizations cutting across tribal boundaries. This portrayed an interesting phenomenon about Naga women. The more traditions failed them the more they were willing to invoke modern modes of redress and carry the community with them. This flexibility of the Naga women enabled them to ally with the state when all other forms of redress failed. This alliance for justice proved extremely effective as it also contributed towards peace.
Traditional Form of Women’s Activism in Nagaland
In most of the Northeast, women are marginalized in institutional politics and so in the traditional framework women’s activism for peace acquires great political value and gives legitimacy to their other struggles. Even in Nagaland, women hardly ever figure in electoral politics and their only one Lok Sabha member was Rano Shaiza. Electoral politics in the Northeast is thus completely dominated by men. They dominate the seats of power. Sometimes women are given token representation but very often they become invisible. According to Aparna Mahanta, this exclusion of women from electoral politics is a “deliberate exclusion” imposed on them by the men. Thus electoral politics has in no way empowered women in the Northeast rather it has led to their further marginalization. However, there are other areas in the public sphere where women have created spaces for negotiation. It is in the politics for peace that they are able to negotiate some spaces of action. The peace movements when not led by women are overwhelmingly supported by them. Women dominate the peace movements in sheer numbers.
Women also often make strategic use of gender roles to enter the masculinized space of conflict. Motherhood can be viewed as such a strategy. Various women’s organizations have played a key role in translating their “traditional” roles as “mothers” to social and political agents and have successfully used the social sanction of being a “protector” that “motherhood” offers. “Motherhood” has been time and again evoked to challenge the masculinist discourse of nationhood. The image of “motherhood” and “nation-building” can be seen as problematic because most of the debates centre around “natural”, innate qualities of women as mothers and often challenge the feminist discourse where “motherhood” is seen as performative; a product. It is important to see what roles are used for peace-making. Most of the feminist writings on Mother’s Groups have been critical about the stance of the groups where women’s political negotiation in a conflict situation is drawn from her “emotional” attachment as mothers to sons and daughters who have died. According to Malathi de Alwis, by appealing as mothers, the state-defined role for women, they reveal the contradictions between the state’s own rhetoric and practices. In her discussion on Mother’s Front, de Alwis argues that “by appealing for a return to the ‘natural’ order of family and motherhood, these women were openly embracing patriarchal stereotypes that primarily defined them through familial/domestic subject positions such as wife and mother”. Through this acceptance, she argues, they were revealing the transgression of the state that otherwise valorizes women as mothers were now “denying women opportunities for mothering, through a refusal to acknowledge life by resorting to clandestine tactics of disappearance”.26 Why then do so many women use “motherhood” to enter peace politics? This is because it is regarded as one of the “tolerated” space of protest by women. Once entering the masculine space of conflict how well women subvert it to build solidarities is portrayed by women’s activism for peace in Northeast India.
The most notable of the Naga women’s peace groups are the Naga Mothers Association (NMA) and they been very active in the politics for peace in Northeast India. The NMA has rendered valuable service for the cause of peace. It came into existence on 14 February 1984, with a preamble that stated, “Naga mothers of Nagaland shall express the need of conscientizing citizens toward more responsible living and human development through the voluntary organization of the Naga Mother’s Association.”27 Membership of NMA is open to any adult Naga women irrespective of whether she is married or single. Members can join through the women’s organizations of their own tribes. The organization encourages human development through education and tries to eradicate social evils and economic exploitation and work towards peace and progress. It mediated between the Government of Nagaland and the Naga Student’s Federation over age limit for jobs and came to an equitable settlement. An achievement of NMA is the formation of the Peace Team in October 1994 to confront the deteriorating political situation. Their theme was “Shed No More Blood”. NMA spoke against killings not only by the army but also by the militants. In a pamphlet released on 25 May 1995, the representatives of NMA wrote that “the way in which our society is being run whether by the overground government or the underground government, have become simply intolerable”. NMA celebrates the 12th of May each year as Mother’s Day and renews their appeal for peace. Apart from peace initiatives, NMA has worked for social regeneration. In Nagaland, there is rampant abuse of alcohol and drug. The NMA provides facilities for de-addiction. They collaborate with the Kripa foundation of Mumbai for rehabilitation of drug doers. NMA has also started anonymous HIV testing. They are probably the first women’s organization in the Northeast to test pregnant women for HIV virus. NMA is providing pioneering service for care of patients afflicted with AIDS. An important issue that is preoccupying the doctors of NMA is the increase in HIV positive cases among pregnant women. NMA’s greatest achievement is that most Naga women’s organizations are its collaborators. The members of NMA also collaborate with the Naga Women’s Union of Manipur. The rallies organized by NMA are always well attended by other Naga women’s organizations. NMA traditionally worked very closely with the Naga Hohos, which in recent years have somewhat changed. That NMA has assumed enormous influence in Naga politics is borne out by the fact that they are the only women’s group in South Asia who has participated in a ceasefire negotiation. In 1997, they mediated between the Indian government and the NSCN (IM) faction and facilitated a ceasefire. NMA has always shown its commitment to peace by participating in all kinds of community dialogues on peace within and outside the region. They went to Sri Lanka in 2001 under a CRG-WISCOMP initiative to urge peace in that island. They trekked to Myanmar to discuss inter-ethnic peace with Khaplang. They even went to the UN to deliberate on peace. They are now recognized as one of the most legitimate women’s peace group in the region.
From this short analysis it becomes apparent that women’s groups such as NMA who have a broader definition of peace are more successful than those who think that peace is only an end to armed conflict. These groups believe that peace can be achieved through dialogue and political negotiation. They believe that only military solutions cannot bring peace. They work towards the betterment of their own society and in this way they equate peace with justice and development. They feel that peace is possible only if there is good governance. Apart from NMA, there are other organizations such as the Tangkhul Shanao Long (TSL) who work towards peace. As its very name suggests, this is the women’s organization of the Tangkhul tribe. TSL was formed on 8 May 1974 as a platform to safeguard the rights, modesty and dignity of the women. On 3 March 1974, a number of women of Grihang and Kumram (Ngaprum) were sexually assaulted by BSF personnel. Among the rape victims was Ms. N.S. Rose of Ngaprum (now Kunmram). She committed suicide. As P. Veronica Zinkhai (1996) states, “This was only one out of the many incidents in which security forces had behaved towards Naga women like beasts. Realizing that unless a platform of women is formed the same torture, harassment, assault etc. would continue in the days and years to come.” Initially TSL was known was East District Women Organization. While membership comes from every village, the main concentration is in Ukhrul and Senapati districts. The head office is in Ukhrul Headquarters. TSL have been instrumental in lobbying against human rights violation in the Hill districts. On 9 May 1994 when AR fired at random, killing three people, destroying property, etc; TSL took a leading role in organizing the biggest ever rally in Manipur on 2 June 1994 which was attended by activists from valley and hill districts. “With the initiative of TSL the Naga Women Union of Manipur first met at Kohima on 4 December 1993 (Naga week 1-5 December 1993) then at Imphal on 7 January 1994, which resolved to form a union. TSL apart from lobbying against AFSPA and atrocities by the security forces have launched a struggle against illegal liquor sale, human trafficking and drug peddling. The two village units in Shirui and Lunghar of TSL have been instrumental in redefining peace and conflict prevention.
Shirui siege (19 January-2 February 2009)
Shirui village is located about 13 km away from the district headquarter of Ukhrul. It is a popular trekking destination and is famous for the world famous Shirui Lily. According to Sorin, President, Shirui Shanao Long, “NSCN (IM) cadres stayed in the Government Tourist Lodge within the village for almost two years. We had no idea that NSCN (IM) cadres were not allowed to stay here.”28 Incidentally, there are three camps in Manipur for NSCN (IM) one each in Tamenglong, Chandel and Senapati districts. On 19 January 2009 reportedly at around 2 am the villagers realized that 17 Assam Rifles had laid siege to the village with jawans surrounding the camp and the village. Their main objective, as Sorin states, was to pull out the NSCN cadres located in the periphery of the village. The women and men met in the community hall of the village and the women decided to act as a barrier between the army and the NSCN camp. They formed human shields between the army and the cadres as the army insisted on pulling out the cadres through repeated announcements on 20 January 2009. Assam Rifles had erected barbed wire fences around the camp and water supply to the camp was snapped. As Sorin recalls, “We braved the cold winter and kept a vigil near the main thoroughfare fearing every moment that there might be a shootout. Around 2,000 women had taken part in the vigil from 20 January-2 February 2009. We took turns to keep a vigil. We walked up and down from the tourist lodge to the village five to seven times. For the first two days only women from Shirui participated in the daylong vigil; later women from other villages also participated. We made repeated appeals to the Indian Army to withdraw to avoid conflict.”
Other than women’s peace groups in Nagaland there are Naga women’s peace groups in Manipur. The Naga Women Union of Manipur (NWUM) is the foremost among them. NWUM organized the first meeting to form a union on 7 January 1994. The union comprises all the organizations of the Naga tribes of Manipur. It came into effective on 5 October 1994 with the approval and adoption of its constitution during the first assembly-cum-seminar held on 4 and 5 October 1994 at Ukhrul. Gina Sanghkham, president of NWUM, pointed out that it is a membership-based organization and unlike other women’s organizations it has been able to address the disabilities women face in their own customary laws in relation to inheritance, participation in the village council and has encouraged electoral participation of women. Aram Pamei (1997) in the report presented in the 4th Annual Assembly, October 10-12 1997, emphasized the non-violent means that NWUM would employ to resolve the Naga-Kuki conflict. To heighten awareness, the union undertook peace campaigns by conducting seminars in different localities with the support of the Fraternal Green Cross and Legal Education and Aid Society. The report also mentions the willingness of NWUM to work with their Kuki sisters to resolve conflict. NWUM has been also engaged in on-the-spot fact-finding investigations with other member groups involved in human rights issues, particularly Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR). NWUM in this report also extended support to the women candidates contesting in the Lok Sabha elections to uphold the rights and dignity of the women and for equality. The union says that “by custom whether it is in the general administration of the village or in the administration of justice, there is nothing which denies women’s participation. The Union wishes to claim that this custom of the Nagas should be made to be seen by including women as their representatives to their respective village councils”. NWUM also demanded equal wage for men and women and equal inheritance rights to both movable and immovable properties for both male and female children. NWUM clearly approaches the securitization of rights of women from a different paradigm which ensures and encourages women’s participation in decision-making level right from the village council to the Lok Sabha. Grace Shatsung, president, NWUM, 29 and Gina Sangkham, 30 former president, NWUM, also said that there have been efforts by North East Network through peace workshops to bring all the groups under one platform. There is much need for a sustained effort to stand up for the rights of women in all levels.
The traditional form of women’s activism was undertaken in certain particular ways. None of these women’s groups worked for issues that seemed relevant only for women. They may have been concerned about women’s rights or gender roles in society but that was not the focus of their campaigns. Their campaign issues were larger political and human rights issues. Their mode of campaigning was also different in the sense that it was all about building solidarities. They inevitably worked with other groups and solidarities such as the human rights groups, student groups, the HoHos, etc. They did not believe in going it alone. For them the larger adversary was the state. Their contest was usually with the state or state-like structures. Therefore, they tried to keep social tensions to a minimum. Much of their activism was in the realm of state-versus-community conflicts. They critiqued most types of developmental projects as foreign and refused to participate in the project of making India. But that could be changed with a long ceasefire, receding memory of conflict and coming of age of another generation. By the new millennium probably Nagaland was ready for such a change. But for now they had to contend with the realities of conflict.
*The paper is written by Paula Banerjee and Ishita Dey.
* Paula Banerjee is a Member of CRG and Associate Professor of Calcutta University. Ishita Dey is also a member of CRG and Ph.D. student of Delhi University.
*The paper was first published July 2012
(Courtesy: Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group- www.mcrg.ac.in)
22 Nira Yuval-Davis, “Gender and Nation,” in Robert L. Miller and Rick Wilford eds. Women Ethnicity and Nationalism: The Politics of Transition (Routledge, London and New York, 1998), p. 27.
23Janeth Hungyo, Ex- Executive Member of TSL 1974-1982; Focus group discussion on 13 June 2009
24 (Name not disclosed as per request) Ukhrul Town FGD, 13 June 2009.
25( Name not disclosed as per request); Gram Panchayat Member, Imphal District in a interview on during the Capacity building workshop organized by WAD in Imphal on 17 June 2009.
26 Malathi di Alwis, “Motherhood as a Space of Protest: Women’s Political Participation in Contemporary Sri Lanka,” in Paula Banerjee ed, Women in Peace Politics (Sage, New Delhi, 2008)
27Constitution of the Naga Mother’s Association, Reprinted in Kohima, 1992.
28 Interview with Sorin, President, Tangkhul Shanao Long, Shirui Village, Ukhrul District.
29 Grace Shatsung expressed her views in the focus group discussion at NWUM office on 12 June 2009
30 Interview with the author on 11 June 2009
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