Urvashi Butalia is a feminist writer who provides below a
different view on India's involvement in war-fighting.  

Harsh Kapoor wrote:
The Little Magazine (India)
June 2000


by Urvashi Butalia

        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 peace-keeping 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).

One of the three, 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.

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.

War and conflict are everywhere: in the media, in films, in shops
which sell 'Kargil suits' for young boys

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 fašade 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.

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'.

The 'compensation' she was given by the militants turned out to be a
bagful of paper with a few currency notes on top

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 278,000 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

For the most part, narratives of war and conflict represent
a rather one-sided reality - as if only men are affected or concerned

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?

Titles reviewed:

*       Guns and Yellow Roses: Essays on the Kargil War;
HarperCollins; New Delhi: 1999
*       On the Abyss: Pakistan After the Coup; HarperCollins; New Delhi:
*       Weapons of Peace: The Secret Story of India's Quest to be a
Nuclear Power , by Raj Chengappa; HarperCollins; New Delhi: 2000
*       India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation, by
George Perkovich; Oxford University Press; New Delhi: 2000
*       South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future
of Global Disarmament, by Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik; Oxford
University Press; New Delhi: 2000

Urvashi Butalia is a writer and co-founder of Kali, India's first
feminist publishing house. She lives in New Delhi.