THE OTHER HALF It’s easy to celebrate Mary Kom’s victory. But don’t ignore the ethnic conflicts plaguing the northeast.
Mary Kom is not from Assam. Amitabh Bachchan should have known that when he tweeted his congratulatory message. The whole of India knows now that she is from that small north-eastern state of Manipur. A state where the joy of one of their own doing so well at the Olympics erased only for a moment the daily reality of violent strife, of appalling infrastructure, of isolation.
Sadly, this joy did not penetrate the “relief” camps that have now sprung up all over another part of the northeast. Even as we celebrated Mary Kom’s victory, over four lakh people in lower Assam were forced to leave their homes as ethnic strife ravaged their region. It did not matter to which ethnic group they belonged.
The conditions into which they have been forced to seek refuge are equally unbearable — impossibly crowded camps, with the bare minimum of basic amenities like water and sanitation and practically no medical care. But they have no choice. Their only chance of staying alive is to continue to live within the confines of these camps. Those foolish enough to think otherwise have already paid with their lives.
The crisis in Assam should be on our front pages. It is something that should concern all of us, even if it is taking place in areas that appear out of reach to mainstream media. The repercussions of the violence in Assam are already being felt elsewhere, as in Mumbai last weekend where a protest about the ethnic strife escalated into a riot that the police controlled with difficulty. The situation in Assam should remind the rest of us in India that if we can so easily embrace the victorious Mary Kom as one of our own, then we should also share the pain of the millions of people living in the northeast whose lives are continuously shattered by strife.
The reports and photographs about Assam that have appeared tell only a part of the story. What they do not convey are the stories that are never recorded, because they are never articulated.
The face of the displaced person during such ethnic conflicts, where the beginning and the end of the conflict is not so simple to delineate, is more often than not that of a woman. Yet, much too often, this woman’s needs are not necessarily the central focus of the efforts being made to help the displaced. Most governments are notoriously gender-insensitive on this count.
This is not very different from what happens in other parts of the world where internally displaced populations — displaced due to war, internal conflict, or developmental projects — are forced into temporary camps. Eighty per cent of these displaced people are women and children.
Men are active in the conflict, and automatically take charge of the relief. Women and children are lumped together as the “vulnerable”. They are. But women have specific needs that must be addressed. They will not be recognised unless women are included in the managing of these camps. That rarely happens.
Newspapers have reported the shocking conditions in these so-called “relief” camps. Apart from the physical conditions, there is little medical care available. According to one report, there are over 4,000 pregnant women, but no gynaecologist. People, including little children, are dying of malaria and diarrhoea. The violence around the camps might spare them, but the disease will not.
When people are forced to leave their homes during internal conflict of the kind we are seeing in Assam today, a number of things happen. Entire villages run away. Often, the men send the women and children ahead but are killed before they can join them. In the camps you come across women who find themselves suddenly alone, heading their households at a time when they are least prepared, when their whole life has been turned upside down.
In such a situation, women are unlikely to come forward with their particular problems — such as for health interventions, or for safe sanitation facilities — unless specifically asked. In any case, they are rarely consulted. As a result, they silently bear the grief of losing a family member, the trauma of displacement and the challenge of survival in their new environment.
Even if everyone is equally affected in these camps, the set roles for men and women remain unchanged. Hence, the task of finding the food, cooking it, looking after the children and the elderly remains the primary responsibility of the women. Given these additional burdens, it is even more unlikely that they will volunteer an opinion unless specifically asked. An additional unspoken burden of displacement is the sexual violence many women encounter, within the camps and outside.
There is no real relief in these so-called “relief” camps, certainly not for the thousands of silent women, whose faces we see, but whose voices are muffled.