Victims of war, apostles of peace

As victims of genocide of different forms tell their stories, they bring out a new history of the oppression of body of the women as the common refrain of genocidal actions in the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet, their message is one of peace as opposed to war and violence that emanates from present day leaders.

Updated - March 28, 2016 06:43 pm IST

Published - November 26, 2015 04:06 am IST

Sometimes as you read a newspaper, you stop to ask yourself: “What is an event? What is the news that demands reportage and storytelling?” When you glance at this week’s news, the Islamic State makes the headlines in France. The Bihar election and its aftermath claim several pages of ponderous prose. Barcelona beating Real Madrid has equal claims to space. Yet many events receive no mention, not even a footnote.

Shiv Visvanathan

Last week in Bangalore, Women in Black, an international group, held a seminar, creating a circle of witnesses talking of genocide and there was almost no news coverage about the event. Women from 30 countries spoke as witnesses about what it meant to live through an act of genocide, holding an audience of college students spellbound, and yet the city and the nation were untouched by the event. Story cascaded on story as the testimonies of pain and resistance built up but the next day’s news carried no reference to it, no item of gossip, not even a footnote. I was amazed at the silence; in fact the indifference of the city as the storytelling of the sufferers held one spellbound.

Intriguing silence

India’s indifference to genocide requires interrogation. Our government will wax rhetorical and behave piously about terror in Pakistan and Paris but its silence on genocide is intriguing. This is odd as India, rather the Indian nation state, was built on the back of two genocidal events: Partition, which inaugurated the nation states of India and Pakistan, and the brutal Bengal famine. Partition and the violence that followed claimed 1.6 million people and displaced 23 million people, and the Bengal famine eliminated an estimated 3 million people. There was no Nuremberg where the British stood trial for the mass murder of 3 million; in fact there is little memory despite the fact that the famine set the stage for planning in India. A country which was created by two genocides should have some monuments or mnemonics for them and yet India proceeds indifferently.

I sat in the college auditorium listening to the women talk. Many were frighteningly young, some older, all spoke without rancour, talked of rape, homelessness and violence that never seems to end. They were women from Armenia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, women from Bosnia, Rwanda. Rape was the warp of all the narratives. Genocide seemed to love the rituals of rape as its accompaniment.

An Afghan woman spoke of how rape pollutes the woman. She spoke of how the raped woman is associated by her family with an act of shame and is often killed by her family. An Iraqi scholar spoke of how the United States, under the pretext of fighting tyranny, is literally evacuating Iraq and emptying Syria of their top professionals, their creative middle class so that resistance to further violence can be numbed. The rituals of evacuation add a new methodology to the technologies of genocide.

Witnesses from Kashmir and Nagaland talk of what years of internal war have done to the women, of the genocidal effects of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. They talk of Irom Sharmila and the mothers of Manipur, of how women, mothers all over the world, used their very nakedness and vulnerability as a sign of protest. A friend talked about how there are 800,000 trauma cases in Kashmir annually and the listener had to wonder as to what India as a civilisation actually meant. The women spoke passionately but reasonably. Their testimony of pain slowly evolved into a testament of their courage and resistance.

As one listened to these tales, the names added on to become an incessant roll-call of mass murder: Armenia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and soon I realised that a new history of the body was being written. The body becomes the centre of 20th and 21st century history and the destruction of the collective body politic. The rape, the mutilation, the torture of the woman’s body seem to be a constant refrain of genocidal societies.

Yet these were not just a repetition of stories. The nuances changed and one could realise the innovative nature of genocide. In the 1930s, such acts of mass murder were without a label and Winston Churchill described them as “crimes without a name.” A Polish Jew, a one-time student of Philology, coined the term “genocide.” The term was a legalistic one and referred to nations that eliminate a people for being just that. Raphael Lemkin’s idea referred more to the violence of war and the nation state, where a nation used its sovereignty to eliminate populations rather than build schools and houses.

Today, genocide has gone beyond war and the nation state because collective violence and mass elimination go beyond war to other forms of elimination. Today, certain forms of development have become a continuation of war by other means. Development as an antiseptic, technical project can be as genocidal as war, and as disruptive of everyday life. India, which once dreamt the Nehruvian dream of dams as the temples of modern India, now has over 40 million refugees from dam displacement. India ironically has more refugees from dams than the wars we have fought and yet we treat development as an immaculate conception.

Usually genocide is understood in terms of statistics but as Albert Camus once observed statistics do not bleed. But concepts are worse. They look antiseptic but are, in fact, genocidal. Their indiscriminate use can eliminate populations, leaving cultures and nature devastated. In fact, the irony increases when we realise that riots today are the sudden biggest source of displacement dislocating over 8 million people. The genocidal count of violence outside war is awesome. One has to add the levels of female foeticide. Today it is estimated at 500,000 annually. The statistical story that numbers tell is frightening. The body counts in India turn genocidal without war. One needs a concept of genocide that goes beyond war and looks at collective violence in a more complex way. We have to realise that social science concepts need a genocidal quotient, an account of the number of people they can eliminate. There is no innocence to academic or policy knowledge and there is no value neutrality either.

Stark contrast

As one listened to the women speaking about their experiences, one could not but contrast the Modis, Obamas, Hollandes with the story of witnesses. The women spoke of families, of resistance, and sang songs of solidarity. They insisted on storytelling and memory. Our leaders talk of security and order, of punitive wars. They offer violence as a response while the women talk of non-violence. The contrast is stark. It reminds one of the great words of the UNESCO charter. If war began in the minds of men, then the defence of peace must be constructed in the minds of men. The women give it a gendered twist suggesting that if war began in the minds of men, “the defence of peace must be constructed in the minds of women.” It is almost as if nations and security-obsessed leaders do not have time for the sanity of these voices as France explodes and Syria disintegrates. They also add that security and governmental responses to terror banalise our reactions to genocide turning it into an everyday, acceptable affair.

Yet the message of these women needs to be listened to. They are suggesting that the official answer to genocide, the security discourse, is inadequate. It leaves nations, corporations, warlords and even the security discourse untainted. It is ordinary people, NGOs, women’s groups, spiritual leaders, trade unions like SEWA, ecology forums dreaming sustainability that have to lead the new discourses on peace. Peace is more than the absence of war and a theory of non-violence has to produce more innovative sites than the Silicon Valley.

The day’s proceedings made me realise that India has talked too much of war, security, development and terror and has no proactive theory of peace. It is almost as if the new managerialism and the machismo of our technical elites see peace as a passive endeavour. Women in Black and other peace endeavours seek to put peace back on the agenda. All they have is their body, their silence, their voice appealing to the world to listen to the voices of sanity and peace. It is time India listened and responded to them.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

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