Transcending borders and boundaries

NEW DELHI,26/01/2020: Protest against CAB,CAA and NRC during Republic Day at Shaheen Bagh , in New Delhi on Sunday . Photo:Sushil Kumar Verma / The Hindu

NEW DELHI,26/01/2020: Protest against CAB,CAA and NRC during Republic Day at Shaheen Bagh , in New Delhi on Sunday . Photo:Sushil Kumar Verma / The Hindu | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

The domains of peacebuilding and protest are ordinarily seen as occupying separate and discrete worlds. Yet in the women’s movements in South Asia, beginning with the 1980s but more visibly in the 1990s, these became increasingly intertwined as scholars and activists forged synergies and cross-border solidarities.

Feminist icon Kamla Bhasin, who passed away in September, substantially contributed to this denouement. She invested her unique creative energy towards transcending borders and boundaries, past monocultures of the mind that reinforce stereotypes, mistrust and militarism, and reflect the cartographic anxieties of nation states.

Bhasin famously said, “ Main sarhad par khadi deewar nahi, us deewar par padi daraar hoon [I am not the wall that stands at the border, I am the crack in that wall]” . This captured the spirit with which women conflict “resolutionaries” in South Asia, often in the face of stiff opposition, bricolaged around cordons of territoriality to join forces and mobilise across fault lines of country, caste, religion, class and gender.

The recognition that women across South Asia face a continuum of violence — both structural and overt — as they confront the patriarchies of the family, the community and the state, and “the complicities between them”, sustained networks unfettered by national identities.

Bhasin’s book with Ritu Menon, Borders and Boundaries , and Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence , both published in the 1990s, were path-breaking in their accounts of the narratives of pain, loss, displacement and violence that the Partition of India had wrought on women on both sides of the border and the similarity of their experiences. These works revealed how community and even national honour were inscribed on the bodies of women and the gendered nature of citizenship. It triggered explorations around what country, religious identity or even nation really meant for women. It also opened the space for research and activism that interrogated the “sanctity of borders”.

Singular experiences

Several ethnographic narratives that gave voice to the singular experiences of women in situations of conflict — in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan — added to the repertoire, enabling civil society transversal engagements across South Asia around the issues of justice, rights, patriarchy, militarisation and nuclearisation.

Through periods of adversarial face-offs between different Governments and their neighbours — especially between India and Pakistan — feminists like Bhasin were hard at work to ensure that people-to-people contact and a form of public diplomacy sustained dialogue and nurtured synergies. Whether they drew on the theoretical articulations of “track two” (coined by Joseph V. Montville in 1981) or “multi-track diplomacy” is difficult to establish. At any rate, this “diplomacy” eschewed Henry Wotton’s prescription of “lying abroad for one’s country”. It was clearly about collectively speaking truth to power.

With women in the lead, initiatives like the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in Pakistan that reached out to their sisters in Bangladesh to apologise for the atrocities of the Pakistan army in 1971; the Women’s Peace Bus undertaken by the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WIPSA) from Delhi to Lahore in 2000 to demand a war-free and nuclear-free South Asia; Women in Security Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP) bringing young South Asians together in workshops on conflict transformation; the Women’s Regional Network (WRN) with its sustained anti-militarisation and human rights campaigns; and Sangat with its innovative regional gender training conclaves, to name a few, persevered with the mission to expand constituencies for peace.

In recent decades, South Asia has been witness to collectives of “disobedient women” expressing peace and defying state-centric notions of security and order. They have been visible in the mother’s movements in Sri Lanka, Didi Bahini in Nepal, the Thappa Force in the “ Malki ya Maut [ownership or death]” farmers struggle in Pakistan, and in the Chipko, Narmada, Bhopal and Kudankulam movements in India. Demonstrations like the Meira Paibis (women with torches) in Manipur, the congregation of women at Shaheen Bagh and the farmers’ protests are also part of these traditions of dissent.

Drawing from the experience of activists like Bhasin of making a woman’s place “in the resistance”, these movements have largely entered the peacebuilding arena through the corridors of human security — voicing democracy and reclaiming citizenship.

Core of their engagement

Highlighting the tensions between people’s security and what often passes as national security, opposition to war and the cultures of militarism have been at the core of their engagement. Foregrounded is also the need to link issues of peace and security to development in order to address the structural causes of violent conflict.

Feminist scholars have often made the connections between the formal security discourse and certain types of hegemonic masculinity, and how policy priorities and (techno) strategic discourse are skewed to preserve power hierarchies nationally, within the international system and the world economic order. For them, the “rational” calculus of power, so characteristic of international realpolitik, cannot be “redeemed” to serve peace.

Women’s movements have interrogated the conventional peace metaphor of the figure in white, passively holy or wholly passive. To wage conflict non-violently, transgressing received notions of security, in their everyday resistances against injustices and oppressive socio-political institutions to build structural peace, has been their clarion call.

The feminist “weapons” they bring to their engagement blend the cerebral, the celebratory and the performative. Bhasin herself, with her extraordinary communication skills, drew in large numbers of young enthusiasts, “deploying” slogans and art, music and humour, making her succinct, accessible primers on gender, patriarchy and peace resonate across groups, while unpacking the most complex of feminist concepts.

This peace praxis with dissent and non-violent activism at its core that connected the personal with the political, often uses spectacular forms of protest and brings everyday artefacts from women’s private sphere like children’s toys, diapers, rolling pins, clothing, veils and sometimes even female bodies into the public space, similar to what Mahatma Gandhi did with khadi and salt. These forms of protest draw seamlessly from the collective global palimpsest of feminist activism chiselled by women the world over.

Feminist peace activists today recognise that the search for common ground involves acknowledging differences while building on commonalities. Women’s experiences of conflict and violence are mediated by their “location” and the intersectionality of caste, class, region, religion and gender. Even as women “speak” in the language of inclusion and connectedness, they are not a homogenous category with one identity that trumps all other affiliations. This poses a special challenge in mobilising for peace.

Bhasin’s genius lay in her ability to work past these different fault lines and build diverse coalitions and communities of practice — from grassroots workers to minorities, men and boys, Dalits, academics, students and international networks. Her signature tune, “ Azaadi [freedom]”, also called out the “other walls” — psychological barriers of suspicion, fear, deception, and above all an “othering” that can be countered only by “stepping into the shoes of the perceived other”.

Since the mid-1980s, South Asian women activists have sought to “engender” peace by drawing in larger numbers even from “hostile” neighbourhoods into safe “disarmed”, empathic spaces of trust, much like practitioners of Aikido . With friendship and community for anchor and resilience, they chose to “sweat in peace than bleed in war”.

This was well before the landmark United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 in 2000 had set the global normative template of the Women Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda. It also preceded the adoption of feminist diplomacy by the Scandinavian countries and the exhortations of the Hillary Clinton Doctrine that women’s rights and violence against women be considered issues of national security.

Did South Asian feminist peace activism then offer crucial conceptual alphabets for the international template on positive peace (peace with justice) as an inclusive public process, and not just “brokered” in closed negotiations only by men? The story of their seminal contributions to the WPS discourse needs to become more visible.

A people’s peace is a perpetual work-in-progress, verified and tested each day. It also an invitation to civil society to continuously fine-tune the song of democracy.

Nurturing a South Asian identity was Bhasin’s labour of love. With love, she strove to inscribe it into the lives of others. And she did it, as we all must, with “passion, compassion, humour and style”.

Meenakshi Gopinath is Chair, Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and Director of Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP), New Delhi

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2022 5:45:50 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/transcending-borders-and-boundaries/article37169850.ece