Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Nandigram’s women: changemakers, not victims

By Rajashri Dasgupta

It was the women of Nandigram who led the opposition and the agitation against the takeover of their farmlands. These women are regularly paraded as victims of State violence. But they are excluded from the processes of conflict-resolution and negotiation

It’s an old story, without even a new twist. The ‘voices’ heard at ground zero in Nandigram, West Bengal -- on industrialisation, displacement of farmers, compensation, and employment -- are all those of men. And yet, women have made an exceptional contribution in bringing the controversy over acquiring agricultural land for industrialisation to the national agenda.

Since January this year, protest agitations on land acquisition have rocked West Bengal, especially Nandigram, and almost brought the ruling Left Front (LF) state government to its knees. On March 14, the police unleashed unprecedented violence and attacked Nandigram to break the farmers’ agitation; the unprovoked and indiscriminate firing left 14 dead and many more injured. Till date, the state government has not declared any compensation for the affected farmers and their families.

The build-up of tension began when the LF government proposed to acquire agricultural land in Nandigram in East Medinipur district, 150 km from Kolkata, the state capital, to set up an industrial complex as part of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), with investment from the Indonesian multinational, Salim Group. According to the report of the four-member People’s Tribunal headed by former Chief Justice S N Bhargava, set up by concerned citizens to understand the circumstances and nature of the violence in Nandigram, the local people were apprehensive about losing their land. They were aware of the “unsuccessful agitation by farmers against land acquisition” in Singur (Hooghly district), where the state government had taken over 947 acres of land for a car factory to be set up by the Tata Group. In the circumstances, the people of Nandigram were “quite apprehensive about being ousted from their land,” said the Tribunal report.

After the police firing, when a team of women’s rights activists visited the area they found that the local women were fearful of losing their land and livelihoods. Said 36-year-old Chabi Mandal, mother of three, whose husband is a wage labourer: “How will the industry benefit me and my family? We will have to leave the area; where will we go with our children?” Kabita Das Adikari, owner of a small plot of land, who sustained a bullet injury, spoke from her hospital bed: “How will we survive if we are forced to give up our land? How much money will the government pay us? What will we eat? How do we clothe ourselves, and where will we get a roof over our heads?”

In the mounting unrest in the region, not only did women participate in large numbers they were also among the most articulate protesters of state government policy. On March 14, when a large contingent of police readied to enter Nandigram, the Bhoomi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), formed to resist land acquisition in the area, immediately appealed to the women to form a human shield; Chabi, Kabita and many other women did so willingly. Anuradha Khara, owner of a small plot of land, said that she and the other women stood in vigil from daybreak, to stave off any attacks on their land.

The people of Nandigram believed that the policemen would not attack and fire on unarmed groups of women and children. It was not to be. On that fateful day, women borethe brunt of State brutality and their bodies became the sites of retaliation and humiliation in the oppositional turf war; they were killed, raped, shot at, beaten, and abused. Among the dead were two women; many received bullet wounds and were hospitalised for days. Four women alleged rape before the Tribunal, and there were cases of “sadistic assault on the private organs, leading to severe injuries”. Even children were not spared in the attack. Dr Debapriya Mallick and his team of doctors who visited the area and treated the injured found many cases of injury among children between the ages of 9 and 12, two of them brutal injuries.

Five months after the incident, peace has yet to return to the troubled villages. Again, it is the women who are now striving to bring a semblance of normalcy and peace to the region. They constitute the majority of the internally displaced and are the worst affected by the economic hardship. Since many farmers are still languishing in refugee camps or have fled the villages fearing retaliation and are unable to return to cultivate their land, the women are compelled to become the primary breadwinners to feed their families. In the midst of sporadic gunfire and the explosion of country-made bombs hurled by rival parties at each other, the women go about their everyday chores, taking care of the home, children, and the elderly.

With panchayat elections to be held early next year, hard bargaining and trade-offs on Nandigram have already begun between the polarised political camps in the state. But in the din, we no longer hear of women like Sabita, Anuradha and Chabi who so heroically protected their farmlands. Nor do we know their views on such contentious issues as SEZs, displacement and compensation -- issues that touch their everyday lives -- even though these are being heatedly debated in every university classroom and street corner of the state, and across the country.

After 30 years of Left rule and claims of equality and gender justice, the Left Front has completely ignored and excluded women from the team of negotiators working towards the restoration of peace in conflict-ridden parts of Nandigram. The BUPC appears to be equally blind to the women’s capabilities of brokering a peace, although its members, on March 14, did recognise the women’s potential to act as a human wall against the police onslaught. Today, that faith is not reflected in the composition of the all-male leadership negotiating peace with the state government.

The only noble exception made to women by civil rights and citizens’ groups is to include ageing writer-activist Mahasweta Devi and, occasionally, a token woman speaker on the podium. Across the board, political parties and organisations have failed to understand the potential role of women in ending violence and seeking justice in Nandigram.

As in the past, these organisations have a tendency to focus on women merely as ‘victims’ of conflict and violence. At numerous public meetings, leaders of political parties flaunt women as being victims of sexual assault and brutality -- with the sole purpose of demonising their political opponents. Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee showcases the women of Nandigram across the country to score political mileage against the Left Front’s land policies and police brutality, unmindful that the public spectacle of their humiliation adds insult to injury.

The obsessive emphasis on women as victims of violence and not as potential agents of change undermines their spirited perseverance and ingenuity in engineering conflict-resolution. Historically, even when they have played a strategically important role in ending conflict, women have been ignored and denied space in the political negotiations. Dr Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian delegation in talks between Palestine and Israel, spoke scathingly of how men adopted a patronising attitude that insinuates that once the conflict is over, women should retreat into the home, leaving the men to deliberate on the ‘hard’ issues of conflict-settlement, power-sharing, political reform, and economic reconstruction.

What needs reiteration is that if women are capable of protecting their land and resisting violence -- as they did in Nandigram -- they can also effectively work towards conflict-resolution, and bring to the negotiating table issues that can shape and impact the political process. This inclusion should not be because women are the worst sufferers of conflict and violence; including women solelyon their worst-victim status betrays a stereotype of women as eternal sufferers. Women should also not only be included because they are inherently peace-loving, though people’s movements tend to popularise the rhetoric of women as mothers and sisters to inducewomen to swell their ranks. The emotive evocation of women as inherent “nurturers and care-givers” (therefore, suitable peacemakers) is insulting to women as it ignores and denies women’s agency as changemakers.

In fact, discomfiting though it may be, women’s role in initiating violence and their contribution to war and conflict in recent times has been shamefully evident. During the Gujarat riots of 2002, the nation watched in horror as groups of women urged men to attack and brutalise women from the other community. At Abu Ghraib prison, American women guards violated every human rights norm to humiliate and terrorise Iraqi prisoners.

There is no doubt that women’s response to peace is shaped and influenced by their experiences of being women. Feminist researchers in the book, Peace Work: Women, Armed Conflict and Negotiations, edited by Radhika Coomaraswamy and Dilrukshi Fonseka (published by Women Unlimited), have persuasively argued that women are most affected by conflict and violence because even during peace time they face a daily and continuous spectrum of injustices, inequality and violence, both at home and in the public sphere. Therefore, the end of animosity between warring groups, communities, or nations does not inevitably trumpet a new era for women if the structures of injustice in pre-conflict situations themselves remain intact.

It is this subordinate, second-sex status of women in society that makes them even more vulnerable during conflict situations. Feminist studies also show how women’s everyday experiences of violence lend them an empathy with victims of violence. Fathoming women’s agency and role in peace perhaps lies in understanding women’s everyday experiences in a discriminatory, violent society. The understanding is based on a notion of what feminist writer Ritu Menon describes in Peace Work as ‘violence continuum’.

The path to peace in Nandigram is fraught with challenges. There must be attempts to involve women in peace groups and discussions, but it has to move beyond the token involvement of women and focus on engendering the peace agenda and the political process itself. It is time people and political parties shifted their attention towhat Nandigram’s women can do to confront the structures of violence and bring about the peace that has eluded them for so long.

(Rajashri Dasgupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and researcher)