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WOMEN AND POLITICS OF PEACE: South Asia Narratives on Militarization, Power, and Justice edited by Rita Manchanda. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2017.

LONG before gender became a buzzword in international security politics, women in South Asia have worked towards conflict resolution and peacebuilding in the many conflict affected parts of the region. ‘Women as peacemakers’ is as much a familiar iteration here as in West Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. However, this ‘natural’ association of women with peace often appears to be de-politicized. In the recently published Women and Politics of Peace, edited by Rita Manchanda, politics is not just placed literally at the centre of the main title, but also at the heart of the ‘narratives on militarization, power, and justice’ presented in the volume. For researchers interested in the gendered nature of violent manifestations of conflict in South Asia and women’s peace activism, this is a welcome addition to the existing literature. While some of the contributors are well known as peacebuilders in the region, it is apparent from the biographical notes that others too have engaged with advocacy and/or activism in some form. The result of their coming together is a narratively rich volume that is generally mindful of international policy and scholarly developments, but draws its primary vocabulary from concrete experiences on the ground.

In the helpful introduction, Manchanda lays out the terrain, highlighting the interlinked themes around which the volume is organized: ‘(a) women’s political participation in building a transformative peace, (b) militarization, security, and violent peace, and (c) justice, reconciliation, and reparations’ (xxxi-xxxii). She also makes a good case for the ‘diversity and disparity of styles’ which comes with multiplicity of voices. This rejection of intellectual standardization is a good editorial decision, especially as it brings into public domain conversations and personal histories that might otherwise be lost with time; a number of contributors also share discussions from regional meetings on related themes held in Kathmandu (2013 and 2015) and Delhi (2014). However, this does put the onus on the reader to identify the implicit methodology and, consequently, the nature of knowledge presented in the chapters. That said, the sections are well organized – chapters under ‘participant analysis and field notes’ are preceded by thematic chapter(s) that set(s) out the signposts for each section. Empirically, it is refreshing to see that the volume manages to maintain its regional focus, and does not let Indian contributors or concerns dominate the analyses, as is oftentimes the case with South Asian compendiums. This diversity strengthens the comparative aspect of the volume. Further, especially in relation to Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal and the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), the plurality of contributions provide a more holistic understanding of the conflict/post-conflict dynamics.

The initial chapters – focused on women’s political participation – problematize some of the key terms of discourse used in this volume. Swarna Rajagopalan, for instance, rightly points out that ‘in most countries, peace, conflict, and post-conflict conditions coexist’ (p. 4). As women navigate these multiple realities, they are also faced with tensions between their gender identity and community identity. Drawing on evidence from Kashmir, Nagaland, Manipur and CHT, Manchanda brings to light the predicament of women who, even as they join the struggle for justice and rights for their community, are critical of customary laws that discriminate against them (pp. 38-41). Peace, for most women featured in this volume, then is not merely signified by the end of armed conflict, but also entails a gender just society. But, this vision for peace is often missing from political manifestos and peace agreements.

Indeed, as has been well established in feminist writing on the subject and is evident from narratives in this volume, women are rarely seen at the high tables, including in contexts such as Nepal and Sri Lanka where women were active in the armed struggle. Their agency is most visible on the ground. Citing Kumari Jayawardene (1986), Manchanda writes that ‘the robustness of the region’s movements for women’s rights and peace lies in its close linkages with grassroots struggles for socioeconomic justice and equal rights’ (p. xxxi). Needless to say, these efforts are also fraught with political difficulties.

The chapter by Kumudini Samuel highlights, among others, two such issues. The first relates to the politics of employing motherhood as a rallying point in women’s mobilization. While this strategy often makes women’s activism more acceptable in otherwise hostile contexts, this non-threatening image can also depoliticize the movement and undercut opportunities to demand more fundamental societal transformations. Samuel illustrates this with her discussion on the Jaffna Mothers Front (p. 84), and speaks also to Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal’s concerns about women’s political participation in Kashmir in a latter part of the volume (p. 126, 131).

Second, Samuel raises the matter of differences within the women’s movement (another theme that comes up in a number of other chapters), and – drawing on Nira Yuval Davis (1999) – proposes ‘transversal solidarities’ that acknowledge difference as a possible way forward. Chapter 3 – Her story: Women and Peace Movements in South Asia – presents a number of examples of such solidarities, as the co-authors Roshmi Goswami, Samuel, and Nighat Said Khan present a fascinating chronicle of women’s peace building work in the region. Their ‘story’ also links these developments in South Asia to the evolution of the transnational activism and international policy discourse on ‘women, peace and security’.

The chapters in part one of the volume take note of many difficulties in, and opportunities for, women’s political participation. It is the spectre of militarism in the region – and beyond – that looms large as one of the biggest challenges. This is the focus of part two. The thematic chapter by Anuradha Chenoy introduces readers to the growing militarization of all aspects of political life in South Asia, including national identity, political economy and popular culture. Her argument that militarization further cements patriarchal practices and threatens women’s political participation is borne out in the ‘participant analysis and field notes’ – from Jammu and Kashmir, Sri Lanka, CHT, Afghanistan, Nepal and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – presented in this section.

Needless to say, the state’s armed forces are a key actor in these militarized zones; and, contrary to their cultivated image as those that protect citizens from outside threats, they can also be – and have been – sources of insecurity for the people. The accounts of the emergence of militaries as players in the local economy in Sri Lanka, the CHT and the FATA by Neloufer de Mel, Hana Shams Ahmed and Noreen Naseer respectively, point to another worrying trend in these conflict-affected zones. The armed forces effectively compete with local actors for economic opportunities, preventing organic development, and strengthening their stronghold in the region. Further, Huma Safi’s chapter on Afghanistan takes note of the militarization of aid, as international donor agencies channel ‘humanitarian and development projects’ through international troops (pp. 172-175).

The contributors to this section also discuss women as subjects of militarized nationalisms and movements. In this context, de Mel’s theorization of ‘smart militarization’ (p. 149), use of digital technology for surveillance and control of populations, in relation to Sri Lanka is pertinent also for other parts of South Asia. Finally, the gendered nature of militaries and militarization is also apparent in Bishnu Raj Upreti and Gitta Shrestha’s analysis of post-conflict status of female Maoist combatants. While gender justice was part of the Maoist manifesto, as the authors point out, ‘sustaining… social gains of conflict has proved a very formidable task’ (p. 185). On all counts thus, militarization and gender justice appear to be at odds.

The struggle for justice continues even after a conflict has ostensibly ended. The final section of the volume looks into questions of ‘justice, impunity, and accountability’ in ‘post-conflict’ societies. Even as the contributors recognize the positive measures that have been initiated to address human rights violations that may have taken place during the conflict, they draw attention to the interest of political elites in consolidating their positions at the earliest. They also highlight the limitations of truth and reconciliation commissions and other government appointed bodies.

Such political expediency leads to impunity for human rights violations, including gender based violence, and as Warisha Farasat argues in the opening chapter (of the section) on transitional justice, undermines post-conflict peacebuilding. Noting that there can be ‘no peace without justice’, Najla Ayubi points out the worsening security situation for the people of Afghanistan. In light of these concerns, the contributors – writing on different parts of South Asia – emphasize the significance of civil society initiated fact-finding missions and tribunals for transitional justice.

Further, they assess the value of ‘bringing in’ the international – be it the discourse of transitional justice or international standards and actors – into domestic conversations on justice and accountability. (Of course, a number of these conflicts are already internationalized in some form or other). For instance, Mandira Sharma writes about ‘vetting measures’ proposed by Nepali civil society actors in the appointment of United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal. Writing on Sri Lanka, Bhavani Fonseka suggests that ‘the government needs to ensure that the domestic legal framework is in line with international standards’ (p. 266).

Many key themes of this edited volume – women’s political participation, identity politics, militarization, women’s (in)security, human rights, and justice – are encapsulated in ‘Kalpana’s Story’ narrated by Dina M. Siddiqui in her chapter on gender justice in Bangladesh (pp. 230-234). An activist fighting for self-determination of the CHT, Kalpana Chakma also challenged the gender norms within her indigenous community. She was allegedly abducted by an army officer in June 1996, prior to national elections. The state and its military apparatus are yet to ensure that the perpetrators responsible for her disappearance are identified and brought to account.

The roadblocks to justice for the Chakmas, and the continuing activism of – as well as the challenges faced by – the people of CHT, discussed in this chapter, resonate with narratives from other parts of South Asia and are noteworthy. It is, however, Siddiqui’s reference to the standpoint of many middle class Bangladeshis on the Chakmas, drawn ‘to a narrative of romance or a discourse of terrorist separatism’ (p. 232), that should definitely make the reader pause. It provides an opportune moment to reflect on the complicity of not only political elites, but also large sections of people going about their everyday lives, in protracted violent conflicts.

The volume offers some pathways to build solidarity for gender just and peaceful societies, including in situations of contesting claims (for instance, between separatists and those who wish to protect their state’s territorial integrity). But, it is clear that this work will continue to be challenged by growing militarization and ultra-nationalism, and neoliberalization of conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

Soumita Basu

South Asian University, Delhi


FICTION AS HISTORY: The Novel and the City in Modern North India by Vasudha Dalmia. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2017.

Vasudha Dalmia has written a book that is not easy to review, in part because she has tried to do possibly too many things and not all of them easily lend themselves to coalescing into an integrated whole. Yet, her work is a very valuable contribution to our understanding of the cultural and social evolution of important North Indian cities, and the reflection of these processes in Hindi fiction. A scholar highly regarded for her insights as well as painstaking research, she has unearthed and analysed a great deal of material which even the Hindi world may not be too familiar with.

At the very outset, Dalmia informs us about the nature of her project. ‘This book,’ says she, ‘traces the changing configurations of urban lives as represented in eight Hindi novels set in six different North Indian cities: Agra, Allahabad, Banaras, Delhi, Lahore and Lucknow. It begins with the emergence of a specific variety of middle class speakers of a self-consciously Hindu Hindi in the second half of the 19th century, and ends in the last years of the Nehruvian era.’ She is a little demure about focusing on urban life as she somehow believes that Hindi fiction ‘is associated more with novels about peasants, particularly those of Premchand…’ However, if we look at the period covered by her book, it is only Premchand who really qualifies as a novelist whose works reflect the rural reality, although several of his novels do depict urban middle class life too. Other Hindi novelists of this period are not primarily concerned with the peasants and their problems.

As Bernard Bergonzi has pointed out, the novel by its nature is very much a ‘culture-bound’ entity that is permeated with a belief in originality, individual expression and individual experience. Hindi novels are no exception as they are firmly rooted in their cultural milieu, although they often try to transcend and out-grow it.

The important thing about these six North Indian cities is that all of them have rich cultural histories of their own that go back to at least the Mughal period. Banaras stands out among them because it happens to be an ancient as well as a contemporary city. While the three Presidency cities of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta were created by the British and had the closest interaction with them, these six cities too had their share of this and Agra, Allahabad, Delhi and Lucknow were at different times the seats of British administration.

Dalmia has chosen them because they happen to be the sites of eight important Hindi novels. Lala Shrinivasdas’ Pariksha Guru (The Tutelage of Trial, 1882) is set in the merchant milieu of post-Mughal Delhi and its environs, and is a didactic novel with an ‘uncritically nationalist tone.’ It is widely considered to be the first noteworthy novel in Hindi, i.e. Khari Boli written in nagari script. However, Nazir Ahmad’s Mirat ul Urus (The Bride’s Mirror, 1869), considered to be the first Urdu novel of note, too emerged from Delhi’s rich cultural life and preceded Pariksha Guru by more than a decade.

In a fascinating chapter titled ‘Merchant Lives in Mughal Agra and British Delhi’, Dalmia discusses the language of the Delhi-Agra region and also the cultural changes that took place in the late 19th century in the two cities that were steeped in Mughal culture and traditions. To understand the ‘modern’, she goes back to the ‘early modern’ and juxtaposes Pariksha Guru with a 17th century work, Ardhakathanak (Half a Tale, 1641), written by Banarasidas in a language that was a mixture of Khari Boli and Brajbhasha and which he called the speech of the middle region (madhyadesh ki boli). It is the story of a merchant who lives in Agra at a time when the city is witnessing the heyday of Mughal glory and power. Banarasidas was a typical wealthy youth of his times who relished the company of courtesans and holy men alike and played an important part in the Adhyatmi or ‘contemplative’ branch of the Terapanthi sect, an emerging protestant movement within Jainism.

Although it is a vexed question and scholars have tried to offer widely differing answers to it, yet there is little doubt that it was at the Fort William College, Calcutta that a deliberate attempt was made by the British to fashion two mutually exclusive languages out of a commonly spoken one. Lallujilal and Sadal Mishra were asked to write books in a language that did not use words from the Persio-Arabic stock. According to Lallujilal, the Hindus used the very term Khari Boli to distinguish it both from Brajbhasha as well as Rekhta or Urdu that used Perso-Arabic words. In contrast, Banarasidas’ Ardhakathanak is free from any such linguistic biases and uses without inhibition all kinds of words that were part of the spoken language of the Delhi-Agra region in the first half of the 17th century. Dalmia offers enough evidence to buttress her thesis that Hindi written in Nagari script has been from the very beginning the language of only the Hindus.

For this study, she takes up Shrinivasdas’ Pariksha Guru, Premchand’s Sevasadan (The House of Service, 1918) and Karmabhumi (Field of Action, 1932), both set in Banaras, Yashpal’s two-volume novel Jhootha Sach (False Truth, 1958, 1960), set in Lahore and Delhi, Agyeya’s Nadi ke Dwip (Islands in the Stream, [1948] 1952), set in Delhi and Lucknow, Dharmvir Bharati’s Gunahon ka Devata (The God of Vice, 1949), set in Allahabad, Mohan Rakesh’s Andhere Band Kamare (Dark Closed Rooms, 1961), set in Delhi and Rajendra Yadav’s Sara Akash (The Entire Sky, 1951), set in Agra.

Dalmia chooses to call novels of Shrinivasdas, Premchand and Yashpal ‘modern’ while she reserves the epithet ‘modernist’ for Agyeya, Dharmvir Bharati, Mohan Rakesh and Rajendra Yadav. In the novels of Shrinivasdas and Premchand, the tension between the courtesan – an integral part of the feudal cultural milieu – and the housewife steers the development of the story but the subsequent novels portray a woman who is coming into her own. Tara in Yashpal’s epic novel is such a character whose growth brings out this process in sharp relief while Rekha in Agyeya’s novel illustrates some sort of its culmination.

For those who are not familiar with these novels, Dalmia has provided enough material to enable them to follow the storyline and the plot so that they can understand the nuances of the changes that occur in the cultural matrix as well as in the characters. This study traces this evolution from the post-1857 period up to the early sixties when the Nehruvian era ends and disillusionment with it begins to set in. The way the middle class has taken shape in North India and the transformation that it has undergone becomes clear after reading Dalmia’s illuminating account. The icing on the cake is the detailed information about the history, culture and literary traditions of Delhi, Lucknow, Agra, Lahore, Banaras and Allahabad.

Kuldeep Kumar

Columnist and political commentator, Delhi