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Monday, December 27, 2010

Kashmiri Women and "Azadi"

Watching TV these days, I start contemplating over issues for which my mother, or ladies in my locality, could go on to the streets protesting violently. I get this thought whenever I see images of "Burning Kashmir" on TV and see ordinary women shouting slogans of “Azadi". The women I am talking about are ordinary homemakers. These are not contemporary, highly qualified, so called intellectual and privileged women. So, how do these ordinary women get extra-ordinary courage to come out in the burning streets risking their lives?

Another thing that intrigues me is their slogan of "Azadi"! I ask myself, do these women actually understand the meaning of "Azadi"? And, if they do understand, what are their attributes of "Azadi"? I was unable to find a direction for my thought to explore the reason for this phenomenon. Then, I decided to explore some prominent social movements of present day India which were spearheaded by women. Two major movements that came to my mind were, anti arrack movement in Andhra Pradesh and the Chipko movement in present day Uttarakhand. I considered these two movements because they were both against the state, started spontaneously by women without any notable organised leadership and finally they brought about a substantial change in state policy.

The anti arrack agitation was started by women in Warangal, Karimnagar and Adilabad districts of Andhra Pradesh in 1990-91.This was suppressed by the government by using police force. It went to the extent of selling arrack in police protection and in some cases even in the police stations. Arrack was locally made cheap liquor. This was consumed mostly in rural areas as it was abundantly available locally and was cheap. Arrack production and sale was licensed by the government, thus, was legal. These licenses were with some powerful local contractors who were local musclemen and were politically well connected. This movement revived in August 1992 in a remote village of Nellore and later spread to other districts of Andhra Pradesh. This was when this agitation was first covered by media and people took note of it. Despite the agitation, government was reluctant to ban arrack. It tried to forcefully suppress the movement. This was because of the involvement of very powerful people in arrack business and the revenue that state government got from sale of local liquor. But, the women were in no mood of succumbing to government pressure and threats from contractors. Finally, government had to accede to the demands of the protesting women. When TDP (Telugu Desam Party) won the election in 1994 it went ahead with its promise of total prohibition. This movement was spearheaded by poor and mostly literate rural women.

The "Chipko Aandolan" as it is popularly called was started mostly by rural women in the present day Uttarakhand, then Uttar Pradesh. This was the time when nobody talked about "Global Warming"! It was the time when aggressive economic development started in India. Timber was a major export item in those days which earned the government foreign exchange. This resulted in unabated felling of trees in the hills of present Uttarakhand. Deforestation led to soil erosion, landslides, floods, silting of rivers etc. All this was realised later, the initial effects of deforestation were felt by the rural women folk in the hills. In their own terms, the forest was their "maika" which means maternal home in Hindi. This was the place which gave them food, fodder for their cattle, fuel for their "Chulas" and drinking water streams. In other terms, forest was a major constituent of a household economy. Hence, started the movement. Whenever timber contractors came to cut trees, women would first try to convince the contractors, not to cut trees, by informing them about the demerits of deforestation. Subsequently, if the contractor refused to concede, women would hug the tree such that the contractor would have to kill the woman first in order to cut the tree. Later, women also started tying holy threads around trees which is a symbol of pious bonding according to Hinduism. This strengthened their bond with the forest as this gave them emotional bonding with the forest. Such was the success of the movement that it was recognised internationally and later on the government had to go slow on felling trees despite the contractor pressure and financial loss. Reforestation drives were initiated, legal battles fought and subsequently in December 1996, The Supreme Court of India declared cutting of trees in forest areas as illegal (not solely because of Chipko movement though).

By looking at these two movements, the only point I could infer as a reason for these women to come out openly on the streets was that, the “issue in contention” in both the above cases was directly affecting their home. By home here, I mean family relationships, family peace and economy. The constituents of the threat in the above cases could be health issues, food scarcity, money scarcity, threat to social security etc. I strongly believe that the reason for women, in Kashmir, to come out on to the streets is also that they see a threat to their own home. On many occasions, in a social scenario, we see many homes failing to manage crisis situations and breaking, but we never feel that the same will happen to our home. We experience fear only when the magnitude of the problem is huge and we feel that we can also be the victims of a similar crisis. Thus, if so many women find the situation threatening to their homes in Kashmir, we can assume the magnitude of the problem.

Now that we consider, threat to one’s home, as a major problem of the protesting women. We should also find out the constituents of the threat to their homes. In a place like Kashmir, the situation is quite different from the situations mentioned in the above cases. The constituents of the threat would be different. Here, in my opinion, the constituents would primarily be threat to life of family members and threat to dignity of family members. There could be other social and economic threats, but, I consider these two to be the most important ones. Also, by the simple analogy, we can consider right to life of family members and right to dignity of family members of these women as their attributes of “Azadi”. Thus, if my analogy is correct and the attributes of “Azadi” for these women are right to life and right to dignity of family members. Then, in my opinion, there is no one else who understands the meaning of “Azadi” better than these women.

May god help these women get their “Azadi”