India: Wounded States. Special issue of Warscapes, edited by Bhakti Shringarpure and Aruni Kashyap. February 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this special issue?
Warscapes (W): Since the inception of Warscapes we have had a stream of submissions from India that recount experiences of military occupation and state violence in places like Assam and Kashmir. Meanwhile, if you look through the pages of most western mainstream media, as well as Indian outlets, they are projecting a completely different India—shining, burgeoning, economically booming, rapidly globalizing, and staunchly democratic. Within that, Indian literature in English, particularly the novel, has historically been complicit with Western desires for exotic, orientalist, and metropolitan narratives. Aruni Kashyap, who collaborated as a guest editor on India: Wounded States, has articulated this problem brilliantly in the "Introduction," declaring that in the past several years, "Indian literature has been significantly deepened by writing emerging from the margins of India."
We wanted to address a new, more urgent writing that is a complete antidote to the kind of Indian literature that English-language readers have been accustomed to; this is writing with which we have had direct contact because of the kind of space Warscapes offers for expression around conflicts. Kashyap writes, "These authors tell the bleak stories of regions in which Indian democracy has failed to deliver—where agents of the Indian state have violated constitutional rights with impunity and have been aided by draconian, undemocratic legislation that goes against the fundamental principles of any democracy. Their works explore issues of identity, belonging, and separatism, and they attempt to start a dialogue between colonialism and sub-nationalism, often against the backdrop of bloody postcolonial civil disturbance." We wanted to concentrate this writing into one special issue, and when you are bombarded with pieces from places of crisis like Assam, Nagaland, Kashmir, and Uttar Pradesh, a new picture of a diverse, polyphonic, multidimensional, violence-ridden, and complicated India emerges.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
W: This issue addresses literature stemming from postcolonial, sub-national conflicts within India, many of which have resulted in long-term military occupations. It also takes into account representations of marginalized Muslim populations who have been historically discriminated against in a Hindu-majority nation. We are also hoping to highlight the tremendous body of work from regional Indian languages, and have included fiction that has been translated into English from Assamese. We are aware that this issue does not remotely address the dynamic and diverse range of non-English writing in India, but we are offering a point of entry.
India: Wounded States includes six works of fiction and two essays. The introduction provides a basic breakdown of the issue:
Three of the stories in this issue are actually from places in Northeastern India where some of the most brutal human rights violations have been carried out with impunity, protected by a law called AFSPA—Armed Forces Special Powers Act—that allows the security forces to shoot at suspicion, detain without warrant, etc. Easterine Kire`s fiction is set in 2007, around six decades after the rebellion against Indian rule in the Nagaland, and depicts life in a war-torn Naga town. Anuradha Sharma Pujari’s Assamese short story, “Surrender,” follows Dipok Saikia, a surrendered militant who has left the path of rebellion and returned to the mainstream to lead a normal life, but is unable to reconcile with his past. One of the main reasons we decided to include Raktim Sarma’s work was because of the unique perspective that Sarma brings to the table because of his past life as former militant of ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam)—Assam’s most dangerous and widely known armed separatist outfit.
The subliminal levels of the conflict in Kashmir are brought out in the short story, “An Insignificant Boyhood,” by Feroz Rather, where a young boy slowly awakens to the political turbulence around him. Saiba Varma’s nonfiction, “Temporalities of Violence: A Tale of Two Protests,” fuses an anthropologist’s perspective with a hybrid writing style, and Varma intertwines narrative storytelling to question two disparate public events that reflect the traumatized and tortured psyche of the Kashmiri populace.
The contributions from Kashmir also tie into the marginalization and persecution of the Muslim minority. The creation of this minority class and the burdens they bear are explored in prolific poet and writer Meena Alexander’s novel Nampally Road. In his striking visual narrative, photographer and writer Asim Rafiqui takes a self-reflexive, lyrical and intellectual journey through sectarian India, arriving eventually in Ayodhya, the site of a violent communal history.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
W: The work is part of steady stream of writing we have been publishing on Warscapes that deals with marginalized conflicts that are often unrepresented or misrepresented in the mainstream. We also aim to look at conflicts from a variety of angles. Last year, we put together a retrospective on Sudan and South Sudan titled Literary Sudans. Unlike the India issue, here we wanted to highlight the fact that the Sudans must not only be stereotyped as war-torn but are, in fact, places where there is a rich history of literature and art. It was also reconciliatory gesture, since authors from rival spaces were brought together by literature. We have done similar work with Indonesia, Eritrea, and Zimbabwe.
We have also often departed from a regional focus for more whimsical retrospectives. For example, the very popular special issue on Food framed debates on race, class, conflict, and gender by using cuisines as its starting point, and the retrospectives on Visas brought together poetry, essays, visual art, and fiction dealing with the dehumanization manifested through borders, checkpoints, bureaucracy, passports, and surveillance.
J: Who do you hope will read this special issue, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
W: Our target audience for this issue are Indians, for the most part, since we hoped to urge readers in India to take note of the splintered state of nationalism, democracy, and rights in their country. We felt that it got a muted reception within that sphere; particularly loud was the radio silence from the multiple Indian media outlets we contacted requesting some coverage of or engagement with the special issue. It certainly confirmed that our understanding of Indian resistance in these issues was not unfounded.
A simultaneous goal was to talk back at the West and its selective representation of India and Indians. The only hope is that while the digital space is vast and hectic, this issue, by simply existing online, can offer a counterpoint to the fetishized India as depicted by someone like Thomas Friedman, for example.
J: How does this special issue depart from other publications dealing with writing from India?
W: There is very little being published on these issues in India and elsewhere. In that sense, we are trying to fill a gap in the perceptions about what constitutes the Indian experience on political, cultural, and psychological levels. Kashyap writes: "To the world, India has been the story of a rapidly globalizing economy in the world’s largest democracy. Since its independence in 1947, however, the Indian government has fought wars against its own people." Much of this history continues to be swept under the carpet, and literature offers a particularly poignant lens to shed light upon the human costs of state violence.
Excerpts from India: Wounded States
From “Surrender,” by Anuradha Sharma Pujari
[In this short story from one of Assam`s most prominent authors, an ex-militant Dipok has given up armed struggle but is unable to find a place within civilian society.]
Dipok planted a tight slap on his daughter’s cheeks. For a few seconds, Moumon remained quiet. In her lifetime of four years, her parents had never physically abused her. Sondhya snatched Moumon from Dipok’s arms and said, “I thought you had become a human, but it seems you are still an animal!” Moumon started to cry hard as soon as she reached her mother’s lap.
“Animal!” When was the last time he had heard someone call him that?
The word scratched his chest and created a deep wound on it. “Animal!” It was not just a word. It was a cruel attack, like the hooves of a thousand horses on his head. Just one word tore him apart like a whip tears away flesh, and it brought out the old Dipok. As if a corpse had suddenly come to life to wreak havoc with the dance of tandav! He let out a strange cry and chased Sondhya. “What did you say? I am an animal? Then why did you come to live with this animal? Why do you eat the food that this animal earns for you? Why do you sleep with this animal? Haramzadi!!” Filthy curses started to pop out of his mouth like popcorn while Sondhya pressed her child Moumon against her chest and ran from one room to another to protect herself. As more and more chairs were upturned and vases broken in the chase, Moumon’s screams and cries increased. Finally, when Sondhya tried to save herself by locking up in the bathroom, Dipok dragged her out of there. Moumon flew out of her arms and fell on the floor, and with a bizarre vengeance he started slapping and punching Sondhya, who continued to scream, “I will call you an animal for a hundredth time, for a thousandth time. If you were not an animal, could you hit me like this?” A lunatic bell started to ring inside Dipok’s head incessantly and he stared at her for a while like a mad man. He noticed Sondhya’s terrified eyes and they looked as if they were about to burst open from her sockets onto the floor. He held up both his hands and took one step at a time towards Sondhya like a four-legged animal about to attack and she continued to slip backwards. The image of a woman appeared in front of Dipok’s eyes. A woman who had hugged the bullet-ridden body of her husband and screamed at him, “Animals! You guys are animals! You tried to extort money from a man who couldn’t even save ten thousand rupees in his entire lifetime! How could he! You kill an honest man just because someone else gave you wrong information!” The woman had left the body and walked up to him. She had pulled the barrel of the gun towards her chest and screamed at him, “Kill me! Kill me too, you savage!” Where had this incident taken place? No, he couldn’t remember. It could have happened anywhere. The incidents all seemed same. The cities seemed the same, too. How dare an insignificant woman who stayed at home with her comfortable family life call them “savage” while they fought for the country, roamed around the forests, ate wild herbs and the roasted meat of wild animals! He had grabbed her arm and put his finger on the trigger. Suddenly, the woman collapsed on the floor, crying inconsolably. A portion of her blouse remained in his hand. How could a woman of such a high-ranking officer wear such an old, poor quality sari…
Sondhya had fallen on a table. Her sari rode up, revealing her thighs. Her blouse was torn. Her body was stained with blood. That woman’s body also had bloodstains from her husband’s bleeding body, her thighs were visible because her sari had shrunk upwards and yet, she had continued to call him “savage, savage.” He had let out a loud scream and jumped on the body of the woman and clasped her throat, choking her. Her body smelt of blood. It was a surprising smell. It was a smell that had reminded him of the smell that emerged when boars were skinned alive; the boar screams louder and louder, and the hunger increases along with that. That was the first time Dipok had the chance of touching the body of a woman like that. It was the body of a woman who was bursting with anger, terror and fear…it had the smell of a boar drenched in blood. He clutched her body very hard. He had come to his senses when he had felt the poke of a gun’s barrel on his back. His comrade had to drag him away from the spot and he heard that woman scream at his back again, “Savage! Coward!!”
“Will you call me an animal again?”
Sondhya was screaming. She pushed him away, hugged Moumon and started to howl.
From “Temporalities of Violence: A Tale of Two Protests,” by Saiba Varma
[An anthropologist explores the longstanding militarization and trauma in Kashmir by evoking two seemingly unrelated public events.]
It feels odd to draw a connection between these two events—the event of Afzal Guru’s execution and the report of spurious drugs—because it invariably invites a comparison. Yet in writing about violence, we are forced to choose between such events all the time. It is perhaps worthwhile to ask: what makes an event significant, in the sense that it makes it into public consciousness and calls for ethical reflection or action? Which events are presented as self-evidently significant, and which remain under the surface?
On the one hand, Guru’s hanging represents a moment of shared, public mourning, (another) notable rupture in the history of Kashmiri-Indian relations, and one likely to be remembered by Kashmiris for generations to come. On the other hand, while there were considerable efforts to mark the report of spurious drugs as a kind of public health “crisis,” this moment produced an active response only from health professionals. Part of what made Guru’s death visible and urgent was that his death localized the cumulative suffering of Kashmiris in a singular body—and in a specific temporal moment. On the other hand, the knowledge of spurious drugs dispersed suffering across different bodies—old and young, male and female, rich and poor. While Guru’s death provided specific knowledge about Kashmir’s suffering, the effect of the bogus pills was diffuse and general.
These two moments also reveal something about the limits of our own heuristics of “catastrophic” versus “mundane” violence, categories that are not entirely satisfying for Kashmiris either. While Kashmiris, like scholars, struggle to make space for everyday suffering in a context where spectacular forms of injustice are plenty, the fact is that both events cohere within a single framework.
Many Kashmiris told me that the conflict is a disease (bemari). In this sense, while Guru’s death represented an important moment of localization, there were many other everyday moments where Kashmiri patients refused the logic of containment. In the clinic, overwhelmingly, the Kashmiri patients I spoke with refused to specify their suffering or locate them within specific diagnostic categories. Patients who suffered from a range of diseases, from depression to diabetes, all shared a common symptom, that of kamzori or bodily weakness. While other symptoms would often be treatable through the consumption of pills, complaints of weakness did not respond to medication.
Similarly, rather than locate their suffering within a specific catastrophic event, patients preferred speaking of their daily struggles of life under occupation: how they worried about the safety of their children when they went to school, how it was impossible to be healthy in Kashmir, and how their quality of life or livelihoods had suffered because of frequent strikes and shutdowns. My questions about how the post-1989 period was different from the pre-conflict days also exceeded the timeframe of militarization I imposed: “This occupation is nothing new,” many said, “We have been colonized for four hundred years,” referring to previous colonization of Kashmir by Mughal, Afghan, Sikh, and Hindu rulers.
[Excerpted from India: Wounded States, special issue of Warscapes, edited by Bhakti Shringarpure and Aruni Kashyap (February 2014), by permission of the editors. © 2014 Warscapes Magazine. For more information, or to read the complete issue, click here.]