Girls interrupted

With crimes against women rising by the day, Across the Crossfire serves as an eye-opener to their fight for survival, writes Shinie Antony

Girls interrupted

Women don’t have it easy anywhere in the world. In India, they stand by while decisions are taken even before their birth: whether they should live at all, education, nutrition, employment, healthcare. While the privileged sections of society may choose to engage with or stay away from the economic and social strata at the other end, the latter have no choice but to struggle on in their daily lives, starting each day on an uncertain note. It is this practical stand of the impacted party that Across the Crossfire: Women and Conflict in India seeks to put across.

Edited by journalists Pamela Philipose and Aditi Bishnoi, published by Women Unlimited, the book brings readers face to face with ordinary women who take trauma and turmoil in their stride for the sake of survival. How do they go on, these girls, interrupted?

The editors state the intriguing irony: “While the impact of conflict and violence on the lives of women in India is well recognised as being deeply destabilising and profoundly disempowering, women for the most part are missing in the conflict discourse.” Not just the administration apparatus, this is a gender routinely overlooked by media, legal systems and social frameworks, leading to suppressed voices and inner violence, like a ghost community speaking in falsetto.

The book brings reports written between 2009 and 2011, traversing the length and breadth of India, quoting speakers verbatim most of the time, so that the reader is forced to meet their eye in these terse portraits.

Meet Munni, the child-bride whose husband was gunned down in Behmai by Phoolan Devi’s dacoits before she ever got to meet him. “I had not even seen his face. I only got to see his dead body,” she recalls. Another widow, who had watched her husband begging the dacoits futilely for his life that day, got a monthly pension of Rs 25 for all of two years.

In Fazilka, Punjab, Raj Kaur stepped on a landmine, losing both her legs below the knee. The medical attention she received immediately and later, the journey towards prosthetics, the mundane matter of moving on, literally and figuratively, are the stuff of nightmare.

Operation Lalgarh in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district saw women take up arms in 2009. The women — who used bows and arrows and axes — were those who joined the ranks of Maoists after their sons and husbands were arrested by the police for ‘being sympathetic to the insurgency’. They were women backed into a corner.

There are those languishing in jails all over the country, clueless about how they got there and whether they will ever get out. “We eat our three meals. We cry ourselves to sleep,” says an erstwhile beggar-woman now behind bars.

In a 2008 inquiry report, the National Human Rights Commission states that since so many security forces and Maoists operate from school buildings in Chhattisgarh, schools become scenes of pitched battles, reducing them to rubble sometimes.

For women, life can only get worse. Maternal mortality, rape, displacement, water woes, sanitation, non-availability of toilets, no access to medical facilities, riots, husbands in prisons, human trafficking… the list is long. A survey by the National Commission for Women in 2009 reveals that trafficking of women and children for commercial sex was taking place in 378 districts of India — accounting for roughly 62 per cent of the total Indian districts. Young girls flee from starvation and a future of multiple pregnancies and domestic abuse all the time, only to land squarely in such traps.

The courage to look beyond the personal and immediate suffering marks most of the stories. These are women who had to re-imagine themselves, reinvent lives. Like the ‘Meira Paibis’ — torch-bearers — of Imphal, a women’s group actively warring against rights violations, whether perpetrated by locals or armed personnel.

Says Kavita Karkare, widow of Anti-Terrorist Squad chief Hemant Karkare, who died in the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, having been sent into the field with little information, no reinforcements and poor equipment: “I am angry. This system has to be changed from within. There must be more transparency, politicians have to be made accountable.”
India is a land of many truths, some that make headlines, and some that don’t. To chronicle its aches and pains is a daunting task, especially as it runs the risk of turning pedantic and reaching only the academics. Placing the women in the light is a great service rendered, but placing the book in the light with better production and layout would not have hurt. A book like this, going about its business with much sincerity, should grab more eyeballs. By zooming in on the ‘she-roes’ around us, Across the Crossfire gives these victims of random violence their rightful place in the historical context of conflict.

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