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This essay traces the women’s movement in India in the mid-seventies and early eighties, when the issue of violence against women took prominence. Author Urvashi Butalia draws on numerous instances of violence, including among others the rape of Rameeza Bee in 1978, dowry-related violence, and the immolation of Roop Kanwar in 1987. She also looks at the women’s movement’s engagement during this time, which ranged from lobbying with the Law Commission to bring about changes to the rape law, to the efforts of Delhi-based groups like Mahila Dakshata Samiti and Stree Sangharsh against dowry.
In both the rape and dowry campaigns, as also in the campaign against sati, the primary target of women’s demands or grievances was the state, with the belief that the state had failed in its ‘duty’. The essay also traces how one kind of action flowed into another, giving rise to different challenges for the women’s movement.
Butalia also critically examines how inclusive or otherwise the women’s movement has been. She discusses how the broad category of ‘woman’, which many had assumed provided an overarching unifying identity, did not represent a homogeneous group whose broad identity held them together; they could even consent to strengthening the very structures of patriarchy that worked against them. The essay also dwells on how the rise of militant communalism and the polarization of identities along religious lines resulted in major changes and rethinking within the women’s movement in India.
This chapter from The History of Doing focuses on the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, when social reform movements in India were beginning to show results and women were becoming more visibly present in the public sphere. Kumar provides a thematic history of the women’s movement before independence, beginning with focusing on the 1889 session of the Indian National Congress in Bombay where ten women delegates attended the assembly for the first time.
Using photographs and a wide variety of print sources from books to newspapers, Kumar looks at how women’s issues were raised and how women were involved in addressing these. Prostitution was one of the first such issues, referred to by the Indian National Congress at their 1888 session. The essay discusses at length the steps taken to regulate prostitution by the British in India and the level of support this received from reformers and moderate nationalists. The turn of the century saw a proliferation of homes for widows, with schemes to train widows as teachers. The Swadeshi movement in Bengal during this time period marked the beginning of women’s participation in national activities on a larger scale.
Kumar offers detailed portraits on the lives of some of the women involved in the above movements and reforms like Swarnakumari Debi, her daughter Sarala Debi Ghosal and Bhikaiji Cama. Kumar also observes that for some of these women, the bid for personal independence grew to be subsumed in a quest for national independence, but that they also returned to their homes without regret when the moment of crisis passed. A large number of the women written about in the essay were writers, both reformists and revolutionaries.
This essay puts forward a series of accounts centred around the different manifestations of sexual violence in the lives of Dalit women. Unlike in the legal world, in these accounts lines between methods of assault and degrees of injury emerge blurred, and many of them remain unreported or have otherwise not been disclosed by the survivors.
Exposing the vulnerability of Dalit women to both gender-based exploitation and caste-based violence, the essay investigates the threats that follow the women into their homes, their workplace, and the streets. It also looks at the ways in which the survivors’ voice is silenced, time and again, by the authority of the ruling caste. Covering the many different structures that enable and even perpetuate such violence, the essay focuses in particular on the jogini system that legitimises prostitution even as it creates a circle of exploitation and social discrimination. This leads to an analysis not only of the incidents and functions of sexual violence, but also of the consequences that have to be borne by the survivors alone.
The authors explore different kinds of exploitative structures to identify ways in which they hamper women's claims over their bodily integrity, dignity and privacy. They show how the upper-caste discourse of a Dalit woman's sexual availability, along with the impunity for sexual crimes committed against them, is dangerous on multiple levels. It is the study of the contributing factors to this discourse, coupled with the functions and social effects of this particular kind of sexual violence, that the essay concerns itself with.
The 73rd Amendment (1992) to India’s constitution has not only given rural local governments (Panchayati Raj institutions) constitutional status, but has also ensured that marginalized sections of society such as backward classes and women have reservations in these bodies. The amendment has helped facilitate the entry of rural women in the public sphere. However, the visibility and presence of women in rural politics has been met with a lot of backlash. In this essay, Mayaram uses qualitative data from her fieldwork in Rajasthan to highlight the ‘new modes of violence’ that elected women representatives face.
The essay details the different forms of violence that elected women are subjected too, like physical violence, forced stripping, and verbal abuse. Dalit women face dual stigmatization on grounds of caste and gender. Mayaram’s essay demonstrates how caste politics, the police, and patriarchy form a nexus to protect the perpetrators.
According to Mayaram, there is an urgent need to recognize this backlash and the hindering impact it can have on women’s development. She believes that institutional reform is needed so that implementing agencies like the bureaucracy are sufficiently sensitized to women’s issues, and that structures of support should be created for elected women. Her essay is thus a testament to the fact that having ‘good’ legislation isn’t enough—ground realities have to be taken into account as well to ensure that policies can function effectively.
Written by Farida Abdulla, this essay is a personal account of her experience in Kashmir—before, during and after the enforcement of centralized government rule over the area. Born and brought up in Kashmir, she reflects on the seething resentment of people treated like more border territory than citizens of the country.
Through the essay Adulla looks at ‘what’ instead of ‘why’; she does not delve into the historical context of the rule, but focuses on the effects of such a rule on the local population. By narrating two incidents strongly embedded in her mind, she attempts to show the complexity of the situation, and the pain and confusion of the people living there. Trapped between the government- sanctioned armed forces and the ideological militant resistors, Kashmiri people are often unable to distinguish between the two groups, and are in constant fear for their lives.
She raises questions about security and autonomy, especially in the case of women. While the struggle of women in India has been a long and arduous one, their status becomes even more unstable in a region fraught with suppression and violence. Female voices are either lost in the larger masculine struggle, or are subsumed in the singular narrative of rape and sexual abuse. Abdulla hopes for a safe space for people divided by religion and gender to resolve their conflicts and live in peace and dignity.
This essay puts forward a study, conducted across four states, that brings out the challenges faced by seventeen Dalit women when availing health services in government and private medical institutions. These accounts are placed next to interrelated and essential elements of the right to health, allowing the reader to understand the different forms of medical negligence faced by these women.
The essay shows that both private and public health-care systems position Dalit women at the periphery for reasons of caste, class, and gender. The narratives cover cases where women approached medical institutions with their ailments and also situations where medical practitioners coerced them into family planning operations. The authors note that these narratives are a telling comment on the way government medical state treats Dalit women patients in contrast to non-Dalit patients. The manifestations of the negligence faced by the former group include long waiting periods, indifferent verbal responses, rude verbal responses and refusal of treatment.
The authors argue that the negligence has had consequences on other spheres of these women’s lives: economic, psychological, and personal (their identities as Dalits and women), and this make them more vulnerable to discrimination. The conclusion of the essay shows the reader medical negligence from a systemic angle, by examining the social and political positions of the medical personnel, their value systems, geographical settings and underlying power equations.
Sheba Chhachhi's piece offers an alternative to the visual landscape of Kashmir which, in the popular imagination of people today, is occupied by the ravages of war and countless martyred men. By placing itself as an invitation into a private space that is rarely, if ever, breached by dominant media discourses, this photo-essay highlights the absences in the pictures of carnage that are used to fuel propaganda on both sides of the conflict.
The piece – comprising of a critical essay and a series of personal testimonies which are interspersed with photographs – seeks to bring human figures back into the landscape and give voice to those whose lives have been obscured in the din of a prolonged war. It makes space for the individual in a history of representation that is populated with recurring tropes and warring stereotypes which, Chhachhi argues, depersonalise the Valley and its conflicts. In her work, women are no longer silent victims, they emerge as textured human beings, not only with voices with which to speak, but also with eyes that are wide open. The testimonies have been taken over a period of six years and reflect varying positions, and the interviewees are students and professionals, Muslims and Pandits, teenagers and the aged.
The photographs are extracted from a larger work which was initially presented as a photo-installation by Sheba Chhachhi and Sonia Jabbar. The photo-essay as a whole captures the life and times of women during conflict, including during the attempted implementation of the burqa diktat in the Valley. These individuated women stand out in the frames as they look back at the viewer in more ways than one.
Please note that the photographs contained in this essay have been directly scanned from the printed book due to the non-availability of the originals.
The essay traces the detrimental effects on the health of the people of Nagaland due to excessive militarisation in the region. Ngully puts the idea of 'health' into perspective and examines the implications of the WHO definition, which cites not just physical, but also mental and social well-being as criteria. This is done with regard to the torture, murder, and rape that the Naga people have been subject to in the past years by the security forces, justified under the cover of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
By placing the psychological trauma that the Naga people have faced within a broader context of disorders resulting from large-scale manufactured disasters, Ngully lays emphasis on the scale of tragedy in his homeland. There is a certain universality to the potential effects that such disasters can have on the mental health of survivors, and these can last long into the aftermath. The effect on mental health, then, Ngully argues, is an important component of disaster impact.
The essay also looks at torture as a term used to describe the atrocities being committed by the security forces and briefly draws a picture of its actions, which have effectively led to a war-like situation. Ngully finally concludes with a call to civil society for the various kinds of help that they can extend in order to mitigate the effects of such a crisis.
Often cited as the most militarised zone in the world, the Kashmiri landscape is full of contradictory narratives. This essay intervenes in this crossfire of accounts in order to investigate the voices of survivors of sexual violence in the region.
This essay illustrates how sexual violence in the context of Kashmir takes on another layer of meaning as a deliberate strategy employed by the armed forces. It targets both women and men and has a bearing on their daily lives that are subsumed under the shadow of militancy. The events of Kunan Poshpora and Shopian, then, are only a few out of many incidents which speak volumes about the lack of accountability and the culture of silence in the terrain.
As a researcher and activist, Sahba Husain looks at the turning points in the narrative of sexual violence in the region and its emergence out of the margins. Much of the analysis in the essay also stems from personal accounts of survivors who have different allegiances and religious backgrounds, which has affected them differently and has allowed the author to delve deeper into their varied experiences. The aftermath of sexual violence and the challenges it poses in a patriarchal society, especially in the anxiety-ridden conflict zone, broaden the scope of engagement with the very notion of this kind of violence. The essay examines these concerns, as it initiates a move towards a more inclusive and incisive way of thinking about impunity and silenced narratives in the Valley.
Talaash is the second novel of the Bangladeshi writer Shaheen Akhtar. It captures the brutalities of the 1971 war of liberation and its contingent afterlife -- more specifically, the scars it has left on women. For thirty long years, Mariam, the protagonist of the novel, lives with memories of a war that refuses to end for her. The analeptic and proleptic shapings of Shaheen's prose travel in and through those shattered memories (and their public use) to construct a devastating archive of pain and anguish, far beyond the pale of cause and effect. Shaheen Akhtar's mesmerizing and moving novel, set against the background of the Bangladesh war of independence, explores the violence done to women, their courage and heartbreak, their search for love and their betrayal. Taalash (The Search) was awarded the Prothom Alo Literary Prize in 2004.
Sahba Husain, in her capacity as a consultant with Oxfam, worked in Kashmir at a time when the conflict was already 15 years old. This essay discusses her experiences as a part of the Violence Mitigation and Amelioration Project, where her task was to examine the psychological impact of violence on people's lives as well as the echoes of such violence. It brings to the forefront the increasing rates of psychological disorders and cases of suicide, and the utter paucity of resources for dealing with the deteriorating mental health situation in the region. The essay’s observations on trauma and health stem from the author's empirical study of the population of Kashmir, for whom life has been rendered uncertain. Husain explores how faced with loss, suffering and prolonged stress, women in the region have become susceptible to depression and anxiety too, but often cannot seek treatment due to social constraints. By capturing certain experiences of the people, the essay evokes the drastic transition that has taken place in their lives after militancy and has left Kashmir in the dark. The refrain of fear that is pervasive in the region only affirms that no one, irrespective of age, gender or class, has escaped the massive impact that militancy and the AFSPA have had. Husain's piece is a reflective one as she discusses the challenges she faced during her work, which were integral to her subsequent disillusionment with the Indian state . Her essay, too, shatters a certain monolithic image of Kashmir and sheds light on the psychological trauma and health issues that people from the Valley face. It is, finally, a reminder of the patience, endurance and strength that women have displayed in their desire for justice, and above all, peace.
Chakravarti’s essay counters the claim that in the pre-colonial period, a ‘fixed’ Hindu law didn’t exist because of multiple caste laws, by arguing instead that even those separate caste laws were bound by a broader rational framework, enforced as such by the Peshwai.
Chakravarti analyses the three legal issues of widow remarriage, conjugality and the age of consent to explore how the colonial laws affected women; the relationship between the caste panchayat and the larger legal culture of the second half of the nineteenth century, and whether the textual law was more or less repressive than customary law.
Women came under the purview of the colonial law because of a weakening of the caste panchayats, and the new British administration gave men a choice of forum through which to enforce patriarchy.
They were also brought under the colonial state through criminal cases against them, such as those for prostitution and abortion. The colonial state was able to do this effectively because the patriarchal Indian community also had the same goals. Despite the inherently patriarchal nature of colonial laws, women also sought the system out for cases of adoption and rights over their parents’ property.
The essay also points to how cultural nationalism unified ‘Hindus’, placing a Brahmanical patriarchal notion of womanhood instead of caste and regional differences, raising important questions about the relationship among the colonial state, law, family, caste panchayats and gender in the nineteenth century.
Two prominent protests in Manipur by women in recent years, one an individual one and the other a collective one, have brought to national attention the brutalities committed by the armed forces on ordinary citizens under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
This essay highlights what those protests mean for peace in Manipur, and how women have played a critical role in exposing the impunity with which human rights are violated under the exceptional circumstances created by the AFSPA. It also questions the unethical nature of militarization and the patriarchal nature of the State.
Broadly containing two segments, it gives a background to Irom Sharmila’s protests and her reasons for choosing hunger strike as her method of protest. The discourse of conscience and Satyagraha that Sharmila evokes is brought out through interviews. This is followed by an analysis of the 2004 public disrobing by the Meira Paibis, in protest against the rape and murder of a young woman by the personnel of the Assam Rifles.
The essay shows the inversions brought about by both protests via a comparison between Irom Sharmila’s prolonged hunger strike against an exceptionally violent law, and the Indian Army Rape Us protests by the Meira Paibis. Both challenge the division between the public and the private, holding the state publicly accountable for atrocities committed in private. Food and clothing, one a biological necessity and the other an important social norm, are given up by the protestors. According to Mehrotra, this shows the power of the human body generally, and the female body particularly, to formulate and transmit subversive messages. She finds that underlying the protests is a common thread of rebuilding Manipur out of all the chaos.
Writing in Dalit Women Speak Out, authors Irudayam, Mangubhai and Lee situate this essay within brahmanical patriarchal discourse of dishonour and blame, which stigmatizes Dalit women who are victim-survivors of violence. Their interviews with five hundred Dalit women investigate the nature and forms of violence faced by the women, and bring to light not only instances of violence within Dalit households, but also the overwhelming number of cases that relate to rapes by male members of dominant castes.
These personal narratives articulate the dilemmas that confront women when facing themselves and society after being subjected to violence. The fear generated following any type of violence, and the impunity with which much of the violence occurs, all contribute to changes in the victim-survivors’ social interactions and sense of belonging to their families and communities. The authors focus on both the immediate and long-term consequences of violence on women vis-à-vis their right to health, dignity, life and security. With the help of the study they demonstrate how short-term physical injuries have the capacity to inflict long-term mental suffering, which can exacerbate feelings of helplessness and fear of further violence. The lives of Dalit women become conditioned to violence rather than freedom, which can lead to the curtailment of women’s mobility in public spaces.
Gazala Peer’s essay, written against the backdrop of militarization and the existing Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Jammu & Kashmir, explores obstacles faced by survivors of sexual violence in seeking redress when the perpetrators of this violence are members of the armed forces. Through cross-cultural comparisons, Peer describes the extent to which gendered sexual violence is used by nation states in war and conflict situations, and the culture of impunity that accompanies this violence – conditions that have existed, too, in Kashmir since the onset of armed struggle against the Indian state in the early 1990s. The essay establishes the role of Indian authorities in signaling impunity to their armed forces in Kashmir, and goes on to investigate the procedure and function of court martials as justice delivery systems for survivors of sexual violence.
Since AFSPA was imposed on Kashmir, the Indian government has not granted sanction for the prosecution of any armed personnel in any court of law. Although in principle the provision of prosecuting army personnel under court martial trials does exist, Peer questions whether these trials, taking place within the structure of the army itself, can ever be a substitute for trial in civil courts. To this end, Peer closely examines the context and process of the court martial, arguing that this system, in cases of sexual assault and violence perpetrated by its forces (which the army views as “breaches of discipline”), is disposed to be lenient toward the perpetrators, maintaining martial impunity.
Finally, to highlight the hostile and alienating nature of the court martial trial to survivors of sexual violence, and questioning the system’s ability to deliver any kind of justice at all, Peer walks the reader through the experience of four such survivors. Their testimonies and interviews raise serious questions on the basic norms of justice and fair trial vis-à-vis cases of sexual violence tried under AFSPA.
'HIV and Women in the Northeast' explores the feminization of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the northeastern states of India. Shyamala Shiveshwarkar illustrates the reason behind the growing epidemic in the Northeast—that the virus has been extending its reach with high-risk sub populations like injected drug users (IDUs) as well as making inroads with the general population—and focuses on how it is impacting women detrimentally. The region has seen the HIV/AIDS epidemic primarily driven by IDUs; states are combating the double dilemma of drugs and AIDS. Transmission of the virus from IDUs to spouses, sexual partners and children has also been established, which has led to statistical increases in sero-positivity. Given that the “Northeast” is a homogenizing misnomer, the author uses tracking mechanisms to outline how differences in socio-economic and anthropological dynamics contribute to different prevalence rates and changes in infected populations over time.
Shiveshwarkar establishes and elaborates on the critical linkages between drugs, violence, and gender inequalities at the individual, family, and societal levels to establish women’s increasing vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. She asserts that regardless of whether they are affected or infected, women are being forced to take on a greater share of the socio-economic and psychological burdens of stigma and discrimination, violence, caring for the sick and providing for their families. Many women, including young girls who are forced to drop out of school, are made to work to cover the medical expenses of sick spouses or to repay debts. The author takes care to outline the intersection of these vulnerabilities with the political insurgency in these states and explores the problems with existing treatment and care of HIV/AIDS—focusing primarily on its inadequacy and male-centricism, which severely limits women’s access to prevention and care
In her conclusion, Shiveshwarkar, insists on the need to recognize that accessibility is a web of socio-economic, cultural and physical geographical factors: for women, the presence of services alone is insufficient. The author argues that what is needed is holistic reform which includes addressing the drug problem in these states, demanding state-sponsored medical interventions and gender sensitive medical environments.
This essay discusses caste, gender and the state, and the relationship between the three in the context of militarization under Peshwa rule in eighteenth century Maharashtra. Analysing materials available in the Peshwa daftar, Uma Chakravarti illustrates the different ways in which the state played a decisive role in upholding the caste system and in installing social codes to legitimize women’s sexuality.
Chakravarti points out how the Peshwa state upheld Brahmanical social order by prohibiting ‘untouchables’ from approaching the temple of Vithoba (which also housed a shrine for Chokhamela, a saint belonging to the Mahar community who were historically considered ‘untouchable’, was associated with the regional Varkari movement), threatening punishment if they failed to conform. Chakravarti casts doubt on whether this traditional practice helped bridge the gap between the upper and lower castes by looking at the effects of the development of other religious practices with the consolidation of the Peshwai.
The institution of marriage and other codes that legitimized women’s sexuality, additionally, were major elements at play in the Peshwai’s organising of gender relations. Chakravarti explores ideological structures of enforced widowhood, the difference in punishment that women and men who committed adultery faced, and the role of the state in arranging marriage for girls between ages seven and ten. Connecting caste with women’s sexuality, the essay gestures towards Brahmanya’s investment in the undiluted purity of its women.
This piece was written after the abduction of the author's husband by ULFA terrorists in Majuli, Assam where they worked as social development workers in 1996–97. In this chapter, Ghose explores her experience of learning to cope with the aftermath. Moving from personal reflections to discussing universal aspects of such suffering, she throws light on the far-ranging impact of violence that often goes unacknowledged. She then captures the different stages that an individual undergoes in the period of suffering, and consequently looks at strategies of coping which are effective and can transcend harmful responses. By shifting the focus onto the individual's own reaction to violent events, Ghose is able to break down the mistakes that one is susceptible to making almost reflexively – mistakes that perpetuate a cycle of violence.
Written in the form of a prefaced monograph, the title of this piece is drawn from a short course that the author attended in Delhi, which gave her the fresh perspective and strength needed to make this reflective essay a reality. Ghose's insights on responding to events of violence or conflict are embedded in a critique of certain forms of protest as well as what she calls the commonly held 'victim attitude'.
For Ghose, strategies of coping become methods of achieving much more. In a world full of violence and rage where a vicious cycle of the two is kept alive, it becomes imperative to rise above feelings of aggression and victimisation that inevitably cause more harm than good.
This essay is a historical overview of Dalit literature, focusing on the contribution of women writers. The authors Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon show how the Dalit movement gained momentum with the rise of Dalit centric newspapers and literary societies, which gave a voice to the Dalit people. Led by Babasaheb Ambedkar, this literary movement was strengthened through talks, discussions, analysis of folk songs, and by spreading literacy and encouraging research. By the 1960s, Dalit writers had created a huge collection of short stories, poems, novels, autobiographies and analytical pieces. The authors focus on the gradual increase of female voices and perspectives in Dalit writing – on topics ranging from religious customs like funerary rites, birth control, to mixed marriages. Some women included larger criticisms of patriarchal societal norms in their writing, advocating for equality. They were especially emphatic about the need for education, urging other Dalit women to take initiative by educating their daughters. The essay also looks at writings on Ambedkar himself, and on Buddhism, the religion that Ambedkar heavily propounded, and later embraced. By providing excerpts of their writings, the essay shows how the women often had differing points of view, leading to healthy discussions and critiques. Appreciating these works for their literary merits as well as social significance, the authors suggest that they helped people understand and appreciate their own history, and facilitated the spread of radical ideas of identity and self-worth.
For this essay, Adrienne Germain draws from her professional life, especially her interactions with female sex workers in the Indian subcontinent. The author details how action around sex workers is often centred on “rehabilitation” and “relocation” as though all women in sex work had been “forced” into it by circumstance. Germain believes that this position deprives these women of their agency and fails to respect their autonomy as individuals.
The central theme of the essay is the difference of opinion among feminists, and between some feminists and the sex workers’ movement, on if sex work is or can be an autonomous choice by women, or is always and only a form of violence and exploitation of women. Another important theme dealt with in the essay is the interface of sex work and HIV, where policy makers often see sex workers only as a vector of the disease with programmatic interventions often not recognizing these workers as agents of change themselves. She mentions her engagement with several non-governmental organizations in India that led her to realize the need to establish and implement sex workers’ labour rights.
The author also discusses her positionality and mentions the emotive barriers or discomforts that still remain for her around sex work, which she attributes to differences in life experience. She describes these “emotive barriers” as stemming from the fact that she cannot fully imagine the choices, as much as she respects their right to sex work. In addition to general opposition to defending the rights of women in sex work, she discusses how many women perceive these sex workers as a direct threat to themselves, to their marriages, or to a social order in which they feel “safe”. The author states that in the broadest sense, both feminist and sex workers’ movement are founded on the commitment to women’s autonomy especially control of their bodies. She concludes with a call for solidarity and for women to unite across diversities to mitigate the challenges around sex work.
Samita Sen’s essay traces the history of the Indian Women’s Movement from the 1920s to the present day. The chronological as well as thematic logic of the essay follows three primary heads: a historical background, the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) controversy, and the political implications of the reservation for women in legislatures.
The historical background highlights four critical issues: the tensions and fractures within the women’s movement, how these fractures were related to the mediated relationship between women and the conception of their ownership by the nation-state, how the differences amongst women could be managed or transcended to create a political community to which women will want to belong, as opposed to being shunted into it, and finally, the issue of women’s agency in politics.
The discussion on the UCC becomes an example of how the community and communal politics are deeply implicated in the politicization of personal laws, and how the rise of nationalism and the politicization of the ‘private’ familial domain placed personal laws at the centre of the colonial-nationalist conflict. The initial consensus amongst the women’s movement for reforming the gender discrimination in personal laws broke down by the time the Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced. This also marked a shift in focus from demanding legislation from the state to a greater participation of women in state affairs.
For Sen, a new feminist politics has to address struggles of class, caste, community, religion et al, without displacing gender as the central concern, making this essay one of crucial importance for understanding the origins of the issues facing feminist politics today.
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