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Kalpana Sharma's essay explores the multiple roles that women came to occupy in the riots that took place in Mumbai post the Babri Masjid demolition. As the news of this destruction – carried out on 6th December 1992 – was broadcast across the country, it triggered communal violence, resulting in two phases of riots between the Muslim and the Hindu communities. The essay looks at the people who were some of the most affected by the carnage in the city, the urban poor, and highlights how their specific spatial and economic locations had a great bearing on their lives in this period. By studying the chawl dwellers, the slum inhabitants, and the people who resided on the pavements and analysing how each group had varying responses to the riots, Sharma's study explores what degree of significance their religious identity held during this time.
Sharma argues in her essay that the role of the women during these riots was not defined by their gender identity alone, or even their religious affiliation, but also by their class and their location in the metropolis. Her essay is an attempt to understand why and how these factors held the importance that they did, as her study spans areas of Mumbai which were all affected directly by the chaos. She adopts and reinforces a perspective that is broad, in that it explores women's roles during the riots not only as victims, but also as active participants, ready to fight for survival, and as peacemakers who played key roles in bringing communities together in difficult times.
This essay examines women’s writing in the 19th century on the oppression of widows, focusing on voices that writer Uma Chakravarti believes have been invisibilized over the years. Stating that the history of social reforms and widowhood has been predominantly understood from a knowledge-based male perspective, Chakravarti proposes balancing the discourse with several female perspectives based on experiencing widowhood first-hand.
The essay is divided into three parts – the first section focuses on women’s works on widowhood, examining the writing of Sushila Devi, Tarabai Shinde and Rakhmabai. The second section looks at widows from Poona Widows' Home writing about their own experiences, and the third at writers like Pandita Ramabai and Parvati Athavale who were actively involved in providing support to other widows. From scathing criticism to personal experiences, the works criticize the then existing male-dominant Reformist movement, which focused only on widow remarriage, and outline the problems faced by widows, such as deprivation of basic needs like food, clothing and shelter, and the enforcement of unpaid and unacknowledged labour.
Chakravarti thus claims that these works were responsible for expanding the boundaries of the discourse around widowhood, making widows the subject of the issue than mere lifeless objects. She critiques these works, analysing the ideologies and influences of each writer. Through the topic of widowhood, Chakravarti demonstrates how women writers went on to discuss issues of female agency and autonomy, and critique larger patriarchal structures such as religion and family, which reinforced oppressive practices against women.
Feminist movements in India have, both pre- and post-Independence, seen the family and home as the nexus of organizing women’s lives. By the early 1980s, attempts to analyse this nexus had led to examining the codification of women’s rights in marriage and property. It is in this vein that this essay considers the history of the 1985 Shah Bano case and the feminist debates on personal law that it gave rise to.
The call for a common civil code that emerged from the case was extensively critiqued by feminists, liberals and secularists, as well as Muslim religious leaders. The essay traces how the sociopolitical context led to the quick descent of the issue into communal agitation, with a demand that Muslims be exempt from Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code that had been cited in granting Shah Bano maintenance from her husband. It describes how Hindu communalism had been acquiring legitimacy in the eyes of the state, and the contribution of this factor to the national fervour surrounding Shah Bano’s case.
Kumar then traces the opposition by various women’s groups to the 1986 Bill, which was introduced in parliament with an aim to exclude divorced Muslim women from the purview of the hotly debated Section 125. She explores the ‘bitter lessons’ that Indian feminists learnt from the public and state responses to Shah Bano’s case, which then posed certain questions that would become increasingly important to feminists in the years to follow. She concludes with questions of secularism–its definition and its practice–and of representation, both of which are brought to the forefront by Shah Bano’s case.
This essay uncovers how the writings of women have emerged as forms of protest in Assam, a region torn by political violence and prolonged militancy. For Tilottoma Misra, these voices are doing more than simply responding to a need to represent the marginalised; they are attempting to depict the trauma that the women experience in their lives. In discussing the power of the narrative, Misra lays out those aspects of traumatic events that a literary discourse can grasp more expansively than a strictly historical narrative.
Through a discussion of women's writing in the last ten years, the essay explores ways in which women have been affected by violence committed by both the armed forces as well as the militants. Questions of representations do figure prominently in the essay, and the author refers to short stories and poems to illustrate the experience of living through traumatic incidents and moments of devastation. The texts also reveal a desire to create subjects who are able to rise above their immediate political locations and see suffering in a more universal light.
Written by women during times of conflict, these stories and poems help explore nuances of the ways in which one's psyche is affected by the same. With a population facing discoveries of mass graves and an increasing breakdown of basic civic amenities, Misra poses urgent questions as to the role of the writer in such difficult times.
December 2012: Tens of thousands of people – women, men, families, young, old, rich, poor – come out onto the streets of towns and cities in India to protest the brutal gang rape and murder of a young medical student in Delhi. For days and months, the protests refuse to die down. People demand change, action, commitment to the ideals of democracy and egalitarianism. And they refuse to be silenced.
Soon, a new law is put in place. More and more people start to report incidents of sexual assault. New conversations, new debates begin: is violence increasing? Are we seeing more of it? Was it previously invisible?
In this bold and brilliant collection of visual stories, fourteen young women respond to the activism and debates on the ground; they negotiate anger, fear, hope, resistance. Created in a week-long workshop, these stories talk to each other as they powerfully describe the fierce determination of the writers/artists to continue the battle for change.
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.
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.
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.
This volume documents the focus on the widow, regarded as the dark half of womankind in tradition, the structural counterpart of the sumangali or the auspicious married woman, and to provide an archive on widowhood. The archive comprises prescriptions, injunctions, laws and other accounts dating back to the 5th century BC from Sanskrit texts as well as extracts from official documents, pamphlets and essays in many languages, published in the 19th and 20th centuries. The material is arranged in three parts: documents, personal narratives and creative writing in an attempt to capture the complexities of the experience of widowhood, its diversity and range across India. With the emergence of the women's movement in the last quarter of the 20th century, the terms of analysis have changed and feminist inspired scholarship has raised new questions. In the anthology the widow comes across not just as a passive 'pitiable' object, oppressed, victimised and patronised but as an active resisting survivor - it is this last image that stays with the reader.
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.
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.
The Tamil text Nīlakeci, dated around the 5th century CE (debated), is an unusual literary creation. It retrieves a violent, vengeful pēy (female possessing spirit) of Palayanur, transforming her into a Jaina philosopher. It was a profoundly subversive idea of its time, using the female persona and voice (for a hitherto disembodied being) to debate with preceptors of different schools of thought/religions of the time, all male, barring the Buddhist nun, Kuṇṭalakeci. Nīlakeci’s debates focus on questions of non-violence, existence of the soul, authorship and caste, among others.
However, in order to truly appreciate this alter-texting, one has to unravel layers of other texts and traditions: the lesser known villuppāttu (bow-song) and nātakam (theatrical) versions of the pēy Nīli stories, as well as the story of Kuṇṭalakeci’s own transformative journey. Umamaheshwari situates these in a comparative context, while maintaining the centrality of the debates within Nīlakeci, using translation of selected excerpts.
R. UMAMAHESHWARI did her doctorate in History from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has been an independent journalist and historian for some years. She was Fellow at the Institut d’Études Avancées de Nantes (Nantes Institute for Advanced Study), France (2017-18), and the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla (2014-16). She is author of Reading History with the Tamil Jainas: A Study on Identity, Memory and Marginalisation, 2017 and When Godavari Comes: People’s History of a River (A Journey in the Zone of the Dispossessed), 2014.
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.
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.
Esther Syiem's essay traces the paradoxical nature of women’s status in Khasi matrilineal society. At once empowered and oppressed, Khasi women learn to negotiate these contradictions in their day-to-day engagements with society. Matriliny, for example, is often seen as empowering for women: this, combined with more egalitarian tribal traditions and culture, has given Khasi women greater visibility and mobility and has helped to build solidarities among them.
Despite being both visible and vocal, like their sisters across the country Khasi women too face a skewed sex ratio, a lack of reproductive choices, widespread domestic violence and a host of other issues. The author suggests that these contradictions are better understood by looking at the origin of the Khasis, a time when, because men went to war and often did not return for long periods, women were designated as keepers of the family name and of social values. These became their domain. While inheritance passed through them, much decision-making power in public spaces, particularly in the field of politics, stayed in the hands of men. Although culturally and legally, for example, there is no bar to Khasi women participating in politics or standing for elections, but by and large, despite being ‘empowered’ in other spheres, women tend to stay out.
With the breaking down of the relative isolation of tribal cultures in India, and with more women stepping out of their homes and seeking jobs, change has begun to seep into Khasi lives and transform old relationships and equations. Pointing to this as an important development, the author pleads for Khasi society, and Khasi men in particular, to be open to this change, and to embrace it without limiting the agency of women.
In this essay, Pratiksha Baxi explores the modes by which the law addresses stripping and parading as a political ritual of atrocity in India at three registers: the naming of the spectacular violence by law; the naming of sites of such corporeal performances in legally plural settings; and identifying the circuits of power that are activated to immunize communities and institutions from naming these acts of injustice.
She illustrates the history of protests against sexual harassment, drawing on watershed legal cases and amendments, starting from the protests by women’s group against the rape of underage tribal girl Mathura in 1979, to nation-wide protests against the Nirbhaya rape case in 2012. Baxi draws extensively on the legal proceedings of Maya Tyagi’s sexual assault case (Sheo Kumar Gupta v State of Uttar Pradesh) and on the case of a young Hindu widow, S, who was sexually assaulted and paraded in her local community after she married a Muslim man (Miss M.S. Annaporani v State of UP). She examines the remnants of colonial law, particularly the laws of “divine displeasure” and “outraging a woman’s modesty” to see how mythic temporalities—like that of Draupadi from Mahabharta, in Mrs. Tyagi’s case—are evoked.
Baxi argues, using this framework, that the stripping and parading of women is constitutive of a public spectacle in which the victim is put on display as a degraded object, having been stripped literally and symbolically of all that is social. The justificatory discourse of such violence constitutes its victims as transgressive subjects who deserve the violence by evoking the language of law or custom. Elaborating on various legal amendments and introductions to judgments, Baxi concludes with analyzing the failings of these in practice. The processes of according dignity remain fraught, she says, when courts insist on hypertechnicalities hollowing the law of its constitutional content
In 'Kidnapping, Abduction, and Forced Incarceration', the authors examine, first, the various methods of kidnapping/abduction and forced incarceration—on the basis of a study of 47 narratives—and then analyze these forms of violence’s implications for Dalit women’s fundamental rights.
An examination of the relationship between kidnapping/abduction and forced incarceration, and violence concludes that non-state actors employ the method of forced incarceration to mete out punishment in the form of sexual and physical assault against Dalit women who do not conform to caste-class-gender hierarchies. An analysis of the study data, write the authors, shows that there are three broad categories of methods of kidnapping/abduction: the use of force, allurement through false promises, and other false allurements or ruses. Often, more than one method is utilized; throughout these categories, verbally coercive tactics (like threats) were used to further intimidate or torment the target.
The essay also notes that state actors, primarily the police, engage in their own forms of forced incarceration by the filing of false cases or the illegal detention of Dalit women. Unlike with non-state agents, the authority of a single police official, as a member of a dominant caste and as an agent of the state, is enough to successfully enforce an incarceration. This, the authors assert, shows the ascendency of caste norms over the rules of law.
The physical isolation and restriction from dominant caste male-dominated public spaces re-emphasizes and compounds the caste-class-gender-based social exclusion and vulnerability to violence that Dalit women face, argue the authors. Kidnapping/abduction and forced incarceration are used to both degrade Dalit women’s identity and to mould a collective negative identity fashioned along inequitable caste-class-gender parameters, conclude the authors. Kidnapping, Abduction, and Forced Incarceration thus highlights how these forms of violence negate their agency and reinforce notions of passive submission to exploitation and violence at the hands of the dominant caste.
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.
Radha Kumar's chapter tracks the history of protests against dowry in the contemporary women's movement, starting from the first demonstrations at Hyderabad in 1975 and leading up to significant legal amendments in the early 1980s. Interspersed with historic photographs of the movement in its crucial stages, the essay captures the wave of protests that spread across the country, bringing disparate groups together to revolt against dowry-related crimes.
As stories of torture were brought to attention in public discourse, feminists challenged the dominant ideological mode that rendered violence against women a private, family matter. This violence was not only physical, but also mental, often leading to incidents of bride-burning and abetted suicide. Kumar's essay delves into the way such incidents garnered public outrage – particularly in Delhi, where the campaign was more sustained – and how, over time, feminists expanded their methods of seeking redress. The campaign, as it gained traction, sought action not only through legal investigation, which had been negligible in dowry crimes, but also through social pressure on the perpetrators.
Kumar's essay finally covers the consequences of the prolonged campaign, in particular those of changing legal attitudes. There had been a marked shift from an indifference regarding practices of dowry harassment and bride-burning to a series of amendments that set in place several protective as well as investigative measures for cases concerning dowry victims. The movement had then achieved, after initial setbacks, some important victories, and Kumar's essay captures this not only through its text but also through a range of photographs from the period.
This book examines the structures of governance as they impact women in five conflict zones in South Asia: Swat in Pakistan, the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, the Northern Province in Sri Lanka, and Kashmir and Manipur in India.
Despite their different historical and political contexts, the five studies included here throw up some common patterns. War and conflict have weakened and eroded existing formal structures and institutions of governance. New formations, whether made up of militant groups, or more ‘secular’ state institutions like armies, do not see women as rights-bearing actors. Further, the authors argue, the impact of war, conflict, settlerism and militancy can make state structures more distant and sometimes incomprehensible to citizens, leaving women’s specific gender concerns unaddressed.
Taken together, the essays show that women’s relationship with governance institutions is complex, and combines dependence on such institutions with the challenge of dealing with new forms of patriarchy that take root as structures transform and change. The gendering of governance policy and practice therefore, is of crucial importance.
CONTRIBUTORS: Amena Mohsin | Delwar Hossain | Nazish Brohi Saba Gul Khattak | Malathi De Alwis | Udhayani Navaratnam | Nima Lamu Yolmo | Shaheena Parveen | Ayesha Parvez | Seema Kazi
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.
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