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An Interview with Dr. Bhalla: The physicist-turned-Partition-archivist

You may have heard of a little project called The 1947 Partition Archive. It started about five years ago, with a tiny part-time team that put all their waking hours into it. Since then, it has exploded in popularity. It now has about 250,000 likes on Facebook and a team that spans the globe. The Archive’s mission is to interview the people who lived through Partition and record their stories — before the entire first-hand memory of the lived experience of Partition is gone.

Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla is the founder of this mammoth endeavour. I first meet her at a Zubaan event about Partition: The Long Shadow. I’m kind of bowled over by her whole existence; she is a physicist with a doctorate, who quit a plum job at Berkeley to start the Archive. She’s also incredibly unassuming and down to earth. The next morning, we meet at Café Turtle in Khan Market — an interesting space to be talking about Partition, given that it is named after Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan — to embark on a long conversation about her life and work.

Dr. Bhalla grew up in and lives in the U.S., so I am curious about what brings her to Delhi. It turns out that she comes here three times a year for work. This time, she’s here because the Archive is moving into a new phase and formalising into a trust. She’s here to fundraise and get people on board.

However - surprise! - “I’m actually looking into moving here now and at least getting the Delhi part of our branch off the ground.” Whoa! How does she feel about that? “Well, you know, I was born in Delhi! I spent the first ten years of my life here. And I come here often enough so it doesn’t seem that foreign to me. But it’s changing a lot and every time I come it seems like a [different] country. It’s not the same place I left. The only thing is — I’m used to being completely independent in the U.S. That’s normal [for me], but in Delhi there are a lot of barriers to being that way. And you know you hear all these crazy stories about Delhi being so dangerous and this and that so — there’s that. But I’m actually excited about it.”

Dr. Guneeta Bhalla

Dr. Guneeta Bhalla

Her answer pretty much leads me straight my next question, about what it was like conducting Partition research as someone who doesn’t live in the Subcontinent. “The first interviews I ever conducted were in Faridkot, in Punjab, when I was visiting my family. And there I used to just switch into Punjabi mode — you know, were in the village, speaking Punjabi.” She thinks that the only difference between her and everyone else who had been listening to the same stories was that she, perhaps by virtue of being of the diaspora, of having been educated in the U.S., saw the value in recording the stories. “Maybe other people around me were not seeing [these stories] in the same way because maybe they were used to it.”

“I think also, as part of the diaspora, there’s always the identity issue. [Recording stories] was like reconnecting with my identity and understanding why things are the way they are now and how we ended up in the U.S. And it’s all related to Partition - why our families ended up over there.”

Her father’s family came from Lahore, and she has many stories from his side. I want to hear one, so she tells me: “The story goes that my grandfather didn’t want to leave Lahore. He thought all of this would blow over. All his friends had moved, had sold their properties. He so firmly believed that nothing would happen — it was his ancestral city, all our ancestors had lived there for who knows how many generations — that he stayed on till August 13, when his neighbour said that I’m taking your family (his sister, my grandmother, my dad and his siblings) to the other side because things are getting bad.” The neighbour in question, by the way, was Faiz Ahmed Faiz — Dr. Bhalla had always heard that her grandfather’s family lived next door to a poet, but she only recently found out who the poet actually was. The train her grandmother and her father were on turned out to be a military train, and the family saw many horrifying things on the way to India. They ended up in the Amritsar refugee camp, where her grandmother’s brother took them in. Dr. Bhalla remembers stories her grandmother told of going places in a Jeep and driving over dead bodies. She was flabbergasted to hear those stories — “[they] sounded completely crazy!” Meanwhile, in Lahore, the Pakistani military showed up at her grandfather’s residence on August 14. “They said this is now Pakistan, and you have to leave. So [my grandfather] called some trucks and filled them up with everything in the house and got ready to leave. But as he was leaving, [the military men] said all of this is now property of Pakistan and you have to leave on your own.” He begged them, Dr. Bhalla says, to let him keep a few things, and finally he was able to take some financial documents and an heirloom Guru Granth Sahib belonging to the family that was a few hundred years old. The family still has the blueprints of one of their two houses in Lahore, a house on Lake Road that has now been turned into a government building.

“My grandfather and grandmother were separated for a very long time — they didn’t know what had happened to my grandfather. Eventually they reunited in a refugee camp. My grandmother never really got over it. She had a lot of interesting habits later in life such as taking a few possessions with her wherever she went and being very possessive about them. They lost everything. They were very — I didn’t know this because I didn't grow up wealthy — but they were very wealthy and they lost everything during Partition… Resettlement was very challenging for them, and [my grandmother] never quite got used to this side.”

She’s going to Lahore next week, she tells me, for a “personal-slash-Archive visit”, for the very first time. She’s been asked to take the blueprints to whoever occupies the Lake Road building now, and to show them this pre-Partition memory. She sounds nervous yet anticipatory to visit her ancestral city. “I’m going to be visiting our family’s old house and seeing Lahore for the first time.”


What led her to start this project? Did she ever imagine it would take over her whole life?
This story, too, is about family. In 2010, her grandmother’s brother died. “I couldn’t sleep that whole week… It was just like a bout of madness — an intense and completely irrational desire to put everything aside and just do this without even looking at the future, making no plans.” Initially, she says, it was totally haphazard — the small team was just doing whatever it took to record as many people as possible. She couldn’t do it herself, of course, even though she worked every evening after her job and throughout the weekends — so people kept joining, and all of them had to be trained, and equipment had to be acquired for every member of the team. Cameras were borrowed, handed out, returned, and so on. “Our house turned into almost this weird little cafe, where all these people kept coming in to borrow all this equipment, and I was living with my partner at the time and he was just like what’s going on?!”

She had no intention of leaving her career as a physicist at all — but there was a moment when the project grew so big that a decision had to be made. In January 2013, Dr. Bhalla left her job and started managing the Archive full time. She volunteered at this for almost two years, living only on her savings. When her savings ran out, she says, it was one of the hardest periods in her life. “You don’t realise the insecurity that goes along with [not having money until you experience it].” The insecurity becomes a mindset that is hard to get out of.

Eventually, luckily, they got a couple of very generous donors in Silicon Valley who saw the value in their work and donated enough money for five salaries. That’s where the Archive is right now, but Dr. Bhalla wants to raise more money now and expand the scope of the project, and the team.

How did they find this funding? “It was completely crowdfunded — we would go to mosques, gurudwaras, mandirs [in the U.S.] and make announcements, ask for money… People whose interviews we recorded, some of them would just donate. We had this policy of not asking [interviewees] for money but a lot of them… ended up becoming our donors.” The donations they have gotten thus far have been largely unsolicited. They’ve only started their first major solicitation effort now. Yet people seem to want to donate. Funnily, “[t]he only reason we turned into a nonprofit/NGO is because somebody gave me a cheque and I didn’t know what to do with it. You know how much they gave me? It was… $194.70. And I said, what am I supposed to do with it? [The donors said] well, you should form an NGO and deposit it in the Bank.” For six months, the team held on to that check. They were a small group, they didn’t even have a name at that point. Then someone came up with the name 1947 Partition Archive, and they formally registered the organisation, and finally deposited that first donation.

This project is huge — in size and impact. No one has ever recorded the oral history of Partition on such a gigantic scale. Dr. Bhalla tells me that the Archive was inspired by a project that memorialized the trauma at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 by recording the survivors’ oral histories. There are also Holocaust museums around the world that do similar work. However, Partition — an event that is considered the largest mass migration in human history and shaped the Subcontinent as we know it today — has not been given that kind of attention — until now.


Dr. Bhalla thinks that being nurtured in Silicon Valley is really what gave the project the big push it needed. She had always told people about her long-standing desire to do this, but she never encountered the kind of excitement or interest that was really needed - even when she talked about it in India - until she went to Berkeley as a physics postdoc. “I was so obsessed with the idea I kept talking about it everywhere I went. I had just moved to California so I didn’t have any friends there yet. I just kept going to student clubs, and I started talking to people, and a lot of students were the ones who originally joined in.” The Archive, strangely enough, became part of a tech incubator. People were pretty confused, she says, about what to do with a nonprofit in a tech incubator because naturally they couldn’t accept venture capitalist money. Still, “it worked out well for us! Because we learned a lot of intersting ways of doing things that we would not have otherwise. We started out with just me, and we went to a team of sixteen people in that space.”

Berkeley was also the perfect place to start this project because it is one of the few universities in the world that has an Oral History Centre. The Archive team had a world of resources right at their doorstep, and that’s how physicist Dr. Bhalla ended up becoming well-versed in oral history. Her phsyics background, though, is not totally irrelevant to the Archive. “The thing with physics is that I’m trained to build efficient systems to gather data from nature. With the archive, I used the same mentality - this is going to sound cold and horrible,” she laughs, “ - to build a system to gather data efficiently from humans.” They also brought on board a lot of people who had different types of talent - in history, in the humanities. “But maybe it helps that I’m not from the humanities because I don’t have the same sort of ownership over the stories because I’m not doing research on them, I’m just gathering them and putting them out to the world.” She thinks that the fact that they are not actually collecting these stories for research makes the process a lot more efficient, and helps them accomplish their goal of archiving as many memories as they can as quickly as possible.


However, she does admit that the team struggles with not having enough time to think through everything - especially urgent ethical issues. “Putting [the stories] out to the world is a whole other story, and we realised quickly that that’s not something that we can take very lightly, and it has to be done very carefully…It’s something that requires skills and knowledge and understanding, and looking at pros and cons, understanding how the public will receive it. [We] just don’t want to cut any corners or do anything too quickly and make a mistake.” They’re trying to balance the desire to collect, collect, collect, as quickly as possible, with the need to pause and think. An aspect of this ethical struggle is representativeness and possible biases towards one’s own community. Initially - since Dr. Bhalla is Sikh and Indian - people were suspicious, thinking she would only gather Indian stories, or only Sikh stories. However, since they were careful to build a diverse team, people no longer have that suspicion, she says. But naturally, these things have to be thought about.

Another aspect is the ethics of collection. They were lucky to have the Oral History Centre, which helped them develop a methodology of collection. Again, the Archive team faces a struggle to balance the urgency of collecting the stories before they’re gone with the need to respect the people who are giving them their stories. I ask Dr. Bhalla about ownership. There’s a release form, which is in legal language, and story collectors also give interviewees a version in plain English or whichever language the interviewee speaks, and explain the contents. People have to wilfully sign over ownership of that particular recording to the Archive - and if they don’t, the Archive doesn’t collect that story. “In terms of ownership, they own their story forever. The only thing they are giving us ownership of is that particular recording… They also sign a form to donate their story to us. The form also says we can only do something educational with their stories as stated in our mission.” Laws in first-world countries like the U.S. and the U.K. are very strong, but similar laws don’t exist in India, and probably not in Pakistan or Bangladesh either, which Dr. Bhalla admits makes story collection much more difficult here.
They are now trying to work on a way to bring [interviewees] their digital files for free. “The files are way too big to just stick on a DVD or email - so we’re working on things like sending everyone their audio files for free. It’s a matter of resources…[earlier,] volunteers were putting in their own pocket money to do this for people until we just ran out. [We’re working on building] a better system to send people their recordings. It’s just that it’s happening so fast that a lot of these things are not happening in the way that they would if we were to sit down and do it properly. But we just don’t have the time; we’re trying to rush and focus on just recording. Which means that these things like sending people their recordings get left behind, and it does cause distress, we do realise that, but it’s not as bad as not recording their story at all. That’s how we’ve justified it. But we…realise we have the responsibility to work on that.”

Making the Archive sustainable as a nonprofit is also an ethical issue. What they do is, they ask for contributions from the individuals who want to use their stories for research, or for writing or filmmaking. For example, a human rights museum in Canada wanted to display some stories. The Archive requested that the licensing contribution be waived. Similarly, “We have authors and documentary filmmakers who are very interested - and if the authors are going to be making a profit - if they’re academic, it’s okay, they can use the stories - but if they’re going to be making a profit, a portion of their proceeds have to go back to fund the Archive. Because if they’re benefiting from these stories, if they’re making a profit, some of that profit has to go back into story collection. [Being a nonprofit means] fundamentally that whatever money comes in goes back into story collection, it never goes into our pockets. Our salaries are public information and they’re set in advance, and they’re actually poverty level, so none of us are getting rich or anything off of this.” She laughs. “And if anybody did make a lot of money it would never be us, it would always be the institution and then that institution would put that money back in the mission.” The nonprofit structure makes her more comfortable ethically with the work that the Archive is doing.

But how do they deal with making the trauma and the guilt of Partition stories public?
“Good question! So we actually haven’t made them public because we don’t know how. We’re forming a Task Force on how to institutionalise the memory of partition. These are the questions that will be answered by that group of people. We have a number of individuals are already on board from the U.S., and Urvashi [Butalia] from here. And we’re looking for more individuals.”

The little previews that they put up on their Facebook page, which is the only bit that goes public, “[is] created in collaboration with the interviewee. So the editor work[s] directly with the interviewee, and [goes] back and forth until they [are] happy with the clip. As a nonprofit we not only have the burden of doing that, but we also can do that - unlike a for-profit [where it] would be like we’re using too many resources.”

And how does the Archive balance perspectives of gender, caste, class and ethnicity? Partition played out very differently for different communities. Dr. Bhalla nods in agreement. That is certainly an issue they grapple with, especially considering that initially, the Archive only ended up collecting the stories of middle class and upper middle class people. That’s why, she says, they started their Story Scholars Program. “[These are] paid scholars who go out within their geographical and language regions to record stories, and they’re encouraged to record stories in every economic group. We have had stories come in from people who [are] tribal, or transgender. We’ve had stories come in from a lot of communities who are often underrepresented in the mainstream. And that was our way of trying to addressing this problems, to have paid scholars who went out to rural areas, to villages.”

Their goals? What do they want to do with the stories once they are collected?

“Our biggest goal is 10000 stories by 2017, which is the 70th anniversary [of Partition] and we are looking into devising some sort of public awareness campaign…while everybody’s alive we’re just focused on recording the stories. In the future the idea is to disseminate the stories, to engage the public - you know, what the Holocaust memorials do now. They have everything from K-12 education curricula, and…different projects, essay contests, tolerance education [to engage students]. This is just the beginning is how we see it. The first step…How do we bring the memory of partition to the world in a way that is educational?” They want the stories to have a positive effect on society, to prevent things like the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and 2002 in Gujarat, and also the recent Dadri lynching. “It’s almost like it’s become okay, and it’s become normal. And that’s not okay. Those things should not become the norm like they have. I hope this work will help guide hearts and minds in the right direction - and I think it can. We see that on our Facebook page every day. It’s amazing the interaction between Indians and Pakistanis that occurs.” Laughing, she says, “When I need inspiration, sometimes I go on our Facebook page and I’m like, yeah, we’re doing the right thing.”


It’s interesting - they have such a massive Facebook following, when the people who use Facebook are largely of an age demographic that is, in terms of generations, twice removed from Partition. What is it like having created a project that is about the fading memories of people who will be gone in a few years, but is also about the passion of younger people to record those memories? Their team, too, is very young. How do younger people, people of Dr. Bhalla’s generation, of my generation, relate to Partition? How do they contribute?

“What happened is - when I recorded stories, I found myself getting carried away. It was like watching a movie, except even more engaging. Because you really got carried away in this other person’s life.” And all of a sudden, she says, along with this, other things also happened in the process of hearing someone’s testimony. “There [is] this bond that [is created] with this [older] person, there [is] this incredible trust.” She says that she realised that young people in the old days used to experience this all the time with their grandparents, “but in our modern day and age, these interactions have become so non-existent that when we have them, we experience this sort of emotional transformation, and I felt more and more people my age needed this experience.” She told other people about these transformational experiences she was having. When they joined in the process of story collection, they experienced it and told other people about it. “It was such a beautiful way to connect with another human, to non judgmentally record their story; and both people come away transformed.”

She also finds the intergenerational heritage of Partition experiences among families displaced by Partition very interesting. In her and her team’s experiences of story collection, she says, the vast majority of people who lived through Partition did not harbor violent feelings towards other communities. They had bonds with members of other communities and did not consider them the Other. Of course, there was a lot of inter-community Partition violence. However, she says, this did not seem to lead to prejudices based on religion or community in that generation. And on the occasions that it did, “when we break it down, we find that the love is usually for people that they knew personally - and the hate is for - oh, the bad Hindus or the bad Muslims, just this group they don’t know.” She finds that the next generation, “our parents’ generation, didn’t experience the bonds with the Other. They only heard stories about the bad things the Other did. Because they didn’t experience the bond, they seem to harbour very strong communal feelings.” Finally, the young generation that is participating wholeheartedly in the project now is simply curious. “We seem to have a kind of curiosity - like what? Why do we hate them again?” In their interview process, they try to spend a lot of time on pre-Partition memory. They often see the surprise of family members listening to the interview - “I had no idea my grandmother had a Sikh friend. I had no idea that my grandfather’s best friend was a Muslim.”

I remember an ad I saw a few years ago, a Google ad. Another Silicon Valley connection. She knows what I’m referring to. This is an ad in which a young girl is talking to her grandfather in India, who recounts memories of living in what is now Pakistan, playing with his friend Yusuf whose father ran a halwai shop, from where they used to steal sweets. The girl later sits down at her computer, in order to - guess what - google “park with ancient gate in lahore”, which turns up the result, “Mochi Gate,” after which she googles “oldest sweet shop near Mochi gate.” She calls the number of Fazal Sweets near Mochi Darwaza, which is picked up by Yusuf’s grandson, who flies Yusuf to India. Cue the sniffles. Long digression, but it seems so relevant to me to think about how the internet makes such a project possible, is the perfect place for the curiosity of the third generation to find its answers. Of course, not all answers will be as delightful or easy to find as Fazal Sweets. Some answers will unearth terrible violence and trauma. But there is curiosity about the pain as well. Maybe that’s why the Partition Archive has taken off like it has on Facebook.

Dr. Bhalla sees this curiosity in her Story Scholars: “We have a digital meeting every month, and they’re very excited to meet each other across the border. I remember scholars in Pakistan wanted to see if they could come to India - they tried to get a visa but it didn’t work out. Even for me, I’m very curious, I wanna know what’s going on on the other side of the border.” And I find it interesting she says that - as someone who has collected all these stories, she still is curious about what is “going on on the other side”. The Internet can’t answer everything - there is something, some information, some felt experience, that cannot be conveyed, that still remains “on the other side”, and this curious generation feels its absence keenly.

But to say that this generation, this age, is totally removed from Partition, as though Partition was some event that happened and is now over, is also an act of erasure. Partition is still there, in the now. The fact is that Partition was what formed these three nations - Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. Whenever we identify ourselves as a citizen of any of these three nations, we reference and call upon the memory of Partition. And this is what I want to talk about next. Dr. Bhalla invokes these ideas when she says, “When you interview someone [and they talk about their pre-Partition life], they did not identify themselves as Pakistanis or Indians…Punjabis identified themselves as Punjabi, Bengalis as Bengalis. So the concept of India, the making of that identity, was a very conscious effort by the Nehru government. It didn’t just happen.”

And in the case of Bangladesh, this memory reverberated when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Indeed, this memory reverberated (for India) in 2002, in 1984, during the Dadri lynching. Are those events, I ask, experienced as a repetition of Partition?

“We first interviewed people who first survived the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942. They walked for a month [to get back home]… some of these people were Punjabis, some Bengalis - and some walked all the way to West Punjab. And then a few years later they experienced Partition - and then they experienced the wars, if they were living near the border - and then they experienced 1984. I met somebody who experienced four migrations and is now living in the U.S. - and he doesn’t even trust the U.S.’s seeming security and stability. He [says] no, this could fall apart any second.” She continues, “And that was really really interesting to me, because I had never fathomed it ever falling apart. I was always raised with such an illusion of security and I was like, that’s not going to happen! And he was like nope - everything you think is not going to happen will happen and can happen.”

The Deoliwallahs: A conversation with Yin Marsh and Joy Ma

On Friday, October 9th, Yin Marsh - author of the upcoming Zubaan book Doing Time With Nehru - visited the Zubaan office with her friend Joy Ma. Yin and Joy are part of a community of Chinese immigrants who had settled in India. Starting in 1962, about 2,000 members of this community were incarcerated in an internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, as a State reaction to the Sino-Indian Border War. Though the conflict only lasted one month, many internees were kept in the camp for up to four and a half years after they were first interned. Doing Time With Nehru is about Marsh’s experience of being incarcerated in Deoli when she was a young child.

In the camp, they had minimal access to basic amenities like electricity, food, etc. There was no schooling. Many people were separated from their families in the camp and after being released. Some families were new immigrants, with only a couple of generations settled in India; however, some had come as early as 1780, and a community of labourers arrived in the 1800s to work on tea plantations. So when many Chinese-Indians were forcibly deported to China, it was a land some had never even seen. Some Chinese Indians were citizens; they had their citizenships taken away. A community that, as Payal Banerjee says in her Introduction, had a “long and enmeshed socio-cultural belonging” in India, was almost overnight cast as foreign, “alien”, and dangerous in the national imagination.

After the internees were released, they found that their property and land had been confiscated by the State; they were forced to go and make a home in unknown parts of the country, starting with nothing. However, in their new homes, things did not go back to how they were before. Social and institutional discrimination against the Chinese-Indians was now rampant.

Many members of this community eventually left India, finding life too difficult in the country they had once called home to continue living there. This is also the case for Marsh and Ma. Both of them now live in the U.S.

They are back now - along with two other ex-internees, Steven Wen and Michael Cheng - “to seek closure, to ask for an apology from the Indian government, to talk about a history that has gone unacknowledged for so long” (scroll.in). They call themselves “The Deoliwallahs” and recently got a campaign partially funded on Indiegogo, called “Voices of Deoli”. They wanted to raise financial support for travel to India, and also for a new documentary film being made by a supporter of the community - Rafeeq Ellias - in order to spread awareness of a story that was systematically suppressed from Indian national memory, and therefore, one that very few (especially in the new generation) had heard. The documentary eventually did get made, and was recently screened at the IIC in Delhi. It is called Beyond Barbed Wires: A Distant Dawn.


Yin Marsh (left) and Joy Ma at the Zubaan office in Shahpur Jat October 2015

Yin Marsh (left) and Joy Ma at the Zubaan office in Shahpur Jat
October 2015


An Interview

I ask Marsh and Ma how they found the ex-internee community.  Marsh says that for her, she completely lost touch for a while - until 2012. She didn’t really engage with the past before that. She was so angry at India that she completely rejected that part of her history. Marsh’s daughter, Nicole Marsh, writes in the Foreword to the memoir that although occasionally her mother would talk of her past, there was no real exploration of those memories within her family. However, when she was in college, she studied oral history, and that made curious about her own family’s history - specifically her mother’s history. Eventually, the conversations between Nicole and Yin led to the idea for a memoir.

The memoir kickstarted things. When it was published, members of the community started reaching out to Marsh. She says that once Nikki (as Nicole is fondly called) met a travel agent. She told her mother that the travel agent made her think of her. When Marsh asked why, Nicole said that the man grew up in Darjeeling and his uncle was interned. Nicole invited him to the book launch, where he bought a book and sent it to his uncle. It turned out that the uncle was someone Yin Marsh knew - a man named Ming Tung Hsueh. The travel agent was also in touch with a writer named Kwai Li, who wasn’t an internee but had written about life in Calcutta, and told her about Marsh’s memoir. Li got in touch with Marsh and asked her if they could meet. When they met, she gave Marsh Joy Ma’s business card, who Li was supposed to meet on her trip to San Francisco but couldn’t. And that was how Ma and Marsh ended up meeting.

For Ma, her family always talked about that part of their history. As a result, they were in touch with many of the ex-internees, and they knew a lot of people. However, everyone was busy with work and their own lives. Marsh’s book, though, “really led to the resurgence of something - everybody was ready to do something more.” This was the chain of events that led to the Voices of Deoli movement.

Joy Ma is a very interesting ex-internee, because she was born in the camp. Her mother was pregnant when the family got arrested. Therefore, she is the youngest member of that community. Marsh, too, was young when she was interned - she was thirteen, just transitioning into adolescence. What was it like, being that young and being incarcerated by the State?

“As a teenager, I was just so angry,” remembers Marsh. “I was really mad when I got away from it. I had lost everything, I had lost my identity. All of a sudden I wasn’t Indian anymore, I didn’t know what I was.” Her parents never emphasised their Chinese identity that much - and besides, she was in boarding school most of the time. She didn’t feel Chinese. But, according to the government, nor was she Indian.

Her brother - Bobby - who was around eight at the time, loved the camp, strangely enough. He had a “grand old time,” says Marsh, smiling. He thought they were on a camping trip. He would have stayed there another two months.

Joy Ma reflects, “When you're a teen so many things are going on. One thing I think made them so angry was being treated like prisoners. In the beginning they weren’t angry. Anger came later. In the beginning there was guilt, and shame, and humiliation.” And fear, Marsh adds. What had they done wrong?

The anger was after they were released. They weren’t allowed to go home, they lost everything, their families were split up. At an age when identity and a sense of belonging was paramount, these very things were stripped away from Marsh. “For years I didn’t want anything to do with India, with the food, or anything,” Marsh reminisces. “It was just a total rejection [of India],” adds Ma.

Ma’s parents tried to shelter their new baby from the fear and the deprivation of the camp, and showered her with love and warmth. Her brothers - one a teen, and one eight - had lived a comfortable life before the camp, but at Deoli they were made to do chores - not only to help out their mother, but also to keep them busy. There were no schools in Deoli.

Catching up to school was hard after they were released. Ma, who joined Class One then, didn’t have much to catch up on, but her brothers had great difficulty getting admission to school. Not only was post-war society now xenophobic towards Chinese-Indians, but they had also missed a significant amount of schooling. There was one volunteer who tried to teach children in Deoli, and parents tried to homeschool their kids, but it wasn't the same as going to school. Ma’s mother went around begging priests at missionary schools to take her sons. They finally got into St. Xaviers, which the Ma family was very grateful for. But it took “some clawing” for Ma’s brothers to get back to the standard. Michael Cheng, one of their fellow Deoliwallahs, has a “real stigma” because he was never able to catch up. He lost three really important years in the camp.

Both Ma and Marsh feel like the schools, except for a handful, were not at all sympathetic to them. “Missionary schools, for all their preaching and saying come to me whenever you have trouble, and then when you had trouble, they turned away,” says Marsh. She has very negative memories of her Loreto Convent years. Ma adds that her mother never sent her to Chinese school after the camp. It was just too hard, trying to catch up at regular school; and also, the released families simply couldn’t afford any extras.

It was just hard to resettle after the camp. Ma’s original home was in Alipurduar in North Bengal, but her family was released into Calcutta. “My dad, he just loved everything in his old home and he tried his best for us to go back. All the time we were staying in Calcutta, he was trying to figure out to go back, but we were never allowed to go back - and he was questioning, why? And never got an answer.” Her mother would have nightmares of the barbed wire and wake up crying.

Before the war, Ma says, “It was a Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai time.” Indian people felt warmly towards the Chinese; diplomatic relations were great. “But the change after the war - it was almost…overnight.” After her family’s release, she ended up going to Delhi University. Although the level of sexualised racism towards women who look Chinese, or Tibetan, or Northeastern, were not even close to what they are today, she says, she remembers getting racial slurs yelled at her by boys on the streets when she was in high school. That’s why she started thinking that India was not a permanent home for her - she did not want to live in a place where people were allowed to say such things to her face. She went to New York for her Master’s (she’s a journalist). “But you know, they say that in the United States too…”

“United States is racist too,” affirms Marsh.

The Deoliwallahs are back to ask the Indian State for an acknowledgment and an apology for what happened to them. Marsh outlines their reasons for why they want an official, public apology: “If the Indian government does apologise it would significantly begin the process of healing and closure…the Chinese community will begin to trust the government again, and that at the same time, the local Indian community will start looking at Chinese Indians, not as enemies, but as fellow citizens who were wrongly treated.”

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September 2015: Ilina Sen. Photograph by Moulshri Mohan.

September 2015: Ilina Sen. Photograph by Moulshri Mohan.

I first meet Dr. Ilina Sen when she visits the Zubaan office on Thursday afternoon. Listening to her and Urvashi speak about communities, work, and solidarities from the heyday of the Indian women’s movement is just so. cool. One of the most amazing things about being an intern at Zubaan has been observing the strong connections and solidarity networks of South Asian feminists from another generation. It feels as though the work young feminists like me do today is preceded by a strong tradition, and that there are older people out there who have blazed the trail and are our allies. I always feel this irrepressible need to sit down with these older feminists and listen to them talk about every single thing they have done in their lives.

Magically, Ishani suggests I interview Dr. Sen for the Zubaan blog. And so the next morning, watery sunlight filtering through the clouds, I head to Dr. Sen’s guesthouse (she lives in Bombay and is visiting Delhi for a few days) in Central Delhi. Her room is spare yet comfortable, and she invites me to sit down and offers me chai.

Ilina Sen is largely known in popular discourse as the wife of Binayak Sen, a doctor who works with tribal people in Chhattisgarh, and was imprisoned wrongly by the government on suspicion of being a Maoist. However, in feminist circles, we also know her as a brilliant scholar and dedicated activist who lived in Chhattisgarh for many years, struggling with the mine worker trade unions (Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh, or CMSS) against corporatisation, and advocating for adivasi ecologies in her and her husband’s NGO Rupantar. Today, she primarily works as an academic in Women’s Studies. She has taught at Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, and now teaches at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.


I begin by asking Dr. Sen about her life prior to the events of 2007, when her husband was arrested. I want to know more about what brought her to feminist work, Women’s Studies, and Chhattisgarh. She responds thoughtfully to my question, outlining the history and context in which her feminist consciousness bloomed. She says that she “grew up with the women’s movement”. The post-Emergency period was a time of political vibrancy in the country - especially at JNU, where she was a student in the late 70s and early 80s. She became part of this movement, often spontaneously going to protests against dowry deaths and the Mathura rape case. “So many things happened around us: the meeting to found Manushi occurred on the lawns of JNU. I was there, along with many others - it was a huge meeting.” She tells me that Urvashi is also from that generation of feminists. That’s how long they go back.

Later, she ended up going to Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh for her Ph.D. field work, where she met people working in a “voluntary agency” (which we would now call an NGO) called Kishore Bharti that aimed to transform science education. She got to know rural India a little bit, and eventually heard about the mine workers’ struggle in Chhattisgarh. So she headed there. The first thing that struck her, she says, a note of admiration still in her voice, was that so many women were involved. Half of the organisation’s membership was women - about five thousand, out of a membership of ten thousand. These were mostly tribal women, and they were “visible and articulate,” very different from the women of North India she had known before. “I was very impressed,” she says. “It was an impressionable age also...I really learned so much.”

When I ask her what she learned, and how her feminist consciousness developed in her struggle with the mine workers, she tells me an anecdote of her time in Chhattisgarh. “Earlier...when I first went there for example, if we had a meeting, it would go on till 10 o'clock at night, and nobody would stir. Men, women, everybody would be there - and...if the women had small children, the women would be scolding the small babies - that for everybody it was important to be there, to participate and to understand. Later when there was relatively more prosperity, women would start getting up from the meeting at quarter to 5.” They would ask the women who were leaving where they were going, and why they weren’t staying, only to find out that the women had to leave to start cooking for their families. “As long as you are at the same level, and everybody has to work for a living, women are valued as comrade, and they are part of the movement. Later when the men start earning a family wage, they start feeling like the head of the family. Then...many of these patriarchal assumptions about gendering of labor and women’s roles within the family [come into the picture].” This experience, she says, helped her - and also everyone else in the organisation, including the women who were leaving at 4:30 to cook - to understand the pulls and pushes between women’s production and women’s social reproduction. Now, teaching at TISS Mumbai, when they discuss the theory of these contradictions, she tells this story to her students to get them to understand what it looks like in practice. “[It]...was a different way of communicating feminist understanding and consciousness across class and across settings.” She is proud that during her time in Chhattisgarh, they were successfully able to build a body of working-class women activists who were aware of the oppression.


Sen stayed with the mine workers’ trade union, slowly getting immersed in the language and culture of Chhattisgarh. Many people, she tells me, have asked her why she chose to live in Chhattisgarh. It was not a conscious decision, but after “...learning the culture and language, I felt at home...it became impossible to think of moving away.” She sustained herself with her research, while spending most of the day working with tribal mine workers. “There was no average day, you know. An average day would be spent with people in what you would call the field - in villages, rural settings, tribal settings.Some days I would be writing up my experiences, writing as part of my research...I was speaking their language fluently, singing their songs, and I enjoyed it hugely.”

Throughout our conversation, she often emphatically says that she never felt like “a lamb that had been sacrificed.” She is resistant against the image of the upper middle class bleeding-heart NGOer, living in privation in order to uplift the lowly working-classes. “I...loved Chhattisgarh...I loved the place, I loved the people...I never felt martyred.” When she was in Chhattisgarh, she was living on Rs. 1000 a month, but she didn’t feel like anything she did was a sacrifice. Both she and her husband, Binayak, did what they did out of choice, and because they wanted to. And they both enjoyed their work very much.

She speaks about the NGO that they both set up. In Rupantar, they worked on gender issues and trainings, as well as agrobiodiversity. They started documenting the different indigenous strains of rice and seed banks Chhattisgarh had, and she started learning about adivasi ecology.

Here’s a story she told me which helped me understand how her feminist and ecological work is connected. At one point, the Bhilai Steel Plant, which employed a lot of women in the trade union as contract labor, was trying to modernise the plant. The women realised their jobs were at risk - they could potentially be replaced by machines and more formally-skilled labour that would have the technical know-how of how to operate the plant. Sen embarked on a huge study with the mine workers of how mechanisation affects women workers. The women workers, after the study, took a resolution (that the whole trade union followed through with) to think about the kind of technology a country like India needed to have. Since people were not in short supply, India did not need to follow the same automation norms many less populated countries needed to. Technology options needed to be rethought such that everyone’s work - men’s as well as women’s - was equally valued, and there was space for people to develop new skills within the job setting. “It was an entirely new way of looking at women and work,” Sen says. They needed to think about what the community needed and what kinds of lives would be livable, convivial, and sustainable. This work, it seems to me, was about prioritising development strategies that privilege those often left behind, displaced, and marginalised by traditional strategies of development - who are often women and members of the working class.


Sen has lived through a lot of change in Chhattisgarh - for example, the granting of statehood in 2000. Earlier, she says, “Chhattisgarh was just one forgotten corner of Madhya Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh itself is a forgotten part of India. It wasn’t well connected, except Bhopal, Gwalior...some areas like Khandwa, because of Medha Patkar’s movement...Chhattisgarh bahut zyada kabhi - it wasn’t really connected.” Unlike their neighbour Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh never had a strong movement for a separate state. However, their culture and language was very different from the rest of Madhya Pradesh’s, and administratively, living in Madhya Pradesh was difficult since everything was so far away. So when statehood was granted, Sen says, “there was general happiness that the administration was coming close...and everything was going to be more convenient. There was a sense of joy and happiness, that at last we have our place in the sun, our culture, our language [is being recognised]. That feeling lasted for four or five years.”

What happened after that? She says that the way the new state ended up taking shape disappointed her. “I realized in the 90s I think, that there was a tribal way of looking at life and doing things, and there was an administrative way, and the two were contradictory.” One area of discomfort was government education policy. Earlier, since Chhattisgarh was part of Madhya Pradesh, education was in Hindi. However, most people spoke Chhattisgarhi, not Hindi, and the two languages were very different - for example, Chhattisgarhi is not gendered like Hindi. School dropout rates were very high. So Sen, together with the rest of the CMSS, started building community schools - where everything was taught in Chhattisgarhi, where the poems children were taught were not Jack and Jill, but instead the community’s own songs. They built this curriculum from the ground up, writing down the songs, games and other material that was to be taught (Chhattisgarhi is largely an oral language). The community felt pride and ownership in this school system. However, with the new state, formal experiments had to take place in education. Sen says that they initially spoke to her, and other people, who had been doing this kind of work in the area for a long time. They were on committees and gave feedback. However, their feedback was largely disregarded, shunted aside so that the state could follow directives from the centre and from external organisations that gave them funding. They were interested in a more centralised vision of education.

Another way the new state disappointed her was the changing political climate, marketisation, mining activities and the coming of the corporates. “...Once the big corporations started to come, and tried to acquire land and push tribals out, there were many violations of basic rights that took place in that context.”

For example, Salwa Judum, a government-supported militia, was publicised as an anti-insurgent movement, specifically a movement to get rid of the Maoists. However, its real agenda was ground-clearing. It was also a movement to get rid of the people, because the government wanted to give the mineral-rich land to mining corporations. Salwa Judum led to huge abuses of human rights, including sexual violence against women. “Anyone who tried to take a position against that was persona non grata in state of Chhattisgarh...anyone who opposed the Salwa Judum was branded a Maoist sympathizer.”


I ask her how her work has changed with these changes in the political and economic environment of Chhattisgarh. In general, I am curious about how, through these dramatic changes, the political climate leading up to the arrest of Binayak Sen, and the eventual national furor over his case, her time and energy has been channeled into different things. How does she feel about this change? The answer, it seems, has many different facets for her. We spend a significant amount of time unpacking this issue.

“It’s a very complex issue and I’m still trying to come to terms with it. It wasn’t just my husband’s arrest, but the way in which the political climate in Chhattisgarh was changing...One challenge was that as people who are socially conscious and claim to have a social commitment...do we raise our voices or do we keep quiet?” The government tried to get her and other people “who straddle[d] the local culture and the public space” to join committees and become policy advisors. She did do that for a while, advising the state on educational reform and gender.“And although nobody listens to that advice, we start to feel self important, that we are engaging, we are trying to change policy...They’ll call you to meetings, they’ll stand up and give you those outward marks of respect, but actually you know whatever you are saying is not having an effect.” She wondered about the usefulness of engaging with policy issues, but eventually decided it was not worth it. She came to the conclusion that “one had to critique [the government]...because if one did not, it would lead to a total surrender of all the positions one had earlier stood for.” It was a difficult choice for her. She realised early on that such a choice would make her unpopular, and unwanted by the State.

She speaks about her path to full-time academics, which also happened around this time. This transition was related to her research and because she felt she needed to theorise and write more, but it was also because of the lack of safety she felt living under the repression of the State’s development strategies. “I felt very strongly even in 2004 that it was not going to be comfortable to sit in Chhattisgarh and articulate the kinds of positions that I wanted to articulate.” She needed to have a space where she could retreat and, in a way, change her identity in order to be more secure. An academic would be less likely to be persecuted by the State. And so in 2005, she began looking for academic opportunities.

Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya was just coming up at that time in Wardha (Maharashtra), and incidentally, their Women’s Studies program was being put together by feminist historian Uma Chakravarti, who Sen knew personally through feminist networks and through the Indian Association for Women’s Studies. She also knew many other scholars involved in the Antarrashtriya Vishwavidyalaya project, and she also had the unique advantage of being able to teach Women’s Studies in Hindi (the curriculum was in Hindi). So she was welcomed into the fold.

She tells me she also applied to an institution in Calcutta. However, she later found out that they did not consider her application “serious” because her primary work at that time was seen as activist work (despite the research she did alongside) and also because she was a Women’s Studies scholar, which the historians at that institution did not consider “mainstream academics”. “...[And that] was unfortunate, because I was really feeling that this was not a safe situation for me anymore.”

So Wardha it was, and eventually when Wardha advertised for full-time positions, she applied and was selected. Wardha was close to Raipur, and she commuted for several years, teaching in Wardha from Monday to Friday, spending the weekend in Raipur, and going back on Monday morning. Even while her husband was in jail, she would do the commute - reading up on the case on the train back to Raipur, visiting him in jail, conveying or carrying out any instructions he had, and then preparing for lectures on the way back. At Wardha, they had a huge teaching load, a very small faculty teaching M.A., M.Phil, and Ph.D. programs. During this time, she says, her own academic work came to a standstill, apart from just the bare minimum. She became seriously unwell after that period of extreme stress.

Her apprehension that the situation was not safe was confirmed with her husband’s arrest in 2007. “There were indications I too might be picked up,” she says. However, by that time she was safely employed by her university. Binayak Sen’s case, and the associated Free Binayak movement, took a toll on the family. It was an important case - not just for the Sens, but for the entire country. Ilina Sen became the public face of the case, and became known as Binayak Sen’s wife in popular discourse. For a feminist and activist with a strong body of work, it was difficult to be known primarily as someone’s wife. Laughing, she says, “I mean, I am his wife, and we’ve had our ups and downs but on the whole we enjoy a good relationship, but now it was a primary identity, and I had to deal with that.” Her return to feminist academia was also accompanied by the consciousness that she was now known in another avatar as Binayak Sen’s wife. Occupying this role in the public eye was another part of the work of fighting the case.

The first time she went to file for bail was the first time she had stepped into a courtroom, and she had “genuinely no clue” about how legal processes worked. A lot of her time was now devoted to learning about the law and fighting the case (she kept teaching throughout this time). “You can have all the lawyers in the world (and I had many, who gave their time pro bono, I had very good support)...but even then, at the end of the day, when an affidavit has to be signed, when I have to make an application on his behalf, it goes with my signature. And when I’m signing something, I must be responsible and understand all the implications. So that [was] a huge responsibility.”

Concerned relatives and friends would get in touch all the time, suggesting strategies, people to meet, things to do. While they were all extremely worried and concerned, and were trying to be helpful, dealing with them was also a drain on her time and energy. One cousin, a newly qualified lawyer, kept suggesting she file a petition in the Supreme Court on the basis of the Constitutional Right to Freedom.

While such a petition would not have been incorrect, the case had gone way beyond that. The protest against Binayak Sen’s arrest only made the government more adamant. “...[Within] six months, it had deteriorated into a prestige-based fight with the state...the State was saying he’s a hardcore Maoist ideologue, he’s this, he’s that, and cooking up all kinds of evidence...and his friends are saying he’s this doctor who could have gone anywhere in the world and he chose to work with tribals.” Neither of these constructions of Binayak Sen, she says, are true - “they are both extreme articulations.” Whatever he did, he did out of choice and because he liked doing it, she says. Neither of them ever felt martyred. Nevertheless, the positions solidified. Meanwhile, they kept applying for bail - and kept getting refused. Once, a government officer they talked to told them - even before the judgment was out - that the government was going to refuse bail because they thought it would “demoralise the police.”


“Whatever I have done in my life and work, I can divide it into two periods...Prior to 2005, a lot of it was focused on Chhattisgarh. For anybody at that time who was doing research on Chhattisgarh, wanting to work on Chhattisgarh, when they were passing through, they would come and meet me. I met lots of people at that time - people from Delhi, international scholars - and I was recognized as someone who was au fait with those issues...When I again started writing, 2009 onwards, it was a different phase. I had seen the repressive face of the State at close quarters. My own academic interests also changed.”

While many things have changed, she reflects, she doesn’t think the transition from full-time activism to full-time academia was such a drastic change. She hasn’t left one world totally behind to move to another. Her relationships with the Chhattisgarhi mine worker women have remained strong - even after her transition to academics and moving away. “Even now when I go back to Dalli Rajhara, and go and visit my old friends - many of my old friends and very close friends are women who are mineworkers, and I still am able to meet with them with a lot of affection, spend time in their homes, eat their food, just relax there, and feel absolutely comfortable.” She acknowledges that with age, and with health issues, she may not have been able to continue activist work in any case - “it was a rough-and-tumble life.” She feels lucky to have had the resources to make a change to a less active life - despite all that has happened, she does not feel embittered.


How did her politics change after experiencing the repressive turn of events in Chhattisgarh?

“...Well, okay, [I had known about State repression before]. It was happening in Manipur. AFSPA is there. But Manipur is very far away. And I was younger, a more optimistic person...I felt that there were special issues in Manipur. And I’m sure there are...there are dominant cultures and subordinate cultures...[and] relations between them are flawed. But I felt [Manipur was] some kind of a distant reality. But what happened in Chhattisgarh was before our eyes and in very rapid succession - and that was an eye opener.” It’s not that her political positions changed, she says, thoughtfully. But they solidified, became much more forceful, and today she has a more mature understanding of the way things work.

How do activists - especially activists who are sometimes protected by their privilege - respond to the repression? What are some strategies? She thinks that people, wherever they are located, respond to repression in different ways. Irom Sharmila has been fasting for several years. Some people write about it. For example, Praful Bidwai kept writing about the connection between the State and international political economy, and how the State plays the role of a handmaiden of imperialism and corporatisation, until his last day. “As the repression grows...it is [the duty of intellectuals] to highlight it...[But for] activists, it is much more difficult.” She brings up the case of Teesta Setalvad, persecuted for her activist work. Among many other allegations, Setalvad has been accused of buying a hairdryer with institutional funds. Sen thinks this is utterly ridiculous. “Teesta...was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She does not need to use institutional resources to buy a hairdryer. Anil Ambani doesn’t need to stand in line for rations. The real issue is the work they have done.” Misinformation is spread about activists, she says, to degrade them in the eye of the public. Teesta is very strong and resourceful, and is still fighting the case, but many, she says, succumb. Many families fall apart under the pressure. So activists need to be watchful, to be sharp, to keep moving, and seize opportunities as and when they come - sometimes reinvent themselves, like she did. The situation must always be reassessed.

How does she feel about the women’s movement in India today? What does its future look like to her? It’s a big question, and she takes a minute to think. “I see some shifts. In the 80s and the early 90s the women’s movement was very vibrant and today it doesn’t seem to be quite that way.” She says that there are phases - in the 40s, there were many active feminist women in the azaadi ki ladai. In the 50s, there was a lull of peace. The 60s were again full of activism. So the movement reinvents itself, and she is sure that it will once again be vibrant. She thinks that queer organisations have maintained their solidarity networks through these phases, and have been a source of support in the feminist movement. However, she feels a certain disquiet with how it is right now. “There is a certain withdrawal from the external world into an inner world...identity discourses [are becoming prominent].” The lives of ordinary women - for example, migrants in a city like Delhi, abandoned women in the urban space, who often work as domestic help - should concern the women’s movement, and Women’s Studies also, much more than they do right now. These women and their circumstances should in fact be the central focus of the women’s movement, instead of the concern with personal identity. “I mean, the women’s movement has always had to engage with this dichotomy between the public and the private...I’m sure a time will come when there will be more engagement with the public space and the private life will become more influenced by that.”

In her book A Space Within The Struggle, which Zubaan published, Ilina Sen spoke about how women have questioned patriarchy within social movements, and how many autonomous women's movements have emerged out of that questioning. As I am speaking to someone who straddles the divide between the women’s movement and anti-class/anti-caste struggles, and someone who clearly has strong feelings about the need for activists in both movements to connect with each other and be conscious of their own and each other’s privileges and oppressions, I am curious as to how she navigates having a foot in both worlds. How can solidarity be forged between different movements in Indian society, where communities and oppressions are in no short supply and the political environment is often identitarian?

Sen acknowledges that in India, there is a tension between women’s organisations that are single-mindedly feminist to the exclusion of all other anti-oppression work, and the multidimensional women’s group she worked with in Chhattisgarh, which focused primarily on workers’ issues and took up many others in addition. The kind of hierarchy of issues that emerges out of an organisation that tries to dismantle multiple oppressions was fiercely critiqued by the former type of organisation. “I...lived the tension, and spent long periods interpreting class contradictions to feminists, and feminism to working class comrades. It was not easy, but sometimes the positions of autonomous women's groups strengthened mine in my own location, by articulating positions far more categorical than I was tactically able to myself.”

At the South Asian level, she says, women have done a commendable job of recognising the intersections of oppression and struggling against them. She gives the example of women's organisations in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which have been in the forefront of the struggle for peace and against militarization. “It is in India that the connection between broader movements and the autonomous women's movement is somewhat weak, and we tend to classify movements as anti communal, anti caste, et cetera.” She says that activists in any movement need to take sides, and stand with struggling people everywhere, to be able to understand the links between oppressions, and for barriers between different activist communities to dissolve.


We end our interview by talking about her daughters. Ilina Sen has adopted two daughters, Pranhita and Aparajita, at different times. Pranhita is the older one, and Aparajita is younger. I ask her what prompted this decision - and how does her decision to adopt relate to her politics, if at all? She seems to like this question. Her voice is warm and content when she says, “I have been very happy as an adoptive mother.” People have sometimes asked her, and she has asked herself, why she decided to adopt. It’s not that she did not want a biological child. Even when she was considering having a biological child, adoption was still something she was interested in. And when a biological child did not happen, she was not devastated. “The bonding I have with my daughters is very very special, and I think it would not have been any different if they had been born of my flesh and blood. About that I am very confident and so are they.”

Sen had always intentionally told her children many adoption stories, starting with Sita. But Pranhita had some insecurities about being adopted, when she first found out. When she saw the family dog having babies, she wanted to know what was going on. Sen explained that the dog was having babies, and they were coming out of her body. She was anticipating the next question - did I come out of your body like this?, Pranhita asked. Sen said, no, not out of my body, you came out of another mother’s body, and she couldn’t take care of you - she died. But another mother was waiting, so she came in. Pranhita was shocked initially, and took a while to adjust to it, Sen says - but now she’s resolved her questions, and Aparajita, Sen says, didn’t have any, because she had an older sister who was also adopted and because the family is very open about the process.

While Sen is very open about being an adoptive mother, she obviously does not have a label on her that says she is one. So sometimes when people find out, they come to her with odd questions. She relates one such instance - a student came up to her, because she had heard and was disturbed - and said that she had heard Pranhita was her “own” daughter, and Aparajita was adopted.

“So I said that they are both my own, and they are both adopted!” We both laugh. “Because really,” she continues, “what is your own?” It’s very patriarchal to think that it is someone to whom you give your seed. For the man (whose genetic inheritance is the only kind that matters under patriarchy) to pass on his genes, and to control the sexuality of his woman partner for that purpose, is central to the system of marriage and inheritance under patriarchy. So questions of ownership become crucial.

“Whereas if you love - whether you have heteronormative partners or not - if you love, those questions of what is your own, and what is not your own, dissolve.” She has never had those questions of herself.


One of "the bravest women in the world": an interview with Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

There is never a dull day at Zubaan. If it’s not the discussions on the origins of water closets and showers or the age-old debate of ‘Tom-ay-to’ versus ‘Tom-ah-to’, there’s always chocolate runs and a constant stream of visitors – mailmen, writers, aspiring writers, activists, friends, interns and more mailmen – to keep things interesting. One of the most interesting aspects of working at Zubaan is the inspiring women we get to meet and interact with, who have been doing amazing work for the cause of women’s rights across South Asia.

So we recently had the privilege of a yum cashew-filled visit from Sri Lankan lawyer and human rights’ activist, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena. Kishali has been associated with Zubaan Books in the capacity of an advisor and contributor for the Sexual Violence and Impunity project and its Sri Lanka volume. Her tireless work towards safeguarding civil liberties and outspoken criticism of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, under a repressive state regime has led her to being acknowledged as one of the bravest women in the world.

And with the general elections in Sri Lanka around the corner in August, the eyes of the world are all trained on the island nation. So we decided to chat with her a bit about politics, women and activism in Sri Lanka. Kishali’s razor-sharp intelligence and vast knowledge base left us floored. Take a look at the conversation we had.

Kishali Pinto Jayawardena


Dakshita: Sri Lanka has the proud claim of having had the first ever female head-of-state in the world in Sirimavo Bandranaike (1960). Then her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, became the first (and only) woman to be president of Sri Lanka in 1994. However, there has been a lull in the political scene vis-à-vis women’s participation in recent years. What, in your opinion, is the reason for that?


Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena: It’s like this – the appointments of Sirimavo and Chandrika – even though the two events signalled, technically, a first for women politicians, they have really not resulted in any discernible or any positive impact on the political process where women are concerned. Infact, Sri Lanka has one of the lowest rates of female representation in the region across all political assemblies from central to provincial to local. But the issues are not merely on numerical factors.  Where civil liberties and substantive issues of justice are concerned, in fact Bandranaike’s time signalled the first Southern insurrection (1971) where thousands of (Sinhalese) young people were killed. Kumaratunga’s period saw a clamping down of civil liberties, disappearances of Tamil civilians in the North and East, the fettering of the judiciary and assaults of editors and journalists. So both terms, even though, technically and theoretically they were firsts [for women] were troubling times for Sri Lanka. I have, in fact, long argued that the greatest steps taken backwards in terms of protecting the independence of democratic institutions, particularly the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, took place during Kumaratunga’s time. Her successor, Mahinda Rajapaksa only took this process forward to even greater degenerative depths.

And that’s the paradox. Particularly in the case of the political process, when women have achieved positions of leadership, there has been no filtering down or no impact really on the betterment of women as a whole or indeed for the betterment of the nation. And I think this [problem] is probably there in South Asia in general but Sri Lanka exemplifies it…really, really symbolises it.


D: But until very recently, there was talk of increasing political representation of women to 25% in all forms of local governments and provincial bodies within the purview of the proposed 20th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. How is that debate faring?


KPJ: Well, the debate is still on…[it] is still very much in the public forum. The January 2015  government – the minority government of the UNP (United National Party) promised to do [electoral reforms] for their own party, at least giving nominations…to have a quota [for women] for the nominations. And that’s there…that’s quite visible. But the problem that I’m having with this is that as much as one would want to see that happen, the degradation of the political process in Sri Lanka has been so profound and so great that having a technical or theoretical quota for women and letting it rest at that is very problematic. What we’ve been seeing so far is that these positions get stuffed [filled up] by the relatives of the male politicians. So this is the problem with making the struggle for nominations or for the quota the be-all and end-all in itself. Because there is really no functional political process to speak of, you know.

And we have this pattern, very clearly seen over the last two decades or so, where you get powerful politicians, male politicians at the centre putting their nieces, their wives and their daughters in various posts. It’s quite visible in Sri Lanka probably because it is a small country and everybody knows everybody else, it’s very obvious. And while I don’t want to put this forward as a reason for not giving the quota at all, because that is not a good position to take! But one has to be cautious and one has to be mindful that this cannot stop there. And as we have seen in the past, women when they come into positions of power have proved to be no better than men and sometimes they have proved to be worse.


D: And what are your views on women’s participation in public life currently? These days one gets to read about Sri Lankan women making headway in various fields – aviation, IT, even business – fields that have so far been inaccessible to them.


KPJ: Well again, theoretically you have the numbers, in terms of not the political process, but you have the numbers of women in university life, in the judiciary, in public administration, in the media. But whether they exert significant influence on affairs or on the process is another question all together.

I would say that in the field of public commentary, for example during the Rajapaksa regime it was amusing that some (male) commentators remarked on the fact that the women were the boldest in speaking out, in other words, that it was women who had the ‘balls’ so to say! So from that perspective, in terms of opinion-making, women have had a visible role but in policy-making, I wouldn’t really say that there has been significant influence exerted.


D: Even reading through your work, one can see that you have always been a very uninhibited critic of the state especially on the issue of civil liberties. Which begs the question of whether you have ever feared censorship.


KPJ: No, absolutely not. I have never in any way…on a personal level I have never let that govern what I write. I’ve always said what I wanted to say very directly and for some reason or the other…probably because the government also wanted particular dissenting voices to be there to show to the world or to show to people that ‘we have so and so and so and so…’ – I have only been subjected to hate propaganda not to actual physical threats.

I can’t remember a point where I’ve ever constrained or censored myself. But of course you took risks knowing that particular consequences may follow.


D: But in the aftermath of the war, one reads of how dissent has become problematic in Sri Lanka. Most political discourse would like the world to concentrate on the more positive aspects of the rebuilding of the nation. Do you really think there are enough safe spaces to generate and express dissent?


KPJ: Oh absolutely. This is an interesting question, because even during the worst of the times there were spaces within which one could work and you could fashion out spaces which were safe, in that process. In a sense, there was a little bit more vigour then than now, because at that time you were very conscious of the dangers around you and you were pushing the boundaries fully conscious of that and there is a certain push that comes with that because you’re doing it knowing what may happen but you’re doing it nevertheless.

Now it is a little bit more complex…because on the face of it there are more spaces within which one can work and far more freedom as it were. But there is also a certain sense of, not exactly disillusionment but a certain sense of acknowledgement that we have really deteriorated to a large extent. And the extent of deterioration is being realised only now. You can see the extent to which institutions are run by corrupt men and women, including the law, where we have bribe-takers and one (alleged) rapist sitting in the judiciary! I mean these are not things Sri Lanka was comfortable or familiar with decades ago. So these are the realities now that one has to contend with.


D: Yes, it has been almost over half a decade since the civil conflict in Sri Lanka came to a pronounced end. And there is now, of course, the larger issue of examining the extent and impact of human rights violations and atrocities committed during the war. In this context, do you see the state working consciously to address and redress women’s issues?


KPJ: There’s a very significant lack of gender sensitivity in the making of policy, particularly in the issues of liberty and security – you find that lacuna very strongly evident. Sometimes the impression is that we are talking of Sri Lanka as a country that has had to contend with this war for 30 years. But the point is that the problem Sri Lanka has, really goes beyond the war. So we have had not only the Northern and the Eastern war, but we have had civil conflicts in other parts of the country, twice during the ’70s and the ’80s, where over 60000 or so young Sinhalese teenagers died – women and girls and boys. So coming from that there has been a complete militarisation of the country’s civic structures and civic processes, to the extent that emergency law has actually but replaced the normal law for many, many years – for decades. And of course the North-East conflict brutalised society; in the war terrain,the minority had to contend with high levels of state and non-state terror while in the South, life became perilous with constant fear and suspicion prevalent between communities. These are common effects of long drawn out conflict, I assume.

In that context, women have become really fragile and vulnerable. Post war many of these problems have not been really looked at. And the state has actually taken no special steps towards addressing that. So if you look at the post-war years, the issue of safety and the issue of security have become predominant…not only for women in the North and East but also women in the South, because there has been an overall brutalisation of the culture and the process.

So for example, over last 2-3 years, in particular, we have had increasing incidents of rape being reported from all parts of the country, because there has been a breakdown of law enforcement. And you do not see the state or the government reacting strongly, and in a focussed manner to address these issues. It has just become political rhetoric which everyone is tired of.


D: But there has always been the presence of a strong feminist voice in Sri Lanka, in stalwarts like Kumari Jayawardena, Malathi de Alwis, Sunila Abeyasekara, yourself and many, many more. Looking beyond the government’s apathy, how has the Sri Lankan populace reacted to women’s movements? How significant is the society’s attitude to women’s empowerment?


KPJ: At one level, women’s movements have not really been stigmatised or demonised as has been done to other movements like the human rights. You know you work on human rights in Sri Lanka and you are immediately demonised, so it’s like you’re this Western lackey... But the same hostility and the vituperative impact has not been seen with regard to women’s movements. The marginalisation of women has not been evidenced to that extent in Sri Lanka, because as you said, women ascending positions of significance and articulating authoritative views have never been strange to Sri Lankan public.

But that does not mean that women have not been oppressed; across classes…at all levels…there is oppression. There is the oppression of working women, oppression of professional women and there is oppression of those women who are….particularly those who are in very security conscious, militarised environments.

And again discussions on, say for example the legalisation of prostitution. It’s got so bound up in the false ideas of morality and what a Buddhist country should be like. ‘We should not have prostitutes…we are very moral…this is a country which has Theravada Buddhism.’ Such tying up of religious and moral values into this narrative has actually had the impact of marginalising women even more! There are very powerful forces when you talk of religion, you know, in a society like Sri Lanka. So that oppression comes at various levels…at societal, at legal and at….law enforcement, or administrative, government machinery, or bureaucracy, as the case may be.


D: While reading about the Sri Lankan civil war, I was fascinated by the kind of activism that was born as a result of the civil war. I learnt about the ‘Mothers Fronts’ – a peace effort – a distinctive convergence of women, across fault lines, who had lost their children to either death or worse, disappearance in war. Are these fronts still in existence or have different causes taken precedence? How is activism in present-day Sri Lanka shaping?


KPJ: The Mothers’ Fronts were a signal example of women coming together across racial and ethnic boundaries. And to my mind, it was actually one of the best achievements of activism that activist movements in Sri Lanka can talk of. Because that recognised the pain of mothers regardless of what area of the country they came from, you know. But unfortunately that movement was subverted by political forces and it ultimately faded away to nothingness at a point long years ago. And this politicisation of movements is a highly worrying factor in Sri Lanka. The inability of movements to stand up against irritants of all colours and all hues has been a persistent problem within the last 10-15 years.

So the nature of political movements that we see now in Sri Lanka, particularly after the defeat of the former president in January 2015…they have been very vibrant, very vocal…particularly the vernacular which was not so earlier, and I see that as a very good sign because earlier the movements and the activism was very confined to English-speaking [communities/circles]…to elites. But now, from January – or December onwards, that has been conducted more in the vernacular – both Sinhala and Tamil – interestingly and importantly. But the problem is that within a country where there are such fractured histories of political movements, subversion of political movements and the corrosive influence of politics, as it were, on activism….the problem I see now is how to sustain the momentum…in an intellectually rigorous manner, without letting that momentum fizzle out or deteriorate.

Because even though the government changed and though the president changed, the old problems still remain the same. And these are problems impacting directly on women. Like, for example, the issue of security. Like, for example the issue of democratic electoral process. You know enabling good women to come into politics. Who wants to enter politics? Because it’s so corrupt and so horrendous now! So these are institutional, systemic problems that remain with us even though there has been a change of political leadership.


D: And what are your views on the involvement of the Sri Lankan youth in facilitating the democratic process? Considering the fact that the generation that is coming of age has only experienced the war from a safe distance.


KPJ: You don’t have a generation right now in existence, in Sri Lanka, that has not experienced the war in any way at all. The generation that is coming of age has in fact seen the war, because the war ended only in 2009. The difference in us is that we have seen the war in all parts of the country and not only limited to the North and the East.

When I was studying in the Faculty of Law in Colombo and simultaneously involved in political journalism, I saw the unfolding of the second Southern insurrection along with the Northern war and its devastating impact on communities…that the young generation now has not seen. They have experienced only the Northern war as a distant…essentially a distant war…but resulting in bombs and calamities in the South, though not actual fighting in the South.

However, the reason why the government was defeated in January 2015, was in large part because of the young people and due to the social media, because they came out in numbers and said they wanted a change…and there was a lot of momentum around them…pressure…and I think the pressure is still there. You know, the significant contribution made by young people who are just attaining the age of voting is quite strong. And I see that continuing for the future as well, in a very positive way.


D: On that note, I’d like to shift the focus to you and your work…


KPJ: On a general level my work has to do with how systems and institutions in Sri Lanka have survived as a result of decades of degenerative political assaults and attacks and seeing how some core values can be fashioned out of this collapse. So my focus has primarily been that – legal institutions and legal process.

The work I have been doing for many years has focussed mainly on where the gaps in the systems have been…where the failures have been. So now seeing all that in perspective, and in a context where we don’t have authoritarian leadership anymore, seeing where we can build anew ….renew…and encouraging discussion and debate around those issues. And making people aware of the basic problem – that the issue with Sri Lanka is systemic impunity, it’s not to do with one political leader or one particular government or period. It is decades of impunity and insensitivity. So how to tackle that really and to engage in the rebuilding and renewing of Sri Lanka’s democratic process and institutions.


D: You have also been working as an advisor for Zubaan’s Sexual Violence and Impunity project. What kind of collaborations in women’s movements do you see forming, across South Asia?


KPJ: One major issue of collaboration is exactly this – sexual violence and state violence. And I think that really is a focal point…it should be a focal point! It’s extremely important and I think that right now the context that South Asia finds itself in, is very, very central to the discourse.

It is also looking at impunity from various aspects and identifying issues that are common across the region so that you understand that this is also part of a shared problem in the region and that it is not peculiar to a country, as it were. So I think that is really very important.


As told to Dakshita Singh. Title quote from Amnesty International.


So a cup of coffee later, our conversation with Lala Rukh continues...where we talk about censorship, modern-day Pakistan and the death of activism.


Dakshita: Could you tell us about the kinds of events that transpired between ’81 till ’83?


Lala: We used to do all kinds of things. The two years before the big demonstration, there were all these issues coming up. Like I said the first protest was about the Pakistan Women’s Hockey team, we went to the airport and protested there. But that was a very initial one, humara experience bhi kuch nahi tha (We also didn’t have much experience). But I remember the political workers were also protesting, they were courting arrests and so on. People were tortured; I mean it was really bad martial law. So he (Zia-ul-Haq) had already done these things in the first few years.

From ’79 onwards he started changing school textbooks. I remember at that time one of my father’s friends used to work on the textbook board and once he came home for lunch and talked about what was going on. He told us “Har ek department mein maulvi bithaya gaya hai” (A maulvi has been appointed in every department), who would go through all texts. For instance there was one story about a letter. Matlab khat apni kahani suna raha hai, kaise us ko likha gaya aur lifaafe mein bandh kiya gaya, stamp lagayi aur phir daakia us ko ek ghar leke gaya aur usne ghanti bajai. Kisi ne darwaza khola (That a letter is narrating its story, the manner in which someone wrote inside it and then enclosed it in an envelope, how it was stamped and then the postman took it to a home where he rang the bell. And then somebody opened the door). So this maulvi said “You can’t have that, you have to say very clearly that a man opened the door!” (Laughs) The implication here was that it could be a letter written by a boy to a girl! And they were having none of that.

So we did a study on the impact of Zia-ul-Haq’s measures on education, film, also various aspects of media, ads etc. He effectively finished the film industry for a very long time. You couldn’t have women half-dressed on cinema hoardings. So what they would do was to put crosses on all of the parts of the body that would show skin — legs, arms…But there was no ban on men holding guns and things like that!


Shamini: You’d mentioned earlier that when you meet young people who think in a certain way, you know that they have read from the textbooks that were printed during Zia-ul-Haq’s time. Could you elaborate on that, in terms of whether it is still possible to locate that kind of thinking, is it common or are things changing?


L: Yeah things haven’t changed very much, you know? Because kids still have to go through those aspects of the curriculum, especially history which was entirely distorted but now they’re trying to change that slowly. Social studies bhi khatam ho gai thi (Social studies had been rendered obsolete). In place they introduced what was known as ‘Pakistan Studies’ and ‘Islamiyat’ which is mandatory all the way up to graduation. The kids that have come out of that education have actually been quite religious. I mean, we were secular people but our children are religious, because they’ve been through that education system. Although some things have changed and a lot of contradictory things are taking place now…On the one hand, you have globalization and exposure to all kinds of media but on the other side, you also have the Taliban types. So they’re somewhere in the middle and some do see that this kind of religious extremism is not acceptable. But if you end up in an argument with any of these kids, they will defend religion to death.


D: You had said that their basic idea was that Islam can be imposed by curtailing women’s freedom. So in terms of the censorship of women’s bodies what were the changes that took place? Was there an immediate change over to wearing burkhas or…?


L: No, not immediately. But he had imposed a dress-code. So if you were a government servant or especially if you were on television you had to cover your head. There was one woman that refused to wear a dupatta over her head, Mehtab Channa. She was an anchor person or newscaster and basically she just resigned over the issue and she was the only woman to do that. Everyone else covered their heads to save their jobs.


D: What about you and the members of WAF?


L: As you can see *pointing to photograph* (laughs).

October 1982: Lala (in front) at the national convention of the Women’s Action Forum in Lahore. Photograph by Lala Rukh.

October 1982: Lala (in front) at the national convention of the Women’s Action Forum in Lahore. Photograph by Lala Rukh.

D: So just to compare, around the same time in ’79, Iran also witnessed the Islamic Revolution when Khomeini came back and women completely lost any freedom…


L: Yes, in fact we would compare and say “ki inko dekho, inka toh kitna bura haal hai” (Look at them, their condition is a lot worse). Some women had come, not to meet us but for some government work, and they couldn’t even show both eyes, it was just one eye. It was that extreme! Now slowly things are changing and I think you can roam around in Iran with just a headscarf.


D: This is an interesting parallel, in that the coup [in Pakistan] and the revolution [in Iran] happened at the same time and in Iran things became really radical and extreme, whereas Pakistan showed serious resistance. Why do you think that is?


L: Geo-politics really makes a big impact. If you look at what was happening in Afghanistan at the time, the Russians had taken over. I don’t know if Zia-ul-Haq would’ve had such a long life if the Russians had not walked into Afghanistan. So, of course, America prolonged his political life, giving him full backing, arms, ammunition…you name it and he developed the Afghan Mujahideen [to counter the Soviet occupation]. These are the same people who’ve become the Taliban now, by the way, you know?

So such elements…obviously people were not very happy with Afghan refugees coming in, because that changed the whole nature of social structures. They’re much more conservative – the Afghans, especially the tribal pathaans – they’re very conservative. I think all of these radical changes were taking place at the time, and a lot of resistance was also building-up at the same time. Of course, we [WAF] were at the forefront, in the sense that we were the only ones who were organised and doing something.

On the question of why Islamisation was such a success in Iran…they had a revolution! Khomeini was brought back by people, which was not the case in Pakistan – here it was imposed. That’s the difference. And in fact in Pakistan we have never really had a conservative government. People just do not elect religious parties...they never have the majority.


S: You mentioned yesterday that some of the demonstrations that were held by WAF had huge support from men too — radical poets, artists etc., but that it was a conscious decision for it to be an only women’s demonstration. So where did you and these other left-wing men meet, where did you differ?


L: We mostly agreed on the whole issue of martial law and the issue of Islamization. But we believed, at least at the time that if you let men come into our space then they will take over. And then women don’t have that kind of confidence to push them out or express their ideas as much. So that was one of the major reasons to keep the men out. I mean c’mon, men don’t realize the kind of macho thinking they have unless you point it out to them. And then when you do, they get defensive. I mean they had never been challenged before and when we kept them out, they made jokes about us. They would call us WAFS or Wives or Waifs. (laughs) I mean they joked about it but I don’t think it came from a humorous place.


S: Yes, it sounds more passive-aggressive.


L: Yeah it was! And they felt threatened because it was a loss of control for them. I mean they were quite supportive but they loved to tell us what to do. And we wouldn’t let them! (laughs)


D: Do you see any parallels between the activism that happens in India and in Pakistan?


L: Both the Indian and Pakistani women were one of the first to start networking across the border. And because of us a lot of things started, we generated a kind of cross-border networking. But things have changed a lot now. People choose to go to conferences and seminars, things like this – which is true across world, I guess. And also I think this generation of activists are now all in senior positions. And the very nature of activism has changed, really.


D: Is WAF still active?


L: Not really. I mean what happens is that when democracy comes WAF becomes dormant. That sense of urgency is gone. But when Emergency (2007) happened we were the ones fighting at the forefront, holding up the men. 55 of us got arrested! And we were the ones to initiate any kind of serious challenge to the whole business of Talibanisation in Pakistan. And in the last Peoples Party government, a lot of our members in power and we had access to parliamentarians. In fact, they would as us, ask WAF for inputs when passing a proposed bill. So this is the kind of work that is being done more now than any street activism.


D: And do you regret the loss of this kind of activism in Pakistan?


L: Personally, I do. I mean those were very heady days. They were also dangerous but very, very heady. (laughs)


As told to Dakshita and Shamini Kothari


June 2015: Lala Rukh at the Zubaan office. Photograph by Shamini Kothari.

June 2015: Lala Rukh at the Zubaan office. Photograph by Shamini Kothari.

Newly returned from the 12th Sharjah Biennale, Pakistani artist and activist Lala Rukh came visiting the Zubaan office one hot, sunny day in June. Dressed in a Beatles’ t-shirt and denims with bangles jangling on both wrists, she walked in with a lively air and began telling us stories with her easy charm: stories that captivated us, had us spend the entire day listening to her. She talked to us about her art, her inspirations, and the heady days of activism in the ’80s as she walked us through her work – photographs, posters and paintings – giving us a visual sense of all that she has been part of, of history and of history-in-making…

As she narrated anecdote after anecdote, we began to get a sense of what life and oppression under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime was like, with its rhetoric of chaadar aur chaar diwari. We learnt about the beginnings of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and how the women’s rights movement in Pakistan blossomed through intrepid acts of resistance, to counter the violence faced at the hands of repressive state arms and rampant censorship of all forms of art and media. From singing in arrest vans to the iconic chaadar burning, Lala Rukh shared her experiences with equal parts nostalgia for her days of activism and irreverence for the system.

Thoroughly inspired, we decided to interview her so that we could share with you stories of her life, her art and her work!


Dakshita: Was there ever a particular point when you realized that you wanted to work for women’s rights, and made that a conscious decision?


Lala: I had been reading a lot of the feminist literature that was coming out at the time, in the late ’70s — a lot of radical feminist literature was coming out. And actually that was very, very powerful. If you had been through something like that, it could give you a different sort of emotional upheaval. And then I became involved with the inception of the Lahore chapter of the Women’s Action Forum.


D: Was it a spontaneous decision to start WAF?


L: Yeah, it was. It was actually after General Zia-ul-Haq enforced the anti-women Hadood ordinance. You know that in ’77 General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the Bhutto government in a coup and imposed martial law in Pakistan. As part of the process of Islamisation, he enforced the Hadood Ordinance in 1979, to establish a system of justice in accordance with Islam. The most controversial aspects of the ordinance were the Zina and Qazf, under which there was no distinction between adultery and rape. If a woman reported rape, she had to produce witnesses for the same. And not just any ordinary witness, it had to be four adult male witnesses or the woman would be punished by stoning or public whipping, for the crime of adultery.

Of course nobody really considered what the implications were until the first case took place. It was known as the Fahmida-Allah Bakhsh case. With this first case under the Hadood, we realized that this can be really dangerous, you know? A woman exercising autonomy becomes a crime against the state! And now women were actually the ones that would get picked up and sent to jail on the basis of confession. If you even went and reported rape, and you were unable to produce four male Muslim eye witnesses then you were in for adultery. So when the first case happened, in Karachi, about four or five women decided to get together and discuss what the hell was going on!  And that is how it started.


D: Was this at the university? Were you studying together in Lahore?


L: No, no this was in Karachi, while I was teaching art at the Punjab University, in Lahore. And these were women who had been working as journalists, in theatre and so on. There was Najma Sadeque, Aban Marker and others. And two people from Lahore were there – Farida Shaheed and Farrukh Nigar Aziz – who then came back to Lahore and told us that some women from Karachi had decided to form uh, Women’s Action—I think Forum. And they called a big meeting of a lot of women and that’s when we decided that we would also start a Women’s Action Forum in Lahore, all on basis of that first case.


Shamini: What was the initial period like? As in, how did you know where to start, what to do, what to say?


L: Well you see, one of the things that the two women (Farida Shaheed and Farrukh Nigar Aziz) came back with, was a 13-point charter, very basic you know? Although it is still very much there, but we really didn’t have to say “Okay, now we’re going to do this or that,” because such events were taking place that it just galvanized more and more women.

First one, was the Pakistan Women’s Hockey team that was banned in 1981. So that got a lot of women very upset and more women came together. After that there was this, uh, Dr. Israar Ahmed, who was a mullah, who made statements like, all women should be sent home—pensioned off and sent home, women should not be seen on the streets, they should be covered and so on. Oh! And that they should not even answer the phones, because their voice could be enough provocation. I mean look at the power we have! (laughs) It was all quite ridiculous. And it angered all of us so we started a campaign (mostly through the press) against him and he was removed from the council of Islamic Ideology and his television programme was also removed — so we felt very powerful (laughs). And then almost immediately after that, we had our first National Convention when there were already three chapters. First Karachi, then Lahore and then Islamabad and a year later in, Peshawar. And so it was the 10th of October in ’81 that WAF started in Lahore.


S: So how did the older generation at the time — you parents, teachers — take to Zia-ul-Haq’s laws?


L: Nobody really agreed with them. I remember talking to the cleaning lady who would come to our house and told her that this is what he is saying, that your testimony alone will not be enough and she said, “How is that possible? Is he mad?!” So nobody was really in favour of all of his laws against women except of course the fundamentalists. And they’re still at it.


D: So then the majority chose to stay silent.


L: Yes, of course. I mean martial law is no joke, you know? Since Zia-ul-Haq came to power he banned all political parties, arrested all their leaders. There was no leadership to even start a movement. And he clamped down on a lot of liberties, so people were afraid. In fact he even publicly hanged two men — like a spectacle and it was all broadcast on television, live. So it immediately filled people with terror. But there were also quite a few people that had the courage to do things. Usne Bhutto (Z.A. Bhutto) ko arrest kara diya tha (He had had Bhutto arrested) and so Peoples Party (Pakistan Peoples Party/PPP) workers were coming out and a lot of them immolated themselves. But nothing really took off in a big way… these were isolated incidents here and there.

I think WAF was the only organization that was consolidated. We were very conscious of the fact that we didn’t have an office or a permanent space, we were just meeting here and there — in people’s homes and nobody could really catch us. So it was a very amorphous body. Anyone who came was a WAF member. But we were clear that we didn’t want any right wing elements to come in and take over. But because of the nature of the group there was a lot of difference in opinion, and especially with the chaadar burning (below), we got a lot of flak.

February 1983: Lala Rukh (far left) along with other members of the WAF burning their chaadars to protest the Islamisation under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime.  Photograph by Rahat Ali Dar

February 1983: Lala Rukh (far left) along with other members of the WAF burning their chaadars to protest the Islamisation under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime.
Photograph by Rahat Ali Dar

S: Why? What was the reaction?


L: Basically, they said “we don’t want people turning against us” and so on. I mean this kind of symbolism was very powerful, the burning of a chaadar and especially when the whole state’s vocabulary was ‘chadar aur chaar diwari’. And also people are conservative you know? You have all shades of opinion. But the funny thing was that I was sitting in one row and behind me were the other two women [from the protest] and they were wondering if we should confess because it was our little plot and I was like, “Shh! Chup kar ke sun lo (Shh! Let’s just listen quietly) Why should we confess?” (laughs)


Watch this space for more from the interview.


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