Panel 1 - Shaking The Centre: Narratives From The Margins
The English Department’s annual academic conference, Litmus 2019, was off to a good start with its first panel "Shaking the Centre: Narratives from the Margins". It began the discussion on an apt note, particularly against the backdrop of the ongoing political disturbance and tricky power dynamics operating not just within the larger socio-political scene, but also across localized university spaces. With plenty of diverse perspectives on hand, a unanimous agreement regarding marginalized narratives oriented the discussion, which held that this was not the sole preserve of the producers of history or literature, but also of the nation and its state.
Bringing years of experience in filmmaking, Mr. Sanjay Kak, started the conversation by reminiscences of his own life as a Kashmiri. He marked how certain global political trends often ignited contradictory reactions from people towards national literature and film, and why it was necessary to address issues of conflict as and when they arose. Whether through fiction or non-fiction, it is typically thought that the aftermath of war be focused on immediately, should it lose significance, but recent political developments would prove otherwise. Mr. Kak further related his experiences of reading the poetry of Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali. Ali had a cosmopolitan upbringing in the US, but his poetry created a unique vision of Kashmir. As a migrant and a queer individual, his works presented an interesting intersection of personal experiences that offered insight into areas of his life beyond conflict. With a few interjections relating to his encounters with Kashmiri authors and chroniclers, Mr. Kak underscored how literary production in this domain is not just a means to reconstruct a past, but to negotiate one's own identity.
The second speaker, Ms. Sandhya Nambiar (Assistant Professor at Jesus & Mary College) discussed the idea behind the deliberately punned phrase 'state of hurt'. In a politically volatile terrain, there is a repeated instrumentalization of the politics of hurt, wherein consent and dissent are manufactured alike. The individual bears no agency with regards to death (in the case, the context of war) and the power of the sovereign facilitates control over things like time. By posing the question "What time is it?", Ms. Nambiar urged the need to debate whether individuals in a post-truth world are able to steer dominant narratives meaningfully. This was assessed alongside issues of tribal dissent, and more closely, student experience in universities. Are universities simply physical spaces, or designated time spans to fashion oneself through "privatized" knowledge?
The final speaker, Dr. Veio Pou (Professor at Shaheed Bhagat Singh College) discussed the misrepresentation of the North East region in conversation and in writing. Typically referred to in stark geographical terms as the "North East", it is easy to let the implications of the same escape when used. The term is rife with assumptions that homogenize the diverse communities that constitute the region, and thus, indirectly affect its place in the vast corpus of national literature, both written and oral. Dr. Pou concluded the panel by reiterating that the subjects of written work from the region are not confined to conflict narratives.
On this account, the panelists talked about the relation of the individual to these instruments of power, while contextualizing it to the problems of representation and rejection of regional narratives. It built an excellent foundation for future panels, and helped understand the importance of alternative narratives to better understand conflict.
By Samiya Khan
Panel 2 - Talking Women: Troubling Gender
The second panel of Litmus, Talking Women: Troubling Gender brought together two impressive speakers from different contexts together to talk about women and conflict. Professor Ivy Hansdak spoke about the interrelation or power struggle and gender in tribal regions of Jharkhand, while Professor Garima Srivastava spoke about her visitation to Croatia, and the stories she has anthologised from the Yugoslavian conflict on 1992. Their intersection was on the shared humiliation and despair faced by women who go through these troubling times. The panel was moderated by LSR’s own Professor Taniya Sachdeva.
War zones are conflicted regions for women of every community. The garb of equal rights and opportunities is crushed the moment conflicts arise - women become sexual vessels at the disposal of men, and are treated as property; they are forced to give in to the whims of the powerful, and are constantly under threat of attack. Women’s bodies become sites of conquest in times of war.
Professor Hansdak spoke about the need for subaltern voices to reclaim misrepresented history. The majoritarian voices that have so far authored works of art lack the experience of trauma and devastation that these conflicts entailed. It is more often than not that a mainstream voice, claiming to be a representation of a minority, will gloss over nuances which are integral to the subaltern narrative. With regards to women, a personal and experiential approach is essential to build up on the understanding pertaining to the changing role of women in society.
As Kumkum Sangari has pointed out, women belonging to tribal communities are painted in dichotomies: they are either wild or an unreallistically romantic representation. They are essentialised to their primitive qualities - a contrast to the civilized humanity that is usually depicted. Only recently, in the last few decades, has academia seen a rise in the subaltern voices. The research done today explores the victims’ psyche. Recent subaltern literature aims at emphasizing on protest narratives and resistance narratives which focus on the hostility and sense of angst against the unfair isolation of resources, especially in tribal narratives in India. In light of the recent Supreme Court ruling for tribal eviction, understanding these narratives becomes increasingly important.
Professor Hansdak also commented upon the dual marginalization of being a woman and belonging to a tribal community. She emphasised on the relationship between tribals and dikus (non-tribal, usually upper-caste persons) and stressed upon the importance of understanding the multi-faceted problems faced by tribal women.
Professor Srivastava focused her lens elsewhere, and drew attention to Europe. Remarking on the usual fantasy that one usually associates with Europe, she spoke very specifically about the stories she heard from Croatian and Bosnian women who suffered during the Yugoslavian conflict. These stories feature repeated physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, forced abortions, gangrapes, and ethnic cleansing. Quoting some girls she spoke to in war camps, Professor Srivastava said that girls would prefer becoming suicide bombers than continuing to live in camps, because, “That would be one death, instead of the many deaths we die every day.”
It is unsurprising that even after years of conflict, most women cannot share their stories, and are uncomfortable with referring to their past. It was as late as 2015 when a law was passed in Croatia to make reparations for the thousands of abused women - with the clause that they must annually prove that they had been raped. It makes it abundantly clear why the estimated number of women who come forward to report these incidents is only one in nine. Which is perhaps why it becomes so important to listen and retell the stories of those women who have lived through conflict - without their stories, these alternative narratives of mass cruelty would have gone unnoticed in the annals of history.
Times of conflicts are particularly brutal for women and children - often targeted because they are seen as the weakest sections of society. They are left with nothing - no agency, no control and no future. Their safety, their lives are always in jeopardy and under threat. What’s important to be understood is that this is a global problem - African women are some of the biggest victims of sex trafficking because of the unstable backgrounds from which they come, the India-Pakistan partition led to hundreds of rapes, suicides and honour killings, the Yugoslavian break traumatised a whole generation of women, and tribal women in India still lack a voice to express their stories. Women are always victims during conflict, and it will be very difficult to change that for a while; but in the meantime, it is important for us to listen to those who have been through hell, and to understand the impact that conflict has through a gendered lens.
Shreyasi Vats and Arundhati Subhedar
Panel 3 - Unmaking Headlines: News And Reporting
“The Press was supposed to serve the governed, not the governors.”
- All the President's Men (1976)
The above quote delineates a principle which was once the cornerstone for a free press but which mainstream news agencies no longer hold sacrosanct today, as both panellists concurred at the third panel discussion of Litmus 2019.
The English Literary Association of Lady Shri Ram College for Women began its annual academic conference, Litmus 2019 on the theme of “Fault Lines: Indian Experiences of Conflict and Transformations” on 1st March 2019. The third panel of the day, titled ‘Unmaking Headlines’ aimed at exploring the growing challenges of journalism and news in this increasingly conflict-ridden world.
The moderator of the panel, Dr. Bindu Menon, a Professor from the Department of Journalism at LSR talked about the “tyranny of the visual” in the media today and the need to look beyond it, towards language and form but also towards the relationship between the media and the state and how media has embedded itself into the structure of the state.
The encounter killings during the insurgency in Punjab between 1984 and 1995 saw the murder of thousands of innocents under the label of militants. The Delhi police arrested Iftikhar Ghilani, The Kashmir Times journalist, on the grounds of ‘spying with the enemy’ when he was blameless in every aspect. These are a few of the many examples Dr. Anil Chamaria, a senior Hindi journalist, brought to the table to point out the irony of having to find the “truth in the news” today. The media, as it turns out in these trying times, cannot really tell us anything about the world anymore, simply because it has lost the credibility it once held.
Raghu Karnad, a writer and a journalist who works for The Wire, elaborated on swapping of roles between the media and the government in India today. While the government maintains its silence, the media informs us of what the nation is headed towards. He also problematizes the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, stating that both an article piece and a story carry elements of truth and imagination. But journalism, for Mr. Karnad, is not just about truth or non-truth, it has more to do with the methodology it works around and the standards it sets about. In his opinion, only professional journalism is good journalism.
In addition to these key themes, the panellists also discussed how people have become a product for the media and not its consumer, elucidated on the growing commercialization within the medium, and deliberated upon the impacts of social media as a ‘new’ newspaper.
Panel 4 - Beyond Boundaries: India's Many Partitions
The single largest human migration in history, the Partition of India that came as the inevitable price (or prize) for independence, has always been the subject of great scholarship and debate in academic and non-academic circles alike. In dominant discourses, however, the narrative most often takes a singular dimension- one that laments the loss of the territory out of which Pakistan was born, but more importantly, glorifies the moment of Indian Independence as the single most significant moment in modern Indian history.
India and Pakistan’s independence, as many realise today, was not as simplistic as the state and the history manufactured at the hands of the state have made it out to be. The trauma that emanated from the unmitigated violence and a deep sense of dislocation in the post-Partition period does not find a space for itself within the pages of history textbooks. Tarun Saint picks up the example of Shashi Deshpande’s Independence Day to illustrate the sterilisation of narratives by the dominant discourses. The story explores the psychology of a child who has been brought up to believe in a nationalist, patriotic notion of independence, and whose eyes are opened to the gaping wounds of Partition in an interaction with a Sindhi woman who is still haunted by the horrors of her lived experience.
In Why I Write: Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto, the author describes the same phenomenon by undertaking a satirical take on the nationalist slogan of “Pakistan Zindabad” to emphasize the overwhelming hypernationalism that convoluted reason and rational judgement in the post-independence era, but conveniently negated the individual’s personal trauma and discomfort at having to begin a new life in a strange land.
In a society where individual and minority voices are drowned by the cacophony of majoritarian discourse, literature becomes the only medium that accommodates the non-majoritarian narrative. Tarun Saint picks up several examples from literature surrounding the Partition, and all of them, unsurprisingly, are narratives that were otherwise excluded from history because they highlight the deep-seated intergenerational psychological trauma that emanated from the victory that was the independence of India and Pakistan.
However, not every narrative from the margins finds itself represented even in literature. A lack of accessibility, born out of barriers of language, caste, and political power, stifle certain narratives, often forever. Debjani Sengupta makes a case in point with her account of the Namasudra community of Bengal, a predominantly agricultural scheduled caste group whose lives and livelihoods were ravaged by the politics that followed the Partition. Despite being Hindu, the Namasudra community chose to stay on in East Pakistan after Partition, in the hope of bettering their political prospects in a Muslim nation. Communal riots and disenfranchisement disillusioned the Namasudras, who in the 1950s, migrated to West Bengal, a state that was already flooded with refugees and struggling to cope with it. By way of resettlement, the Dandakaranya Project was charted out, and the Namasudras, a landed peasantry who, as Debjani Sengupta observed, were used to the Gangetic agricultural pattern, were relocated to the hilly, poorly irrigated, low rainfall region of central India. The project, which proved a dismal failure, is yet another example of the ways in which the state overlooked the needs of the minority while it was busy inflating the hollow idea of a glorious independence.
At the panel discussion titled Beyond Boundaries at Litmus 2019, Ms. Debjani Sengupta and Mr. Tarun Saint drew on a variety of literature and narratives, both told and untold, that highlighted the fact of ‘India’s Many Partitions’, often glossed over by history, but never truly wiped from the memories of those it continues to haunt.
Madhulika Banerjee and Himangi Shekhawat