Survivorhood in Dardpora

In the initial years of militancy in Kashmir in the early 1990s, the political violence often divided villages – and their inhabitants – into several fratricidal factions. The legacy of this persisted even after active armed combat waned by the early 2000s, making it difficult for those women whose husbands, sons and brothers had belonged to different militant factions to explore possibilities of common action. Far from creating an empathetic bond, the common experience of militancy-related widowhood had served to increase levels of distrust and personal animosity among the women.

Last March, along the verdant banks of the river Tawi in Jammu, a group of peace-builders from Jammu & Kashmir met for a reflective exercise. They sought to take stock of their activities, the road they had travelled and the challenges they had faced over the previous six years. Starting off as a modest listening project in 2001, the Athwaas initiative had along the way transmuted into a peace-building project, focusing on the interface between education, reconciliation and development. Members of Athwaas – a Kashmiri word that means a warm handshake – include Muslim, Hindu and Sikh women from Kashmir, each of whom had taken it upon themselves to set up spaces called samanbals – areas meant for healing, reconciliation and, subsequently, social activism, in some districts of J & K.

Undoubtedly one of the most challenging of these efforts has been the one set in Dardpora, which can rightly be called the village of the widows. Located in Kupwara District, Dardpora is very close to the Line of Control. For months prior to the March meeting, two members of Athwaas visited the village in an attempt to motivate a small number of Gujjar and Kashmiri women to form a group to initiate collective action on issues related to health and livelihood. For multiple reasons, this had turned out to be an arduous task.

Besides the schisms among the communities, the inhospitable terrain served as an obstacle in the path of rehabilitation and reconstruction. Only subsistence-level cultivation is possible here, and maize is virtually the staple food. The lack of grass and fodder in these rugged heights make it difficult to support animal husbandry, and the constant struggle for survival leaves little time to build social bonds. Previously, several groups had been to the Dardpora area to distribute money and offer a variety of short-term relief measures, but only as one-time gestures. As a result, the very concept of long-term economic independence was not just new but alienating for the women of the village, and was met with some hostility and suspicion. It was difficult to garner a response to any initiative where the payoffs were not immediately visible.

It was a challenge to work through this shroud of distrust, accusation, intra-group rivalry and outright aggression, all born out of the tussle for socio-economic survival amidst political violence. Every time a group appeared to be forming, the innate mistrust would rear its head, and the nascent bonds would fall part. Consequently, the composition of the core samanbal group kept changing – some would join out of curiosity, others due to expectations of monetary rewards. In the absence of a common understanding of the rationale for group work, every step forward seemed to be followed by reversals. The March 2007 meeting included only five or six of the women who had attended the first meeting, in Srinagar back in 2005.

Difficult experiences
Dardpora, with its headquarters in Kralpora town, has lush forests and hills to its west, beyond which lies the Line of Control. The kuccha approach road to the village of Dardpora is a single track that connects the two parts of the village. It was easy to see that this track would be dangerous to traverse during times of snowfall and rain, though light vehicles can easily drive up in fair weather. The area is divided into the Kashmiri and Gujjar sections, in lower and upper Dardpora, respectively.

Every marker on the social index and the census report indicate that Dardpora is poor and 'backward'. But one wonders just how much of this could be attributed to the armed struggle post-1989, and how much of it was a legacy from earlier times. While this is not easy to assess, there is no doubt that, since the mountain routes surrounding the village were the conduits for infiltration and exfiltration to and from Pakistan, a large number of young men from the village had picked up the gun, joining militant groups like the Al-Baraq and the Hizbul Mujahideen. As such, a war economy of sorts developed during the 1990s. This micro-economy could not be sustained once the gun was laid down, however, and the problems of poverty and illiteracy could only have been accentuated in the years following the decline of active militancy. While the militancy-related monetary inflows were available only sporadically, they supplemented regular earnings enabling higher standards of living than were otherwise available. Today, it is not just the women but also children who have, through sheer economic necessity, been forced to take on new roles and new tasks.

Even a cursory glance is enough to make the first-time visitor aware that there is hardly any cultivable land in the region, and little grass that could provide fodder. Indeed, there is something a bit unreal about the village. Dardpora shimmers in the sunlight, its tin-roofed houses sending out a silvery glow into the distance. Made with stones, brick, cement and wood, these houses sport something of a new-age look from the outside, which seems completely out of place in a village in which the basic needs of life remain unmet. This puzzle was partially resolved when it emerged that at least some of the dwellings were constructed by an international aid agency, following the Kashmir Earthquake of October 2005.

One of the structures in lower Dardpora could have been any other house dotting the village, except for the sign that it bears: Samanbal Centre: Athwaas initiative. Walking up the wooden stairs, one arrives in a quaint room, with windows offering a majestic view of the mountains, as well as of the houses of upper Dardpora. The floor of the room was covered by simple floor matting, affording a comfortable place where the women of the community could meet together with members of the Athwaas network.

There were more than 20 women gathered together on the afternoon when this writer arrived. They were made up of those who had not received help from the government, or who could not access schemes for development because their husbands had been militants who had either been killed or disappeared – leaving them 'half widows', as those with absent husbands are called. Left out in the political cold, the female-headed households, often with several young children, have very little access to the basic requirements of life and livelihood. This was not our first interaction with the women from this village, though it was the first time we were meeting them in a designated space in their own village. We could hardly help but notice, however, that only a few from the earlier meetings were present in the samanbal that day. Where were the rest? Why had they not come? And why were there so many new entrants?

No one came forward with explanations, but previous experiences had clearly soured the women's outlook about any sustainable economic activity taking off. This was largely due to the sporadic nature of previous interventions, as well as the intra-group rivalries that had less to do with themselves than with the legacies of their husbands. In view of this scepticism, it was apparent that health and long-term development issues would have to be the twin planks of any reconciliation between the different factions in upper and lower Dardpora.

It was in this context that the Athwaas group had made a decision to put the plight of this village onto the radar of Kashmiri organisations that dealt with issues of women's economic empowerment. A team from one such group had subsequently visited Dardpora, with an eye to providing loans for the purchase of dairy units. In the months that followed, however, the women had found it difficult to sustain these new activities. Fodder was scarce. Looking after cattle was too time-consuming for single women tasked with heading households. Besides, one had to go a long way to sell milk. Finally, the 2005 earthquake not only devastated the area, but also caused damage to the cattle and the sheds. Taking all this into consideration, the women of Dardpora had categorically rejected dairy farming as a primary source of livelihood.

What followed that afternoon was the listing of a set of strident complaints. The women reiterated demands for direct financial assistance. They were furious that solar lights had not yet reached upper Dardpora. They reminded the Athwaas organisers that the dairy units, the first of their kind in the village, had not yielded enough milk, and consequently had not buttressed their household incomes. Clearly, the strong emotional outbursts had to be seen as a positive sign of developing a collective response to the problems that the women faced as a group.

Once the dust settled, it was possible to reflect more thoroughly on what could be done in the space designated as the samanbal. The women themselves had some excellent suggestions, including using the space for spinning, using the charkha. This seemed like a workable idea – not only were the necessary investments of money and time not heavy, but such an activity would have important fallout beyond issues related to income generation. Indeed, communal spinning would hopefully provide the context in which to revive some of the old friendship and social networks that had previously provided an important security blanket for the women.

In other samanbals across the valley, this is exactly what had eventually happened. Once a sustainable activity was initiated – one that only in some places had an economic dimension – several possibilities for collective action would inevitably open. Often, the samanbal became the venue for planning social action. The samanbal members in Bijbehara, in Anantnag District, for instance, initially began congregating in order to learn basic computer skills, but later used the space to launch awareness drives for rural women, and to motivate community members to participate in anti-polio campaigns. The physical space that constitutes the samanbal centre in Budgam District has emerged as a place where local women counsellors trained in psycho-social healing are able to meet, discuss their work and forge a safety and support network. In turn, this renewed confidence has given them the impetus to reach out to larger numbers of villagers through door-to-door campaigns.

Conflict-sensitive development
The situation in Dardpora has not gone unreported. Indeed, articles have been written and entire documentaries made about the fate of this hamlet. Given the trajectory of the lives of many of the village women, it was perhaps understandable that the images and sound bytes had been built on, and had sustained, a very particular notion of victimhood. The interventions in this village, such as they were, seemed to have always been based on relief, rather than on any form of long-term reconstruction and rehabilitation. Conceptualising new forms of interventions would require changing the frame of reference from victimhood to survivorhood, and looking at empowerment as the outcome. This was clearly not an impossible goal. From a practical standpoint, the notion of survivorhood is relatively straightforward in a place such as Dardpora, if one shifts the lens a little.

As the Athwaas team interacted with the villagers, extraordinary changes in empowerment were already evident in the lives of these women. Following the deaths or disappearances of their husbands, they had taken on phenomenally new roles: they were now collecting firewood and cultivating the land, as well as negotiating with district officials, and taking decisions about their children's schooling. But a constant emphasis on the dimension of personal agency would need to be sustained if this alternative framework was to provide a new blueprint for action.

Experience from other Southasian conflict situations has indicated that when women are pushed into new roles and identities, this does not necessarily lead to long-term changes in basic cultural ideals and expectations, including in terms of gender roles. Nor does the long-established patriarchy disappear. Instead, it can reinvent itself in another guise; often, when the violent phase of a conflict passes, women find themselves being pushed right back 'into their places' of subjugation. But the case in Dardpora is different. The dramatic demographic change in the village had converted this into a village in which men from a certain generation were simply gone. In the physical absence of those men who would have been most likely to feel threatened by the change in gender roles, a conceptualisation of a new paradigm of intervention seemed particularly possible.

At another level, the dilemma with which grassroots peace-builders are increasingly being forced to come to terms is: What is the relationship between development, security and reconciliation? Can peace-building activities be conceived as a continuum of interventions, wherein development, community work and processes of healing and reconciliation are viewed as part of the same spectrum? What would constitute a conflict-sensitive development approach in a place like Dardpora?

The interaction at Dardpora was also an eye-opener in that the urban-rural divide was brought into particularly sharp relief. The distance between Srinagar and Dardpora came to be seen as significantly more than the official 120 kilometres. The women from Srinagar and the women from Dardpora were shown to be occupying very different worlds, and the Dardpora interaction proved as emotionally difficult for those who had travelled from Srinagar as it was for this writer, coming from Delhi.

One particular example of this divide came in terms of drinking water. In Dardpora, the water comes from springs, which often dry up and leave the people there with few options but to use unclean water. The visitors, on the other hand, came armed with water bottles purchased in Srinagar. Here in Dardpora, they looked like bizarre appendages. Standing in the middle of Dardpora, this 'bottled lifeline' seemed a potent symbol of a divide that was starkly visible – of the many conversations that had not yet taken place, even between segments of the Kashmiri population. While men and women had certainly been differently affected by the Kashmir conflict, 'women' also constitute no monolithic category: they are separated by chasms that could well prove dramatic challenges to developing any common feminist consciousness.

As dusk was about to descend in Dardpora, we made our way back through the now-darkening highway. After a few hours, we found ourselves back in the newly 'demilitarised' Srinagar, where bunkers had all but disappeared and checkpoints were now mostly invisible. Yet there was still tension in the air because of the lateness of the hour. Evidently, demilitarisation is not just a matter of bunkers and checkpoints being moved out of sight; it is also about having to deal with perceptions, mindsets, beliefs and attitudes that have been formed over the years of violent conflict. The invisible spectre of the ubiquitous 'unidentified gunman' will continue to haunt the Kashmiri psyche for some time to come, regardless of what happens over the next few years. This is true for urban Srinagar as well as far-flung Dardpora. Clearly, freedom from fear cannot happen overnight.

— Sumona DasGupta is assistant director of the Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP), in New Delhi. This article represents her personal views.

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