Friday, October 23, 2009

Displaced in Media Space as Well

Chitra Ahanthem

As I sit down to write this post on the nature of media reporting on the issues faced by people living in border town of Moreh (on the Indo-Myanmar border) in Manipur, it would be pertinent to state that no newspapers have hit the stands today. The All Manipur Working Journalist Union took the decision of not publishing newspapers following the assault and harassment of two journalists by police commandoes. This is another ‘normal’ scene from Manipur but before one assumes that the media representatives in this highly militarized state bear the brunt of covering issues faced by the people consider this: a senior reporter from a Manipuri daily paper was apprehended by security personnel while ferrying underground rebels of a particular group about two weeks back. There was a shoot out in which two civilians were killed in the said incident. Last year, a lethod bomb was gift wrapped and delivered to The Sangai Express for failing to carry the press release of a particular group while there have been too many instances of newspaper going off the stands in protest against attempts to muzzle free press to be considered news or write home about (pun intended).

But why is the media being talked about in a posting that is supposed to look at media reporting of displacement and their impact on women living in border areas? Precisely because in the scheme of things that happen on a daily basis in Manipur, it is the “breaking news” of grenades lobbed at residences of Government officials/businessmen/contractors/private entrepreneurs (for failing to pay extortion amounts); shoot outs between various security personnel and militant groups or between the different militant groups itself; calls for bandhs/rallies/general strikes etc that makes it to newspapers. With the daily and regular chain of breaking news taking place on one hand, small media houses which are understaffed and mostly underpaid (often with no money kept aside for traveling to remote areas), it goes without saying that Imphal, the capital city remains the center of attention. Rural reporting or in the case of Manipur, writing about interior regions in the districts is made possible only when reporters accompany a Government official on tour or when they are taken along by NGOs or other civil organizations going to the said regions for their program coverage.

It is thus not surprising then that there has been no issue based reporting so far on women affected by displacement, either in Moreh or elsewhere in other parts of Manipur. A media scan of three newspapers: Imphal Free Press; Sangai Express, Huieyen Lanpao shows that the only news reports that mention “Moreh” are all of shoot outs or people being killed. The reports are all based on press releases sent by various security personnel including militant groups.

A scan of media reporting going back by a few years did bring up two stories (one of which is my own). “Desperately Seeking Samte” (IFP, Sep 21, 2008) is about the fate of Haikhohat Samte a 25 year old girl who was caught in a cross fire between the Army and an underground group. A bullet pierced her spinal chord when she went back to her house to collect household items and some food grains that the family had left behind while running away across the border. It also talked about how the displacement from their house also meant being uprooted from all things familiar to them and having to shift from one makeshift camp to another before finally taking refuge with a relative living in Moreh.

The second feature story (Refugees in a Supermarket, Anjulika Thingnam for Women Features Service, webcasted in 2007) is about the travails of being refugees, a situation brought about by intense militarization: the sprouting of land mines in the villages of Moreh and intensified firing among security forces and underground groups. The story also talks at length about inadequate facilities at the “refugee camp” (a supermarket) and hence the lack of toilet space.
Apart from the above two stories, there is little about the people of Moreh and the issues they face in their lives. Yet again, there is little about most other interior parts of the state as well apart from the regular news reports of people getting displaced due to pressure points going off.

Fencing the Borders

Supurna Banerjee

Embarking a crowded train from Sealdah on my first ever field visit to Nadia I was in no way prepared for the experience that unfolded in the next two days of the trip. Situated in the heart of the Bengal delta with the Bhagirathi on the west and the Padma running into the Meghna estuary on the east, it is bounded by the district of Murshidabad on the north and north west and on the north-east and east it is bounded by the districts of Rajsahi and Kusthia in Bangladesh. My destination was a border village Char Meghna. It lies next to Murshidabad district’s Karimpur. It falls under the Hogolberia Police station.

Charmeghna is a Bangladeshi enclave, the land belonging to Bangladesh, residents being Indian citizens. The entire village is located beyond the electric fence. A pillar proudly proclaiming its Bangladeshi identity greeted us right at the entrance gate of the village. We had to submit our identification documents and sign our names before we could go in. It was almost like entering a high security apartment. Charmeghna is a strange paradox of the Partition as is Jamalpur on the other side of the border—this time Indian land with Bangladeshi citizens. The village of Charmeghna is situated between the electric fence and the Mathabhanga River, a distributary of Padma, beyond which is Bangladesh. The villagers are primarily engaged in agriculture.

My first meeting was with the seniors of the village in the primary school where they were waiting for me. Some of the young girls and older people accompanied me to the BSF post located within the village. From there we went to see the river which served as a border between the two countries. The river in reality turned out to be a narrow channel of water which would pose no kind of barrier to anyone wanting to cross the area. Following the exploration I was invited to one of the houses so that I could interact with the villagers.

The BSF, they held was a constant presence in their lives. But this has not been the situation always. In the past there was no BSF posting in the area which resulted into unregulated crime by people allegedly from the other side of the border. As a result of a movement spearheaded by the civil society organizations and the residents of the area the BSF was finally stationed within the village. Though there was complains of harassment by the jawans there had been no atrocities committed by them. They agreed that the BSF stationing has actually made the area more secure. Though there were still thefts of crops and cattle by ‘those Bangladeshis’ its frequency and intensity has definitely lessened. The villagers however were vociferous in articulating their grievances over the general state of affairs —lack of administration and development that they have been forced to grapple with everyday. Lack of electricity, good roads has been lacunas plaguing them for a very long time. The government perceived in the form of panchayat and the political parties seem oblivious to their needs. They only approach the villagers during election time and disappear once the polls are over. Moreover the residents of the village mostly hail from tribal background. But the administration does not supply them with the Scheduled Tribes certificates. Though they get all the benefits and privileges that the Scheduled Tribes are entitled to but without a certificate this would be true only within Nadia. It seems that with the gates closing behind them mainland India also turns her back towards them.

My next visit was to the local police station. I had the chance to interact with the local OC Arup Kumar Pal and he gave me a quite detailed insight on the state of the border villages. The inconvenience of the people living in the international bordering zone is caused by i) international security point of view and ii) when BSF personnel are guided by their whims. Cultivation of jute is forbidden adjacent to the IB fencing considering the international security point of view. He, however, claimed that trafficking of women and children have become a rare instance in this part of the Indo-Bangladesh border. However he is optimistic about the situation in these areas. “The local problems of the area are found to be solved with the intervention of local police station, local political personnel and, local NGO authority.” He concedes that the people of this area as poverty stricken mostly labourers or based on agriculture. Being located far from the district headquarter development is less, education is little and consciousness is minimal. Hence marginalization is only natural.

I was to spend the night in a border townlet called Shikarpur. It was much bigger in size than Charmeghna and much better developed with electricity and concrete roads. However this was also located at the margins. Just behind the settlement there was a far wider Mathabhanga beyond which was Bangladesh. A large contingent of BSF has been posted here. Though located just by the border it was not shut off from the Indian mainland by a gate which probably explains its much better condition than Charmeghna.
Being kept out of India’s border fence and not being a part of Bangladesh the very fact of its existence aggravates the security and developmental concerns that people struggle with everyday. The dichotomy of inclusion and exclusion continues as a part of their daily struggle for existence.

The Line: Women, Partition and the Gender Order in Cyprus by Cynthia Cockburn

Reviewed by Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury

The book entitled The Line: Women, Partition and the Gender Order in Cyprus written by Cynthia Cockburn is about the Line – the Green Line, which separates the island of Cyprus into two parts: Greek Cypriots dominated area (controlling over only half of the Capital city including 63% of the total land area in South) and the Turkish Cypriots inhabitant area (controlling 37% of the land area in North known as Turkish Republic of North Cyprus). The Line is similar to the line, which partitions the state of Israel from Palestinian territories with an area of no man’s land between two parallel fences. For almost 29 years since 1974 this Green Line of Cyprus was a closed border with two checkpoints. Ordinary Turkish and Geek Cypriots have not been allowed to move freely through the checkpoints. Suddenly on 21 April 2003 the authorities of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) announced that the line would be opened between 8 a.m and midnight. In fact, with Cyprus joining the European Union in 2004, the pressure is mounting on political leaders to resolve forty years of conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots and to erase the partition line that scars the island. However, the opening of the line did not mean an agreement permitting ‘return’ and the permanent peace agreement remains elusive.

Against this backdrop Cynthia in her book has tried to show how a geo-political partition is not just armored fencing, it is also a line inside our heads, and in our hearts too. In fact, the physical fence is a manifestation of these more ‘cognitive’ and emotional lines that shape our thoughts and feelings. The inner lines express who we think we are and who are not like us, whom we trust and whom we are afraid of. She has correctly pointed out that, when we are very afraid or very angry, at some identifiable moment, a line springs out and plants itself in the earth as a barrier (p.1).

The book is women-centered and gender analytical-based on participant observations, interviews and group discussions with women living at both north and south parts of the line. In order to make gender differentiation, which is a political project (power, purpose and collective action) like ethnic differentiation this book concentrates on Cyprus through women’s lens. The women’s organization called Hands Across the Divide (HAD) is the focus of her study. This book portrays a line tracing the fortune of this remarkable Cypriot women’s project working for peace, using the Internet to defy the barriers to communicating placed between them.

The book is about the ‘making of difference’ and categorizing of people and about partition as a strategy for dealing with conflict. In her study Cynthia has shown us how the distance between people of Turkish and Greek cultures on the island of Cyprus was widened in a number of political projects, so that they became increasingly separate from each other physically and socially. The author has dealt with the inner process of ‘line making’, ‘line negotiating’ and ‘line melting’ based on the narratives of those women, who have shared their memories of nationalist attacks on Turkish Cypriots in 1960s, the violent expulsion of Greek Cypriots in 1974 by the Turkish military intervention following the coup d’etat by Greek Cypriot extremists associated with the Greek military junta and also the gender-specific experiences of being refugees.

While dealing with the narratives she has claimed that history is not memory, but divergent‘re-remembering’, shaped in culturally specific ways. History is recounted with different meanings in north and the south of Cyprus. The violent events sketched in her book, told, re-told, using the words that often differ on either side of the Line are powerful constructs of contemporary Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot national identities. Narratives of what happened or did not happen in very early times often carry even more political freight than accounts of what happened yesterday, because they are about ‘who we really are’ (p.41). Cynthia has agreed that, popular memory is selective. Many women tell one half of the story that of their own people’s suffering, and forget the other (p.44).

The book comprising 243 pages is divided into eight chapters excluding the introduction. In the first chapter (pp.23-40) she has discussed the pleasures and dangers inherent in difference and differentiation, and the way in which individuals acquire a sense of self in relation to ethnic and gender identities. She has ended the chapter with a brief consideration of partition as a political strategy for dealing with conflict and of transversal politics in the renewal of dialogues. While explaining partition as a political strategy she has rightfully argued that a physical partition in a way is a frozen time. Against this backdrop the events in Cypriot history first suggested the Line as a possibility, and then planted it in the ground. (p.38)

The following chapters (Chapters 2 and 3: pp.41-88)) are historical and she has explained in these chapters that how HAD has attempted to overcome the sources of enmity and separation. Chapter 2 specifically has dealt with the period 1960-1973, a period in which nationalist movements and international pressures turned tension into enmity between Greek-speaking and Turkish-speaking Cypriots. In Chapter 3 (pp.65-88) her main focus is on the year of 1974, the year of Greek Cypriot coup and the Turkish military action that brought partition. The many lines that already circled Turkish Cypriot enclaves were transformed into a single Line, Green Line extended from one side of the island to the other making the line fixed and impermeable. While sharing the interviews of women that she has captured through her field trips she in this chapter has tried to portray how large population movements have resulted eventually in an ethnically homogeneous Turkish Cypriot north and Greek Cypriot south and also how masculinities acquired hegemony over its separate space.

The next few chapters (Chapters 4, 5, 6, 7: pp.89-194) depending on women’s perspectives Cynthia has described contemporary realities in Cyprus to help us to understand the prevailing gender order and gender cultures. She has illustrated how women perceived the political, economic and military realities of contemporary Cyprus. Based on interviews she looked at how the parallel societies developed after the barbed wire rolled out across the island. Though there is a basis for cooperation between women either side of the Line, but certain differences of positioning, make challenging demands on mutual understanding. In order to explore the changes in the gender order in Cyprus she has put stress on the family and marriage, the politics of sex and the body.

She has claimed that women living parallel lives in adjacent societies, whose gender orders are the systems of male dominance. In both regions, the patriarchal gender line drawn historically between men and women. Women are contesting for political power, but remain on the margins, their issues rarely addressed, obliged to compete with men in the prevailing masculine mode of politics that they find distasteful and disadvantaging. More women have been coming into employment, and seeking opportunities in business and the professions, but unchanged domestic responsibilities and inadequate state support, combined with vertical and horizontal lines of exclusion maintained by those, mainly men, who control access to opportunity, result in women having less disposable income of their own and fewer prospect of economic autonomy. Neither militarism nor nationalism is conducive to women’s equality and autonomy (p.116).

In fact, she has explored the reasons why the feminist movements weakened on the either side of the Green Line. While recounting the grassroots rapprochement activity in Cyprus she has explained the ‘bi-communal’ project of HAD to bring the Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots into contact for peace building.

Finally, in conclusion (pp.193-226) Cynthia has tried to explore what the experience of members of HAD and other women in Cyprus suggests for a women’s movement that might be a collective actor in a future process of peace-making and social reconstruction, what Maria, one of her respondent specified as ‘feminist intervention’ and Anthola, another respondent called it as ‘holism’.

This study is extremely valuable document to all who work on feminism, partition, displacement and also who strive to put an end to racist, sexist and militarist oppression and violence in today’s world. Black and white photographs printed in this book have added precious dimension to it.