Fractured Narratives, Totalizing Violence: Notes on Women in Conflict of Sri Lanka and Pakistan (W-83)

Fractured Narratives, Totalizing Violence: Notes on Women in Conflict of Sri Lanka and Pakistan (W-83)

Publication details

  • Wednesday | 01 Jan, 2003
  • Neloufer de Mel
  • Working Papers
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Neloufer de Mel 2003 Abstract Comparative studies are fraught sites of analysis. Issues of generalization, specificity, historical context and audience/readership challenge the comparative study. In looking for commonalities, generalizations may occur, erasing the specific nuances of each situation. Setting out a detailed context for each situation within the format of a paper or presentation has its challenges too as it necessitates a condensing of events. Such a collapsing of events is always a selected data. The selection is one privileged by the scholar according to available material, his/her research goals and interests. However, comparative studies can be useful in understanding how systems of social control and resistance work. In drawing on the oral archive collected for the SDPI project on women survivors of the violence in Karachi, and research carried out in Sri Lanka on the affects of its multiple sites of violence, this paper attempts to understand better the processes of militarization, patriarchy, and feminist resistance and survival in both countries, albeit in differing contexts.  The issues raised have significance for scholars and activists in South Asia working for social and political change, good governance, de-militarization and gender equality. They are particularly pertinent to South Asian women’s movements in presenting challenges for future platforms of action. The birth of Pakistan and the emergence of Sri Lanka as a postcolonial nation happened in vastly differing circumstances. The scale of the violence and bloodshed of partition that led to Pakistan was a far removed reality from the sedate ceremony of Sri Lankan independence, obtained on the back of British withdrawal from India. These ‘births’ had their impact on each nation’s military. The Pakistan army was a highly visible force at partition, supervising the evacuation of refugees and their welfare, charged with the task of restoring authority to the civil administration.   The Sri Lankan army on the other hand was largely regarded as ceremonial. However, this did not mean that both countries did not share a legacy of militarization bequeathed by British colonial rule. Force was used by the British in both Sri Lanka and India to quell anti-colonial dissent. Once independence was won, the nationalist leaders used these same structures of state coercion to police, regulate and contain their own citizens. Pakistan has seen successive military coups and military governments. Although defeated in two wars with India, continuing enmity with its neighbour has accorded the military a central role in Pakistani politics and foreign policy today. Its militaristic ambitions have reached its apogee in the country’s nuclear weapons program. Apart from the major wars between Pakistan and India over Bangladesh and Kashmir, and the protracted separatist war in Sri Lanka, both Sates have also dealt with uprisings from groups like the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Communalism, state authoritarianism, unemployment, distorted distribution of resources, poverty, language and caste discrimination have been some of the major causes for these insurrections. The uprisings themselves have been brutal and their suppression by the State has seen the threshold of violence escalate. Sri Lanka’s post-coloniality has been marked by repeated states of Emergency declared by various governments, policed and maintained through its armed forces. Both uprisings of the JVP in the south of the country were brutally crushed. The JVP, comprised largely the youth from the south of Sri Lanka, took to armed struggle for a socialist state. The 1971 uprising was quelled in a matter of three months by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, raising concerns at the time about its methods.  The second JVP insurrection from 1987-1991, far more ruthless than the first to begin with, saw a retaliatory response from the UNP government of Ranasinghe Premadasa unprecedented in its brutality. Thousands of youth, mostly male, but female too, were ‘disappeared’. Estimates vary on the numbers of ‘disappeared’. The Presidential Commission into Involuntary Removal proved 7239 cases from an alleged 8739 reported to it. Of these, 4858 cases were at the hands of state forces while 779 were JVP instigated.  However, journalists and scholars who have written on this period place the figure much higher, at an estimated 40,000.  Meanwhile, the methods adopted by the security forces to quell the JVP had been honed to near-perfection in their operations against Tamil youth. From the 1970s onwards, the demand for a separate state of Tamil Eelam in the north and east had been met with force by the State. Para militaries, arbitrary arrests, abductions, detention without trial and rape became part of the reality of the north and east. The war between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil Tigers since 1983 turned the Sri Lankan military into an estimated combined fighting force of about 210,000 today.   It has come a long way from its ceremonial role at independence. State repression and counter-insurgency have perpetuated a militarized society in both countries. Military checkpoints at the airports, on the roads, at entrances to buildings are common. In Pakistan a military government is in place. Its restaurants and private houses have armed guards. A mixture of feudal authority, religious dogma and disregard of the right to life has seen violence against women escalate. Honour killings have the sanction of the State. In Sri Lanka the level of political thuggery has risen to a new high with armed guards of politicians patrolling the streets, engaged in private and political vendettas. Elections are routinely disrupted by violence. University students, albeit a handful but a significant number given the disruptions they cause, settle scores and arguments by resorting to violence in the first instance. Army deserters operate freely in Sri Lankan villages. Incidents of armed robbery and domestic violence are high.  Militarization as a social process and militarism as an ideology has taken hold, affecting all social aspects from political practice to the production of culture, education and the media. In seeping into institutions not directly connected with war, they have a presence even in peacetime and are therefore ‘larger’ than a particular war and battlefield.