Long-standing conflict in South and West Asia and elsewhere in North Africa was the highlight of the penultimate day of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival (ZeeJLF) with five sessions on the Partition, sexual violence and justice in south Asia, the Armenian genocide, Israel’s occupation of Gaza, and outcomes of the Arab Spring.
“There are always differences between people, but differences don’t have to lead to conflicts. Conflicts don’t have to lead to violence, and violence doesn’t have to degenerate into genocide,” said author academic Ronald Grigor Suny in the ‘The Forgotten Genocide’, a session on the 1915 Armenian genocide in which Ottoman-ruled Turkey exterminated 800,000-1.5 million Armenians. Suny is the grandson of famous Armenian composer Grikor Mirzaian Suni.
Turkey is yet to acknowledge and apologise for the genocide, he said, as US professor and writer Eugene Rogan added: “(Turkish President) Erdogan had pushed for Anzac Day celebrations on April 25, the same day Armenian exterminations began. It’s a crude attempt to deny the genocide.”
Later in the day, Egyptian writer-activist Mona Eltahawy, Iranian-American author-academics Vali Nasr and Laleh Khalili, Palestinian rights activist Omar Barghouti and Saudi novelist Sulaiman Addonia discussed the aftermath of the uprisings in North Africa and West Asia in ‘After the Arab Spring’.
Addonia, who spent his early years in a Sudanese refugee camp, highlighted the plight of migrant workers, which he said was as much a burning issue as those affecting local citizens. “Small-scale revolutions by migrant workers are never written about. Maybe it’s because they’re not sexy enough,” he underlined. “My mother was a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia and she was abused and humiliated. There are many from India and Africa being abused in Arab countries. Their stories deserve to be heard.”
One of the first sessions of the day, on the crisis in Gaza, had founder of the Border Divestment and Sanctions movement Omar Barghouti, artist-writer Molly Crabapple, and scholar Laleh Khalil. Crabapple, who covered Gaza for Vice magazine, said that the Gazans’ attitude of resistance made it easy to empathise with them.
Khalili brought attention to Israel’s policy of starvation. “They try and control the amount of calories that are allowed, even to women and children. Even coriander is not allowed inside,” she said. Barghouti said that the number of casualties in the last occupation of 2014 was much higher, and the world needed to take the world to task for it. “By restricting movement in and outside the Gaza Strip, they are attempting to colonise people’s minds and induce hopelessness,” he said.
A session on bringing justice to sexual violence meted during conflicts was one of the few that centred on women. Bangladeshi historian Meghna Guhathakurta spoke about working with the victims of the Bangladesh War, and how rape was recognised as a war crime by the efforts of a Bangladeshi woman. “Most of the women we worked with had suffered so much, that it was more about breaking their silence than the violence itself,” she said.
Sri Lankan scholar Sumathy Sivamohan spoke about how the state and its lobbyists found ways to silence women. She recounted a horrifying incident when state officials asked women to strip behind a wooded partition while they were being rescued. “They said something very striking, ‘Forgetting our shame, we walked for our survival’,” she said.
Essar Batool, who along with a bunch of other women, filed a petition at the Kashmir High Court to reopen the Kunan Poshpora mass rape incident, recounted that the first time a friend wanted to speak to her about it, she asked if Essar remembered the incident. “We had to ask each other if it was still lodged somewhere in someone’s memory,” she said.
The discussion called “The Great Partition” saw a panel comprising historians Ayesha Jalal, Yasmeen Khan and Vazira Zamindar, publisher Urvashi Butalia, and journalists Nisid Hajari and Venkat Dhulipala, both of whom have recent books on the subject — focussing on the large-scale murders and riots that accompanied Partition, and its shadow that continues to sour India Pakistan relations.
“One has to look at the violence in the context of the fact that many war veterans had returned after the world wars, and the complete inaction of the police form,” said Zamindar, who teaches at Brown University.
“One speaks mainly of the killings in the Punjab, but it by spurts of violence that began in Bihar and spread to Bengal, and elsewhere. Leaders on both sides of the political divide made matters worse with their intemperate speeches,” said Hajari.
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Butalia referred to recent efforts on both sides of the borders, by civil society groups, artists, and performers, to bridge the gap. “There’re also plans to set up a Partition Museum, somewhere in Wagah,” she informed.