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Garrisoned Minds

By Laxmi Murthy and Mitu Varma

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The garrison, which is a military institution that keeps armed men and their families safe within a physical space that reproduces their homes, has become a permanent fixture of everyday life in Northeast India. […] Such places are found all over the world, especially in places where an army has been brought in to (re)construct the facade of a state that provides welfare and security to people. Garrisons therefore, are also symbols of power that cloak colossal lies. Within their confines, soldiers and their families live in colonies that seek to provide them a semblance of the homes that they have left behind in order to serve in counter-insurgency operations in the region. There are schools, cinema halls, canteens and clubs for servicemen that provide all the grocery and liquor available in other parts of India. Many have their families with them and the self-contained, secure perimeters of the garrison do not require the families to ever leave. The ability to reproduce a quality of life that is denied to those outside it is a remarkable achievement of the garrison. However, there is more than just a physical space that is associated with such institutions. They also become material symbols of closed ideas and minds.

Unfortunately, the garrison has become a regular feature of militarised societies the world over… Ideas of power, coexistence and governance are created within the confines of such institutions. They do not require any nuanced knowledge or experience of the world that lies just outside the confines of the high, barbed-wire walls that constitute the garrison. For instance, there is little need for soldiers to leave the security of their mess and kitchen to engage with the communities who live nearby. They are civilians—a term that is slightly pejorative in army talk—hence, not so important in the larger matter of life that involves the garrison. The only time that there is any non-military engagement with the world outside these antediluvian institutions, is when the officer in command (or his socially conscious spouse) wish to visit local women’s collectives, or a self-help group that has been in the news locally.

This imperious military worldview has become a convenient political template for political entrepreneurs in the [Northeast]. They employ a convoluted military lens to create a vocabulary of violence, wherein the need to secure one’s own ethnic group, often at the expense of the other, is seen as the only way out of a vicious cycle of powerlessness, poverty and discrimination. This also points to the delicate and enduring entanglements that exist between the garrison (as a mentality) and a world outside. It creates the need to secure pure spaces for one group, while ensuring that others are excised from it altogether. It is no coincidence that despite the increasing presence of more armed personnel on the ground, the number of incidents of violence between different ethnic communities has only increased over the past three decades. In almost all cases, it has been the economically weak and marginalised sections that have been killed or displaced.

In such a situation, one can justifiably surmise that militarisation has created conditions where people are unable to live together. Reflecting on such conditions of human life, the philosopher Hannah Arendt writes: ‘…the only alternative to power is not strength—which is helpless against power—but force, which indeed one man alone can exert against his fellow men and of which one or a few can possess a monopoly by acquiring the means for violence’ (1958, p.202). So too, in Northeast India, militarisation has created a world that inverts the ability of human beings to come together. It destroys the ability of people to negotiate and create spaces of coexistence, employing instead memories of personal cruelty and anger.
—Excerpt of ‘Remembrance, Recounting and Resistance’ by Sanjay Barbora in Garrisoned Minds

On a cold winter night in January 2009, the anguished cries of two women broke the silence and rudely awakened the residents of Banr Bazaar in Mingora, the main town of the Swat Valley. No one dared to come out of their homes during the night curfew. They later learnt that a group of men had gained entry to the home of Shabana, a twenty-five-year-old dancer, and dragged her out to the accompaniment of ominous chants that it was time for the dumm, the lowest of the low, to die.

The young woman’s mother begged the leader of the group to spare her daughter’s life and swore she would ensure that Shabana would never dance again. But to no avail. The men dragged Shabana by her hair through the town, with her wailing mother running after them. She was brutally battered with rifle butts and then shot at point-blank range; her bullet-ridden body left in the square: a gory warning that dancing was in defiance of the Taliban’s will. Green Square, where Shabana met her gruesome end, has now been renamed Khooni Chowk (Bloody Square).

The next day, on January 3, 2009, the Taliban commander Maulana Shah Dauran broadcasted a warning on one of their FM radio stations: his men had killed Shabana and if any other girls were found performing in the city’s Banr Bazaar they would be killed ‘one by one’. He went on to warn the local population that the militant organisation would not tolerate ‘un-Islamic vices’. This was at a time when the Taliban had effectively taken over Swat. The tinkling of ghungroos (musical anklets) and the mellifluous notes of the rubab (lute) had inexorably given way to the staccato burst of gunshots.

According to Shabana’s father, Qamar Gul, the Taliban barged into their home intending to punish his daughter for performing at a wedding ceremony in nearby Mardan. Some men knocked on the door and made inquiries about a dance party. Assuming they were potential customers, Qamar Gul courteously invited the men inside to wait while Shabana got dressed. ‘As soon as she came into the room, the four men shouted: “Let us start!” They seized her at gunpoint and declared that they were going to slit her throat,’ he recounts, still terrorised by the memory.

Shabana’s family is desperately poor; she was the only bread-winner. After her brutal murder, her family fled Swat and returned only when peace was restored in the city after August 2009. Her mother died three months after Shabana. When she ran to free her daughter from the clutches of the Taliban, a sharp piece of glass pierced her foot, which became badly infected. Still in deep shock and grieving over the fate of her daughter, she sought no medical care and died an untimely death. Shabana’s father too is very ill. Her brother drives an auto-rickshaw to earn a little money. The family is able to survive only because of the support offered by the residents of Banr, most of whom are blood relatives.

While Shabana’s killing was one of the more visible atrocities committed by the Taliban, its rigid clampdown has badly affected the decades-old culture of Banr Bazaar, where music and dance were a part of daily life. The female dancers of this area, who had learned the art from their mothers and grandmothers, were forced to give up their profession.

—Excerpt of ‘From Ghungroos to Gunshots by Farzana Ali in Garrisoned Minds

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