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The silence of our friends

Feminist historian and film-maker Uma Chakravarti’s latest, ‘Darbar-e-Watan’, looks at the toll of the conflict in Kashmir on women’s friendships

Anjum Zamarud Habib (left) and Sahba Husain.
Anjum Zamarud Habib (left) and Sahba Husain. (Photo courtesy: Uma Chakravarti)

Darbar-E-Watan (In The Court Of The People), the latest documentary from historian and film-maker Uma Chakravarti, follows women who have been drawn into the conflict in Kashmir. It takes an in-depth look at the human toll of the conflict in the valley and beyond. Much of the film, which takes its name from a Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem, was shot before 5 August—when the government imposed a lockdown, effectively revoked Article 370 and announced its decision to divide the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union territories. Its two protagonists —Anjum Zamarud Habib, a political activist and author of the 2011 book Prisoner No. 100: An Account Of My NightsAnd Days In An Indian Prison, and Sahba Husain, a Delhi-based researcher and author of the recently-released book Love, Loss, And Longing In Kashmir—speak in moving and unsettling ways to the continuing crisis, and how we are implicated in it. In an interview with Lounge, Chakravarti talks about choosing Habib and Husain’s friendship as the film’s narrative device, and the overall silence in the rest of the country about the crisis in Kashmir. Edited excerpts:

How did ‘Darbar-E-Watan’ come about?

All my films stem from the question “What do we treat as history?" From 2013 onwards, I became interested in generating oral history narratives of women who go to prison for their political beliefs. Who are these women who are seen as so dangerous by the state that it puts them away? I started with the 1960s and 1970s, interviewing women from the Naxalite movement, and those incarcerated during the Emergency. I intended to bring the project into contemporary times through stories of women prisoners, including Dalit and Adivasi women involved in land and civil rights struggles, as well as women in our borderlands. That is how I began filming Anjum Habib and Parveena Ahanger (founder of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons) from 2013. Their story was to become part of the larger film. But the events from 5 August sparked a sense of helplessness and anguish in me. It was already a difficult situation. By using brute power to overwhelm people, were we not making it worse? And our silence on the issue (was deplorable). It made me return to the stories of Anjum, Parveena and Sahba, and produce Darbar-E-Watan with the hope of opening up a discussion on Kashmir. We need to acknowledge the enormity of the violence and suffering which Kashmiris have been put through, and also our place in it.

Why did you choose the friendship between Sahba Husain and Anjum Habib as the film’s narrative device?

The manner in which their friendship was breached, and then forged again, gives us an entry point to speak about Jammu and Kashmir. They became friends when Sahba first went to Kashmir (in 2000) to conduct research. But, in 2003, Anjum was sent to Tihar (prison, in Delhi) for four long years. She came out with a huge sense of hurt—about being abandoned not just by all her male colleagues from the Hurriyat but also her feminist friends like Sahba, who never met her through her incarceration. In a scene, Sahba candidly recalls her own fear and guilt about this, and of how, when she met Anjum the first time after her release, the latter asked, “Dosti kya aisi hoti hai (Is this how friendship is)?"

As the lives of Anjum and other women prisoners show, by incarcerating you, the state puts a question mark on you. And on anyone who wants to have a public relationship with you. Other than your lawyer or your immediate family, anyone who says, “This is a friend of mine, I care about her," automatically becomes suspect. That is also a kind of metaphor for our relationship with Kashmir, for the betrayals, for our fears about speaking up, and the increasing hostility towards anyone who wants to express solidarity with the Kashmiri people, or reach out at a human level. If a woman holds up a sign in public in support of Kashmiris, why does she become suspect?

A journalism student, Amulya Noronha has been sent to jail in Bengaluru for saying “Hindustan Zindabad, Pakistan Zindabad" at an event. When identities are constricted by borders, what does nationalism and feminism mean to you?

This hardline stuff about “who is in, who is out" and “what constitutes the true nation" does not go down well with me at all. As a child of the 1940s, I identify as a South Asian. Growing up in Delhi through Partition, my best friend came from what became Pakistan. As a six-year-old, I remember being taken to Gandhi’s funeral. People were killed in front of our house in riots in Delhi, so who can really say that “we are good" and “they are bad"? I think we suffer from this notion that our nationalism is pure and theirs is tainted. Through fact-finding work or films, feminists in India have defined nationalism another way—of interrogating violence against women, including sexual violence by men in uniform, of pushing for the rule of law, of speaking for the Constitution and accountability. I would argue that ours is a higher form of nationalism.

Darbar-E-Watan screens as a Women’s Day Special on 7 March at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, at 7pm.

Chitrangada Choudhury is a multimedia journalist and researcher

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