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From Bastar to Kashmir: stories of empathy and resilience

In her new book ‘Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley’, Freny Manecksha highlights stories of resistance and community

Both Kashmir (above) and Bastar have a huge sense of community, says Freny Manecksha. 
Both Kashmir (above) and Bastar have a huge sense of community, says Freny Manecksha.  (Istockphoto)

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Reporting on resistance is not new to Freny Manecksha, whose previous book, Behold, I Shine: Narratives Of Kashmir’s Women And Children, focused on women whose husbands or children had disappeared. She told stories of homemakers and young women who started human rights organisations, moved the judiciary to trace missing relatives or made space for themselves in challenging circumstances. In the process, she captured women’s voices, as well as their version of the history of a conflict that dates to pre-independence India.

In her new book, Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley: Stories From Bastar And Kashmir, the Mumbai-based journalist explores stories of resistance by ordinary people living in the highly militarised zones of Bastar (Chhattisgarh) and Kashmir. These are regions where right to life and livelihood are subsumed in the interest of development, national security and sovereignty. Her book explores how people reclaim space, assert their resilience and retain a sense of self-worth despite all odds. In the midst of repression and censorship, writes Manecksha, there remains empathy and a sense of community.

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In an interview with Lounge, Manecksha, who reported from the two regions for over a decade, starting 2010, discusses the genesis of her new book, the similarities and dissimilarities between the two regions, and how listening to people’s stories has enriched her. Edited excerpts:

What made you write a book on life in Chhattisgarh and Kashmir, two regions that seem so different? What were the similarities you saw?

For over a decade, I have been travelling to Bastar and Kashmir. When I am in Mumbai, I fret about traffic snarls and am irritated by noise. Then I look at my field notes and they are about a young man recalling the killing of his 14-year-old brother, shot in the neck when he was shouting slogans 8km from the site of an encounter in Kashmir. There’s Sukhi, mother of an eight-month-old boy, who was shot by the Central Reserve Police Force. She and her neighbours were gathering firewood outside her hamlet in a Maoist-affected zone in Bastar. The women shouted out that they were unarmed villagers but they fired. The sheer precariousness of existence, the dangerousness of routine activities in this “different world”, is what struck me. I wanted to share that.

There are huge differences in the aspirations of the people of Bastar and of Kashmir and in their cultural responses but I see parallels in the state’s actions: fake encounters and violation of people’s rights, whilst pushing the rhetoric of national security.

Often, the lines from that Dire Straits song Brothers In Arms rings in my head: There’s so many different worlds/ So many different suns/And we have just one world/But we live in different ones.

How difficult was it to get access to, and gain the trust of, people, since you were an outsider in both areas?

Writing a book is a little different from doing stories with deadlines. It gives you that extremely valuable quality, time, as well as the ability to layer it with immersive experiences and slowly build trust. I could meet a number of lawyers, local journalists, activists, and people from all walks of life, and get background and context before actually doing fieldwork. It is extremely important to be able to build up this relationship with those working in the area and forge mutual trust. I was extremely lucky that so many generously offered time and guidance.

As an independent journalist, I didn’t have a large budget. I used public transport and shared Sumo passenger vehicles in Kashmir and buses in Bastar. These experiences helped. Once, I took a bus from Dantewada to Bijapur in Bastar to meet villagers coming from a really remote place. I waited for hours with a lawyer under a tree at the bus station. We could not contact them on the phone. Just as we were about to leave, we heard a shout. They had arrived in a hired van from the nearest roadhead. There had been delays because of the rains and terrible roads and difficulty in fording streams. They were to meet a police official but were told to come back another day since it was a holiday. So many hours of a journey were in vain. I spoke with them only briefly but I got so much understanding of the huge difficulties they face in accessing bureaucracy and the apathy of the state.


‘Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley—Stories From Bastar And Kashmir’, by Freny Manecksha, Speaking Tiger, 312 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499.
‘Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley—Stories From Bastar And Kashmir’, by Freny Manecksha, Speaking Tiger, 312 pages, 499.

Much of your book deals with people who come together to seek justice and accountability from state institutions. Do you think spaces for dissent have shrunk considerably? 

It is important to note that both Kashmir and Bastar have a history of repression that goes back well before the present regime. The guise of securing the sovereignty of a nation is so firmly entrenched in the consciousness that regardless of which party is in power, there is little effort to find a political solution. One of the alarming developments is in the role of judicial institutions. Something as crucial as (the revocation of) Article 370 has not yet been heard in the Supreme Court. In the recent judgement in (the case of activist) Himanshu Kumar, not only was the plea for a CBI probe into the violence against Adivasis in 2009 dismissed but an exemplary fine was also imposed on him. This makes the pursuit of justice very dangerous.

In one of the chapters on Kashmir, you write that the opening up of social media spaces was a “crucial arena of contestation in Kashmir post 2010 but today there is surveillance and rigid control of such spaces”. How has this impacted the situation? How hard is it for people to find new ways to counter enforced silences?

As a fellow journalist, I am sure you understand how near-impossible it is to get a feel of the situation sitting far away. The only narratives we are getting in social media are the sarkari (official) ones. The silence is truly deafening. Hopefully Kashmir’s journalists will still find a way to get the stories out.

You have written about volunteers and their humanitarian work during curfews, lockdowns and natural disasters as well as the help they provide to outsiders and tourists. How has this spirit helped people survive frequent lockdowns and communication shutdowns, especially in Kashmir?

One of the most striking aspects of both Bastar and Kashmir is this huge sense of community that the people nurture, despite the way the state has fractured affinities. When I was researching the chapter on hospitals, I learnt of the Kashmiri volunteers who came together in 2016 to help wounded patients who were arriving in droves. One of the volunteers I interviewed said something very moving: Despite the nightmares he had, he felt honoured to have served. I was also moved by the way the women of Sarkeguda in Bastar fought for justice in a fake encounter case from 2012 and defined it as “sub ke liye insaaf, justice for all Adivasis”.

On reflection, I think it comes from a deep-rooted sense of belonging and placing oneself in a much larger scheme of things. It calls for a much greater sense of giving. Soni Sori, an Adivasi activist, told me that they have a practice after they harvest the corn—some of it is left for the birds to eat. It is the ethics of reciprocity in which everyone must get their due.

In Kashmir, I have seen how sharing is celebrated almost on a routine basis, as when tehri rice is distributed. Recently, a photographer friend of mine from Thane visited Kashmir and was shooting near the lane of the Khanqah-e-Moula when he saw a crowd suddenly congregating. He got a little anxious until he saw there was a woman distributing meat. She even gestured to him, a stranger, to participate.  

Whilst distribution of food and alms, often in thanksgiving, does take place in many different faiths, he found this experience to be a little special because to him it was more than just a gesture. He felt there was a genuine generosity of spirit and a coming together of people as a community. For that brief time, they were all part of a larger whole.

Maybe we are increasingly in an era of selfies, of me, my, mine, but it is humbling to see such acts among besieged people.

How has your engagement with the people in Kashmir and Bastar affected you as a person?

It has changed me forever. I am intensely aware of my privilege. It puts a responsibility on me to share stories with truth and empathy. It can be emotionally distressing; there is a deep, increasing sadness. I think of a story by Kashmiri writer Arif Ayaz Parray (The Beheading Of Rahim Chhaan And Two Others), which I have recounted briefly in the book. It talks about the burden of knowing, which we must all bear. I am glad to know more. It enriches me as a human being.

Majid Maqbool is a Srinagar-based journalist.

Also read: How daily objects tell the history of India




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