"It became my mission to locate women's voices"


Urvashi Butalia is one of India’s foremost feminists. On the occasion of her receiving Germany’s Goethe Medal on August 28, 2017 in Weimar, Axel Harneit-Sievers, head of our office in India, talked to her about her work as a publisher, feminism, writing and politics in India.

Urvashi Butalia
Teaser Image Caption
Urvashi Butalia in her office

Axel Harneit-Sievers: Urvashi, my heartfelt congratulations on receiving the Goethe Medal! You have long-standing connections to Germany, not least with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Urvashi Butalia: The connection with Heinrich Böll Foundation is at least 15 years now. I have always known about the person of Heinrich Böll, of course, and his links with the Green Party. In the 1980s, I got to know Petra Kelly. At that time, I was in England, and we organised in 1984 in London the first international feminist book fair and we invited her to speak at it.

Real collaboration with Heinrich Böll Foundation started when we worked together on the Partition Lectures, in a collaboration between Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Goethe Institute and Zubaan. And from there it continued and then moved into the “Cultures of Peace” festival, the Northeast Festival that we have both done which is flourishing. Now it has become kind of a natural partnership and we think of each other when certain kind of projects come up.

For example, after the December 2012 gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi, we jointly organized an exchange programme with media and authors from South Africa. I picked important learnings from there, about the special courts handling cases of sexually abused children, where questioning of the children is done so differently from the insensitive ways here in India; and about the use of “rape kits" to collect evidence by hospitals, which Indian women's groups are still fighting for.

Feminism, Partition and Marginalized Regions

Your work and that of Zubaan covers at least three areas: first, feminist publishing, being the feminist publisher in India; then there is also your work on the Partition of India, and third, on Northeast India. How do all these three big themes relate, how did you get into them?

They are related in my head completely integrally. I tell you how.

The feminist publishing which began when we set up “Kali”, the first publishing house, in 1984 has a history, both professional and personal. I was working in publishing before that, with mainstream publishing. I was very deeply involved in the women's movement that was just growing at that time in India. As young activists we were faced with a lot of questions.

For example, we were working on “dowry deaths” and on sexual violence, and we had no idea of the historical roots of these systems, the sociological background. We didn't know why dowry was taking the form that it was doing. How did the wealth meant for the woman's personal use come to be acquired by the family of the husband? How did it become a way of economic advancement for men who marry women? And then, how do some of them come to killing women. And how did these patterns became emulated across casts and classes? We couldn't understand anything. As a young feminist and a young publisher, I was at Oxford University Press in Delhi, and I asked my bosses who were all truly wonderful sensitive men: Why is it that we don’t have books on these subjects? And their response was: Well, who reads books on women? Do women write at all? ... And I was kind of young and courageous and foolhardy, so I thought, ok, I do it myself.

I noticed there was so little by women, there was hardly anything published by women, about women etc., it was as if they didn't exist. So it became like a mission to locate women's voices, bring them to the mainstream. And so when Kali started, that's what it was. The other thing I noticed, that whatever knowledge we had about women was mostly generated by Western scholars who would come here, spend some time, produce an account, and go. So I was thinking, can't we produce knowledge about ourselves. It wasn't an essentialist position, but it was a position that said that who's best placed. We are best placed, and we need to create knowledge about ourselves.

It started in 1984. That was also the year when Mrs. Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Delhi changed a lot. That pushed me deeper into the Partition work. Two things happened.

I had worked with two friends of mine who made a film about the Partition, and they asked me to help them with the research. I travelled a little bit in Punjab, to locate Partition survivors. And then, again, when I started to listen to their stories, that started something in my mind, these are stories that are all around, why have I not listened to them before.

The 1984 Anti-Sikh Massacre

Then came Mrs. Gandhi's assassination. Delhi became a city we couldn't recognize. There were fires everywhere, tyres burning, buses burning, Sikh people being killed. And a large citizen's group was formed called Nagrik Ekta Manch, the Citizen's Solidarity Group. It took the responsibility of working with the people affected by the violence, and we were all part of that group. I was part of a group that worked with a community of Sikhs that had been very badly affected. We were all given specific tasks, my job was to take down people's testimonies, so that later we could file compensation claims or whatever. So I started to write things as people spoke to me, and again there were so many references to Partition. And again something in my head began to change.

Many of those Sikhs had actually come to Delhi in 1947?

Yes. And when they were speaking about what had happened, there was a way in which 1947 merged into 1984. And they kept saying: We did not expect this to happen in our own land. And so I began to think that four or five days of violence could so traumatize people - what must that moment [of Partition] have been like?

Going to Lahore

So that was when I decided to start exploring Partition, and I then went to Pakistan to find my uncle who had stayed behind, become a Muslim. My family had never seen him again but I had heard stories. I went to Lahore to see them in 1986 or 1987. I got a visa - I don't know how I got a visa. But I didn't have the guts to go there directly. So I stayed at a friend's place, one day, two days, three days. On the third night, her sister said to me: Come let's go, eat a paan. And in Lahore there are particular places where you go to have good paan.

So I went with her. She had another agenda in her head. She took me to the paan shop, we had the paan, and then she said: Come on, let's drive past your grandfather's house because we are so nearby. My uncle stayed on and lived in the house that my grandfather built. So I said OK and we drove past the house and the gate was open and the house looked a bit dark, but there was a light in the porch. It was one of those old large houses with a circular drive. So she said, come on let's go in see ... and she drove me in, it was nearly ten o'clock at night. Then she stopped the car and said, OK, get out, and we will leave you here and come back after an hour.

You have come all the way to do this, now don't be scared. And then she drove off. I thought, well, OK, I am here and I rang the doorbell and three women came out, they were my aunt, her daughter-in-law and a cousin of mine, my uncle's daughter. And I said to them: I am XYZ, I come from across the border. And they were so welcoming, so warm, they just took me in and we spent hours talking. He wasn't there, but I left my number. He came back at 12 o'clock at night and he rang me immediately. And then I spoke to him and I went across in the morning. And then of course it opened up a whole range of things.

That was really what pushed me into exploring the history of Partition. And once we started publishing, the perspective with which I entered it was the feminist perspective that I had learned on the streets. It really enabled me to look at ordinary people's stories, at children, at women, at cast, you know the sort of things that you don't otherwise see, if you are are looking through the lens of the mainstream.

Expanding Feminist Knowledge

We saw ourselves as feminist publishers in opposition to the male stranglehold on knowledge. So we were trying to create alternative knowledge by women. But we had to unpack this category "women". In India, you can't say "women" without thinking the diverse and multiple realities. It was not enough to be sitting in Delhi publishing well middle-class women writing in English and say, ok, we have addressed the issue of women. We needed to look beyond Delhi, beyond the urban space. We needed to look at marginalization of language, of region, of location, of religion, of class, of caste.

Only if we could do all of that, that we could truly call ourselves feminist publishers bringing alternative voices. Which is why we publish the kind of things we do, you know, taxi drivers' stories, domestic worker stories. Never making a lot of money, but they are important to publish. So it was in this context of looking at different marginalizations, that we began also to look at two other places, that is Kashmir and the Northeast.

We started with Kashmir, because there were more difficult questions being raised by Kashmiri women at that time. Up until the 1990s, the issue of Kashmir was something feminists never talked about, because somehow we brought into the nationalist narrative. So even though the Kashmiri women were facing particular types of violence, it was not something that entered our imagination, something that we have to offer solidarity for. Kashmiri women actually started to accuse the mainstream Indian women's movement, saying: Why have you never stretched a hand of friendship towards us? We never thought before that we too are impacted by the violence not only of the Indian army, but of the militants, of our own men. That was when it began to change.

At that time in 2000, there were hundreds of books on Kashmir but nothing on women. So we did the first book, I think, in English in Indian publishing to be done on Kashmiri women. "Speaking Peace" was a collection of writing by and about women, but even then we were not able to find that many Kashmiri women who could write. At the time, a lot of the women who wrote on Kashmir were outsiders, but subsequently that has changed a lot.

Bringing Northeast India In

At that point I thought we should also address Northeast India. Priti Gill was working with us at the time, she edited "The Peripheral Centre", and through this book, we came across so many writers. What led to the interest in the Northeast was women's literature. Through the women's movement there have been quite a few connections with the Northeast and with groups over there, with the Northeast Network, with the Naga Mother's group and others groups.

And then we had another German connection, with Edda Kirleis from the EED. They had a very interesting project called "Islands of Peace" doing research on areas that had remained peaceful in times of conflict, to look at what was it that allowed those areas to remain peaceful. They asked me to do a paper for them on the Naga-Kuki conflict and I went to the Northeast and traveled to Kokrajhar and various other places, close to Tamenglong, and that also brought me very close. We just built on those connections over the years.

I also worked with a group supported by Oxfam who had a big project called "violence mitigation and amelioration project". One of the things we did was a most amazing meeting between women from the Northeast and women from Kashmir. They were meeting each other for the first time, it was a closed meeting, we didn't allow any outsiders to come in except a few trusted people and a few journalists. So the women discussed about organising on the ground, about dealing with domestic violence, about nationalism. That also really opened my eyes to what was going on in both places. And then they formed lots of independent connections, visited each other.

Has the interest in Northeast India much grown since then?

Then, there was hardly any interest, and it definitely has changed today. In terms of publishing and literature, the Northeast has become sexy now, everybody wants to publish writers from there, which is good because they have many more choices than before. Also a lot of Northeasterners have travelled out of the Northeast. In the initial days they were extremely marginalized in society, in places like Delhi, Bangalore, Pune etc., but they have actually become quite articulate and been able to make their voices heard. I think the media are interested in the Northeast more than they were before. Unlike in many other places, the Northeast also has a lot of really excellent scholars from the Northeast itself. That also helps bringing attention.

One of the things I noticed about the Northeast – this is just anecdotal or impressionistic – is that there seems to be a much greater spirit of entrepreneurship, or adventure. A lot of young Northeasterners are trying out different things. You look at music, culture, fashion – all sorts of things are happening. At our next “Cultures of Peace” event in Shillong, we will have a panel on queer identities in the Northeast. There is a whole transgender community in Manipur, and they are heavily into fashion. I guess there is no space to express this kind of thing in Kashmir, because normal life is so constrained by the presence of the army.

One of the things I have become interested in during the last years is the ways how people talk about Partition in the Northeast. Completely new perspectives have come up. The impact was very different in different places. In Assam you even see it today in the way that the Muslim Assamese are marginalized in the vote banks that have been created, and in the whole debate about migrants and outsiders.

In other places you see it differently, for example along the Bangladesh border. There were market places run by Khasi tribals. When Sylhet [area in the plains south of the Khasi hills] went to East Pakistan, all the supplies of raw materials dried up and it really impoverished the tribals because they had nothing to sell. They had no idea what was going on; all they knew was that their lives have changed.

People and the India-Pakistan Relationship

Governmental relationships between India and Pakistan have been difficult in the best of times, and are currently at a low. At the same time, there seem to be many people in civil society working on improving relationships between the countries.

It would be almost impossible for us to know what people in Peshawar feel about India, or for them to know what people in Chhota Nagpur or Bastar feel about Pakistan. But by and large I think people have a deep curiosity about each other. They want to know. When for example I go to Pakistan, it's not only the people like me that I am talking to. Others also – people you meet on the street – just have a genuine curiosity about India, would like to know how things are, would like to visit. My cousin has never stepped out of Lahore, but his children have a deep curiosity about India. They have seen a lot on the Internet. And they want to meet people.

A lot of this is also happening in the diaspora, where people are talking to each other. But our governments keeping staying apart, and this has become much worse with this current government. It has become pretty impossible to get visa to go across, both ways. But I don't think that people-to-people contact will go away. Somewhere this maybe will create a ground for peace. There was a time when we also had a lot of business people saying that if you can't find a political solution, open up trade and commerce … let us at least start talking about it. There is some cross-border trade, but it could be so much more. I don't know when this will ever change. Where in the world are there two nations that are doing this, other than India and Pakistan, and North and South Korea?

Freedom of Expression in India Today

One cannot talk about India today – around its 70th independence anniversary – without mentioning concerns about freedom of expression in the country, about increasing intolerance and polarization of communal identities.

I am actually very concerned as a publisher who is publishing what can be seen as subversive material. In our definition we are doing what our mandate: bringing up women's voices. But who is to say how it can be framed? Unfortunately, we find an atmosphere of vigilantism, of state tolerance for a certain kind of intolerance for multiple voices, for different forms of expression and thinking. All of this is seriously making an impact on the publishing world in which I live, and it is seriously impacting the writer's freedom to write.

I give you a couple of examples: There is Perumal Murugan, a Tamil writer who was attacked and threatened with violence for one of his books. Somebody protested about the way that he had shown inter-caste relationships. But he is continuing to write although he had said he wouldn't.

Most recently, a tribal writer called Hansa Sowvendra Shekhar from Jharkhand, who has written two books and won a Sahitya Academy award. He was attacked on the excuse that he is depicting tribal women in a bad light, because one of his stories shows a tribal woman who gives in to having sex with a mainstream man because she needs money to feed her children. This is a story that happens every day in many countries, not only in India. He is a government doctor who lives there, he's having demonstrations against him, effigies burned, he lives alone, he is frightened. Now the Jharkhand government banned his book, it is colluding, taking the easy way out, because the attacks came from his own tribal group. The state steps in as it is only interested in votes, and the tribal vote is very important in Jharkhand. The government cannot alienate them but it is OK for it to sacrifice this one man.

There are also a couple of things which worry me with regard to women. There was student’s agitation last year at Jawaharhal Nehru University in Delhi, and teachers supported the protest by public lectures. Now, there is an inquiry against one of the teachers, Nivedita Menon. She has been asked to show cause because she addressed students in the administrative block. It is not a crime for a teacher to address students. And it is nothing in your work contract that says that you can only address your students in the classroom. But the university has instituted an inquiry against her, and the person heading the inquiry team is a man against whom she publicly deposed in an allegation of sexual assault, in which he was found guilty. He is from within the university, and she had spoken against him. How can you expect impartiality.

And similarly the case of Vrinda Grover, a human rights advocate fighting for women. She is fighting the case against [renowned Indian climate scientist] Rajendra Pachauri accused of sexual harassment. He has filed a defamation case against her, saying that the way she is fighting the case and has made him lose all his friends and he does not get any longer conference invitations, it is harmful to his career, etc. And the court has suggested to Vrinda Grover, that she can't speak about him on the media without saying that the case against him is not been proved yet. The lawyer community should be up in arms because it is their job: What you put forward in your case is not your opinion or your view, but what you think is the best interest of your client. You can't accuse a lawyer for defamation for practising her profession. But they are not doing it because she is in human rights, and because she is a woman.

Many of these things result from actions by one arm of the state or another. I give you another example of where the government stepped in at a point where they shouldn't have done it. There is paragraph 498A in the criminal procedure code that allows women to file complaints of domestic violence etc. Unlike the other laws which allow that (such as the Domestic Violence Act), this becomes a criminal case, so the man could immediately be arrested and kept in jail and the woman was given safety. A few men had complained that this is being misused and women are filing false cases. This may be true, there maybe are a handful of false cases, but all statistical evidence has shown that the number of so-called false cases is minuscule.

But the courts have listened to this, and they have pulled back the law, and they have said that before you move in to arrest a man or before he is taken into custody, there has to be constituted a extra-legal body like a family welfare something that will decide whether this is a real or a false case. And the Ministry for Women and Child Development (under Maneka Gandhi) which need not have done anything at all, has immediately instructed the National Commission for Women to open online windows where men can come and file cases of false accusation. I mean Ministry for Women and Child Development, whom are you working for? They need to make it very clear that they are on the side of the citizens and of human rights.

Thank you for this interview, Urvashi.