If you’re not engaging, shut up


Dolly Kikon is a feminist scholar and supports the political participation of women in the Naga community (India).

Portrait Dolly Kikon

This piece is part of our dossier "No Women - No Peace: 20th Anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security".

‘Pick up a random piece of my work and you’ll find a gendered framework within it. You’ll find the voice of a woman, a girl, a young boy. Gender rights are very important and dear to me. You’ll find me talking about it in everything I write, says Dolly Kikon. Little did Kikon know that her joining those appealing for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – a draconian law, applied in erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir and the northeastern states of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, that confers complete impunity on the armed forces in ‘disturbed areas’ – twenty years ago, was going to be her induction into a life of activism and feminist scholarship.

‘At the heart of security is the fear of threat’

Senior Lecturer of Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia, Kikon says, defenders of the AFSPA confound her. ‘Law is not justice. How can an extra-constitutional legislation, which has traumatised a country’s citizens, authorised aerial bombing of one’s own land, coexist with all the good laws we have?’ she wonders. What bureaucrats, policy makers and peace activists call ‘armed conflict zones’, India calls ‘disturbed areas’. In these areas, India has imposed undemocratic laws like AFSPA, violent state and state-sponsored actions and heavy militarisation, all in the name of security. At the heart of security is the fear of a threat, Kikon says. ‘That a country – since its independence in 1947 – suspects its own citizens is a reflection of its insecurities and anxieties to govern,’ she says. India needs to address the culture of impunity, deeply embedded in its post-colonial foundation. ‘We cannot have the AFSPA, for example, and expect that good citizenship is  practised,’ she adds.

In her first book, Living with Oil and Coal, Kikon explores the convergence of natural resource extraction, security and human rights violations. She argues that security is given, not to a country’s citizens but to commodities. ‘Explain to me how, on the one hand, the Northeast is branded a violent, unsafe place, unfit for businesses to flourish, and on the other, since the 19th century – and through the peak of armed insurgency and violence in the region – commodities such as Assam tea continued to flourish as a global brand?’

My awareness came from being a woman in a tribal community

Kikon hails from Dimapur, Nagaland’s largest city and one of the fastest-growing urban centres in Northeast India. ‘When I reflect back to my time growing up, I realise that my awareness was not so much from belonging to a particular community – the Lotha Naga tribal community – but from being a woman in a tribal community,’ says the first-generation university graduate. Seeing her mother, a single parent, go through the stigma of being a divorced woman, ignited a sense of enquiry in Kikon. Why were women always at fault? Why were male members of the family never held accountable? – were questions that troubled small Kikon. She says, ‘The act of cleaning – fetching water from the well, mopping the floor, dusting furniture – is a continuous, unrelenting process, in which, I, as a woman, can never achieve perfection. No matter how clean I have wiped the furniture today, it is going to get dusty again. And yet, my competence, as a woman, is tied to perfecting the art of household work.’

‘In university, even as I studied gender concepts and theories, I was reminded of how I experienced it. They gave me the vocabulary to talk about those experiences,’ says Kikon, albeit sounding caution in the same breath. ‘But in our articulateness, we also risk becoming obtuse and abstract. I must be able to explain gender and equality to both a five-year-old and a 23-year-old. And what makes me connect is action and not words.’ When and how do you start gender sensitisation, then? She laughs. To be sensitive to something is to handle and approach a subject in a delicate manner. With issues of gender you don’t need delicacy, you need urgency, she asserts. ‘When we say we need gender sensitivity, especially in development terms, we’re seeking a reactive response, a quick fix. It won’t work. Adopting gender sensitivity is and must be a very deep political commitment.’

Speaking of gender equality in terms of power, influence and authority lends to it a different colour. ‘Equality simply means ensuring equal opportunities and not discriminating against any group,’ she clarifies, while explaining her work in support of political participation of women in the Naga community and engaging with customary law that keeps women out of traditional councils. ‘My critique is that one cannot invoke culture to exclude the participation of a very important group.’

Inter-generational trauma in areas of armed conflict

Life and Dignity: Women’s Testimonies of Sexual Violence in Dimapur is a work Kikon holds close to her heart. When Kikon went on fact-finding trips to conflict areas in the Northeast, around two decades ago, the experience ‘shook’ her. ‘After the Indian army had raided a village, sexually harassing and assaulting women, rape survivors would give their testimony, simultaneously going about their everyday life – they would be tending to their children, working in the fields, cooking. The normalisation of sexual violence left me traumatised,’ she recalls. She saw that families assumed they were protecting the survivor by not talking about the sexual violence. This has, over the decades, given rise to a culture of impunity where gender violence is normalised, a theme she highlights in her book. Men, as much as women, from areas of armed conflict, are traumatised. And this is inter-generational trauma, she explains, adding, ‘for example, Nagaland has had a ceasefire since 1997. But the uncertainty that the state might return to conflict is perennial.’ ‘Young boys are very vulnerable. But what redressal, recourse and counselling are we providing them?’ she asks. International instruments and policies are heteronormative, rarely even including males within their ambit. ‘Vocabulary, thus, is important. Using a gender lens to engage is always better,’ she says.

In this context, instruments like Resolution 1325 assume significance, according to Kikon. Apart from reaffirming the importance of women, gender, peace negotiations and peacebuilding while looking at armed-conflict situation and post-conflict reconstruction, the Resolution proffers vocabulary that helps make sense of reconciliation. ‘Resolution 1325 is a vision document, a set of guiding principles that helps us understand what it means to push and desire universal rights. Organisations working in areas of armed conflict have derived their moral authority from the Resolution,’ Kikon says. ‘Yes, there are shortcomings in the Resolution and its implementation, but it would serve us well to recall what my mentors say to keep me grounded – ‘If you’re not engaging, shut up. Don’t critique.’ Engaging is a process that makes us humble.’

Her book Life and Dignity has been adapted into two theatre projects on gender violence. Kikon collaborated with artists Rosumari Samsara and Lapdiang Syiem for the first, titled Requiem for Dead Sisters. The second was coordinated by Syiem and performed by Abigail Nongsiej for the Zubaan project on impunity. ‘Projects like these are part of engagement too for me,’ Kikon says.

You can be late to politics depending on your privilege

‘Prolonged armed conflicts, militarisation, a stagnant economy, corrupt and ineffective governance structures, and the harsh conditions of subsistence agriculture in their home villages or small towns impel the youth to seek future prospects outside their home region,’ writes Kikon, in her co-authored book Leaving the Land: Indigenous Migration and Affective Labour in India. ‘The kind of aspirations of the generation born post-1997 – the year of the ceasefire – in Nagaland is very different. They dream big, they dream of making it big,’ she says. These dreams were similar to those of the post-liberalisation Indian middle class’ dreams. ‘A lot of it though has come crashing down and the result is the country’s middle class erupting in protests,’ she notes, in explanation to their sudden political awakening. ‘In India, you can be late to politics depending on your class, caste and other privileges. Those waking up now, have a lot to catch up in terms of state injustice and oppression.’

As a young adult, Kikon was embarrassed to belong to Dimapur. ‘When I went to Delhi to study, I met people from big cities in the country. Nobody knew of Nagaland, forget Dimapur. And then I went to Stanford, where people came from New York and London! So, I have taken up a personal project of re-examining why I’m embarrassed of where I come from, especially when I spend half my life explaining to people why I hold an Indian passport or how I don’t look Indian,’ she explains. Dimapur is a very urban, modern area. ‘But, if you are a tribal person in India, there is an assumption that you have to come from the middle of the forest, and live on a treetop, right? You cannot belong to a city!’ Kikon addresses and challenges a lot of these notions in her forthcoming co-authored book, Ceasefire City: Militarism, Capitalism, and Urbanism in Dimapur.