• Surviving on the Edge: Tales of resilience, courage, resistance and triumph

    Shobna Sonpar, Mahamaya Navlakha and Kanika Sinha

    April 11, 2019

    We only talk about issues of discrimination against minorities or women when instances of extreme violence against them are reported in the media. Dominant narratives tend to treat instances of violence as extraordinary events which demand punitive action of equal epic magnitude. But what these narratives fail to take into account are the cases of ordinary violence which women face every day. These include sexist jokes, stereotypes, restrictions on mobility, and so on. Surviving on the Edge: Psychosocial Perspectives on Violence and Prejudice in India by Shobna Sonpar and Neeru Kanwar makes a compelling intervention in the field of psychology and the social sciences by examining forms that are not even regarded as violence but play a role in aggravating it. Through a range of essays—theoretical, narrative accounts and case studies—which look at how violence relates to categories of gender, family, disability and trauma, the book attempts to better understand prejudice and social violence.

    Below are excerpts from Chapter four, "Psychologists in Times of Nationalism" and Chapter 19, "In Giving We Received: Working with Survivors of the Gujarat Carnage


    Image Courtesy: Yoda Press

    Conditions that constitute an identity threat are often those that threaten collective esteem or group distinctiveness. The need to maintain differentiation and self-esteem may be met by essentialising both the self and the other—We are like this but They are like that. Along with other factors, this process contributes heavily to the escalation of conflict as images of the Other become dehumanised and demonised in an ‘enemy system’ (Mack, 1990).

    In a multicultural society, identity-related concerns are inevitably significant, setting up tensions among constituent cultures as well as between these and an encompassing collective such as the nation. In her social identity theory of optimal distinctiveness, Brewer (1999) posits that group identification is the product of opposing needs for assimilation and differentiation. Individuals achieve equilibrium by identifying with distinctive social groups that meet both needs simultaneously. The need for inclusion is met by assimilating with the group while the need for differentiation is satisfied by intergroup distinctiveness. The clarity of in-group boundaries serves to secure both inclusion and exclusion. As long as in-group distinctiveness is maintained, the out-group may be viewed in a variety of ways indifference, contempt, sympathy or admiration—without disturbing amity. It is perhaps this that Nandy (2001) describes when he writes about the cosmopolitanism of Cochin, a city whose easy communal amity includes communal distances and hostilities, but with certain optimality of its loves and hates. However, social changes that give rise to the prospect of close contact, integration or influence could threaten the distinctiveness of group identity and kindle hostility.

    These are issues that are very alive and urgent in India today as the following anecdote illustrates. Asha is a 19-year-old woman, a graduate, from a remote village in Kupwara district in the Kashmir valley. Her family is one of only eight Kashmiri Pandit families remaining in their village while others of their community fled to the migrant camps in Jammu to escape militant threat. Some months ago she was married into a family in Baramulla. A few days after the wedding, a puja was held in her new home. When her mother-in-law called her to join the puja, she said, ‘I am just coming… as soon as I finish my vazhu’ (the ritual ablutions performed by Muslims before namaaz). All hell broke loose—she was immediately made to return to her natal family, her marriage at an end. It came naturally for Asha to say what she did having lived in easy familiarity with the Muslim community of her village whose customs and rituals were neither alien nor abhorrent to her and with whom she shared a common sense of belongingness as a fellow villager. But saying what she did was seen as indicating a degree of assimilation with the Muslim community that jeopardised her claim to Kashmiri Pandit identity.

    Indeed, for the approximately 6800 Pandits who remain in the Kashmir valley, identity-related concerns are of paramount concern. The struggle to maintain their distinctiveness, their pehchan, from the majority Muslim community is a source of great anguish. The threat they now feel comes from the fear of assimilation. On several occasions, elderly Pandits living isolated from their community in remoter villages died and the last rites would be performed, as best they could, by fellow villagers who were Muslim. This has been the impetus to the recent forming of an organisation to keep their identity and its associated practices alive. Their anguish is coloured by anger towards those members of their own community who fled Kashmir and who now taunt them as having compromised their Hindu identity by staying on in the valley. Their feelings towards the Muslim community are mixed. On the one hand, they warmly acknowledge the support, protection and affection they have received without which they would not have survived dangerous times. On the other, they feel insecure and resentful as a minority that experiences discrimination and has lost privilege, status and material well-being. But they are proud that they are Kashmiri, asli Kashmiri, having upheld their identity and culture in their own Kashmiri homeland for centuries. And this raises vexed questions about their position in relation to an encompassing Indian national identity.

    The challenge for psychologists is to understand, analyse, intervene and ameliorate suffering in such contexts—and to do so while rigorously scrutinising the ways in which their own identity-related issues intersect and collide, and when endeavouring to sustain their peculiar stance of an empathic attitude.


    ‘River Sabarmati, not just a physical divide.’ This statement has now become an inside joke among the volunteers, but the truth behind it becomes glaringly obvious as one drives from Ahmedabad Junction in Kalupur (Old Ahmedabad), to Navrangpura (new Ahmedabad). The famous C.G. Road with its international chains of stores and fast cars is far removed from the reality of the small paan ka gallas and phat phatiyas of the Vatwa area in Old Ahmedabad. This is not just because of the economic disparity characteristic of these two areas, which is common to almost all large cities. 28 February 2002, and the weeks that followed it, had vastly different implications for the two areas. While life in new Ahmedabad was punctuated briefly by the calm caused by the curfew, life in Old Ahmedabad was thrown into turmoil by the extensive violence and destruction that pulverised the atmosphere there.

    We arrived in Ahmedabad in June, four months after the riots had begun, by which point the violence had stopped, but its effects could be seen everywhere. The killing, looting, burning and raping was over, but the destruction had left thousands of people homeless, orphaned, widowed and wounded. Camps had been set up all over Old Ahmedabad, and our work was distributed between the Vatwa and Gomtipur areas. There were five fully functional camps spread out in these two areas, only a couple of which were recognised by the government.

    As we walked towards the camps, our first reaction was, ‘it’s better than I thought it would be.’ Having heard gory reports of the kinds of violence that had taken place during the riots, we expected to meet only injured, burnt, invalid people, but what we saw was a dusty patch of ground, with a makeshift tarpaulin roof, and a hundred-odd people sitting around. It almost seemed like a picnic, except that this ‘picnic’ never ended. People never went back home. They sat on that dustridden ground through the heat of the day, and slept on the very same spot through the untimely rains at night. The life that they had led previously had no meaning anymore, and now their very existence was defined by that patch of dust, which had been their home for the last four months.

    The conditions at the camps varied from terribly hard to unbearable, yet the inmates were living through it with the hope that at some point they would be able to put it all behind them, and restart their lives with whatever degree of normalcy possible. Every day there were threats from politically-motivated quarters to shut down the camps. Every time the supplies arrived, they would fall short. The compensation that had been provided to the lucky few was a pittance, compared to their actual losses. Despite the seeming lack of improvement, the camp members smiled, prayed, and most of all, hoped; everyone hoping that he might be one of the few lucky recipients of the next hand cart or sewing machine being gifted by an NGO.

    A great source of inspiration, not just for the victims, but also for the volunteers, was the group of Aman Pathiks. These individuals
    were those who had themselves suffered grave losses during the riots but had volunteered to help with relief work. Being a part of the same community, living under the same adverse circumstances as the rest of the inmates, the Aman Pathiks formed the link between the victims and the NGOs that were involved with their rehabilitation. Putting aside their own trauma, they worked towards a better future, not just for themselves, but hundreds of other families.

    Before leaving for Ahmedabad, the volunteers went through an orientation session. It was during such a briefing that we were warned that we might be at the receiving end of negative outbursts from the inmates. Due to the severe emotional trauma, it was quite likely that some amount of resentment may be directed towards us, owing to the religious and social communities we belonged to, or simply because some people might need an emotional vent. Our experiences during the seven weeks (over a period of four months) in Ahmedabad, proved anything but. Frustration was evident through the spats that the inmates had with one another or the arguments with the camp organisers that ensued after the distribution of any kind of supplies. But not once did these survivors of violence show any kind of resentment towards us. In fact, they looked at us with hope, as people who might help them out of their misery. Each time that we left Ahmedabad, we left with the love and blessings of the members, who now treat us as their own.

    A major part of the work that we did at the camps especially during the period from June to July involved filling out compensation forms.
    This required us to sit down with each family and fill out details of the kind of losses they suffered during the riots, and the kind of compensation (or the lack thereof) they have received since then. Many of the bonds that we formed with the camp members began with this work. Each form could take up to forty-five minutes, as we would ask for details of personal history, personal possessions and the like. This was also an opportunity for the survivors to talk. It was perhaps the first time that these people were being asked to share their experiences. They would reminisce about the good old days, and break down as they narrated the events of the night that changed their lives. They did not know if we would be able to help them out, and we made sure not to give them any false hopes; but they did know that we were there to listen, and that we wanted to hear them. It was this that formed the foundations of the relationships that the volunteers made with the camp members.

    During our second visit to Ahmedabad, we focused on medical needs. This was an area that had so far been neglected by the NGOs
    involved with rehabilitation work. We initiated a health care system, that was carried out with and often without organisational support.
    Medical attention was urgent, and expensive. Epidemics of jaundice, typhoid and malaria were on the rise, and there were many severe cases of TB and epilepsy. The camp members were desperate for medical attention. Taking people to the hospital every day, getting them examined, bringing to them the required medication, and following up to make sure that patients were recovering adequately, all served to strengthen the rapport that we had already established with the people. It was rewarding to see that improvement of physical health made the people stronger and more committed to start their lives again, and to face their current situation with greater strength.

    Amongst our closest relationships were the ones that we formed with the children. Even those of us who were not directly involved
    with the children, formed very close bonds with some of them following just one visit to their school. Every time the children would then
    spot us on the roads, they’d call out to us, sit with us, talk to us, and continued looking out for us every day. Clearly, the children needed
    attention, something that they had been deprived of for too long after a great trauma.

    It wasn’t til four months after the riots that the needs of the affected children were looked into. Since their arrival at the camps, the children had spent their time loitering around with nothing constructive to do. No one had been able to address the trauma that they had gone through, not even their own parents, who were themselves unequipped to cope with their children’s problems. They had pressing survival issues to deal with first. The children had, till this point, found their own ways of coping with the trauma that they had gone through during the riots and the situation after.

    In June, a small school was set up with the help of an academician who formulated a module based on which teachers could be quickly
    trained. Ladies from nearby houses, who had time to spare, volunteered to teach at this school, following the guidelines that had been established. At last the children were getting some of the attention they badly needed, and their energies positively channelled. The activities of the school ranged from creative to academic, so as to be educational as well as therapeutic. The school has grown from being a temporary place where the children could constructively use their time, into an establishment that is now being supported by an NGO called Sahyog, on a more permanent basis. Sahyog provides the study material, the salaries of teachers, and even an afternoon snack for the children. This school, in the Vatwa area, is one of the bigger success stories from among the work that the volunteers have been involved in.

    Lately volunteers have begun focusing on livelihood support measures for the camp members, which are activities now fully preoccupying NGOs working there. This involves rebuilding of houses, relocation of families and distribution of livelihood kits. Goods like handcarts and sewing machines have been distributed, so as to provide families with some means to earn a living, and thus, regain a bit of economic independence. These efforts have begun to show results.

    Ten months after the carnage there are fewer people in the camps, many have found homes, many have become financially independent. On our third visit to Ahmedabad, we had the opportunity to visit them in their new homes, share meals with them, and be a part of their newly built lives; a very heart-warming experience. A faint glimpse of what their lives once were, can now be had, but we would be foolish to believe that things have returned, or that they ever would return, to a state of normalcy. Elections are round the corner, stray incidents of communal violence continue, and public apathy is as apparent as before. On the surface, life in Old Ahmedabad may appear to be what it might have been ten months ago, but can we expect things to normalise when, even in their own homes, people live under the constant shadow of fear?

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    Shobna Sonpar is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist in private practice, and was a Trustee of Psychological Foundations. Her research interests have been in gender, social justice and political violence. Mahamaya Navlakha and Kanika Sinha were Psychology honours students from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi. Mahamaya Navlakha now leads the research and development vertical at Arthan Foundation, Delhi. Kanika Sina is Director, Partnerships and Outreach, ComMutiny-the Youth Collective, Delhi.

    This is an excerpt from Surviving on the Edge: Psychosocial Perspectives on Violence and Prejudice in India edited by by Shobna Sonpar and Neeru Kanwar. Published by SAGE and YODA Press. Republished here with permission from the publisher.

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