Playing with Fire (Feminist Thought and Activism Through Seven Lives in India)

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Item Code: NAG069
Author: Sangtin writers
Publisher: Zubaan Publications
Language: English
Edition: 2006
ISBN: 9788189013684
Pages: 211
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 380 gm
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Shipped to 153 countries
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Book Description

About the Book

Playing with fire is a chorus where nine voices from varied socio political locations self reflexively merge themselves to articulate the nuanced intersections of caste, class, gender, religion and socio special location and their centrality in understanding women's empowerment, NGO activism, and the politics of knowledge production. Seven of these voices belong to anupamlata, ramsheela, reshma ansari, shashiand vibha bajpauee village NGO activities from diverse caste and religious backgrounds, who have worked as mobilizers in seventy villages of sitapur district in India. These women from an alliance with each other with richa Singh a district level NGO activist; and with richa nagar, a teacher at the university of Minnesota to highlight key moments of a collective intellectual and political journey.


How does one tell the story of a journey undertaken by nine women? And how does one try to capture the meanings of such a journey when it is continuously evolving and unfolding, sometimes in the face of intense backlash? Playing with Fire seeks to tell that story as a chorus where nine travelers from varied socio-political locations self-reflexively merge their voices to seek answers to a set of shared concerns. Although these travelers inhabit different and unequal worlds in many ways, we are bound together by a shared intellectual and political agenda-and by a passion to envision and rebuild our interconnected worlds, even if such a project involves playing with fire.

Playing with Fire is set primarily in Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), the most populous state of India, one that has been influential in the country's political life. Stretching across the Gangetic plain, U.P. is mainly an agricultural state. As a state ranking low in conventional measures of economic and human development, U.P. has been the target of numerous 'development' initiatives, many of which are funded, at least in part, by the state or central government and operated by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGO projects run the gamut from sectoral initiatives in water or agriculture to programs for education or women's empowerment. At the centre of our story are two such organizations that seek to empower rural women in the Sitapur district of U.P. Sangtin and Nari Samara Yojana (NSY). Sangtin is a small organization that the eight activists who co-authored this book established in 1998 with and for rural women of Sitapur district. NSY is a pseudonym we deploy for a large government sponsored women's organization in Sitapur, in which all the Sangtin members who co-authored this book have served as employees for varying lengths of time and in various positions since 1991.1 With the exception of Sangtin, we use pseudonyms for NSY and all other women's NGO whose activities or events we discuss in Playing with Fire; our goal is not to launch criticisms against specific organizations or individuals but to grapple with complex and contradictory processes and hierarchies associated with donor-funded NGO work and visions of women's empowerment.

In this chorus of nine voices, seven belong to Anuparnlata, Rarnsheela, Reshma Ansari, Shashibala, Shashi Vaish, Surbala and Vibha Bajpayee village-level NGO activists from diverse caste and religious backgrounds, who have worked as mobilizers in seventy villages of the Sitapur district. These seven women formed an alliance with each other; with Richa Singh, their co-worker and a district-level NGO activist; and with me, a teacher at the University of Minnesota." We deploy ref1exive activism and collective analysis of the lives and work of the seven village-level activists to articulate the nuanced intersectionality of caste, class, gender, religion and socio-spatial location, on the one hand, and the multivalent and hierarchical character of donor-driven women's empowerment, on the other. We mix and blur creative, academic and journalistic writing to critically explore the manner in which social hierarchies based on caste, class, religion and geographical location become central to understanding the interrelationships among women's empowerment, NGO work and the politics of knowledge production. Our goal is to reach anyone who might have some interest in understanding the long-term struggles that we have embraced researchers, community- workers, NGO officials, practitioners in the realms of education and development, and those who are invested in (or disenchanted by) the notion of 'empowering the marginalized.

Playing with Fire has emerged from Sangtin Yatra, a book in Hindi that the nine authors of this book published in India in March 2004. In Awadhi," sangtin is a term of solidarity, of reciprocity, of enduring friendship among women; it is used by a woman to refer to her close female companion who sees her through the trials and tribulations of life. The word, yatra, in both Awadhi and Hindi, means journey. The title of our original Hindi book, Sangtin Yatra or a journey of sangtins captures the essence of our collaboration, while also highlighting the name of the organization Sangtin, in whose name the authors want to continue the work of combining rigorous research, radical activism and creative writing. The public release of Sangtin Yatra triggered an angry response from the state headquarters of NSY and the emergence of Playing with Fire is inevitably shaped by this controversy. To counter NSY's backlash, we had to step into the regional, national and international realm to gain support for our freedom of expression. Mobilizing supporters who do not read Hindi necessitated that the contents of Sangtin Yatra be made available in English. Furthermore, NSY's response as well as the encouragement from intellectuals, activists and NGO workers in and outside India, made us confident about Sangtin Yatra's ability to speak to important public debates involving NGOs, empowerment and 'poor women.' As the authors revised and updated the original Sangtin Yatra and transformed it into Playing with Fire, we fully recognized that no act of translation is without problems of voice, authority and representation, and that no act of publication comes without risks and consequences." Yet, we feel that it is necessary for the insights and critiques of this journey to move across the borders of languages, communities, social spaces and institutions. We have chosen to embrace the risks posed by such border-crossings rather than maintaining the silences that Sangtin Yatra seeks to break. Hence, the title, Playing with Fire.

In a large measure, the significance of this collaboration is tightly interwoven with the labour process that went into the making of Sangtin Yatra/Playing with Fire, and the contradictory realities of a collective praxis that consciously aims to intervene in the discourse and politics of empowerment. This collaboration also suggests possibilities and limitations created by the strategy of writing and publishing locally and in the 'vernacular' (Hindi/ Hindustani)" and of subsequently reaching out to national, global and English-speaking audiences. Sharing insights about key pieces of our process can productively contribute to the ongoing discussions-in a variety of institutions and settings-about why and how collaborative research and knowledge production can be imagined across geographical, socio-economic and institutional borders, and the ways in which questions of representation, voice, authority and privilege might be negotiated in the enacting of such an alliance. The task of framing and translating this journey as one of its travelers-and also as the sole English speaker, acadernic and Non-Resident Indian in the group-certainly comes with Immense material and symbolic privileges. It also comes with huge responsibilities: First and foremost, the responsibility to remain accountable to my collaborators who have trusted me to narrate our journey for readers in worlds far removed from their own; and second, the responsibility to the readers who want to understand the processes, dilemmas and challenges associated with our collaboration. But how does one frame a journey whose whole purpose is to not be framed by a single individual? Even though Playing with Fire is framed by my singular voice, what I narrate and analyse is an account of a process whose terms and priorities are set collectively in relation to the politics in which the activists are inserted. The process leading to the creation of Sangtin Yatra, and the journey that continues as a result of it are as critical for its authors as the text is, if not more. In this sense, questions about the meanings and relevance of Sangtin Yatra cannot be answered internally by any 'One of its travelers; the answers can emerge only in the context of activism and NGO work-the spaces where this effort evolved and where it seeks to spark energy and critical dialogues. In the Introduction and Postscript, I highlight and contextualize this bigger journey in which Sangtin Yatra marks a 'moment' of creation.

Before proceeding, a few words are in order about the use of the terms' sangtins,' 'autobiographers' and 'activists' in the Introduction and Postscript. Sangtin is the name of an organization created by rural women in the Mishrikh block of Sitapur district to work together for the socio-political and intellectual empowerment of themselves and their communities." Sangtin Yatra was fired by a desire to imagine how this organization Sangtin could become a sangtin or a close friend and companion-for the most marginalized women of Sitapur. At the same time, the very nature of Sangtin Yatra also made it an intense personal, intellectual and political journey through which nine collaborators became sangtins. These nine. Sangtins are synonymously referred to as 'the sangtins,' 'the authors,' and 'the collective.' To distinguish the sangtins from the seven village-level activists, whose diaries provided the nodal points for Sangtin Yatra, I use the terms, 'the diary-writers' or 'the autobiographers.' Finally, Richa Singh and the seven diary writers, all of whom are also coworkers and formal members of Sangtin, are referred to as 'the activists,' 'the group,' or 'the members of Sangtin.' I use the words 'we' to refer to the nine authors, and 'they' when I am alluding to the seven autobiographers or the eight members of Sangtin? Playing with Fire is divided into three parts. The present Introduction complements the first chapter of Sangtin Yatra by contextualizing and describing some of the key phases of this journey. The second part of the book, entitled 'A Journey of Sangtins,' contains six chapters that constitute the English version of Sangtin Yatra. We begin with the story of why and how we undertook this collaboration, and then share our discussion and analysis of the seven autobiographers' childhoods, adolescence and marriages; their political coming of age; and their triumphs and challenges as workers in women's NGOs. The sixth chapter reflects on the politics of NGO work, and how a desire to reshape these politics allows the collective to articulate our dreams for Sangtin. The final section is a Postscript where I discuss NSY's backlash against Sangtin Yatra in relation 10 the politics of empowerment and NGO work, articulations of global and local feminisms, and globalization from below. I highlight how this journey enacts the theory and praxis of collaboration, while also seeking to shift dominant expectations about who can produce knowledge; the languages, genres and forms in which know ledges get produced; and how new knowledge gain relevance as they interact with different audiences and enable new kinds of socio-political interventions.

How did nine women become nine sangtins? Why and when did we choose to trust each other and travel together; to share our fears and anxieties; to dig out memories and secrets we had buried years ago? How did the collective identify the issues we want to fight for, and how did the activists come to risk their livelihoods and some of their closest relationships for that battle? These questions about building relationships and alliances cannot be 'uncovered' in a methodological vein as if they were transparent realities. However, in discussing the issues of origins, process and intended audience, the first chapter of Sangtin Yatra/Playing with Fire establishes us as nine actors from diverse social, geographical and institutional locations, whose coming together in March 2002 was facilitated by two sets of common concerns which we came to name as the 'politics of knowledge production' and the 'NGOization of women's empowerment. We explain how we embarked on this journey and why the collective chose to focus the book on the lives of the seven village-level activists instead of nine sangtins. In many ways, the concerns that pulled us together are similar to the concerns that are being raised by critics throughout the so called third world." At the same time, the place-specific context of Sitapur played an important role in shaping our engagements as well as the effects that those engagements were able to produce. Sitapur district is located about ninety kilometres away from Luck now, the capital of U.P. According to the 2001 census, approximately 3.6 million of U.P.'s 166 million people lived in the Sitapur district. Comprising 19 blocks and spreading over an area of 5743 sq. km., one third of the total population of this district is classified as 'scheduled caste' (Dalits). Despite a significant presence of Muslims 07 per cent) and the dominance of electoral politics by Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, the district has witnessed a heavy influence of Bhartiya janata Party in the years following the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992. Although the glory of the Hindu goddess, Sita, is frequently invoked in this Hindutva-inflected district, it is perhaps equally well-known for being a centre for buying and selling of poor women brought from outside, as well as for heinous acts of violence against women. A recent study on district-level deprivation officially classifies Sitapur as one of the '69 most backward districts' of India.

The close proximity to the state capital not only affects the electoral and communal politics in Sitapur, but it also makes this district an attractive backyard for various experiments in development schemes and NGO initiatives. While landlessness is not as acute as in other parts of up, a large number of Dalit men and women have been forced to find livelihoods in the informal sector of urban centres such as Luck now and Kanpur, primarily as cycle-rickshaw pullers and domestic workers. Women and girls frequently work on farmland that is either owned or contracted by their own families; they seldom work as wage labourers for others. A significant number of women and girls are also employed by middle people to do piecework making bidis or as cbikunksri embroiderers or weavers, for urban-based merchants under exploitative conditions and in the absence of any unions. Although not very far from the newly formed hill-state of Uttaranchal-a fertile ground for the growth of various people's movements-Sitapur has largely remained untouched by periodic waves of socialist, workers' or peasants' movements, or activism against state-aided communalism in the post-independence period. This is particularly surprising when one considers the presence of the large work force in the sugar mills, plywood factories and dari weaving industry. The district also remained mostly unmarked by the influence of the women's movement in the 1970s and 1980s, although women's rights and empowerment were often alluded to in government documents and programmes.

After the mid-1990s, things began to change with the appearance of donor-funded women's NGOs in the district. For the eight activists undertaking Sangtin Yatra, the arrival in 1996 of NSY marked a new beginning in their lives. A programme for the empowerment of rural women from marginalized sections, NSY- Sitapur was initially funded by the World' Bank and implemented through the Human Resources and Development Ministry of the Government of India. The programme follows the principle of geographical decentralization. It is headquartered at the state level but works through district-level offices so that rural activists working at the village level can create spaces for women in their communities to define their own priorities and strategies for how they want to mobilize and address the problems that seem most urgent to them. NSY often encourages its village-level workers to register their own organization under another name so that the work of women's empowerment may continue after the time-bound funded programme of NSY withdraws from the district. H Thus, the Sitapur branch of NSY, U.P. is the parent organization from which Sangtin has emerged. To the extent that NSY was already 'rolling-back' from Mishrikh, the part of Sitapur where Sangtin operates, and because the collective's objective was to imagine the future of Sangtin by critically reflecting on the activists' previous work, we perceived Sangtin Yatra as being complementary rather than oppositional to NSY's goals. Sangtin Yatra/Playing with Fire has emerged from a collectively produced methodology, where autobiographical writing ancidiscussions of those writings became tools through which we built our analysis and critique of societal structures and processes -ranging from the very personal to the global. At all times, the momentum for this work came from the collective's aim to envision the future directions of Sangtin, and its belief that these future directions would be beset with the same difficulties that we were critiquing unless we could honestly grapple with the silences and barriers that stood in our own midst. Our reflexive analysis evolved as a step-by-step process, where the autobiographers began by writing on their childhoods, adolescence and sexuality. These accounts became the starting points to interrogate different meanings of poverty, hunger, privilege and oppression, and to critically analyse personal dynamics of casteisrn, communalism and elitism in the autobiographers' own lives, among ourselves, and in the organizations where the activists worked. Finally, we grappled with the nuances of representation, hierarchy and ownership of intellectual work within changing structures of NGOs. The topics of the autobiographical diary writing were collectively determined, and the discussions sparked by diaries became spaces where issues of voice, power, silences-and silencing-were constantly raised with respect to the differences and conflicts within the collective, as well as with respect to the politics of caste, class, gender, communalism and development NGOs that stretched beyond us. Each phase of the journey has been marked by shared decision-making on a range of issues, for example: (a) the 'whys' and 'hows' of diary writing; (b) rules pertaining to the sharing of diaries and collective discussions: (c) publishing a book based on the discussions; (d) the writing, sharing and revising by collaborators across geographical boundaries; (e) public release function and distribution of the Hindi book; (f) expenses involved in each stage; Cg) translations of Sangtin Yatra into English and South Asian languages; (h) who shall publish, how the authors shall be named, the royalties allocated, and the contracts signed for Playing with Fire; (i) the complete contents of Playing with Fire and the second Hindi edition of Sangtin Yatra I'; and (j) the future projects that Sangtin is undertaking in the light of this journey.

The collective labour process that created Sangtin Yatra/Playing with Fire unfolded over the course of 34 months. We began in March 2002 with conversations about the activists' long-term dream of establishing Sangtin as an effective organization in the lives of the poorest women in Sitapur district and the manner in which autobiographical narratives and group reflections of their own lives and work could help that process. After nine months of discussion over letters, emails and meetings, we gathered in December 2002 to determine the specific aims, focus, methods, schedule and codes of conduct by which narratives were going to be written and shared. In working out these details, all of us experimented with diary writing and discussion to see how the process might unfold and to develop the steps that would ensure that the sharing and discussion of the narratives happened within a format in which all voices were heard more or less equally. Since one of the goals from the outset was to intervene in the politics of knowledge production, the eight activists wished to learn everything that counted as 'research' and 'documentation' in NGO work, but which was often done on, about or for their work by 'more skilled experts' who came from outside. The tape recorder was a symbol of this expertise, and tape recording could also be used as required by the collective in our own journey. I worked with the eight members of Sangtin as they learned to interview each other, operate a tape recorder, and transcribe recorded material. During the next six months, Vibha Bajpayee, Surbala, Shashi Vaish, Shashibala, Reshma Ansari, Ramsheela and Anupamlata worked on five topically focused autobiographical narratives about their childhood, adolescence and marriage, their initial introduction to the world of women's NGOs, and the struggles they got involved in as NGO activists in their homes and communities. They met with each other and Richa Singh for regular discussions of these narratives while I communicated with the group after each discussion by phone from Minnesota. The next phase commenced in July 2003 when I rejoined the group during my sabbatical year. During this time, we revisited what we had learned from the journey thus far. The discussions on complexities of caste, gender and poverty quickly spilled from the sphere of personal lives into the realms of NGOization, development politics and social movements-topics that were largely absent in the initial phase of diary writing. Long conversations ensued on a number of topics=-e.g., transparency and accountability in NGO-based development, water crisis in rural India, increasing numbers of suicides by Indian peasants, communalism and electoral politics in U.P., and the ways in which impoverishment of the rural communities was connected with gendered and caste-based violence as well as with economic policies propagated by the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The collective became interested in understanding the changing nature of money trails in various women's organizations and their linkages with the ways empowerment is measured and evaluated by donor-funded NGOs. For example, we considered how the-involvement of the World Bank in NSY (previously supported primarily by the Royal Dutch Government) had overlapped with critical programmatic shifts where more qualitative 'measurements' of empowerment have given way to an expansion of the programme's scale of operation and a greater preoccupation with statistics and standardization of 'successful' strategies.

In addition, the US-led invasion of Iraq became a prominent subject of concern in the above discussions and the group wanted me to play an active role in helping them learn first about US foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia, and then about race politics in the U.S. and South Africa." Focused discussions on issues of sexual desires and same-sex sexuality also happened for the first time at this point. The passionate engagement of the group with all these topics prompted us to reflect and write about these in our diaries for forty minutes after each discussion and return again to share our thoughts. At this juncture, the collective felt that in order to honour our own accountability to Sangtin, we should compile our discussions in a form that could be shared with other fellow activists and members of Sangtin. When Richa Singh and I compiled the first set of notes on childhood and Anuparnlata read them aloud in a group discussion, each of LIS felt overwhelmed by what we had been able to articulate. Surbala and Shashibala wondered aloud, 'What would happen if our stories could replace the stories of Sita and Jhansi ki Rani in our school text-books?' Suddenly, the collective was struck by the power of its own creation. The question raised by Surbala and Shashibala crystallized in the autobiographers a desire to claim authorship of their own lives and struggles, and culminated in the decision to publish Sangtin Yatra.

Everyone participated in determining what the "book should look like, which stories and discussion points should appear in the book and which should not; and which issues needed further discussion and fleshing out before incorporation into the book. This process sometimes triggered memories and emotions that drew our attention to issues we had not talked about previously. For example, the sensitive topic of whether and how the hunger of two poor girls from different locations in the caste ladder could be compared to each other first came up' in this new round of discussions. Revisiting childhood and deprivation subsequently triggered memories of infants and children that four of the autobiographers had lost due to disease, malnutrition, or lack of adequate health care infrastructure in rural areas, as well as memories of the ways in which two autobiographers were subjected to practices of untouchability when they delivered their babies. Recollection and reflection on these events soon after having discussed the bigger picture of how development politics works, helped us to formulate more nuanced and multilayered understandings of how intersecting forms of structural violence play out on bodies marked by gender, caste and religion. Once all the authors took critical decisions about the contents and structure of the book in August 2003, Richa Singh and I plunged ourselves into preparing drafts of each chapter. Richa Singh focused on outlining the details of the stories that the authors had collectively decided to include, making sure that all the key points of tension, reflections and debate were captured by the text we were creating. My energies were focused on writing, sharing and redrafting every piece of the text until it met with full satisfaction and approval from the other eight authors. This process gave each member of the collective a sense of ownership of the words and thoughts that were being written, discussed, negotiated, revised and re-revised.

It took six months of intensive writing to produce the first complete draft of Sangtin Yatra, and during two of these months I was located in the us once again. The geographical distance made it necessary for us to figure out ways to communicate over long distance-not simply to complete the project at hand, but also to sustain and grow a long-term alliance. As a first step, I learned to type in Hindi while Richa Singh (who already knew how to type in Hindi) learned to use a computer and email. We discovered new ways




  Acknowledgements v
Part I Introduction  
  Playing with Fire: A Collective Journey Across Borders 3
Part II A Journey of Sangtins  
  The Beginnings of A Collective Journey 37
  A Very Short Childhood 50
  From the Streets of Babul to the Wetness of Aanchal 66
  Prisons Within Prisons: Battles Stretching from the Courtyard to the Mind 103
  Cracking Cages, New Skies 126
  Challenges of Ngoization and Dreams of Sangtin 145
Part III Postscript  
  Ngos, Global Feminisms and Collaborative Border Crossings 169
  Glossary 199
  Select Bibliography 205


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