Autumn's Final Country

Screencap of "Autum's Final Country" (2003)

(66 mins., 2003, English/Hindi with English subtitles)

Co-sponsored by Asia Society's Asian Social Issues Program and Breakthrough

April 14, 2004

Sonia Jabbar, filmmaker
Farooq Kathwari, Chairman and CEO, Ethan Allen Inc and Chairman, Kashmir Study Group
Maya Chadda, professor of political science, research fellow at Columbia University's Southern Asian Institute
Mallika Dutt, Executive Director, Breakthrough (Moderator)

The suffering of four displaced women who now live in Kashmir was the subject of a stark and sobering documentary April 14 at the Asia Society. Reporter and activist Sonia Jabbar introduced Autumn's Final Country as "not a film on the Kashmir problem." But the underlying concern of both audience and panel participants was the recent hope for a settlement of the Kashmir conflict.

Autumn's Final Country was originally recorded by Ms. Jabbar as testimony for the South Asia Court of Women in Dakha in August 2003. The Asia Human Rights Council had asked her to arrange for some Kashmiri women to come to Dakha to testify about how they came to be displaced. Unable to afford the cost of transporting the women, Ms. Jabbar bought a camera and became a quick learn on filmmaking in order to transport their stories to the Court.

Her four subjects were from disparate backgrounds but were all cruelly impacted by religious or political conflict. The stories tell of Indu, an English teacher living in Kashmir, who fled her comfortable family home in Srinagar when religious violence flared. Although settled and employed for the last two decades in Kashmir, this Hindu woman still calls Srinagar home. Zarina was brought from Bangladesh to Kashmir by a family friend, only to be sold as a young bride who quickly became the virtual slave of a two-wife family. Shahnaz was abducted as a young girl, kept and then raped by Kashmir guerillas, only to be"saved" and raped by Indian police, who turned her into an informant. This Muslim woman lives from hand to mouth, as no man will marry her given her past. And finally we meet Anju, a young Hindu adolescent living in a refugee camp in Jammu, who fled her family home along the Pakistani border when its army shelled her village in attempts to destroy a nearby Indian army outpost. She and her mother and grandmother go back to the house with care to tend the shrine to her father, killed in the escape.

The discussion following the documentary centered on the continuing conflict in Kashmir and the most recent hopes for peace. The previous evening at Asia Society, a panel including India and Pakistan's Permanent Representatives to the United Nations discussed in amicable terms their mutual desires for peace. Sitting on that panel as well as the documentary's panel was Farooq Kathwari, chairman and CEO of Ethan Allen Inc, the international furniture concern, and chairman of the Kashmir Study Group, an influential political lobbyist organization for the resolution of the Kashmir conflict.

During the previous night's panel, Mr. Kathwari remarked how both India and Pakistan had arrived at this moment for peace not inconsequently due to the fact that they are being surpassed by China in the rush of capital to Asia. Mr. Kathwari's own company would have invested large sums in the region, but chose to place its investments in China due to the regional unrest. One questioner who attended both panels remarked upon the irony that peace might finally come because of commercial concerns, not human suffering. Mr. Kathwari acknowledged that while human suffering and death is his group's concern, government officials may better advance peace by focusing on the future rather than be caught up in efforts to assign blame for the suffering of the past.

Also on Autumn's Final Country panel was Maya Chadda, political science professor from William Paterson University of New Jersey and research fellow at the Southern Asian Institute, Columbia University. People in conflicts are often forgotten, she agreed, or become issues of strategy. Diplomats must be reminded that it is all about people at appropriate times. Moderating the panel was Mallika Dutt, founder and Executive Director of Breakthrough, which uses popular culture to promote public awareness and dialogue about human rights and social justice. Among Breakthrough's recent activities is a music video about love that crosses religious boundaries. Ms. Dutt urged those Asian Americans in the United States who can vote to be sure to register, to remember their past but to take an active part in their present country's politics.

Autumn's Final Country attracted many Kashmiri Americans, some who had personal experience with the religious violence that has frozen the state. Feelings of frustration were heard, from the lack of Kashmiri presence in the peace process to an inability to make a difference.

Somewhat undone by the feelings she had aroused, filmmaker Sonia Jabbar focused her comments on the making of her film, which was completed in one week and, remarkably, in one take. She felt uncomfortable that the four women subjects remain unaffected by her recent acclaim as a filmmaker to the point that she announced she is collecting money for the two most indigent and starting a project to help a village in north Kashmir that has been stigmatized by the systematic rape of its women during the conflict.

Sonia Jabbar has been politically active since the early 1990s and has worked on Kashmir issues as a rights activist, journalist, photographer and filmmaker since 1995. She has founded several Indian movements for nuclear disarmament, and after the 2002 Gujarat riots she co-founded Aman Ekta Manch, a citizens' group in New Delhi that worked for peace between the communities. She has initiated Indian-Pakistan peoples' conferences at the grassroots level and in 2000 she received a research grant from WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace), founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner HH The Dalai Lama.