Saturday, May 21, 2016

'Important for intellectuals to take sides': Academic Hiren Gohain on why the BJP is bad for Assam

This interview was done before the Assam election results were out.

May 7, 2016

The Sahitya Akademi award winner feels the party has been exposed as fascist and would wreck the communal harmony in the state should it come to power.

RK Pachauri’s civil suit against a women’s rights lawyer could set a very dangerous precedent

Here's a catch up of various articles I've written for Scroll that I haven't posted on this blog.

April 12, 2016

The move by the climate scientist, who is facing sexual harassment charges, is likely to have a chilling effect on other women.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Four problems Maharashtra can't wish away by chanting 'Bharat Mata ki jai'

My latest on on the Bharat Mata Ki Jai obsession:

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Muzaffarnagar to Murthal

Indian Express, March 17, 2016

(Op-ed in Indian Express)

When public figures speak violence, the fallout goes beyond their immediate targets.  In ways seen and unseen, those most affected are often women. 

Recently, we saw an illustration of this during the Jat quota stir.  In a sea of men blocking highways and railway tracks, women were invisible.  In fact, they were not there at all. 

Yet, they figured, not as participants but as targets.  Although everyone seems to deny that any molestation or rapes occurred at the end of February, there are several reports that suggest that women were attacked and that most of them will not speak out.

That is hardly surprising.  Did we not see that in Muzaffarnagar in September 2013?  In the communal riots preceding the 2014 general elections, only after the violence had subsided, an estimated 60 people had died and 60,000, mostly Muslims, had been displaced, did the stories of rape begin to be told.

Till today, there has been no closure.  Just a few days ago, one of those cases was closed because the survivor and her family “turned hostile”, another way of saying that they were either intimidated, or decided to keep quiet for fear of consequences.

Despite changes in the rape law, and an increase in general awareness after the 2012 gang rape in Delhi, the reality for rape survivors who fight for justice is either endless delay and humiliation, or threats forcing them to withdraw charges.  Statistics of the low conviction rate amply illustrate this reality.

Muzaffarnagar and Murthal tell us the same story.  When there is public violence, by way of riots or agitations, the consequence is often heightened levels of violence against women.  This is not unique to India.  Studies around the world have established this reality in multiple locations.  The most ghastly in recent memory is Rwanda, where during the genocide in 1994 when Hutus systematically eliminated Tutsis, in the course of 100 days of violence, an estimated half a million women were raped or killed.  The legacy of that violence has still not been erased.

In the current atmosphere in India, where statements are made almost on a daily basis about chopping off heads, slicing tongues and taking revenge, there is real reason to worry.  This kind of heightened violence, much of it going unchallenged and even endorsed by the very people who should be stopping it, leaves all women vulnerable, not just those belonging to the targeted groups.

What this does is that it makes violence acceptable as a way of settling scores.  If ministers in the government speak such language, and they get away without being reprimanded, and are not even hauled up for hate speech, then what is to stop any person from assuming that such talk, and the actions that follow, are permissible?

While data has established that the majority of incidents of violence against women occur in the home or familiar neighbourhoods, a heightened atmosphere of violence affects women’s access to the public space.  At such times, the problem is viewed as a breakdown in law and order. In fact, it is a direct fallout of a culture of political violence that is deliberately perpetuated and thereby becomes the norm.

The government needs to recognise this and address it because it undercuts its stated efforts to “empower” women. Beti Bachao and Beti Padhao will remain empty slogans if girls fear stepping out to go to school or women are terrified at the thought of giving birth to another girl who will have to confront increasing violence, at home and outside.

A survey conducted by the group Breakthrough in 2014 in five states and 15 districts in India indicated that girls on their way to school had to fight off sexually explicit verbal comments, stalking and sometimes molestation.  The unsafe spaces women listed included bus stops, railways stations, open toilets, public toilets, markets and streets.  In other words, practically all public spaces.

In election season, women will be more constrained and restricted if these public spaces that they must necessarily negotiate every single day also become the sites of political violence. The fear of molestation and rape will hold young girls back from attending school, prevent women from going out to work, and in myriad other ways directly affect their mobility. 

The more dangerous aspect is not just the random violence in the public space, but the targeted one, when women become a part of the plan to wreak vengeance by one group of men on another.  This is what we saw in Muzaffarnagar.  And this is what could repeat itself as the electoral temperature rises, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. 

These realities are constantly obscured in the continuous talk about achievement and empowerment of some women, or in the increasingly empty and consumerist agendas that now dominate the celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Beyond Kanhaiya Kumar

March 6, 2016

Something really unusual and encouraging has been happening in the last days. Apart from JNU, which has been in ferment, young people in many other parts of India seem to be waking up and speaking out as never before.

I spent all day yesterday surrounded by enthusiastic, intense youngsters who hung on to every word spoken by a range of speakers about secularism, communalism, democracy, the media, and history. The meeting was organised by a small group who call themselves the Mumbai Collective.  I can't remember such an electric atmosphere in this city in a long time. Keeping my fingers firmly crossed that this is not a passing phase but part of a deeper churning.

My piece in
Beyond Kanhaiya Kumar: Is this the student awakening that has been a long time coming?

Kanhaiya Kumar’s words, as he delivered his passionate speech in Jawaharlal Nehru University hours after being released on bail following 23 days in custody, will continue to reverberate in our ears for some time to come. “We want freedom in India, not from India,” he said as he went on to define what he meant by that freedom, that “azadi”.

Kumar left those who listened to him at the venue, and on television, speechless. He probably left his detractors, who have called him “anti-national”, sleepless. For what Kumar said on the night of March 3, and what he represents, cannot be ignored anymore.

But is this the story of only one exceptional person, a young man not just with admirable oratorical skills but also commitment, perspective, passion, courage and insight? Or does this represent an awakening among India’s students and youth, a stirring that has been a long time coming?

Rise and spread

What began in September 2014 in Jadavpur University in Kolkata in the form of a demand to investigate an incident of sexual harassment, spread to the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune in June 2015, when the students went on strike against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan to head the institution.

Like the “infection” the Delhi High Court judge who granted Kumar bail fears, it then spread to the Hyderabad Central University in August 2015, culminating in the tragic death of Rohith Vemula in January this year. And then on February 9, JNU became “infected” as students demanded their right to protest and were instead charged with sedition and being “anti-national”.

Since the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar on February 12 on charges of sedition and the subsequent arrest of two other JNU students, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, students from many more universities across India have come out in their support. This kind of solidarity among students across universities has not been seen in recent times.

These protests could, of course, subside. The majority of students might decide to get back to classes, and to worrying about their careers. But the chances that this “infection” will spread are greater because the JNU students and the Dalit students from Hyderabad Central University have widened the ambit of their protests. It is not just freedom of expression that they are demanding; they are equally passionate about freedom from caste. It is this combination that must worry the current dispensation at the Centre, or at least should worry them.

Past passion

You would have to delve quite far into your memory to remember a time when Indian universities were in ferment. But there was such a time. If you were in any university or college in the 1960s or 1970s, student politics was alive. There were passionate debates about the country’s future, about injustice and about freedom. There were Gandhians, Socialists, Communists, Maoists. I can’t remember too many Sanghis in those days.

Whether you were politically inclined or not, expressing your views on everything and anything was the norm. And no one was afraid. There was no one telling you what was allowed or not allowed. And there was certainly no one accusing anyone of being “anti-national”, not even if you believed that “power came out of the barrel of a gun”.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the Naxalbari movement at one end, and Jayprakash Narayan’s call for Total Revolution at the other. Both attracted educated young people, including students who left their studies to go and work in the villages. There were study circles and intense debates. Many young people who followed JP dropped their surnames so as not to identify with any caste. Despite opposition from parents, young people were giving up jobs, education, comfortable homes to follow their convictions. They did not want to wait, to be safe. They wanted to take risks.

For the young people who were politicised in the early 1970s, the declaration of Emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1975 was an inflexion point; it confirmed their worst fears about the Indian state. When the Congress Party president DK Barooah declared that “India was Indira and Indira was India”, the frame within which rights, such as freedom of expression, could operate had been set. If you were critical of Indira or her policies, you were against India, hence anti-national. In today’s context, this sounds creepily similar.

Lessons not learnt

Although there have been other galvanising events that have drawn out young people since the end of the Emergency in 1977 and today, I would argue that there has been nothing that has been this widespread. The issue of communalism did bring young people out on the streets after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and the Gujarat violence in 2002. But their participation was not on the scale we have seen today.

Since the 2014 election and the formation of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, the demand for “azadi”, in the way Kumar describes it, has been spurred because the state now defines what we can say and cannot, what we can do and cannot, what we can eat and cannot, what we can read and cannot. You don’t have to be a student of JNU to understand that this is unacceptable. Young people have always demanded the right to question, to rebel, to choose their own paths. As Kanhaiya Kumar presciently pointed out, the more you push them down, the stronger they will emerge.

This is precisely what has been happening. Instead of recognising the legitimacy of the demands being made by students on these different campuses, the government has chosen the hammer of “sedition” and the “anti-national” label to knock them down. In turn, it is now facing the ballooning rebellion of students, political and apolitical, who instinctively react against arbitrariness and oppression.

Pertinent reminders

What is particularly pertinent about the struggles of the students in JNU is that they are going beyond demanding freedom of expression. By placing on the same plate caste oppression, these youth have launched a campaign that has relevance and should have resonance. Relevance because it is unacceptable that in 2016 caste should still be a factor that determines a person’s future in this country. And resonance because in 2014, as Kumar reminded us, 69% of the voters did not vote for Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party. There is a large constituency of people out there who do not subscribe to identity politics and the divisiveness that is being deliberately fuelled by this government.

Kumar has also reminded us that there is an India that lies beyond university campuses and television studios. It includes places like his village, where his mother is an anganwadi worker. He is in JNU only because there is a system that accommodates people like him. In those places beyond the reach of the media, what is “India”, what is “the nation”, who is a patriot and who an “anti-national”? Does it really matter?

Listening to Kumar’s passionate speech at JNU, I recalled an incident from 40 years ago. I was meeting students at a village school in Panchgani, western Maharashtra. They were curious about Bombay. Some had heard of it, many had not. They had no idea who was the prime minister of India, or the president.

And then I asked, “Which do you think is the biggest city in India?” In an instant, a little girl dressed in the regulation uniform common in most village schools, with her hair neatly braided into two plaits, raised her hand. “Satara”, she said, with utmost confidence.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Irom Sharmila: Woman who will not bend

March 2, 2016

The news this morning that Irom Sharmila, that indefatigable campaigner against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) had been released, with the court stating that the police cannot rearrest her, came as some good news after a long week of terrible developments.  But by later in the day it was clear, that nothing has changed.  Sharmila is determined to fast and has said so.  And the police has once again arrested her, according to the latest reports.

Much has been written about this "Iron Lady".  I too have written about her ( and met her briefly in 2009 in Imphal when the same drama of release and rearrest took place.  She is a person one cannot forget -- frail yet strong, smiling through the pain visible in her eyes, and determined in a way one has never seen before.  It makes you feel humbled, even over-awed.

But we cannot stop at admiration. The cause for which she is prepared to inflict such suffering on herself is one that should be a concern for all of us, even if we are not subject to the draconian AFSPA that has made life a hell for people in Manipur.  The demand for its withdrawal should not be limited to the people living under it.  All of us who care for a just society, where abitrary powers are not placed in the hands of people with no respect for human rights, must oppose AFSPA.

In the meantime, we wait and watch.  Will someone listen -- anyone? To quote what I wrote earlier:

"What will it take for the deafness of the government, and its obduracy, to give way to a listening ear and an open mind on the issue? How many Sharmilas will it take? Should all of us who care, who feel outraged at this state of affairs, decide to become Sharmilas?"

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Maneka Gandhi’s suggestion on mandatory sex tests aims to absolve doctors of blame for foeticide

Feb 4, 2016 on

The minister’s remarks are a response to a campaign by the medical community to change the sex selection law.

Is Maneka Gandhi just shooting her mouth off or is a policy change imminent?

According to reports by journalists who heard her speak at a conference in Jaipur on Monday, the Union Minister for Women and Child Development seems convinced that the way to deal with sex-selective abortions, which has led to a precipitous decline in the sex ratio, is to make sex-determination tests on pregnant women mandatory.

Her logic is hard to fathom. The minister has suggested, in all seriousness, that doctors should reveal the sex of the foetus to pregnant women whether they want to know it or not. She believes that by doing this, women will then be afraid to abort female foetuses as its sex will be part of public record.

“It is really not feasible to go around trying to catch every ultrasound technician for revealing the foetal gender to parents in violation of the PCPNDT Act,” Gandhi was quoted as saying. “Rather, why not reverse the strategy? The moment a woman gets pregnant, we should find out the gender of the child, tell the mother about it, and immediately register it in public records. Then we can track which pregnancies are carried to full term.”

She continued: “Since the gender is already known, and given the law, families would be compelled to go through with the pregnancy especially when the foetus is female.”

If it ain’t broke…

In other words, Gandhi wants to turn the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act on its head. The law prohibits the revelation of the sex of a foetus as it could lead to sex-selective abortions and it penalises doctors and ultrasound technicians who reveal the sex of the unborn child. The new proposal seems to suggest that the Union minister wants to shift this burden to the shoulders of pregnant women who will be considered criminals if they decide to abort a female foetus.

The proposal might never get through but it is worth considering the consequences if it did.

The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act was the result of campaigns followed by consultations with groups that linked the use of sex-selection and sex-detection technologies to the decline in the sex ratio in India. They argued that the misuse of these technologies aided society’s preference for sons. The fact that the sex ratio had declined even in wealthy districts pointed to the widespread use of these technologies to limit the births of girls.

Paperwork pain

Doctors and ultrasound technicians were held responsible for revealing the sex of the foetus because this was a straightforward way to check rampant sex selection and the sex-selective abortions that followed.

Of course, this meant that all sonography machines had to be registered and doctors had to go through additional paperwork when dealing with pregnant women. However, this was considered a small price to pay given the enormity of the problem.

The law also kept in mind that women who were compelled to have multiple abortions before they produced a male child had no choice. They did this under circumstances where they were blamed if they produced only female children.

The medical lobby

Gandhi was quick to clarify that her remarks were just loud thinking and not the precursor to policy change. Yet, her proposal did not emerge out of thin air. It is in response to a concerted campaign by the medical community to change the Pre-Natal Conception and Diagnostic Technologies Act.

Doctors have complained not just about the paperwork but that they were being charged even for minor “clerical errors”. This argument has held sway in many cases and accounts for the low level of conviction in cases that fall under the law forbidding sex determination. Doctors have also complained about corruption by officials who demand bribes when they come to inspect papers.

In Maharashtra, doctors have been particularly vociferous in their demands for a change in the law. Not surprisingly, the first response to Gandhi’s statement came from the president of the Maharashtra branch of the Indian Medical Association, Dr Jayant Lele, who said, “The sex ratio has not dramatically improved after this law came into force. If expecting couples are tracked after sex determination shows it is a female foetus, they will be more fearful of breaking the law.”

In short, the medical community would like to be absolved of all responsibility and Gandhi’s proposal is precisely what it wants.

Fix basics first

Apart from being highly impractical, Gandhi’s proposal are unacceptably intrusive. In a country with over a billion people with millions being added every year, how will the government monitor every single birth to make sure that sex selective abortions are not taking place? Who will do it?

If even the basic job of ensuring that all pregnant women receive antenatal care so that they survive the pregnancy and deliver healthy babies is not being done how will health establishments across the country take on this additional task? And should they?
The proposal is even more perplexing when Gandhi suggests that the monitoring of every pregnant woman in the country will encourage institutional deliveries. The leap of logic she uses to arrive at this conclusion is unfathomable.

In a country where the word “inadequate” would be a gross understatement when it comes to the ratio of hospital beds to people, does the minister for Women and Child Development really think that we are ready to abolish home deliveries and compel all pregnant women to go to hospital for their deliveries?

Millions of babies are born at home, delivered by trained village dais, and survive. Yet, Gandhi believes “home deliveries pose a threat to the newborn as there might be an attempt on its life” and recommends that they be abolished.

If we have to put up with such ill-informed statements from a person tasked with ensuring the survival of women and children in India, perhaps the post of minister for Women and Child Development should be abolished.

Friday, January 22, 2016

To understand why job quotas for women don't go far enough, take a ride on a Mumbai train

January 22, 2016 in

Employers should recognise that women start working long before they get to the office – and continue when they get home.
Photo Credit: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
“Why aren’t India’s women working?” This was the headline of an article in the August 23 edition of The New York Times. The headline writers ought to have known better. Indian women work hard, and all the time. Yet, their work is largely not considered “work”. Only work for which you are paid is counted. And much of the work that women do is unpaid.

The premise that bringing more women into the paid workforce will help women and the Indian economy is behind policies, such as the one announced on Tuesday by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, to reserve 35% of all government jobs for women.
Kumar is not the first to take this step. Madhya Pradesh already has 30% reservation for women in government jobs, as does Gujarat at 33%. In addition, the Union home ministry sent out an advisory to all state government and union territories on August 26, 2014 on increasing women in the police to 33% of the total force.

While 33% of positions in the constable rank are reserved for women in the Central Reserve Police Force and the Central Industrial Security Force, 15% are reserved in the Border Security Force, the Sashastra Seema Bal and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. As the local police come under the state government, they are expected to fall in line and work towards increasing the number of women recruits – currently in short supply as evidenced by the Delhi Police, a force in which women comprise only 9.27%.

Discouraging factors

But while quotas are well-intentioned, they are clearly not enough. The Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women, which looked specifically at the question of increasing women’s presence in the police force, underlined the simple and rather obvious problems that need to be addressed even as the number of women recruited for these jobs increases.

In its December 17, 2014 report, the committee emphasises the need to improve the facilities available to women when it writes, “despite a spate of efforts from the Government, lack of basic amenities/rest rooms/mobile toilets is still a major problem for the women in police in many States.”
In other words, it is not enough to just recruit more women. Both government and the private sector need to ensure that the conditions at work do not dehumanise women or place an additional stress on their lives. Apart from toilets, provisions of crèches and benefits such as maternity leave should not be seen as special favours. Women enter the paid workforce on unequal terms. A paid job is in addition to the unpaid “work” that they do every day – child care, elderly care, domestic chores, among them.

There will be those who will argue against quotas for women in government jobs. Such people ought to travel by the women’s special trains at peak hour from Churchgate station in Mumbai. Here you meet women, many of them employed by the state government, who wake up at the crack of dawn every day, prepare food for their families, and then set off on their long commute to work.

At the end of the day, they use the train ride to prepare for the tasks that wait exclusively for them once they get home: cook, clean, wash and at some point sleep before the day begins again. Government jobs, with all their security and benefits, are not exactly a gravy ride if you are a lower-middle-class woman.

The other important component to increase women’s presence in the paid workforce is safety. From sexual harassment to sexual assault, women face these dangers every day as they step out to earn a living. The recent distressing case of an Accredited Social Health Activist worker in Uttar Pradesh, who committed suicide because the man who raped her threatened to release the video of the act, brings home the dangers that even those women part of government programmes face. Just having a paid job does not protect them from sexual predators.

A matter of perception

In any case, even if every state government follows the lead of Nitish Kumar and others by reserving government jobs for women, it is unlikely to make more than a tiny dent in the larger problem of getting more women in paid employment. India is close to the bottom in the list of countries when it comes to the percentage of women in paid employment or “female labour force participation” (termed FLFP). While the global average is 50%, which means every other woman is in the labour
force, in India it was 33% in 2012 and has now slipped further.

Why do we need to increase the number of women in paid employment? Is it just tokenism if employment means a double burden on them?

The most obvious significance is that a woman contributing to family income has a better chance of being treated more decently than one who does not. That, of course, is an assumption that is not always born out with the statistics which reveal that even well-educated women in good jobs are at the receiving end of domestic violence. Also, in many cases, they do not have control over the money they earn. Yet, there is change, especially in urban areas where the cost of living is inducing more women into some form of paid employment.

The larger significance of more women in the workforce is that of perception. In the last several decades, women have entered many fields that remained closed to their mothers. Rabia Futtehally, for instance, was one of the first women pilots in India. Today, out of 5,100 commercial pilots in India, 11.7% are women (the average worldwide is 3%). This has been achieved without quotas but illustrates how the opening up of new avenues for employment for women encourages more women to consider these options. And even if entrenched attitudes, which will not accept that women have capabilities and rights, do not evaporate, they are challenged.

Reserving jobs for women is one way to increase the percentage of women in paid jobs. But in the long run, neither more money, nor job security, will make a difference to women’s status unless we recognise and value the real “work” that millions of women do every day, all day.