Sunday, July 20, 2014

In the war zone

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 20, 2014

Children flee from the war zone. Photo: AFP
AFP Children flee from the war zone. Photo: AFP

In this escalation of hostilities in one of the world’s most volatile of regions, this nameless boy, and thousands of children like him, force us to face the ugly truth — that wars kill children, not a few, but millions. They wound children. And they leave them bereft and scarred for life.

Earlier this month, the United Nations released its annual report on children and armed conflict. It makes depressing reading. It documents the ever-expanding arena of war and conflict, between and within countries. It states that armed conflict has ‘a disproportionate impact on children’ and that indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas as well as the use of terror tactics was taking a worrying toll on children.

The report also reminds us that despite campaigns to stop using children, national armies and armed groups continue to recruit young children. The UN report says that last year, children were used in 23 conflict situations around the world. It gives a long list of countries where this is happening and specifically names 51 armed groups that continue to use children.

Apart from Palestine, almost every day we are reminded about what war and conflict do to children. Remember the 223 schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria abducted by the armed rebel group Boko Haram? It is now three months and they have still not been released. On July 13, the leader of the group released a video where he mocked the efforts of people like the brave Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai to negotiate their release. What is happening to these girls? Will they ever return? And if they do, will they be able to deal with what they have been through?

The UN report also gives us a glimpse of this aspect of war and children, that of sexual violence that boys and girls face. We do not know what is happening to those girls in Nigeria. What is already documented is the violence that children are facing in places like Syria, where there appears no end to the war. The UN report mentions that apart from repeated sexual harassment of women and girls at government checkpoints, there are reports of the abduction of young women and girls in groups at checkpoints. These girls are then released a few days later and sent back to their villages, thereby ‘intentionally exposing them as victims of rape and subjecting them to rejection by their families.’

Children are killed, kidnapped, forced to fight. But apart from that, in on-going conflicts, such as the situation between Palestine and Israel, they live under the daily cloud of violence, where the ordinary routine of daily life like going to school become impossible.

Here is a quote from the UN report about the situation in the West Bank last year. Change the year to 2014, and you will get a sense of what has become a frequent, almost permanent, state of affairs in Palestine: “Fifty-eight education-related incidents affecting 11,935 children were reported in the West Bank, resulting in damage to school facilities, interruption of classes and injury to children. Forty-one incidents involved Israeli security forces operations near or inside schools, forced entry without forewarning, the firing of tear gas canisters and sound bombs into school yards and, in some cases, structural damage to schools. In 15 of the incidents, Israeli security forces fired tear gas canisters into schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), some during class hours, without forewarning. In a majority of instances, schoolchildren and teachers were delayed or prevented from going to school owing to checkpoints, areas closed for military operations or exercises, military patrols in front of schools and preventive closures by the Israel Defense Forces. In 32 cases, teachers and children were arrested inside the school, at checkpoints or on their way to school.”

Like that boy in the photograph, generations of young children in Palestine and elsewhere do not know what it is like to simply go to school, to study, to dream of a better future.

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Kicking out sexism

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 6, 2014

Mumbra girls at a practice session.
The Hindu Mumbra girls at a practice session.

They weep, they scream, they explode with anger, they dance with joy — millions of football fans around the world are right now focused on only one thing — World Cup Football in Brazil. The controversies that preceded it have been all but forgotten as lovers of the game, men and women follow every move.

But the players are all men. Football remains, in popular imagination, a man’s game.

Yet, women also play football. Including Indian women. You would not know that as precious little is written about them. But this year, for a change, there has been some welcome reporting on the women who also kick the ball around.

One of them is a remarkable 36-year-old from Manipur — Oinam Bembem Devi. Her claim to fame is that she plays excellent football, so good that she captained the Indian Women’s Football team thrice. Yet, at the age of 12 when she began kicking a ball around with the boys in her neighbourhood, she could not have imagined this. In fact, according to reports about her, Bembem was so keen to play football that she cut her hair short and changed her name to Bobo so that she could continue to play with the boys.

Inevitably, she was found out. But that did not deter her. She continued with the game, played so well that she got a job with the Manipur police and went on to captain not just one of the teams in Manipur but the Indian team. Since Bembem’s early efforts to play football, things have changed considerably and today more girls and than boys play football in Manipur.

The Indian women’s football team has a higher FIFA ranking than the men’s — 50 as opposed to 154 for the men. It is also ranked 11 in Asia, while the men’s team is 28. But 50 is still not good enough for it to qualify for the Women’s World Cup Football that will be played in Canada next year.

Should it matter whether Indian women play football or qualify for world tournaments? The only reason to even discuss this is because the very fact that women are playing — and playing well — a game that is traditionally seen as a male sport has a significance that is greater than just the game.

This newspaper carried a wonderful story about a girls’ football team in Mumbra, an urban settlement outside Mumbai that is 95 per cent Muslim ( They began playing despite objections from their parents. But within a year, not only have they made their parents proud by winning in a couple of football tournaments but they have also succeeded in getting the Thane Municipal Corporation to reserve a 1.5 acre plot exclusively for women’s sports.

Earlier, Mumbra’s claim to fame, or rather infamy, was that it was home to Ishrat Jahan, the young woman tragically shot in a fake encounter in Ahmedabad in 2004. Today, these girls who play football are demonstrating how conservative norms can be broken even in an area where women’s literacy is low and girls are expected to marry young. If this can happen in Mumbra, surely it would not be so difficult to achieve elsewhere in India.

Whether the girls in Mumbra go on to become professional players is not so important as the fact that they have a chance to play, to enjoy the exhilaration of sport and the taste of freedom that it gives them.

Yet, ensuring that this trend continues and grows is an uphill battle. With the rise in the incidents of sexual assault on young women, parents are tempted to prevent girls from going out. Yet the safety of confinement will not make the world safer for girls.

What we need is for society to accept that girls have an equal right to the public space, that they too need the joy of being able to run free, to kick a ball, to hold a bat, to sprint, to jump over hurdles or to swim in the river, the sea, the pool. This is not a special favour being conferred on them.

So even as the football season peaks and then winds down, let us look around and see how many of our girls can go out there with confidence and kick a ball.

(To read the original, click here.)

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

That R word again!

The Hoot
Kalpana Sharma

Every day, reporters routinely file thousands of words of copy and only a fraction of this sees the light of day. It is part of the ‘collateral damage’ of the news world – only news that’s fit to print, we are told, survives. Or is it news that fits the emerging definition of what is “news”? 

Those who have been in the print media for the last three decades will be familiar with how this definition has changed over time. Yet, every time an ostensibly ‘newsy’ development is covered, but not printed, one needs to ask why. 

I can distinctly remember at least three press conferences where the media was present in full strength but the next day, there was practically no report. 

The first was some time in 1989 when workers from Hindustan Lever had been locked out from its Sewri plant. In protest, they had begun manufacturing a soap called Lockout, which they sold to raise funds for the workers. The newspapers reported such developments even if the space given to the workers’ point of view was perfunctory. In response to a request from the union, a fact-finding committee was constituted to look at whether the lockout was legal, and also at the conditions of the workers who had lost wages during the lockout. Krishna Raj, the well-respected editor of Economic and Political Weekly, headed this committee. 

When the report of the committee was ready, a press conference was called at the Press Club to release the report. At that time, I was a Senior Assistant Editor at The Times of India (TOI). I went to the press conference as I was interested in the report.  Reporters from my paper and practically every other newspaper in the city crowded into the room and asked many questions of the committee.  One expected that the result of such a lively press conference would be reports in the newspapers the next day. But no, there were no reports, or practically none. Certainly, TOI did not carry anything although I do know that a report was filed. I gathered that the company’s representatives had managed to speak to the newspaper’s senior management and ensure that nothing appeared. 

After I joined The Hindu, something similar happened. A woman reporter from the TV channel Sahara Samay went public with a sexual harassment charge against the person in-charge of the channel. She named him and gave detailed instances of the way she had been harassed. She also reported how the company had responded by first transferring her and then dismissing her rather than looking into her charges. Once again, the press conference was packed, this time with many television channels also recording her statement and speaking to her afterwards.  Yet, the next day, none of the Mumbai papers reported this. I filed a story that appeared in The Hindu, but the paper does not have a Mumbai edition. 

I was reminded of both these instances last week when I saw a virtual repeat of them unfold. The Mumbai Press Club must be commended for taking a risk to organise a release of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s controversial book “Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis”. Apart from the author, the club had assembled a panel consisting of former Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar and senior journalists Kumar Ketkar and Govindraj Ethiraj. It was a lively discussion. Press Club President Gurbir Singh spoke of how they had tried to get a representative from the Ambanis to join the panel but the company declined because the book contained matter that they considered defamatory and for which a legal notice had been sent to the author. 

While Guha Thakurta spoke about the book and also the legal notice he and others had received from the Ambanis, Aiyar, in his inimitable style, provided several quotable quotes as he spoke about his stint as minister. He also gave his opinion on gas pricing, an issue that is currently in the news because the Modi government has decided to defer any decision on this until September. Even if the book has already been in the news since its release in Delhi, Aiyar’s comments were worthy of at least a few column inches. 

Yet, the next day, there was almost nothing on this discussion in any of the Mumbai papers; not even the financial papers, although representatives of these papers asked several pointed questions of the panelists. Only Mumbai Mirror carried something because its columnist, Ajit Ranade (who is not a journalist), used his column to write about the event and the issue of gas pricing. Asian Age had a short item, and a PTI item focused only on Mani Shankar Aiyar’s comments on gas pricing was picked up by the Economic Times. 

If this had been a big news day, one would have understood that newspapers had no space. But nothing earth-shattering happened in the city, except a fire in the administrative building of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), a stone’s throw away from the Press Club. 

Significantly, Ethiraj stated that he had received a “friendly” call from a representative of the Ambanis informing him that the author of the book had been slapped a defamation notice! 

So one wonders, how many other “friendly” calls were made before  and after this event to ensure that nothing of it was reported the next day.  Even if they were not, has the media decided to be ultra cautious about reporting on the Ambanis to pre-empt any legal action? Is this not a kind of self-censorship that should have no place in a democracy? And are we going to see more of this in the future?  

These are questions that we in the media need to discuss and ask ourselves. How have we come to this stage where 39 years after Mrs Indira Gandhi imposed press censorship during the Emergency, the Indian media has decided to censor itself?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Going after the green

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 22, 2014

Pocket of rich biodiversity.Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
Pocket of rich biodiversity.Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Crimes against women have been constantly in the news. But crimes against nature remain largely unreported.

Given the current climate, with the Intelligence Bureau claiming that non-governmental organisations like the crusading international environmental group Greenpeace, are detrimental to India’s progress, and with the ubiquitous ‘foreign hand’ making a serendipitous comeback, such crimes are likely to become invisible, noticed only by those who have been damned as ‘obstructionist’ or worse still, ‘anti-national’.

As I tend to identify with that tribe, let me address this column to the elements that ensure that our physical environment does not become an endless landscape of roads and buildings, leaving no space for the unregulated, the wild, the unexpected that only the natural environment, left inviolate, provides.

A big part of this unregulated environment is trees. Today, they are in danger. They will drown as more dams are built, or the height of existing dams is raised. They will be razed to make way for infrastructure — roads and highways, airports, electric power stations. They will be stifled and killed by the concrete pavements surrounding them in our expanding cities. They will be excavated from our forests to make way for open-pit mines producing the minerals considered essential for a ‘modern’ India.

The former environment minister Jairam Ramesh and the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi both spoke of the need for toilets rather than temples. Will anyone now say that India needs more forests not freeways? That even if factories, roads and railways, airports and sea ports are essential, so is a tree cover that saves the soil, replenishes the water, provides sustenance to millions of forest dwellers, cleans the air and absorbs some of the filth and poisons being generated by our modern lifestyles, poisons that will accumulate in the atmosphere and ruin the health of future generations.

The new environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, whose ministry is also supposed to take care of forests and address climate change, is a man in a hurry. He wants to clear ‘obstacles’ to progress in the form of pending environmental clearances. To do that, he wants to change the old criteria that classified forested areas as ‘violate’ or ‘inviolate’. The latter category was formulated to ensure that nothing — no project, no mine, no dam — could disturb certain forested areas.

The parameters set out to decide whether a forest area is ‘violate’ or ‘inviolate’ are the quality of the forest area, the produce it generates, its biodiversity, hydrological, social, aesthetic and economic value. All these are essential. So in what way can this list be ‘rationalised’ or altered by the new minister? Why should these parameters be changed? The only reason would be to find a way to grant clearances to projects that will go against these criteria.

Forests are also about people, not just trees. An estimated 350-400 million people in 173,000 villages live within forests, or depend on them. That is not a small number. So if forests are destroyed, to make way for a mine, a factory, a dam, a power plant, there are people whose lives are also destroyed. The previous government passed laws protecting their rights, giving them the power to decide whether a forest area can be diverted to other uses.

What will happen to these rights? In the name of ‘progress’ and fast-tracking environmental clearances, will laws like the Forest Rights Act be revised or negated? If and when this happens, will the voices of those who have fought for the rights of forest dwellers, and for the protection of our remaining forests, be heard?

These are questions that need to be asked now, not after policies are put in place that facilitate the destruction of the natural environment and that deprive nature-dependent communities of their rights. If environmentalists are apprehensive about the future, they are justified. So far, nothing has been said or done to assuage their fears.

Despite this, what they can and must do is document the importance of fighting to preserve the environment — in the way the TreesIndia Group is doing on the India Biodiversity Portal ( Spend a few minutes on this site. It will give you a sense of the wealth that we have in India and what could disappear without a trace if we don’t speak up now on behalf of nature.

(To read the original, click here.)

Saturday, June 07, 2014


The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 8, 2014

Relatives of the Badaun victims.
PTIRelatives of the Badaun victims.
We have run out of words. How does one express outrage, disgust, despair when two Dalit teenage girls are gang raped, murdered and hung from a mango tree in UP’s Katara village?

No candlelight vigils this time. In the long list of such crimes against Dalit women, against all women in this country, this one has been noted. Katara has seen the usual procession of politicians offering sympathy and funds and the media displaying more than a passing interest.
But they have left now. Before long, Katara will slip back into anonymity. And even as the mothers and fathers of lost, raped and murdered daughters continue to mourn, we will fail to understand the real meaning of what is happening to our society.
Ever since the widespread outrage following the December 16, 2012, gang rape of a physiotherapy student in Delhi, talk about rape has become mainstream. Rapes are not minor items on the crime pages. They are given more space in print, and talk time on television. But at the end of all this, when yet another horrendous crime is reported, what do we do? We read, we rage and then we turn the page.
We move on without accepting that what we are witness to is not just an increase in the incidence of rape and sexual assault but something that can best be defined as a ‘rape culture’. If two teenage girls forced to go before day break to ‘relieve’ themselves, as newspapers like to put it, because their village has no toilets are raped and murdered, what else is this but a culture of rape? We need to stop talking about statistics. Instead we should ask what has brought us to this point where women cannot go about their daily tasks without fearing rape and assault.
‘Rape culture’ is not unique to India. In the U.S., for instance, people are talking about it, triggered by the recent incident where a 22-year-old man went on a shooting spree killing six people, including five students of the University of California at Santa Barbara. In a video he uploaded on the Internet, he claimed he was doing this to avenge his rejection by women even though he considered himself the ‘Alpha male’.
The shooting has raised questions not just about the terrible and incomprehensible gun culture in the U.S., but also the misogyny and the sense of ‘sexual entitlement’ that makes men justify assaulting women who reject them.
Social media has seen an outpouring with over half a million people responding to the hashtag #YesAllWomen. In an interview with Democracy Now!, writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit says #YesAllWomen was in response to the argument that all men are not bad. “We know not all men are rapists and murderers, are not abusers and misogynists, but all women are impacted by the men who are,” she said. “We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it’s almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern. Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.”
Solnit said that her country needed to “stop treating rape as sort of isolated, aberrant incidents and treat it as a widespread problem that arises not from anomalies in the culture, but from the mainstream of culture.” We might argue that, in India, violence does have a specific caste context, for instance, and not just gender. Yet, her point about rape now being part of mainstream culture is relevant.
It is not just the number, the types, or the location of rapes, but the culture that allows men to believe that they can assault women at will that we must confront. If men continue to believe that they have ‘sexual entitlement’ and that women do not have a right to reject or resist, then this culture of rape will continue to grow.
As we mourn for those two young women, we must stop and ask ourselves: Is this the society we want? If not, what are we doing to change it?
(To read the original, click here.)

Monday, May 26, 2014

What should we expect?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 25, 2014

Photo: The Hindu photo archives
Photo: The Hindu photo archives

The shouting is over. The voters have voted. India has a new set of rulers. And for the majority, who did not cast their votes in favour of the party now in power, this is a time for reflection.

How do we weigh this outcome? How should we respond if we feel less than enthusiastic? Should we be resigned and say ‘the people’ have decided and therefore we must accept? Or do we, the majority that did not vote this party into power, take on the role of the real opposition — one that is as essential a part of any democracy as elections?

And then again, if we consider ourselves the real opposition, given the truncated elected opposition in the Lok Sabha, how should we conduct ourselves? How do we make our voices heard when an election has allowed one grouping to get what is termed a ‘brute majority’?

In the post-election euphoria, these might not seem the relevant questions to be asking. But this is precisely the moment when these issues should be discussed.

Let’s take the question of women, for example. Since the December 16, 2012 gang rape in New Delhi, India has gained the reputation worldwide of being a country where its women are under attack — in the public space, in their homes, in villages, in conflict zones. Some of the reporting in the western media is out of context, even alarmist. Yet no one will dispute the reality that violence against women is growing and that it ought to be an issue of urgent concern for any group that claims it will provide the country with good governance.

Every mainstream political party endorses ‘women’s welfare’. The much-overused term ‘women’s empowerment’ slips off the tongues of politicians of all hues with ease. Yet, the women of India know that there is a difference between rhetoric and reality, between promises and performance, between the ‘safety’ of being confined and the ‘safety’ of being free.

So as a new government takes power in Delhi, what should we as women be demanding of it and what should we expect?

The most obvious demand is likely to be the passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill. It has been passed by the Rajya Sabha and awaits the consent of the Lok Sabha and half the state assemblies before it can become the law. This ‘brute majority’ should have no problem passing the Bill. But will it?

Even if it does, will that establish the new government’s credentials as a supporter of women’s rights? Not necessarily because even the most vociferous advocates of this law know that political representation is only a very small part of the overall struggle to ensure that all women get equal rights.

A more important test, I believe, will be to monitor if and whether the party in power reins in members of its ‘Parivar’ who have little regard for women’s rights. We have seen these elements in action as they attack young women in pubs, stop films where they conclude without any evidence that ‘Indian’ culture is being demeaned, demonstrate the extent of their misogyny when they launch personal and vitriolic attacks on women who speak out, women like the actress Nandita Das.

These elements have in the past supported the barbaric tradition of ‘sati’ claiming it was part of ‘culture’, they have refused to condemn honour killings, they have looked the other way when men like Babu Bajrangi, now serving a life sentence for the 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre of 97 Muslims in Gujarat, forcibly prevented young people of different faiths getting married. According to such people, the rights of Indian women are confined within the definition of what they choose to call ‘Indian’ culture. The new Prime Minister of India has already equated Hindu and the nation in his self-definition as a ‘Hindu nationalist’. So women should worry as the line between ‘Indian’ and ‘Hindu’ has been erased.

The real threat to the rights of all women, irrespective of class, caste or creed is from these self-appointed defenders of ‘Indian’ culture — the likes of the Sri Ram Sena, the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad —who will feel no compulsion to hold back now that their ‘family’ members are in power.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Don’t let it die

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 11, 2014

Young girls walk past a market area in Delhi.
The Hindu Young girls walk past a market area in Delhi.

When the election noise subsides, some perennial issues will re-emerge. And one such is how we deal with the growing violence against women in India.

There is little doubt that violent assaults on women have increased. The law is tougher now, but is it being implemented? Recent reports suggest that even today, women have a tough time getting a complaint registered.

In any case, regardless of the law, we know that ultimately it is the attitude of people, and particularly men, which must change if we are to see any serious decline in such violence — both within the home and outside.

In the last two years, rape has been the subject of discussion and debate in India. But attention to it waxes and wanes. For instance, in the last couple of months, there is hardly any mention of rapes. But they are occurring, every day, somewhere in the country.

For the media at the moment, there is only one story — the election. Even if the media gaze were to turn once again to sexual assault, it would not solve the problem. But it would act as an important reminder that here is a problem that is not going away.

In that context, it is interesting to look at the way the United States, which on paper at least has a higher incidence of rape than India — although the higher figures could also be because more rapes are reported than in India — is dealing with the problem, specifically with rape on American college campuses.

According to statistics, there is rape every 21 hours on some college campus in the U.S. The most vulnerable are the women who have just begun their college stints. Nearly one out of every five women going to college is in danger of being sexually assaulted during the years they spend on a college campus. So it is a serious problem; one that has recently drawn more attention as students from several high-profile universities complained to the government about the ineffectual action taken by the authorities when they filed complaints of rape and sexual assault.

In response, US President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden have taken an initiative that is noteworthy in many respects. They have set up a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and launched a public campaign against college rapes. The website is an attempt to reassure any college student who is raped that there is a way that this rape can be reported and followed up. Additionally, a video with several well-known male actors titled “1is2Many” is being widely shown where the essential message is: “If she doesn’t consent or can’t consent, it’s rape, it’s assault.”

In addition to this public campaign, the federal government has also tied funding to universities to compliance with stricter laws on sexual harassment and sexual assault on college campuses. For instance, it is compulsory for all instructors and those in positions of authority over students to undergo training on sexual harassment. This informs them about the existing laws but also tests them on their ability to know which law applies in certain situations and what constitutes sexual harassment. It is the kind of training that everyone who is a manager of any kind should be given. We have nothing like this in India, as far as I know.

Another interesting initiative is called “bystander intervention”. Students receive training on how to intervene when they see a situation where a woman is being forced upon, or is not in her senses and does not know what is happening to her. Students themselves have come up with many different and innovative ways of doing this. It is not vigilantism; it is a way of being aware and concerned. It also involves young men in ways where they see how they can help.

Vice-President Biden is quoted as saying, “It doesn’t matter what she was wearing, whether she drank too much, whether it was in the back of a car, in her room, in the street — it does not matter. It doesn’t matter if she initially said yes then changed her mind and said no. No means no. (Sex) requires a verbal consent — everything else is rape or assault.”

You would think much of what he states is obvious and has been said before. Women have been shouting this from the rooftops for decades. And yet the message somehow fails to get through. Why is society so deaf? Why should women the world over keep repeating the obvious?

In India, the Justice Verma Committee Report and the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013 were just the first steps after the furore over the December 16, 2012, gang rape in Delhi. There is much more to be done to create awareness, to set in place systems within organisations that give out a clear message that sexual harassment and assault are unacceptable, and to give women the support they need to file complaints and follow through on them. This is a conversation that must not stop. 

(To readd the original, click here.)