Thursday, October 24, 2019

#MeToo one year later

Published in on October 5, 2019 (

A year ago, in a television interview, actor Tanushree Dutta reiterated an accusation she had first made in 2008 against well-known actor Nana Patekar: that he touched her inappropriately during practice for a dance sequence. 

In 2008, few paid heed to her charges. But in 2018, she was heard.  The reason: by then, thanks to the #MeToo campaign that began in the US in 2017, women were speaking out on social media platforms and calling out powerful men. Echoes of that had just begun to be heard in India.  Dutta's story, in many ways, opened the floodgates of #MeToo in India.

However, though Dutta has been heard now, her complaint has not been heeded.  In June this year, the police complaint she filed against Nana Patekar last year was closed due to lack of evidence. She plans to pursue the case in the Bombay High Court.

Perhaps one year is too short a time to assess the impact of a campaign that forced out the ugly reality of predatory men and the women they felt entitled to harass.  But the closure of Dutta's case, and several other related developments in different courts, points to the difficulties in proving sexual harassment through the justice system.

In fact, the very nature of the #MeToo campaign illustrates this challenge. It is probably the reason most women survivors preferred outing their harassers through social media rather than hoping the law would deliver justice.

This apart, one year later we must acknowledge that the #MeToo campaign has convincingly exposed the inequality of power in work situations that makes women vulnerable to sexual predators.  It has shown how that very inequity deprives women of the confidence to face their harassers. It has also demonstrated that when a few women do find the courage to speak up, most often they are the ones who are victimised, disbelieved and forced out of jobs while the perpetrators continue untouched.

Also, thanks to the campaign, there is greater awareness of the law, the Sexual Harassment of Women in the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Organisations are now under greater pressure to set up the mandated Internal Committee (IC) to address women's complaints. Of course, the composition and functioning of the ICs is still far from what is desired.

In the end though, we have to ask whether the reality of sexual harassment is being acknowledged today? Has the campaign forced us to accept that sexual harassment is not just bad behaviour, or an occasional slip of judgment? That it is a crime that diminishes and scars women, and punishes them when they dare to confront the perpetrators?

The jury is still out on that. There is no doubt now that sexual harassment cannot be ignored, that women are determined to speak out and that they have built solidarities of support because of the campaign.  A woman who wants to speak up today knows that she is not alone.

Yet, it is also becoming increasingly evident that it is not so easy disempowering the men accused of harassment or proving a case against them.

It is the women, particularly those who have had the courage to go public with their accusations, who are paying the price. Women like journalist Priya Ramani who has been charged with criminal defamation by former editor and now politician M. J. Akbar.

Akbar's case is still being heard.  But on September 18, the Delhi High Court disposed of a suit filed by well-known Indian artist Subhodh Gupta against the Instagram page Scene and Herd (@herdsceneand). 

Gupta alleged that the page had posted defamatory content against him last year when two women accused him, anonymously, of sexual harassment. He has asked for the pages to be taken down on Instagram, for all URLs linked to the page to be removed by Google and for a "token" amount of Rs 5 crores to be paid to him in damages by those who manage the page.

Scene and Herd posts anonymous complaints of sexual harassment against people in the art world.  Its home page states, "We choose anonymity". Apart from Gupta, there are several other artists and men in the art world who have been named through these anonymous posts.

In Gupta's case, the Delhi High Court has given an ex parte injunction, restraining Scene and Herd from posting anything about Gupta until the next hearing, asking Google to take down all the URLs referring to the sexual harassment charges against Gupta and also asking Facebook, which owns Instagram, to do the same with the posts on Scene and Herd.  Both companies have apparently agreed.

The judge, Rajiv Sahai Endlaw, stated in his order, "Prima facie, it appears that the allegation as made in the allegedly defamatory contents, cannot be permitted to be made in public domain/published without being backed by the legal recourse.  The same if permitted is capable of mischief."

More worrying is the judge's order asking Facebook, to hand over to the court in a sealed envelope, "the particulars of the person/entity behind the Instagram account 'Herdsceneand'."

Although this is an interim injunction, it could have several repercussions.  It cuts to the heart of the #MeToo campaign where the very fact of anonymity encouraged many women to come out with their stories. If the identity of the handlers of such pages is made public, the confidence of the women posting their accounts will be undermined.

It is known that One of the main criticisms of the #MeToo campaign was the anonymity of the accusers.  Was it fair to name a perpetrator without the accuser making herself known?  How would the former be able to defend himself?

To which, the answer given was that the women survivors were vulnerable in the face of the men they were calling out.  Even if at the end of the exercise there was no justice, the women felt it was important to publicly identify the men who had preyed on them for years.

Yet, the question remains: is publicly naming and shaming sexual predators the only, or the best way, to address the problem of sexual harassment.

Also, are the powerful men charged with sexual harassment acknowledging it as a crime? Or do they continue to brazen it out, to use their power to bully and diminish the women who have spoken out?

These questions become even more relevant in the face of the ease with which many of those who were named have managed to either clear their names, or be accepted back in jobs, or positions of authority, because, as Justice Endlaw said, the allegations were not "backed by the legal recourse".

The problem, as women like Tanushree Dutta now know, is that even when you do turn to the law, you are at a disadvantage. Sexual harassment is probably one of the most difficult crimes to prove in court. Unless there is a paper trail, or witnesses, it becomes one woman's word against a man, usually someone with much greater power.

Furthermore, the law does not accept that it might take a woman years, even decades, to proceed against her harasser.

On September 16, the Bombay High Court set aside criminal proceedings against investor Mahesh Matthai, who had been accused by several women of sexual harassment. One of them filed a criminal complaint last year. But the court has dismissed it because of the lapse of time between when the alleged offence took place and the FIR.

As for Bollywood, after the initial ripple triggered by Tanushree Dutta's accusations, it appears to be business as usual. Even an actor generally deemed to be sympathetic to gender concerns, Aamir Khan, has justified working with Subhash Kapoor, a director accused of sexual harassment.  And Vikas Bahl, of Phantom films (that was dissolved shortly after the accusations against him) has been cleared by Reliance Entertainment of all charges after an internal inquiry and is back directing films.

The experience of Chinmayi Sirpada is especially discouraging. After she accused the well-known lyricist Vairamuthu of sexual harassment, she was denied work as a dubbing artist and few were willing to believe her.  Vairamuthu, on the other hand, remains virtually unaffected and has been selected to write the lyrics for Mani Ratnam's new film. 

Sirpada tweeted her frustration when she wrote: "Let me reiterate this. Almost a year since my outing Vairamuthu as a molester. Not ONE Newspaper or Publication has asked him ANY questions. How do the MJ Akbar’s and Vairamuthus escape any and All questions, get mollycoddled and party with the powerful? None of it makes sense."

In fact, it does make sense. While social media facilitated the outing of these men, the systems to actually address sexual harassment as a crime are still not working. Even the women who have found the courage to go public and turn to the law face an uphill battle.

The cloak of anonymity was believed to be the only option in such a situation.  That is the reason so many women chose to use it. But even that could prove difficult given the Delhi High Court's interim injunction.

The questions raised when the campaign began remain the same.  How do we address sexual harassment? How do we give women the tools and the strength to fight it? How do we change male attitudes so that women are treated as equal human beings and not sexual prey? How do we dismantle entrenched patriarchal attitudes and structures?

It will take many more iterations of #MeToo before we get anywhere close to answering those questions.


Friday, August 16, 2019

Where is that "heaven of freedom"?

Image result for Kashmir conflict images 
 Image courtesy Al Jazeera

India turned 72 on August 15.  It's now "running" 73, as we like to say in India.

But this August 15 has been a strange one. In the building where I live in Mumbai, there is a ritual flag hoisting every year.  The flag is tied up, hoisted on a bamboo pole on the terrace while residents, including the little kids gather around.  The oldest resident is invited to unfurl the flag.

This year, a retired dentist who lives across the corridor from me was persuaded to do the deed.  He tried.  But the flag would not unfurl.  Finally, after some effort at undoing the knot, that should have unknotted automatically, the flag went up and hung limply.

At this, the gathered crowd burst into the national anthem, at the end of which one resident lustily shouted, "Bharat Mata ki Jai".  No one responded.

A woman standing next to me declared it was the happiest day for her life because "Kashmir is finally ours".   She says she is a Kashmiri Pandit. A man chipped in that the flag should have been hoisted in Lal Chowk, Srinagar.

The rest of the gathered assembly quickly lost interest in the proceedings and instead drifted towards a table laden with delicious snacks -- from South Indian idlis, to North Indian jalebis, to Gujarati gathia and the universal Indian samosa. 

After consuming this symbol of national integration, the satisfied gathering headed back into their respective apartments.

The ritual of flag hoisting is meaningless at one level, especially if you are not imbued with patriotic fervour.  Yet for our building, each year it is a reminder of our differences -- of caste, community, religion, language, class -- as well as our ability to somehow tolerate all this, share food and laughter momentarily and get on with our lives.

This year, however, I did wonder how long this veneer of tolerance would last.

The reason is August 5, 2019, which in my view will remain one of the darkest days of the last 72 years.  And that is how old I am.

It made me think back to what I felt on the morning of June 26, 1975 when the full import of the State of Emergency that then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared dawned on us.  During the night all the leading opposition leaders had been arrested. Press censorship was imposed.  And human rights suspended. 

The lines of communication, however, had not been snapped.  Landlines worked, the only form of telephones available at that time. The telegraph office was functioning. Journalists could send out information through teleprinter, press telegrams, or phone-ins.  That much of that information could not be printed eventually because of press censorship is another story.  But we could communicate.

Yet, because newspapers could not publish these reports, and the only source of information was the sanitised government owned radio, All India Radio (AIR), people turned to the BBC and Voice of America to get news of what was happening in India.  It is then that we learned that thousands of people had been arrested. 

All you needed was a portable transistor with a long ariel. I can remember hanging out of my window at home to try and catch the news from these sources.

Anyone who travelled abroad for work, such as airline crew, for instance, was requested to bring back any newspapers or periodicals that carried Indian news.

These stories were then diligently retyped, cyclostyled, and then distributed, usually be hand.  A group of my friends named our four-page leaflet Mukti with all this regurgitated news from international sources. We posted it to people we thought would be interested.  We would take the extra precaution of dropping the brown manila envelopes with Mukti in postboxes located in different parts of the city so that the exact location of the source of this product could not be traced.

These memories came flooding as I read the stories of how journalists in Kashmir are struggling to get the news out in the absence of any form of communication, cellphones, landlines or Internet. That they are walking or driving to places, meeting people, putting together stories, saving them on pen drives, then taking them to a press where they can be printed. 

Regular and popular newspapers like Rising Kashmir and Greater Kashmir have been reduced to two or four pages. Their web editions don't exist at the moment.  But somehow, through the ingenuity of these journalists, they have found ways to continue to produce their papers.  Many of them have been spending many nights in their offices away from their families, missing Eid as this touching story that Bashaarat Masood, the correspondent of Indian Express recounts.

This story of printing curtailed newspapers also brought back memories of Himmat Weekly, of which I was the editor, in 1976.  Censorship had also resulted in printing presses shying away from journals like ours that were continuing to be critical of the government. 

It forced us to appeal for funds from our readers so that we could buy even a small printing press.  A tiny room in an industrial estate in Prabhadevi, central Mumbai, with two treadle machines (that could only print one side of two A4 size papers) was part of the deal.

Himmat managed to raise the funds, bought the space and the machines, and named it Anil Printers, in memory of Anil Kumar, a young man from Delhi who worked with Himmat and died prematurely in a road accident leaving behind his 8-month pregnant wife, Padmini, who worked as a journalist with Himmat. On August 14, Padmini passed away in Pune, leaving behind many memories of those times that were challenging but also stimulating.

But to come back to Anil Printers, the machines could not have printed the 24 page weekly that we produced.  Neither could it have typeset the matter as it only had some typefaces that could be set by hand.

Yet, to justify carrying the print line of Anil Printers, we had to print at least two pages there. The rest of the paper was typeset and printed at another press on the condition that each page of copy sent to them had the clearance stamp of the censor.

By choosing to print the last forme at our own printer, we were able to avoid submitting our editorials and the back page column by the editor-in-chief Rajmohan Gandhi, to the censor. The other printer did not have to worry, as the legal consequences of this matter, if it violated censorship guidelines, would be on our heads.

But we still had to typeset the matter.  We found a way around this by finding someone in south Mumbai who agreed to do this on a linotype machine.  The matter, which consisted of columns of type set in lead, was then carried by hand by one of our peons, by bus over a distance of 10-15 kms to Anil Printers. 

There we would proof read this last and most important part of the journal, make corrections with the help of the handset types available (resulting in a distinct difference being visible between the machine set and hand set type), and then printing the pages on the slow and ancient treadle machines.

Once the ink on the pages had dried, they were packed and carried to the printer where the rest of the magazine had been printed. Here the magazine was bound and ready for dispatch.

Each week it was something of a miracle that by Wednesday morning Himmat Weekly was printed and ready to be sold on the stands, or dispatched by parcel post to different parts of the country.

The parallels between that period of the Emergency and what is going on in Kashmir today are patently obvious.

The opposition has been locked up as in the Emergency.

Jammu and Kashmir's special status has been revoked using the law and Parliament, much as Mrs Gandhi did when she proclaimed the Emergency.

Although there is no direct press censorship today in Kashmir, blocking all means of communication is, in fact, a form of censorship. It has prevented any information about what Kashmiris feel about these developments and what is happening there from reaching the rest of the country.

Once again, as in 1975, the first detailed reports indicating anger and resistance came through the international press -- the BBC, Al Jazeera, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

After strenuous denials, and even accusing these credible news sources of telling lies, the government backed down.

The absence of free flow of information during the 20-month Emergency allowed the rulers to delude themselves that all was normal. In the last 11 days, repeatedly, India's rulers and a pliant press has declared that all is well in Kashmir.

In the initial months after Emergency was declared, very few took the risk of taking on the might of the State.  Yet, there was resistance from the start. It was building up behind closed doors, in whispered conversations, in undetected locations. People were planning and strategising what should be done, not least to ensure that news of the gross human rights violations taking place were broadcast through the underground network.

When Mrs Gandhi lost her seat and the elections in 1977, she was astounded as were her advisors. But not the people. It was their way of rejecting unequivocally what she had done to the country. To assert that freedom and democratic rights were not a luxury; they guaranteed that the voices of the most marginalised and oppressed were heard. 

Today, going by an increasing number of reports from journalists who are not part of the government's spoon-fed media -- which is being hosted in a posh hotel in Srinagar and taken on helicopter rides to "see" how normal and peaceful is the state -- are indicating that the same kind of sullen resistance is building up.  How long it takes to explode remains to be seen.

But to come back to August 15 and Independence Day, being an almost Midnight's Child, I had declared when I was 18 that I was as old as "free India". The key word was "free", not just independent of foreign rule.

Today, I cannot use that term when close to 8 million people in this country are un-free, unable to speak, and with a government and the majority of Indians unwilling to listen to what they have to say.

We were all brought up to recite Rabindranath Tagore's famous poem that ended with, "Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake".

Where is that "heaven of freedom"?

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Delhi 2012 vs Unnao 2019

Originally published in Mumbai Mirror on August 3, 2019

In his column on the Unnao rape case (Mumbai Mirror, August 2, 2019), Dushyant asks, "Why was there so much anger on the streets once upon a time and why is there so little now?" He was referring to the small turnout at India Gate in Delhi on July 29, at a demonstration to express solidarity with the 19-year-old rape survivor, now fighting for her life after a headlong collision in a suspicious road accident.

The public anger over the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi on December 16, 2012 (I have consciously chosen not to refer to her by the fictitious name given by the media), has become something of a golden standard for spontaneous civil society response to an unspeakable crime.

Yet, not all rapes or crimes against women bring forth such a response. Why? This question has been asked before, repeatedly. Women who are poor, Dalit and Adivasi, from Kashmir and the Northeast have often asked why when they are raped, there are no candlelight vigils and protests? Why is one rape more important than another?

There are many different reasons behind the politics of rape. But if we look at the difference between the response in 2012 and today, the reasons include the nature of the crime, the site of the crime, and the dominant politics of the day.

First, in 2012 there was space for protest -- both spatially and psychologically. People were not afraid to occupy the streets and register their anger. The government then was a loose coalition, with many gaping holes that made it approachable, as also vulnerable.

Today, after two general election victories, the Bharatiya Janata Party under Narendra Modi has a brute majority in Parliament, holds power in the majority of states, and has already shown why it need not pay heed to any opposition, political or otherwise. The government and the ruling party project themselves as coterminous with "the nation".  Hence, any questioning or opposition to the former is automatically "anti-national".

Secondly, the 2012 incident took place in the national capital -- the location of political and media power.  Protests there drew the attention of both.

In 2019, the crime occurred in a small town in UP, away from the media spotlight and the centre of political power. While media paid sporadic attention, the BJP-led state government ignored it.

Thirdly, the men charged with the crime and eventually convicted in 2012, were powerless, part of the urban poor, the 'other', people who could be pilloried, blamed, named without any fear of repercussions.

In 2019, the man charged with the crime, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, belongs to the ruling BJP, is an MLA with enormous economic clout. When the predators are powerless, all of us, including the media, can be angry and raise our voices.  When they are the powerful, our response is feeble, if at all.

The voice of the Unnao survivor has only been heard because she took a tremendous risk and threatened to immolate herself before UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's office.  But even that didn't work. Today, despite innumerable petitions and pleas by her to everyone, including to the Chief Justice of India, it is only when she is near death that we have woken up.

What can we learn from these differing responses to crimes against women?

When a crime is performed in public, so to speak -- in a moving bus in Delhi, for instance -- we are shocked and horrified.  When it occurs in the quiet interstices of a home, an office, by men who are supposed to be "protectors", or friends, or relatives, or neighbours, or representatives of the law, we do not hear or heed the cries for help. As also of those women who are invisibled, by virtue of their caste, class or geographical location.

Yet, what happened to the 19-year-old from Unnao represents more than 90 per cent of the crimes against Indian women, perpetrated by men known to them or who wield power over them.  This is what we should be raging about, because this woman from Unnao represents nine out of every ten women in India.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Humanitarian crisis awaits Assam

This is a longer version of the op-ed article in The Hindu that appeared on July 17, 2019:


Floods are an annual event in Assam. Thousands of families lose their lands, their cattle and their homes, as relentless rains submerge vast tracts.

This year, along with the floods, another humanitarian crisis awaits the state. The date is already set. It is July 31.

On that day, the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) will be released, the culmination of a fraught process conducted since 2015 at the urging of the Supreme Court, and monitored by it.

While reports of the many anomalies that dog the process of determining citizenship, including the constantly changing list of documents that are, or are not, accepted, the sheer enormity of the human crisis facing the state has yet to register in the rest of India.

Numbers alone do not indicate this.  What is known today is that out of a population of 31.1 million (2011 census), projected to be around 33 million today, 32.9 million have applied to the NRC to be listed as a "genuine" Indian citizen.  Of these roughly 29 million have been accepted. 

It is the future of the over four million excluded from the NRC so far, a number that might reduce when the final list is published on July 31, that provides the foundation for the impending human crisis awaiting Assam.

Even if half of this number is excluded, in that these people cannot establish their credentials as Indian citizens, we are looking at the future for two million stateless people.

What will happen to me and my family after July 31? That is the question that haunts thousands of men and women. The anxiety in their strained faces is haunting. Hundreds of individuals, clutching frayed plastic bags containing documents, will wait hours in inclement weather to meet anyone willing to listen, and answer this one question. 


After travelling to three districts in Assam at the end of June, the full dimension of this humanitarian crisis hits you. 

The majority of the people left out of the NRC so far are abjectly poor; many are unlettered.  They cannot understand the legal complications of the process; nor do they have the money to hire legal help.  As a result, literally thousands stand in danger of being declared "foreigners" even though they could be "genuine" Indian citizens.

The people affected by this process of verification of citizenship fall into three different categories. One is those who were marked "D", or doubtful voter when the electoral rolls were revised in 1997.  Their names are excluded from the NRC unless they can establish their credentials before a Foreigner's Tribunal.

There are currently fewer than one hundred such tribunals in Assam. The opacity that surrounds the way decisions are made in these quasi-judicial courtrooms is a separate story.

The second category is people picked up by police on suspicion of being illegal immigrants.  The border police, represented in every police station, finger prints them, and then informs them in writing that they must appear before a Foreigner's Tribunal to prove they are Indian. Most such cases are of poor, daily wage workers who are unable to assemble the relevant documents.

The third is of those who have registered with the NRC, but have been excluded because there was a discrepancy in the documents they submitted. One list of exclusions with four million names was published last year; another on June 26 this year with 102,462 names. Many of those on the excluded lists have filed additional documents in the NRC centres. Their fate will be known on July 31.

In addition, there are people who have already been declared "foreigners" by the tribunals.  In February 2019, the government informed the Supreme Court that of the 938 people in six detention centres, 823 had been declared foreigners. How long will they be held? Can they be deported? To which country? These questions remain unanswered.

In this haze of numbers and judicial processes, the real and tragic stories of individuals often go unheard and unheeded.


Take Anjali Das, a 50-year old woman who we meet in Bijni, Chirang district.  She is one of four women sitting in a small room full of men, waiting patiently for their turn to present their cases to a group of lawyers.  The meeting has been organised by a local group, Bharatiya Nagorik Adhikar Surakshya Mancha.

Dressed in a rust coloured saree, Anjali cannot hide her anxiety behind a weak smile. Her maternal home is in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, where her father and brother still live.  Anjali came to Assam in 1982 when she married.

She has no birth certificate, like so many people in India. She does have a school certificate that states she was a student up to class five and gives her date of birth as June 1, 1969.  She also has a certificate from the panchayat, and her father's Aadhar card as proof that she is Indian. But this will not suffice.  Anjali's name has been excluded from the NRC, the only one in her marital home. And she cannot understand why this happened.

Anjali Das is only one of thousands of married women who have been left out of the NRC for similar reasons. Although disaggregated data is not yet available, it is estimated that more than half of those excluded from the NRC are women like her.

Then there are women who are struggling to understand why some members of their families have been excluded. In Hanchara village in Morigaon district, Jamina Khatun arrives with the ubiquitous plastic bag full of documents. She pulls out a photocopy of the June 26 list of names excluded from the NRC. The list has the names of her husband, her two sons, and her 11- year-old granddaughter.

The latter's name is likely there because Jamina's son, Nur Jamal Ali, was referred to the Foreigner's Tribunal based on a complaint by the man from whom he rented a room in Jorhat.  He was working there as a construction worker.  The complaint led to Nur Jamal being finger printed by the border police, sent a notice to appear before a Foreigner's tribunal, and then declared a foreigner. As a result, his only daughter is also excluded from the NRC.

Multiply Anjali and Jamina's stories a thousand times over and you get a picture of the scale of the crisis in the lives of tens of thousands of poor people in Assam. Men and women of all ages, travelling long distances with plastic bags bulging with any and all documents they can gather, swamp anyone who extends help, by way of legal counseling for instance.

After July 31, the focus will shift to the Foreigner's Tribunals. The state government plans to set up 200 by the end of this month and eventually one thousand, as all those excluded from the NRC will have to present themselves before these tribunals.

Only the litigants and their lawyers know what happens within the four walls of these tribunals as neither the public nor the media are permitted.

To try and visualize what happens in these quasi courtrooms, this writer tried to get a peek into one in Guwahati.


Foreigner's Tribunal Court Room 3, Kamrup Metro district, Guwahati, is located in a residential colony on the ground floor of one of the buildings. Above are flats that are occupied, evident from the washing hanging out.

The room is small. It is arranged like a courtroom.  A white railing separates the podium on which the tribunal member sits from the litigants. The railing becomes a small witness stand at one end.

The tribunal member has the help of an assistant who sits on the side. His job, one such assistant tells me, is to check documents. On the high desk there is also a computer screen and a printer.

According to the assistant, who does not give his name, cases are heard on simultaneous days, stretching out to five days.

An elderly man, a lawyer, who walks in, has a different story.  He looks at the top of his brown folder. The case he has come for began in March. It is now July and it is still being heard.

The assistant also confirms that I can only sit in for the hearings if I get permission from the secretariat.  So far, no journalist has been granted such permission.  The only way to gain access is by subterfuge.

This then is the other problem. People travel long distances to appear before the tribunals. Their cases stretch out over months. This means spending money for travel and stay, apart from lawyers’ fees.  For those living in poverty, this is unaffordable.


Men like Nurzamal from Pathari Namargaon, South Salamara Mankachar district. He stands outside the tribunal building waiting for a lawyer.  Like Jamina Khatun's son, the border police in Guwahati picked up Nurzamal where he was employed as a construction worker. He was finger printed and then sent a notice to appear before the Foreigner's Tribunal in Guwahati.

Nurzamal's home is around 270 km away from Guwahati. He has already made five trips from his home and does no know how many more. If he gives up, or cannot afford to make the journey, his case will be decided "ex parte".

Literally thousands of cases are being judged "ex parte". In a statement in the Lok Sabha on July 2, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, G. Kishan Reddy acknowledged that from 1985 to February 2019, 63,959 people had been declared foreigners in ex parte rulings. 

An illustration of the arbitrariness surrounding this process comes from a case in the Supreme Court for which notices were served on July 3 to the central government and Assam government. In this case, Hazizul Hoque was sent to a detention camp on March 24, 2017 after being declared a foreigner ex parte by a tribunal. The only reason this happened is because Hoque, who suffers lower limb paralysis, could not attend the hearings.  Even his appeal to the Gauhati High Court was dismissed.

There are already many more stories like Hoque's.  Unfortunately, the majority cannot go even to the High Court to appeal leave alone the Supreme Court.

The citizenship issue in Assam is layered and complex.  It is not easy for people outside the state to understand all the multiple threads.

What is clear though is that the brunt of the systemic problems of establishing citizenship in this manner, and in such haste, is being borne disproportionately by the poorest.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

We cannot give up

I don't know about you, but I have not been able to watch that video of Tabriz Ansari of Jharkhand being beaten to death. 

I will not even give the link to it even as I write this. Because it marks the culmination of a month where the expected happened, the BJP won a thumping majority in Parliament, and the dreaded playing out of the consequences of this victory also happened.  (But it is worth reading Apoorvanand on this.)

Members of Parliament from the ruling party mocked members of the opposition, including Muslims, with chants of "Vande Mataram" and "Jai Sri Ram" as they took their oath, unprecedented in the 57 years that the Indian Parliament has met. (Read Jyoti Punwani's excellent piece on this.)  And echoes of those chants reverberated in different parts of India as individuals like Tabriz Ansari were targeted and ordered to chant "Jai Sri Ram".

The depravity and brutality of the mob that led to the death of Ansari is not an aberration. We, as Indians, are a violent people.  Given a chance, we will lash out, hit, attack, lynch and butcher those perceived as our enemies.  Compassion is not a highly regarded virtue in our society. Gandhi knew this even as he appealed for non-violence. Today's leaders know this too.  But the idea of non-violence and peaceful resistance is not part of their vocabulary. They support vindictiveness through their words and by way of their silences.

Surrounded as we are today with the war cry of "Jai Sri Ram" and the silences that denote acquiescence at one level and defeat at another, what is the future?

At a meeting in Mumbai organised by Indian Express as part of its Explained series, political scientist and commentator Suhas Palshikar predicted the future in a few quiet words. 

As he explained the concept of majoritarianism in the Indian context, where a majority community will always be dominant, and analysed the fallout of the BJP's election victory in the 2019 general elections, he said that in future, pogroms of the kind seen earlier would not be needed because the message that Muslims can live happily in this country if they live like Hindus, has already been conveyed. 

This is being conveyed each time a Muslim man is lynched. He does not have to be a cattle trader, or be accused of eating beef. He is a target because he is a Muslim, a hapless representative of a minority that has to be shown its place.

And now, inspired by our members of Parliament, we have a new test of loyalty to "the nation", the slogan "Jai Sri Ram". Another stick with which to bludgeon non-Hindus into conformity. Another vehicle to instill fear and squash any notion of rebellion.

Not to forget that this government has already issued orders that Foreigners' Tribunals, of the kind functioning in Assam that are already seen as hallmarks of arbitrariness and injustice, can be set up in any state. Combine this with the Citizenship Amendment Bill that the government is determined to push through, which effectively determines citizenship on the basis of religion and runs counter to the founding principles of independent India, and you have the makings of an upheaval reminiscent of the Partition, as Harsh Mander writes in Indian Express.

I write this on June 25, 2019, marking 44 years since the midnight hour when Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency and locked up the entire opposition. Press censorship was imposed, fundamental rights were suspended and a shroud of fear descended on the country.

Yet, that dark and what appeared endless night, did end.  The blanket of fear was thrown off.  The Indian electorate did vote out a person and a party considered irreplaceable because there was no alternative.

We have no option but to cling to the hope that things can change, that the trajectory of events today is not irreversible, to not give up.


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Has Priyanka Chaturvedi failed women by joining the Shiv Sena – or shown how to survive in politics?

First published in

 Has Priyanka Chaturvedi failed women by joining the Shiv Sena – or shown how to survive in politics?

Priyanka Chaturvedi has failed women in politics. Or perhaps she is showing them the only way to survive.

On April 17, Chaturvedi, then the Congress spokesperson and a familiar face on TV debates, expressed disappointment with her party for having reinstated eight members she referred to as “lumpen goons”. She had accused them last October of misbehaving with her. Pending an inquiry, they were suspended. But earlier this week they were taken back, apparently after they apologised.

The next day, Chaturvedi sent her resignation letter to Congress chief Rahul Gandhi. “What saddens me is that despite the safety, dignity and empowerment of women being promoted by the party…and your call to action, the same is not reflected in the action of some of members of the party,” she wrote. “A serious incident and misbehaviour by certain party members while I was on official duty for the party has been ignored under the guise of all hands needed for the elections.”

However, in less than 24 hours, Chaturvedi did a virtual double backflip and on Friday landed in the lap of the Shiv Sena, which is at the other end of the ideological spectrum from her former party. By doing so, she not only provided an escape hatch for the Congress, which was being questioned about not treating her charges seriously, but also provoked considerable scepticism about her own motives.

Coincidentally, the same day, a veteran woman politician, Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party, demonstrated that pragmatism can trump old fissures by sharing a stage with her former arch rival, Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, for the first time since 1995.

Mayawati had sworn never to forgive Yadav after his party’s workers attacked her at a Lucknow guest house in June 1995, almost battering down the doors of the room in which she had locked herself.

Just another day in Indian politics, you might say, especially in an election season. But apart from demonstrating the malleability and flexibility that seems to be the hallmark of Indian politics and politicians, these events remind us of the anomalies and contradictions of a woman’s role in this country’s politics.

Take Chaturvedi. Though originally from Uttar Pradesh, she is a typical Mumbai person. She is well-spoken and articulate and appeared to be an asset for the Congress in its attempt to project itself as a modern and progressive party in contrast to its main opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

At the April 19 press conference where she announced her decision to join the Shiv Sena and serve it in any capacity, Chaturvedi was asked whether she quit the Congress because she was denied a ticket to contest the parliamentary election.

Chaturvedi acknowledged she had hoped to get a ticket, but insisted that was not the main reason for her resignation. She spoke of her concern for women’s rights even as she sat on a dais with only male leaders of the Shiv Sena, a party which is not exactly an exemplar either of good behaviour or of upholding women’s rights. She appears to have missed the irony entirely, or perhaps deliberately.

A misogynistic culture

For a moment, though, if we set aside the pragmatism displayed by Mayawati in putting aside her resentment and sharing the stage with her bitter adversary, and Chaturvedi’s nifty ideological cartwheel, the two women illustrate the challenges women in politics face in India.

Mayawati’s struggles are now well known. She has confronted the double burden of being a Dalit and a woman, been called all kinds of names, criticised and mocked for her dress sense, her taste, her looks. She has received barely any appreciation for her ability to negotiate the snake pit of politics. A man in her position would have been lauded as clever, strategic, even brilliant. But Mayawati is called devious, corrupt, unprincipled and much more because she is a woman.
Mayawati with Mulayam Singh Yadav and his on Akhilesh Yadav at a campaign rally in Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh, on April 19. Photo credit: Twitter/Samajwadi Party
Mayawati with Mulayam Singh Yadav and his on Akhilesh Yadav at a campaign rally in Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh, on April 19. Photo credit: Twitter/Samajwadi Party
Chaturvedi is fairly new to politics and has had a relatively easy run. She was picked out to be a spokesperson because she speaks well and knows how to handle the medium of TV. In the last five years, with the BJP in power, she has been targeted as a woman, viciously trolled and even threatened. Her apparent reason for quitting the Congress was also misogyny. That men in the party felt they could get away with the kind of behaviour that Chaturvedi alleges with a prominent woman functionary speaks to male entitlement and a misogynistic culture that is virtually a norm in Indian politics.

Mayawati and Chaturvedi are not the exceptions by a long shot. Go back in history and remember the kind of treatment J Jayalalithaa received, especially shortly after MG Ramachandran’s death in 1989, when she was assaulted and almost stripped in the Tamil Nadu Assembly.

Similarly, Mamata Banerjee has been physically assaulted and received the choicest sexist epithets from her male opponents.

Smriti Irani may have laid herself open to criticism with her imaginative descriptions of her educational qualification, but she too has had to endure sexual and sexist comments by male politicians.

The most recent illustration of the special treatment reserved for women is what Jaya Prada, until recently with the Samajwadi Party and now a BJP candidate, has had to endure from former party colleague Azam Khan. Even when they were in the same party, Khan did not spare her.

Par for the course

Sexism, it seems, is par for the course if you are a woman stepping into the male world of Indian politics. The women who have survived have all had to face this in some form or another. If they have a male protector, in the form of a relative or a mentor, they are sometimes spared. But that too is no guarantee. Nor is the party to which they belong. So, the list includes, among others, Sonia Gandhi, Renuka Chowdhury and Priyanka Gandhi from the Congress; Sushma Swaraj, Smriti Irani and Hema Malini of the BJP; and Mayawati and Jaya Prada.

As reported this month, it is no different even in a state like Kerala, with high female literacy and more women voters than men. There too women hesitate to enter politics and political parties have historically been extremely parsimonious about encouraging women to be a part of electoral politics. Since 1957, the state has elected only 11 women to Parliament. And the handful of women who are standing for the Lok Sabha this time have not been spared sexist remarks from male politicians.

Chaturvedi claims she quit the Congress because it failed to act against sexism. Yet, by joining the Shiv Sena she has behaved like any male politician looking out for the best chance would. She has also reinforced the belief that for the moment, if women want to get ahead in the male world of politics, they have to be a little like them. The misogynistic and masculine culture that dominates Indian politics remains undented by the presence of such women.