Tuesday, August 15, 2017

It’s time for another freedom struggle: A Midnight’s Child looks back on India’s 70-year journey

Published in Scroll.in on August 14, 2017

I am almost Midnight’s Child. I arrived some weeks before the magic hour. On August 15, 1947, they celebrated by taking a ride in a Victoria horse carriage on Bombay’s Marine Drive with me, all of three months old.

As August 15, 2017, India’s 70th Independence Day approaches, I wonder whether this is the India my parents dreamed of. Neither is around to answer that question. But I am certain that their idea of India is very different from the new India that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged people to help build by 2022.

Today, apart from Independence, the painful memories of the Partition are also being invoked. Yet far away from the borders that wrenched one country into two, leading to mass migration on a scale not seen anywhere in the world and an unprecedented scale of communal killings, I grew up with little awareness of this cataclysmic event. So did many others like me, I imagine.

No one from my family went to Pakistan, or came to India from Pakistan. The only migration in the family was when my parents – from Mangalore and Mysore – moved to Bombay and then, after their marriage, to North India.

We grew up in a place that was once called Begumabad, a village near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. It was renamed Modinagar after Seth Gujarmal Modi, an industrialist who set up a textile mill, a sugar factory, a rubber factory as well as a school, a college and housing colonies for his employees. Today, most of the factories have disappeared and Modinagar has been transformed into an educational hub.

The author with her parents and brother in Modinagar

Cranking it up

In the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up as a middle-class kid in this company town, where the houses were identical. Television had not yet arrived in India but everyone had radios (not transistors though). No one I knew had a refrigerator but iceboxes did the job. A lucky few had a wind-up gramophone.

Also, no one had electric hot water geysers. Nor had I ever seen a shower. Copper samovars did the job of providing hot water; a steel bucket and a brass lota did the rest.
I cannot remember my parents buying readymade clothes. The tailor stitched our clothes, usually a size larger so they would last longer. And woolen sweaters were always hand knitted.

In these days of short attention spans, it seems unreal that one could spend long summer holidays without ever complaining of being bored. We entertained ourselves either playing chor-police in the colony garden, a hot favourite where the youngest was assigned the task of being the jailor; cricket and badminton, the latter without a net and the former with a rubber ball; or board games like Ludo and Chinese Checkers. Monopoly and Scrabble came much later.

Temptation to buy anything was strictly limited to the amount of money you had. If you were middle class, living in a single income family, there was practically no surplus. You bought only what you needed. This was not some high moral principle. It was necessity.

Did it make us miserable, hungry for more, feeling we were missing out on something? I think not. The differences between living in a small North Indian town like Modinagar and Bombay, which we would visit in the holidays, did not seem so stark as to make us restless.

Was this because India’s restricted economy flattened everyone to the same level? Or was our lack of restlessness about material things a hangover of the Independence struggle that still lingered even two decades later? Perhaps a little of both.
The author and her friends in Modinagar, Uttar Pradesh, in the 1950s.
The author and her friends in Modinagar, Uttar Pradesh, in the 1950s.

For the country’s good

I can remember constantly being lectured in school about how privileged we were to get a good education and that we must think of what we can do for “the country”, how we can use our lives to serve people less advantaged than us. This was not the nationalism of today; it was perhaps playing on guilt but also appealing to our conscience.

That message found a resonance in many of us. Despite our parents saving up to give us the best education possible and hoping we would become doctors, engineers or join the civil services, at least some Midnight’s Children let their parents down.

Our coming of age coincided with a time of questioning around the world. What contribution could you make to the country if the structures of oppression had remained in tact despite the end of colonialism? Was getting degrees and professional qualifications enough to make you understand what was going on in a country where the majority was abjectly poor? Could those of us who lived in cities ever understand the reality of rural India unless we went and lived there? Should our engineers be building bridges and dams or going out to see how technology could change the lives of people in rural India? These and hundreds of other questions infected our minds, refusing to allow us to slip into complaisance.

Caught in this churn of questions, many of us made choices that hurt and distressed our families. But at that time, it seemed the only thing one could do if you believed that coming from your class and your education, you had to do something to make a difference.

The point of this narration is to depict, briefly, the India in which people like me grew up. There was very little cynicism and a lot of idealism.

The dark period

So when and how did this tryst with idealism get dented?

Before I, and India could hit 30, the idea of a free and democratic India had already been shattered when Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency on June 26, 1975. She imposed press censorship, imprisoned the opposition and suspended fundamental rights. At the stroke of midnight, free India was un-free. Would it ever come out of this dark period? Certainly in the days after the declaration of Emergency, and the months that followed, there seemed no end in sight.

Yet, it did end, spectacularly and unexpectedly in 1977 when Indira Gandhi called an election and was defeated. We were a free country again. Or were we? For many of us, the principal lesson from the Emergency was how easy it is to erode democratic values and why the very concept of freedom has to be re-examined within the context of the gross inequalities in our society.

As India completes 70, that reality has not changed. If anything, it has become starker. What is also evident today is that the Partition of 1947 is now a reality at so many other levels in India, in the deepening divisions between class, caste and creed.

Yet Modi speaks of his new India being free of communalism. How extraordinary that a man who heads a party that has built its political fortunes on communal poison can proclaim this without a moment of embarrassment.

The old India in which I grew up also had communal schisms, between Hindus and Muslims, between upper and lower castes. But even though difference was acknowledged, it was not emphasised or demonised. Many of us grew up not knowing where we belonged – South India, North India, just India? I had coined the term “emotionally integrated Indian” to describe myself. Today, on the other hand, you are branded with your identity, in terms of region, religion and caste.

There is little in this new India that we are being promised that can keep alive the flame of idealism. Yet, I believe we can refuse to despair even though at times it appears that the unrelenting push towards changing the core of India is unstoppable; that the forces of the Hindutva will succeed in turning this country into a Hindu Rashtra where anyone who does not subscribe to their ideology will be rendered a second-class citizen if not a non-citizen.

What is more worrying is that this is happening so insidiously and at so many levels that it seems to have dulled our sense of outrage. Or perhaps there is too much to be outraged about. So one watches with despair and hopes that miraculously things will change.

If there is anything we can learn from these past 70 years it is that change only comes when people decide that they will not sit back and tolerate the intolerable. The sad reality is that even the Emergency would have continued if Indira Gandhi had not called an election. The silent majority were angry but were scattered and intimidated while the minority, who endorsed her actions, ruled with confidence.
The author and other members of the staff of 'Himmat', the magazine that distinguished itself by courageously criticising the Emergency.
The author and other members of the staff of 'Himmat', the magazine that distinguished itself by courageously criticising the Emergency.

Another midnight hour

Today, we cannot say for sure that the majority is angry. Many people are upset and disillusioned. But will they find a way to express this, or have they accepted that nothing can be done to change the direction in which this country is being taken?

We are approaching a midnight hour of another kind, not one that will lead this country into freedom, but “where the clear stream of reason has lost its way” as Rabindranath Tagore wrote. An hour when partitions at every level are becoming the norm and where based on this divided and hate-filled nation, the votaries of a Hindu Rashtra could succeed in raising their bhagwa jhanda.

There is not much point in harking back to the old India that has disappeared. But there is every reason to oppose the vision of a new India that is being thrust down our throats, that has nothing new about it as it goes about keeping alive outdated and old divisions and hatreds. Nothing new and lasting can be built on such poisonous foundations. Midnight’s Children and their progeny will have to get ready for another freedom struggle.

Kalpana Sharma is a consulting editor at the Economic and Political Weekly.
 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Behind closed doors: Noida society row reflects the ugly truth of how elite India views their ‘help’

Published in Scroll.in on July 21, 2017


Beyond the fracas at Mahagun Moderne are larger questions about how Indian society turns a blind eye to crass exploitation. 

It was a bomb waiting to explode.

A gated community surrounded by a sea of deprivation, called Mahagun Moderne – modern with a meaningless extra “e”. On one side were people living within high gates, protected by security personnel and closed circuit television cameras. On the other were occupants of tin sheds on vacant lands.

They connected without really connecting: everyday, from the surrounding squalor emerged women and men who “helped” those living in these luxurious enclosures of privilege. Yet for the people they help, these women and men were virtually non-persons.

When Mahagun Moderne in Noida sector 78 burst into the news on July 12, this hidden world of invisible workers and insensitive employers came into view. On that day, there was a riot-like situation in the posh society located in the National Capital Region after Zohra Bibi, who worked in one of the houses there, went missing the previous night. She was found in the basement, police claimed at the time, even as her compatriots were virtually breaking down the gates. In photographs, she appeared dazed and near-unconscious.

Though both sides traded charges and police cases were filed against the workers as well as the residents, only the group of workers who stormed the society were detained. Of these, 13 were charged with attempted murder even though none of the FIRs filed over the incident mentioned a physical attack on residents. About 81 workers were “blacklisted” and barred from entering the society for protesting on July 12.

But beyond the particulars of the Noida case is the riddle of why a country like India continues to tolerate, even justify, the exploitation of domestic workers. In fact, the “e” at the end of “Moderne” in the name of the Noida gated complex signifies the pretension, the unreality, the make believe that attempts to hide the feudalistic mindset that continues to justify the exploitation of domestic workers.
Zohra Bibi shortly after she was found on July 12. [Photo: Nilanjana Bhowmick/via Facebook]
Zohra Bibi shortly after she was found on July 12. [Photo: Nilanjana Bhowmick/via Facebook]

Hidden world

The millions of women, men and even children employed in domestic work in India, who cannot be accurately counted because most of them not registered are a daily reminder of how far we are from becoming the modern society we aspire to be.

The very concept that these women and men who sweep, swab, clean, cook, serve and sustain us are our “help” is vulgar. It is we, the employers of these invisible people, who occasionally help them, not the other way around.

The problem goes beyond the poor wages and the lack of legal protection. It extends to the very attitude we hold towards domestic workers that is so entrenched that it doesn’t even change with the generations. We commonly call them “servants” and we want them there to serve. She has a name but we care little about where she lives, what she eats, whether she has children and if yes, then do they go to school and how do they survive. What happens when someone falls ill? How many people does she support with her meagre wages? A hundred questions, never asked, by the people this woman helps.

It is also interesting that even as the Supreme Court debates the extent of our right to privacy, privileged Indians are willingly relinquishing their privacy because they want someone else to do their household chores. So, a stranger lives in our home, knows our likes and dislikes, cleans up after us, cooks what we like, overhears all we say, watches us watching TV, listening to music, arguing or talking on the phone. Yet, we pretend this person does not exist. Except when something goes missing. Then suddenly the, person comes into view. Without a moment’s hesitation, she is the first suspect. She is poor, you are rich; therefore she must be the thief.

Ironically, with the notion of safety, the rich are even willing to equip their homes with closed circuit cameras so that they can keep a watch on their help without seeing these as an intrusion on their private space.

So, while what women like Zohra Bibi do has to be recognised as work and not help, there have to be laws that guarantee her a fair wage, institutions she can approach if she is mistreated, there also needs to be a drastic shift in the perspective of those who employ domestic workers.

Exploitation and cruelty

What happened in Noida is not the first time a domestic worker has complained of mistreatment. In my memory, one of the worst such incidents took place a little over a decade back in Mumbai.

Ten-year-old Sonu from Bhopal was employed by an affluent family in the Lokhandwala area. There were three adults in the family for whom she worked – the mother, father and a grown up son. A married daughter lived in the same complex.

In June 2006, the daughter found Sonu trying out lipstick that belonged to her mother. For this supposed crime, the child was tortured, beaten and left to bleed to death. More horrific still was the cold-blooded way in which the family cleaned up the mess and suspended Sonu’s inert body by a rope from the ceiling fan. They then went to the police and reported it as a suicide.

Fortunately, despite their privilege, they did not get away. For this sickening case, all four members of the family were sentenced to life two years later.

Whenever an incident like this comes to light, there is some discussion about the conditions of domestic workers. But little changes. We need to stop and ask: why does this happen? Why does the Indian society turn a blind eye to such crass exploitation? How do generations of Indians grow up accepting that there are some people whose life’s mission is to serve and clean up after them? Why do we accept the concept of a “servant”?
Commenting on Katherine Stockett’s book The Help about black women domestic workers in the American South in 1962, Harsh Mander writes in his seminal work Looking Away:
“What deeply troubled me after I read the book was that the humiliation and exploitation suffered by domestic workers in southern US half a century earlier was, in fact, in many ways less oppressive than the daily lived experience of an estimated three million domestic workers in middle-class homes across urban India in the second decade of the 21st century. And that this causes us so little outrage.”
Indeed, there is only momentary outrage, until another Sonu is tortured or another group of workers break down the gates of our burgeoning gated communities.

 

 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

'Media Owners Always Ensure That Journalists Crawl, During Emergency And Now Again'

Posting here this interview that appeared in The Citizen on June 26, 2017

KARTHIK VENKATESH
Monday, June 26,2017
When the Emergency was declared on June 26, 1975, Kalpana Sharma was with Himmat, an independent news magazine, one of the few that chose to defy the censors and take an independent stand. Over the course of the next 21 months till March 1977 when the Emergency was finally lifted, Himmat got into trouble more than once with the authorities, but chose not to back down. During this time, Kalpana Sharma was in the direct line of fire as she took over the editorship of the publication in 1976 and was therefore directly responsible for everything that went into it.

In this interview conducted over e-mail, she talks of those days and draws parallels to today.


Q. How did the Emergency begin for you at Himmat? Did it begin right after the announcement or did things change over a course of time?

A. 
It began on the night of June 25, 1975 when the announcement of declaration of emergency was made on the radio. It took two or three days for the reality to sink in, that all opposition leaders had been arrested, that press censorship had been imposed, that fundamental rights had been suspended.

Q.What were some of the stories you wanted to run that were censored? Also, were there instances of self-censorship (yours or anybody else’s) you recall?

A. On October 2, 1975, a prayer meeting was held in Delhi at Rajghat. Amongst those present were Acharya Kripalani as well as the editor-in-chief of Himmat, Rajmohan Gandhi, who is a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. They were arrested along with others at the meeting. Himmat ran a report of this in the issue of October 24, 1975. By then I was the editor of Himmat and I was summoned to the office of the Special Press Advisor, or Chief Censor, and told that we had violated censorship "guidelines" and that from that date onwards, Himmat would be under pre-censorship. Incidentally, one of the guidelines was: “Where news is plainly dangerous, newspapers will assist the Chief Press Adviser by suppressing it themselves. Where doubts exist, reference may and should be made to the nearest press adviser.”

As for self-censorship, the government had issued these "guidelines" within a couple of weeks of the imposition of the Emergency expecting the press to follow them, or to self-censor. But the interpretation of the guidelines was left to the individual publication. We chose to mostly ignore them or interpret them so loosely that it made no difference in what we published. Until, that is, when pre-censorship was imposed. After that, we had to submit every single piece of copy to the censor before sending it to press. Even here we took liberties and sent only the main articles and editorials, many of which were so heavily censored as to be rendered unusable. For a weekly, this meant that with our shoestring budget and tiny staff, we had to keep standby material for almost everything that we submitted to the censor.

Q. Any anecdotes of how you slipped one past the censors in those days?

A.
There were certain columns that we simply did not submit. We had a humourous diary column written jointly by several people on the staff. We didn't send this in and hoped that the censor would not catch the sly way in which we were trying to send across messages. We also had a column called This Was a Life in which we featured important women and men who had stood up for their rights. During this period, we made it a point to find people who had defied dictatorship and spoken up for their convictions. Our readers got the message. The censor, fortunately, did not catch on to what we were trying to do.



Q. Do you recall any puzzling/amusing censor guidelines from those days? Any parallels you want to draw with today’s scenario?

A
.There are no parallels to the situation today except that for mainstream media then as now, the decision to comply or defy was determined by the owners and not by the editors. Today, too, it is the owners, who fear repercussions if they are too critical of the government, who are making their editors tone down any negative reporting or comment and if a paper is speaking up, it is because the editor has the backing of the owner. Himmat was an independent weekly run by a trust. Hence it was not constrained in this way.

Q. Many people believe that liberals are overstating their case when they state that we are facing an Emergency-like situation today? Things, some believe, aren’t as bad. Having observed both times, what would you say?

A.
As I said earlier, the situation today does not resemble the emergency in that the opposition is not behind bars, there is no pre-censorship and fundamental rights have not been suspended. But the government has been successful in curbing criticism through indirect ways, by making journalists feel that they are vulnerable, by reducing the spaces where honest criticism can be made.

Q. In terms of the Opposition that existed then and that exists now, do you see any difference? Was the opposition to the ruling regime better organized as compared to today?

A.
Before emergency was declared, there was growing opposition led by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). Many young people were inspired and joined him. The JP movement took off even as George Fernandes called the first-ever railway strike in 1974. There were agitations in many places against the rise in prices. JP and his followers organised mass meetings in many places around India that openly questioned Indira Gandhi's government. Her supporters argue that she had reason to fear anarchy, especially when JP urged men in uniform not to obey illegal government orders. Compared to that, although there are spontaneous eruptions by Dalits, farmers and students, they are not organised in the same way. Perhaps they will eventually come under one banner.

Q.What about the quality of leaders, both in the opposition and in the ruling party?

A.
People like JP were inspiring. They had integrity. There were others too but JP was the person around whom people rallied. Today, there is no one, on either side of the political divide with that kind of stature.

Q. Online trolling is a new form of goondagardi that we see these days. How is it similar/different from how the press was attacked in those days?

A.
There is no comparison. At that time, the press was under direct attack from the state. Today, it is people organised and encouraged by the state who try and intimidate and threaten those who speak out. Given the violence on the streets and the lynchings, those who are threatened cannot take these attacks lightly. At the same time, the government can continue to pretend that it respects diverse views and freedom of the press. It is, in fact, far more insidious.

Q. There is a feeling that the press isn’t quite the ‘holy cow’ that is believed to be. The press (both print and the visual medium) have compromised themselves in many ways and when these are investigated, they cry that the freedom of the press is being attacked. What would you say to that?

A.
"The press" or more accurately, the media, is a business. There are people employed in that business, the journalists, who are expected to make the product that has to sell. The content of that product is thus decided by how well it will sell. That sadly is what the media, not just in India but also elsewhere has been reduced to. The concept of a fourth estate in a democracy has been negated by this business model. And given that business relies on government, directly or indirectly, the government can dictate what the media can and cannot do. This does not mean that there is no brave, investigative journalism that holds power to account. But it is fast disappearing because it does not have the kind of backing it needs. That is why so much of that kind of writing is now appearing on digital platforms that are able to carve out business models that are different from the existing ones in the media.

Q. About the future of a fearless, independent press are you optimistic or do you think there is cause for despair?

A.
I am optimistic because I see around me so many younger journalists infected with the same optimism and passion that we had in the 1970s when we worked with Himmat. They have a much tougher time, in some ways, but they are not giving up. And the evidence of that lies in the fact that despite all the efforts to intimidate the media, stories about atrocities, human rights violations, corruption in high places etc still keep coming out.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Media in the Modi era: How did India’s watchdog press become so docile?

Published on Scroll.in on June 16, 2017

India is talking about the 1975 Emergency again even as its 42nd anniversary, on June 25, hovers around the corner. Some people believe that freedom of the press is endangered once again. Yet how many people are really bothered about the freedom of the press? 
This is a question that was often asked during the Emergency. The answer then was: not many. It is possible that even today, if a survey were to be taken, that would be the answer. In the order of priorities in India, press freedom does not rank very high.
But the principal lesson from the Emergency was that while the absence of an inquiring and free press made no difference to the moneyed classes who were pleased that trains ran on time, for the poor, who are voiceless at the best of times, there was a void that swallowed up their tale of increased oppression. There were whispers about forced sterilisation, about ruthless slum demolitions, about increasing hunger and deprivation, but there were no reports on this in the media.
In the end, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi chose to believe the censored press that reported only the good news and what she wanted to hear. She called for elections in 1977 confident that the people, especially the poor, loved her. Yet ultimately it was the poor, in whose name she suspended fundamental rights, who turned against her. The full truth about their oppression during the Emergency only surfaced after press censorship was lifted.

Emergency vs undeclared Emergency

If there is any comparison between 1975-’77 and now, it is surely only in the fact that even without censorship, many stories of the way the poor are suffering do not find space in the mainstream media. The plight of the poor only becomes front-page news when they protest and are shot or beaten up. 
It is also clear now, three years into Narendra Modi’s term as prime minister, that his government does not need to impose any kind of direct censorship on the media. The media, by and large, has already fallen in line. Even documentary films on subjects the government does not like are stopped from being screened at film festivals. However small the critical component of mainstream and other media, this government is not prepared to tolerate any of it. Shut it down, is the clear message.
Many of us in the media are hesitant to navel-gaze at this particular juncture when the government is targeting media that is critical. Yet, the Indian media must ask, how is it that within three years of the Bharatiya Janata Party coming to power, it has turned from being adversarial, even hostile at times to the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, to being pliant, even docile, under this government?

‘Clear shift from UPA rule’

After talking to several senior Delhi-based journalists who have covered both the BJP and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance for many years, an interesting picture has emerged.
Those who covered the two terms of the UPA recalled how critical even those who were generally supportive of the government were during that time. Every new scheme introduced by the government was looked at closely – the media discussed whether these schemes could work, reporters checked on rural employment guarantee programmes, on government efforts to end open defecation, on urban renewal programmes, and often exposed shortcomings.
In the three years since the Modi government came to power, such investigations are few and far between. Take for instance the Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana, where families below the poverty line are given an LPG connection with the upfront payment waived. Hoardings around India, depicting Modi’s face, announce that his government has saved women from being slowly poisoned by smoke from wood-based stoves by this woman-friendly gesture. 
Yet, where are the stories checking whether such a scheme is practical, or even working on the ground? Some business papers have uncritically carried reports based on a survey by a company called MicroSave Asia, which gave glowing accounts of how the scheme was benefitting women. 
So far, I have only come across one story that tells it like it is – a report on this website by Dhirendra K Jha. After talking to the supposed beneficiaries of the scheme, Jha shows how impractical it is to expect families below the poverty line to have the money to pay Rs 650 or more for a gas cylinder even if the first one – as well as the stove – are given to them free of cost through a loan. 
Far from the “healthier, happier women” depicted in the MicroSave survey, many women who signed up for the Ujjwala scheme are returning to using wood for fuel.

Access denied

While decisions about investigating the reality behind government schemes often rests with editors, what is happening to journalists whose job it is to report on the government and major political parties? 
Like most capital cities around the world, Delhi is a city of patronage. Journalists work hard to build contacts. Newspaper editors and owners value journalists with important contacts. They prove useful not just in terms of getting stories, but also in helping owners gain access to the government at crucial junctures (remember the Niira Radia tapes?). Therefore cultivating these contacts is part of the game of journalism for journalists based in Delhi, or for that matter in any state capital. None of that has changed with the present government. What is different, however, say journalists, is that in the past, even if they belonged to a news organisation that was critical of the ruling party, ministers, bureaucrats and members of the ruling party would talk to them. Today these insiders are much more cautious. 
One journalist pointed out that before the Uttar Pradesh elections earlier this year, it was still possible to find people within the ruling party who would express some critical views about the way the BJP functioned, even if it was off the record. But since the saffron party’s stunning electoral victory in India’s most populous state, such talk has virtually dried up.
One senior journalist pointed out that today to get any information, they have to work much harder. For instance, they have to haunt the BJP office even if important functionaries are not present in the hope that over time someone would talk. These journalists say that there was greater access in the past.
While press conferences conducted by the official BJP spokespersons are usually quite cordial, and even those asking difficult questions are given time, this is not so during media interactions with BJP president Amit Shah. Since the big Uttar Pradesh win earlier this year, he has become even ruder with those he considers to be critics, usually asking them to shut up instead of answering their questions. The rest of the media fraternity present shows little solidarity with the journalist so treated.
The bureaucracy is also much more guarded while meeting journalists. They can cover routine matters, but attempts to try and dig into what is actually going on, what gets discussed at cabinet meetings, how decisions are taken, who is in favour and who is not, possible cabinet reshuffles – basically the grist of much political reporting from Delhi – throws up precious little.
Those who have access are the ones clearly on the side of the government. They report the good news – all the schemes are working spectacularly, the economy is doing well, demonetisation has had no negative impact, and achhe din (good days) are just around the corner. The negatives are reserved for bashing the Opposition, or whatever little there is of it.

All is (not) well

So the ordinary media viewer or reader is led to believe that all is well barring a few stray incidents – a lynching here or there, a few protests, a passing communal incident. 
This clever strategy has worked because the media too has played along. Individual journalists have bought into the government’s propaganda and owners of media houses have sent a message down the line that too much criticism of the government is unwarranted. So censorship? Who needs it?
Incidentally, most of my observations relate to print media. I am not even touching on the insanity that has taken over television news where the line between reality and hysteria has been erased.
To end, let me quote India’s wise and prescient Vice President Hamid Ansari. At the release of a special edition of the National Herald in Bengaluru on June 12, he said: 
“In this age of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ where ‘advertorials’ and ‘response features’ edge out editorials, we would do well to recall Nehru’s vision of the press playing its role as a watchdog in a democracy.”
But when the executive has figured out a way not to be watched, can the media be a watchdog?

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

NDTV raids: The BJP’s saffron-tinted view of India has no room for a watchdog media

Published in Scroll.in on June 5, 2017


reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk

The message to critics is clear: We are watching you and will find ways to silence you.



There has always been an uneasy relationship between the state and the media. This was reiterated by Monday’s raids by the Central Bureau of Investigation on various establishments owned by NDTV co-founder and executive chairperson Prannoy Roy – reportedly for defaulting on a loan that the television company claimed had actually been repaid seven years ago.

That this government will seek ways to intimidate its critics within the media is not unexpected. Nor is it unique.

In the past too, many governments, at the Centre and in the states, have investigated the financial dealings of media companies in an effort to silence them. They did not need to declare an emergency or impose press censorship to find ways to control or punish the media.

 

Intimidation an old trick


It is easy in these days of instant news to forget the times when media meant essentially the print media and radio, the government-controlled All India Radio. In those days, the government controlled newsprint quotas. The easiest way to punish a recalcitrant media house was to put a squeeze on newsprint supply.

It was also a time when government advertising was important for a newspaper’s finances. There again, the government could decide where to release government tenders and advertisements.

Apart from this, media owners had other businesses on which pressure could be exerted.
These methods were used selectively but the very fact that they were used suggests that the executive has never been comfortable with a critical media.

Today, private corporations control much of the media. But despite liberalisation, the government continues to have the power to put pressure on the media through its owners. There is ample evidence to show how this kind of indirect censorship has worked to suppress news, or to ensure nothing too critical or damaging about the executive is printed.

When and if powerful corporate houses choose to be critical of the government of the day, they can use their media to go all out to attack it. Note for instance the vociferous criticism by many media houses of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his silence in the face of corruption scandals and compare that to the fairly mild comment on the current prime minister’s silence in the face of a growing culture of public lynchings and cow vigilantism by people affiliated to his party.

None of this is to justify the actions of this government. It is only to put it in some perspective that all governments find a questioning media inconvenient, one they must tolerate in a democracy, but one they would ideally like to put in its place.

That NDTV is neck deep in financial trouble is well known. But when raids take place, the dominant narrative is not that NDTV is one of the few channels that has been consistently critical of this government, but that its owners are involved in allegedly crooked financial deals.

 

Uncomfortable ties


This government has made no bones about the fact that it has little time for the media unless it is willing to sing its praises. Its unwillingness to face critical questioning is exemplified by the fact that after three years in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not addressed a single press conference.

Party president Amit Shah has addressed the media, but his impatience has been more than evident. At a press conference in Chandigarh last month, he rudely told journalists to “shut up” and made no bones about his intolerance of critical media questioning.

This government has also shown its willingness to use the Central Bureau of Investigation, its denials notwithstanding, to teach any or all of its opponents a lesson. Whether these opponents are human rights activists like Teesta Setalvad or others, the first step is to call in the agency to investigate alleged financial misdemeanours.

Predictably, the focus shifts to whether the individuals being investigated are really involved in some illegality and not why some individuals are being investigated and not others. Or to the real message to critics behind such actions: we are watching you and will find ways to silence you.

In the case of NDTV, it is clear that neither Narendra Modi nor Amit Shah have forgotten the channel’s coverage of the 2002 Gujarat carnage and the fact that it openly reported on the alleged complicity of the state machinery in allowing the killings to continue. Modi was then the state’s chief minister and Shah a minister in his government. Also, Ravish Kumar, in his popular daily programme Prime Time on NDTV India, has remained a relentless critic of the government and the BJP, although he always manages to lace this with humour and sarcasm. Thus, one would not put it past this government to find ways to cripple NDTV, intimidate it, or shut it down altogether.

Given the cutthroat rivalry between media houses, it is unlikely that any of them will raise this issue as one concerning freedom of the press or circulate petitions supporting NDTV. All media houses are vulnerable if their financial dealings are investigated. They cannot take the chance of falling foul of this government.

What we are witnessing today is the typical arrogance of a party that believes it will rule all of India in the near future. Having won the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in March, the BJP is riding high. In its grand vision of a saffron-tinted India, there is no room for a critical, adversarial media.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Book of Memory and Forgetting



Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat by Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha; New Delhi: Three Essays Collective, 2016, pp 221, Rs 500 (paperback).


Does anyone even remember the communal violence that tore apart Bhagalpur in Bihar in 1989?  According to official estimates, around 250 villages and 50,000 people were affected.  The official death toll was estimated to be over 900 although the unofficial toll was higher.  It was familiar story because it had happened before.  And since then it has happened again.  And will do so in the future.

The partition of India after the British left is now history.  But every day there are partitions taking place in independent India, where people who have coexisted, tolerated difference, even celebrated it, are now being forced into separate territories, their differences highlighted and exacerbated by a dominant politics that has given a new twist to the old divide and rule policy of the British.

Why is it important to record these divisions, these conflicts that recur with such worrying frequency?  Would it not be better to erase these memories and look ahead? 

The writers of this book demonstrate convincingly why incidents of mass violence must be recorded and followed up.  If they are not, then history will only remember the version of the victors while the victims will continue to remain voiceless, unheard, without justice.

In this regard, the book under review serves an important purpose.  It is a record of the communal killings in Bhagalpur in 1989, and in Gujarat 2002. But instead of going over familiar ground, the authors help us understand the legacy of such mass violence.  These recorded memories show us the costs of a broken criminal justice system and the price that victims of mass violence continue to pay for decades.

Although a great deal has been written about the mass violence in Gujarat in 2002, not that much is known about Bhagalpur. Yet, this is a good time to remember it as the issues that triggered the violence are alive today, and are likely to be ratcheted up in the next two years leading up to the next general election in 2019.  In fact, with the Supreme Court having ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to speed up hearings in the two cases on the destruction of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992, the central controversy over the building of the Ram temple on the site of the demolished mosque will remain alive.

Fertiliser of Communalism

Bhagalpur happened before the Babri Masjid was destroyed.  It was one of the many incidents of rioting triggered by the frenzy that the Sangh Parivar built up by mobilising Hindus on the Ram temple issue.  While the embers of the communal killings in Bhagalpur were still glowing, L. K. Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launched a rath yatra to build up support for the temple in September 1990. It culminated in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992 when thousands of kar sevaks converged on the Babri Masjid and carried out their well laid plan to destroy it even as senior BJP leaders, including Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati stood by watching and even cheering.

The commission of inquiry set up by the Bihar government to look at the Bhagalpur riots in 1990 concluded that the Ram temple movement was the trigger that set off the killings and that it was "acting as a fertiliser to give nourishment to the soil of Indian communalism" (p28-29).  The commission also noted the failure of the district administration and the police to control the fraught situation in Bhagalpur.

One of the authors, Warisha Farasat, a trained lawyer, visited Bhagalpur in March 2011, 22 years later, to find that the "wounds are still raw, the hearts charred" (p 31).  Farasat sought out men and women who remembered what happened, who had witnessed the killings, who had attempted to seek justice through the legal system, and who were left only with bitter memories. As in other similar situations after a communal massacre, some of the victims decided to go back to their own villages while others moved on, fearful of returning to a place where even trusted neighbours had turned on them.

The exercise of looking at Bhagalpur and Gujarat together establishes several common threads. Irrespective of the party in power in the state or the centre, the system followed a similar pattern. At the time of the Bhagalpur killings, there was a Congress government at the centre headed by Rajiv Gandhi and a Congress government in Bihar headed by Satyendra Narayan Sinha.  In Gujarat in 2002, when the communal violence occurred, the BJP was in power in the state with Narendra Modi as Chief Minister and a National Democratic Alliance government headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee was at the centre.  In both instances, the party in the state and the centre were the same.

Yet, whether it was a Congress government or a BJP government, the state machinery was equally irresponsive. In both Bhagalpur and Gujarat, the cases filed after the riots by the victims mostly failed and were delayed for so long as to lose any meaning. In both places, victims had similar experiences in the course of seeking justice. For instance, they had a hard time getting FIRs recorded by an unsympathetic police.  Even if they succeeded, they would find later that the information in them was either wrong or incomplete. There were several instances of omnibus FIRs that clubbed the complaints of several victims together even if individually, these men and women had identified their killers by name, as they were people known to them.

Indifferent Prosecution

Many cases were closed because an indifferent prosecution did not put forward a convincing argument while the accused had private lawyers with the ability to browbeat and intimidate the witnesses.  Even where cases were reopened, through the intervention of civil society groups as in Gujarat, or by a different state government as in the Bihar under Nitish Kumar, many of the original witnesses had either turned hostile and were unwilling to testify, or had died, thereby weakening the cases. 

In both Bhagalpur and Gujarat, the story of inadequate compensation for loss of life and property is virtually identical.  In many cases, the information that should have been in the FIRs was simply not there because the police had not recorded it.  There were no surveys to assess damage apart from loss of life, and no one informed the victims of the processes they needed to undertake to access the compensation.  As a result, only a small percentage of the affected actually received the compensation to which they were legally entitled even if these amounts were far from sufficient and did not compensate for the real losses that they had incurred.

The book records the Gujarat government's shocking decision to differentiate between the victims of the Godhra train fire, all Hindus, and of the subsequent killings, all Muslims.  While the families of the former were given Rs 2 lakh, the families of the killings that followed Godhra were given only Rs 1 lakh.  Only after an uproar and civil society intervention did the government concede that both should receive equal amounts, fixed at Rs 1.5 lakh.

In Bhagalpur, where civil society presence was minimal and only one human rights group, the People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) sent a team to study and record the incidents of sexual violence, the fate of the victims was even worse.  In moving testimonies recorded by Farasat, we hear the hopelessness of people who have lost everything -- members of their family, their homes, the tools of their trade -- and given practically nothing by way of compensation. 

In the chapter titled, "The Unhealed Wounds of Bhagalpur", Farasat relates the case of Ali Ahmad of Shahpur Tamouni.  Both his parents were killed by a Hindu mob.  Seven months later, he received a cheque of Rs 3,500 as compensation. "That was the value the state put on two human being killed", writes Farasat (p 89).  Nothing was given to him for the 20 cows and bulls, the agricultural machinery and other valuable and household items that they had lost.

When the Bihar government under Nitish Kumar reopened some of the Bhagalpur cases in 2006, people did receive higher compensation.  But many missed out on this as they did not have the requisite paper work, nor did they know what they should do to avail of the higher amount.  The state too did not help as much as it could have. For instance, even though the government's policy acknowledges that an FIR is not the only proof of murder, and that other evidence must also be taken into account, in compensation cases for loss of life, only the FIR is accepted.  This is despite knowing that in communal riots, police simply do not register FIRs.

The strength of this book is that it does not depend only on secondary information.  It is a follow up to an earlier study by the Centre for Equity Studies based on legal documents, several obtained through Right to Information (RTI) applications.  They looked at Nellie, 1983; Delhi, 1984; Bhagalpur, 1989 and Gujarat, 2002.  This information was assembled in the book "On Their Watch: Mass Violence and State Apathy in India" (Chopra, Jha, 2014). The book under review goes further by including the testimonies of the victims of Bhagalpur and Gujarat recorded by the authors. 

Role of Judiciary

An important point that Prita Jha makes in her section on Gujarat is the role of the judiciary.  Not all judges were hostile, as victims told the writers.  In fact, many felt that the only people sympathetic and willing to listen to their story during the court hearings were the judges as the police was usually hostile, the prosecutors unhelpful and the defence aggressive. 

Jha mentions the remarkable judgment delivered on 29 August 2012 by Jyotsna Patnaik in the Naroda Patiya case in which 97 Muslims were killed in one day.  Patnaik convicted 32 people, including Maya Kodnani, a minister in Modi's government, and Babu Bajrangi of the Bajrang Dal. In her historic judgment, Patnaik calls 28 February 2002, the beginning of the Gujarat violence, as "the day of a cyclone of violence, one of the black chapters in the history of democratic India when violation of human rights and Constitutional rights was publicly done by the assaulters on the victims" (p 167).

In the course of the trial, Patnaik was aware of the problems victims faced in registering their cases with the state machinery and intervened often to ensure that victims would be able to speak instead of being bullied by the defence.  In doing this she was implementing the spirit of the 2004 Supreme Court directive in the Best Bakery case relating to the killing of 14 Muslims. Both the trial court in Vadodara and the Gujarat High Court had absolved all those accused, as the main witness had turned hostile. After going through the proceedings of the courts in Gujarat, the apex court ordered a retrial in a fast track court in Maharashtra headed by Justice Abhay Mahadeo Thipsay, who recognised that the investigation into the case had been defective.  He convicted nine of the accused.   

In its 2004 judgment, the apex court criticised the Gujarat High Court judge who heard the case and also the investigation and prosecution of the case by the state machinery. Justice Arijit Prasayat's observations on the role of a judge in a criminal trial are as pertinent today as they were when the judgment was delivered.  He said,

"If a criminal court is to be an effective instrument in dispensing justice, the presiding judge must cease to be a spectator and a mere recording machine by becoming a participant in the trial evincing intelligence, active interest and elicit all relevant material necessary for reaching the correct conclusion, to find out the truth and administer justice with fairness and impartiality both to the parties and to the community it serves. Courts administering criminal justice cannot turn a blind eye to vexatious or oppressive conduct that has occurred in relation to proceedings" (p 165).

There is a great deal of thoughtful material in this slim book and given the times we live in, what it contains becomes all the more relevant.  Apart from the way in which complicit state authorities have permitted these incidents of mass violence to rage on, the criminal justice system and an unsympathetic state machinery revisits violence on the people who have already suffered it.  This has to be fixed.

Reference:

Chopra, Surabhi and Prita Jha, 2014; On Their Watch: Mass Violence and State Apathy in India, New Delhi: Three Essays Collective.




Sunday, April 02, 2017

Sahayak sting: The Army has a few questions to answer – but so does the media

Published in Scroll.in

Should the media discuss the question of ethics and sting operations when a journalist has been slapped with a draconian law like the Official Secrets Act? Or will such a discussion undermine the position of a journalist who was trying to unearth a story?

In my view, these are not mutually exclusive choices. So even as the Army’s response in the case involving the expose of the sahayak system is unwarranted, I believe some introspection by the media on the means used to expose certain stories should also be discussed.

On March 28, the Nashik police filed a First Information Report against Poonam Agarwal, associate editor, investigations, of The Quint, a news website, based on a complaint it received from the Army. This was in response to Agarwal’s story of February 24, exposing the sahayak or orderly system that continues to operate in the Army despite the recommendation of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that it be scrapped.

Under this system, soldiers are assigned to senior Army officers and are expected to assist them. Such assistance, however, has been extended to getting these men to do all kinds of personal and even menial jobs.

 

The investigation


Agarwal says she got the idea for the story when Lance Nayak Yagya Pratap Singh posted a video on his Facebook page on January 13 complaining about the sahayak system. Agarwal established contacts that led her to the Deolali cantonment of the Indian Army in Maharashtra’s Nashik district.

Using a hidden camera, she recorded the testimonies of some of these sahayaks. Her report and video were published on February 24. Three days later, she sent the link to the Army with an email asking questions about the sahayak system and whether the Army intended to end it as recommended by the parliamentary committee.

The Army public relations officer, Aman Anand, responded to each of her questions and explained that the sahayak system was “an instrument of team building”. He also wrote that any “ill treatment” of a subordinate was an offence under the Army Act.

This exchange took place a few days before the body of Lance Naik Roy Mathew, one of the men Agarwal had interviewed, was found hanging in an abandoned shed in the cantonment. It was suspected he had committed suicide although his family has alleged foul play.

Since then, there have been several developments leading up to the FIR against Agarwal, but not against the senior editors of the website that employs her who would have cleared her story.

 

Inconsistencies by Army


One of the major inconsistencies in statements by the Army, and the complainant, on the basis of which the FIR was lodged, was whether the identities of the men interviewed were exposed in the video. Agarwal has stated that their identity had been adequately masked. The Ministry of Defence, in a press release dated March 3, reiterates this and states:

“The identities of the Army personnel involved in the clipping was hidden, and thereby not known to the Army. Hence, there is no question of any inquiry that could have been ordered against the deceased.”

Yet, Lance Naik Naresh Kumar Amitchand Jatav, who filed the police complaint about Agarwal on March 27, and acknowledges that he is a sahayak, says that he was summoned by senior officers on February 25, a day after the video was published on The Quint’s website.

He says he saw the video on February 24 and that his face was blurred in it. Therefore, if the Army did not know the identities of the men in the video, why was Jatav summoned? Was Roy Mathew also similarly summoned?

Jatav says the officers admonished him but let him go. But in the course of the questioning, they got him to reveal who facilitated Agarwal’s entry into the campus. According to the complaint, she came with a Kargil war veteran, Deep Chand, who introduced her to the soldiers as his relative.

The details of this entire episode appear here and here.

The video that ostensibly led to all this was taken off The Quint’s website following Roy’s suicide, and this writer has not seen it.

 

A few questions


While this case will continue to unravel, it is already evident that there are many unanswered questions. But given the iron wall built around the armed forces, and the ultra-nationalist hype that dominates the public discourse in India today, any questions about the Army and its conduct will be predictably be dubbed as “anti-national”. We might never know the full truth.

Still, there are a couple of questions that the Army needs to answer.
First, why has the Army reacted in this way by using the Official Secrets Act, one of the most draconian laws, against a journalist? After all, the sahayak system is not a state secret. It is already under scrutiny.

Second, how did the officers in Deolali know which men had spoken to Agarwal if, on its own admission, the Army accepts that their identities were blurred in the video? Did it question other sahayaks, apart from Jatav who filed the complaint? How would we know whether these men were threatened with a court martial or some other punishment?

 

Media ethics


At the same time, there are some other questions that need to be addressed by the media in general and The Quint in particular.

Some in the media have justified the use of hidden cameras and recorders saying that this was the only way to expose the powerful. Some of the instances cited to support the claim are Operation West End, the sting operation carried out by Tehelka magazine in 2001, exposing defence deals and the nexus with politicians, as well as journalist-turned-politician Ashish Khetan’s sting on former Gujarat minister Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi that established their role in the 2002 Gujarat massacre.

However, this type of journalism, if it can even be called that, remains highly debatable, as there have been many major media exposes where such methods have not been used.
What is relevant in this instance is that given the powerlessness of the sahayaks within the Indian Army, is it right to use the sting tactic on them, even if their faces are blurred? In a tightly-monitored space like an Army cantonment, it is unlikely that men who have identified themselves as sahayaks could have escaped being identified.

Also, while Lance Nayak Yagya Pratap Singh, who complained about the sahayak system on his Facebook page, did so knowing the risks, Roy Mathew and the other soldiers who appeared in The Quint’s video, had no idea that they were being filmed. Was getting the story more important than ensuring that they were not penalised?

Even though the Army is powerful, and virtually impossible to penetrate, should the most vulnerable in its ranks be the subjects of a sting operation in order to expose the system? Surely the media must be ultra cautious about using such techniques, whatever the justification, if it means exposing the weak to risks they cannot handle, and that too without their consent.

So even as journalists, especially the Network of Women in Media with which this writer is associated, have rallied behind Agarwal and protested the use of the Official Secrets Act against her, the media needs to question the use of hidden cameras against the powerless.