Saturday, April 14, 2018

Remember Kathua

I am posting this on my blog.  It says what I feel with all that's going on.  And I wrote it although it is an editorial in the Economic and Political Weekly and hence unsigned.  Read it following on from my earlier piece. This is the link:
Stop and ask, can depravity, brutality and injustice be justified by religion and politics?

The brutal murder and serial rape of an eight-year-old Bakherwal-Gujjar girl living in village near Kathua, 72 km from Jammu, is horrific enough in all its detail.  But what has emerged ever since the police investigation led to the arrest of the alleged perpetrators of the crime is even worse, for it has exposed the fault lines in our society.  How have we reached a point where the rape and murder of a child is used to fuel communal hatred and promote politically sanctioned impunity for criminals?

The gruesome details about what happened to this child between 10 January when she disappeared to 17 January when her brutalised young body was found is terrifying because of what it represents in terms of human depravity. That a child could be abducted, drugged, confined in a temple, repeatedly beaten and raped, and then murdered and thrown out is horrific enough.  What makes it worse is that the perpetrators included members of the local police. One of them even joined the search party with her parents after they complained that she was missing, all the time aware of where she was and what was being done to her.

Once the state government finally instituted an investigation after the child's body was found, and the suspects, including the policemen, apprehended, politics took over. Instead of condemning the rape and murder, and demanding justice, politicians and even lawyers have taken up for the accused, cast doubts on the ability and the impartiality of the Jammu and Kashmir police, and demanded that the central government hand the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). This open display of support for rape suspects is unprecedented with the Hindu Ekta Manch, supported by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), marching with the national flag demanding justice for the accused and lawyers physically trying to prevent the police from filing the charge sheet.  In all this, the fact that a young child was raped, tortured and murdered seemed almost beside the point.

There is, of course, a larger political context behind these developments. For the BJP, in a coalition with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Hindu-majority Jammu has given it a firm foothold in the state. The communally polarised politics between Jammu and the Kashmir valley has remained undiminished despite this uneasy coalition.  Thus, it is not surprising that the rape of a child, who happened to be Muslim, and the arrest of suspects, who are all Hindu, has laid the ground for playing the communal card. That this can be played out on the savaged body of a young child surely represents a new low even in Indian politics.

Yet, even as we express outrage about the turn of events around this rape and murder, we need to consider the larger context. First, that child sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence are rampant in this country.  Statistics do not tell half the story. Women and girls are attacked, tortured, sexually assaulted in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, on the street, in the fields, in the forests -- anywhere.  Stronger laws have made little difference.  In 2012, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) was enacted. In 2013, the rape laws were tightened and the death sentence introduced.  Despite this, the incidence of rapes and child abuse has not decreased. There is a systemic problem.  Laws can be effective only if the systems that implement them work.

Second, we must also remember that this incident took place in Jammu.  In the same state, in the Kashmir valley, there have been countless rapes of women and girls that almost never trigger outrage in the rest of India.  Apart from the usual problems of justice delivery, women there also have to contend with the provisions of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that gives immunity to men in uniform from such crimes.

Third, when politics injects the poison of hate between communities, it is women who are targeted to teach the other side a lesson.  We have seen this played out in many locations since Partition and it has not stopped. But the new twist today is the confidence with which the purveyors of hate operate knowing that their supporters have the power to protect them.  How else can you explain the brazen nature of the support for the accused in the murder of this child?

So, apart from demanding that justice be done in this case, it is essential that there is a demand for the systemic changes that are needed to ensure that other girls do not undergo the same fate. The first port of call for victims is the police station.  Here they find no sympathy.  Even if the case is noted, and investigated, there is still little hope that there will be justice.  Lackadaisical investigation and indifferent lawyers virtually ensure that these cases will fail. Our justice delivery system is broken and needs to be fixed.

We thought 16 December 2012 when a young woman was gang-raped in India's capital city, was some kind of turning point in the conversation about crimes against women.  This little girl's death should surely be another such occasion, one that makes every Indian stop and ask about the direction in which our society is headed.  Is it going to be one where depravity, brutality, injustice are accepted and justified in the name of religion and politics? Or will basic humanity prevail to inform us that all lives are precious and that criminality knows no religion.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Who will save these women and children?

This was probably one of the most gut-wrenching traumatic days I have spent in a long while.  It was worse for the women who spoke, but those of us who listened came out with our equanimity shattered.

I have been writing about women, about violence, about neglect, about inequality, about injustice, for more than three decades.  Yet, on April 10, 2018, as I sat with a panel of four other women listening to woman after woman testifying, I saw how little has changed.

Laws have been changed.  But mindsets have not.  New laws have come in.  But their non-implementation is identical to what happened in the past.  In other words, nothing has changed.

Majlis and several other non-governmental organisations working with women on issues concerning sexual violence, divorce, maintenance, child abuse etc came together to conduct a jan sunvai.  The idea was to give women a chance to tell their stories, and then to strategise what could be done to address their individual problems, as well as the larger systemic issues that their individual experiences exposed.

Around 40 of the 72 who had recorded their testimonies with the different groups came in person to speak.  These were women cutting across community -- Hindu, Muslim and Christian.  Amongst them were middle class white-collar workers as well as poor uneducated women doing odd jobs or working as domestics.  What was common was that all of them were victims of domestic violence in one form or the other and all of them were seeking some form of justice from the criminal justice system.  And had failed in doing so.

This is why they turned to an NGO, in the hope that this would give them some respite.  But Majlis and the others narrated their frustration too at the many roadblocks on the way to getting justice for these women, many of them systemic, embedded in a corrupt and uncaring system where the word of a poor person, and particularly a poor woman, simply does not count.

By the end of the three hours, my ears were ringing and my hands were hurting from taking down notes.  Each testimony was searing.  But some I will never forget.

She is small built and spoke quietly, without any drama.  She told us that her husband is an alcoholic, that he would beat her even when she was pregnant.  As a result, she had an abortion. She described the house where she lived.  There were two rooms.  She, her husband and the child slept in one and her father-in-law in the other.  One night she found her father-in-law in bed next to her, with his hand on her chest, even though her husband was asleep on the other side.  When she shouted and woke up the latter, he refused to believe her.

She also narrated how she had weaned her daughter off the breast and got her used to drinking milk from a feeding bottle.  One night, she found her husband had the two-year-old on his chest, and then saw him slowly lower her so that she could suck on his penis. She shouted at him but he continued. Finally, she went to the police and filed a case under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) in which it is mandatory for the police to register the offence.  Despite this, the husband has not been arrested. She has also filed a case against her father-in-law for sexual harassment.  But again, nothing has happened because the husband has contacts with the police through a local politician.

Then there is a dowry case.  Who says the problem has disappeared?  After she got married, this woman's husband demanded a motorcycle.  When her parents could not pay for it, she was beaten and left for days without food.  He would tell her that the only reason he married her was for sex.  She was beaten so badly, that she had to be admitted to hospital and all this within three years of her marriage.  Her father had sold his shop to pay for the marriage and had nothing more to give.  Finally, she was compelled to move out and go to her parents. Yet when this woman went to the police to register a case against the husband, the police wanted proof of how much money had been spent on the marriage and how much had been given to the bridegroom.  She says she stood for 15 days in the police chowky and they still did not take down her complaint.  "Sometimes we went there are 12 midnight and stayed till three in the morning, waiting", she said.  Instead of helping or taking down her complaint, the police keep sending her to another police station.

Even if the police do not help, under provisions of the Domestic Violence Act, the designated Protection Officer (PO) should come to the aid of such women.  Yet several women spoke of how the PO told her that they never take note of a complaint the first time it comes and tell women to go back and try and work it out.  Even if they went with a social worker, the latter was shouted at and insulted.

One of the most heart-rending cases was that of a four-year-girl who had been raped.  When the family found her, and realised what had happened, they went to the police to register a complaint and took the child to the hospital.  It took them hours to get the medical examination done. The child was traumatised and exhausted.  A few weeks later, she was raped again.  This time, she refused to let the doctors touch her when they wanted to examine her.  The mother was asked to sign a document saying that "the victim" would not cooperate.  The little girl's sister, who narrated all this, appeared equally traumatised. How can she believe that there is justice in the world if a little baby is put through this kind of treatment after being assaulted?

There were many more testimonies but there is a thread that runs through all of them.

First, the nature of the horrific violence they experience in their homes is virtually indescribable.  One woman spoke of how her husband went out and bought leather belts to beat her and that her children had to apply balm to the welts on her back. Yet despite the relentless nature of such violence, and even after filing cases, many of these women have nowhere to go and choose to live in the matrimonial home because of their children.  In one case, the abusive husband would enter the house, sit near the door, douse himself with kerosene and threaten to set himself and the entire family on fire if they complained.

Second, in almost every instance, when they did go an try and register a complaint with the police, most often because there was a social worker around to help, they were routinely told to go back and settle the matter as it was a domestic issue.  At most, the police would take down an NC (non-cognisable) complaint whereby the abusive husband cannot be detained or arrested. 

Third, even those who succeeded in filing cases, and sought help through the free legal aid service that was available, got no relief.  The lawyers assigned to their cases were indifferent, inefficient and often demanded money.  Most of them could not afford private lawyers and their exorbitant fees.

Fourth, under the Domestic Violence Act, Protection Officers (PO) are assigned to handle such cases.  In Mumbai, these POs, although still not in adequate numbers, have been given extensive training and sensitisation courses.  Yet, they continue to be rude and indifferent to the complainants, sending them home and telling them that they never register a first complaint.  The women say that both the police and the POs seem to only care if a woman is either near death, or dead.

Fifth, the experience in hospitals is as bad as at police stations.  There is a long delay before a medical examination is held, the victims are made to run around from one place to another and sometimes even turned away.  The entire process, including having to narrate details of the attack to the doctor, with others listening, makes the victim revisit the trauma several times over. And although there are funds now for one-stop crisis centres, these exist mostly on paper.

I might add here that the media has failed to bring out sufficiently these systemic problems in the justice delivery system in cases of violence against women.  Some select cases are reported in depth, but the widespread prevalence of this problem doesn't impinge on people because these issues are simply not reported. 

For instance, there is hardly any reporting on dowry harassment or dowry deaths.  If you skim through the print media, you might well believe that the giving and taking of dowry, and the torture of women in connection with dowry, has lessened.  But clearly, this is not the case.  In the 1980s, the anti-dowry campaign by women's groups, after many young women were killed within days and months of being married, brought to light the horrific nature of this crime.  It remains condemnable even today, and needs to be monitored, reported and stopped.

The only detailed media report on this public hearing appeared in The Hindu this morning.  It is a subject that is waiting for follow up by sensitive journalists who care about the lives of women, and who expect it a worthwhile cause to expose injustice. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Remember Kunan Poshpora

I was reminded today that February 23 is being marked as Kashmir Women's Resistance Day to mark the atrocities suffered by Kashmiri women, including those who live in Kunan Poshpora.

Here's something I wrote in The Hindu on September 8, 2002 after visiting Kunan Poshpora:

Kashmir's `steel magnolias'

The women of Kunan Poshpora ... three generations

"YOU can never understand our pain," shouted a young woman, head swathed in a black scarf. This outburst came at the end of an hour talking to students, men and women, at the SSM engineering college in Srinagar about the current situation in Kashmir. The young men dominated the discussion; the women, dressed in pastels, sat quietly in the first rows. 

Until this woman from the back burst forth.

What she said cannot be disputed. No matter how much you read about Kashmir, how many of its people you meet elsewhere, you can never fully understand their pain, frustration, tension, grief, loss and the longing for peace and normalcy. Yet, once there, you sense it in every conversation, in homes, in the market place and even in places unconnected with the troubles.

At the Ziayarat Makhdoom Sahib Shrine, which nestles below the imposing Mughal Fort on Srinagar's Hari Parbat, hundreds of women arrive at an early hour on Mondays and Thursdays to meditate, pray, ask for a mannat. You don't need to speak to anyone. Just sit there, listen to the haunting tones of the intonations on the loudspeaker, watch the pigeons in the courtyard take flight when someone passes by, and look at the faces. They speak of the grief, of the loss that must be a part of every life. There are old and young women, some are crying, some are talking to themselves, some just sit quietly. What are their stories?

Far away, in the village of Kunan Poshpora near Kupwara, separated by a range of high mountains from Pakistan, you sense the same sorrow, although no one speaks of it voluntarily. In this medium-sized picturesque village, with about 300 families, the women seem to live in idyllic conditions. Unlike villages in India, there is no harijan pada or social exclusion. There are poor families, but all of them have roofs over their heads and some land. The village grows paddy, corn, vegetables, walnuts, almonds, some fruit and has a river running past it. There is plenty of water and low voltage electricity. Firewood is available as long as there are women around to collect it. And all the children go to school.

But the sadness in the eyes of the women of Kunan Poshpora is not the consequence of the eternal burden that women must carry, of fetching, carrying and caring, tasks that remain unalterable regardless of location. Their eyes tell a different story; even today they can barely hide the terror and shame of a day in 1991, when Indian Army personnel raped over 30 women from this village. These women were young then. Today, 11 years later, some of them remain unmarried, others have come back to their maternal homes, and all of them are scarred for life.

Young Posha was just five when the incident took place. Today she is an anganwadi worker earning Rs. 800 a month (paid infrequently and hardly ever the entire amount). Yet, she is proud that she earns and says she is luckier than the other girls in the village.
"People come here and promise all kinds of things," she says. "One lady came and said we should get all the women raped in 1991 married off. But nothing happened."

Young women like her continue to carry the memory of what happened to their mothers. "Girls here face a lot of problems," says Posha. "We have to tolerate the taunts of people from other villages when they hear that we are from Kunan. Also whenever anyone from the army comes to the village, all the young girls have to hide in their houses. There are no men around most of the year. Most of them go off to Punjab or Kolkata to sell shawls. They only return in March to help in the fields."

Yet, despite this, the grit and determination in these women stand out. They do not just stand about and wail. The "victims" of the 1991 incident merge with the other women; no one tries to pull them out to tell their story. All the women are getting on with their lives. The younger ones are learning to do the typical Kashmiri embroidery on phirans so that they can find some means to earn. Shamima, just 15 and not yet a matriculate, is teaching pre-school children how to read and write. She is determined to get through although she admits that girls have a harder time than boys do, "because they have to do so much housework".

There is a whole generation of young women like Posha and Shamima in Kashmir who have known nothing else than "guns pointed at them from both sides". What will so-called "normal" life mean for them given their extreme vulnerability? Being a village close to the border, the army keeps an eye on them. So do the militants. And the villagers, particularly the women, have to walk with care.

What you sense in all of them is a hunger to learn and to earn, to be economically independent. After a week in the valley, I came away with a feeling of hope after talking to women like Posha and Shamima. And Dilafroze, a woman in Srinagar who could have lived a comfortable, cushioned life. Instead, after her experience of being targetted by militants, she decided to do whatever she could to help other women. So she arrived in the Kunan Poshpora earlier this year on a mission that failed. Far from being defeated by it, she returned a few weeks later with ideas and funds to help the women help themselves. Single-handedly, she has set up a pre-school for girls, and embroidery classes for young women.

You will see plenty of Kashmir ki kalis in the valley. But most of them are not "wilting lilies", women who throw up their hands in the face of the constant violence and terror around them. Young or old, these women are a Kashmiri version of "steel magnolias".

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The real moral duty of journalists: Not to dance to the tune of the powerful

Appeared first on

An NIA statement about an arrested Kashmir photographer should prompt journalists to consider how far their profession has drifted from basic standards. 

Perhaps the Indian media deserves a lecture from the National Investigation Agency about our moral duty. Given how far much of mainstream media has drifted from any concept of morality, leave alone accuracy or simple journalistic principles, we should not be surprised that India’s anti-terror agency has taken upon itself to pronounce judgment on who is a real journalist.

The context is the plainly unjustified arrest of 23-year-old Kashmiri photojournalist Kamran Yusuf on September 5. His family was not informed as he was taken away. More than four months later, on January 18, he was charged with sedition, criminal conspiracy and attempting to wage war against India.

On February 15, in documents presented before the Additional Sessions Court in New Delhi, the National Investigation Agency attempted to make out a case that Yusuf is not a real journalist but is actually a stone-pelter, and therefore, an anti-national.

The words used by the central agency to describe who is a journalist are fascinating. They illustrate how the state would like all of us journalists to be quiet, obedient note-takers who cover important functions, like the inauguration of hospitals, and ignore anything deemed anti-national, such as young Kashmiris venting their anger and frustration at the state of affairs in their land.

Making out an argument on why it believes Yusuf is not a real journalist, here is what the National Investigation Agency said in its court document:
  “Had he been a real journalist/stringer by profession, he may had (sic) performed one of the moral duty of a journalist which is to cover activity and happening (good or bad) in his jurisdiction. He had never covered any developmental activity of any Government Department/Agency, any inauguration of Hospital, School Building, Road, Bridge, statement of any political party in power or any other social/developmental activity by the state Government or Govt. of India.”  
According to the anti-terror agency, a real journalist’s moral duty is to cover developmental activity of governmental departments, such as inaugurations of hospitals, schools, roads and bridges, and statements of political parties in power. Clearly, reporting statements by the Opposition does not count as real journalism.

The National Investigation Agency also states that Yusuf was not a professional as he had not taken any professional training in photography or videography. Taken together, this non-professional was only covering anti-national activists in order to “create mass awareness amongst the local people about such activities so that they can be motivated to support such activities”.

By these parameters laid out by the agency, thousands of journalists would be suspect. For one, most journalists do not cover the kind of development activity the agency has described. This task is usually given to the junior-most person in a media organisation, and the event merits publication or air space only if a very important person is involved.

Most professional journalists think of developmental activity as something entirely different. It means burning shoe-leather, travelling to places that are ostensibly being developed by the government or some private agency, and then reporting on the true state of affairs. Such stories cannot be done on the basis of press handouts, or briefings.

Real journalism produces stories that most often run counter to the dominant discourse broadcast by government-friendly or government-owned media. This is developmental journalism in its true sense, something that is a somewhat endangered form of journalism in today’s media scene in India. If journalists were really doing this, they would be fulfilling their moral duty, or at least their professional duty.

Real journalists

Then let us look at the charge that Yusuf had not attended a professional training institute. By that measure too, many journalists in India would stand disqualified, particularly people of my generation and an earlier one. When I began journalism, there were no journalism courses. We learned on the job, as did our seniors. Yet, that did not make us less professional. We were real journalists and continue to be so.

Of course, it is no point dissecting every word of the National Investigation Agency as its purpose in arresting Yusuf is entirely different: to send out a message to Kashmiri journalists who have, at considerable risk to their own lives, informed India and the world about the state of resistance and suppression in their state. These are journalists who have tried to understand and convey the anger of young Kashmiris who are prepared to die or be maimed for life to oppose what in their view is an unjust regime. These journalists are doing their moral duty. They are real journalists, not stenographers.

The journalism drift

Yet, the agency’s statement should also prompt Indian journalists to look at the state of journalism in India today, and how far it has drifted from professional and basic journalistic standards.

Take the case of the sacking of Angshukanta Chakraborty, who was until recently the political editor of the DailyO website, part of the India Today group. She was summarily dismissed last week for a tweet she released on her personal Twitter handle in which she criticised journalists who spread fake news, without identifying anyone. She did not need to. Everyone knows that some of the main proponents of fake news in mainstream media work within the same media organisation from which she was dismissed.

Take, for instance, Abhijit Majumder, editor of the Mail Today tabloid. He was called out in January for tweeting fake news about a Hindu man being killed during the communal flare-up in Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh. The man was alive. Yet, by then Majumder’s tweet had travelled far. His bosses at the India Today group did not haul him up for spreading such dangerous and unsubstantiated information that exacerbated the communally-charged atmosphere in Kasganj.

On the contrary, far from being reprimanded, Majumder was recently recommended for an important position in public broadcaster Prasar Bharati. In a rare show of autonomy, the Prasar Bharati board on February 15 rejected the proposal that had come directly from the Union government.

Pliant media

This and several other pointers reiterate what is already well-known: that the state approves of those journalists who openly endorse the government’s or the ruling party’s line, and will reward them. Those who choose to do real journalism – to be sceptical, to ask difficult questions, to dig out the truth, to refuse to take things at face value, do so at their own risk.

What is pitiful is that unlike the actions taken against people like Yusuf, or several other journalists in places like Chhattisgarh, the media has quietly fallen in line without a hint of resistance. It bows to the government’s agenda, gives space and time to the issues that suit the powerful, and routinely overlooks what is going on in most parts of this country.

Worse still, this pliant media has contributed to the coarsening of public discourse on many issues, including politics. The space for a reasoned debate on any subject has virtually disappeared. Forcing every issue into antagonistic binaries only benefits those who want our society to be polarised. It is the anti-thesis of the role the media is supposed to play in a democracy – of a space that informs and engenders real debate and that speaks truth to power.

Bob Moser, former editor of Texas Observer, wrote in a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review: “For reporters, it’s surely as close to a Golden Rule as journalism affords: Fear nobody and nothing in your quest to unearth hard truths and afflict the powerful”.

Journalism in India is certainly not afflicting the powerful. It is dancing to their tune.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Is a woman in India not a citizen with the same rights as others?

It is extraordinary that in a case that has grabbed headlines and been followed breathlessly by the media, the obvious gender angle has been almost completely overlooked.

I refer to the case of Hadiya, earlier Akhila, from Kerala who chose to convert to Islam.  She is not a child.  As a 25-year-old, she ought to know her mind.  Yet everyone, from her parents to the courts has treated her as if she is a person without the ability to think for herself.  Her "crime", as far as her family is concerned, is that she converted to Islam.  An RSS functionary from Kerala was heard ranting on television that they (by which he means, I presume, "the Nation") would not accept anyone converting to Islam.

And then to cap it all, Hadiya also chose to marry a Muslim man of her choice.  The result was a case in the Kerala High Court that pronounced that the marriage had no validity.  Extraordinary as that is, she was then sent back to her parents and confined, separated from her husband, and not permitted to interact with the world outside.  So an adult woman, who makes up her mind about what she wants, is essentially being told that she has no brains, no capacity to think, to make a choice and therefore needs others to decide her future.  If she had been a man, would the courts have reacted in similar fashion?  I very much doubt it.

The story has not yet ended.  Hadiya has been "sent" by the Supreme Court, back to the college in Salem, Tamil Nadu where she was doing a course in homeopathy. When asked by the judges what she wanted, Hadiya was unequivocal: "freedom", she said.  She only got partial freedom -- to complete her studies.  The question of whether her marriage is legal has yet to be decided.  And meantime the bogey of Love Jihad persists, with the National Investigation Agency tasked by the court to investigate cases of inter-religious marriages where women have converted to Islam. This is based on the suspicion that radical Muslims are "luring" Hindu girls into joining their ranks.  This calls for a separate article but it is extraordinary that the media too continues to perpetuate this through headlines that take the concept as a given without any proof.

For the moment, I will stop here even as I seethe at the lack of outrage about the manner in which this brave young woman is being treated.

Let me leave you with two good articles that have appeared on the subject.  An excellent article by Anjali Mody in where she writes:

"That Hadiya was in court at all is because she is a woman. That her marriage was annulled without the court even asking her if she had consented to it is because she is a woman. That the court placed her, an adult, in the custody of her father, is because she is a woman. That she was declared to be indoctrinated, or of unsound mind, is because she is a woman. That a Supreme Court judge, after hearing her speak her mind, felt the need to tell her that a woman is “an individual with her own mind”, is because she is a woman. This is how women were treated for millennia, and in India it seems even modern laws are no protection."

And another by the lawyer Gautam Bhatia in Hindustan Times, who clarifies our rights, that of women and men, guaranteed to us by the Constitution:

The Constitution, thus, is founded on a simple idea: to every adult citizen, it proclaims: “The State is not your keeper. Your family is not your keeper. You are free to make your choices, and yes – free also to make your mistakes.” It was as Ambedkar said: “The Constitution... has adopted the individual as its unit.” And the Supreme Court recognised this some months ago in its famous privacy judgment, upholding the “autonomy of the individual and the right of every person to make essential choices which affect the course of life.”

We are living in strange times if women have to fight to establish that they are citizens with equal rights.  

Stranger still when you see the blonde queen from the US, Ivanka Trump, holding forth about women's rights and men and media fawning over her, while the reality remains that women's rights are very far from being human rights in India. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The smog that India and Pakistan share

It is a crisis that requires our politicians to become statesmen, to think of the future generations rather than the next elections, to rise above petty point scoring to sitting down and working out feasible solutions. 

Writing in the Indian Express on 14 November, Nirupama Subramaniam writes about the fog that India and Pakistan share as it spreads its deadly footprint across the border, and envelopes towns, cities and the countryside on both sides.  She concludes: "Had Saadat Hasan Manto been alive, there would have been a short story by now on how India and Pakistan had agreed to exchange smog as a confidence-building measure."

But this is no laughing matter.  Pakistan and India share not just history but also geography. We share mountains and rivers, we grow the same crops, and the air we breathe is also the same.

Today, as dirty polluted air chokes people living in Lahore and in Amritsar and Delhi, we should remember that there are no border check posts that this filth has to cross in either direction. 

It is a crisis that requires our politicians to become statesmen, to think of the future generations rather than the next elections, to rise above petty point scoring to sitting down and working out feasible solutions.  It also means India and Pakistan must talk about polluted air and water even if strategic issues have to be set aside for the moment.  At this rate, there will be no Indians and Pakistanis left to do the talking if we continue to allow our cities and the countryside to become gas chambers.

It is easy to forget, but there was a time when India and Pakistan did talk to each other on these matters.  In 1989, there was an India-Pakistan Conference on the Environment in Lahore which I was lucky to attend.  It was initiated by the Pakistan section of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), headed then by a remarkable woman called Aban Marker Kabraji, a Parsi with family in Mumbai and Karachi.  On the Indian side, one of the main movers was the late Anil Agarwal, who headed the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi.

In their joint Preface to the report that emerged from the conference titled, "Beyond Shifting Sands: The Environment in India and Pakistan" (IUCN and CSE 1994), Kabraji and Agarwal wrote: "The 'environment' that we met to talk about...remains as ever, beseiged.  Under attack by those same forces of greed, ignorance and mismanagement as before. There is a crisis of governance in both our societies, and the ideals and values implied in the sustainable development paradigm appear urgently and relevantly as the only way forward. "

What they wrote then could not be more relevant today.

Both our societies face a crisis of governance when it comes to the environment.  Every crisis, such as the current smog, is dealt with in a piecemeal fashion, as if all one wants is one clear day without smog.  Yet it is the cumulative actions and mismanagement of resources spanning over decades that have led to the current crisis. 

Undoing the wrongs of past policies must necessarily mean acknowledging what and why things went wrong.  No one is willing to sit down and address that, or to heed those who are pointing out the long-term correctives that can still be put in place.  Instead every authority -- whether a state government, or a court -- is busy undercutting and criticising measures suggested by the other without any constructive alternative. 

The problem we face is not SMOG -- it is the fog in our minds, and our inability to rise above the clutter to see the clear light of day.

Monday, August 28, 2017

A Week to Remember

My reflections on a week on three important judgments.

Barely six days after India celebrated its 70th Independence Day, two Supreme Court ruling and one by a lower court made for an unforgettable week. 

On August 22, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court gave its much-awaited ruling in what is known as the Triple Talaq case.  Five Muslim women who were divorced through the practice of talaq-e-biddat, or triple talaq whereby a Muslim man can say the word 'talaq' three times in a row to divorce his wife, and several women's organisation including the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) appealed to the court to declare the practice unconstitutional because it was discriminatory towards women.  The case became high profile because unlike other cases of Muslim women who had appealed against this practice, this was the first time that several individuals as well as organisations representing Muslim women came together to challenge this 1400-year-old tradition.  It is followed by Sunnis belonging to the Hanafi sect who constitute the majority of Muslims in India.  In at least 20 other Muslim countries, such a form of divorce is not recognised.

In three separate judgments that partly overlapped and were partly contradictory, this one particular form of divorce followed by Muslims was discussed. The judges had to decide whether it was unconstitutional, in that it went against fundamental rights.  Two judges, Justice R. F. Nariman and Justice U. U. Lalit held that it was.  They stated: "It is clear that this form of talaq is manifestly arbitrary (emphasis mine) in the sense that the marital tie can be broken capriciously and whimsically by a Muslim man without any attempt at reconciliation so as to save it.  This form of talaq must therefore be held to be violative of the fundamental right contained under Article 14 of the Constitution of India."

A third judge, Justice Kurian Joseph, also struck down the practice as illegal but not unconstitutional.  He found it illegal on theological grounds and stated:
"What is held bad in the Holy Quran cannot be good in Shariah and, in that sense, what is bad in theology is bad in law as well."

These two judgments together are the majority judgment.  Hence, the practice of triple talaq is now illegal in India.

The minority judgment by Chief Justice J. S. Khehar and Justice S. Abdul Nazeer, took a very different line when they argued that personal law was essentially part of religion.  And as Article 25 guaranteed freedom of religion, the courts could not decide on the content of these laws.  If there was to be any change, it had to be brought in by Parliament.  They recommended that triple talaq be banned for six months and within that period, the government should enact a law that would ban it.

As one can imagine, this judgment is likely to be dissected and discussed for a long time to come as it has many layers within the arguments set out in the judgement.

I am giving below links to some of the articles that I think are particularly useful in understanding different dimensions of this ruling and how it is likely to play out in the future.

The Indian Express was probably the best amongst newspapers in the articles it carried on the judgment within a day of the ruling.  That itself was something of a feat given a tight news cycle.

Also always useful to understand complex judgments is the blog maintained by a lawyer like Gautam Bhatia, who is quicker off the mark than most of the media in setting out the important issues to flag in such judgments.  He did just that in the Triple Talaq judgment.

Columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued that this was only a small step forward and not "historic" as the government and others were claiming it to be and that the court had failed to hold constitutional values over religious belief and practice.

Also on the same day, Indian Express carried a piece by Faizan Mustafa, the Chancellor of NALSAR law university in Hyderabad that made another set of important observations.

Also useful was the editorial that day in Indian Express that commended the plurality in the judgment saying that it left space for reform. The editorial in Economic & Political Weekly made a similar point.

While Muslim women individually, and their organisations, welcomed the verdict even though the practice had been held unconstitutional as they had demanded by only two of the five judges and there was no mention in any of the judgments about gender discrimination, the Muslim clergy were quick off the mark in condemning the ruling and seeing in it interference in Muslim personal law.

Jyoti Punwani, who has kept close track of developments within the Muslim community for decades, dating back to 1985 when a 62-year-old divorcee from Bhopal, Shah Bano, won her case in the Supreme Court for maintenance, reported on the response of the conservative elements within the Muslim community.

Barely had we got our heads around the Triple Talaq judgment when the Supreme Court delivered what is a "historic" judgment in every sense of the word, that relating to privacy.  A nine-judge bench was unanimous that privacy is a fundamental right guaranteed to every citizen of India. 

Again, as in the Triple Talaq judgment, there are several critiques of the judgment but what is clear is that the clarity with which this assertion has been made will not have far-reaching repercussions on many laws and judgments.  Of immediate interest is the case concerning the use of Aadhar by the government beyond the stated purpose of ensuring that people get access to the welfare schemes to which they are entitled.  The ruling on that has yet to come.

As I write this, there are still many comments and analyses in the newspapers and digital platforms on this judgment.  Once again, Indian Express stood out for the range of comment it provided within a day of the ruling.

In his article on the judgment, Alok Prasanna Kumar writes:

"The right to privacy is not just a common law right, not just a legal right, not just a fundamental right under the Constitution. It is a natural right inherent in every individual. This, in sum, is the law laid down by a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India in K. Puttaswamy v Union of India. This finding of the Supreme Court has not come out of the blue. It is the inevitable conclusion of steady developments in the law in the last three decades where courts across the country, not just the apex court, have said that the right to privacy, to choose, to be free of unwanted intrusion and to determine what happens to their information, is a fundamental right under the Constitution. The judgment has consolidated the development of the law into a grand judgment of six concurring opinions that definitively lays down these principles."

Kumar also maintains a blog, which is useful during such weeks when you are trying to get your head around these judgments.  Have a look as he covers this extraordinary week.

Veteran lawyer and former attorney general of India, Soli J. Sorabjee provided another useful summary of the judgment in the Indian Express.  He wrote: "To my mind, the most outstanding feature of the judgment is its recognition of the right to dissent and the necessity to practice tolerance."

Read also Gautam Bhatia on the privacy judgment.  He was one of four young lawyers who argued the case.  Hence his analysis is particularly useful.

The Indian Express carried a full page on August 28 with a virtual A to Z on privacy that is also worth a read. Faizan Mustafa, who had earlier commented on the triple talaq judgment, also wrote about the privacy judgment in Indian Express.

I will not go into details on this judgment, as it requires more study and discussion.  But the links given above have been very useful.

And barely had we recovered from these important judgments when a court in Panchkula on the outskirts of Chandigarh announced on Friday, August 25 that the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda, Ram Rahim Singh had been guilty of rape.  This was in response to a case filed in 2002. That's how long some cases take in India.  Calling the process interminable would be a gross understatement.

In the build up to the judgment, thousands of his followers streamed into Panchkula and Chandigarh and the administration just sat on its hands.  They parked themselves on the roads, on pavements, on open grounds, virtually anywhere in the city.  Yet, the Haryana government looked on and allowed people with iron roads and material to make petrol bombs to assemble outside the courtroom.  These followers freely spoke to journalists and told them how they would not accept a guilty verdict because to them the man was equivalent to god.  Yet, the Chief Minister of Haryana, M. L. Khattar, who was seen publicly with Ram Rahim on August 15, did not find reason to evacuate the areas around the courthouse.

When the guilty verdict was pronounced all hell broke loose.  Rahim's devotees went on the rampage.  They attacked journalists, overturned and burnt OB vans, burnt cars and buses parked on the roads, attacked shops, went into residential areas and began entering houses.  All this while, the law enforcement machinery appeared paralysed.

When finally it did move, after the media played out the mayhem on the roads, the police shot into the crowd killing an estimated 38 people and injuring many more. 

As I write this, Ram Rahim has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.  The sentence was pronounced in a court in Rohtak where no one has been allowed to assemble.  But in neighbouring Sirsa there is already trouble.

So how have we come to this pass where self-proclaimed godmen, included those charged with rape, are protected by the state and their poor followers, most of them lower class and caste people who derive some comfort from this attachment, are shot down by the same state. 

Everyone watched with amazement when this convicted rapist was driven in a convoy to a helicopter that evacuated him to Rohtak jail in the company of his adopted daughter with the unlikely name of Honeypreet Insan.

This again is a subject that we will have to discuss more.  What is it that attracts thousands and lakhs of people to such men, and sometimes women? Why do politicians of all hues flock to them and use them to get votes? What does all this say about our democracy and our system?

The articles are still appearing on this but here are two that I found were questioning in the right way.  It is much too easy to come to instant and sweeping conclusions in this age of social media.  But we need to look more closely and think more deeply about why ordinary people of all kinds get attracted to different cults.

In The Hindu, Shiv Visvanathan analyses why people are attracted to such cults.  He suggests that the entire phenomenon has to be viewed outside the upper-middle class lens.  He writes:

"Imagine doing a human indicators study of these ashrams, comparing them with enclaves where the government has conducted its welfare projects. If these groups are evaluated on the ideas of community, solidarity and well-being, they will probably receive a better rating. So, is the secular the only idiom of justice or are there other vernaculars? Do we dismiss the faith of these people on their guru as another ridiculous Ganesh phenomenon?"

The argument that Visvanathan and several others have made is that such places provide people with more than just spiritual satisfaction; there is large component of meeting other needs such as for medical attention, education etc, things that the Indian state ought to provide.

In Indian Express, M. Rajivlochan, Professor of Contemporary History at Panjab University, Chandigarh argues that no one should be surprised at the manner in which the authority of the Indian state was challenged in the hours and days following the ruling on Ram Rahim.  He argues: "Since the state hardly works normally, it is impossible to make it function on special occasions, like when a 15-year-old rape case is finally reaching a verdict. Fifteen years? It took that long to decide upon a rape charge? This itself is an indicator of a dysfunctional state system marked by a dysfunctional system of justice."

I will stop this post here.  There is bound to be a larger fallout to this last story as well as to the two judgments delivered last week.  Together they tell us a story that is as complex as is this country of ours.