Sunday, April 20, 2014

Silence from both sides

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 20, 2014

Increasing needs... Photo: M.A. Sriram
The Hindu Increasing needs... Photo: M.A. Sriram

In the quiet recesses of this country, where the din of electioneering might not have shattered the silence, there is a deep foreboding for the future. That apprehension has less to do with the precise outcome of the elections. It is not premised on the fear of one party or another coming to power for the next five years.

It has to do with the precipitous decline in the understanding in all political parties of the real concerns of the millions of people in this country whose voices are rarely heard above the shouting.
From all accounts, this has been an issue-less election, focused almost entirely on personalities. Even if one accepts this as inevitable in an age dominated by media that believes that only events and personalities matter and not processes, we must worry that practically none of those pleading with the electorate for votes think that issues that matter to ordinary people must be addressed. We hear about ‘development’, or rather ‘the Gujarat model of development’. We hear promises of ‘good governance’. But rarely are the components of development, whatever the model, or good governance broken down into their parts.

After all, development, as is well accepted now, is not just economic growth. It also encompasses environmental sustainability. It should lead to a bettering of social indicators such as health and literacy. It ought to envisage equitable distribution of natural resources. Yet, have we heard even a whisper of these concerns?

Everyone knows that election manifestos are just a ritual, not to be taken seriously. If evidence of that were needed, just consider a party like the Bharatiya Janata Party, projected as the frontrunner in these elections, releasing its manifesto a day after the first phase of voting had concluded. Clearly, no party expects voters to take these manifestos seriously or decide who they will vote for on the basis of the promises these manifestos contain.

All manifestos make promises on issues like the environment. The Congress has made a commitment to prioritise the setting up of a National Environment Appraisal Monitoring Authority (NEAMA). That sounds impressive until you realise that the Supreme Court had already mandated that this be done.

The BJP promises that it will extend irrigation coverage by pushing ahead with the plan to inter-link rivers. It presumes that people will not know that this pipedream of a plan has been severely criticised on environmental grounds. Apart from enormous costs, the diversion of the natural flow of rivers will lead to many more problems like water-logging than the apparent benefits.
Regardless of what these parties state in their manifestos, the actions of the Congress-led government in the last decade, and the BJP earlier, as well as the performance of these parties in the states they govern suggests that they have an almost identical approach towards environmental issues. Essentially, environmental concerns are seen as obstacles to growth that must be overcome.

This is more than apparent when you see the mockery of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), the so-called mandatory ‘public hearings’ before a project is cleared, and the ease with which studies and reports of ‘expert’ committees are set aside. Narendra Modi has already stated that he will reopen the mines in Goa that were closed on the orders of the Supreme Court. And in the last days of the incumbent government at the Centre, a number of projects that posed serious environmental concerns were hastily cleared.

Saving our rivers and forests, cleaning our air, stopping pollution of our water sources, stopping mining in ecologically fragile areas — these are issues that affect the health as well as the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in this country. But there is not a hint from either of these parties that they even understand why people feel apprehensive about the future.

On health too, the approach is unlikely to differ much. It is true that the central government has initiated the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) that has extended health benefits to many more people. There is also a health insurance scheme for the poor. But increasingly, healthcare is getting privatised. While the rich are able to access private super-speciality health care, the poor are left with the choice of either using the cheaper but inefficient public health system or paying exorbitant fees to private practitioners. It is unlikely that a change of government will bring an end to this thrust towards the privatisation of health care.

Education is no better. It is true that with the help of various programmes, more children are now going to school and literacy levels across the country have improved. But what of the quality of education? As successive surveys have shown, the quality of education in government schools remains abysmal with children entering middle school without the ability to even read what they were taught at the primary school level. Such children stand no chance of competing with those privileged to receive better quality schooling in private schools. It is a disadvantage that will stay with them for life.

Indirectly, such neglect of government schools is resulting in privatisation. Today, even poor families, particularly in cities, are being compelled to borrow and save in order to send their children to private schools. The Right to Education makes only a very small dent in the demand for affordable and better quality education for all. Yet, no party articulates what it will do to improve the quality of education so that there is a level playing field for those already disadvantaged due to poverty.

Ultimately, our politicians do not address these concerns because the electorate does not demand that they do. In many countries, politicians have won or lost an election on the basis of such demands. So far, no politician in India has lost for failing to address an environmental concern, or for not addressing concerns like education or health. Instead, the old formulas of caste and community persist and survive.

In this election we are getting a sense that people are not necessarily looking for a different political party but for politics with a difference. If this trend survives and grows, then we might well see a time when politicians asking for votes will have to listen to the voices of the many that are now not heard nor heeded.

(To read the original, click here.)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

No time for parties

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 13, 2014

Dayamani Barla. Photo: Manob Chowdhury
  • The Hindu Dayamani Barla. Photo: Manob Chowdhury
  • Medha Patkar Photo: PTI
    Medha Patkar Photo: PTI
  • Soni Sori. Photo: Suvojit Bagchi
    The Hindu Soni Sori. Photo: Suvojit Bagchi

The exhilarating process of elections has begun. There is genuine and understandable apprehension about the future. But there is also hope. Because in this election, an element has been injected that has attracted more interest in it than in several pervious general elections.

That new element is the kind of individual that has now entered electoral politics. There have been instances in the past when non-politicians have either joined mainstream political parties or stood as independents and fought elections. But this time, thanks largely to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the range of independent-minded non-political individuals in the fray is much larger.

I personally find the presence of three women to be particularly significant. There are many women who are contesting. And some, like those from the film fraternity, are drawing media attention. Nagma, Gul Panag, Kirron Kher, Smriti Irani and, of course, Rakhi Sawant, are a magnet for television cameras.

The three women I want to write about are also celebrities but in a completely different way. Their life and the struggles they have undertaken over decades have been appreciated. They have received awards. They have been extensively interviewed and written about.

Yet, their entry into the electoral race as AAP candidates marks a significant change. Whether they win or lose is not so important as the fact that people have a chance to see and hear women like them who have fought for change from outside the system.

The women I refer to are Soni Sori from Chhattisgarh, Dayamani Barla from Jharkhand and Medha Patkar from Maharashtra (although her work has been all over India).

The least known of the three is Soni Sori, a 39-year-old schoolteacher from Jabeli village in Dantewada, Bastar, in the state of Chhattisgarh. Soni shot into limelight when she was picked up by the police in 2011 allegedly for being a Maoist, was brutally tortured because she refused to sign a false confession that would have implicated others, and finally released on permanent bail by the Supreme Court earlier this year. Her account of what she went through during her time in jail, which included horrific sexual assault, is chilling. Four of the six cases against her have been dismissed. She still has two pending.

Elections cost money. Soni has only a few hundred rupees in her bank account, Rs.424 to be exact. But support for her from outside has gathered pace ever since her candidature was announced and the funds are coming in. Still, the total is nowhere near the Rs.70 lakhs per candidate permitted by the Election Commission. And given the size of her constituency of Bastar, she will certainly need that money to reach out to her constituents, even if just to inform them about her name, her party and the party symbol.

Another tribal woman, much better known, is the former journalist and human rights activist Dayamani Barla, also known as the Iron Lady of Jharkhand. Dayamani is the candidate from Khunti in Jharkhand and the “Iron Lady” tag comes from her battle against steel giant ArcelorMittal. She successfully scuttled plans by the company to build what would have been the world’s largest steel plant. Together with a captive power station, the plant would have displaced people living in 40 villages. Whether the people saved from eviction will actually vote for her in these elections remains to be seen. What is significant is that she has taken the step of moving from agitation from the outside to attempting to influence policy from the inside.

The third woman is Medha Patkar, who needs little introduction. Her decades-long fight against the Narmada dam might not have prevented the dam from being built. What it did do was bring into the conversation about development the concept of sustainability from the perspective of the environment and people.

Medha is the AAP candidate from Mumbai Northeast, a constituency with a mix of urban poor and middle class. Everyone ought to know of her given her presence in the public realm since the 1980s. Yet, a week before she filed her nomination papers, many people living in the slum settlement of Gautam Nagar, which falls within her constituency, had not heard of her or of AAP. Only those who watch television news recognised her, or at least knew of the party and its symbol.

Like the other two, Medha faces an uphill battle. She does not have the funds required to carpet-bomb her constituency with fliers, posters and banners. She does not have enough volunteers who can reach out to all the constituents. And her own time and strength is limited, given that she is also in great demand in other parts of India.

Yet, as I said earlier, it really does not matter whether these three women win or lose. Their presence is a relevant reminder that politics in a democracy is not the sole property of a handful of families and their progeny; it does not belong to crooks and criminals; or to those with a casteist or communal agenda. The very fact that people like Soni, Dayamani and Medha believe they should enter the election arena, represents a sliver of hope for the future of Indian democracy. 

Tuesday, April 01, 2014


The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 30, 2014

No empowerment here. Photo: Paul Noronha
The Hindu No empowerment here. Photo: Paul Noronha
In the last couple of days, I have been at the receiving end of some down-to-earth and commonsensical opinions about life, values and politics from such taxi drivers.

The first, a young taxi driver from Vasai, which is on the outskirts of Mumbai, informed me that he was actually a “Hindu Brahmin”, but loved Jesus Christ. Without much prompting, he then proceeded to predict that Narendra Modi would win the elections. Would he vote for Modi, I asked. Not necessarily, he said. Then whom would he want to vote for? Arvind Kejriwal, he said. Why, I asked. Because, he said, he had watched Kejriwal’s TV interviews. He was convinced that this was a good and honest man. More than that, he was educated, qualified, had a good job and yet gave it all up to do something about corruption. These were the kind of people India needed in politics, he asserted. Above all, he said, this was the only man who had the courage to take on the richest and most powerful man in India.

The other was a Tamilian who had lived in Mumbai for 35 years but continued to read a popular Tamil newspaper (that now arrives in the morning because it is printed in Pune). Despite the many years in Mumbai, he had a clear view of Tamil politics. There was no doubt in his mind that “Amma” would sweep the polls in Tamil Nadu. Why, I asked. Because she has looked after the poor, he said. And she does not discriminate between Hindu, Muslim, Dalit and Christian.

More important, he continued, she has addressed the problem of families not wanting to give birth to a girl child. He then proceeded to explain to me in detail the government schemes that encourage families to look after girls. He also gave graphic details of how families kill infant girls. He was clear that this was an evil practice and must be ended. And he gave credit to “Amma” for putting in place monetary incentives to help raise the value of girls.

So, corruption and schemes that help the poor and stop female infanticide were the issues these two men talked about. Corruption features in election talk. And every party ruling a state, or the centre, speaks of its pro-poor schemes. But what about India’s steadily disappearing women?

Results of the Annual Health Survey conducted by the office of the Census of India — reportedly the largest sample survey in the world — have recently been released. The survey covered 20.94 million people and 4.32 million households in 284 districts in nine states.

While the survey has a lot of interesting information on several aspects of health, including infant and maternal mortality rates, its findings on the sex ratio — at birth, in the 0-4 age group and overall — are perhaps the most significant.

According to the survey, in 84 of the 284 districts there was a fall in the sex ratio at birth. In some districts like Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand, the sex ratio at birth was as low as 767 girls to every 1,000 boys. That is a worrying sign as it suggests that the law to prevent sex-selection has not succeeded in creating enough of deterrents against the practice of aborting female foetuses.

Equally worrying is the decline in the sex ratio in the 0-4 age group. This was visible in 127 districts and was significant in 46 districts. Rajasthan recorded the lowest levels in this category, while Chhattisgarh recorded the highest. The reason for the decline in this age group is clearly neglect of girls after they are born. Otherwise, there is no reason that more girls should die than boys. Overall, the sex ratio was worse in urban areas than rural, suggesting again that the availability of sex selection technology and higher incomes contributed to this decline. In a state like Jharkhand, for instance, while the sex ratio at birth was 961 in rural areas, it was as low as 903 in urban areas.

In this election season, where rhetoric is king, the reality of India’s disappearing women — who everyone seems to want to “empower” — is not even a blip on the horizon. Yet, it has been evident for decades that all this talk about “women’s empowerment” has little meaning if we are unable to deal with the despicable attitudes and practices that guarantee that girls will not be born, and if they are, that they will not live to become young women.

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Wooing women

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 16, 2014

Photo: V. Raju
The Hindu Photo: V. Raju

The election season is upon us. The weather wanes are already predicting which way the wind will blow two months from now. I am neither brave, nor foolhardy enough to hazard a guess.

It is also the season for promises and pronouncements. Some predictable, some surprising and many that strain credulity. So on March 8, International Women’s Day, I received an e-mail in my mailbox with the subject line: ‘Give India the Leadership She deserves: Happy Women’s Day’.

The e-mail urged me to contribute to the ‘cause of India’ and ‘for a better tomorrow’. It then went on to state that the Prime Ministerial aspirant of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi, believed that ‘women should not just be homemakers but national builders’. It averred that the ‘cause of India’ would be better served if women contributed to the ‘Modi for PM fund’ — an investment in what, I presume, ‘Team BJP’ that sent out this mail believes will be ‘a better tomorrow’.
The e-mail, which I was tempted to mark as spam and delete, is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it is surprising that a party that must surely not lack for funds feels the need to send out unsolicited e-mails to women to get funds.

Secondly, the level of confusion in what appears to be a straightforward message aimed at potential women voters. What exactly does Modi mean when he says he does not want women to be ‘just homemakers’? Being a homemaker is neither ‘just’ nor easy. In any case, no woman is ‘just’ a homemaker. She is that because she has no choice. But in addition she is many other things — a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, an aunt, a grandmother, a politician, a journalist, a pilot, a seamstress, a scientist, a lawyer, a businesswoman, a farmer, a construction labourer, a domestic help — the list is endless.

Furthermore, how do you become a ‘nation builder’? What are the qualifications for this job? Does a woman who is ‘just’ a homemaker need some additional skills to be a ‘nation builder’? Is it possible to be ‘just’ a homemaker and also a ‘nation builder’? And then how do you ‘build’ a nation? Clearly, the advisors to the BJP’s prime ministerial aspirant need to inspect their formulations more closely.
As an aside, one might add, that a recent national time-use survey by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that Indian men spent the least time in doing unpaid housework. While men in Slovenia topped the list averaging 114 minutes a day, Indian men did a paltry 19 minutes a day of unpaid housework. Given this, do Indian women really have a choice when it comes to unpaid housework?

Then let us look at the other half of that statement. What do the BJP and Modi have in mind when they speak of ‘nation building’ in the same breath as women’s empowerment? Do they have any idea about the kind of nation women want to build? Will women want a nation divided along the lines of religion or caste? Or would they prefer one where you can live in peace with your neighbour, where you and your children feel secure, where you know you will not be excluded, attacked, persecuted on grounds of religion or political conviction?

What kind of ‘nation’ does a poor Muslim woman living in Ahmedabad’s Juhapura want? Or the women living in constant fear of actions by the Indian army or sundry militant groups in a state like Manipur? Or the women who live in slums in so many of our cities where they have to confront the daily reality of eviction and homelessness? Or the women living in forests who see the natural resources on which their lives depend being bartered away to big business? Is there anything in common between the kind of ‘nation’ these women want to build and the notion of ‘nation’ to which the senders of the above e-mail subscribe?

I suppose over the next months, we must resign ourselves to hearing more of such grand sweeping statements thrown at us by politicians or political parties who appear to be convinced that all women are simple and gullible.

Fortunately, elections in India have a way of coming up with unexpected twists and turns. The Indian voter has now become something of a veteran at the political game. She now knows the value of her vote. She knows she can either listen, or pretend to listen; she can volunteer an opinion or hold her silence; she can accept every free lunch offered to her, or reject all; and that in the end she is free to make a choice that is her own.

(To read the original, click here.)

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Illusions of privacy

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 2, 2014

Photo: K.R. Deepak
Photo: K.R. Deepak
Between the routine vandalism displayed by Hindu fanatical groups like the Bajrang Dal on Valentine’s Day every year and the continuing horror stories emerging from the khap panchayats in Haryana, lies a vast arena of romance, rebellion and repression that is rarely reported. It is the story of many thousands of young women and young men, caught in a time of transition where the old makes no sense and the new is uncharted and frightening.
You get a glimpse of these hidden stories when you read small newspaper items such as the one on February 13 in a New Delhi newspaper. It reported that a 16-year-old girl in Jamia Nagar tried to commit suicide from the roof of her school after being scolded by her teacher and principal. The longer story was that the girl was found to be carrying a “love letter” from her “boyfriend”. For this, her teacher and the school principal reprimanded her. It is not known whether she survived the attempted suicide.
In another story that I heard personally, a 17-year-old girl, daughter of a domestic help, ran away with a man almost 10 years older than her. She came back home three days later only after she persuaded her family not to file charges against the man, who she insisted she loved. She also insisted that he had not persuaded her to leave their home and that she was the one who took the initiative. The mother is understandably angry and confused, not knowing how this could have happened and what she should do next.
These two are not the teenage girls you see in advertisements for mobile phones who seem no different from girls anywhere in the world. They come from conservative families, and yet the world outside their homes appears to assure them that they are “free” to make choices. Technology, by way of mobile phones or the Internet, enhances this sense of choice and freedom.
In fact, mobile phones have effectively created the illusion of privacy. “Secret” conversations are possible. Text messages can be exchanged and erased before they are “discovered”. There is no need for the kind of “love letter” that was found on the unfortunate young girl in Jamia Nagar.
Yet, when these young women pursue their romantic dreams, facilitated by this private world they have created, they end up hitting their heads against the dead weight of tradition and conservatism — traditions that still believe that women have no right to choose who they will marry; traditions that deny the place for romance; traditions that determine that, above all, women must maintain the izzat, the respect, of the clan, the community, the family.
And so millions of our young girls today are being educated, are learning to use new technology, have their heads filled with ideas of romance from television serials and films, but are told none of this is allowed.
How should parents and teachers be dealing with this silent emergency that is all around us? Clearly, scolding, reprimanding, locking up our girls is neither effective nor desired. How do you open up the conversation about love, romance and sex when none of these things is ever discussed in most Indian families? Or for that matter in schools.
The only way is to talk about these issues, to let in the air and the light. It is not possible to shut young people off from influences that are all around us, particularly in urban areas. We are only just beginning to assess the extent to which something like the spread of mobile phones has impacted social relations, including inside families. These processes cannot be reversed.
Yet, if you look at the political discourse in our country, you can see that there is a real effort to do precisely that. Moral policing is only one side of it. By projecting constantly, the lack of safety for women in the public space, for instance, this discourse — in which the media too has a role — is directly and indirectly justifying steps to push women into the four walls of the home, into “safety”. It is upholding the view that young women must be watched and their movements monitored. It is virtually stipulating that the only “choice” for these young women, who have been exposed to ideas and influences vastly different from the world in which their mothers lived, is to quietly accept what the family or the community decides for them.
If an increasing number of young women are literally straining at the leash, it is hardly surprising. It would be tragic if their genuine desire for free choice is repressed and controlled to the point that they will be forced to break out, and sometimes pay a terrible price for such rebellion.
(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Quality matters

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 16, 2014

Photo: M.Karunakaran
The HinduPhoto: M.Karunakaran

Thanks to the unfortunate and virtually relentless reports of sexual violence against women in different parts of the country, the question of women’s safety has found a place in pre-election debates. Every sexist or gender-insensitive remark made by a politician is noted and the individual is asked to explain what he meant. Several politicians, including those from the Aam Aadmi Party, have been literally hauled over the coals for such remarks, and rightly so. Mainstream parties have been alerted and are being more careful.
Similarly, the issue of bodies like Haryana’s khap panchayats that have arrogated to themselves the right to pass judgment on all manner of things including who can and cannot get married, has come up for discussion. Political parties are now being asked to state explicitly their stand on such bodies. Is it really possible to “engage” with them? Can they, should they, be banned? How do we disempower them and ensure that the rule of law, as laid down in the Constitution, prevails?
Yet a much more pervasive and in some way more insidious way of keeping women back does not get addressed. No one asks the questions. And political parties feel no need to say anything about this. It is taken for granted that everyone is concerned, much like the issue of poverty; apparently so concerned that attention to the issue slips under the radar.
This is the issue of education, not just access to education, but more importantly the quality of education that our children are getting.
Every year since 2005, the Pratham Education Foundation has been conducting a survey. Covering 550 rural districts, the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) reminds us yet again of the grim statistics of learning outcomes, based on assessing the ability of students to read, write and do simple arithmetic.
Between 2005 and 2013, although the enrolment of children in school has jumped from 93 per cent to 97 per cent, the quality of education has actually declined. For instance, a higher percentage of students today in Std. V are unable to read a textbook assigned to Std. II as compared to the figures from 2005. Similarly, more students of Std. VIII were unable to do simple division this time round compared to students of the same class in 2005.
How and why has this happened?
Internationally too India figures in the list of countries where there has been a perceptible drop in the quality of education. The 11th EFA (Education For All) Global Monitoring Report brought out recently by Unesco reveals that one third of all primary school age children do not learn the basics even if they go to school. The report points out that the goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015 is a long way off if the quality of what is taught is so poor.
Apart from those who are in schools, and yet learning very little, over half of all children out of school are girls. The problem with low quality education is that it compels parents, who believe education could pull them out of poverty, to send their children to private schools. They automatically equate such schools with a better quality of education. In India, the percentage of children enrolled in private schools is steadily increasing, even in the poorer states.
If forced to make a choice between a boy and a girl, most poor parents would spend their limited income on giving the boy a better quality education. Thus the long-term impact of poor quality education will inevitably lead to a larger percentage of girls either being pulled out of school, or being left to attend schools where they learn little.
All this then feeds into the vicious cycles of girls being given no option but to work in low-end jobs, get married young and become mothers before their time.
So, when so many questions are being asked of all political parties in this election, this is one that should be asked. Apart from access to education, what are they going to do about quality? For all its talk about education, and the allocation of additional resources, according to ASER, the quality of education has actually declined in the last decade. That does not speak very well of the current government.
Education is a vast and important subject, one that cannot be addressed adequately in this space. But the ASER report, with its devastating data, is a reminder of an issue that has to be brought to the forefront of debate during this season of talking heads. What could be worse than raising the hopes of a child and her parents with the promise of education and all it carries with it, only to have it dashed to the ground because the child comes out having learnt nothing that can carry her through to a better life?
(To read the original, click here.)

Monday, February 03, 2014

Give them a fighting chance

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 2, 2014

Real laws, not vigilante justice. File Photo: V.V.Krishnan
The HinduReal laws, not vigilante justice. File Photo: V.V.Krishnan

In the midst of the raging debate over the Aam Aadmi Party’s actions, inaction and reaction to various events, some fundamentals are getting buried. Some of these fundamentals have a direct relationship to questions of women’s safety and their status. The intense media scrutiny to which AAP has been subjected, and which some would argue is unfair and excessive, has raised many issues that go beyond the future of this one fledgling party.
What is the basic premise that is now being challenged? AAP has campaigned for putting power in the hands of “people”. It holds that the governance deficit can be overcome if people are empowered, if decision-making moves from government offices to neighbourhoods; it believes that everyone has a right to know and to have a say in how government should run and what it should do.
Within days of AAP coming to power in Delhi, we have witnessed some aspects of this being played out. And those used to a different way of business being conducted are legitimately uncomfortable. This is disorder, not order, they say. Who are “the people”? How can you let them decide?
The most unsavoury aspect of this, of course, was what happened in Khirkee village in Delhi, where “the people” chased and caught women who they had decided, without any evidence, were soliciting and therefore had to be punished for introducing “immorality” into their neighbourhood. When power to the people is interpreted as this kind of vigilante justice, not just women but any minority group will feel unsafe.
There are hundreds of incidents across India of precisely this type of lawlessness that cannot be justified in the name of democracy or “empowering” the “people”. Surely, when members of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) decide that “the people” are fed up of north Indians in Mumbai, and go about demonstrating this by roughing up poor street vendors, it is not an action that anyone who believes in democracy can support. Unfortunately, so far, AAP has failed to put in place processes that check vigilantism while still allowing a space for ordinary people to express their grievances and seek redress.
What would be the fallout of this for women? As Pratiksha Baxi points out in a prescient piece on the website Kafila (, AAP’s formulation of constantly referring to the women in Delhi as “ma, behen, beti” actually lays the grounds for problems for all women because whether they mean it or not, they are saying that as long as you are “their” women you are safe, but if you are not, you are on your own. That is not the kind of assurance of safety that any woman wants. In fact, even the safety guaranteed if you “belong” to a group of men is hardly something to celebrate given the insecurities that women face when surrounded by the men tasked to “protect” them.
The deeper problem, however, with the debates in the media and elsewhere is the issue of whether “the people” can really participate in governance. By focusing on an individual, in this case the actions of Delhi’s Law Minister Somnath Bharti, and one incident, the vigilantism displayed in Khirkee, there is a real danger that the baby will be thrown out with the bath water, so to speak.
For there is no question that AAP’s attempt at being inclusive, by involving ordinary people in decision-making and in politics, is something that is essential to strengthen democracy.
The panchayati raj system, with all its shortcomings, has been an outstanding example of how this has worked, and women have been the principal beneficiaries of this. Of course, there are problems. Of course, it is not perfect. But it is far better than top down governance. It is far better than excluding women from institutions of governance. It is far better than concentrating powers in the hands of a few.
Even in the panchayati raj system, it has not been easy to ensure that the powerless, including poor women, actually have their say. In too many instances, the powerful find proxies who run the show.
There is also the very real danger, especially in our cities, of “people’s power” being distorted into moral policing, or into attacks against “outsiders”, whoever they are.
What AAP is attempting, much like earlier such experiments as part of the Jayaprakash Narayan-led movement did in the 1970s, is complex and not just a convenient slogan. It is something that should not be dismissed lightly or disparaged to the point that even the kernel of good it represents is crushed.
The danger of pulling this sapling up from the roots before it has had a chance to establish itself is that it will lay the grounds for the demand for strong, centralised leadership, one strong individual who will sort everything out. India has gone through that phase once. We do not need it repeated.
(To read the original, click here.)