Monday, August 17, 2015

The road to nowhere

My rant in Mumbai Mirror against the crazy idea of building a coastal road in Mumbai.

If you are one of the lucky seven per cent of Mumbai's citizens, you are in for good times. As a car owner, you are being promised a smooth, scenic ride along the city's gorgeous coastline. But if you are one of the unfortunate 93 per cent of the Mumbai's population, you must continue to live with the existing public transport system with a few incremental crumbs thrown your way.

Put simply, this is what the grand Western Coastal Road plan that the Maharashtra government is pushing ahead with means - Rs 12,000 crore and more to be spent for less than seven per cent of the population. The enormous cost to benefit a few is not the only reason we, as Mumbai's 93 per cent, need to wake up and understand the consequences of this foolhardy plan. It is a plan that runs counter to received wisdom from around the world about what makes cities liveable for all citizens.

The supreme irony of the government's grand project is that the Dutch government has offered to help. In Holland, cars are discouraged; people walk, cycle, use buses and trains. For a country that has learned to live with the sea, a road along its coastline for cars would be inconceivable. Yet, with investment opportunities drying up in Europe, the Dutch have found a reason to encourage this foolishness on other shores.

Forget the Dutch, for a moment. What about us Mumbaikars? Our litany of complaints about the way this city is managed never ends. Yet, we seem to wake up to disasters only when it is too late.

The spirited opposition to the municipal corporation's Mumbai Development Plan 2034 earlier this year ultimately resulted in it being abandoned (although one is not confident that a new version will really be better). The process of information, consultation, and participation by the people of Mumbai proved that it is possible to reverse and even stop the government's plans if enough people decide to intervene. No such process has taken place so far on the coastal road.

Initially, the government gave hardly a month for objections. Many questions remain about the process by which the plan was finalised. For instance, how was the Environmental Impact Assessment done? And how did the Ministry of Environment and Forests give environmental clearance with such alacrity despite the adverse impact the road will have on mangroves and the tidal patterns?

The deadline for objections has been extended to August 27. But even today people living along the coast where the road will be built are not aware that this project is imminent.

If the plan goes through, what will certainly happen is that Mumbai's uniqueness, its undulating coastline, will be destroyed by an eight-lane highway running alongside it, or under it in some instances. The ramps for entry and exit from the tunnels will destroy the rocks that emerge on many parts of this coastline during low tide.

Furthermore, the planners of the project seem to be unaware that Mumbai has changed drastically in the last decade. Hence, inexplicably, the road begins in Nariman Point, an area that is getting depopulated as business has moved north for more than a decade now. It ends in Kandivali even though areas beyond that are crying for better connectivity.

If the government has Rs 12,000 crore to spare, why, we should ask, does it not invest it in public transport - enhancing and improving what exists, and adding to it? Why not put every effort to speed up the metro rail, improve existing bus systems and the commuter trains that are stressed to almost breaking point?

You don't need to be a planning wizard to realise that cities improve if you invest in whatever benefits the majority of people. Choosing public transport over private cars is a no brainer. But somehow, this kind of common sense has escaped our government. Our only option then, as citizens, is to assert our right to question and object to a road that is going to lead nowhere. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Targeting women

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August16, 2015

The Congress Party, headed as it is by a woman, should have castigated Gurudas Kamat for his sexist comments. Congress President Sonia Gandhi with Kamat in 2013. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras
  • The Hindu
    Congress President Sonia Gandhi with Kamat in 2013. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras
Smriti Irani is not the most popular Minister in the Narendra Modi Cabinet by a long shot. She has had more than her fair share of detractors. But irrespective of my opinion about whether she is fit for the job of Union Human Resource Development Minister, I believe she does not deserve to be the target of misogyny and sexist comments from male politicians.

The latest to join the club of several anti-women politicians from different political parties is Congress leader Gurudas Kamat. At a recent party meeting in Pali, Rajasthan, Kamat was filmed by television cameras saying (in Hindi): “If a chaiwala (tea seller) can become prime minister, then why not a ponchawali (cleaning woman) as education minister?” He was referring to Irani having worked in a fast food joint in Mumbai at one stage in her life. Although it is this remark that triggered some outrage, it is in fact some of the other remarks that Kamat made, mocking Irani about her journey into politics and using innuendo to suggest that there were other considerations that came into play, that were far worse. It is obvious that Kamat could say this and draw sniggers from his largely male audience because his target was a woman. Has such innuendo ever been used against a male politician in public?

Predictably, instead of ticking him off, his party chose to defend him. And as for Kamat, he resorted to that old trick that all politicians use when caught making inappropriate statements: “I have been misquoted”.

Thanks to the media, which records all such statements and recognises instantly the potential for a story, the clip of Kamat’s speech has been widely circulated. The “misquoted” excuse falls flat on its face under these circumstances. Kamat and his ilk should know that.

The Congress Party, headed as it is by a woman, should have castigated Kamat. Any political party that claims it stands for women’s human rights cannot allow its members to get away with such public statements. And that goes for all political parties including the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal (U) (remember Sharad Yadav)? And, of course, the newest kid on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party, which has its fair share of misogynists.

Remarks such as those made by Kamat produce a reaction for a while and are then forgotten. We have come to accept that male politicians of all hues make such comments because this is how they think. If that is a reality, should we just accept it? Is this preferable to a sham political correctness where the right things are said while in fact the attitude is very different?

Indian politicians are, of course, not an exception in this field. In the run-up to the U.S. presidential elections, even as the Republicans and Democrats are knocking each other out in the race for the nomination, we are getting to hear a fair share of intolerant talk from presidential hopefuls. In the recent much-watched debate of Republican candidates for the presidential nomination on Fox News, billionaire Donald Trump was asked how he could expect to run for president of the U.S. when he had been quoted calling women “dogs”, “disgusting animals”, “fat pigs” and “slobs”. Although Trump did not rise to the bait and launch into another bout of anti-woman talk during the debate, he tweeted immediately after the show calling the woman journalist who asked the question a “bimbo”.
Trump knows how to draw attention to himself. But more than his remarks, what was disturbing during the debate was to listen to the cheers from the audience when he declared that it was better to be forthright about his views than to be politically correct. America, he claimed, was losing out because of such political correctness. Given that there is a fairly good chance that one of the candidates for the U.S. presidency is going to be a woman, Hillary Clinton, this time, misogynistic talk is likely to be the flavour of the year.

And what about us in India? Is it worth our while to expose and oppose people like Kamat and others who think they can get away with such comments? I believe it is. For even if shaming these politicians through the media may not necessarily alter their views, opposition to any kind of sexist, racist, communal or casteist talk ensures that the word gets out that such attitudes are unacceptable.

On the other hand, if we laugh off the Kamats and others today (remember that women are constantly advised to have a sense of humour), we will open the floodgates for more such talk in the future. What hope then of changing the dominant attitude that prevails in our society which women confront everywhere — at home, in the office, on the street?

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Hushed voices

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Aug 2, 2015

The Other Half
  • For every case reported, there must be literally scores that are either dismissed as frivolous, or never reported.
    Can a woman who complains about being sexually harassed by her boss actually succeed in getting justice? This is at the heart of the controversy, furiously discussed in the media, after the governing council of The Energy Research Institute (TERI) announced that it had decided on a successor to its current head, R.K. Pachauri.
Pachauri has been embroiled in a sexual harassment case after a 29-year-old researcher at TERI filed a complaint with the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) against him. The ICC upheld her complaint but the matter did not end there. Pachauri managed a stay on its ruling by moving the Industrial Disputes Tribunal and eventually even managed to get permission to resume work at TERI. Despite the serious charges, he was not asked to step down but allowed to take leave. Even today, he continues in his position and will only handover when his replacement takes over.

What lesson can women who are harassed by powerful men draw from this? One, that even if their organisation has the mandatory ICC and they take courage into their hands to file a complaint, a favourable ruling is not enough. While the ruling of the ICC can be questioned and challenged, as has been done by Pachauri, there is a moral dimension that the organisation has to take on board in such instances because the complainant is usually powerless while the accused is powerful. If the status quo continues, it is the complainant who will crumble, not the accused. Unfortunately, the governing council of TERI has sidestepped this by not acknowledging the ICC’s ruling.

Also, although both have access to the law, it is the powerful that are better placed to use, and even manipulate, the law. This is the story of the Indian justice system. We see it played out repeatedly. A depressing illustration of this is in the data released by the National Law University about people on death row in India. The startling statistics tell us the ugly story of how the law functions. Based on interviews with convicts condemned to death, the researchers found that 75 per cent of them belonged to lower and backward castes, were extremely poor, or were from religious minorities. In fact, 94 per cent of those awarded the death penalty for terror related cases were either Dalits or from religious minorities. We also know that the majority of undertrials in our jails fall into similar categories.

Does this mean that only the poor and the marginalised are criminals in our society? Do the rich and the powerful not commit any crimes? What this data tells us is that even if the latter commit crimes, they know how to work the system to their advantage. The others are either unable to do so because they do not have the resources to get able legal help, or are marked because they belong to a particular religious minority and thus are labeled even before being tried.

Apply this to sexual harassment cases. Union Human Resource Development minister Smriti Irani recently stated that between April 2014 and March 2015, 75 sexual harassment cases had been registered in higher educational institutes. Of these 27, including the TERI case, were in Delhi.
These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. For every case reported, there must be literally scores that are either dismissed as frivolous, or never reported. In innumerable instances, women prefer to quit a job rather than taking on the challenge of pursuing the charge of sexual harassment. And they can hardly be blamed given that the process can break a person.

Vrinda Grover, the feisty human rights lawyer, makes an important point about the process of getting justice in such cases when she says, “From investigation to prosecution to trial, the entire system works overtime to subvert justice. At each stage the investigation is compromised. Evidence is not taken on record. Eventually, when the prosecution fails to prove the case due to shoddy and complicit investigation, the loud chorus of false cases begins.”

So the Pachauri case illustrates several crucial issues around sexual harassment. One, it is imperative that both men and women are made aware of what constitutes sexual harassment as laid down in the law. Two, that the system for seeking justice needs to be in place, such as the mandatory ICCs. These must not be token. They must have credibility so that victims of sexual harassment feel confident to approach them or the police.

And finally, when the harasser is a powerful individual, the woman will need support to survive the process of following through on her complaint as the decks are heavily stacked against her. Here the media, including social media, and civil society can play a role in building up moral pressure on organisations.

Yet, all of this will not be enough if we do not change the way our criminal justice system works. Only if that happens can women who are sexually harassed hope that there is a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Address gender divide

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 19, 2015

Technology is not gender-neutral. Photo: N. Bhaskaran
The Hindu
Technology is not gender-neutral. Photo: N. Bhaskaran

When I first came to Mumbai in my teens, the object of envy of all my aunt’s neighbours was a black instrument: a telephone. Only those with “influence” got one. And the fact of the telephone suggested that my aunt was a person with “influence”.

In the middle-class neighbourhood where she lived, ownership of the telephone made her immensely popular. Because that black instrument was not just hers; it was communal property. When it rang, there was a buzz of excitement. From her balcony, people would be summoned to receive calls. Others would knock on the door when they wanted to make a call. Through the day, there was a steady stream of people making their way to and from that instrument.

Today, everyone has a phone, or almost everyone. Ownership and use of mobile phones in India has gone exponentially. An estimated two-thirds of the population now has access to this technology. But do we pause to think about the remaining one-third, some 300 million people? Who are they? It should not come as a surprise to us, living as we do in a gender-unequal society, that the majority of those who do not own a mobile phone, and don’t even have access to one, are women.

A recent study by the GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association), formed in 1995 by mobile operators worldwide, found that 1.7 billion women in poor and middle-income countries do not own a mobile phone. On an average, women were 14 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, and in India that figure stood at 31 per cent. The report points out, “Social norms and disparities between men and women in terms of education and income influence men’s access to and use of mobile technology, and often contribute to women experiencing barriers to mobile phone ownership and use more acutely than men.”

Simply put, what this means is that even if you put a mobile phone in the hands of every single woman in this country, there is no guarantee that she will be free to use it as she wants, or even if she will know how to use it. Her inherent disadvantage of being born a woman in this society works against that. She may not know how to read numbers, or letters. Hence how will she manage a phone?

And if indeed she is unlettered, as are a little under half the women in India, is there any chance that the men in her family will allow her to handle a phone, or help her to learn how to use it? Understanding this is essential as we continue our love affair with technology in this country with visions of a Digital India and “smart” everything. Technology is not gender-neutral. It cannot erase the disadvantages that are embedded in our societies. In some ways, it can even exacerbate them. To make such new technologies work for everyone, we have to recognise the gender divide and find ways to address it.

To further illustrate this divide, here are some findings from a 2012 study by the Grameen Foundation titled “Women, Mobile Phones and Savings”. The study was assessing whether and if mobile phones were effective in encouraging women to participate in savings groups. The researchers found that even when women owned phones, they often did not know how to use them. They had to rely on their husbands or other members of the family to even make a call.

Another interesting fact that emerged was that 74 per cent of the married women in the group surveyed said that their husbands would not allow them to own a mobile phone. In fact, a good number of the women said that they preferred to deal with their savings without having to use the mobile phone.

These studies emphasise that the current obsession with advancing new technologies in India must be tempered with the reality of gender, as well as other social factors. Otherwise, those with access will build on their advantage, and those without will be left even further behind.

Yet, the picture is not entirely gloomy. More women do own mobile phones now. Surveys reveal that owning a phone makes them feel safer and gives them some level of autonomy and independence. Organisations working with poor women have found that women’s access to this technology has helped them to organise women, bring them together, and even overcome the handicap of lack of education by teaching them this relatively simple technology. There are many stories of transformation in the lives of women and the communities where they work with the aid of mobile phones.

If the old black instrument, where you had to shout to be heard, opened up access in ways unknown before its advent, the mobile phone has revolutionised and democratised the way we connect and communicate with each other. New technologies, like mobile telephony, should erase barriers. But it will take some effort to bring down the gender barrier.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Clamping down

Modi government's hounding of Teesta Setalvad is a message to all dissidents

The numerous cases foisted on her have little substance but are intended to paralyse work to seek justice for the victims of the Gujarat riots.

Photo Credit: Jaffar Theekkathir / Wikimedia Commons
Incredible as it might sound, the government of India is so irritated with the activities of one woman that it is finding all kinds of ways to catch her and lock her up.  The woman who continues to be a thorn in the flesh of the Modi government is Teesta Setalvad. The reason the government thinks she should be locked up is because this tenacious woman refuses to allow India, or the world, to forget what happened in Gujarat in 2002.

It's another story that the multiple cases being foisted on her have little substance.  What one needs to realise is that together they are part of a plan to paralyse her ability to work and eventually to find a way to take her into custody.

The latest in the long list of inquiries and cases against Teesta Setalvad, her husband Javed Anand, and the organisations they established and run – Sabrang Communications, Sabrang Trust and Citizens for Justice and Peace – are so numerous and complex that one would need hundreds of pages just to run through the bare description.

The earliest cases date back to 2006. The latest was just last week when newspapers reported that the Central Bureau of Investigation had filed an FIR against Setalvad under Sections 120b read with Sections 35, 37 of IPC and Section 3, 11 and 19 of the FCRA Act of 2010 (criminal conspiracy and receiving funds illegally).  Setalvad has not received any notice but only heard about it from the media.

So how does one make sense of these cases that began almost a decade back but have accelerated in the past year?

Work began in 1993

Setalvad and Anand did not begin their work on communalism after the 2002 Gujarat violence, as is sometimes assumed. In fact, they set up Sabrang Communications in 1993 and began publishing the journal Communalism Combat.  It was also this company that published the Justice Srikrishna Commission Report on the Mumbai communal riots of 1992-'93 at a time when the state government would not make it available to the public.

Copies of the report were sold outside Bombay High Court and at all possible venues for as little as Rs 60. It was the only way people in the city read in detail about the culpability of the police, the Shiv Sena and the Congress state government in what happened during the weeks of violence that permanently scarred a city once considered liberal and cosmopolitan.

Between 1993 and 2002, during which period Setalvad and Anand also set up the Sabrang Trust in 1995, they were never questioned for their activities. On the contrary, they won several awards for their work. The trouble began after they established Citizens for Justice and Peace in 2002 and actively pursued  the courts cases against the perpetrators of the Gujarat violence.

This work meant collecting testimonies, providing witnesses with protection, getting on board lawyers who could formulate the arguments and ensuring that a couple of cases were moved out of Gujarat because the Supreme Court accused the state government of judicial failure.  That this effort resulted in 120 or so convictions in the different cases is a testimony to this work. The record of convictions in communal violence cases in India is so abysmal that it would not be an exaggeration to state only this type of civil society intervention could make convictions possible.

From Gujarat to Delhi

The one case that cut too close to the bone for the Gujarat government, then headed by Narendra Modi, is that of the widow of the Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, who was killed by a mob during the riots. Aided by Citizens for Jusice and Peace, Zakia Jafri filed a criminal complaint for criminal and administrative culpability against top politicians and policemen, including Narendra Modi. This is separate from the Gulberg trial on the killing of Ehsan Jafri and 68 others.  That trial is still ongoing and is under appeal in the Gujarat High Court.

Jafri had questioned the report of the special investigations team set up by the Supreme Court to look into the charges about criminal conspiracy in the Gulberg Case.  The report is popularly believed to have given a “clean chit” to Modi.  In fact, it merely stated that there was not enough evidence to prove his involvement.

Although Jafri's initial protest petition was rejected on December 26, 2013, in the magistrate’s court, she has not given up and is still pursuing the case. Eight days after this, an FIR was filed against Setalvad and four others, including Jafri’s son, for embezzlement of funds. This was followed by all the organisation’s accounts and Setalvad’s personal accounts being frozen. Despite this, Jafri and Setalvad managed to file a criminal revision to the protest petition by March 15, 2014.  This is the case that will now be heard on July 27 before the magistrate’s court in Ahmedabad.

What we need to recognise is that while between 2006 and last year, the cases filed against Setalvad and her colleagues were mostly initiated by the Gujarat Crime Branch, since the Modi government was formed at the Centre, they are now coming from agencies in Delhi.

For instance, in response to a letter sent by the Gujarat Crime Branch to the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi in March 2015, raising questions about Setalvad’s organisations receiving funds from Ford Foundation, the ministry sent notices to them about violating provisions of the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act. Ford Foundation also faced the heat and is now required to get clearance before releasing funds to any non-governmental organisation.

Squeeze from all sides

There were a series of inspections of the accounts of Sabrang and Citizens for Justice and Peace. These organisations have sent in over 25,000 pages of documentation answering every query about funding.  Despite this, the CBI has reportedly filed an FIR against Setalvad.  Why, when the charge is being investigated, and the people charged are cooperating and answering all questions?

What this means, once you wade through the mountain of legalese, is that the government has a single objective: to find a way to get Setalvad into their custody.  By filing FIRs and sending out warrants for her arrest, the government has ensured that a large part of her time, at least three or four days a week, is now spent running from one court to another to get anticipatory bail. These applications can only be made before the Gujarat High Court or the Supreme Court. Setalvad lives and works out of Mumbai.

The other part of her time is spent dealing with the multiple inspections into the accounts of the three organisations and preparing the required documents. What time is left is then devoted to cases such as Ehsan Jafri’s and the Naroda Patiya case, in which a minister in Modi’s cabinet in Gujarat, Maya Kodnani, was convicted and sent to jail. Although Kodnani has managed to get bail, Setalvad and her group are fighting hard to ensure that she does not get acquitted.

In sum, the government’s strategy is to squeeze organisations like Setalvad’s from all sides until they give up. On the surface, it would appear that the government is cracking down on all non-governmental organisations receiving foreign funds.  In fact, it is carefully picking the ones that it wants to shut down. Teesta Setalvad’s organisations are on top of that list.

Crushing dissent

This attack on Setalvad has also to be placed against what is happening in the country since the Modi government took office. We have not seen a major communal conflagration like Gujarat 2002.  But there is a steady stream of incidents of communal violence in various parts of the country.  It is more than evident that minorities are being targeted in direct and indirect ways (the beef ban, questioning education in madrasas, attacks on churches, ghar wapasi etc).  Modi has remained silent on all this, including the inflammatory statements made by ministers in his cabinet.  Against this reality, the effort put in by Setalvad’s team to keep alive Gujarat 2002 in our collective memories, and to get justice for the victims of that period of violence, is relevant.

On the other side, while people like Setalvad are being hounded for pursuing these cases of violence, we are watching the disintegration of the cases against Hindutva extremists in the Ajmer bomb blast case of 2007, where witnesses are turning hostile, and the Modasa case the next year, which has been closed for lack of evidence. In Maharashtra, special prosecutor Rohini Salian went public about the National Investigation Agency asking her to “go soft” on the Malegaon bomb blast case of 2008, in which Hindutva extremists have been implicated. All this has happened in the last one year.

The message is loud and clear.  If you come in the way of this government, you will be hounded till you give up. If you are on their side, even if you are guilty, you have a good chance of getting a reprieve.

So the issue is not just whether the Modi government will succeed in catching Teesta Setalvad and detaining her, but also whether there is any hope for dissent and justice when the state uses its power to crush those who question it.

Kalpana Sharma is an independent journalist, a columnist with The Hindu and consulting editor Economic and Political Weekly.
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Saturday, July 04, 2015

Selective amnesia

The Hindu, July 4, 2015

At a mass sterilisation camp.
At a mass sterilisation camp.

Forty years is a long period. Since June 20, and the build up to the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, it has been fascinating to watch the politics of selective remembering and determined amnesia. In the former category fall many from the ruling party, barring a few exceptions, who remember their ‘suffering’ during that period and suggest that they were in the forefront of the resistance to the Emergency. The latter are members of the Congress Party, who will not remember even if they have been told, repeatedly, what happened over those 20 months.

What both sides of the political divide forget is that those who really ‘suffered’ during that ‘dark’ period in our history were the poor and the powerless. They were either the targets of Indira Gandhi’s repressive policies, or were foolish enough to try and oppose them. In both instances, there was no recourse to justice.

The silence of the media made this worse. Because the press did not report, there was virtually no record of what happened. Much of it had to be reconstructed after the Emergency. This silence, willing or forced, exacerbated the very real suffering of the people at the receiving end of the government’s policies. Not only were they denied justice but they were also denied a voice. They had been rendered invisible.

Everyone knows now that one of the most atrocious policies of the Indira Gandhi government was the mass sterilisation campaign devised by Sanjay Gandhi as part of his five-point programme. In the name of ‘population control’, poor men and women were rounded up and forcibly sterilised. While the poor were always the principal targets of the government’s population efforts, this time it was specifically poor men. It is now fairly well-established that one of the main reasons for Mrs. Gandhi’s spectacular defeat in the March 1977 elections was the anger among the communities targeted under this campaign.

Was there any rethinking on this policy after 1977? You would think that no political party would risk pushing through a policy that results in such revulsion. Yet, although on paper, population control’ is now ‘family welfare’ and ‘women’s reproductive rights’, in fact sterilisation continues to be the main thrust of government policy. The difference now is that the main target is women, not men. In 2012-13, of the total number of sterilisation cases, 97.4 per cent were women. In fact, since 2005, over 95 per cent of sterilisation procedures have been performed on women.

This government’s stated policy is to encourage sterilisation as a method to control population growth. Incentives for health workers to bring in ‘cases’ for sterilisation have been increased. Women who choose institutionalised delivery are especially targeted; it is so much convenient to coax them into accepting a permanent solution to repeated pregnancies. And most health workers find it easier to persuade or force women than men even though is it well-known that a vasectomy is less complicated, and reversible.

Only a few stories appear about the way these sterilisation camps are conducted. A couple of years back, there was outrage when a story appeared about bicycle pumps being used on 56 women who were sterilised in Banarpal village, 150 km from Bhubaneshwar. The instrument that should have been used is an insufflator that pumps carbon dioxide into the abdomen. As this was not available in the camp where the procedure was being done, a bicycle pump was used. The surgeon in-charge, Dr. Mahesh Prasad Raut, justified this saying: “I am not alone. Surgeons often use bicycle pumps in the rural camps where the facility of an operation theatre and other sophisticated equipment are not available.” This doctor had done 60,000 tubectomies and was awarded by the government for this feat. How many of them were done using bicycle pumps is not known.

And of course, these horrific violations occur not just in Chhattisgarh or Odisha but also in many other places including Faridabad district, Haryana. Neha Dixit, a freelance journalist, has recently written a searing account of what women lined up for a tubectomy faced in the Badshah Khan hospital ( In A Callous Cut, Dixit describes the scene in the hospital where women between the ages of 20-26 await the operation. There are not enough containers to collect urine samples. So only a few women can be tested. They are asked to sign a ‘consent’ form in English, a language they do not understand. And then, dizzy with pain and sedatives, they are sent off to fend for themselves. Little wonder that so many die from sepsis or other complications, or have to be rushed back to hospital.

Reading her account, and looking back on other such stories in the last 40 years, one is forced to ask: Did sterilisation contribute to Indira Gandhi’s defeat only because the target was men? If not, then how come the callous way in which poor women are being sterilised in India in such large numbers is never a political issue?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Censorship, the Emergency and Himmat

June 23, 2015

It's almost 40 years since the Emergency was declared.  Those of us who lived through it have many memories.  We should have recorded them.  But we got caught up in events and I plead guitly for not having taken the time to write about that period while memories were still fresh.

Here's something I've written in that gives a flavour of those times:

'Himmat' during the Emergency: When the Press crawled, some refused to even bend

When Indira Gandhi suspended the Constitution, some journalists maintained their independence despite State repression. Why can't today's journalists find ways to resist corporate control to tell readers the truth?

Photo Credit: Kalpana Sharma
Forty years ago on a rainy evening in Mumbai, a group of friends met in an apartment overlooking Grant Road Bridge. It was June 26, 1975.  We knew that a State of Emergency had been declared. We also knew that there would be press censorship. But what on earth did that mean?

All India Radio did not explain. We had to turn to BBC World Service to get a sense of what exactly was happening. That is how we learned that thousands of opposition leaders and political workers had been arrested under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act.

Some of us in that room were journalists. We worked with a small English-language weekly, Himmat, edited by Rajmohan Gandhi. What would censorship mean for us?

When we went into work the next morning, we heard that the government had sent out “guidelines” that the press had to follow. Number one on the list 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.” Clearly we had to decide what is “dangerous”.

The guidelines also instructed us not to reproduce rumours or anything “objectionable” that had been printed outside India. Given that only newspapers outside India were reporting what was actually going on in the country, this pretty much foreclosed reporting on anything.

Roller-coaster ride

The next 20 months were a roller-coaster ride, but one that formed us as journalists. The principle lesson we learned was that freedom of the press is not a luxury that the rulers bestow on you: it is a lifeline in an unequal society like ours. Without it, the poor would become invisible because it would deprive them of their basic right to be heard as citizens in a democracy.

As the majority of Indians today were not even born when Emergency was declared and this also applies to most of the journalists in the trade today, let me just briefly recount my own experience with censorship.

In the initial days, there was confusion in the press about what censorship would involve. The office of the Director of Information and Publicity of the Maharashtra government had been converted into the Censor’s office, employing around 15 people. Binod Rau, a former resident editor of the Indian Express, was the Censor. An official from this office was sent to each daily newspaper in the evening. But by September 20, 1975, it became evident that it would be impossible to pre-censor every single word that appeared in print. Hence, we were informed that we were expected to “self-censor” and abide by the guidelines.

White-out protest

In the two issues that came out after the declaration of Emergency, Himmat chose to leave its Editorials blank. Thereafter, we decided that we would write as we always did until we were informed that we had violated some guideline. That didn’t take long. In our issue of October 24, 1975, we had carried a report about a prayer meeting at Raj Ghat held on October 2 at whic Acharya JB Kripalani had spoken. The police broke up the meeting and arrested those who refused to leave, including our editor-in-chief Rajmohan Gandhi and his brother, Ramchandra Gandhi. Although they were released later, some of the others spent several months in prison.

By then, I was the editor of Himmat. I was summoned to the office of the Special Press Advisor (as the Censor was known) and informed that as Himmat had violated the guidelines, we would be under pre-censorship with immediate effect. When I asked which guideline, there was no answer. Finally, one official told me that they had been berated by Delhi for allowing the item on the Rajghat meeting to appear.

Despite this, we found ways to dodge the censor. Additionally, the Bombay High Court ruling in April 1976 in the Binod Rau vs MR Masani case on censorship provided some breathing space. Amongst other things, the Court ruled that “if there is a right to praise either an individual or the government, there is equally a right to criticise the individual or the government…”

For a couple of months, everything was quiet. Then in July 1976, someone from the Criminal Investigation Department turned up at our office with a notice stating that the printer and publisher of Himmat (Rajmohan Gandhi) had to deposit Rs 20,000 within 15 days with the Commissioner of Police because there were “prejudicial reports” in three issues in April. No details were given. These details were provided only when we went to court challenging censorship guidelines. Apparently, we had quoted Mahatma Gandhi saying, “The restoration of free speech, free association and free press is almost the whole of Swaraj” was considered “prejudicial”.

Arbitrary rules

I give these details to illustrate the arbitrariness of censorship during those times. Yet, we had decided that we would rather continue to push the envelope and take risks than buckle under censorship. Such bravado meant that the press where we printed was served a notice to stop printing Himmat, andno other printing press would touch us. Of course, we did not have the money to buy our own printing machines. In desperation, we put out an appeal to our readers. Amazingly, hundreds of readers responded, sending us contributions as small as Rs 5 and going up to a few thousand rupees.  We managed to collect over Rs 60,000 and with some additional funds bought two small printing machines and rented a space in an industrial estate in Prabhadevi. This allowed us to have our own print line and take the risk we felt we must.

Unfortunately, this arrangement was also busted when the authorities found that the bulk of the magazine was being printed elsewhere. So finally, in December 1976, we were left with no option but to go every week to the Censor’s office and be subjected to the irrational and arbitrary slashing of copy. To fill these spaces at the last minute was virtually impossible. Yet we had to because leaving blank pages was also a crime!

The Emergency ended in March 1977 after the spectacular election that threw Indira Gandhi out of office. Although on paper censorship continued during the election campaign, no one paid any heed to it.

The lessons of 1975

Looking back now, four decades later, has the Indian press learned anything from that experience? Do we value the freedom that was snatched away from us?

Some of us as journalists certainly learned important lessons. The 1970s was still a time of idealism. I can count many of my contemporaries who came into journalism believing that our job was to seek the truth and write without fear.

Once the Emergency ended, many such journalists took it upon themselves to unearth the stories that had been suppressed, stories that above all denied poor people their rights. These included slum demolitions in many cities, forcible sterilisation campaigns, torture of prisoners, fake encounters and many others.

Instead of merely reporting on these atrocities, and others like bonded labour, trafficking, denial of human rights, the rights of pavement dwellers and more, journalists followed up these stories by filing Public Interest Litigations in the Supreme Court. No one charged them with being “unprofessional” or “activist journalists”. In the mood that prevailed then, it was accepted that even as we are journalists, we are also citizens and cannot stand by and watch such egregious violations of rights.

If you survey the Indian press of the late 1970s into the 1980s, you see the results of such a commitment by scores of journalists. Newspapers gave space for such writing, even encouraged it. And even though several smaller publications like Himmat closed down because the economics did not work out, many mainstream publications took up the task of unearthing the developments that were hidden during the Emergency.

New priorities

Since the 1990s, there has been a visible change in the Indian media. For one, print is not so dominant, yielding space to the electronic media. In the last few years, the Internet has opened up new spaces.

The growth and variety of the media suggests that there should be greater freedom, that it would be virtually impossible today for the State to control the media. Certainly the kind of censorship regime imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975 would never work today.

Yet, has the space for the kind of writing spawned by the experience of Emergency shrunk or expanded? This is a question we still have to ask.

While the expansion of the media space would suggest that there would be much more room for writing on poverty, on human rights, on the invisible and marginal parts of India, on communities that are forgotten, the reverse is true. In a media driven by the market, such news has no value. So while earlier, falling foul of the government restricted the pursuit of such stories, today the belief that such news will not sell your product denies them space.

Secondly, how do we define “free” in relation to the media? “Free” of what or whom? Perhaps the State does not have the same ability it had in the past to control the content of even privately owned media, but today there are other forces that do. When politics and business come together, and define what can or cannot be reported, is this not a form of covert censorship? The increasing consolidation of media ownership in a few powerful hands, and the nexus between some of these owners and the people in power, gives an entirely different spin to the concept of a “free” media.

What remains the same is the choice that journalists have to make. During the Emergency, as LK Advani famously noted, although the press was asked to bend, it chose to crawl. Yet many journalists chose not to do so, at considerable risk to themselves and their careers.

That choice is one that we still have to make.  If even under overt censorship, some publications managed to communicate the truth to their readers, why can't journalists do it under the indirect forms of control that exist today?

Kalpana Sharma was editor of Himmat from 1976 to 1981 when it closed. She has worked with The Indian Express, The Times of India and The Hindu and is currently consulting editor with Economic and Political Weekly.

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