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.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

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

Published in on August 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

The author with her parents and brother in Modinagar

Cranking it up

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the country’s good

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

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

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

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

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

The dark period

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another midnight hour

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

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

Published in on July 21, 2017

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

It was a bomb waiting to explode.

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden world

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploitation and cruelty

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

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

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

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

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