Saturday, August 04, 2018

ABP resignations: This isn’t the Emergency – so why are many media houses falling in line?


The ruling dispensation is determined to ensure that the Indian media is completely in sync with the dominant narrative. 

If you read only the print media, you would be oblivious to the news that two top executives of a leading media house have suddenly chosen to step down. Whether or not it is deliberate policy to avoid reporting such developments in the media, these resignations are ominous enough to invite introspection about the future of the Indian media.

It should come as no surprise that the resignations of two top executives, editor-in-chief Milind Khandekar and popular anchor Punya Prasoon Bajpai of APB News network, the television arm of the Ananda Bazar Patrika group, more than hint at government interference. This government is doing it; previous governments have also done it, albeit in other ways.

But should this be cause for worry for members of the media and larger civil society that believes a democracy needs a media that is reasonably protected from direct or indirect government interference? They should. For even if this development is not new or unusual, it is disquieting.

These days, each time such an instance comes to light, the almost-predictable response is to invoke the Emergency of 1975 when the Congress party government of Indira Gandhi imposed press censorship on the media. Today, even if government or ruling party pressure on the media does constitute indirect curbs on the freedom of expression, the comparison ends there. Indira Gandhi used existing laws to impose and justify press censorship. There was a face to the censor – an official who sat in a government office, or representatives who were sent to newspaper offices. The government felt compelled to issue what it termed “guidelines” that the media was supposed to follow.

There is no such structure in place today. There is no official censor. You have a government that swears by the freedom of the press. And yet there is increasing evidence that the long arm of the government is finding ways to compel media houses that question or expose its wrong-doings to fall in line.

This government deflects criticism or conjecture about pressure on the media to conform by constantly emphasising that the Congress party was much worse, especially during the Emergency. Yet there is a big difference between the events of the past and the developments today.

This generation, which gets its news on smart phones and will probably never know the joy of the tactile feel of holding a newspaper, is probably be unaware that despite the guarantee of freedom of expression in the Constitution, India passed a law in 1956, the Newspaper (Price and Page) Act. This restricted the number of pages a newspaper could print and the price it could charge the customer. It was legislated on the premise that smaller newspapers needed to be protected from the large media houses that could charge less for bigger papers because they had deep pockets. So the ostensible purpose was salutary – to protect the small against the big.

Subsequently, in 1972, under the government’s newsprint policy, a cap was placed of a maximum of 10 pages that a newspaper could print each day. Following the same argument of protecting smaller papers, in 1981 the government also introduced graded duties on imported newsprint, charging bigger circulating newspapers more. This was challenged in the Supreme Court by several large newspaper houses who argued that the policy impinged on their fundamental right to freedom of expression. They won the case.


Facilitating diversity

This history has to be seen against the background of the belief that prevailed in those bad old “socialist” days, as some would have it, that the media space should accommodate the small players and that the state should facilitate this. The state saw its role in interfering, if you will, in the infrastructure of the media. It even laid down the ratio of advertising to editorial content, something that one cannot imagine being policy in this day and age. Despite this, the bigger newspaper houses continued to prosper (although they constantly complained about government restrictions).

In fact, given the hostile relations between the government and some of the big media houses, it is an irony that even though they chafed at government restrictions on the grounds of freedom of expression, they quietly fell in line when actual censorship was imposed during the Emergency. On the other hand, some of the smaller publications, which should have been beholden to government for “protecting” them from the big media players, vehemently fought against censorship.


Job security

The other area where media houses resented government policy was in labour practices. Under the Working Journalists and other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1955, which the court upheld in 1958 and again in 2014 when newspaper owners challenged it, journalists had job security. They could not be hired and fired without notice and reason. Wage boards were set-up to determine the salaries newspaper employees should be paid according to the size of the media house.

All this is history now with the majority of journalists hired on short-term contracts that can be terminated at short notice. This lack of job security ensures that on the whole, individual journalists avoid falling foul of the owners of their establishments. Although those with a higher profile and greater social capital can take risks, not many do.

In 21st century India, media houses are free to expand, hold cross-media interests in print and television, and flood their newspapers with so many advertisements that you have to hunt for the articles. As a result, the business of news is no more “all the news that’s fit to print”, but only the news that sells the “product” in the “market”.

If there is government interference today with media content, it is entirely covert. You cannot prove any quid pro quo. For instance, it was widely suggested that last year the former editor of the Hindustan Times, Bobby Ghosh, was asked to leave because the owners got word that the party in power was unhappy with some of the paper’s coverage, in particular the Hate Tracker that recorded hate crimes that had taken place since 2014. There is no way to prove what leverage the ruling party or the government used on the owners of the paper. But the coincidence of Ghosh’s departure and the pulling down of the Hate Tracker online could not be missed.

As an aside, it is worth remembering that in 1975, even before Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, the much-respected BG Verghese was asked to step down as editor of Hindustan Times because of an editorial he wrote that was critical of India’s takeover of Sikkim. The paper then was known to be close to the party in power. 


Unanswered questions

In the case of the recent development in the ABP News Network, we do not know what kind of pressure was put on the owners to nudge the two top journalists to step down and a third to go on leave. The Ananda Bazar Patrika group is a family-owned business with its primary interest in media. It also owns Ananda Bazar Patrika, the leading Bengali newspaper, and the English language, The Telegraph. ABP News Network is the result of the merger of Star News, which was owned by Star India, and ABP Ltd when the two set up a joint venture, Media Content and Communication Services in 2012. Subsequently Star India pulled out.

ABP News Network has a national profile, unlike the group’s print publications that are largely restricted to the east, as it owns Hindi, Bengali and Marathi television news channels. Yet, it does not have the reach or spread of some of the larger media houses. Also unlike The Telegraph, which has been consistently critical of the Modi government, ABP News was not known to be so. Hence why this pressure on it after just one report about how a woman farmer was tutored to tell a positive story during the Prime Minister’s Mann ki Baat interaction with farmers in Chattisgarh? And why did it succumb? The answers will remain in the realm of conjecture.

The reason this latest attempt to force a media house to fall in line is worrying is that it establishes, if indeed that were needed, that we have at the helm of affairs in India a party that wants not just a Congress-mukt Bharat, but also a free-media-mukt Bharat.

There is little doubt now that through encouraging friendly corporations to take control of the media, and by way of some arm-twisting, the ruling dispensation is determine to ensure that the Indian media is completely in sync with the dominant narrative and that His Master’s Voice, or rather his Mann ki Baat will resonate across media houses.


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

In Pa Ranjith’s ‘Kaala’, a glimpse of what Dharavi truly is – and what it could have been

The Rajinikanth starrer engages with many of the real issues facing the Mumbai neighbourhood, says the author of a book on Dharavi. 


Published in --

“Yeh Dharavi toh jophadpatti ki rani hai” (This Dharavi is the queen of slums). This is what a woman who lived on the pavement opposite Jhoola maidan in Byculla told me in the mid-1980s when I spoke to her. Today, she has been moved out of her house to a distant suburb, but the “queen” of Mumbai’s slums now has a “king”, by way of Rajinikanth in the recently released Pa Ranjith film Kaala.

I must admit first that I have never seen a Rajnikanth film. My loss, I am told. But I did watch Kaala, mostly because it is set in Dharavi (the Hindi dubbed version, although I would have preferred the original Tamil version with sub-titles to get the full flavour).

Although the director has taken cinematic licence in telling the story of Dharavi’s redevelopment through two main characters, he has managed to engage with many of the real issues that people living in this place that is wrongly called a “slum” face every day of their lives.

Dharavi is, as one of the characters in the film says, a mini-India, something I was told repeatedly by the people I interviewed for my book Rediscovering Dharavi (Penguin, 2000). Ranjith brings this out without making a big point about it. You can see the mix of communities although the film is centered on the Tamil Dalit community, the Adi Dravidas who came to work in the tanneries that dotted Dharavi till the mid-1980s. In fact, a fleeting shot in the film shows a wooden barrel that was used in small tanneries that continued to function till the end of the ’90s, even after the big ones had been compelled to relocate because of pollution control laws.

Ranjith’s film also establishes that Muslims, Hindus, Dalits and other castes have coexisted in Dharavi and that the clashes that took place at various times were often because of external provocation. The scene where a piece of pork is flung into a mosque and ultimately results in a clash between Hindus and Muslims is an illustration of this. On December 6, 1992, the Shiv Sainiks took out a cycle rally through Dharavi celebrating the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. This was the provocation for the communal rioting that followed even though Muslims and Hindus had lived together with a high level of tolerance till then. There were provocations and minor skirmishes before this but not on the scale of 1992-93.

Above all, Ranjith has underlined the fact that Dharavi is predominantly a settlement of Dalits. Although the film centres on the Tamils, in fact there are Dalits from Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and probably elsewhere. Dharavi is a reserved Scheduled Caste constituency. At a time of growing Dalit assertion, this reality is often forgotten. Ranjith reminds us in different ways of this without making it the main theme of the film.

Ranjith also reminds us that Dharavi was literally “made” by the people who live there. Therefore, the repeated assertion by Rajnikanth’s character that Dharavi belongs to them. It was a swamp, a place where there could be no human settlement. Yet over time, the very people who came to live there filled it up. The side of present-day Dharavi touching Sion and the one next to Mahim were separated by that swamp. Today, you would not be able to tell.

This is part of Dharavi’s history, one that is often overlooked. The value that people have added to this land has never been recognised by those who view it as prime real estate, a realisation that first dawned in the mid-’80s when Bandra and Kurla were being developed into one business district. Dharavi lies just across the Mithi river from Bandra and Kurla; hence its importance.

It is, as people in the film state, located virtually in the centre of Greater Mumbai, although it once was the periphery. That is another reason why the eyes of the real estate developers light up when they think of the value of the land where Dharavi is located.
What makes Kaala stand out is also that it has not resorted to making some kind of generic slum and passing it off as Dharavi. Although Danny Boyle did not say that Slumdog Millionaire (2008) was about Dharavi, a lot of people presumed it was. Yet, anyone who knows Dharavi, and lives in the Mumbai where informal settlements are an integral part of the city, would have recognised the mixed shots from different “slums” that were used to create one generic urban poor settlement in that film.
Ranjith does not do this. Barring a couple of shots that were clearly not of Dharavi, he tries to stay true to the place.

I came out of the film thinking, “I wish, I wish.” I wish that the urban poor were united enough to fight against those trying to oust them from the land they built. I wish that greed, corruption and politics did not divide them so that they end up working against their own best interests. I wish journalists could play the role the sole journalist plays in the film of exposing the nexus between the police, politicians and builders. I wish the Dharavi story could have held up an example for other urban poor settlements across India.

The reality, sadly, is different. The residents of Dharavi are divided along political lines. They have different demands, and follow those most likely to fulfill what they want.

Also, it is interesting that Kaala is about Dharavi’s redevelopment. Ironically Dharavi’s identity is linked to the plan to “redevelop” it. Since 2004, when the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan was mooted, people living there have identified with the place in a much more immediate way. In 1999, when I spent time in Dharavi to interview people for my book, I found many of the older people identified either with the village or district from where they or their forefathers had come, or with the specific area where they lived.
So it would be Kumbharwada, or Kamraj Nagar, or Ganesh Mandir, or Muslim Nagar, or Matunga Labour Camp. Or Tirunelvelli, Jaunpur, Junagadh. This sense of Dharavi as a specific settlement with its own identity was not evident.

In fact, I recall a conversation with an elderly man in the Matunga Labour Camp who was a Valmiki from Haryana. When I asked a question about Dharavi, he interrupted and asked me, “What is this Dharavi you are talking about?”

Yet already by then, the younger people expressed themselves as being from Dharavi. So the identity of Dharavi had begun to emerge, but I would argue that it was consolidated once the state saw it as a piece of real estate to be developed under the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan.

Coming back to the idea of a “King” of the “Queen” of slums, for a film with a superstar like Rajinikanth, that works. But once again, the reality is somewhat different. In the ’80s, Dharavi did see gang warfare in the heyday of Varadarajan Mudaliar (on whom Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan, with Kamal Hasan, was based). But much of that kind of dramatic clash of opposing gangs ended once prohibition ended, and Mudaliar was chased out of Maharashtra.

That is not to say that they are no slumlords, or local strongmen, with their respective gangs. They do exist, as they do in any such settlement. But the kind of violence depicted in the film is a part of history, and not daily existence in Dharavi.

Builders and their political backers have several other ways to intimidate and coerce Dharavi’s residents to sign on the dotted line for redevelopment. But that too has been frozen ever since the entire area was designated a special zone for development under the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan. There are no more buildings coming up under the Slum Redevelopment Scheme that applies to the rest of Mumbai.

Dharavi in fact is caught in a limbo – between the Maharashtra government’s grand designs of converting it into a high-end residential and business enclave and the reality of lakhs of people continuing to live in sub-optimal conditions and hoping for a change. The Slum Redevelopment Scheme cannot be implemented there and the redevelopment plan is a dead horse that the government continues to flog, its latest effort being the attempt to bring in some interested parties from Dubai.

Meanwhile, the people of Dharavi live in a schizophrenic world where there are some high-rise buildings, mostly adjacent to main roads, while the interiors remain virtually as they were for the last two decades. And the city around them continues to develop and “redevelop”.


Friday, June 01, 2018

Seeking controversy: Germaine Greer

The iconoclastic and contrarian feminist Germaine Greer has once again kicked off a controversy with her remarks on rape at the ongoing Hay Festival in Britain where she spoke.  In this article in The Guardian she argues that the punishment for rape should be reduced.

She must have raised many hackles when she stated:

“Instead of thinking of rape as a spectacularly violent crime, and some rapes are, think about it as non consensual … that is bad sex. Sex where there is no communication, no tenderness, no mention of love.”

The problem is that she says some shocking things but her aim is not just to shock.  This is the way she thinks, and she makes no apologies for this.

I met her and interviewed her in 2015 when she was invited to Mumbai to speak at the Tata Lit Live literature festival.  She was energetic at 76, overflowing with strong opinions and at 10 in the morning, sat perched on a window sill with a glass of red wine in her hand and held forth.

Here is the interview for those who are interested:

Iconoclastic, controversial, contrarian, outspoken, unafraid, feminist – each of these adjectives fits the woman who gave us The Female Eunuch. At 76, Germaine Greer has lost none of her passion. Nor her ability to shock. In Mumbai to attend Tata Literature Live this past weekend, she declares that her 1970 book that woke up so many women around the world is actually one of her worst. There are many more quotable quotes. But it would be a mistake to condense her views to one-liners, to the television sound bites that exemplify today’s journalism. They can’t be.

Perched on a window seat at Prithvi House in the western suburb of Juhu, Greer spoke about equality, liberation, abortion, growing old as a woman and Hillary Clinton.

Greer does not like Hillary Clinton. She is not excited about the possibility of the United States getting its first woman president. Why is she running, she asks. “Because she was married to a president? It might as well be in Bangladesh. It’s ridiculous. The assumption that she’s the only woman in that position is nonsense. She was not even very good at any of the very important jobs that she was given. And she has a conspicuous lack of charm. People don’t like her. But they did like Bill. And they’ll get Bill if they get Hillary. At least in the Orient, the husband is dead. But in this case, the husband is in the background.”

The Orient? We don’t hear that too often.

Representation in corporations

Her irritation with Hillary Clinton apart, Greer has a larger point to make about equality. She has declared that she is a “liberation feminist” and not an “equality feminist”. Why this binary?

“They’re fundamentally different. Equality is a conservative aim. It means you have an idea of what you want for women, which is what men have got. But what have men got? They’ve got the corporate world. They’ve got the competition. They’ve got the corporate structure that gives you one top honcho, and everyone else struggling to get up there and falling by the wayside. In the corporate world, every man is a loser. Because that’s the way it’s constructed. In the end it’s the corporation that wins. Now a woman can go into the corporation and become a corporation man. Mrs Thatcher did that. Worked pretty well. And she’s the most bellicose, war-like leader we’ve ever had. And guilty of a war crime in the Falklands war.”

Greer is especially critical of the idea of representation of women in everything – corporate boardrooms, the armed forces, other professions. “For example, in England we hear all the time how women have to be introduced to the boardroom. How the boardroom must be 30% female and you think, why 30%? What’s so holy about 30%?”

What’s the point of such representation if it does not lead to any change, she asks. “There is actually no point. It becomes window dressing. You look feminist because you’ve got women doing things. But they’re not doing anything for women. If they were to upset the priorities of the corporation, they wouldn’t be there.”

Treatment of elderly women

Expanding on why the concept of equality with men should not drive feminism, she suggests we look at the areas where men cannot be included, such as reproduction. There is no talk of equality in the birthplace, she points out. As a result, she argues, in England, safe-birthing facilities, such as maternity centres, are neglected. Many are closing down. And women who choose natural birth methods are suffering. There are not enough midwives. As a result, obstetricians get their way.

Diseases like cervical cancer that afflict only women also expose the pointlessness of the equality debate, she stresses. In England, during some years there were as many as 300,000 false positive tests for cervical cancer, exposing women to unnecessary, and sometimes dangerous, medical procedures. But these issues are not debated because these are areas where men are not present.

Greer’s current area of concern is the treatment of elderly women in countries like England and Australia. “You know who we lock up? Old women,” she said. “They have no rights. They are incarcerated. Because there is not enough staff to look after them, and they might be demented, their civil rights are completely in abeyance. The matter has never been discussed in any public forum because nobody gives a shit. If I point out that these women have worked for other people all their lives, they are now frail and elderly and can’t live in their houses because they can’t afford to heat them, they now come here to be looked after and what do you do? You imprison them. They don’t go out. Ever.”

Stand on abortion

In her opening address at the literature event in Mumbai, Greer came dangerously close to sounding like a pro-lifer, someone who is against a woman’s right to abortion, when she called the fight for abortion rights “a historical accident” and suggested that in the end it has facilitated a kind of eugenics with surrogacy and made-to-order babies. “Feminists must realise some of their victories were pyrrhic,” she said, and that there was no getting away from the fact that “abortion is killing, don’t pretend it isn’t”.

So what is her position on abortion, including sex-selective abortion?

“Oh well. This is a really ticklish point. We’re dealing with female agency. And part of the decision-making when it comes to sex-selective abortions, is made by the woman as well as the man. Or maybe not the man at all,” Greer responded.

But in India, it is not a choice women make independently, I point out, that it is “the family”, including the husband, which decides that it is better to abort a female foetus than give birth to a girl.

Greer says she has revised her position on this issue after she learned of a Sikh woman in England and the choice she faced. After four and a half years of marriage, during which she gave birth to three girls, she found she was pregnant again. When she went for her scan after 12 weeks, she discovered it was a girl, again. She asked the doctors to terminate the pregnancy but was refused as it was against the law. So she went to a traditional birth attendant. And bled to death from a botched abortion.

“What annoyed me”, said Greer, “was that the coroner who sat on the case said she brought it on herself. It was her fault because she tried to do something immoral, which was to terminate a pregnancy because of the sex of a child. Damn it. You can terminate a pregnancy for the simple reason that you don’t want to bear the child. And you’re not going to explain it to someone who’s not even remotely involved. ”

Greer’s position on abortion remains unchanged but nuanced. “I’m not against abortion. But it’s even worse than that. The way people talk about the liberalisation of the access to abortion is to make it sound like a privilege. It isn’t a privilege. If you really can’t have a child, not because you don’t want to have one, but because you’ll lose your job, lose your place at university, or your parents will kick you out, or your boyfriend will dump you, if everything is pushing you towards the decision, you will hurt, you will be guilty, because you will not have wholly accepted your own behaviour. You’ll be saying, look what you made me do. I didn’t want to do that. Women’s lives are difficult.”

Don't imitate men

About the latest controversy, where she said that transsexual men undergoing surgery to become women are not women, Greer is unapologetic.

“Do I say to them, excuse me, you know women’s lives are really quite difficult. Be a 12-year-old and find blood on your pants and get someone to explain to you that you’re going to bleed like that every 28 days. And you think, what happened to my body. It used to be fine. And now look at it. And then you go through the whole thing of having to worry about your fertility. Worrying how to manage it. Worrying about whether you’re pregnant or you’re not pregnant.”

So women should not worry about equality with men, and transsexual men are not women. But what does Greer mean by “liberation”?

“It means to set women free to develop their own potential and not to imitate what the men have established. To discover how to bring their own notions of what is appropriate, what is worthwhile, how we should live, how we should interact,” concluded Germaine Greer as she finished off her morning glass of Indian red wine.

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Times Now’s Tejpal tapes mark a new low for journalism. Now, it’s the turn of viewers to speak up

What explains the channel’s decision to air footage submitted as evidence in an ongoing ‘in camera’ trial? 

Talking about ethics to some Indian television channels is like casting pearls before swine. But as viewers and members of the media, we need to keep raising concerns that to these channels may seem irrelevant. So, on Monday, when Times Now, a channel that claims to be the most-watched English news channel in India, decided to make a 2013 rape case the main focus of its 8 pm prime time show, one had to ask: Why? And why now?

The answer to the latter question can only be conjecture. But is it mere coincidence that in the week that the Cobrapost expose was the big story, the TV channel decided to expend its abundant energy on raking up the rape allegations against former Tehelka journalist Tarun Tejpal, a case that is being tried in camera – that is, away from the public and the press? Did Times Now make a deliberate decision to divert attention from a story that warrants discussion in the media? As we know, the best way to kill a story is to ignore it completely.

Cobrapost’s sting operation allegedly reveals that many mainstream media outlets, including the group that owns Times Now, are open to accepting payment for content promoting Hindutva to push the political agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Incidentally, only a handful of mainstream media organisations (essentially those not exposed in the sting) reported on the Cobrapost story. The conspicuous silence of the rest was something that the BBC commented upon. As the BBC article rightly pointed out, “It is a potential scandal that claims to strike at a key pillar of Indian democracy – the freedom of the press – yet it is barely being reported in the Indian media.”

A more relevant question than why Times Now chose the Tejpal story at this particular point is: how does the channel justify airing evidence from a case that is being tried? The former editor of Tehelka was charged with rape after a colleague accused him of sexually assaulting her during a conference organised by the magazine in November 2013 in Goa.

The case is finally being tried this year and details of the trial cannot be reported on without court consent, because it is being heard in camera. So how can a news channel that claims it is doing journalism explain its decision to air CCTV footage from a hotel lobby – ostensibly showing Tejpal and the survivor entering and exiting the elevator where the crime allegedly took place – and discuss it with a bunch of panelists as if they were judge and jury? Apart from it being illegal, what is the story here?

Great depths

As I mentioned earlier, perhaps there is not much point in talking about ethics or decency to news channels that have crossed all boundaries in their desire to grab eyeballs, but even by their abysmal standards, this surely is a new low.

Did the editors of Times Now even pause for a second to consider the impact of this programme on the survivor, who has had to face many trials outside the courtroom because she summoned up the courage to take on a powerful man? What is the message Times Now sought to send out to other survivors who consider taking a similar step? That they are fair game not only to those powerful men, but also to a powerful media?
Secondly, Times Now and several other Indian news channels claim they are in the business of journalism. They are not. Even a rookie journalist can tell them that they have forgotten what constitutes journalism. They are manufacturing content to sell their channel. That is not journalism. And that is the approach that can be sold to the highest bidder. The Cobrapost expose held out no surprises to those who have worked in mainstream media and watched its steady decline from doing journalism to providing saleable content.

We, the people

Apart from fairness, impartiality, truth and accuracy as well as accountability, humanity is one of the core principles of journalism. On all these counts, these channels fail miserably. How things have reached this level is another story, one that needs to be addressed if we believe that an independent and impartial media is essential to the survival of democracy in this country.

For now, we need to seriously consider what can be done. Every few months, television news channels sink to lower depths and trigger some outrage, mostly on social media. But then it’s back to business as usual. As viewers and readers, do we have any options to confront and challenge such gutter-level journalism which is justified as something people want?

It is time that the people who do not want this make it known. Media watchdogs and even courts can play a role in checking what is patently illegal. But ultimately, it has to be the readers or viewers who assert their right to decency and ethics and boycott such products. Media houses for whom only the bottom line matters, even if it means feeding viewers muck, need to be told that enough is enough.

Published on on May 29, 2018


Saturday, April 14, 2018

Remember Kathua

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Who will save these women and children?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 19, 2018

Remember Kunan Poshpora

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

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

Kashmir's `steel magnolias'

The women of Kunan Poshpora ... three generations

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

Until this woman from the back burst forth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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