Friday, January 10, 2020

Is this the beginning of the irrelevance of Big Media?

Broken News

(Here's the link:

Perhaps I should rename this column "Heart-breaking News".  For as 2019 winds down, we are inundated with stories from Uttar Pradesh that are not just heart-breaking, but are also a frightening illustration of a state gone rogue. 

The videos, the news reports in newspapers and on digital news websites, have made it amply clear that the UP government and its police force are going full tilt to implement the order of "badla" or revenge against Muslims protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). And not just those protesting. Even those passing by, or hiding from the police in their homes, or well-known social workers, have been arrested, beaten up, harassed, shot at or had their homes vandalized.

As 2019 ends, there is human tragedy in abundance, but also hope in the way ordinary people in so many parts of the country are coming out on the streets to protest and demand a repeal of the CAA.

This is no ordinary moment in this country's history. Those of us who have lived through the years of the Emergency, from 1975-77, cannot remember another time when such a cross-section of people have come out on the streets. In 1977, people demanded the restoration of democracy. Today, they are asking the government to adhere to the fundamental values enshrined in the Indian Constitution, especially secularism and equality.

The full extent of this resistance and protest has, perhaps, not been fully communicated by the media. For one, mainstream media feels compelled to give space to official pronouncements.  So even as people raise their voices and question the CAA, space and time is given to interviews and statements by different members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, including union ministers who go to great lengths to explain the harmlessness of the CAA. Even though they contradict each other, the purpose is served: to create confusion and doubt in the minds of those sitting on the fence. Despite this, however, the thousands opposing the law are not convinced, as is evident from the continuing protest marches and meetings.

Although at least some of mainstream media, and practically all the digital news media, has reported the anti-CAA demonstrations around the country, the mood on the ground has not been fully captured.  What motivates those who are walking on the streets, holding placards that they have made themselves?  We hear the voices of celebrities, but not enough of ordinary people. Yet, their voices are extraordinary. Talk to anyone. You will hear a cogent and reasoned explanation about why they oppose the CAA. 

I went to Mumbai's August Kranti Maidan on December 19 and to Azad Maidan on December 27 to judge for myself why people from all walks of life felt compelled to step out of their comfort zones to protest.

I spoke to students and young professionals. A student doing his PhD at the Indian Institute of Technology explained how many of them had been disturbed in 2016, after the suicide of Rohith Vemula in the University of Hyderabad. That is when students from different universities came together. And what began then has continued.

This year, after the curtailment of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, they sensed that steps to alienate the Muslim minority would accelerate.  But although they protested, they did not come out of their campuses. The CAA, he said, was literally the last straw, and many students felt they just could not hold back.

For a Muslim student from Jawaharlal Nehru University, who also attended the Azad Maidan rally, the Supreme Court's ruling on the Babri Masjid case was the inflection point. She said till then, she still had faith in the judiciary.  After the judgment, she and others like her felt there was no institution left that understood their fears. And the CAA just confirmed this, she said.

Many young professionals from different fields, people who had never participated in any public demonstration also turned up.  Design professionals used their skills to make posters, a standup comic held a placard that read: "I am from Gujarat. My documents burned in 2002". Another poster stated: "BJP is great at maths as they can divide 1.3 bn in no time". Such irony and humour has rarely been seen during protests in recent times.

I thought the point made by the IIT student, that the process of mobilising had already begun in 2016, was particularly significant.

For instance, many people have commented on the prominence of women students in the protests, particularly in Delhi, suggesting that this was something new and unusual.  There is a hidden assumption that women only come out to protest when the issue affects them directly. It is as if women are not 'citizens'!

The strong participation of women in the anti-CAA protests did not come about overnight. It has been part of several processes, such as the one initiated by a group called Pinjra Tod in 2015, coincidentally in the same Jamia Millia Islamia that is in the news today.  Then they fought against curfew hours imposed by their colleges on women students living in the hostel.  Since then they have intervened on many other issues on college campuses. 

Today, you see these women leading the protests with calm determination, and infectious innovation. For instance, there is a video clip of women students taking out a march after protesting outside the RSS Bhawan in New Delhi on December 25. When a police officer comes up to stop them, they break into song holding a banner stating that women will destroy Hindu Rashtra!  The expression on the face of the police officer is priceless.

So the participation of women, without any political affiliation, is not an overnight phenomenon.  It began some time back but because we in the media are so fixated on events, we often miss out on the process.  This article by Neha Dixit explains this clearly.

It is not just the process that the media is failing to follow.  In the case of the anti-CAA protests, much of mainstream media is either distorting the nature of the protests, by constantly highlighting incidents of violence, or simply ignoring them.  Or delegitimizing them, as this report illustrates.

This has led to considerable resentment in the people who are participating in the protests towards the media.  It manifests itself in derision and comments about "godi" media.  In Azad Maidan, a young woman stood steadfastly near the stage with a placard that read: "Arre yeh bikk gayi hai Media" and below these words the symbols of Republic TV, Z News, ABP, Aaj Tak and TOI (Times of India). Although there have been some incidents of journalists being attacked, as reported on this website, I felt that there was more disdain than anger towards the media in general.

We must remember that both in 2012, after the Delhi gang rape case, and in 2013, during the India Against Corruption campaigns in Delhi and other cities, news channels played an active role in amplifying the protests.  In both cases, this worked.  The government of the day had to pay heed.

This time, the majority of news channels have not obliged.  Yet, despite this, it is remarkable that the protests continue and clearly, this government is unable to ignore them. 

Perhaps, this is the beginning of the irrelevance of Big Media and of those in it who think they can ultimately control and even dictate the national narrative.

Monday, December 23, 2019

What if India's media believed the disempowered as much as it does those in power

My column in


Broken News

If the unjustifiable violence unleashed by the Delhi police at Jamia Millia Islamia University on December 15 had happened elsewhere, say on a campus in northeastern India, or in a state some distance from Delhi, we would not have seen the kind of nationwide outrage that was evident in the days that followed.

By the same measure, even if this kind of violence had occurred in New Delhi at another time, when there was only state-owned television and privately run print publications, the reaction, if any, would have been muted.

The response to Sunday’s violence was no thanks to the so-called “national”, privately owned news channels located in the capital, for whom the scene of the crime, so to speak, was a stone’s throw away. There were several reasons, but mainly that the authorities could not have snapped internet services in the national capital on the pretext of maintaining law and order as they have done elsewhere in recent months. In Kashmir, the internet blackout has exceeded four and a half months; in Assam and other parts of the Northeast, it’s only now being restored. Thus, what was happening on the ground became known primarily because of social media.

For instance, even as the police were trashing the library at Jamia, we saw what was happening because there were videos and live feeds on social media. We could see students cowering under desks, shattered glass, chairs overturned. We saw students being beaten by the police and the now viral video of two incredibly gutsy women students, Aysha Renna and Ladeeda Farzana, wagging their fingers, shouting and standing up to the police as they tried to save their male friend, Shaheen, from being beaten. None of this was seen on national television.  

Despite their huge presence in Delhi, the non-state television channels could not figure out how to get all sides of the story.  Instead, they resorted to their usual ploy of filling airtime with talking heads.

One channel, NDTV, did show a clip of the Uttar Pradesh police vandalising scooters and motorbikes parked outside Aligarh Muslim University, where protests in support of their peers at Jamia had broken out, but only because, the anchor emphasised, the act had been filmed by their own cameraman. She went to considerable lengths to explain that even though they had access to the videos by students inside Jamia, they could not show them because they could not be “independently verified”.

Yet, despite no “independent” verification, police officials got plenty of airtime to give their version of the story, defending their actions as essential to maintaining law and order in the face of a “mob”. There was no pushback from the reporters who spoke to these officials, leaving them to have the final word.

Worse still, the next morning, some in the print media – who ought to have known better as they are not expected to churn out instant copy the way TV reporters and anchors are – used the words “mob” and “protesters” interchangeably.  The Indian Express had a front page headline that read, “CAB protests: Mob hits the street.”

At a time when we have a government that regards all protest against its policies as “anti-national” and instigated by “jihadists” or “Naxals”, or as the prime minister said at an election rally in Jharkhand, by people who can be “identified by their clothes”, it is incumbent upon the press to make a necessary distinction between a “mob” and “protestors”.  The latter could turn into a “mob” if provoked, or if some amongst them are determined to provoke the police. But it is not inevitable.

If it happens, surely due diligence on the part of the media requires caution. Why repeat police terminology without first finding out how and why the confrontation began? There is a history of peaceful protests deteriorating into violence because of the actions of some people who join them to provoke and, thereby, undermine the reasons for the protest. 

Even if there was no time to establish who was responsible for the violence or the vandalism, at least an element of doubt could have been injected into the headline, so that “mob” and “protesters” were not seen as being coterminous. 

The media does a disservice to the rights of citizens to protest peacefully by drawing this kind of equivalence. It also does a disservice by disbelieving the disempowered, in this case the students, while giving plenty of airtime to those in power.

As it turns out, none of the 10 arrested after the Sunday violence in Jamia are students, according to the police. Who are these people?  Why are crime reporters not digging out these details? And why is the police, always so ready to give out names of people accused of a crime, being so reticent?

A day after the Sunday events, some in the media did make an effort to give the other side, especially Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today who stepped out of his studio and spent time walking around Jamia talking to the students. The visuals in his show mirrored those of the videos on social media by Jamia students of the attack on their library. A shining exception to the rule, as always, remains Ravish Kumar of NDTV India. He has always strived to show the truth, and he did so in this instance as well.

My limited point is that in such a situation, when the dice is so heavily loaded in favour of the authorities, a media which claims it is trying to be “balanced” needs to make a greater effort to get access to the other side. And if the only way of doing that is by “verifying” the content put out by those under siege, as these students were, then it could have been done. Digital platforms like Scroll did much better by running a live blog for 13 hours and including some of the videos.

By directly, or indirectly, endorsing the official version, the media is reinforcing the narrative the government would like it to perpetuate.

The protests in Jamia were covered because they were in Delhi. But people in the Northeast have not been so fortunate. When the Guwahati-based TV news channel Prag News was attacked by security personnel, who entered its offices and beat up some of the journalists, one of its senior editors was heard on one channel literally begging the national media to pay heed to what was happening in Assam.

Senior journalists from the Northeast have also been appealing to the “mainland” media, as they call it, to try and understand the varying reasons for opposition to the citizenship law in the region. The Northeast comprises eight states with distinct cultures and languages, and more importantly, different histories. Yet, for us in the “mainland” it is just a region that is either seen as colourful, because of the exotic tribal cultures, or troublesome, because of the history of insurgencies. 

Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Free Press, points out in his article in The Hindu, “This inability of those outside the Northeast to see what the Northeast sees betrays to an extent an ignorance and an insensitivity to a stark reality small marginalised communities there face.” Patricia Mukhim, editor of the Shillong Times, has also explained, in an article in Mint, the complexities of the diverse reactions in the Northeast to the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Even at a time like this, when so many parts of that region are deeply disturbed by the passing of the citizenship law, and before that by the way the enumeration for the National Register of Citizens was conducted in Assam, precious little effort is being made to educate viewers and readers, or even the journalists who work with mainstream media, on these distinctions within the Northeast. 

Mainstream media reinforces and exacerbates the alienation felt by people who live on the margins, either in geographical terms or in social terms, by either ignoring them, or reporting on their problems through lenses that are blurred with ignorance and prejudice.

Friday, December 13, 2019

How the demand for summary justice for rapists will backfire on India's poorest citizens

This comment piece by me appeared in The Telegraph, London on December 12, 2019


The gruesome rape and murder of a 26-year-old woman, within the city limits of Hyderabad on November 27, has set off a furious debate in India on crimes against women. 

There are growing demands for summary justice, including public lynching of rapists, even though the death penalty was included in the rape law in 2012. Have people lost faith in the law and in the criminal justice system? Or does this represent growing lawlessness and demands for retribution and revenge that have come to dominate public discourse in India?

In 2012, when a 23-year-old woman was brutally raped by six men in New Delhi, there was nationwide outrage and demands for a change in the law. 

The law was changed in 2013. The death penalty was introduced. Policemen refusing to note rape complaints were to be held criminally liable. A special fund was created to set up one-stop crisis centres across India. And state governments were directed to fast-track rape trials so that they were not indefinitely delayed, as they tend to be.

Six years later, crime statistics show that the incidents of rape have not decreased. The conviction rate is an abysmal 27 per cent even of the cases reported. Police continue to ignore complaints by poor and marginalised women despite the law. And only 20 per cent of the funds for the one-stop crisis centres have been used. Also, many states have failed to set up fast-track courts for rape. 

Clearly, a stronger law alone makes little difference when the criminal justice system continues to fail women, from the first step of registering a complaint to the trial that stretches for years. Many women simply give up. Many more, stay quiet. 

This apart, what is more worrying for the future of women in India, and for India itself, is what followed the Hyderabad rape. 

Within days, the police had rounded up four suspects and claimed they had confessed. Their names were made public. One happened to be a Muslim. This led to demands for summary justice on social media, dominated as it is by Islamophobia. 

Then a woman member of parliament demanded that rapists should be lynched in public. Another suggested chemical castration.  Instead of disgust, such demands were applauded. 

The calls for lawlessness by our lawmakers were heeded, it would appear, by our law enforcers. In the early hours of December 6, the four suspects, who incidentally could find no one to represent them in court, were taken out to the scene of the crime and shot dead. 

The police claim the men tried to escape and snatched their weapons. They had to fire in retaliation, they say. Yet there is no evidence yet of anyone from the police contingent being injured. The four suspects are dead. And the case is closed. 

As worrying as is this extra-judicial killing, of men against whom even a charge sheet had not been prepared, has been the response of the public and politicians. Almost across the board, there has been praise of the actions of the Hyderabad police. People showered flowers on the policemen. And there are demands for similar action, known locally as ‘encounters’ against other rapists. 

In fact within days of the Hyderabad incident, a young woman was set on fire by men she had accused of rape in a village in the northern statue of Uttar Pradesh. She died a few days later. Now her parents are demanding that the accused be ‘encountered’. 

It is this deadly mix of demands for public lynchings, and for the police to simply eliminate suspects of crime, that should worry us. India still calls itself a constitutional democracy. But when law-makers endorse lawlessness and law enforcers implement this, you are looking at the beginning of a serious breakdown in civilisational norms. 

Since 2015, we have witnessed public lynchings of poor Muslim men, in the name of protecting the cow, held sacred by Hindus. The ruling  Bharatiya Janata Party has deliberately turned a blind eye to this. 

Today, in the name of protecting Indian women, summary justice is being demanded. The men who will receive this will only be the poor, the marginalised, those unable to mount a defence. While the rich, the powerful, including so-called godmen, remain untouched. 

Indian women will only feel safe if we fix the criminal justice system, deal with the rape culture being reinforced by mass media and end embedded patriarchy that still views women as property. 

Why does India’s media cover some rapes extensively and ignore others?

 This is a new fortnightly column that will now appear on the website


By Kalpana Sharma

Does the media contribute directly, or indirectly, to distorting our
understanding of the reasons for the increasing violence against women?

I ask this question against the background of the horrific rape and
murder of a 26-year-old veterinarian in Hyderabad on the evening of
November 27. Her charred remains were found the next day after her
parents managed, after several failed attempts, to get the police to file a
missing person report.

All media ran with the story – print, TV, digital. It had all the elements
of horror. It happened not in a desolate, distant area but near a toll
booth in a metropolitan city. And it reminded us of the everydayness of
violence: a working woman, waiting to go home, could be abducted,
raped and murdered within shouting distance of a toll booth.

There was outrage, as expected. Demonstrations, young women holding
placards that asked “Am I next?” These were mostly in Hyderabad, with
a few protests in other cities.

The public demonstration of anger and the media coverage was enough
to push the state government to act. Within days, the police
apprehended four young men who apparently confessed to the crime.
The government promised to “fast-track” the case. And the policemen
who had delayed noting the complaint by her parents were suspended.

At the same time, there was a show of competitive concern, especially
amongst politicians. As “Hang the Rapists” was a slogan that was past its
expiry date, as the death penalty for rape was already in the statute after
the 2012 gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi, what else could
they demand to be noticed above the anger on the street?

Samajwadi Party MP Jaya Bachchan won that competition hands down
when she declared in Parliament (the place where laws are made) that
rapists should be lynched in public. In other words, the public should
take the law into its own hands. This in a country where public lynchings
of defenceless Muslim men have been conducted in the name of
protecting cows, with the full knowledge that there will be little or no
punishment for the crime.

Given the recent history of lynchings in India, Bachchan’s remarks are
even more ominous. In the Hyderabad case, the names of the four
accused were leaked even before the police held a press conference. One
of the accused is Muslim. That was enough for the Hindutva army on
social media, as AltNews reported, to dive straight into a communal war
of their own creation, painting dire scenarios of what could happen in
the future. As the article rightly points out, “A disturbing phenomenon is
observed in recent times where crimes as heinous as rape are
communalised. The trend is not only true in the case of social media but
for also prominent individuals in the government and media outlets
capable of shaping public opinion. Since the brutal incident was
reported, the police had identified all the four accused. But a social
media campaign attempted to paint a communal picture. Irresponsible
media reports, with clickbaity headlines, furthered the misleading
narrative instead of dousing the hate.”

The question for the media, given the growing atmosphere of hate,
compounded now by politicians suggesting rapists should be lynched, is
whether the photographs of the accused should be printed.

These are men against whom the police claim they have a case. But a
chargesheet has not been filed. Do they not have the right to a fair trial?
How many men have been accused and imprisoned for years on terror
charges, for instance, before being acquitted by the courts? Given our
dysfunctional criminal justice system, is it not incumbent on the media
to err on the side of caution, rather than encourage, and even join, the
lynch mobs? Is it not the duty of the media to aid justice rather than
perpetuate injustice? These are questions we must ask.

There are other questions. The name and identity of the woman were
used in practically all media in the immediate aftermath of the crime.
This happened despite a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, in the context of
the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in Kathua, Jammu, that the
media cannot name a rape victim even if she dies. Yet, the same mistake
was repeated. By the time some media houses realised their mistake, her
name and photograph were all over social media and even today come
up when you do an internet search.

Linked to this is the norm that any respectable media house ought to
follow: that even reporting on the locality where the victim lives, or
giving away the identity of her parents and family, is equivalent to
revealing her identity. Yet, this too continues to be violated. Not
surprisingly, the residents of the colony in Hyderabad where the
woman’s parents live locked the gates and put up a notice that read, “No
Media, No Police, No Outsiders - No sympathy, only action, justice”.

Finally, there is the question of the selective amplification of crimes
against women. How does the media choose which ones to report on
extensively? Convenience, proximity, scale of the crime are some criteria.
But also class, caste, locale – biases that are so routine they go

A few days before the rape in Hyderabad, a Dalit woman who sold
utensils and balloons was raped and murdered in a village in Telangana,
129 km from Adilabad. The Deccan Chronicle carried a story about her
husband complaining that the state government did not respond,
perhaps because they were poor and Dalit, nor did the civil society. Nor
did the media, I might add.

The lack of interest in the media about crimes away from regular beats
and metropolitan areas has a direct impact on our understanding of the
extent of violence against women, especially poor and marginalised
women, and the reasons for it. In fact, in the week before and after the
Hyderabad rape, several such horrific incidents were reported from
different parts of the country. But only one was pursued by the media.

Such selective reporting reinforces the belief that public spaces are
unsafe for women. Instead of our society questioning why any woman
should be afraid to step out, women are asked to take precautions.

In fact, within days of the Hyderabad rape, the city’s police
commissioner came out with 14 recommendations on what women
should do to be safe. Many women were outraged by his advisory.

One of them wrote on Twitter, "We are raped by men so for heaven’s
sake issue a damn advisory for men to NOT RAPE us. Why the hell are
we paying the penalty for men who are monsters? This is the problem,
tell your men to NOT RAPE WOMEN! Keep your
damn safety advisory to yourself.”

The other side of selective focus on some crimes against women is that
people forget that over 90 per cent of sexual assaults on women take
place in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, by men known to them.
By constantly reporting only on crimes in public spaces, this reality gets

Although one could argue that the media cannot report every crime
committed against every woman, it is evident that reporting crimes
against women is a selling proposition. The media thrives on crime,
controversy and crises. The media can generate the latter two when they
are in short supply. But as there is no shortage of crime, the media sets out
to pick and choose the crime stories that sell.

In doing so, despite the debates, the judicial rulings, the protests from
the afflicted, the media continues to fail women victims of crime and to
create false narratives on an issue like violence against women.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

#MeToo one year later

Published in on October 5, 2019 (

A year ago, in a television interview, actor Tanushree Dutta reiterated an accusation she had first made in 2008 against well-known actor Nana Patekar: that he touched her inappropriately during practice for a dance sequence. 

In 2008, few paid heed to her charges. But in 2018, she was heard.  The reason: by then, thanks to the #MeToo campaign that began in the US in 2017, women were speaking out on social media platforms and calling out powerful men. Echoes of that had just begun to be heard in India.  Dutta's story, in many ways, opened the floodgates of #MeToo in India.

However, though Dutta has been heard now, her complaint has not been heeded.  In June this year, the police complaint she filed against Nana Patekar last year was closed due to lack of evidence. She plans to pursue the case in the Bombay High Court.

Perhaps one year is too short a time to assess the impact of a campaign that forced out the ugly reality of predatory men and the women they felt entitled to harass.  But the closure of Dutta's case, and several other related developments in different courts, points to the difficulties in proving sexual harassment through the justice system.

In fact, the very nature of the #MeToo campaign illustrates this challenge. It is probably the reason most women survivors preferred outing their harassers through social media rather than hoping the law would deliver justice.

This apart, one year later we must acknowledge that the #MeToo campaign has convincingly exposed the inequality of power in work situations that makes women vulnerable to sexual predators.  It has shown how that very inequity deprives women of the confidence to face their harassers. It has also demonstrated that when a few women do find the courage to speak up, most often they are the ones who are victimised, disbelieved and forced out of jobs while the perpetrators continue untouched.

Also, thanks to the campaign, there is greater awareness of the law, the Sexual Harassment of Women in the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Organisations are now under greater pressure to set up the mandated Internal Committee (IC) to address women's complaints. Of course, the composition and functioning of the ICs is still far from what is desired.

In the end though, we have to ask whether the reality of sexual harassment is being acknowledged today? Has the campaign forced us to accept that sexual harassment is not just bad behaviour, or an occasional slip of judgment? That it is a crime that diminishes and scars women, and punishes them when they dare to confront the perpetrators?

The jury is still out on that. There is no doubt now that sexual harassment cannot be ignored, that women are determined to speak out and that they have built solidarities of support because of the campaign.  A woman who wants to speak up today knows that she is not alone.

Yet, it is also becoming increasingly evident that it is not so easy disempowering the men accused of harassment or proving a case against them.

It is the women, particularly those who have had the courage to go public with their accusations, who are paying the price. Women like journalist Priya Ramani who has been charged with criminal defamation by former editor and now politician M. J. Akbar.

Akbar's case is still being heard.  But on September 18, the Delhi High Court disposed of a suit filed by well-known Indian artist Subhodh Gupta against the Instagram page Scene and Herd (@herdsceneand). 

Gupta alleged that the page had posted defamatory content against him last year when two women accused him, anonymously, of sexual harassment. He has asked for the pages to be taken down on Instagram, for all URLs linked to the page to be removed by Google and for a "token" amount of Rs 5 crores to be paid to him in damages by those who manage the page.

Scene and Herd posts anonymous complaints of sexual harassment against people in the art world.  Its home page states, "We choose anonymity". Apart from Gupta, there are several other artists and men in the art world who have been named through these anonymous posts.

In Gupta's case, the Delhi High Court has given an ex parte injunction, restraining Scene and Herd from posting anything about Gupta until the next hearing, asking Google to take down all the URLs referring to the sexual harassment charges against Gupta and also asking Facebook, which owns Instagram, to do the same with the posts on Scene and Herd.  Both companies have apparently agreed.

The judge, Rajiv Sahai Endlaw, stated in his order, "Prima facie, it appears that the allegation as made in the allegedly defamatory contents, cannot be permitted to be made in public domain/published without being backed by the legal recourse.  The same if permitted is capable of mischief."

More worrying is the judge's order asking Facebook, to hand over to the court in a sealed envelope, "the particulars of the person/entity behind the Instagram account 'Herdsceneand'."

Although this is an interim injunction, it could have several repercussions.  It cuts to the heart of the #MeToo campaign where the very fact of anonymity encouraged many women to come out with their stories. If the identity of the handlers of such pages is made public, the confidence of the women posting their accounts will be undermined.

It is known that One of the main criticisms of the #MeToo campaign was the anonymity of the accusers.  Was it fair to name a perpetrator without the accuser making herself known?  How would the former be able to defend himself?

To which, the answer given was that the women survivors were vulnerable in the face of the men they were calling out.  Even if at the end of the exercise there was no justice, the women felt it was important to publicly identify the men who had preyed on them for years.

Yet, the question remains: is publicly naming and shaming sexual predators the only, or the best way, to address the problem of sexual harassment.

Also, are the powerful men charged with sexual harassment acknowledging it as a crime? Or do they continue to brazen it out, to use their power to bully and diminish the women who have spoken out?

These questions become even more relevant in the face of the ease with which many of those who were named have managed to either clear their names, or be accepted back in jobs, or positions of authority, because, as Justice Endlaw said, the allegations were not "backed by the legal recourse".

The problem, as women like Tanushree Dutta now know, is that even when you do turn to the law, you are at a disadvantage. Sexual harassment is probably one of the most difficult crimes to prove in court. Unless there is a paper trail, or witnesses, it becomes one woman's word against a man, usually someone with much greater power.

Furthermore, the law does not accept that it might take a woman years, even decades, to proceed against her harasser.

On September 16, the Bombay High Court set aside criminal proceedings against investor Mahesh Matthai, who had been accused by several women of sexual harassment. One of them filed a criminal complaint last year. But the court has dismissed it because of the lapse of time between when the alleged offence took place and the FIR.

As for Bollywood, after the initial ripple triggered by Tanushree Dutta's accusations, it appears to be business as usual. Even an actor generally deemed to be sympathetic to gender concerns, Aamir Khan, has justified working with Subhash Kapoor, a director accused of sexual harassment.  And Vikas Bahl, of Phantom films (that was dissolved shortly after the accusations against him) has been cleared by Reliance Entertainment of all charges after an internal inquiry and is back directing films.

The experience of Chinmayi Sirpada is especially discouraging. After she accused the well-known lyricist Vairamuthu of sexual harassment, she was denied work as a dubbing artist and few were willing to believe her.  Vairamuthu, on the other hand, remains virtually unaffected and has been selected to write the lyrics for Mani Ratnam's new film. 

Sirpada tweeted her frustration when she wrote: "Let me reiterate this. Almost a year since my outing Vairamuthu as a molester. Not ONE Newspaper or Publication has asked him ANY questions. How do the MJ Akbar’s and Vairamuthus escape any and All questions, get mollycoddled and party with the powerful? None of it makes sense."

In fact, it does make sense. While social media facilitated the outing of these men, the systems to actually address sexual harassment as a crime are still not working. Even the women who have found the courage to go public and turn to the law face an uphill battle.

The cloak of anonymity was believed to be the only option in such a situation.  That is the reason so many women chose to use it. But even that could prove difficult given the Delhi High Court's interim injunction.

The questions raised when the campaign began remain the same.  How do we address sexual harassment? How do we give women the tools and the strength to fight it? How do we change male attitudes so that women are treated as equal human beings and not sexual prey? How do we dismantle entrenched patriarchal attitudes and structures?

It will take many more iterations of #MeToo before we get anywhere close to answering those questions.


Friday, August 16, 2019

Where is that "heaven of freedom"?

Image result for Kashmir conflict images 
 Image courtesy Al Jazeera

India turned 72 on August 15.  It's now "running" 73, as we like to say in India.

But this August 15 has been a strange one. In the building where I live in Mumbai, there is a ritual flag hoisting every year.  The flag is tied up, hoisted on a bamboo pole on the terrace while residents, including the little kids gather around.  The oldest resident is invited to unfurl the flag.

This year, a retired dentist who lives across the corridor from me was persuaded to do the deed.  He tried.  But the flag would not unfurl.  Finally, after some effort at undoing the knot, that should have unknotted automatically, the flag went up and hung limply.

At this, the gathered crowd burst into the national anthem, at the end of which one resident lustily shouted, "Bharat Mata ki Jai".  No one responded.

A woman standing next to me declared it was the happiest day for her life because "Kashmir is finally ours".   She says she is a Kashmiri Pandit. A man chipped in that the flag should have been hoisted in Lal Chowk, Srinagar.

The rest of the gathered assembly quickly lost interest in the proceedings and instead drifted towards a table laden with delicious snacks -- from South Indian idlis, to North Indian jalebis, to Gujarati gathia and the universal Indian samosa. 

After consuming this symbol of national integration, the satisfied gathering headed back into their respective apartments.

The ritual of flag hoisting is meaningless at one level, especially if you are not imbued with patriotic fervour.  Yet for our building, each year it is a reminder of our differences -- of caste, community, religion, language, class -- as well as our ability to somehow tolerate all this, share food and laughter momentarily and get on with our lives.

This year, however, I did wonder how long this veneer of tolerance would last.

The reason is August 5, 2019, which in my view will remain one of the darkest days of the last 72 years.  And that is how old I am.

It made me think back to what I felt on the morning of June 26, 1975 when the full import of the State of Emergency that then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared dawned on us.  During the night all the leading opposition leaders had been arrested. Press censorship was imposed.  And human rights suspended. 

The lines of communication, however, had not been snapped.  Landlines worked, the only form of telephones available at that time. The telegraph office was functioning. Journalists could send out information through teleprinter, press telegrams, or phone-ins.  That much of that information could not be printed eventually because of press censorship is another story.  But we could communicate.

Yet, because newspapers could not publish these reports, and the only source of information was the sanitised government owned radio, All India Radio (AIR), people turned to the BBC and Voice of America to get news of what was happening in India.  It is then that we learned that thousands of people had been arrested. 

All you needed was a portable transistor with a long ariel. I can remember hanging out of my window at home to try and catch the news from these sources.

Anyone who travelled abroad for work, such as airline crew, for instance, was requested to bring back any newspapers or periodicals that carried Indian news.

These stories were then diligently retyped, cyclostyled, and then distributed, usually be hand.  A group of my friends named our four-page leaflet Mukti with all this regurgitated news from international sources. We posted it to people we thought would be interested.  We would take the extra precaution of dropping the brown manila envelopes with Mukti in postboxes located in different parts of the city so that the exact location of the source of this product could not be traced.

These memories came flooding as I read the stories of how journalists in Kashmir are struggling to get the news out in the absence of any form of communication, cellphones, landlines or Internet. That they are walking or driving to places, meeting people, putting together stories, saving them on pen drives, then taking them to a press where they can be printed. 

Regular and popular newspapers like Rising Kashmir and Greater Kashmir have been reduced to two or four pages. Their web editions don't exist at the moment.  But somehow, through the ingenuity of these journalists, they have found ways to continue to produce their papers.  Many of them have been spending many nights in their offices away from their families, missing Eid as this touching story that Bashaarat Masood, the correspondent of Indian Express recounts.

This story of printing curtailed newspapers also brought back memories of Himmat Weekly, of which I was the editor, in 1976.  Censorship had also resulted in printing presses shying away from journals like ours that were continuing to be critical of the government. 

It forced us to appeal for funds from our readers so that we could buy even a small printing press.  A tiny room in an industrial estate in Prabhadevi, central Mumbai, with two treadle machines (that could only print one side of two A4 size papers) was part of the deal.

Himmat managed to raise the funds, bought the space and the machines, and named it Anil Printers, in memory of Anil Kumar, a young man from Delhi who worked with Himmat and died prematurely in a road accident leaving behind his 8-month pregnant wife, Padmini, who worked as a journalist with Himmat. On August 14, Padmini passed away in Pune, leaving behind many memories of those times that were challenging but also stimulating.

But to come back to Anil Printers, the machines could not have printed the 24 page weekly that we produced.  Neither could it have typeset the matter as it only had some typefaces that could be set by hand.

Yet, to justify carrying the print line of Anil Printers, we had to print at least two pages there. The rest of the paper was typeset and printed at another press on the condition that each page of copy sent to them had the clearance stamp of the censor.

By choosing to print the last forme at our own printer, we were able to avoid submitting our editorials and the back page column by the editor-in-chief Rajmohan Gandhi, to the censor. The other printer did not have to worry, as the legal consequences of this matter, if it violated censorship guidelines, would be on our heads.

But we still had to typeset the matter.  We found a way around this by finding someone in south Mumbai who agreed to do this on a linotype machine.  The matter, which consisted of columns of type set in lead, was then carried by hand by one of our peons, by bus over a distance of 10-15 kms to Anil Printers. 

There we would proof read this last and most important part of the journal, make corrections with the help of the handset types available (resulting in a distinct difference being visible between the machine set and hand set type), and then printing the pages on the slow and ancient treadle machines.

Once the ink on the pages had dried, they were packed and carried to the printer where the rest of the magazine had been printed. Here the magazine was bound and ready for dispatch.

Each week it was something of a miracle that by Wednesday morning Himmat Weekly was printed and ready to be sold on the stands, or dispatched by parcel post to different parts of the country.

The parallels between that period of the Emergency and what is going on in Kashmir today are patently obvious.

The opposition has been locked up as in the Emergency.

Jammu and Kashmir's special status has been revoked using the law and Parliament, much as Mrs Gandhi did when she proclaimed the Emergency.

Although there is no direct press censorship today in Kashmir, blocking all means of communication is, in fact, a form of censorship. It has prevented any information about what Kashmiris feel about these developments and what is happening there from reaching the rest of the country.

Once again, as in 1975, the first detailed reports indicating anger and resistance came through the international press -- the BBC, Al Jazeera, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

After strenuous denials, and even accusing these credible news sources of telling lies, the government backed down.

The absence of free flow of information during the 20-month Emergency allowed the rulers to delude themselves that all was normal. In the last 11 days, repeatedly, India's rulers and a pliant press has declared that all is well in Kashmir.

In the initial months after Emergency was declared, very few took the risk of taking on the might of the State.  Yet, there was resistance from the start. It was building up behind closed doors, in whispered conversations, in undetected locations. People were planning and strategising what should be done, not least to ensure that news of the gross human rights violations taking place were broadcast through the underground network.

When Mrs Gandhi lost her seat and the elections in 1977, she was astounded as were her advisors. But not the people. It was their way of rejecting unequivocally what she had done to the country. To assert that freedom and democratic rights were not a luxury; they guaranteed that the voices of the most marginalised and oppressed were heard. 

Today, going by an increasing number of reports from journalists who are not part of the government's spoon-fed media -- which is being hosted in a posh hotel in Srinagar and taken on helicopter rides to "see" how normal and peaceful is the state -- are indicating that the same kind of sullen resistance is building up.  How long it takes to explode remains to be seen.

But to come back to August 15 and Independence Day, being an almost Midnight's Child, I had declared when I was 18 that I was as old as "free India". The key word was "free", not just independent of foreign rule.

Today, I cannot use that term when close to 8 million people in this country are un-free, unable to speak, and with a government and the majority of Indians unwilling to listen to what they have to say.

We were all brought up to recite Rabindranath Tagore's famous poem that ended with, "Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake".

Where is that "heaven of freedom"?