Monday, December 17, 2007

Unrecognised heroines

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 16, 2007



Is it best to forget, forgive and move on or should
we hold on to our belief that there has to be
justice for past wrongs? This question is being
asked repeatedly in the context of the forthcoming
Gujarat election. Some people argue that the
horrific events of 2002 can and should never be forgotten.

Others believe that Gujarat and Gujaratis must move
on and that economic development will ultimately
benefit all and automatically heal the wounds.
Yet, we know that unless there is justice, the
wounds don’t heal. In Mumbai, for the victims
of the March 1993 serial blasts, perhaps there is
some closure with the conclusion of the long drawn
out case that has convicted 100 people. But the
riots that preceded the bomb blasts have left behind
a legacy of gaping wounds — the perpetrators
of the crimes committed then, specifically named in
the Srikrishna Commission report, continue to roam
around freely while the victims survive in an
increasingly divided society. India’s post
Independence history is replete with such instances
of unresolved communal crimes.

Getting away unscathed

And then there are corporate crimes that also remain
unresolved. Remember Bhopal 1984? In one night,
3,000 people died because a leaking plant using
poisonous chemicals continued to operate with
impunity in the vicinity of a crowded locality of
urban poor. Until one cold December night when there
was an “accident”. Thousands died, many
more lived impaired lives for years and then died
and still more continue to carry the burden of poor
health for the crime of being near the Union Carbide
plant on that fateful night. Yet, the corporation
responsible for this “accident” has
escaped virtually unscathed.

For the victims of the Bhopal Gas Disaster, the
23-year-old struggle for justice has been relentless
and quite often thankless. For every bit of
additional compensation, for basic health
facilities, for a clean up of the rotting plant that
closed down after raining death on its
neighbourhood, they have had to petition,
demonstrate and fight.

Leading the struggle have been women. Two of them,
Rasheeda Bee and Champa Devi were recognised for
their efforts when they received the Goldman
Environmental Prize (considered an alternate Nobel)
in 2004. Now these women have used the prize money
of $1,25,000 to set up the Chingari Trust that will
seek out others like them around the country and
recognise their efforts.

This year, the first ever Chingari Award for Women
Against Corporate Crime was given to a 45-year-old
tribal woman from Rayagada district in Orissa, Mukta

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Srinagar Diary

The Hindu, Sunday, December 2, 2007


Cities can change and do. Five years is a long time
in the life of a city. It appears even longer when
the city in question is one at the heart of a tussle
that has ranged over 60 years. Srinagar, capital of
Jammu and Kashmir, has seen happiness and
sorrow, strife and togetherness, natural beauty and
the ugly detritus of conflict.

In 2007, many of the symbols emblematic of the
conflict are still in place. The gun-toting security
forces in civilian areas, the barbed wire, the
sandbags, the pill-boxes, the armoured cars. Also
the anger and resentment that spills out on the
streets at the slightest provocation. And the deep
wounds that sometimes remain unspoken.

But superficially, there are changes. Against the
background of the unsettled reality of the State and
the region, they seem dramatic. There is a new
international airport under construction. The road
from the airport to the city is lined with huge and
impressive new houses built with the wealth that is
now being invested in the State. Srinagar now boasts
of a flyover that is almost ready and a railway line
that is slowly making its way. The troops are not so
prominent now, although they are still a visible and
disturbing presence.

Apparent changes

The shops don’t shut after sunset as they did
five years ago. The beautiful boulevard kissing the
banks of the Dal Lake, now sadly shrinking due to a
combination of neglect and pollution, is now peopled
and not deserted as before. There are Internet cafes
and coffee houses. There are shopping malls. And
tragically, there is so much air pollution with the
explosion of cars on the roads that the sky is not
blue anymore. A grey haze hangs over Srinagar. The
urban scourge of the rest of South Asia has
descended on this picturesque city.

Five years ago, cell phones did not work in
Srinagar. Today, you see almost every person holding
a cell phone. But you can call anywhere in the world
except Pakistan. Pakistanis can reach you if you
live in Srinagar. But you can’t call them
back. One of those inexplicable decisions based on
“security” considerations.

Can this kind of physical change, integration into a
national and global economy, more personal
investment and wealth, erase the unresolved
questions that hover over every conversation in
Srinagar? There is a new confidence that is now
evident in the young Kashmiri and in the older ones
who have suffered through the decades of conflict.
Yet, this confidence does not necessarily mean that
people have changed their positions about the future
of Kashmir. And even if there is superficial peace,
the conflict is far from resolved. Reports in the
local newspapers, not always relayed to the national
press, remind us of the daily incidents that
illustrate the extent to which parts of the State
remain tense and disturbed.

At the same time, the Indo-Pak peace process, the
people to people exchanges, the opening up of
meeting points along the Line of Control have raised
some hope that permanent peace is possible. Apart
from the larger questions, what concerns the
ordinary person is finding ways to increase
communication between divided families and
communities straddling the LoC. This was the
question that engaged a group of almost 50 women
from both sides of the State of Jammu and Kashmir.

Fourteen women from the Pakistan side of Kashmir
crossed the Wagah border in mid-November, travelled
by road to Jammu and then flew in to Srinagar to
meet their counterparts on this side of the border.
This was the first time such a meeting was held
between women from the two sides.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

World without women

The Hindu, November 18, 2007

The Other Half


In the late 1980s, when we had the first indications
that technology was being used to ensure that girls
were not born, a few people made rather prescient
predictions about the future. They predicted that
women would face much greater violence. They suggested
that women would be trafficked.
These campaigners against sex-selective abortions were
condemned as scare-mongerers. They were told they were
exaggerating to make a point. Fewer women would mean a
greater demand for them. That instead of dowry, women
could demand a higher price for marriage.

Realities now
We know now that the opposite has happened. Many of
the dire predictions made in the 1980s are coming
true. In the States where sex selection is most
rampant, there are entire villages where the men
cannot find women to marry. So they are “buying” women
from other States. And in some instances, where the
family can afford to buy just one woman, she is
expected to “service” all the men in the family.

An increasing number of studies and reports are now
revealing that this is happening not just in Punjab
and Haryana, the States with the worst sex ratios but
also in some districts of Uttar Pradesh. It is
possible that such incidents could be occurring in
other States as well but have not yet been reported.

The 2001 census was a wake-up call. It exposed the
damning Indian reality of falling sex ratios in the
0-6 years age group. The national average stood at 927
girls to 1,000 boys. Since then some efforts have been
put in place to implement the law to check
sex-selective abortions and to encourage parents with
girls. But clearly, so far, the impact of such
policies has not made a difference. The Third National
Family Health Survey has revealed that five years
later, the sex ratio in the age group has fallen to

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Dressing down at work

The Hindu, November 4, 2007



The crowd was utterly conformist. Row upon row of neatly turned out women, the majority of them in subdued colours, mostly wearing salwar kameez, a few wearing saris and even fewer in trousers. The meeting was be ing held in Technopark, the area marked out for the IT sector just outside the Kerala capital of Thiruvananthapuram. Here, fairly ugly and unimaginative six to seven storey buildings punctuate acres of greenery. But step inside one of them and you enter a different world.
On each floor, you find young men and women working intensely and quietly in front of individual computers or crowded around a table in glass-fronted room listening in to a conference call as they deal with the demands of clients sitting in another part of the world. The only way you know you’re in Kerala and not in Mumbai or Delhi is the way the women dress. Conformity is the norm. Rarely does a woman stick out as being different.

Why then have some IT companies introduced a dress code for their employees? The reasons given are that bright clothing, or plunging necklines in women, or short skirts, or tight tee shirts and jeans are a “distraction” — for the men, one presumes. So should the person who is “distracted” be told to concentrate, or should the person who is ostensibly responsible for the distraction be ticked off?

Women know that they don’t need to dress any particular way to be accused of “distracting” men. You only have to be a woman. You need not be a beauty queen. You can be dressed in the dowdiest of clothes. But as far as the average male is concerned, particularly in some parts of India, you are fair game for unwanted remarks, stares and touch.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The devil is in Dharavi's details

HOW DO you bake a cake if you don't know the exact ingredients? Ask the Maharashtra government. This is precisely what it is attempting to do through the Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP), a scheme that is now expected to yield over Rs. 10,000 crore to the coffers of the state government.

The government knows the size of the area to be redeveloped - 223 hectares. But how many people live on it? The agency tasked with implementing the project has now acknowledged that it does not know.

Dr. T. Chandrasekhar, Officer on Special Duty for the DRP, has gone on record to say that no detailed survey has been done to determine precisely how many people are eligible for rehabilitation as part of the DRP. In other words, the entire plan has been finalised on what Chandrasekhar calls "a plane table survey, not a detailed survey". He has stated the obvious when he told a newspaper, "A survey is a basic necessity. It is a minimum accurate input required for preparing policy and implementing the project". Surely, this should have occurred to those who finalised the project. Instead, on the basis of "a plane table survey" it was concluded that there are 57,000 families that are eligible for rehabilitation as they will be able to prove that they have lived in Dharavi before January 1, 1995.

The absence of hard, accurate data is an extraordinary admission at a time when the government has already asked international bidders for expressions of interest and is on the verge of announcing a short list of eligible developers. At the same time, one must appreciate the fact that Chandrasekhar has taken steps to set this lacuna right. He is also trying to set up a more inclusive and consultative process so that all the objections that have been raised about the DRP, several from retired planners and bureaucrats, are taken on board before the project is implemented.

In the meantime, the number of 57,000 families is used in all official documents including the Ex pression of Interest (EOI) document that outlines details of the DRP while inviting bids. If the new biometric survey, commissioned by Chandrashekhar and contracted to a non-governmental organisation, actually puts the number of eligible families at twice that number, or considerably more than that number, then what happens to the economics of the plan?

Currently, the reason developers might be interested in redeveloping Dharavi is because of the value of the real estate on which it is located and its proximity to the Bandra-Kurla complex. The DRP requires to rehabilitate in situ all eligible slum dwellers and provide the additional infrastructure and civic facilities mandated by the plan. Once this is done, it is expected that there will be an adequate amount of land that would remain free for building either commercial or residential property, or both, for sale. This would more than compensate the developer for the amount he would have spent on the rehab component.

The DRP has also made two special concessions to attract developers. It has raised the FSI (floor space index) to 4, higher than the 2.5 FSI available for other slum redevelopment projects in the city. And it has waived the criteria of getting the consent of the residents of Dharavi before proceeding with the redevelopment. These two concessions together, it is hoped, will have developers rushing to grab pieces of the project.

Even before the first brick has been laid, the government has begun to collect money from those showing an interest. Once the bids are finalised, it expects to rake in around Rs. 10,000 crore as developers will be required to pay for the additional FSI they are being granted. In other words, the government expects builders to pay a minimum of Rs 450 per sq ft as premium for every additional square foot they will build after fulfilling the rehab component. Such bounty might have the mandarins of Mantralaya salivating, but will it grab the interest of the really big developers? This still remains debatable as the DRP has more than a few problems.

A major problem will crop up once the new survey is ready. For, if many more people need to be resettled in Dharavi as opposed to the numbers mentioned at present, the calculations on profits to be made will change quite drastically. It will be recalled that when the Slum Redevelopment Scheme was launched in 1995, initially there was enormous interest by builders. But once they saw some of the slums, and realised that selling property next to resettled slum dwellers would not be that simple, many of them backed out. Only slums located near major roads or in localities where property prices were high, found takers for redevelopment. In fact, even in Dharavi, the new buildings are all along the main roads.

Additionally, each of the developers bidding for the five sectors into which Dharavi has been divided will have to contend with the growing opposition to the project. The Kumbhars, for instance, have refused to be clubbed with other slum dwellers. They have petitioned the Bombay High Court to be allowed to design and execute their own redevelopment plan. Others too will not quietly accept what is on offer even if their consent is not needed.

Of course, if you listen to officials and politicians, you would never believe that there are any serious hurdles to cross before the DRP can be implemented. So taken is the Maharashtra government with the concept of the project that it has laid down in its new housing policy that all large slums will follow the DRP pattern of development. And not just the larger slums. Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh has announced that three smaller slums in Ghatkopar, including Ramabai Nagar which was the scene of clashes between Dalits and the police some years back, will be redeveloped on the lines of the DRP. This essentially means giving a licence to builders to profit from the real estate without bothering about the consent of the slum dwellers. So without waiting to see whether and if the DRP is practical or workable, the government is going ahead sanctioning more projects along similar lines.

Mukesh Mehta, the architect and prime mover of the DRP, remains convinced that all slum redevelopment, not just in Mumbai, but in the rest of India, will go the Dharavi way. However, he, and the rest of us, will have to wait and see, for the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And when the cook does not know the precise measurements of the ingredients, then the results are likely to be more than a little unpalatable.

(Published in the Mumbai edition of Hindustan Times on the Op-ed page on October 25, 2007)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The freedom not to choose

How much freedom should our daughters have? This is the question that has become the topic of discussion nationwide thanks to the media attention given to two young women, Telugu actor Chiranjivi’s daughter, Shriji and Kolkata industrialist Ashok Todi’s daughter, Priyanka.

Both chose the men they wanted to marry. They did not wait for their family’s approval. They considered all the possibilities, expected opposition, and chose to go ahead and get married. In one case, this free choice has ended in a terrible tragedy with the mysterious death of Priyanka’s husband Rizanwur Rehman in Kolkata. The truth has yet to unravel. But its repercussions are being felt in Kolkata society and in West Bengal’s politics.

We don’t know yet whether there will be a happy ending to Shriji’s story. But both these incidents illustrate something that is happening in Indian society. Parents are bringing up daughters to believe that they can do anything, are capable of doing anything. For a young woman who is sent to university today, the possibilities seem immense. Gone are the days when the only choice before girls was to choose to become a doctor or a teacher. Even engineers were rare. If you were not interested in either, then you did a “pass” course and waited for marriage proposals. Instead today, women are making diverse choices are entering fields that were closed to their mothers.

Proof of this is available in the many stories you read about the “first” woman in a particular career. Last week, at a meeting in Thiruvananthapuram, I heard Sreelekha, the “first” Indian Police Service officer in Kerala speak. She was addressing a group of young women engineers working for an American software company. Sreelekha’s story was inspiring. With disarming honesty, she admitted to the women how she was not a particularly bright student. Her father expected her to choose science. Instead, she followed her heart and chose the humanities, particularly literature. Career options then were limited. Inevitably she ended up being a teacher. But not satisfied with this, she joined a bank. And after that decided to try for the Indian Administrative Service. There again, she did not get a high enough rank to enter the IAS. But she did qualify for the IPS. Could she join the police, she asked herself? She abhorred violence. Her background was arts. She loved literature. What would she do in the police? But eventually, she accepted the position and today she stands out as an exceptional police officer. She is also known in Kerala as much as a writer as a police officer.

Sreelekha’s story is remarkable because it still remains an exception to the rule. She made her own choices and luckily for her, no one stood in her way. But millions of girls in India today are led to believe that they can choose only to realise that their choices are severely constrained by what society thinks they should do and above all what their families believe is best for them.

The tragedy is that even if in their choice of careers they get their way, when it comes to the most important decision in their lives – that of marriage – they still do not have the freedom to choose. The family knows best. The girl’s own judgment is not respected. She is not given the freedom to make a mistake.

Why is this one part of life denied choice? Girls have to agree to marry, and to choose a “suitable boy” acceptable to the family. They cannot, for instance, choose to remain single. And they cannot choose a groom who the parents don’t like. So in other words, they really have no choice.

Marriage and family honour remain deeply entwined. Somehow, the individual, or individuals, are forgotten in an institution that should be based on mutual love and respect between two people. What we are seeing today is the obvious contradiction between permitting choice in one area and denying it in another.

What is even more unfortunate is that those young people who have followed the logic of freedom – that is having the right to make life choices – are the ones being penalised.

Of course, for every one Priyanka or Shriji, there are many who have followed their hearts and are happy, as also are their parents. But in 21st Century India, such instances continue to be very rare. Many girls, even after receiving a modern education, have created a separate compartment in their heads when it comes to marriage. Even as they enjoy the freedom they get in colleges and universities, and in jobs – such as the new IT sector – they accept that their freedom is limited in their choice of groom, and in their choices after marriage.

You find today that even women in modern careers, such as software engineers in the IT sectors, speak of the pressures they face from society and in their homes. They have to get married by a certain age. And after marriage, they have to set aside their careers for children and the upward mobility of their spouses. Their own ambitions, careers, dreams, don’t even enter the picture.

This is an issue that we as a society have to confront. Why does the middle class in particular, irrespective of community or religion, place the question of marriage on a completely different pedestal? Why are people willing to accept anything except a couple that defies family and community for love? Why should young people, who are led to believe that they are free individuals, be forced to pay such a heavy price for this terrible contradiction?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The 'invisible' half

The Hindu, Oct. 7, 2007

Sunday Magazine section

The Other Half column

They came dressed in their Sunday best even though it was a Saturday. The Warli women of Dapcheri village in Thane district, a few hours away from Mumbai, had been summoned to meet some “important” people. They gathered under a small shamiana erected in front of their Panchayat office.
The “important” people were four Members of Parliament cutting across party lines. Sachin Pilot of the Congress, Supriya Sule of the Nationalist Congress Party, Jay Panda of the Biju Janata Dal and Shahnawaz Khan of the Bharatiya Janata Party, young MPs who are part of a Citizens’ Alliance Against Malnutrition.

Does it ever change?
Why malnutrition? Because, in a country where the stock market has crossed 17,000 points, where inflation is under control, where the economic growth rate is climbing, almost one in every two children under three years of age is hungry. This is the invisible half of our population, people who disappear from our consciousness until they die in large numbers. Then, the media wakes up and takes note, the incident becomes “breaking news”, the government squirms when tough questions are asked, some remedial measures are put into place, and soon life reverts to “normal”, or, should we say, abnormal.

I am not sure the women really understood why these “important” people had come. They only knew that this would be a chance for them to say something. And in the predictable style of visits by “dignitaries” to poor villages, the women sat on the ground while the visitors stood. One woman was asked to speak for the rest. Instead of saying anything about lack of food, she said, “Give us work”.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Padding up for jingoism

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the much-feted captain of the victorious T20 World Cup team brought India’s commercial capital to a standstill on September 26. The entire city was in a massive gridlock. Not because of the annual ganpati visarjan, not because a political party called a bandh, not because of rains, but because a cricket team came home victorious. And we are told, that no one really minded.

Nobody denies this young Indian team that won the T20 World Cub at Johannesburg their right to enjoy the adulation of cricket lovers in India. But was such a hysterical welcome and the media overkill justified? Is it really necessary for us to raise our sportsmen to demi-god status and then to trash them if they fail to live up to our unreal expectations?

What was disturbing was not just the blanket coverage given by the media but also some of the commentary. One English news channel, that gave the most extensive coverage compared to other English language channels, could not find enough adjectives to describe what it was telecasting. It called it a day that made history and then went on to compare September 26, 2007 to Independence Day, August 15, 1947! It was day that marked “independence from loss”, the anchor exclaimed. God help us if we lose any of the forthcoming matches. Will it mean we are enslaved again?

The exaggerated comparisons apart, what was even more disturbing was the attempt of one of the anchors to suggest that the victory was sweeter because India had beaten its “arch-rival” Pakistan. Despite the co-anchor’s attempts to divert this particular anchor from pursuing this angle, she persisted. She kept asking reporters on the spot to ask people whether they felt even happier that this victory was over Pakistan. Fortunately, technical hitches, deliberate or otherwise, stopped her from getting responses and finally the subject was dropped.

Of course, India and Pakistan are rivals on the cricket field. Of course, an India Pakistan match is always the most exciting. But what stood out at both the earlier match between the two sides and the final was the absence of hostility. There was no sledging of the kind one witnessed in the matches between India and England or India and Australia. Both sides played well and played in a positive frame of mind. Why then should a mainstream media channel insist on harping on the rivalry between two countries that are making tentative attempts at peace?

Illustrating the mindset that still prevails, in the general public but also in some members of the media, is this text message that was sent from a very senior journalist in a Mumbai English language newspaper to a well-known Muslim woman activist who works with Muslim women in Mumbai:

Pak ko sharafat sikha denge,
Hind ki takat dikha denge,
Ae Pak, humse punga na lena
Varna, JOHANNESBURG main kya,
LAHORE main TIRANGAA lehra denge.
Jai Hind

(We will teach Pakistan humility,
We will show India’s strength,
Hey Pakistan, don’t mess with us,
Otherwise, not just in Johannesburg, but also in
Lahore we will fly the Indian flag.
Long live India)

On receiving it she was not just shocked but dismayed and deeply hurt. Why should Indian Muslims still have to explain that they are Indian when it comes to cricket? Why are they put through the “cricket test” repeatedly, she asked? And how can responsible media persons perpetuate this kind of negative and regressive attitude?

There are many text messages doing the rounds since India’s victory in Johannesburg but this is perhaps the most regressive. It reminds us again that the jingoism that is attached to sport, all sport but most particularly cricket, keeps Indians rooted to a past even as the world, and in fact sportsmen, have moved on.

In the long term, this kind of attitude can do no good for it does not encourage what is most important about sport—the sporting spirit, where winning or losing doesn’t count as much as playing the game and playing it well. The Indian team demonstrated above all their ability to enjoy the game and play it with a positive attitude.

Chak de India, the film whose theme song has virtually become a sport anthem, was primarily about teamwork and about hockey. Patriotism was a secondary theme. Yet it is the latter that has been adopted while the former has been overshadowed.

Team India can only continue to play well and win if it plays as a team, not as a collection of stars. That’s the real lesson from Johannesburg.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Remembering Roop Kanwar

The Hindu, September 23, 2007


On September 4, 1987, when the days were still warm
but the nights were getting cooler, a young girl of
18 in the village of Deorala in Rajasthan was
murdered. She was burnt alive on the funeral pyre of
her husband. Yet, according to local tradition,
Roop Kanwar had become a “sati” and had
“voluntarily” immolated herself as she
sat with her dead husband’s head in her lap
even as family members lit the funeral pyre and
curious villagers watched. Her cries for help drew
no response from the spectators.
Roop Kanwar’s name hit the headlines almost a
week later on September 12. This was a time when
print media was still supreme. Its prominence and
efficacy had not been undermined by 24-hour
television news channels that dominate and define
news today. Yet, although the media did recognise
the horrific nature of the act, the fact that it was
a crime as it had been outlawed more than a century
back and that there were many reasons to doubt the
ostensibly voluntary nature of the act, the reports
dwelt at length on the colourful chunri mahotsav
ceremony that took place on September 16 to mark the
13th day of Roop Kanwar’s death. Here was a
spectacle the media could not miss. The fact that it
represented the celebration of the murder of a young
woman was somehow forgotten.

Tougher laws

It is interesting looking back at the Roop Kanwar
incident in the light of the latest effort by the
government to amend the Commission of Sati
(Prevention) Act, 1987. The Ministry for Women and
Child Welfare has recommended that the entire
community be held accountable if such a deed is
done, that it be made a non-bailable offence, that
the prison term be increased from three years to 10
years and that the fine be enhanced from Rs. 10,000
to Rs. 50,000. It has also argued that it is
necessary to change the perception that the woman
involved is the culprit. She must be viewed as a
victim and the local functionaries like the
Panchayat head, should be held accountable if a
“sati” takes place in their village.

(For the rest of the article, click on the link)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Interesting quote

More on the media and what should be our perspective. John Pilger, a journalist I really admire, has been interviewed by Naresh Fernandes in Time Out, Mumbai (July 27-August 9, 2007). Asked why he set out to write about poverty and oppression around the world, here's what Pilger says:

"I am doing merely what ought to be the job of a journalist, and often isn't, which is not to echo authority but to question 'perceived wisdom' and seek the truth at ground level not at the top. Journalism is nothing if it is not about humanity. It must never be the voice of power, of vested interests. There is a quotation of the great Irish muckraker Claud Cockburn that is my favourite:'Never believe anything until it is officially denied'."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Media and Terror

This is a talk I gave on September 6, 2007 at the Bangalore International Centre. I am posting it on this blog in the hope that it will provoke some discussion.


I thought I would speak on this subject not just because of the recent bomb blasts in Hyderabad, or that the incident concerning Haneef brought Bangalore into the news, but because this is as good a time as any for the media to introspect on how we handle these incidents that are taking place all around us.

I am not going to go into the issue of how we define terror – whether we should only speak of terror tactics by non-state actors or whether we should also address terror tactics by the state. This is an issue that needs to be addressed even before we look at how the media deals with terror. But for a moment let us set that aside and look at what in mainstream parlance is defined as terror – basically the actions of the non-state actors.

Also, led me add another caveat. What I am saying is based on my reading of print media, not a systematic survey but a close reading of what appears and my own experience as a media practitioner for over three decades. I am not touching on the electronic media as that is an entirely different ballgame, a media with compulsions that we in print sometimes just do not understand. Someone does need to analyse what role the overkill by the electronic media on issues like terror is doing in terms of people’s thinking on this subject.

It is interesting to note that even if one looks at terror as only those acts perpetrated by non-state actors, there is a certain hierarchy that is determined by the location of the attacks and those suspected of perpetrating them. Hence the attacks on Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore, our metro cities and the national capital, always draw much more attention than similar types of attacks elsewhere. The “foreign hand” element also raises their news value. Varanasi and Ahmedabad would also be part of this type of attack.

Lower down come the attacks by internal political groups using violence and terror tactics, namely the Naxalites and ULFA in Assam. Their actions have also led to deaths of ordinary people and destruction of public property. But somehow in the national media, they do not get the same amount of attention as do the former.

Regardless of the kind of terror attack, or the number of deaths, media practitioners are faced with several choices in dealing with them. I doubt if there has been any conscious reflection about these choices. They are made depending on the positions a particular media organisation has already taken on these kinds of issues, or by default what appears to be the acceptable mainstream way of handling the event.

In my view, some of the choices the media faces are as follows:

1. Assist the state in the fight against terror. Be an ally and report all that state agencies put out as verified facts.
2. Be even handed by giving the version of the state but also giving the point of view of those who believe they had no option but to act – in cases where the groups are political and claim responsibility for the act.
3. Be sceptical of both sides, even as we report it, by ensuring that what is reported is properly attributed so that the reader understands the source of the information.
4. Assert the human rights perspective where under the guise of a war on terror, innocents are suffering.

For anyone within the media, it would be evident that these are not mutually exclusive choices.

Take the first. It is true, that the media in India does not have the ability to independently determine whether a particular attack is by a particular terror group. It has no option but to rely on the official version, much as reporting on war depends on what the army puts out. But even as it does this, how should these so-called “facts” be presented given the history of the innumerable times that they have been proved totally wrong? Should the press not ensure that it keeps a distance from the state’s version of what happened by careful attribution?

Unfortunately, by and large, the Indian media has forgotten even a basic norm of journalism like this as official stories about terror acts are presented as if they were the proven truth. Indeed, some of them are written up as if the reporter was actually present when the conspiracy was hatched. This makes for engaging and colourful reading but are these verified facts? Should we in the media be reporting in this manner when we don not have any way to independently confirm the veracity of these facts?

Acts of terror are backgrounded by social, economic and political issues. They are not born in a vacuum. They are not the acts of senseless, deranged individuals. All that is well known. Yet, the reason for the anger has to be understood and investigated. There has been some writing on the reasons Naxalism has spread and the creation of what is now popularly called the Red Corridor. But the bulk of the writing is only about the violent attacks by Naxalites – in the so-called “Naxalite-infested areas” – and the retaliation by the state. Somehow, in this law and order discourse, the reasons why such an ideology is growing, and indeed flourishing in parts of India and in Nepal, are lost. Similarly, the root causes of the alienation of people in the Northeast and the reason some of those groups have taken to the gun has been forgotten.

It is interesting that almost every one of those convicted in the long drawn out 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts case gave the post-Babri riots and the inaction of the state against the perpetrators of the violence against Muslims as a reason why they participated in the conspiracy to set off those terrible serial blasts in the city. This is no justification for what they did. But their statements, and the conclusion of that case, have spurred civil society groups that have long demanded implementation of the Srikrishna Commission report on the riots and finally forced the Maharashtra government to pay heed to this demand.

My point here is that if terror acts are reported from the prism of the security agencies without also bringing in these larger political and social issues that fuel anger in a particular group, the picture remains incomplete. as an understanding of our readers about the issue. The reason this not done consistently, I believe is because, by and large, the press has internalized a State-ist view of all such groups, that they are criminals and ought to be viewed as a problem of law and order.

And what about the human rights perspective? In the post-Emergency period, when the violations of human rights by the state had forced the media to accept a human rights perspective as a legitimate prism through which to view events, every story of an encounter killing, for instance, was followed up by some attempt to investigate whether in fact what the police claimed was true. Civil liberties groups were active in those days. Fact-finding missions were immediately dispatched to check. And the press was open to presenting the other side of the story.

Today, there is only one side of the story. Until a Shahabuddin case comes to light, or the as yet unresolved case of Khwaja Yunus in Bombay, a Gulf-based computer engineer from Aurangabad who was picked up in connection with the Ghatkopar blast, tortured, probably killed and his body disposed of. The police version was that he had escaped en route to Aurangabad. The story is still unraveling in the court but it is clear that rogue police officers, who were virtually given the license to torture and kill to deal with terror were responsible for what happened. In the end, the courts had to discharge all those implicated in the Ghatkopar blast because the police simply didn’t have any evidence. We also had the more recent cases from Kashmir where security forces personnel were faking encounters to collect awards. In the process, innocents were being murdered.

Or take the case of Ishrat Jahan, a 19-year-old girl from the suburb of Mumbra outside Mumbai. She was killed in an encounter in Ahmedabad along with three alleged terrorist from the LeT in 2005. The police version was that the four were on the way to assassinate Narendra Modi. The press reported this without asking any questions. The only photograph that appeared was of the four bodies neatly laid out on the road next to a car riddled with bullets. Only one Gujarati paper ran pictures of the bodies slumped in the car, clearly shot at close range before they could even get out. So how was this an “encounter”? No one asked. Incidentally the same police officer, Vanjara, who has been named in the Shahabuddin killing, was involved in this case.

I could go on. There are stories from Kashmir, from the Northeast, that reveal repeatedly the many false claims made by police and security forces in the guise of dealing with terror. These incidents also illustrate, repeatedly, how violations of people’s rights by the state, by the people who are supposed to be our protectors, breeds alienation and disillusionment with the state.

But, we are told, we have to accept the Khawajas and the Ishrats as part of the “collateral damage” in the war against terror. That the state needs more powers not less. That a soft state lays itself open to more terror attacks etc. A leading daily has launched a virtual campaign demanding more stringent anti-terror laws like the ones in place in the UK and the US.

Incidentally, this same paper has a front page story today which is typical of the kind of stories the media should not be doing. Based on the alleged Bangladeshi terrorists caught in Mysore recently, the paper seems to suggest that all Bangladeshis who overstay their visas are somehow suspect. The reporter states that the majority have been here 25 to 30 years. These would be people who came in after the formation of Bangladesh but at a time when refugees from that poor and war affected country were welcome in India. Yet, this is the kind of ahistorical and panic creating reporting that is pegged on the “war on terror”. It paints an entire community, many of them too poor to even know that they need passports, as somehow part of an evil design.

It is interesting how the Indian media now is sceptical about so many other actions of the state but somehow on the issue of terror it is willing to go along. For years, after Independence, there was practically no questioning on India’s foreign policy choices. Today, there is. In fact, there is a vociferous debate in the media on the Indo-US nuclear deal, regardless of whether the majority of readers are interested in this or not.

This unquestioning acceptance of the state’s actions is actually, unwittingly, undermining the state. For instance, after a terror attack, you always see stories in the paper about how intelligence agencies had warned the local police about a possible attack. Readers always ask that if the police knew, why did it not do something to pre-empt the attack. The reason, we are told, is because the police does not have the powers to carry out preventive detentions and that they are afraid of being labeled anti-minority. And yet, immediately after an attack, dozens of people are rounded up and questioned, their names given out to the media, even though they are only under suspicion and there is no evidence. The police feels no constraint in doing this. Do they need more powers or better policing? That’s another story altogether.

It is also amazing that people do not recognise the intra-agency politics that is often the real story behind the selective leaking of information to pliant journalists. The tussle between local police, the anti-terrorist squad, the CBI and the Intelligence Bureau, for instance, is a known fact. After each such attack, the jostling begins and the undermining of one by the other. The press plays into the politics by legitimizing what is put out, often without any attribution, because it comes from “sources”.

Similarly, newspapers often run “confessions” of the alleged perpetrators of a terror act even though these statements are not admissible in a court of law and have clearly been leaked by the police to build up the credibility of their case. The leaks occur a good while before the final charge sheet is prepared. Yet, only some newspapers take the pains to point out the discrepancy between confessions and the actual charges. For instance, the Mumbai train bombers were supposed to have used pressure cookers loaded with explosives. Yet there’s no mention of this in the charge sheet of the accused now in judicial custody.

Finally, let me come to the Haneef case. I think we all know how clear were the double standards of our response. We lauded the Australian media, civil society and judiciary. But again, barring a couple of pieces, there was very little introspection about how we would have handled a similar case here. Would we have given the person charged with being an accomplice to terror the benefit of the doubt? Or would the media have condemned him because the state said so and allowed him to rot in jail? You just have to go back and read what the media wrote about Iftikhar Gilani of Kashmir Times, who was locked up for nine months for having allegedly violated the Official Secrets Act or how they reported on Prof S. A. R. Geelani, who was implicated in the Parliament attack, to understand this point.

To sum up, I think the media in India is at an important crossroads. With the acceptance of the new definition of news – as anything that sells – reporting on issues concerned with terror becomes all the more tricky. In the desire to beat the rival, anything goes, any bit of information, true or false, is put out to ensure that you have that little bit more than your rival. The basic tenets of cross checking information, or waiting until you get proper confirmation, is not followed anymore. As a result, you get this confusion of newsbreaks that often add up to nothing. They leave the reader with very little real information and a whole lot of names and scenarios that seem to be straight out of a work of fiction. And it does absolutely nothing to enhance either the credibility of the media or the state.

The so-called terror attacks have throw open to scrutiny not just the media but also the arms of the state like the police and the intelligence agencies, the judiciary, and our society that ultimately provides the ground on which the seeds of terror can be sown. We in the media can at least ensure that we are not abettors in the process of creating more angry and disillusioned individuals and groups.

I want to end by quoting from a thoughtful article by Ramesh Thakur that appeared on The Hindu’s edit page on August 30. Writing about the Haneef case, Thakur spells out lessons that India can learn from it. He begins with the leaking by the Australian establishment of selective extracts of Haneef’s interrogation. The other side managed to get the entire transcript. He suggests when faced with such a choice, it is better to go with the full document because the people leaking it are not the ones with something to hide.

He suggests scepticism about the claims of governments that they are safeguarding public safety against the threat of terrorism and that they are not curbing human rights or civil liberties. He points out the importance of an independent judiciary that will uphold the law.

And, most relevant, in the present context, the importance of a free, instinctively sceptical and investigative press. He points out that journalists picked out the holes in the government’s version of events because they were “inquisitive and questioning journalists who did their homework instead of merely recycling government press releases and background briefing…Many journalists had become used to being treated like mushrooms by the Howard government – kept in the dark and fed manure every once in a while. No more.”

He emphasizes the importance of a robust civil society and the role of citizens. He concludes, “No sectarian identification along the lines of race, religion, caste, but solidarity with a human being unjustly hounded by a bumbling police and a mean spirited government. When can we be confident of like injustices producing similar outcomes in India? Do we dare have the dream?”

I think we must passionately believe that such a day is possible. But only if we pause now and think about where we are headed.

Talking about harassment

From The Hindu, September 9, 2007

The Other Half


Road rage, rasta roko, face blackening, public humiliation. Every day we read about people who have decided to take the law into their own hands.

Parts of Delhi came to a standstill recently when irate parents and others attacked a school where it was alleged that a teacher was blackmailing girls and pushing them into prostitution. The media exposed this through a sting but for the enraged citizens, the law was the last recourse.

Perhaps they were justified given that some law enforcers seem to believe the same. How else can you explain the ghastly incident in Bhagalpur where an alleged chain snatcher was beaten by the public and then tied to a motorbike by a policeman and dragged until he fell unconscious? That television footage will haunt us for a long time.

The last refuge?

Earlier last month, women members of a political party in Mumbai pulled out a professor in full view of TV cameras and blackened his face because he had allegedly sexually harassed several women students. Could they have used the law to deal with the man? Apparently not, or at least they did not believe the law would make a difference. So they chose the strategy of public humiliation while also projecting their party as a defender of innocent women.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Celebrating difference

The Hindu, August 26, 2007


Like thousands of others across the country, I too went to see the new hit film “Chak de India”. Not because Shahrukh Khan is acting in it. Not because I love Hindi films. Not even because everyone is talking and writing about it. I went because I was curious to see what a mainstream Bollywood filmmaker would make of a subject that deals with a game that is hardly written about, that is field hockey, and one that centres on women’s hockey.

Rare attempt

The film certainly does not disappoint although I found the constant harping on patriotism a little cloying. It attempts to tackle several issues rarely written about, leave alone shown in popular cinema. Such as the claustrophobic connection between “national honour” and sport, any sport and not just cricket. The double burden that Muslim sportsmen and women in this country must shoulder by virtue of belonging to a religion that has defined the nationhood of a country perceived perpetually as the chief rival in every venture, including sport, and that is Pakistan. The political and bureaucratic interference that is the rule in the way our world of sports is governed. And in addition to all this, factors common to all sports, the fact of being a woman who wants to excel in a given sport. Surprisingly, the film does manage to touch on all these aspects in a fairly honest and straightforward manner.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

How 'independent' are we?

The Hindu, August 12, 2007



Just a fortnight before India turns 60 — an
age that is supposed to signify maturity and
respectability — a front page newspaper
headline hammered in another reality.
“Bigamous man tortures spouses for male
offspring,” stated
the headline of a story on page one of The Telegraph
on July 29, 2007. “Six abortions, all for a
son,” read the strap.

Not an auspicious way to mark 60 years of
Independence if our society continues to be a slave
to son preference. Something has to change. But it
hasn’t happened yet. Not by a long shot.

The story referred to above was about two women
married to one man in Padra, near Vadodara in
Gujarat. Bigamy is illegal. And so is sex selective
abortion. In Padra, however, none of this mattered.
Rajesh first married Sunita, who is now 27 years
old. In nine years of marriage, she has been forced
to have six abortions because after the first child,
a girl, Rajesh insisted he wanted a boy. So every
time she became pregnant, she had to find out
whether she was going to have a boy or a girl. If it
was a girl, then she had no choice but to abort.
Except once, when it was too late to abort, and she
delivered another girl. Today, seven months into her
ninth pregnancy, she says she refused to have
another abortion and survived her husband kicking
her to induce an abortion.

The second wife, 22-year-old Kajal, had just given
birth to a baby girl. She says that when her child
was delivered, Rajesh held the infant upside down
and said, “I didn’t marry you to produce
girls”. She had to beg him not to kill the

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link)

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Be safe, don't exist

The Hindu, July 29, 2007

The Other Half

The Delhi police have given a new twist to the old tale of women’s safety in cities. In their desire to “protect” women especially from northeast India, they have issued a strange booklet. Titled “Security tips for Northeast s tudents/visitors in Delhi”, the booklet sets out tips that are supposed to help women from northeast India feel safe on the streets of India’s capital.

For the uninformed, this might sound an unusual step for the capital’s police force to take. But Delhi is the place where several students from northeast India have been raped in recent years. The booklet suggests indirectly that this could be because of the way the women dress. So once again, the onus for remaining safe has fallen on the women.

The booklet, with an introduction by Deputy Commissioner of Police, Robin Hibu, who is an IPS officer from the Northeast, is remarkable for its language and its contents. On a dress code it suggests: “When in rooms do as Roman does” (whatever that means). Under security tips: “Revealing dress to be avoided.” “Avoid lonely road/ bylane when dressed scantily”. And “dress according to sensitivity of the local population.” The fact that for the male half of the local population, your being a woman is enough provocation to tease, fondle or attack irrespective of how you are dressed does not seem to count.

Inappropriate and offensive

I have only read excerpts from the booklet. For all its good intentions, it is clearly inappropriate and offensive to the sensibilities of women from Northeast India. Not only does it give gratuitous and useless advice to women but it also proceeds to tell everyone from northeast India how they should behave in Delhi. How else can one explain a sentence that reads: “Bamboo shoot, Akhuni and other smelly dishes should be prepared without creating ruckus in neighbourhood”. Smelly dishes creating a “ruckus”? This would be amusing if it were not culturally offensive.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

On hypocrisy

I'm glad someone has finally written about the hypocrisy of the Indian media (read Barkha Dutt in Hindustan Times (July 21, 2007), the Indian government and many Indians over the Dr. Mohammad Haneef case in Australia. If you read our papers, or hear what our government says, you would be led to believe that human rights, and the rights of individuals charged under terrorism laws, are well respected in this country.

Yet this same media and the same government has nothing to say when people are picked up and charged under our terror laws. When, and if, they are finally released, few remind us that they were unjustly locked up. And when they are bumped off, under the well-worn excuse of an "encounter" killing, there is universal silence. Few questions are asked. The dead do not speak. They can defend themselves. And there is no one to speak up for them.

Then when a story like the "encounter" death of Sohrabuddin comes up, allegedly killed by top policemen from Gujarat and Rajasthan, and the subsequent murder of his wife, there is some writing about these extra-judicial killings. But no real investigation by the mainstream media. Why have we become so indifferent to human rights, or the rights of human beings and why do we accept that the State's rights supersede those of the individual in every instance?

In Maharashtra we still have th extraordinary case of Khwaja Yunus, a young engineer charged with being part of a terror bombing, who disappeared. Police claimed he escaped. His fellow detainee said he saw him vomiting blood after being tortured. And now another individual has come forward to say that he knows where his body was cremated. Yet, the Criminal Investigation Department has cleared the senior police officers earlier suspected of being part of the process that ultimately led to Yunus' death or disappearance.

And I always come up with the name of Ishrat Jahan. Will we ever know how and why this 19-year-old student from Mumbra, outside Mumbai, ended up in a carload of alleged "terrorists" who were shot down in an "encounter" by the very same cops now charged with the murder of Sohrabuddin?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Why Pooja got "mad"

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 15, 2007


The Pooja Chauhan story has now become familiar to most people in India with access to the media — print or electronic. Virtually all newspapers flashed the photograph of this 22-year-old woman, walking in her underwear, in “conservative& #8221; Rajkot city in Gujarat. She carried a baseball bat in one hand and bangles in the other. Her destination was the office of the Commissioner of Police. She walked for one hour. On the way, people gawked at her. Some laughed. The photographs showed men riding by on scooters, craning their necks to get a better look, laughing at her. No one, it seemed, stopped her, or tried to find out why she was doing what she was doing.

For the media, this was a great story. When they finally did speak to her, Pooja told them that she had decided to resort to this form of protest because she was fed up with the police not taking her complaints about harassment and violence seriously. She said she was being nagged by her husband’s family to bring more dowry and that they made her life even more difficult because she gave birth to a girl child. She accused her parents-in-law of getting a neighbour to beat her up. A week before this incident, Pooja had allegedly tried to immolate herself in front of the police commissioner’s office.

Media cacophony

What a story! All the elements of a Hindi movie. Yet, although the first stories did report the reasons that provoked Pooja to act in this manner, later reports took a different turn. Pooja’s parents were accosted by the local media and asked whether their daughter was sane. “Is she mad?” they apparently asked. Others reported that the story was complicated, that her husband’s family had also registered complaints against Pooja. It was also reported that the girl did not live with her husband anymore and was on her own, with her infant daughter.

Behind this entire media cacophony is a real story and a real person. The story is a familiar one. Of women, thousands of them even if you go by official statistics, who are harassed over dowry or over the gender of the child they birth, particularly if she turns out to be a girl. Pooja survived such harassment. Thousands of women each year do not. At a time when India boasts of becoming an international economic giant, its women are being pushed to the brink for dowry, the giving and taking of which was banned in 1961 and is against the law. They also continue to be blamed for producing female children, something over which they can have no control. Yes, this is the same country where we celebrate a woman of Indian descent having been on a space mission — even if she is an American.

To read the rest, click on the link

Moving beyond symbols

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 1, 2007


In the 60th year of India’s Independence, a woman becoming the President of India is symbolically important. So we are told. Leave aside the politics surrounding the forthcoming election to the post of President. Forget that electoral mathemati cs ensures that the United Progressive Alliance’s choice, Mrs. Pratibha Patil, will indeed become the next President of India. The question before us women is whether her election to this high office has any meaning for us, whether it will make any difference to women in India, and whether we should welcome such a symbolic gesture on the part of the ruling alliance.

There is no doubt that symbols do have a place. They hold a meaning if they are backed by efforts to bring about changes that go beyond symbols. They are important at times when such a change seems difficult but is part of a struggle. But if they become an excuse to postpone what can and should be done, then they become empty symbols.

Uneven progress

Sixty years after Independence, it is true that the lives of millions of women in India have been transformed. They are now more educated, many of them have skills and economic independence, many have reached high positions and entered careers their mothers could never have dreamed of. But there are also millions who remain as badly off as their mothers, women who have no education, no life skills that can pull them out of poverty, no access to decent health care, often not even a roof over their heads.

For these women, such symbols have no meaning. They need real policies, real action, real change. They need to see and believe that a free India will also mean they can dream of a different life, one that is not crushed under the burden of unrelieved poverty. They need to know that their children have a future where they can aspire for a better existence. They need to hear that their daughters will be able to survive and be valued as human beings.

To read the rest of the article, click on the link.

Recipe for peace

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 17, 2007

WAR always makes it to the front pages of newspapers. Peace also does,
when there is a political agreement and warring groups come together.
But once the fact of peace is established, the story is over, at least
for the media. Unless, of course, the peace breaks down. But what
preceded the peace and what is needed to sustain it, is not the stuff
of which headlines, or even lead stories are made.

Amazing turnaround
On May 8, 2007, newspapers around the world carried an amazing
photograph, that of two men who led the decades old conflict between
Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland sitting together and
smiling. Leaders of the Sinn Fein and the Unionists Party are now in
government, together. This has happened less than a decade after the
Good Friday agreement of 1998 for power sharing that went through many
hiccups and often appeared on the verge of breaking down. Yet, a
political solution for the virtually intractable problem of Northern
Ireland has been found. It is the result not just of political
negotiations at the top but because of pressure from below, a demand
for peace from civil society groups on both sides of the sectarian
divide led by very ordinary women. The agreement, and the run-up to
it, sets out an encouraging precedent and example for dozens of other
such conflicts around the world, not least on our subcontinent.

In 2003, on a brief visit to Northern Ireland I saw first-hand how the
memory of history works against efforts to build peace. In Belfast,
high walls, ironically called "peace" lines, still separate Catholics
and Protestants. During "the Troubles", as the years of bloody
sectarian wars are called, these walls were a challenge to youth on
either side to hurl fire bombs at their "enemy". Yet even as the first
tentative steps towards peace were being taken, these walls remained,
as did the suspicion and hatred nurtured over decades of conflict. It
will take some time before real "peace" lines substitute these brick
and mortar walls. But an important step has been taken in that direction.

To read the rest of the article, click on the link.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What happens when the water runs out?

From The Hindu, May 8, 2007

THE POWER crisis in Maharashtra has occupied many column centimetres in local newspapers. Understandably so as with the onset of summer, life without electricity is hell. It is that in any case in most parts of rural Maharashtra where daily power cuts of up to 15 hours have been the norm for many months. In cities and towns, the power cuts are shorter but still unbearable. Only Mumbai has been spared.

But what no one is talking about is the looming water crisis. One of the fallouts of climate change, the consequence of global warming, will be on water sources. The drying up of water sources will have a direct impact on water availability. As urban areas grow, their demand for water will increase. If on top of this, governments aim to provide 24 hours water to all urban residents, then the demands of the city on the hinterland will escalate hugely. Who will mediate the competing demands between urban water needs and rural survival? Already, the choice of ensuring that urban areas get power while rural areas suffer is laying the ground for inequality and injustice.

At the G8 meeting in Berlin scheduled for June 8, civil society groups plan to launch an End Water Poverty campaign. In India poverty and water poverty go hand in hand. A campaign to bring water to the poorest is closely linked with any campaign to deal with poverty. One billion people in the world lack access to potable water. A good number of them are in India.

(Click on the link to read the rest of the article)

Attacking real democracy

The Hindu, May 6, 2007

The Other Half

MORE than a million women are quietly working away and demonstrating a
different form of governance than the top-down centralised forms that
generally prevail in this country. A decade ago, in the honeymoon period
after the 73rd Constitutional amendment was passed devolving powers to
the panchayats, there was excitement at this democratic development,
where power was literally being handed over to the people. The media took
note of the fact that women, who had been kept out of systems of
governance, were finally being given a chance. The one-third reservation for
women in panchayats guaranteed their presence in numbers, something
that has still not been achieved at the national level.

The result was a virtual revolution as thousands upon thousands of
women got elected. Many of them were Dalit women. They challenged not just
the patriarchal hierarchies but also the caste hierarchies. A decade
later, these women are no more "new kids on the block", so to speak. Many
of them have been re-elected, they now know the system and they are
more willing to assert their views than in the early years. Of course, not
all the women elected to posts are enlightened and many of them
continue to be mere front people for their powerful husbands. But even if half
the women elected are like that, you still have another half who have
begun to understand their rights and are beginning to fight for them.
This is an immensely exciting social revolution that is quietly taking

Given the import of these developments for India's future as a working
democracy, one would imagine that the Minister for Panchayati Raj would
be considered an important post. Not so. Ask the Union Minister for
Panchayati Raj, Mani Shankar Aiyar. Speaking to the Confederation of
Indian Industries (CII) on April 4, Mr. Aiyar complained, "There is nobody
so marginal in a government as the Minister of Panchayati Raj. I count
for nothing. Nothing! When I was Minister of Petroleum, I used to walk
surrounded by the media. But just try to get them to write two words
about 700 million Indians."

(Click on the link to read the rest of the article)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

I stand vindicated

With the recent news about the arrest of three IPS officers in Gujarat, charged with the murder of an individual in a fake "encounter", I feel vindicated. In the light of the findings submitted to the Supreme Court in the case of the killing of Sohrabuddin, questions are being raised about several other similar "encounters" where the alleged "terrorists" were apparently plotting to kill Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. One such "encounter" involved a young woman from Mumbra, just outside Mumbai, Ishrat Jahan, who was killed on June 15, 2004 in Ahmedabad while travelling in a car with three men, suspected "terrorists" on an apparent mission to kill Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Her story caught the attention of the media in Mumbai and much was written about her and her possible involvement with "terrorists". Her funeral procession drew a huge crowd in her neighbourhood. But since then, Ishrat has been erased from our memories. But wait. Could her name come up again if there is a proper inquiry into all recent "encounter" killings?

I post below a piece I had written shortly after the Ishrat incidence which never saw the light of day. More on the reasons for the rejection in a later post. But I felt I should post the article now, as a record.


A question guilt or innocence

By Kalpana Sharma

The recent gunning down of four suspected “terrorists” in Ahmedabad on June 15 raises several important and uncomfortable questions. To date, there is no clear explanation either from the Gujarat police or the intelligence agencies (the glaring loopholes in the various versions were evident from the stories carried in this paper recently) about how the information about the intentions of these four was ascertained and why they were killed. The unease is compounded by the death in the encounter of the 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan. What was a young Mumbai college girl doing with a group of “alleged” terrorists? Was she also one?

Everyone who knew Ishrat said it was improbable that she would knowingly join such a group. No one had heard her voice an opinion about Gujarat or about the injustice meted out to her community. She was perceived as a cheerful, hard-working girl who filled her day with activities to generate money to support an impoverished family. Had she been duped? Had her desperation for money got her into something about which she did not know all the details? Or was she a willing accomplice?

We will never know because the girl is dead. In fact, that is the frustrating aspect of all these stories. The public has to accept what the State puts out as the alleged motives of those gunned down. No one will ever know the complete truth because the dead cannot defend themselves.

So far, all that has appeared in the media about Ishrat’s “motives”, “intentions”, “sentiments” is conjecture. The Gujarat police have quoted from her diary but no forensic test has established whether in fact it is her handwriting. The results of the post mortem report on her death have also not yet been released. We still do not know whether she was shot in the back or how she died. One unpublished photograph shows her slumped back in the front seat but there is no sign of a bullet mark on her clothes. Javed lies slumped sideways, sitting in the driver’s seat but with his head on her lap. The only photograph that has appeared in the media shows Ishrat laid out next to the other three slain men.

The Gujarat police have records of Ishrat’s phone calls to the driver of the car, Javed Sheikh who is alleged to be a Lashkar operative. That too has not been conclusively established although intelligence agencies are convinced. The nature of Ishrat’s conversations with the dead Javed will never be known. Just the fact that she spoke to a man who is allegedly a terrorist does not make the girl guilty by association. Yet, a Home Ministry official is quoted as saying, “Legally and morally, she too was a terrorist”. How has such a conclusion been reached?

The media has also carried stories about a possible “love angle” between her and Javed. Would that explain the phone calls? Her mother, Shamima, has compounded the mystery by first refusing to acknowledge that Ishrat or she knew Javed and then acknowledging, during her interrogation by the Gujarat police, that she did know him. In the end, no one really knows whether Ishrat was duped by Javed, infatuated with him, or was a willing and knowing accomplice. And no one, except Ishrat’s family will speak up for her because they fear that if they do, they too will be questioned, and possibly implicated.

What is worse is that in this rush to establish guilt by association all of Mumbra, a township of 600,000 people on the outskirts of Mumbai is being referred to as a “hotbed” of terrorists activities. It is true that some suspected terrorists have been apprehended from this area. But a handful of such characters do not justify calling a place, which is a Muslim majority area, “terrorist infested”. Mumbra and Kausa are old settlements that grew when many Muslim families were forced to leave their homes in Mumbai after the 1992-93 communal riots. Some families moved because they found they could get a bigger place for the value of just one room in the overcrowded areas of central Mumbai.

Yet, the emergence of a Muslim ghetto on the outskirts does not automatically mean that its youth will turn to terrorism. In fact, one of the striking aspects of the changes that have taken place in Muslims in and around Mumbai since 1992-93 is the thrust given to education, particularly education of girls. In successive matriculation examinations, Muslims girls have done exceedingly well in the last decade. The community’s welfare organisations have made a deliberate effort to push for both education and employment.

At the same time, it is also true that organisations like the banned Students Islamic Movement of India have grown and recruited young men. But the existence of such extremist groups in any community, Hindu or Muslim, does not mean that large swathes of that community have the same mindset.

It is entirely possible that the intelligence agencies will be able to prove their suspicion about the four killed in Ahmedabad. But there is also a good possibility that Ishrat was innocent, that she was the “collateral damage” of the State’s “war against terror”. The chances of proving that are slim because there is no independent authority to investigate such encounter killings. Yet, we must remember that after the Godhra tragedy, the Gujarat police and government had a watertight story about what happened. Yet in the last weeks, the testimonies before the Nanavati Commission are exposing the many holes in that story. Given the lack of credibility in the case made out by the state in many such instances, it is perfectly legitimate to ask questions about what really happened on June 15 in Ahmedabad.

If indeed the authorities conclusively prove that Ishrat was a terrorist, a girl who knew what she was doing and that she aided and abetted men with guns, the import of such a finding will be enormous. This will be a first, for a young Indian Muslim girl to actually join the ranks of terrorists, that too one with their roots in Pakistan. So far we have known of women in the ranks of the LTTE, or women supporters of the militants in Kashmir, or women who are prominent in the ranks of the “naxalites”. But there has not been a “mainstream” Muslim women implicated in terrorist activities in India. In the twin bomb blasts in Mumbai on August 25 last year, a woman, the wife of Sayad Mohammed Hanif, has been implicated. But the charges have only just been filed in the special POTA court. And their daughter Farheen, who was also held on grounds of suspicion, was discharged when no evidence was found against her.

Ishrat’s death is not going to be forgotten, particularly in parts of Mumbai. Already, young Muslim women who are in college or venturing in a career are apprehensive about how other communities will view them. One such woman told this writer that she fears that her parents will now stop her frequent trips with the social service league in her college. Muslim women activists fear that the backlash from the Ishrat case will result in a rise in conservatism, particularly in areas like Mumbra, leading to young Muslim girls being sequestered and ordered to stay indoors. Ishrat, on the other hand, like many young men and women from Mumbra, travelled a couple of hours every day to attend college in Mumbai city.

The Ahmedabad encounter has played into the hands of those who want to reinforce the stereotype of the Muslim as terrorist. Initially questions were raised and Ishrat’s killing in particular was close to becoming politicized. But once the media began putting out the different versions set out by the police or the intelligence, this questioning was silenced.

But the questions remain and they must be asked. Can terrorism be stamped out if the State kills every single “suspected” terrorist? Or as we have seen in so many other countries, such extra-judicial killings will isolate and anger people of one community and destroy their faith in the rule of law and in justice, thus laying the grounds for more violence. Surely, the answer to terror and injustice is not more terror, and more injustice.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

'Gendered' health


`Gendered' health


HERE is the good news. There is a decent chance that
Delhi will soon
have a woman police commissioner. And that too, no
ordinary woman. The
person slated to take over the post is Kiran Bedi, the
first woman Indian
Police Service (IPS) officer whose work has won her
many awards,
national and international.

Maharashtra could also have a woman at the top — the
first woman Indian
Administrative Service (IAS) officer to become Chief
Secretary of the
State. None of this is confirmed at the time of
writing. But the chances
look good for both women.

But both these women, regardless of their standing in
their respective
services, would have had to fill in the same appraisal
form that judges
their worth not just by what they have achieved as
officers, but what
they are as women. Here biology has been made an
important component of
performance appraisal at work. If this sounds
ridiculous, that is
precisely what it is. And why it has drawn anger and
protest from senior
women officers.
(For the rest of the article, click on the link)

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Survival tools

HERE is a simple exercise that mothers can try with their daughters. Get your daughter to lie on her back on a big piece of paper and draw an outline of her body. Then ask her to fill in the space by marking out all her organs. Nine times out of 10, even a girl going to a "good" school will pause when it comes to the sexual organs. She will not know. Because she has never been taught properly where these are located and what they are.

Why does she need to know, people ask? Previous generations of women and men did not have such knowledge. So why does this generation need to be taught? The answer to that question is so obvious that it really does not need an answer. Today, girls have to be taught because they are more vulnerable than their mothers. They are encouraged to be out in the public space. They are made to believe that they can do anything with their lives. Yet they do not know enough about their bodies to understand how to protect themselves — from assault and disease. These are basic issues that boys and girls can be taught in a clear, clinical way in school. This is not pornography we are talking about. Sex should not be a dirty word. It is a "fact of life", one that everyone has a right to know and understand.

(Read the rest of the article in The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 8, 2007

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

My take on banning sex education

“Sex” is a dirty word in Maharashtra. “Sex Education” is even dirtier. Therefore, in its infinite wisdom, the Maharashtra government has decided that children should not be taught the “facts of life” in school. Last week, the state government banned sex education in all schools including those that follow the CBSE and ICSC syllabi. The cause of their ire was the CBSE textbook on sex education.

The government believes that “Indian values” are offended by the courses that give children basic information about human anatomy and physiology, about safe sex, dangers of infections, about AIDS, about other sexually transmitted diseases etc. No, our children must not be taught this in school, says the government. Should they be taught this at all? Apparently, that decision is left to the parents. Yet, most of us know that Indian parents, by and large, rarely discuss such matters openly with their children. So, if children are not taught in school, or at home, then they have no option but to discover the facts for themselves. So like previous generations, they will have to experiment, ask equally ill-informed peer and read whatever they can to find out these “facts of life”. Unlike their parents’ generation, they have many more avenues for information, particularly the Internet. And of course, they can also turn to the Kama Sutra or the sculptures in Khajurao that one presumes would not be considered contrary to “Indian values”.

While the subject of the ban was brought up in the Maharashtra state Assembly, rather predictably, by the Shiv Sena and its ally the Bharatiya Janata Party, who felt that the CBSE textbook on sex education should be banned, one of the organisations that campaigned for a ban on sex education is the Students Islamic Organisation of India (SIO), a group that would normally not be seen in the company of the saffron parties. In their press release welcoming the Maharashtra government’s decision, the SIO states, “This is the win (sic) of students and people, who are struggling to promote virtue and trying to make evil free society…This decision will save our young generation from being spoiled and going astray…it will save our society from going towards a valueless and vulgar culture”. It is evident that on this issue there is no communal divide.

The ban crept up on an unsuspecting public. Although groups like the SIO had issued statements, they found little response in the media. The government gave no indication that it had been considering such a step although the subject had come up because of a circular from the Centre recommending the introduction of sex education. Even if it was thinking about the issue, the state government does not seem to have consulted educationists, counselors, parents and others, people who are in regular touch with the younger generation. Had it taken the time to do so, it is possible that it would have paused.

At a time when India wants to project itself as this modern, growing world power, decisions like that of the Maharashtra government remind us that India continues to governed by people who equate modernity with promiscuity. It is these same people who oppose open debate, who will not allow freedom of expression (because it could hurt “Indian values”) and who support media censorship and bans. The attitude cuts across party lines.

Maharashtra is now gaining the dubious distinction of being a state that is not just losing out in the race for new industries because of its power crisis but is also forfeiting its historical legacy of being a state with a liberal and progressive culture by turning into one that is obscurantist and ultra-conservative. In the last years, books have been banned, particularly any book that mentions Shivaji, bar dancers have been banned, movie channels on television have been banned, and now sex education is banned. The circle, it would seem, is complete. Our politicians seem to believe that if you ban something, the problem will disappear. In the information age, when what you need to know is available at the click of a mouse, how many channels of information will you seek to block?

How children should be taught about sex and whether they should be taught is a matter that ought not to be decided by politicians who are only interested in pleasing certain constituencies. This is a serious question and should be the subject of debate and discussion amongst educationists and parents who deal on a daily basis with children and their questions. Ask anyone who has taught adolescents and they will tell you that they need no prompting to ask questions about sex. Ask women’s groups who have worked with young girls and they will tell you how little these women know about their bodies and themselves and how that increases their vulnerability. Schools are the ideal places where at least the basic questions that children have on sex and related issues ought to be answered. Why is that so wrong? How can knowledge corrupt young minds? Such a regressive attitude, which wants to limit and control knowledge and to stem curiosity, is not just anti-education, but also anti-democracy.

(Edited version appeared in The Hindu, Op-ed page, April 2, 2007

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Of films and fatwas

I realised today, February 28, when all anyone can think about is the Budget, that this blog has fallen into deep slumber. No postings! Not even my own articles. And I have been writing.

But until I get the time to update the blog with my articles, here are a few thoughts.

Bal Thackeray announced today that he had no objection to the film Black Friday. In fact he recommends that people see it.

Why? Clearly because the entire film is based on the police chargesheet in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts case where you see and hear Muslims talking about revenge. They seem indifferent to the fact that their revenge will kill hundreds of ordinary people. Although the riots that preceded the March 12, 2003 blasts are mentioned, you are left with images of men who seem to lack any remorse. And they are all Muslim. And apparently Pakistan is closely involved. What is worse is that the film is not a documentary and yet appears to be one. There are recognisable characters and there are others who have been introduced for the sake of making an interesting film. Only those who have followed the case, that has stretched over 13 years and is still concluding, will be able to pick the inaccuracies. For the lay public, this seems to be The Truth. Although the police are shown torturing people, in the end all this is justified by the police officer as essential to "break" the "terrorists". Was there another side to the story? Is the case really so cut and dried? What about the hundreds of people who were picked up, questioned and finally let off because there was no case against them? What do they feel?

Most important, the film fails to point out that even though 100 people have been convicted in the '93 blasts case, not a single person has been charged for the killing, looting and arson that led to the deaths of hundreds of people during the riots that preceded the blasts. It was Bal Thackeray who was indicted by the Srikrishna Commission for his hate speech. Yet, he continues to lead a life untouched by any of this. And the media continues to report his "fatwas" without question.

In contrast, "Parzania", that moving if flawed film on the Gujarat violence of 2002, can still not be shown in Gujarat because the Bajrang Dal says so and the Narendra Modi government silently endorses the ban. Here is a flim that should be shown in Gujarat. If a film like this had been made about the Bombay riots -- not Mani Ratnam's romantic film but a straight hard-hitting feature that documents those terrible weeks -- will we in Mumbai be able to see it? Unlikely, so long as the government and the media continue to pander to the man and the party responsible for so much hate and division in this city.

The media boasts of the way India is moving ahead. Nine per cent growth. Indian companies buying up major companies in the rest of the world. India has arrived on the world stage, we are told. But has it? If in its most "global" city, the "fatwa" of one man determines what we can see or not see -- where have we arrived? Or rather where are we headed?