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