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.