Sunday, March 23, 2008

And now the good news

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 23, 2008

The Other Half

If you were a woman journalist, based in Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh, what would be your take on the Scarlett Eden Keating rape and murder in Goa? Would you consider it front page news? Would you conclude that all of Goa is now unsafe for white women? Would you think it is national news?

For the eight Dalit and Kol women from Chitrakoot, who bring out a fortnightly publication in the local language, Bundeli, called Khabar Lahariya, Goa is a long way away. But rape and murder of women is something they know, that is not unusual. White women might not visit Chitrakoot, but the colour of your skin matters little if you are a victim of rape. You just have to be a woman. The editors and journalists of Khabar Lahariya know and understand this.

One of the more unusual interactions I have been a part of was a meeting between these eight women and Mumbai-based women journalists. We were worlds apart, literally. And yet, as journalists and as women, we spoke the same language.

An experiment

Khabar Lahariya began as an experiment in 2002, aided by Nirantar, a resource centre for gender and education. It is based in Chitrakoot district, one of the 200 poorest districts in India, where there is practically no industry and the majority of
people survive on rain-fed agriculture. Literacy rates are lower than the national average; female literacy is only 35 per cent. The sex ratio is also below the national average, only 872 women to a 1,000 men. Incidents of sexual violence are high and
the justice delivery system barely functions as criminal gangs operate with impunity under the nose of a complacent and often complicit administration.

Against this background, a group of Dalit and adivasi women felt the need to start and run their own newspaper because the existing media in the area did not report on the issues that concerned them. They wanted to break the stereotype that lower caste women like them would not dare enter the public domain. Despite their lack of education, they wanted to prove that they too could be journalists.

Meera, who is the editor-in-chief of Khabar Lahariya (they now have a second edition from Banda), says that initially women like her faced an identity problem. For instance, she had worked with the Mahila Samakhya programme and was known in the
district as an activist. How could she establish that she was now a journalist? How could she tell people that she was there to report on what was happening but was not in a position to solve their problems? Would she be able to report with objectivity, she wondered? Also how would she tackle the feudal, patriarchal system? How would she and her team deal with opposition and criticism?

These and other related issues formed the subject of training workshops for the budding editors and journalists. In the initial years, they stuck to familiar areas — violence against women, developmental stories etc. They steered away from politics and other contentious issues. But a survey of readers shocked them into realising that no one was taking their efforts seriously. That their paper was being seen as a publication only for women and about women when they wanted to make it a rural
newspaper that would be read by everyone, men and women.

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

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sad Sunday

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 9, 2008


Kalpana Sharma

The euphoria over India’s achievements in the field of sports on Sunday, March 2 — the under-19 Cricket World Cup victory, the win over World Champions Australia in Sydney by the Indian Cricket Team, and the Indian hockey team defeating Austria in Santiago, Chile — was somewhat dimmed for me by three news items that appeared in Mumbai’s newspapers. One could argue that one should not get so perturbed at such news, that newspapers always report bad news and that often such news is exaggerated and sensationalised. It would be comforting to believe this. Unfortunately, the real story is likely to be worse as these stories are probably indicative of many more such incidents that never get recorded.

The most upsetting was the report about a 12-year-old Nepali girl who had been tortured and sexually abused by her employers. The Superintendent of Police (Thane Rural), Naval Bajaj was quoted as saying, “The little girl’s condition is spine-chilling. She has scars from deep stab wounds all over her body and we cannot even think of the scars these incidents have left on her mind.” (Mumbai Mirror, March 2, 2008) The girl’s mother was a domestic help who trusted her employer when the latter took the little girl with her to
Pune. Little did she suspect that her child would be the victim of this kind of torture.

Traumatised lives

On the same day, another story appeared in the newspapers about young schoolgirls in class III and IV, studying in an English medium primary school outside Mumbai, being sexually molested by their school principal. He would call them for extra tuitions on a Saturday and instead of teaching them, he would molest them and threaten that if they told anyone, he would ensure that they failed in their exams. Three of the girls finally broke down and told their parents. As a result, the parents lodged a complaint with the local police and the man has been arrested. The law will now take its own course. But in the meantime, these young girls are traumatised and their parents are beginning to wonder whether it is safe for anyone to send their daughters to school.

Last month, another story from an educational institution in Gujarat raised similar questions. In that instance, in the town of Patan in north Gujarat, an 18-year-old Dalit girl training to be a primary school teacher revealed that she had been gang-raped on numerous occasions by six male teachers for six months. They threatened to fail her if she reported these incidents. The Patan issue has now become a political hot potato with students of the teachers’ training institute demanding a judicial inquiry.

The third is the story of the wife of a jeweller in Mumbai who has been thrown out of her house with a
20-month old baby and a two-year-old because she failed to produce a son. After the first daughter,
she was forced to undergo two abortions because they found out the sex of the unborn child. The third
time, she carried the child to term only to realise that it was another girl. Her husband and his family
have thrown her out of her house. They were even willing to commit her to a mental institution. The
woman turned to the police for help. Hence the story has been told.

Three different stories but one common thread
— the vulnerability of girls and women inside
and outside their homes.

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

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Facade of cosmopolitanism

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 2, 2008

Kalpana Sharma

Amina presides over Dharavi’s Muslim Nagar like a monarch. She is the local ‘Dadi’, the woman to whom all kinds of people turn to for help. She is also the protector of her settlement, off Dharavi’s 90ft road. So when Raj Thackeray raised his call against so-called “outsiders”, the Biharis and people from Uttar Pradesh living in Mumbai, Amina was not bothered. Across her house — consisting of two rooms separated by several other similar rooms — are a bunch of “Bihari” tailors. They have worked there for at least a decade. The steady buzz of the machines rarely stops. “When the police come and ask me about them, I tell them in Marathi, ‘Don’t worry, brother, they are our people’,” she says. Ironically, the same woman had to defend another group of “our people” during the 1992-93 communal riots when the police came hunting for young Muslim men. Then too she intervened with the local police and protected the youth, many of them children of her friends.

Calm in Dharavi

So have the recent events triggered by Raj Thackeray disturbed relations in a place like Dharavi? Not at all, Amina asserts. Dharavi has a sizeable population of people from North India. They have lived and worked in this sprawling settlement for decades. Amina laughs as she recounts how the Shiv Sena in Dharavi has now come out in support of the North Indians living there, the majority being Muslims. These were the very people who the Sainiks targeted during the 1992-93 riots, forcing many of them to lock their rooms and run away to their villages. Most eventually returned.

Raj Thackeray’s men cannot enter such settled places as Dharavi. They would find it impossible to target the individuals who are part of the fabric of Mumbai. So they pick on the easy targets, the visible targets — taxi drivers, bhel puri vendors. And in other cities in Maharashtra, the temporary migrants, the construction workers, the casual labourers in the smaller industries who cluster together in temporary settlements. You can threaten them, scare them, demand they speak Marathi and force them to pack up and leave.

There are many ironies, contradictions, myths that lie exposed after the shameful events of last month, when ordinary, hard-working people were beaten up in full view of television cameras just because they happened to have been born in another part of this country.

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