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. The first story of the 12-year-old is especially heart-rending because it emphasises the absence of any protection for young girls who are forced into domestic work. Women who work in homes often take their young children along with them. While the boys are sent to school, the girls are made to help the mother in the domestic chores. In time, the minor who should not be working at all becomes a part of the household. Some employers are kind and virtually adopt such children making sure they are looked after. Some even pay for them to go to school. But there are those like the employer of the 12-year-old who exploit and torture them. Nine times out of ten, silence surrounds such atrocities; no one knows, no one complains. And lives are permanently destroyed.
A set back

The incident at the English medium primary school outside Mumbai is also troubling at a time when concerted efforts to educate girls are beginning to pay dividends. At least up to the primary level, there is a noticeable increase in the number of girls who enrol in schools. You can see these girls excitedly running towards their schools in the morning. The quality of their education might be indifferent. But at least the first step has been taken.

If incidents of this kind of sexual molestation circulate, the entire effort to increase girls’ education could be set back. Parents would prefer to protect their daughters by keeping them at home rather than risk sending them to such schools. Or they might make same sex schools with same sex teachers a precondition. Of course, none of this can guarantee that their daughters will be “safe”.

The story about the woman being thrown out for producing a girl child does not shock anymore because so many such incidents are reported. We have to despair when we think about the issue of son preference in the context of women’s status in India. All the hype about a handful of successful women cannot detract from this shameful reality — that girls are simply not wanted. How can we break the stranglehold of this mentality that denies women the right even to exist? As long as this attitude dominates, can we really claim that women’s status in this country is improving? A day after International Women’s Day, celebrated these days more by companies selling consumer goods than by women, we must pause and reflect.

(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.

Such “sons of the soil” campaigns have been seen in many parts of India. They have also been a part of Mumbai’s politics. Yet the visual images of that violence left many people shaken. Was it a passing phenomenon or would it permanently alter the demographics of not just Mumbai but other cities in the state? Is Mumbai’s apparent cosmopolitanism really in danger? What would be the long-term impact of this divisive campaign on the rest of the country?

Through his anti-outsider campaign, Raj Thackeray has exposed himself as little more than a Sena man pretending to be different. He launched the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) on the grounds that he wanted to be get away from the politics of his parent organisation. He drew to it many of the younger Sena workers who were unhappy with the bureaucratic and cautious ways of his cousin Uddhav, anointed successor to Bal Thackeray.

And in the first year, he tried to attract Marathi intellectuals and professionals to advise him on how he should proceed. Some people believed that the man had changed from the days when he led the Shiv Sena cadre who beat up Biharis applying for jobs in Mumbai.
But with elections drawing closer, there is no time for such gradualism. So Raj Thackeray has taken a short cut in the belief that nothing succeeds like divisive politics.

He has his uncle’s example to follow. The Shiv Sena built its base by targeting non-Maharashtrians — South Indians, Gujaratis, Muslims — and by injecting fear through strategic violence. The Congress Party gave it a leg-up in the initial years as the Sena helped break the hold of the Left parties in Mumbai. As a result, the Sena took hold of Mumbai, held it to ransom at will and destroyed its inclusive image.
Divisive agenda

Raj Thackeray is building his base on the same platform. The politics of fear and hate are the easiest recourse for politicians with no other ideology. Such political formations, born of divisive agendas, cannot be reformed. Raj Thackeray has proved that.

The incidents of last month have also forced many in Mumbai to question yet again the so-called “cosmopolitanism” of this city. The last time we questioned this was after the 1992-93 communal riots. Even South Mumbai, considered the heartland of the city’s cosmopolitan culture, fell in line with the communal atmosphere as buildings with mixed residents hastily removed nameplates of Muslim residents and even requested some of them to leave.

Since then, with all the hype about turning Mumbai into a global city, perhaps some unreality has come in again. It is visible in the elite circles in the city where Mumbai is once again being called Bombay without any fear of being politically incorrect.
Mumbai might seem cosmopolitan for those with safe jobs and secure housing. But even among them, not all have the same experience.

Ask Muslim professionals from other parts of the country the problems they face finding a place to live. People are rejected not just if they are Muslim but even if they eat meat. There are entire areas in Mumbai where even restaurants serving meat cannot operate. This is not cosmopolitanism; this is the bully tactics by the majority.

At the same time, although the images of bhel puri vendors and taxi drivers being beaten up bring home the shameful reality that it is the poor who get trampled on when the politically powerful play games, the reality also is that in Mumbai (not the Bombay of the elite), economic interdependence has forged alliances and tolerance that survive such politics.

It is not an accident that the displaced people from Nashik, the city that saw the most violence, found their relatives in Mumbai and sank into the anonymity of a big city. It is this anonymity that works in favour of the “outsider” because he/she cannot be easily identified or targeted.

What the real outsiders to Mumbai do not recognise is that Mumbai is many cities within one. All those different entities come together during a crisis, as was evident during the 2005 floods. But on a day-to-day basis, they operate separately, even if interdependently.
Different entities

So there is the aspirational global city — restricted to a few handpicked areas where there is a mix of population in terms of communities. This is the city that is once again calling itself Bombay, pretending to be cosmopolitan and open but actually catering to a “globalised” class of people who would prefer the city’s poor people to disappear.
And then there is the inclusive city, evident much more in poor Mumbai than in the richer areas. Here tolerance is not a theoretical construct. It is forced on you.

It’s a survival tactic. You tolerate me, I tolerate you and both of us prosper. That is the mantra that drives Mumbai. And most of the time it works. Until an upstart politician decides to inject fear and poison. In places like Nashik or Pune or other cities in Maharashtra, the same formula does not work.

Here migrant workers live together in enclaves and are easy targets. Most of those who have left these cities in the last month are temporary workers employed in the construction industry and in small workshops. There are no Maharashtrian migrants lining up for these jobs and being denied them.
Disturbing developments

What is disturbing about the recent developments is the absence of a strong civil society response against the violence. Politicians like L. K. Advani pointed out that Thackeray’s statements were unconstitutional.

But where were the other voices that would normally come out against communal violence, for instance? And what about the Maharashtrian intellectuals?
Some Marathi newspapers did criticise Thackeray; some individuals appeared on television talk shows and expressed their dismay at what he was doing in the name of the Marathi Manoos. But there was little by way of mobilising the larger secular community.
One of the few statements that was circulated by e-mail and signed by younger Maharashtrian academics stated, “It is also true that Mumbai is a highly divided city and it’s very easy for some Maharashtrians to be manipulated by a nativist ideology. This is as true in many other parts of the country as well. However we firmly believe that the vast inequalities in the city need to be addressed in real ways rather than this shadow-boxing that Mumbai has been a victim of for decades. We the undersigned would like to place on record that Raj Thackeray does not speak for all Maharashtrians. He certainly does not speak for us.”

Those who believe that India is a free country where every citizen is entitled to live and work where he or she chooses cannot afford to remain silent and just observe such politics of hate and violence. If we fail to resist and oppose it today, in the long run it will take over all our lives.

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