Sunday, December 28, 2008

Woman of steel

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 28, 2008

The Other Half

The State of Jharkhand, that mineral rich southern part of the former State of Bihar, which was hived off into a separate State in 2000, has become famous recently for the achievements of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indian cricket captain who seems to be on a permanent winning streak.

But Dhoni is not the only remarkable individual from this State. In the wake of the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai, when the media was understandably concentrating on developments surrounding that tragic incident, a woman from Jharkhand was honoured at a ceremony in New Delhi. This went virtually unnoticed. She is not part of the glitterati, the “beautiful people” who seem to dominate our television screens these days. She will not be invited to television chat shows to give a sound byte. She will not feature on the front pages of our magazines and newspapers.

Yet, this exceptional 44-year-old tribal woman, a journalist and an activist, could probably teach even Mahendra Singh Dhoni a lesson or two about how to fight back even when you are down and everyone expects you to lose.

Worthy recipient
Dayamani Barla was chosen for the Chingari Award for Women Against Corporate Crime 2008. The award itself is remarkable because it has been instituted by two women who took on one of the biggest corporations in the world, Union Carbide in 1984 after one of the worst industrial disasters killed thousands of people in Bhopal. Rasheeda Bee and Champa Devi Shukla won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004 for their work in Bhopal to get justice for the victims. Instead of using the sizeable award money for their needs as they could have given that they were victims of the gas disaster, they decided to invest it in a trust that would recognise each year a woman struggling on the same issues as them.

In Dayamani Barla they have found a worthy recipient for the award. Like Rasheeda Bee and Champa Devi, Dayamani knows the cost of fighting against the powerful. Born in a village in Gumla district of Jharkhand to a landless family, Dayamani’s father was forced to give up his house to usurious moneylenders when she was still young. Her mother had to find work as a domestic in Ranchi and Dayamani had to work to supplement the family income from the age of nine. But she also continued to study, and worked to support her family by giving tuitions and typing, at the rate of Rs. 1 per hour. Many children under such circumstances would have given up education. But Dayamani persisted and cleared not just high school but even university. She did her Masters in Commerce from Ranchi University and went on to be an award-winning journalist and author. She was clear from the start that she wanted to use her pen to give a voice to those who are otherwise not heard.

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

Sunday, December 14, 2008

No time for revenge

I am not the first person to recommend peace and restraint since the terror attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008. Yet, within minutes of my column appearing in The Hindu, the hate mail has already started pouring in. One reader has called me "asinine", and writes: "India can do without weak sisters like you. Perhaps, they can be offered to the terrorists in exchange, if that will placate them." Others are more polite but suggest that I am completely wrong, and I am steeling myself for much more. But why does talk of peace at a time like this provoke such a violent response? Are we in the media partly to blame for drumming up these feelings of revenge each time there is a terror attack?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 14, 2008


No time for revenge

Ever since the terrifying terror strike in Mumbai on November 26, many of us have strained hard to find some voices advocating peace. The overwhelming chant is one demanding war and revenge. It is reminiscent of other times, in other places. In the United States post 9/11. And an echo of that is heard in the India of today.

But after 9/11, there were also strong, public, prominent voices calling for peace, for sanity, for restraint. Some of these individuals were pilloried for flowing against the tide. Yet, they stuck to their convictions. Many of those who spoke out were women.

Robin Morgan, an award-winning American feminist writer wrote in the days after the terror strike, about the mood in New York. “The petitions have begun. For justice but not vengeance. For a reasoned response but against escalating retaliatory violence. For vigilance about civil liberties. For the rights of innocent Muslim Americans. For ‘bombing’ Afghanistan with food and medical parcels, NOT firepower.” She urged people to write to newspapers, use the Internet to talk about the root causes of terrorism. “Ours are complex messages with long-term solutions — and this is a moment when people yearn for simplicity and short-term, facile answers.”

Manufacturing consent

In India too, we have seen how our media forces facile answers. You are compelled to answer “yes” or “no” to questions that have pre-determined answers. You are asked to express “in 30 seconds” why you believe it would be wrong to provoke a confrontation with Pakistan. Then, what you say is misinterpreted and before you can respond, the subject is changed.

As a result, we have been inundated with expressions of aggression, often born out of ignorance. We are being forced to listen to opinions of people who have rarely engaged with issues that confront Indian society outside such times. And we are being informed that the “mood” of people is for “decisive action” to deal with terror. If there are voices saying something different, they are either not heard, or cut short.

Real security

Much of this is the media attempting to manufacture consent. Much of it is limited to the urban middle and upper classes. Proof of this has already been evident in the results of elections in five States where the party that used the “terror” message did not sweep the polls as expected. In rural India, the issue that remains the most relevant is development — sadak, bijli, paani. This is what security means to the ordinary woman and man, not war with Pakistan, not rule by the military, not stronger anti-terror laws, all of which are being demanded by some people in our cities.

Also, while there are voices seeking better governance, better intelligence, better training and equipment for the police, few are speaking out for better relations with Pakistan. Yet, with the backing of civil society groups on both sides of the border, India and Pakistan have made great strides in taking small but important steps to improve relations. The Mumbai terror strike appears to have wiped all this out.

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

Monday, December 08, 2008

Sixty hours of terror

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 7, 2008

Sixty hours of terror

The sounds of gunfire and grenades have died down. The dust
has settled. The shards of broken glass and plaster are
being cleared. The blood has been washed away. And the eerie
silence has given way once again to the reassuring urban
chaos that is Mumbai. But 10 days after the nightmare began
in Mumbai, one that seemed not to end, that extended for
three nights and two days, the scars are still raw, the
images still sharp and the questions still unanswered.

On Wednesday night, November 26, the gunmen struck. They
were not masked. They were like young people we see on our
streets. By Thursday morning, Mumbai was paralysed. Why?
This is a huge city, sprawling way to the north of where the
attack took place, in the southern tip of the city. Trains
and buses were unaffected. Yet, no one moved on that day.

Staying put

Two factors were principally responsible. One, the apparent
randomness of the attack. Images of armed gunmen spraying
bullets at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), a building as
beautiful as it is important for the city, and thereafter
all the way down the street to the junction where another
landmark, the Metro cinema stands, forced people to stay off
the roads. Any of us could have been on the street when the
gunmen opened fire. Any of us could have been walking around
the popular Colaba causeway, buying bags and scarves from
the hawkers that line its pavements when the gunmen barged
into Leopold Cafe and opened fire. Any one of us
could have been like the man who stepped out of his shop to
find out what the noise was about only to be shot by the
gunmen as they made their way to their ultimate target, the
Taj Mahal hotel.

The second reason was the non-stop television coverage. The
terror attack might have been far from our homes. But
television brought to us its terrifying sights and sounds.
And the faces of the gunmen. No one slept that night. Few
could summon up the will power to just turn the television
set off and wait until the next day. As a result, the city
was hooked onto this continuous horror show being played on
all channels.

But the massacre in Mumbai also brought home to the people
of this city a version of urban warfare they had never seen.
The sight of commandos landing by helicopter on the roof of
Nariman House, a little known Jewish centre in the crowded
heart of Colaba, was even more unreal. You only saw such
sights in Hollywood movies. Could this really be taking
place in one part of our city?

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