Sunday, December 27, 2009
Monday, December 14, 2009
DNA, December 14, 2009
“Isn't it ironic and smacks of the Centre's double standards? One person in AP fasts for ten days and Centre relents. Another person fasts in Manipur for nine years and more, supported by the relay fast of thousands of other women for one year now, and what does the Centre do? -- NOTHING. Wah, wah, Indian democracy!! Not proud to be Indian”.
This is a message sent to some of us by a woman journalist friend in Manipur. Indeed, if you are looking at what they call “mainland” India from the distant Northeast, it must seem strange that a 10 day fast can result in talks for a separate state for Telengana but a 10-year-fast to demand the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Manipur results in nothing.
Irom Sharmila, that iconic 36-year-old Manipuri woman, has spent the best part of almost 10 years being force fed against her will. She has undertaken a fast-unto-death demanding the withdrawal of the AFSPA. Each year, the ritual is played out. Her period of detention for attempting suicide is one year. The authorities have to release her, usually in early March. She leaves the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal where she is incarcerated and being force fed through a tube shoved down her nose.
Earlier this year, many of us were witness to the moving moment when this pale young woman emerged from the hospital and was virtually carried by hundreds of older Manipuri woman who have been on a relay hunger strike in support, to the shamiana where they sit all day and all night in solidarity. Sharmila began speaking as she gained a little strength. But she would not give up her fast. So two days later she was rearrested and once again moved to the hospital.
And while this annual arrest and rearrest ritual continues, Manipur – and particularly Imphal – is caught in a permanent spiral of violence. For many months now, since the July 23 “encounter” killing of a young man, Chongkham Sanjit in broad daylight in Imphal’s busy market area (exposed by Tehelka through a series of photographs), the capital of Manipur has not been “normal”. People are demanding that the killers of this young man be prosecuted. But AFSPA gives the security forces impunity. Their powers to act cannot be questioned.
As a result, there has been a civil strike that has immobilised the city. For months children have not attended school or college. There is violence, curfew and an aggravation of the perennial shortages that this land-locked city not far from the border of Myanmar faces even in so-called normal times. The 25 lakh citizens of the state of Manipur have seen little or no development for years while the rest of India, apparently, marches ahead.
So my Manipuri friends have a right to ask why some fasts in the “mainland” yield results while their protests are never heard. Or if they are, then the result is promises that are never kept. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raised some hopes in 2004 when he went to Imphal and promised that the withdrawal of AFSPA would be considered. He set up a committee headed by Supreme Court Judge B. P. Jeevan Reddy to look into the issue. The committee strongly recommended that the Act be withdrawn pointing out that the Act, “for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness”. But nothing happened. The promise was forgotten, the recommendation ignored.
The Telangana issue has triggered a series of demands for separate states. The people of Gorkhaland have begun fasts, others are threatening to do so. But in the midst of all this fasting, we would do well to pause and think why only the demands of our “mainland” matter while the “periphery” – places like Manipur – are ignored, forgotten and rendered virtually invisible.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Saturday, November 28, 2009
The little girl selling candles outside the Taj Mahal hotel was having the best time on November 26. No one quibbled when she asked for Rs. 10 for each candle. All kinds of Mumbaikars bought candles from her and others like her, and lit them ritualistically outside the hotel. Every now and then they would pause as they noticed one of hundreds of photographers positioning themselves to take the definitive picture of Mumbai in mourning a year after the terror attack.
While several thousands of Mumbai’s residents thronged the area in front of the Taj, a virtual wall made up of vehicles with generators separated them from another ceremony on the other side of the plaza around the Gateway of India. This was the VIP mourning session. The aam admi was kept out and Mumbai’s police were tasked with the job of ensuring that this distance between the important and the unimportant remain intact.
The November 26 anniversary in Mumbai was a spectacle in more ways that one. The candle lighting was predictable. Since the Jessica Lal murder case and Rang de Basanti, this form of remembrance, magnified by the electronic media, has now become a virtual norm. But the anniversary went beyond that.
The city seemed to be under siege again, or at least its southern part, as streams of important people went from one location to another paying homage to the dead while the police waved their hands and blew whistles to keep the roads clear for them. Earlier in the morning the flag march by the Mumbai police, when a part of the busy Marine Drive was blocked off at peak traffic time, failed to either awe or to reassure Mumbai’s harried citizens.
Omnipresent at every location was the OB van and dozens of journalists and cameramen. The media circus was on full display and was as much an object of interest as the events. Assorted groups with their own agendas used the presence of the media to put forward their messages. So a group from the BJP shouted slogans like “Phansi do, phansi do” demanding that the lone surviving terrorist Ajmal Kasab be hanged. The Hare Rama Hare Krishna brigade sang bhajans and danced around. An old poster, created after the 1992-93 communal riots by a garment manufacturer in Dharavi, the late Waqar Younis, showing four young boys depicting four different religions under the slogan “Ham Sab Ek Hain” was held up by a woman accompanied by a young man with a cutout of India and a national flag. Within minutes a crowd had gathered around them. And so on. It was a mela of personal messages and agendas. And somewhere in the background was the memory that a year ago the structure before which all this was happening had been under siege in one of the most spectacular terror attacks seen in India.
The odd slogans apart, what one did not sense was any anger. Disappointment, yes. But not anger. Not of the kind expressed a year back. So what had happened? Had people changed? Or had the anger drummed up at that time subsided because it had not been channeled into anything constructive? Of course, if you believed what you heard on television, Mumbaikars apparently were angry. Some of the talking heads on TV—the famous and the glamorous – declared repeatedly that they were angry and fed-up with the government and the political class.
Strikingly, those who said they were not angry were people who were still grieving a personal loss. People like Ragini Sharma, the wife of a ticket collector who was shot down at CST station. Or journalist Sabina Sehgal Saikia’s brother, who suggested that people needed to move on beyond anger.
Unfortunately, Mumbaikars have not moved on beyond anger or disappointment to any kind of engagement or effort to change the system. Venting is the easiest form of expression and the electronic media, in particular, now gives the famous and the ordinary a chance to do just that. But what is achieved at the end of all that except an accumulation of hot air?
In the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year, one person did attempt to engage with the system. Banker Meera Sanyal stood for elections as an independent candidate in the sincere belief that the anger expressed following November 26 would translate into votes for someone like her. Nothing of the kind happened. Her supporters deluded themselves up to the last minute. Ms Sanyal lost her deposit. Ms Sanyal has to be saluted for at least taking this step but have those who convinced themselves that she would win because she echoed the sentiments of people upset about the events of last November understood why she lost?
The elite and the middle class in a city like Mumbai are convinced that if they speak, the rulers must listen. So if they shout and say they are angry, those in power should shake in trepidation and immediately set about making changes. If they ask questions like “Why didn’t the NSG use tear gas in the Taj while tackling the terrorists?” they must be given a studied response even though the question arises from complete ignorance about how such situations are handled.
In between such questions being raised on prime time television, there is little or no engagement with the realities of the city. Some are engaged – and they are always the people who speak some sense. But their numbers are few, not enough to make a dent in the city’s development plans, to break the growing and obvious nexus between builders and politicians, to impact the course of decision-making on issues vital to people’s daily existence. The few exceptions are where people have decided not to sit back and protest but to organise and resist. Thus the residents of Gorai in northwest Mumbai, for instance, successfully prevented land acquisition for an SEZ that would have destroyed the lives and livelihood of thousands of fisherfolk and farmers. But apart from a handful of such examples of successful interventions in changing policy, Mumbaikars continue to demonstrate amazing indifference to their surroundings and only wake up periodically when disasters hit them – a flood, a bomb blast or a terror attack.
The problem with the hype around anniversaries like November 26 is that it is only hype. When anger does not lead to constructive engagement, not only does it dissipate but it also serves no purpose. If there is anything we should learn a year after November 26, it is this, a truth that has been self-evident for decades in this city.
(Also read my column on The Hoot on the media and 26/11 --http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/story.php?storyid=4230&mod=1&pg=1§ionId=10&valid=true)
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Thursday, November 05, 2009
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Monday, October 05, 2009
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
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, September 06, 2009
Saturday, September 05, 2009
(Column posted on InfoChange India News&Features)
Urban planners have proposed alternative approaches to Dharavi’s redevelopment, which would view Dharavi as a thriving and functioning urban settlement and not as a slum that needs to be flattened and rebuilt. The October assembly elections may just have given Dharavi the breathing space required to discuss these alternatives, writes Kalpana Sharma
For months it appeared as if nothing could stop progress on the massive Rs 15,000 crore Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP). Everything was finalised. Only the final bids had to be confirmed. Suddenly, with the announcement of state assembly elections in Maharashtra scheduled for October 13, the project has come to a grinding halt. With the electoral code of conduct in place, the state government cannot initiate any projects. For many people in Dharavi, this comes as a huge relief.
The history of the project, mired in controversy from the start, is a story of how such redevelopment should not be done. It all began when a developer, who already had a couple of projects in Dharavi through the existing Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRS) of the Maharashtra government, noticed the potential of developing the entire area. Its location next to the Bandra Kurla complex, where land prices were going through the roof, made it even more attractive. Mukesh Mehta of MM Consultants outlined a plan to develop all of Dharavi in 2003. He divided the area into 10 sectors and proposed that each sector should be handed over to a developer through open bidding.
Mehta successfully sold the idea to the then National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the centre led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. The Maharashtra government responded by following up on Mehta’s proposal, appointed him initially as an adviser and eventually as the consultant for the Dharavi Redevelopment Project.
In the course of time, the original 10 sectors got collapsed into five, a separate authority was created to oversee the project and the government set about finding ways to give special incentives to attract private developers to take on the project. One of these was to increase the FSI (Floor Space Index) from the current 1.33 to 4 and allowing developers to use all the additional FSI in Dharavi itself rather than converting it into TDR (Transfer of Development Rights) to be used in other projects elsewhere in the city.
In the initial years, the project was estimated to cost Rs 9,300 crore. Today it is valued at Rs 15,000 crore. The delay has helped increase profit margins as land prices have steadily gone upwards, by 30 to 40%, although there was a slight dip in the last year. But between the date the project was initiated and the present day, there has been a notable increase in land prices. All of this benefits developers who are aiming to win bids to develop one of the five sectors.
Also in the interim, to pacify Dharavi residents who have argued that their existing spaces are considerably larger than the 225 sq ft apartments promised free to them under the DRP, the government agreed as a special case to increase the size of each apartment to nearly 300 sq ft. For this the relevant Development Control Rule (DCR) needed to be amended.
The project has inched forward, with the government inviting bids, shortlisting 14 possible developers and promising that by July 30 the final bids would be announced. Inexplicably, on that day, the entire process ground to a halt. The government claimed it had not yet amended the DCR to accommodate the bigger apartments for Dharavi’s residents. Hence the bidding process could not go through. In fact, this was a mere technicality. The thought of the impending elections, and having to face the ire of disgruntled residents in Dharavi, was probably a much bigger reason for postponing the final phase of getting the project underway. Now, with the election code of conduct, this government cannot take any more steps and the project will have to be revisited, or revived, by the new government that takes office at the end of October.
(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)
Sunday, August 23, 2009
THE OTHER HALF
Manipuri women staging a protest in Delhi (photo: Sandeep Saxena, courtesy The Hindu)
While the rest of India celebrated its 62nd year as an independent country, in its northeast corner there was little to celebrate. On July 23, “an ordinary day” in the Manipur capital, Imphal — if indeed there is such a thing as an “ordinary day” — Rabina Devi, a pregnant woman, was going to the market when she was shot dead as the police chased a young man. At the same time, a “suspected militant” was pushed into a pharmacy and shot. The police claimed he had shot at them. But the fake “encounter” killing was captured by a photographer (who is petrified of being discovered) and leaked to the magazine Tehelka. The 12 pictures are a damning indictment as they clearly show an unarmed Chongkham Sanjit being pushed into the pharmacy and then being brought out dead and loaded onto a truck. All this happened in a crowded market place in broad daylight (at 10.30 a.m.).
Anger on the streets
The Tehelka expose has led to an explosion of anger on the streets of Imphal. Women, men, young people are out on the streets, agitating, demanding justice and an end to the impunity granted security forces under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). This demand is not new. It surfaces every now and then but refuses to die out. It requires only one incident for the anger to spill out on the streets. The State’s response to such agitations is also not new. Dusk to dawn curfew, tear gas used against agitators, a show of force. In turn, people respond by calling bandhs, defying curfew and courting arrest. And so the cycle of violence continues.
This time, the problem is not limited to the Imphal valley, inhabited by the majority Meitei. Even in the hills where the Tanghkul Nagas live there have been bandhs and protests over the killing of two “suspected militants” on August 12. Manipur, according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s address at the recent meeting of Chief Ministers in New Delhi, accounts for a third of all violent incidents in India’s Northeast.
What always continues to amaze the outsider looking in to Manipur is the mobilisation of women and their fearlessness. Amateur videos on You Tube show scores of women on the streets, throwing down the gauntlet literally (they spread the cloth they wear as the upper garment as a sign of defiance as no one is supposed to trample on these) and facing a phalanx of police personnel armed with rifles and tear gas shells. The women from Imphal’s remarkable all-women market, the Ema Keithel, have been courting arrest in droves as their mark of protest. The women are calling this another “Nupila” (women’s war), reminiscent of the struggle against the British.
“We women cannot bear anymore as it has reached beyond a tolerable limit. That’s why we have come out unitedly to get ourselves killed or get arrested by the police”, Chaoba Devi, one of the women leading the agitation, told the press. Women talk about how curfew has disrupted education and the livelihood of thousands who depend on daily wages. A visit to Manipur earlier this year showed us the challenge of living under dusk to dawn curfew — and the burden women have to bear to ensure that their children are fed, that there is enough water, and that they can reach a healthcare facility if someone falls ill.
(To read the rest click on the link above)