Monday, February 23, 2009

Speaking out

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, February 22, 2008

The Other Half

Two days before February 14, in Rajnandgaon in Chhatisgarh, a group of young girls and boys met for a dinner at a local restaurant, one of only two in this non-descript small town. The restaurant served the ubiquitous selection of “Punjabi/Chinese”. On the lawn behind the restaurant, a party was in full swing with loud Bollywood music blaring out.

Ten years ago, would we have seen boys and girls meeting like this in a town with just over one lakh people? Unlikely. Some of the girls wore western clothes, one wore a salwar kamiz. I asked my host whether this gang of boys and girls were from outside Rajnandgaon, a place with several educational institutions in and around it. He said it was a possibility but they could also be local girls and boys. The presence of the lively group went virtually unnoticed by others in the restaurant. It seemed as if such meetings were commonplace.

In many ways, that group of young people represents the changes taking place in several parts of India, where education and economic mobility are allowing young women to lay claim to the public space as they never could before. They can be seen riding bicycles to high school and scooters to college and work and meeting in mixed groups without fear of being attacked or rebuked. Their mothers would never have dared do this, even if they had wanted to. Perhaps these girls will go on to earn degrees and then get married to the men their parents choose for them. Perhaps some of them will decide to move out of the small town and seek work elsewhere. Perhaps a handful will even be bold enough to decide whom they want to marry. None of this is beyond the realm of possibility.

This is a generational change that the loony fringe who train their guns on hapless couples on Valentine’s Day fail to understand or do not even wish to think about. It has nothing to do with an imposition of another culture. It has to do with education, opportunity and urbanisation.

This year February 14 came and went with the predictable reports of some shops being attacked, random couples being humiliated and demonstrations about “decency” and “culture”. The awful case of the brother and sister being beaten up in Ujjain because the Bajrang Dal gang thought they were a romantic couple was a particularly distressing incident as also several other cases where couples had their faces blackened and one in which the boy was “married” to a donkey. Yet, compared to previous years, this time some state governments did act and the preventive arrests of likely trouble makers managed to dampen the enthusiasm of the “morality brigade”.

But this year was different for another reason. In the bigger cities, for the first time, people decided to fight back. As one television channel dubbed them, the “Love Sena” also came out with assertions of why they had a right to express themselves as they wished in a free country. For instance, students of Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Indian Institute of Mass Communication and the Jawaharlal Nehru University took out a march in the Delhi University campus and then went on to perform street plays in Kamla Nagar market, an area where the Sangh Parivar’s activists had attacked shops selling Valentine’s Day cards in previous years. “Love is not a crime. So why fear the Sanghi terrorists?” they shouted.

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

Monday, February 09, 2009

In the name of culture

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 8, 2008

The attack by the Sri Rama Sene on five women in a Mangalore pub on January 24 was an assault not just on those five but on all Indian women. And on Indian society. And on Indian “culture”, however we might choose to define it.

Since that widely televised crime, that has been repeatedly aired, showing men in saffron pulling women’s hair, pushing them to the ground and openly molesting them without a trace of fear, a great deal of anger, frustration and outrage has been expressed by women’s groups and others.. We have also witnessed the meekness with which even ostensibly “liberal” politicians quake when “Indian culture” comes into the picture. Note the strange responses from people like Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, for instance.

The attack on the women at the Mangalore pub is not the first such incident.. It has been preceded by many others, in and around Mangalore, in Karnataka, and in the rest of the country. What we need to think about is what these incidents say about our society, our systems of governance and our politics.

Collective responsibility
Why is the burden of upholding “tradition” and “cultural values” placed exclusively on the shoulders of women, young or old? Do men and their behaviour have nothing to do with the degradation of “culture”? And what exactly is this “Hindu” or “Indian” culture that the men from the Sri Rama Sene claim to protect? Is it Indian culture to publicly thrash and molest women? Is it Indian culture to kill women — and the men they choose to marry — if they are from a different caste or community? Is it Indian culture to torture and kill women who fail to produce the desired amount of dowry? Is it Indian culture to gang rape Dalit women who dare to challenge regressive traditions like child marriage? Indeed, is it Indian culture to sit back and accept that mothers will die during childbirth without feeling a sense of outrage at the inequity in our society?

If we wanted to find reasons for so-called “moral outrage”, there are plenty. But “pub culture”? Boys and girls going out together? Public displays of affection? Even Valentine’s Day? In any case, what is “pub culture”? Is it a disapproval of alcohol being served in public places? Or is it only about women?

The real reason for such an attack, and previous attacks, is that outfits like the Sri Rama Sene have no understanding or commitment to anything that could be understood as “culture”. They represent a primitive patriarchal mindset that is all about control — particularly over women. At a time when more women in India are getting educated, becoming economically independent and gaining the confidence to make their own choices — a process that has extended now to even smaller towns and cities — our own version of the Taliban feels emasculated. They have lost control.

So how should they assert it? By making a public and violent display of intolerance. The founding member of the Sri Rama Sene, Pravin Valke, a 40-year-old school dropout, is quoted in a newspaper (Indian Express, February 3, 2009) saying, “Why should girls go to pubs? Are they going to serve their future husbands alcohol? Should they not be learning to make chappatis? Bars and pubs should be for men only. We wanted to ensure that all women in Mangalore are home by 7 p.m.”.

In that quote you have a clear explanation of the mindset of these men who speak in the name of culture. Women should stay at home and make chappatis while men can go out and drink, rape and molest women, cheat, murder or do whatever they wish. Thereby our “culture” will be preserved!

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

Requiem for Uma Singh

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 8, 2008

The Other Half

Whenever we in India use the phrase “neighbouring country”, we refer to Pakistan. We forget that there are other neighbours. Nepal, for instance, our northern neighbour, a country that has gone through immense political convulsions in the last three years, has faced decades of internal war and conflict, and is emerging now as a tentative democracy.

The press in Nepal has reported fearlessly through this difficult period. It has known the curbs on freedom. It is now relishing a release from past curbs that only a democracy can guarantee.

Other threats
Yet, despite democracy, the press in Nepal faces a more serious threat, that of violent attacks by dozens of armed groups that continue to flourish with impunity. As a result, those who do not toe the political line set by such groups end up paying a heavy price. One such was 26-year-old radio journalist Uma Singh, who was hacked to death by over 15 men in her home in Janakpur on January 11, 2009.

A recent visit to Kathmandu revealed how strongly a cross-section of journalists there feels about Uma’s brutal murder. Yet little is known in this country about it. In fact, little is reported about the developments in Nepal unless there is an India angle.

Uma was one of a growing breed of independent-minded journalists in Nepal. Unlike India, FM radio in Nepal is an important part of the media scene as it covers politics and current events and not just popular music. Uma reported for Janakpur Today FM radio and also wrote columns in print media. According to her fellow journalists she was fearless in reporting social and political crimes.

Uma Singh lived and worked in the southeastern Tarai region of Nepal bordering India, and reported on problems specific to that region such as the dowry system and caste discrimination. At one point, she was forced to move house because of the threats she received for some of her writing.

Uma Singh belonged to a wealthy landowning family in the Tarai. Three years ago, Maoists kidnapped her father and brother. They have not been seen since and are presumed dead. Uma was determined to track down the perpetrators of that crime. Since her murder, an attempt is being made to dilute the seriousness of the crime by passing it off as a property dispute between members of her family. Yet, the threat she posed was not because she was involved in a family dispute over property but because she did not hesitate to speak plainly about political crimes, including the one involving her family. Nor was she cautious about taking on those close to the people now ruling Nepal. A neighbour, who heard her cries for help when she was attacked, overheard one of the killers saying, “This is for writing so much.”

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