Sunday, August 21, 2011

Another India, another protest

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 21, 2011 
Lone battle: Irom Sharmila, force-fed and kept alive by the State. Photo: The Hindu Photo Library
Lone battle: Irom Sharmila, force-fed and kept alive by the State. Photo: The Hindu Photo Library
While the farcical drama around Anna Hazare's protest and arrest has hogged the limelight, Irom Sharmila's indefinite fast since 2000 to get the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) repealed continues to be ignored by the nation and the media…
A day after Indians ‘celebrated' Independence Day by following the annual ritual of hoisting the flag, singing the national anthem and patriotic songs and listening to politicians, including the Prime Minister, talk about the strengths of Indian democracy, the police cracked down on a much-celebrated campaigner against corruption, Anna Hazare and his team.
The drama that followed his arrest and that of others in his team, the growing protests, the late night release and then Anna's refusal to be released was not just farcical; it was a pitiful display of a government with no respect for people's right to protest and no strategy to deal with those who demand that right. In one day, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government managed to unite the opposition. Even those who do not subscribe to every aspect of Hazare's campaign, such as his demand that only his team's formulation of the Lok Pal Bill be accepted, strongly condemned the government's actions. On August 16, Anna Hazare successfully “arrested” the UPA government.
Yet even as Hazare's anti-corruption crusade gained momentum with hundreds courting voluntary arrest, in another part of India, a protestor who has used a similar tactic, of going on an indefinite fast, continues to be ignored by the rest of the country and by the political leadership.
Given the issue — rooting out corruption — and the mobilisation of groups in big cities across India, as well as the concerted media attention, some might consider it irrelevant to talk about a corner of the country where a lone woman continues her fight against the truly undemocratic Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) imposed on Manipur that has made life a living hell for the ordinary people of that State.
Indeed, when the rest of India — barring, of course, the Kashmir Valley — celebrated Independence Day, the scene in Manipur was strikingly different. Pradip Phanjoubam, Editor of the Imphal Free Press, wrote this moving opening paragraph in his editorial on August 15 titled, “State of Independence”:
“On the eve of the India's Independence Day, Imphal is acquiring the look of a war front. The scenario is not too different in other townships in Manipur as indeed in much of the Northeast. It has almost become a ritual every year. Various militant organisations would call for a boycott of the celebration of what is arguably the biggest and most important day in the country's history and in response the provincial governments would virtually stage flag marches to demonstrate the power of the establishment and push its way without being deterred by any threat whatsoever. Uniformed gun totting security personnel are on every corner of the streets frisking people, stopping motorists, checking their vehicles, questioning them etc. As expected, even a week before the big day approached, Imphal already began wearing a deserted look, especially after sunset. People return home early so as not to be accosted by security men and go through the humiliation of being made to stand on the side of the roads to be frisked and questioned like potential trouble makers. The ordinary people are supposed to be mere bystanders in this war game, but every time tensions escalate in moments like this, they have no choice than to be prepared to be the undeserved casualties, and sometimes become statistics of ‘ collateral damage', the well known sugar-coating aimed at making civilian killing and harassment seem like necessary and pardonable fallout of a conflict.”
Yes, Imphal is a long way from our relatively comfortable lives in cities in the rest of India, even if our lives are disrupted by the occasional power outage, by water shortage, by pot-holes on our roads, by inflation, and by the government deciding to deny those so inclined the right to protest. But Manipur is also India. Yet, here people live without electricity for most of the day, even in the capital city. Here, the areas with a sufficient water supply would probably be only those where the government and the army reside. Here, people are afraid to go out after dark and markets close as soon as the sun sets. Here, men with arms, the security forces and the various groups of militants, run the show. Here, ‘democracy' seems a theoretical construct, certainly not a lived reality.
Beacon of hope
And here, since November 2000, a 38-year-old woman, Irom Sharmila, has been on an indefinite fast demanding withdrawal of AFSPA. She is under arrest and is being force-fed by the government in a public hospital in Imphal. Every year she is released, and then re-arrested. Yet, this woman of unimaginable courage will simply not give up. And by holding on to her resolve, she holds up a small candle of hope for the people of her state. A hope that people will notice, that her determination will be recognised, that the current government, which in its earlier term had promised to look again at AFSPA, will not break one more promise.
We have forgotten that a year after the UPA government first took office in 2004, it set up a five-member committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge B. P. Jeevan Reddy. The committee recommended, amongst other things, a withdrawal of AFSPA. So Sharmila's demand is not unreasonable; a government-appointed committee has endorsed it. But the recommendation was given more than six years ago. Yet today, the security forces continue to enjoy the right to act with impunity, while the citizens of Manipur, who are also citizens of India, live without many fundamental rights guaranteed to them under our Constitution.
Anna Hazare's campaign, in the national capital and in full media glare, is premised on scepticism about the government's intent on the matter of dealing with corruption. But Sharmila has even a greater reason for scepticism given the absence of any movement on a recommendation that has been before the government for so many years.
If we are concerned about freedom, about democratic rights, about the right to protest, let us also remember other protests, other parts of India where democratic rights are being denied. Let us remember Sharmila.
(To read the original, click on the link above)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Giving credit where it is due

Posted on The Hoot

Manu Pubby, however, made no mention in his story that this letter had first appeared in a story by Sarwar in The News as part of Aman Ki Asha. Not just that, but his story ran with a misleading headline. it is curious how often the Indian media fails to acknowledge the original source for a story, says KALPANA SHARMA. Pix courtesy CNN IBN
Posted/Updated Sunday, Aug 14 11:32:05, 2011

Barkha Dutt must be complimented for her programme, “The Buck Stops Here” on August 10. Not so much for having got an ‘exclusive’ but for performing the journalistically correct gesture of acknowledging the person who actually got the exclusive.
The story that Dutt featured in her one-hour news programme on August 10 was the amazing letter written by a Pakistan Air Force pilot to the descendants of occupants on an Indian civilian aircraft that he shot down during the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Qais Hussain managed through Indian friends to trace the daughter of Jahangir ‘Jhangoo’ Engineer, the pilot of an aircraft with eight passengers including the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Balwantrai Mehta that strayed near the Pakistan border at the height of the war. Hussain’s email was sent on August 5. But Farida Singh, Engineer’s daughter, became aware of this only after Manu Pubby of Indian Express ran a page one story on Hussain’s letter. Following this, Farida checked her mail, read the letter, and wrote a remarkable response to Hussain. 
Dutt’s journalistic coup was in getting together on the same programme not just Hussain, who lives in Islamabad, but Farida Singh, who lives in Delhi, and the daughter-in-law and grand-daughter of Balwantrai Mehta, who live in Mumbai. Additionally, Dutt also invited Beena Sarwar, Pakistani journalist and filmmaker who is in-charge of the Aman Ki Asha campaign that her newspaper, The News, and The Times of India have run jointly for 20 months. It was Sarwar who first reported the Quais letter.
Incidentally, as has been mentioned in this column earlier, The News appears to be taking the Aman Ki Asha far more seriously than The Times of India. The latter ran out of steam shortly after the campaign for peace between India and Pakistan was launched. The News, on the other hand, under the able and imaginative leadership of Beena Sarwar, is constantly coming out with interesting stories, the latest being the letter by Qais Hussain.
Manu Pubby, however, made no mention in his story that this letter had first appeared in a story by Sarwar in The News as part of Aman Ki Asha. Not just that, but his story ran with a misleading headline: “After 46 yrs, the healing touch: Pak pilot says sorry for mistake.”
If you read the letter by Hussain, nowhere does he admit to making a mistake in shooting down a civilian aircraft. What he does say is that he hesitated because the aircraft gestured, pleading to be left alone, asked his command what he should do. “Instead of firing at him at first sight, I relayed to my controller that I had intercepted an eight seat transport aircraft  (guessing by the four side windows) and wanted further instructions to deal with it. At the same time, I was hoping that I would be called back without firing a shot. There was a lapse of 3 to 4 long minutes before I was given clear orders to shoot the aircraft.” (To read the entire letter, click here)
He also clarifies that the reason he was reaching out to the families of those killed in the aircraft is because he wanted to set the record straight. “I did not play foul and went by the rules of business but the unfortunate loss of precious lives, no matter how it happens, hurts each human and I am no exception. I feel sorry for you, your family and the other seven families who lost their dearest ones.” There is no indication anywhere in the letter that Hussain thinks he made a mistake.
In a letter that Hussain has sent to Indian Express, which at the time of writing (August 12) had not yet been printed, he expresses his strong objection to the headline and clarifies, yet again, that he had sympathized with Farida Singh and others who lost members of their families in that aircraft and had said that he felt sorry for them. “I had not said anywhere that I had made a mistake and that I wished to apologize for it”, he writes.
Hussain’s gesture and Farida Singh’s amazingly gracious response constitute a touching and unusual story in the history of the fraught relations between India and Pakistan. It is a pity that some in the Indian media have failed to build on the main strength of this gesture and instead chosen to give their own interpretation. In contrast, it is worth reading Beena Sarwar’s story in The News following Farida Singh’s response and the NDTV show. It is accurate, picks out the relevant parts of Singh’s letter, and brings out the most positive aspect of the exchange between Singh, Hussain and Mehta’s relatives on Dutt’s programme.
Coming back to the issue of acknowledging the source, it is curious how often Indian media fails on this count. Another recent example that comes to mind was the well-written and researched op-ed article by Priscilla Jebraj in The Hindu commenting on a sensational lead in Hindustan Times on June 26, “Docs turn scores of baby girls into boys” in Indore. The story had claimed that the doctors were performing genitoplasty on newborn babies. The Hindu story exposed the fallacious basis of that story by speaking to doctors. Jebraj also got the responses of the editors of Hindustan Times who chose to run the story. Unfortunately, she failed to acknowledge that the original story pointing this out had already appeared on this very website, The Hoot several weeks earlier. Does media competition have to mean that we do not give credit where it is due?
I suppose it is too much to expect Indian newspapers to adhere to the code of ethics a newspaper like The Guardian expects its journalists to follow. But here is what it says about attribution:
“Credits: Staff must not reproduce other people’s material without attribution, other than in exceptional circumstances – for example where the source cannot be identified – and only with permission of the most senior editor on duty. The source of published material obtained from another organisation should be acknowledged, including quotes taken from other newspaper articles. Bylines should be carried only on material that is substantially the work of the bylined journalist.”
(To read the original, click on the link above) 


Sunday, August 07, 2011

Independence to decide

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 7, 2011


The Other Half - 

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Limited assets, limited choices...Photo: Kamal Narang
Limited assets, limited choices...Photo: Kamal Narang
Both in urban and rural areas, women not only have fewer assets than men but have almost no say in decisions concerning them…
The eve of yet another Independence Day is a good time to ask once again: How independent are Indian women? What choices are they free to make? Is what they own really theirs? Do they have the freedom to decide what to acquire as assets and once they have something, to decide what to do with them?
These questions are relevant for more than one reason. The perennial debate about the skewed sex ratio, which has been addressed on several occasions in this column, always comes back to the central question of how women are valued, or rather why women in this country are valued so little that people think nothing of ensuring that girls are not born. Amongst the many suggestions put forward to deal with this unacceptable state of affairs is that women should have their own financial assets. This will enhance their worth in their families and in society. But will merely enacting laws and enabling legislation to help women acquire such assets and have the freedom to use them, make a difference?
Interesting survey
These questions hovered just under the surface earlier this week as Hema Swaminathan and Suchitra J.Y. of the Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru, presented some of the findings of an innovative survey that they have completed. The Karnataka Household Asset Survey (KHAS) 2010-11 surveyed 4,110 households across eight districts in all four agro-climatic zones in the state. The study is part of a three-nation study to measure the gender asset gap.
It is different from other such surveys primarily because it has been able arrive at a way to measure the gender asset gap, or the difference between what men and women own. This has been done by deviating from the standard approach of talking to only one person in each household, namely the person deemed head of the household.
Instead, the researchers used a novel approach. They discussed with the family who was best informed about asset ownership and identified that person as the primary respondent. In addition, they selected the spouse or someone else, as the secondary respondent. In this way, in each household, they were able to get a female and male perspective.
The authors of the survey argue that surveys that measure the assets of a household mask gender inequalities. For instance, it is assumed that in wealthier households, the women too are better off. But this is not necessarily so as what the women can claim as their own, over which they have some decision-making rights, might be very little. KHAS found that women owned only 16 per cent of the total wealth in the richest 20 per cent of rural households. In the event of breakdown of marriage, these women are often rendered asset-less.
On the other hand, their data reveals that in the poorest 20 per cent of rural households, women owned 51 per cent of the wealth. But this did not mean there was greater gender equality in poor households as compared to the rich. This happens because such virtually asset-less households consist mostly of single women or widows. Compared to the rest of their assets, their personal jewellery is valued higher.
It is in the ownership of land and real estate that the real disparity stands out. In rural areas, 71 per cent of all plots of land were owned by men and only 14 per cent by women. Furthermore, the value of what women owned was much lower, often consisting of marginal land. The disparity was only marginally lower in urban areas.
One exception
The only asset where women surpassed men was in ownership of jewellery. Whether in village, or city, women had this as their primary asset. So while men generally owned land, houses and real estate, the women owned jewellery. If there were women who owned land or houses, these would usually be widows, who would have inherited property on the death of their spouses.
Just because a woman could claim that jewellery was her personal asset as she would have brought it with her to her marital home, or would have been gifted it during the course of the marriage, did she actually have a say if the family wanted to sell it for an urgent financial need? Women's ability to make such decisions is difficult to quantify in numbers but the qualitative survey, which forms part of the study, underlines the reality of women's decision-making powers within a household.
In a focus group discussion in Chamarajanagar District, Urban, for instance, the moderator asked, “If a wife does not want her husband to sell the property, then what happens?” A woman replied, “Then they don't listen to us and decide on their own”. In another discussion in Bellary district, the women were asked who decided about buying something for the house. One participant said both the husband and wife while another said, the men. And if the women disagree? “Men don't listen to them, they will do it anyway”, said one. And so whose decision is final? “Men's decision is final”.
This small vignette from the qualitative part of the study is illustrative of the reality. Irrespective of what women own, or how much, in the majority of cases they do not have the power or the independence to decide about the use of the resources. Married women often think they are secure in a house even if the husband owns it; but when it is crunch time, they will have no say.
The survey is rich in data on several aspects. These will be further studied and analysed and will throw up many more interesting aspects on this issue. One statistic that stood out, for instance, even though it is not related to the primary focus of the study, was the extent to which rural households continue to depend on fuel wood as their main source of cooking fuel — an astounding 93 per cent. What does this say about a country that is willing to make any kind of deal for its energy needs and yet does nothing to mitigate the immense hardship that primarily women must bear to meet this very basic of energy needs, cooking energy? To add to that burden is the absence of sanitation, available to only 23 per cent of households in rural areas. And piped water, supplied to an abysmal 17 per cent in rural areas. Asset ownership will have little meaning for millions of women if they are denied clean cooking fuel, sanitation and water.
Ignorant of laws
Another interesting sidelight of the survey was the fact that most women had no idea that a state like Karnataka has a law that actually gives women the right to have a say in the disposal of family property. Just enacting progressive laws makes little difference unless it is followed up by legal literacy, something that is lacking in a whole range of women-centred laws.
So how does data generated by a survey like KHAS help? We already know that women own less than men. We also know that generally women's views are ignored in decision-making. Yet, the extent to which this prevails has not been known. More such studies in different states would generate an India-wide picture. In the long run, any policy or law seeking to correct this imbalance can work only if it understands the distinct nature of problems like the gender asset gap.

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