Monday, February 18, 2013

Crime and Punishment

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 17, 2013

Should a civilised society be moving away from capital punishment or continue justifying its continuance? File Photo
APShould a civilised society be moving away from capital punishment or continue justifying its continuance? File Photo
Introducing the death penalty for rape will create more problems than it will solve.
On February 9, a man was hung to death in Tihar jail. Justice was done, said some. Others felt the man had not been given a chance to prove his innocence. And still others felt that irrespective of the case, the dictum of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth could not be the imperative that a civilised society follows.
The object of this column is not to go into the details of the Afzal Guru case, although it is one that should not be pushed aside as old news. But two months after the gang rape of a young woman in Delhi, a terrible tragedy that triggered waves of protests and demands for justice, it is important and relevant for everyone, including women, to talk about the death penalty.
Do we as women, destined by biology to give birth and ordained by society to be nurturers and care-givers, support a regime that awards death for certain heinous crimes? Do we believe that taking a life will act as a deterrent to those who destroy lives? Do we accept that the system of justice is so even and fair that even the poor, the oppressed, those without the wherewithal to survive long drawn out legal battles, can get justice? Should a civilised society be moving away from capital punishment or continue justifying its continuance — and even demand that it be extended to more crimes, as is happening in India? These are questions that we must ask, debate and resolve.
The reason why the death penalty should concern all women is because of the crescendo demanding death for rape that followed the December 16 Delhi rape. In newspapers, television channels, everywhere, you heard voices arguing that only death would act as a deterrent. The government has apparently decided to respond to this chorus of demands for death by introducing the death penalty for rape in the recent ordinance that was promulgated on February 3, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013. Introducing the death penalty for rape flies in the face of the Justice Verma Committee’s recommendations.
It is a pity that the government has chosen to do this without considering the reasoned and excellent discussion on the death penalty in the Justice Verma Committee report and also without allowing the time and space for more opinions to be garnered on this question. Instead, to show that is finally becoming “decisive”, it has rushed through an ordinance even when Parliament is about to begin its budget session.
There are many aspects to this debate. On the death penalty for rape it is worth reading the Justice Verma Committee report, available for a free download on several sites including, particularly chapter nine, which deals with “Sentencing and Punishment”. The chapter begins with a quote from an American judge, Justice Stewart in Furman v Georgia that sums up the philosophical argument against the death penalty: “The penalty of death differs from all other forms of criminal punishment, not in degree, but in kind. It is unique in its total irrevocability. It is unique in its rejection of rehabilitation of the convict as a basic purpose of criminal justice. And it is unique, finally, in its absolute renunciation of all that is embodied in our concept of humanity.”
The Committee has argued that introducing the death penalty for rape could lower the conviction rate rather than enhancing it or acting as a deterrent. It has recommended instead, that the punishment should be from a minimum of 10 years to life, with “life imprisonment” redefined to mean the end of the natural life of the convict. It has also pointed out that across the world, the majority of countries have revoked capital punishment.
Furthermore, the UN Human Rights Commission adopted a resolution in 2007 that asked all countries for a moratorium on death penalty paving the way to its ultimate abolition. In support of the death penalty, some young women have argued with me that if men know that they will be hanged if they rape women, the incidence of rape will automatically decline. They point to countries where capital punishment is liberally used to control all forms of crime. They forget however that in many such countries, women are confined, not given the right to move freely in the public space. Also in such countries, the sexual assaults within the home, which anyway constitute the majority of crimes against women in practically all nations, are never reported. Thus, the mirage of fewer crimes is created without actually reflecting the reality. We need to ask whether millions of women — rich, poor, urban, rural, tribal, Dalit, and women living in conflict zones where the armed forces have impunity against such crimes — would feel more secure if men are hanged for rape. Within the existing, and deeply flawed, criminal justice system in India, introducing the death penalty for rape will throw up many more problems than it will solve. We need justice for the victims of rape. But for that we need an efficient criminal justice system that registers cases, that collects evidence and that prosecutes.
This is far more important than an extreme form of punishment that might allow judges to pass lenient sentences because they are not convinced that the crime deserves death. Fortunately, the ordinance will lapse within six months if it is not passed as a law by Parliament.
Here is a window of opportunity – to bring in a more nuanced and balanced argument on how to ensure justice for crimes against women without the death penalty.
(to read the original, click here)

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Newsrooms need a dose of diversity

Second Take, The Hoot

News channels were quick to brand Ashis Nandy as casteist, but newsrooms themselves are staffed overwhelmingly by upper castes, says KALPANA SHARMA. Pix: Ashis Nandy
Posted/Updated Friday, Feb 01 11:43:15, 2013
Kalpana Sharma
Whether the remarks of academic and well-known sociologist Ashis Nandy at the Jaipur Literary Festival were casteist or not, the media – and particularly television media – is being blamed for making a mountain out of a molehill. If the discussion had not been recorded for television, the issue would probably never have reared its head. But given the lust for controversy with which 24-hour news television is afflicted, it was inevitable that an off-the-cuff remark such as the one made by Nandy would be fodder for news channels. And of course the unfortunate fallout has been the calls for Nandy’s arrest under various laws, a reaction far out of proportion with the so-called ‘crime’, if it can even be called that. 

This controversy, however, raises other issues that are predictably not being addressed by the media. For instance, does the fact that mainstream media amplified an ostensibly insensitive remark suggest that the media is sensitive to issues of caste? In the absence of a detailed study on this issue, one can only make generalised observations but it would be fairly accurate to say that even if mainstream media does not indulge in outright casteism, it is not necessarily sensitive to caste issues in its reporting – in what it covers and what it chooses not to cover.  

A related question would be the composition of our newsrooms – in both print and electronic media. Do they reflect the diversity of the country in terms of caste and creed, or are they largely dominated by people from the higher classes and castes? Once again, the absence of surveys to establish the reality either way is a limitation. Yet, we can make an educated guess that it is mostly the upper castes that dominate the news media. 

A survey done by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in 2006 of 315 decision-makers in 37 Delhi-based English and Hindi publications as well as TV channels found that 90 per cent in English print media and 79 per cent in TV were from the upper castes. This is a small sample but even if it is extended to the whole country, the figures are unlikely to be that different today.

Yet, diversity in the newsrooms is hardly ever a topic of discussion in the media or even internally within media houses. One exception is The Caravan magazine, which advertised for a staff writer last year under the category ‘Journalistic Diversity (Reserved Position)’. In the job description, it stated: 

“The near absence of journalists from Dalit communities in the Indian media has created a noticeable decline in its sensitivity to issues of caste, communalism and discrimination. Committed to promoting greater diversity, both in the workplace and in the way news is reported, The Caravan seeks a Staff Writer (position reserved for SC/ST) to join its fast-paced New Delhi-based newsroom.”

The deadline is March 2013.  It would be interesting to watch the kind of responses The Caravan gets for this.

A common excuse by media bosses if asked why they do not promote diversity is that they do not get candidates from lower castes and that in any case their commitment is to hire the most qualified of those who apply and not to worry about issues like diversity. Clearly, more from other castes and classes will apply if they get a chance to get trained as well as those who can access the better schools of journalism. The Asian College of Journalism in Chennai has made a special effort by offering four scholarships to Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe journalists in their courses which otherwise would be out-of-reach to many of them. What is stopping other journalism schools from following this example?

Even if it takes time to build up a pool of well-trained SC/ST journalists who can compete for jobs in mainstream media, are there steps that can be taken to enhance diversity in principle today? 

In the United States, this issue has been under discussion for several decades. In 1975, when the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) surveyed the news media, it found that there were only 3.95 per cent journalists who were black or belonged to other minorities. To correct that, they decided in 1978 to work towards parity in newsrooms by the year 2000. To do this they suggested that newspapers open a diversity department, that special scholarships be offered to black and other minorities, that proactive efforts be made to recruit journalists other than white, and that every year, a racial/ethnic census of the newsroom be conducted. Remarkably 60 per cent of members of the ASNE signed on to this plan.

Yet the year 2000 came and went and not enough had changed, as noted by Bryan Monroe in Nieman Reports (Fall 2003). In an article titled ‘Newsroom diversity: Truth vs Fiction’, Monroe points out that 90 per cent of people in newsrooms in the US were white and mostly male in 2003 (that might have changed marginally in terms of gender and race balance in the last decade).

But he makes some useful points on why diversity is desirable and important:

“Too many newspapers still cannot fully cover the richness and complexity of their communities because their staffs come from a limited perspective. We are unable to regularly listen to those in the shadows and too often incapable of hearing voices different from our own. We, therefore, are telling our readers an incomplete, inaccurate story. And, in the process, we are practicing bad journalism.”

Monroe’s remarks could well apply to mainstream Indian media. The lack of diversity in our newsrooms is also reflected in our coverage of so many subjects that depict the extent of deprivation and discrimination in this country. Of course, the reason that such stories are excluded is not entirely due to the kind of journalists that inhabit the newsroom but principally because of the preoccupations of proprietors with the market to which their media cater. But it is certainly worth discussing whether even within the limited space available to report on deprivation, the real stories of what people ‘in the shadows’, as Monroe calls them, are suffering are often never told because we don’t hear them. 

These are the real voices that the media needs to amplify, of people who are never heard by those who make policy, who remain marginalised decades after Independence for no other reason than the accident of birth that has relegated them to a particular caste. Clearly, we cannot assume that more SC/ST journalists will automatically add up to better coverage of these issues. Journalists from other castes have been writing on such subjects for decades and with sensitivity. But the advantage of a diverse newsroom is that it represents a wider set of life experiences and therefore also brings in a wider spectrum of approaches to stories. It would make for better journalism in the end because, as Monroe suggests, the media would not be telling ‘an incomplete, inaccurate story’ as it tends to do a lot of the time.

Republic of the offended

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 3, 2013

Have we become a nation that takes offence too easily, and for all the wrong things?
We are becoming a nation of individuals and groups who get offended at anything and everything. If it is not the out-of-context remarks of well-known academic Ashis Nandy at the Jaipur Literary Festival then it is the presence of Pakistani writers at festivals and sportspeople on playing fields.
Of course, the favourite of this “republic of the offended” remains writer Salman Rushdie irrespective of whether he says something or does not. And if academics, writers and sportspeople are not enough to give offence, we find politicians who seem ever ready to offend someone or the other. And of course we cannot forget filmmakers, Kamal Haasan being the latest to join this list of people who are “offensive”. So the fraternity of the “offended” continues to grow by leaps and bounds even as India completes 63 years as a Republic, a respectable senior citizen.
The Shiv Sena in Mumbai is “offended” that the Pakistani women’s cricket team is participating in the Women’s World Cup in India. Not because they are women, but because they are Pakistani. Yet, ironical is it not that these women have succeeded in pursuing a sport in a country where there is growing intolerance of women in the public space, where in some provinces, groups like the Pakistani Taliban are trying to enforce dress codes. But when they come to a country where their counterparts face no such problems, they have to contend with this kind of prejudice and intolerance.
Instead of stopping the Pakistani women, we should be “offended” that sportswomen, whether they are Indian or Pakistani face the same challenges just because they are women. If you are a woman playing a sport, particularly one deemed a “male” sport, you have to fight harder to succeed, you are more than likely to be ignored by your sports authorities and the media and you will have a tough time getting sponsors and financial backing. Yet, the fact that women’s cricket exists and is becoming more successful is a tribute to the determination of all these women, Indian, Pakistani and other nationalities. So let us by all means be “offended” but not by these pointless issues such as people from a country, whose government they do not represent, taking part in sporting events.
For instance, when we read news day in and day out about little girls, some as young as three years old, being raped, do we get offended? Recently, in Mumbai, there was the story of a five-year-old girl in Dharavi who was lured by a man who offered her chocolates and then raped her. Her parents went looking for her and found her crying outside a public toilet. She was bleeding and could barely explain what had been done to her. Such stories should outrage us. What is happening to our society that even little girls on their way to school have to be protected from these predators?
Look at our cities. All of them are turning into giant garbage heaps. The authorities claim the mess is beyond their control. And citizens, the very same who take offence at so much else, seem not to mind as they add their might to enlarging these mountains of garbage. It never occurs to them that perhaps they too need to reduce the amount of waste they generate. So we live in the midst of this filth and do not get offended. We point fingers. Or we simply look the other way. Many of us were offended and angry enough to come onto the streets and demand that something be done after the terrible December 16 incident in Delhi.
Since then Justice J.S. Verma and his team have brought out a path-breaking report that locates violence against women within the context of denial of justice and equal rights to women. The report has rightly emphasised that until these larger issues are addressed, merely tinkering with one law or another will not make a difference. But should we now stop being angry?
Here is my list of things about which all of us should be “offended”: that in this “free” country, where our 63-year-old Constitution promises women equality in all spheres, they continue to be second class citizens; that they continue to be denied the right to even be born; that they continue to be denied the right to education if they are poor; that they continue to be denied the right to have control over their own resources; that they continue to be tortured and killed for not bringing enough dowry; that they continue to face verbal and physical abuse inside their homes if they so much as dare raise their voices; that they continue to be assaulted and raped irrespective of their class or creed and that they continue to be abandoned and isolated if they become victims of sexual assault because they are deemed “spoiled goods”. Yes, take offence by all means but on issues that a civilised society should not tolerate.
(To read the original, click here.)