Sunday, April 27, 2014

Rhetoric of hate

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 27, 2014

This general election for the 16 Lok Sabha will be remembered for many reasons. It is being seen as a dramatic departure from past elections because of the presence, influence and use of the media; because of the focus on a handful of personalities rather than any issues and because polls are predicting a dire outcome for India’s oldest political party.

Apart from these factors, what this election stands out for is the sickening depths to which some of the election-speak has sunk — from attacking critics and minorities and virtually asking them to leave the country to suggesting that men who rape women should be forgiven because they have made a ‘mistake’.

Admittedly, many of these remarks have been amplified because of the omnipresence of the media that is waiting to pick up anything that can be spun out into a controversy and into endless debates on television channels. It is fascinating to watch politicians either deny what they have said although they know it has been recorded, or have their spokespersons attempt to explain their controversial comments.

Thus, for instance, the recent rabid anti-Muslim comments by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Pravin Togadia were dismissed by the Bharatiya Janata Party spokespersons as having no relevance to the BJP’s stance because he was not a member of the party. That the VHP is a part of the larger Sangh Parivar is conveniently brushed aside. In another talk show, a journalist with known sympathies to the BJP, described the comments as “rather reckless” and suggested that they could not be linked to the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi because Togadia had a “visceral hatred of Modi” and was a “wild unguided missile”.

Despite such dismissive remarks or denials, it is evident that the electronic media, with its obsessive coverage of the election campaign, has put on record the regressive attitudes of many men in political life, attitudes that will have a bearing on how the future India shapes up.

Some argue that all this is just election talk, that after May 16, once results are out, life will revert to ‘normal’. But what will be ‘normal’ if such verbal violence and viciousness have marked the campaign leading up to the final result? Is it not inevitable that if you have political parties justifying such hateful rhetoric, then the politics of revenge and retribution will also be justified in the future?

Look at Mumbai, a city that until 1992 was known for a certain level of tolerance of difference — political and religious. Of course, there have always been concentrations of certain communities in different areas of the city. But by and large, much of the city had a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims and other religious groups as well as people from different regions. It was a given that everyone had a right to the city.

Since 1992 and the post-Babri Masjid communal riots, the city has gradually changed. One reason for this change in the city was the hate speech that was doled out virtually every day. The late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray minced no words. His editorials in his newspaper Saamna were vicious as they targeted the minorities. Although civic-minded individuals objected, and even took the paper to court, the language did not change. Overtime it infected the minds of a large section of those consuming the message every day.

As a result, when in addition to the hatred of Muslims, the Shiv Sena and its breakaway group the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) turned on “North Indians”, a euphemism for the people from Bihar and UP who migrated to Mumbai, there was little protest against such campaigns. Today, Mumbai is a city that is deeply divided and there is barely a whiff of its famed ‘cosmopolitanism’.
So if we hold that hate-filled political rhetoric and its dissemination through the media has an impact on people’s mindset, one only has to look at Mumbai over the last two decades and more.

Election-speak has also included several regressive remarks on issues concerning women. Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh’s remark about rape — and that it was a ‘mistake’ by some young men — generated considerable heat. But what is worrying is the mindset it represents, one that too readily blames women for the violence they face, one that will not accept women as equal partners, one that believes that women should remain culturally bound to norms that deny them a voice.

This time women constitute 47.62 per cent of the electorate. Women voters have already established that they go out in larger numbers than men to vote. We will have to wait and see whether they judge their candidates and the parties they support on the basis of their attitude towards women’s rights.

As we wait for May 16, we need to consider whether there can be anything like ‘normal’ after such an election season where hatred, mockery and insensitivity have become virtually a norm.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Silence from both sides

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 20, 2014

Increasing needs... Photo: M.A. Sriram
The Hindu Increasing needs... Photo: M.A. Sriram

In the quiet recesses of this country, where the din of electioneering might not have shattered the silence, there is a deep foreboding for the future. That apprehension has less to do with the precise outcome of the elections. It is not premised on the fear of one party or another coming to power for the next five years.

It has to do with the precipitous decline in the understanding in all political parties of the real concerns of the millions of people in this country whose voices are rarely heard above the shouting.
From all accounts, this has been an issue-less election, focused almost entirely on personalities. Even if one accepts this as inevitable in an age dominated by media that believes that only events and personalities matter and not processes, we must worry that practically none of those pleading with the electorate for votes think that issues that matter to ordinary people must be addressed. We hear about ‘development’, or rather ‘the Gujarat model of development’. We hear promises of ‘good governance’. But rarely are the components of development, whatever the model, or good governance broken down into their parts.

After all, development, as is well accepted now, is not just economic growth. It also encompasses environmental sustainability. It should lead to a bettering of social indicators such as health and literacy. It ought to envisage equitable distribution of natural resources. Yet, have we heard even a whisper of these concerns?

Everyone knows that election manifestos are just a ritual, not to be taken seriously. If evidence of that were needed, just consider a party like the Bharatiya Janata Party, projected as the frontrunner in these elections, releasing its manifesto a day after the first phase of voting had concluded. Clearly, no party expects voters to take these manifestos seriously or decide who they will vote for on the basis of the promises these manifestos contain.

All manifestos make promises on issues like the environment. The Congress has made a commitment to prioritise the setting up of a National Environment Appraisal Monitoring Authority (NEAMA). That sounds impressive until you realise that the Supreme Court had already mandated that this be done.

The BJP promises that it will extend irrigation coverage by pushing ahead with the plan to inter-link rivers. It presumes that people will not know that this pipedream of a plan has been severely criticised on environmental grounds. Apart from enormous costs, the diversion of the natural flow of rivers will lead to many more problems like water-logging than the apparent benefits.
Regardless of what these parties state in their manifestos, the actions of the Congress-led government in the last decade, and the BJP earlier, as well as the performance of these parties in the states they govern suggests that they have an almost identical approach towards environmental issues. Essentially, environmental concerns are seen as obstacles to growth that must be overcome.

This is more than apparent when you see the mockery of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), the so-called mandatory ‘public hearings’ before a project is cleared, and the ease with which studies and reports of ‘expert’ committees are set aside. Narendra Modi has already stated that he will reopen the mines in Goa that were closed on the orders of the Supreme Court. And in the last days of the incumbent government at the Centre, a number of projects that posed serious environmental concerns were hastily cleared.

Saving our rivers and forests, cleaning our air, stopping pollution of our water sources, stopping mining in ecologically fragile areas — these are issues that affect the health as well as the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in this country. But there is not a hint from either of these parties that they even understand why people feel apprehensive about the future.

On health too, the approach is unlikely to differ much. It is true that the central government has initiated the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) that has extended health benefits to many more people. There is also a health insurance scheme for the poor. But increasingly, healthcare is getting privatised. While the rich are able to access private super-speciality health care, the poor are left with the choice of either using the cheaper but inefficient public health system or paying exorbitant fees to private practitioners. It is unlikely that a change of government will bring an end to this thrust towards the privatisation of health care.

Education is no better. It is true that with the help of various programmes, more children are now going to school and literacy levels across the country have improved. But what of the quality of education? As successive surveys have shown, the quality of education in government schools remains abysmal with children entering middle school without the ability to even read what they were taught at the primary school level. Such children stand no chance of competing with those privileged to receive better quality schooling in private schools. It is a disadvantage that will stay with them for life.

Indirectly, such neglect of government schools is resulting in privatisation. Today, even poor families, particularly in cities, are being compelled to borrow and save in order to send their children to private schools. The Right to Education makes only a very small dent in the demand for affordable and better quality education for all. Yet, no party articulates what it will do to improve the quality of education so that there is a level playing field for those already disadvantaged due to poverty.

Ultimately, our politicians do not address these concerns because the electorate does not demand that they do. In many countries, politicians have won or lost an election on the basis of such demands. So far, no politician in India has lost for failing to address an environmental concern, or for not addressing concerns like education or health. Instead, the old formulas of caste and community persist and survive.

In this election we are getting a sense that people are not necessarily looking for a different political party but for politics with a difference. If this trend survives and grows, then we might well see a time when politicians asking for votes will have to listen to the voices of the many that are now not heard nor heeded.

(To read the original, click here.)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

No time for parties

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 13, 2014

Dayamani Barla. Photo: Manob Chowdhury
  • The Hindu Dayamani Barla. Photo: Manob Chowdhury
  • Medha Patkar Photo: PTI
    Medha Patkar Photo: PTI
  • Soni Sori. Photo: Suvojit Bagchi
    The Hindu Soni Sori. Photo: Suvojit Bagchi

The exhilarating process of elections has begun. There is genuine and understandable apprehension about the future. But there is also hope. Because in this election, an element has been injected that has attracted more interest in it than in several pervious general elections.

That new element is the kind of individual that has now entered electoral politics. There have been instances in the past when non-politicians have either joined mainstream political parties or stood as independents and fought elections. But this time, thanks largely to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the range of independent-minded non-political individuals in the fray is much larger.

I personally find the presence of three women to be particularly significant. There are many women who are contesting. And some, like those from the film fraternity, are drawing media attention. Nagma, Gul Panag, Kirron Kher, Smriti Irani and, of course, Rakhi Sawant, are a magnet for television cameras.

The three women I want to write about are also celebrities but in a completely different way. Their life and the struggles they have undertaken over decades have been appreciated. They have received awards. They have been extensively interviewed and written about.

Yet, their entry into the electoral race as AAP candidates marks a significant change. Whether they win or lose is not so important as the fact that people have a chance to see and hear women like them who have fought for change from outside the system.

The women I refer to are Soni Sori from Chhattisgarh, Dayamani Barla from Jharkhand and Medha Patkar from Maharashtra (although her work has been all over India).

The least known of the three is Soni Sori, a 39-year-old schoolteacher from Jabeli village in Dantewada, Bastar, in the state of Chhattisgarh. Soni shot into limelight when she was picked up by the police in 2011 allegedly for being a Maoist, was brutally tortured because she refused to sign a false confession that would have implicated others, and finally released on permanent bail by the Supreme Court earlier this year. Her account of what she went through during her time in jail, which included horrific sexual assault, is chilling. Four of the six cases against her have been dismissed. She still has two pending.

Elections cost money. Soni has only a few hundred rupees in her bank account, Rs.424 to be exact. But support for her from outside has gathered pace ever since her candidature was announced and the funds are coming in. Still, the total is nowhere near the Rs.70 lakhs per candidate permitted by the Election Commission. And given the size of her constituency of Bastar, she will certainly need that money to reach out to her constituents, even if just to inform them about her name, her party and the party symbol.

Another tribal woman, much better known, is the former journalist and human rights activist Dayamani Barla, also known as the Iron Lady of Jharkhand. Dayamani is the candidate from Khunti in Jharkhand and the “Iron Lady” tag comes from her battle against steel giant ArcelorMittal. She successfully scuttled plans by the company to build what would have been the world’s largest steel plant. Together with a captive power station, the plant would have displaced people living in 40 villages. Whether the people saved from eviction will actually vote for her in these elections remains to be seen. What is significant is that she has taken the step of moving from agitation from the outside to attempting to influence policy from the inside.

The third woman is Medha Patkar, who needs little introduction. Her decades-long fight against the Narmada dam might not have prevented the dam from being built. What it did do was bring into the conversation about development the concept of sustainability from the perspective of the environment and people.

Medha is the AAP candidate from Mumbai Northeast, a constituency with a mix of urban poor and middle class. Everyone ought to know of her given her presence in the public realm since the 1980s. Yet, a week before she filed her nomination papers, many people living in the slum settlement of Gautam Nagar, which falls within her constituency, had not heard of her or of AAP. Only those who watch television news recognised her, or at least knew of the party and its symbol.

Like the other two, Medha faces an uphill battle. She does not have the funds required to carpet-bomb her constituency with fliers, posters and banners. She does not have enough volunteers who can reach out to all the constituents. And her own time and strength is limited, given that she is also in great demand in other parts of India.

Yet, as I said earlier, it really does not matter whether these three women win or lose. Their presence is a relevant reminder that politics in a democracy is not the sole property of a handful of families and their progeny; it does not belong to crooks and criminals; or to those with a casteist or communal agenda. The very fact that people like Soni, Dayamani and Medha believe they should enter the election arena, represents a sliver of hope for the future of Indian democracy. 

Tuesday, April 01, 2014


The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 30, 2014

No empowerment here. Photo: Paul Noronha
The Hindu No empowerment here. Photo: Paul Noronha
In the last couple of days, I have been at the receiving end of some down-to-earth and commonsensical opinions about life, values and politics from such taxi drivers.

The first, a young taxi driver from Vasai, which is on the outskirts of Mumbai, informed me that he was actually a “Hindu Brahmin”, but loved Jesus Christ. Without much prompting, he then proceeded to predict that Narendra Modi would win the elections. Would he vote for Modi, I asked. Not necessarily, he said. Then whom would he want to vote for? Arvind Kejriwal, he said. Why, I asked. Because, he said, he had watched Kejriwal’s TV interviews. He was convinced that this was a good and honest man. More than that, he was educated, qualified, had a good job and yet gave it all up to do something about corruption. These were the kind of people India needed in politics, he asserted. Above all, he said, this was the only man who had the courage to take on the richest and most powerful man in India.

The other was a Tamilian who had lived in Mumbai for 35 years but continued to read a popular Tamil newspaper (that now arrives in the morning because it is printed in Pune). Despite the many years in Mumbai, he had a clear view of Tamil politics. There was no doubt in his mind that “Amma” would sweep the polls in Tamil Nadu. Why, I asked. Because she has looked after the poor, he said. And she does not discriminate between Hindu, Muslim, Dalit and Christian.

More important, he continued, she has addressed the problem of families not wanting to give birth to a girl child. He then proceeded to explain to me in detail the government schemes that encourage families to look after girls. He also gave graphic details of how families kill infant girls. He was clear that this was an evil practice and must be ended. And he gave credit to “Amma” for putting in place monetary incentives to help raise the value of girls.

So, corruption and schemes that help the poor and stop female infanticide were the issues these two men talked about. Corruption features in election talk. And every party ruling a state, or the centre, speaks of its pro-poor schemes. But what about India’s steadily disappearing women?

Results of the Annual Health Survey conducted by the office of the Census of India — reportedly the largest sample survey in the world — have recently been released. The survey covered 20.94 million people and 4.32 million households in 284 districts in nine states.

While the survey has a lot of interesting information on several aspects of health, including infant and maternal mortality rates, its findings on the sex ratio — at birth, in the 0-4 age group and overall — are perhaps the most significant.

According to the survey, in 84 of the 284 districts there was a fall in the sex ratio at birth. In some districts like Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand, the sex ratio at birth was as low as 767 girls to every 1,000 boys. That is a worrying sign as it suggests that the law to prevent sex-selection has not succeeded in creating enough of deterrents against the practice of aborting female foetuses.

Equally worrying is the decline in the sex ratio in the 0-4 age group. This was visible in 127 districts and was significant in 46 districts. Rajasthan recorded the lowest levels in this category, while Chhattisgarh recorded the highest. The reason for the decline in this age group is clearly neglect of girls after they are born. Otherwise, there is no reason that more girls should die than boys. Overall, the sex ratio was worse in urban areas than rural, suggesting again that the availability of sex selection technology and higher incomes contributed to this decline. In a state like Jharkhand, for instance, while the sex ratio at birth was 961 in rural areas, it was as low as 903 in urban areas.

In this election season, where rhetoric is king, the reality of India’s disappearing women — who everyone seems to want to “empower” — is not even a blip on the horizon. Yet, it has been evident for decades that all this talk about “women’s empowerment” has little meaning if we are unable to deal with the despicable attitudes and practices that guarantee that girls will not be born, and if they are, that they will not live to become young women.

(To read the original, click here.)