Sunday, July 19, 2015

Address gender divide

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 19, 2015

Technology is not gender-neutral. Photo: N. Bhaskaran
The Hindu
Technology is not gender-neutral. Photo: N. Bhaskaran

When I first came to Mumbai in my teens, the object of envy of all my aunt’s neighbours was a black instrument: a telephone. Only those with “influence” got one. And the fact of the telephone suggested that my aunt was a person with “influence”.

In the middle-class neighbourhood where she lived, ownership of the telephone made her immensely popular. Because that black instrument was not just hers; it was communal property. When it rang, there was a buzz of excitement. From her balcony, people would be summoned to receive calls. Others would knock on the door when they wanted to make a call. Through the day, there was a steady stream of people making their way to and from that instrument.

Today, everyone has a phone, or almost everyone. Ownership and use of mobile phones in India has gone exponentially. An estimated two-thirds of the population now has access to this technology. But do we pause to think about the remaining one-third, some 300 million people? Who are they? It should not come as a surprise to us, living as we do in a gender-unequal society, that the majority of those who do not own a mobile phone, and don’t even have access to one, are women.

A recent study by the GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association), formed in 1995 by mobile operators worldwide, found that 1.7 billion women in poor and middle-income countries do not own a mobile phone. On an average, women were 14 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, and in India that figure stood at 31 per cent. The report points out, “Social norms and disparities between men and women in terms of education and income influence men’s access to and use of mobile technology, and often contribute to women experiencing barriers to mobile phone ownership and use more acutely than men.”

Simply put, what this means is that even if you put a mobile phone in the hands of every single woman in this country, there is no guarantee that she will be free to use it as she wants, or even if she will know how to use it. Her inherent disadvantage of being born a woman in this society works against that. She may not know how to read numbers, or letters. Hence how will she manage a phone?

And if indeed she is unlettered, as are a little under half the women in India, is there any chance that the men in her family will allow her to handle a phone, or help her to learn how to use it? Understanding this is essential as we continue our love affair with technology in this country with visions of a Digital India and “smart” everything. Technology is not gender-neutral. It cannot erase the disadvantages that are embedded in our societies. In some ways, it can even exacerbate them. To make such new technologies work for everyone, we have to recognise the gender divide and find ways to address it.

To further illustrate this divide, here are some findings from a 2012 study by the Grameen Foundation titled “Women, Mobile Phones and Savings”. The study was assessing whether and if mobile phones were effective in encouraging women to participate in savings groups. The researchers found that even when women owned phones, they often did not know how to use them. They had to rely on their husbands or other members of the family to even make a call.

Another interesting fact that emerged was that 74 per cent of the married women in the group surveyed said that their husbands would not allow them to own a mobile phone. In fact, a good number of the women said that they preferred to deal with their savings without having to use the mobile phone.

These studies emphasise that the current obsession with advancing new technologies in India must be tempered with the reality of gender, as well as other social factors. Otherwise, those with access will build on their advantage, and those without will be left even further behind.

Yet, the picture is not entirely gloomy. More women do own mobile phones now. Surveys reveal that owning a phone makes them feel safer and gives them some level of autonomy and independence. Organisations working with poor women have found that women’s access to this technology has helped them to organise women, bring them together, and even overcome the handicap of lack of education by teaching them this relatively simple technology. There are many stories of transformation in the lives of women and the communities where they work with the aid of mobile phones.

If the old black instrument, where you had to shout to be heard, opened up access in ways unknown before its advent, the mobile phone has revolutionised and democratised the way we connect and communicate with each other. New technologies, like mobile telephony, should erase barriers. But it will take some effort to bring down the gender barrier.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Clamping down

Modi government's hounding of Teesta Setalvad is a message to all dissidents

The numerous cases foisted on her have little substance but are intended to paralyse work to seek justice for the victims of the Gujarat riots.

Photo Credit: Jaffar Theekkathir / Wikimedia Commons
Incredible as it might sound, the government of India is so irritated with the activities of one woman that it is finding all kinds of ways to catch her and lock her up.  The woman who continues to be a thorn in the flesh of the Modi government is Teesta Setalvad. The reason the government thinks she should be locked up is because this tenacious woman refuses to allow India, or the world, to forget what happened in Gujarat in 2002.

It's another story that the multiple cases being foisted on her have little substance.  What one needs to realise is that together they are part of a plan to paralyse her ability to work and eventually to find a way to take her into custody.

The latest in the long list of inquiries and cases against Teesta Setalvad, her husband Javed Anand, and the organisations they established and run – Sabrang Communications, Sabrang Trust and Citizens for Justice and Peace – are so numerous and complex that one would need hundreds of pages just to run through the bare description.

The earliest cases date back to 2006. The latest was just last week when newspapers reported that the Central Bureau of Investigation had filed an FIR against Setalvad under Sections 120b read with Sections 35, 37 of IPC and Section 3, 11 and 19 of the FCRA Act of 2010 (criminal conspiracy and receiving funds illegally).  Setalvad has not received any notice but only heard about it from the media.

So how does one make sense of these cases that began almost a decade back but have accelerated in the past year?

Work began in 1993

Setalvad and Anand did not begin their work on communalism after the 2002 Gujarat violence, as is sometimes assumed. In fact, they set up Sabrang Communications in 1993 and began publishing the journal Communalism Combat.  It was also this company that published the Justice Srikrishna Commission Report on the Mumbai communal riots of 1992-'93 at a time when the state government would not make it available to the public.

Copies of the report were sold outside Bombay High Court and at all possible venues for as little as Rs 60. It was the only way people in the city read in detail about the culpability of the police, the Shiv Sena and the Congress state government in what happened during the weeks of violence that permanently scarred a city once considered liberal and cosmopolitan.

Between 1993 and 2002, during which period Setalvad and Anand also set up the Sabrang Trust in 1995, they were never questioned for their activities. On the contrary, they won several awards for their work. The trouble began after they established Citizens for Justice and Peace in 2002 and actively pursued  the courts cases against the perpetrators of the Gujarat violence.

This work meant collecting testimonies, providing witnesses with protection, getting on board lawyers who could formulate the arguments and ensuring that a couple of cases were moved out of Gujarat because the Supreme Court accused the state government of judicial failure.  That this effort resulted in 120 or so convictions in the different cases is a testimony to this work. The record of convictions in communal violence cases in India is so abysmal that it would not be an exaggeration to state only this type of civil society intervention could make convictions possible.

From Gujarat to Delhi

The one case that cut too close to the bone for the Gujarat government, then headed by Narendra Modi, is that of the widow of the Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, who was killed by a mob during the riots. Aided by Citizens for Jusice and Peace, Zakia Jafri filed a criminal complaint for criminal and administrative culpability against top politicians and policemen, including Narendra Modi. This is separate from the Gulberg trial on the killing of Ehsan Jafri and 68 others.  That trial is still ongoing and is under appeal in the Gujarat High Court.

Jafri had questioned the report of the special investigations team set up by the Supreme Court to look into the charges about criminal conspiracy in the Gulberg Case.  The report is popularly believed to have given a “clean chit” to Modi.  In fact, it merely stated that there was not enough evidence to prove his involvement.

Although Jafri's initial protest petition was rejected on December 26, 2013, in the magistrate’s court, she has not given up and is still pursuing the case. Eight days after this, an FIR was filed against Setalvad and four others, including Jafri’s son, for embezzlement of funds. This was followed by all the organisation’s accounts and Setalvad’s personal accounts being frozen. Despite this, Jafri and Setalvad managed to file a criminal revision to the protest petition by March 15, 2014.  This is the case that will now be heard on July 27 before the magistrate’s court in Ahmedabad.

What we need to recognise is that while between 2006 and last year, the cases filed against Setalvad and her colleagues were mostly initiated by the Gujarat Crime Branch, since the Modi government was formed at the Centre, they are now coming from agencies in Delhi.

For instance, in response to a letter sent by the Gujarat Crime Branch to the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi in March 2015, raising questions about Setalvad’s organisations receiving funds from Ford Foundation, the ministry sent notices to them about violating provisions of the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act. Ford Foundation also faced the heat and is now required to get clearance before releasing funds to any non-governmental organisation.

Squeeze from all sides

There were a series of inspections of the accounts of Sabrang and Citizens for Justice and Peace. These organisations have sent in over 25,000 pages of documentation answering every query about funding.  Despite this, the CBI has reportedly filed an FIR against Setalvad.  Why, when the charge is being investigated, and the people charged are cooperating and answering all questions?

What this means, once you wade through the mountain of legalese, is that the government has a single objective: to find a way to get Setalvad into their custody.  By filing FIRs and sending out warrants for her arrest, the government has ensured that a large part of her time, at least three or four days a week, is now spent running from one court to another to get anticipatory bail. These applications can only be made before the Gujarat High Court or the Supreme Court. Setalvad lives and works out of Mumbai.

The other part of her time is spent dealing with the multiple inspections into the accounts of the three organisations and preparing the required documents. What time is left is then devoted to cases such as Ehsan Jafri’s and the Naroda Patiya case, in which a minister in Modi’s cabinet in Gujarat, Maya Kodnani, was convicted and sent to jail. Although Kodnani has managed to get bail, Setalvad and her group are fighting hard to ensure that she does not get acquitted.

In sum, the government’s strategy is to squeeze organisations like Setalvad’s from all sides until they give up. On the surface, it would appear that the government is cracking down on all non-governmental organisations receiving foreign funds.  In fact, it is carefully picking the ones that it wants to shut down. Teesta Setalvad’s organisations are on top of that list.

Crushing dissent

This attack on Setalvad has also to be placed against what is happening in the country since the Modi government took office. We have not seen a major communal conflagration like Gujarat 2002.  But there is a steady stream of incidents of communal violence in various parts of the country.  It is more than evident that minorities are being targeted in direct and indirect ways (the beef ban, questioning education in madrasas, attacks on churches, ghar wapasi etc).  Modi has remained silent on all this, including the inflammatory statements made by ministers in his cabinet.  Against this reality, the effort put in by Setalvad’s team to keep alive Gujarat 2002 in our collective memories, and to get justice for the victims of that period of violence, is relevant.

On the other side, while people like Setalvad are being hounded for pursuing these cases of violence, we are watching the disintegration of the cases against Hindutva extremists in the Ajmer bomb blast case of 2007, where witnesses are turning hostile, and the Modasa case the next year, which has been closed for lack of evidence. In Maharashtra, special prosecutor Rohini Salian went public about the National Investigation Agency asking her to “go soft” on the Malegaon bomb blast case of 2008, in which Hindutva extremists have been implicated. All this has happened in the last one year.

The message is loud and clear.  If you come in the way of this government, you will be hounded till you give up. If you are on their side, even if you are guilty, you have a good chance of getting a reprieve.

So the issue is not just whether the Modi government will succeed in catching Teesta Setalvad and detaining her, but also whether there is any hope for dissent and justice when the state uses its power to crush those who question it.

Kalpana Sharma is an independent journalist, a columnist with The Hindu and consulting editor Economic and Political Weekly.
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Saturday, July 04, 2015

Selective amnesia

The Hindu, July 4, 2015

At a mass sterilisation camp.
At a mass sterilisation camp.

Forty years is a long period. Since June 20, and the build up to the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, it has been fascinating to watch the politics of selective remembering and determined amnesia. In the former category fall many from the ruling party, barring a few exceptions, who remember their ‘suffering’ during that period and suggest that they were in the forefront of the resistance to the Emergency. The latter are members of the Congress Party, who will not remember even if they have been told, repeatedly, what happened over those 20 months.

What both sides of the political divide forget is that those who really ‘suffered’ during that ‘dark’ period in our history were the poor and the powerless. They were either the targets of Indira Gandhi’s repressive policies, or were foolish enough to try and oppose them. In both instances, there was no recourse to justice.

The silence of the media made this worse. Because the press did not report, there was virtually no record of what happened. Much of it had to be reconstructed after the Emergency. This silence, willing or forced, exacerbated the very real suffering of the people at the receiving end of the government’s policies. Not only were they denied justice but they were also denied a voice. They had been rendered invisible.

Everyone knows now that one of the most atrocious policies of the Indira Gandhi government was the mass sterilisation campaign devised by Sanjay Gandhi as part of his five-point programme. In the name of ‘population control’, poor men and women were rounded up and forcibly sterilised. While the poor were always the principal targets of the government’s population efforts, this time it was specifically poor men. It is now fairly well-established that one of the main reasons for Mrs. Gandhi’s spectacular defeat in the March 1977 elections was the anger among the communities targeted under this campaign.

Was there any rethinking on this policy after 1977? You would think that no political party would risk pushing through a policy that results in such revulsion. Yet, although on paper, population control’ is now ‘family welfare’ and ‘women’s reproductive rights’, in fact sterilisation continues to be the main thrust of government policy. The difference now is that the main target is women, not men. In 2012-13, of the total number of sterilisation cases, 97.4 per cent were women. In fact, since 2005, over 95 per cent of sterilisation procedures have been performed on women.

This government’s stated policy is to encourage sterilisation as a method to control population growth. Incentives for health workers to bring in ‘cases’ for sterilisation have been increased. Women who choose institutionalised delivery are especially targeted; it is so much convenient to coax them into accepting a permanent solution to repeated pregnancies. And most health workers find it easier to persuade or force women than men even though is it well-known that a vasectomy is less complicated, and reversible.

Only a few stories appear about the way these sterilisation camps are conducted. A couple of years back, there was outrage when a story appeared about bicycle pumps being used on 56 women who were sterilised in Banarpal village, 150 km from Bhubaneshwar. The instrument that should have been used is an insufflator that pumps carbon dioxide into the abdomen. As this was not available in the camp where the procedure was being done, a bicycle pump was used. The surgeon in-charge, Dr. Mahesh Prasad Raut, justified this saying: “I am not alone. Surgeons often use bicycle pumps in the rural camps where the facility of an operation theatre and other sophisticated equipment are not available.” This doctor had done 60,000 tubectomies and was awarded by the government for this feat. How many of them were done using bicycle pumps is not known.

And of course, these horrific violations occur not just in Chhattisgarh or Odisha but also in many other places including Faridabad district, Haryana. Neha Dixit, a freelance journalist, has recently written a searing account of what women lined up for a tubectomy faced in the Badshah Khan hospital ( In A Callous Cut, Dixit describes the scene in the hospital where women between the ages of 20-26 await the operation. There are not enough containers to collect urine samples. So only a few women can be tested. They are asked to sign a ‘consent’ form in English, a language they do not understand. And then, dizzy with pain and sedatives, they are sent off to fend for themselves. Little wonder that so many die from sepsis or other complications, or have to be rushed back to hospital.

Reading her account, and looking back on other such stories in the last 40 years, one is forced to ask: Did sterilisation contribute to Indira Gandhi’s defeat only because the target was men? If not, then how come the callous way in which poor women are being sterilised in India in such large numbers is never a political issue?