Monday, January 11, 2016
The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Jan 10, 2016
This column has tried, in the 22 years that it has occupied this space, to remind us that these unheard voices need an audience. Urgently.
Voices like that of Irom Sharmila in Manipur. Her fast without end and her plea that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) be withdrawn has so far fallen on deaf ears. Sharmila continues her protest; successive governments continue to justify the imposition of AFSPA in northeastern States like Manipur and in Kashmir. And the voices of those who bear the brunt of this policy are heard only when there is an “incident”, when enough people die to be noted by the national press. And that is where the story ends.
Voices like that of Lakshmi, who lived on a Mumbai pavement for decades. Her plea that cities also belong to the urban poor, that they too are equal citizens who are guaranteed the same rights as those who live in 100-room mansions, has also fallen on deaf ears. Our cities are for people with houses, with cars, with holiday homes but not for people like Lakshmi who hold up the city and make it work. There is money for sea links, flyovers, broad roads, gleaming new airports and swanky business districts, but no money for affordable housing, potable water supply, sanitation systems that reaches the poorest.
Voices like that of Veena Devi, the mukhiya of Loharpura panchayat in Bihar’s Nawada district. She has only basic literacy skills. Yet she has managed to grasp the essentials of good governance, brought solar lighting to her village so that women feel safe, and figured out that being humane and efficient is not rocket science. There are thousands like her across India. Their voices will disappear if the law that Rajasthan and Haryana have enacted laying down minimum educational criteria for panchayat candidates, is accepted across the country.
Voices like the rural women journalists who work without fear or favour in the rough lands of Uttar Pradesh. The women who bring out Khabar Lahariya in five dialects remind us, who live in cities, that there is an India that our urban obsessed media so readily forgets. These women, trained to be journalists, set out fearlessly to expose incidents of harassment, rape, dowry and other social issues. They also cover local politics. They report, edit and produce their paper. For it they get brickbats, they face harassment, but there is also enough appreciation to keep them going. But their voices are not loud enough to drown out the ruckus that mainstream media generates on any number of issues every day.
Giving space to such voices is not something special; it is what journalism should be about. I chose ‘The Other Half’ as the title for this column because I believe that journalism should be about telling the stories that are not obvious, that don’t automatically hit you in the face. In our rush to meet deadlines, we journalists sometimes miss out on other perspectives. We fail to invest enough in listening to those who speak in quiet voices, those not quite sure about what they feel, those who appear inarticulate to the outside world.
These are often women, poor women, but also men who belong to groups so long marginalised that they have internalised the belief that their views do not count. So they never step forward and speak to you. If you are interested, or concerned, you have to seek them out and convince them you want to listen.
As we go into a new year, followed by one that stood out for growing intolerance, perhaps we should find ways of being more intolerant, but about issues other than the ones that cropped up last year.
We are too tolerant. We tolerate abysmal poverty in the midst of strident consumerism; we tolerate the infamy of millions of our citizens who continue to be discriminated against and marginalised by virtue of their caste; we tolerate unacceptable levels of violence against women within their homes and outside; we tolerate sex-selection and son-preference leading to a skewed sex ratio; we tolerate the existence of millions of undernourished and stunted children in a country where waste is becoming a symbol of prosperity and “progress”; we tolerate women dying at child-birth when this is not a life-threatening disease; we tolerate the excesses of the state in the name of “national security” even as our justice system fails to serve the powerless. The list of what we tolerate, and should not, is endless.
As I sign off on my last column in this space, let me assure the readers of The Other Half, who favoured me with sharp and useful comments through these years, that the other half of the story will continue to be told.