Thursday, March 17, 2016

Muzaffarnagar to Murthal

Indian Express, March 17, 2016

(Op-ed in Indian Express)

When public figures speak violence, the fallout goes beyond their immediate targets.  In ways seen and unseen, those most affected are often women. 

Recently, we saw an illustration of this during the Jat quota stir.  In a sea of men blocking highways and railway tracks, women were invisible.  In fact, they were not there at all. 

Yet, they figured, not as participants but as targets.  Although everyone seems to deny that any molestation or rapes occurred at the end of February, there are several reports that suggest that women were attacked and that most of them will not speak out.

That is hardly surprising.  Did we not see that in Muzaffarnagar in September 2013?  In the communal riots preceding the 2014 general elections, only after the violence had subsided, an estimated 60 people had died and 60,000, mostly Muslims, had been displaced, did the stories of rape begin to be told.

Till today, there has been no closure.  Just a few days ago, one of those cases was closed because the survivor and her family “turned hostile”, another way of saying that they were either intimidated, or decided to keep quiet for fear of consequences.

Despite changes in the rape law, and an increase in general awareness after the 2012 gang rape in Delhi, the reality for rape survivors who fight for justice is either endless delay and humiliation, or threats forcing them to withdraw charges.  Statistics of the low conviction rate amply illustrate this reality.

Muzaffarnagar and Murthal tell us the same story.  When there is public violence, by way of riots or agitations, the consequence is often heightened levels of violence against women.  This is not unique to India.  Studies around the world have established this reality in multiple locations.  The most ghastly in recent memory is Rwanda, where during the genocide in 1994 when Hutus systematically eliminated Tutsis, in the course of 100 days of violence, an estimated half a million women were raped or killed.  The legacy of that violence has still not been erased.

In the current atmosphere in India, where statements are made almost on a daily basis about chopping off heads, slicing tongues and taking revenge, there is real reason to worry.  This kind of heightened violence, much of it going unchallenged and even endorsed by the very people who should be stopping it, leaves all women vulnerable, not just those belonging to the targeted groups.

What this does is that it makes violence acceptable as a way of settling scores.  If ministers in the government speak such language, and they get away without being reprimanded, and are not even hauled up for hate speech, then what is to stop any person from assuming that such talk, and the actions that follow, are permissible?

While data has established that the majority of incidents of violence against women occur in the home or familiar neighbourhoods, a heightened atmosphere of violence affects women’s access to the public space.  At such times, the problem is viewed as a breakdown in law and order. In fact, it is a direct fallout of a culture of political violence that is deliberately perpetuated and thereby becomes the norm.

The government needs to recognise this and address it because it undercuts its stated efforts to “empower” women. Beti Bachao and Beti Padhao will remain empty slogans if girls fear stepping out to go to school or women are terrified at the thought of giving birth to another girl who will have to confront increasing violence, at home and outside.

A survey conducted by the group Breakthrough in 2014 in five states and 15 districts in India indicated that girls on their way to school had to fight off sexually explicit verbal comments, stalking and sometimes molestation.  The unsafe spaces women listed included bus stops, railways stations, open toilets, public toilets, markets and streets.  In other words, practically all public spaces.

In election season, women will be more constrained and restricted if these public spaces that they must necessarily negotiate every single day also become the sites of political violence. The fear of molestation and rape will hold young girls back from attending school, prevent women from going out to work, and in myriad other ways directly affect their mobility. 

The more dangerous aspect is not just the random violence in the public space, but the targeted one, when women become a part of the plan to wreak vengeance by one group of men on another.  This is what we saw in Muzaffarnagar.  And this is what could repeat itself as the electoral temperature rises, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. 

These realities are constantly obscured in the continuous talk about achievement and empowerment of some women, or in the increasingly empty and consumerist agendas that now dominate the celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Beyond Kanhaiya Kumar

March 6, 2016

Something really unusual and encouraging has been happening in the last days. Apart from JNU, which has been in ferment, young people in many other parts of India seem to be waking up and speaking out as never before.

I spent all day yesterday surrounded by enthusiastic, intense youngsters who hung on to every word spoken by a range of speakers about secularism, communalism, democracy, the media, and history. The meeting was organised by a small group who call themselves the Mumbai Collective.  I can't remember such an electric atmosphere in this city in a long time. Keeping my fingers firmly crossed that this is not a passing phase but part of a deeper churning.

My piece in
Beyond Kanhaiya Kumar: Is this the student awakening that has been a long time coming?

Kanhaiya Kumar’s words, as he delivered his passionate speech in Jawaharlal Nehru University hours after being released on bail following 23 days in custody, will continue to reverberate in our ears for some time to come. “We want freedom in India, not from India,” he said as he went on to define what he meant by that freedom, that “azadi”.

Kumar left those who listened to him at the venue, and on television, speechless. He probably left his detractors, who have called him “anti-national”, sleepless. For what Kumar said on the night of March 3, and what he represents, cannot be ignored anymore.

But is this the story of only one exceptional person, a young man not just with admirable oratorical skills but also commitment, perspective, passion, courage and insight? Or does this represent an awakening among India’s students and youth, a stirring that has been a long time coming?

Rise and spread

What began in September 2014 in Jadavpur University in Kolkata in the form of a demand to investigate an incident of sexual harassment, spread to the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune in June 2015, when the students went on strike against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan to head the institution.

Like the “infection” the Delhi High Court judge who granted Kumar bail fears, it then spread to the Hyderabad Central University in August 2015, culminating in the tragic death of Rohith Vemula in January this year. And then on February 9, JNU became “infected” as students demanded their right to protest and were instead charged with sedition and being “anti-national”.

Since the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar on February 12 on charges of sedition and the subsequent arrest of two other JNU students, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, students from many more universities across India have come out in their support. This kind of solidarity among students across universities has not been seen in recent times.

These protests could, of course, subside. The majority of students might decide to get back to classes, and to worrying about their careers. But the chances that this “infection” will spread are greater because the JNU students and the Dalit students from Hyderabad Central University have widened the ambit of their protests. It is not just freedom of expression that they are demanding; they are equally passionate about freedom from caste. It is this combination that must worry the current dispensation at the Centre, or at least should worry them.

Past passion

You would have to delve quite far into your memory to remember a time when Indian universities were in ferment. But there was such a time. If you were in any university or college in the 1960s or 1970s, student politics was alive. There were passionate debates about the country’s future, about injustice and about freedom. There were Gandhians, Socialists, Communists, Maoists. I can’t remember too many Sanghis in those days.

Whether you were politically inclined or not, expressing your views on everything and anything was the norm. And no one was afraid. There was no one telling you what was allowed or not allowed. And there was certainly no one accusing anyone of being “anti-national”, not even if you believed that “power came out of the barrel of a gun”.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the Naxalbari movement at one end, and Jayprakash Narayan’s call for Total Revolution at the other. Both attracted educated young people, including students who left their studies to go and work in the villages. There were study circles and intense debates. Many young people who followed JP dropped their surnames so as not to identify with any caste. Despite opposition from parents, young people were giving up jobs, education, comfortable homes to follow their convictions. They did not want to wait, to be safe. They wanted to take risks.

For the young people who were politicised in the early 1970s, the declaration of Emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1975 was an inflexion point; it confirmed their worst fears about the Indian state. When the Congress Party president DK Barooah declared that “India was Indira and Indira was India”, the frame within which rights, such as freedom of expression, could operate had been set. If you were critical of Indira or her policies, you were against India, hence anti-national. In today’s context, this sounds creepily similar.

Lessons not learnt

Although there have been other galvanising events that have drawn out young people since the end of the Emergency in 1977 and today, I would argue that there has been nothing that has been this widespread. The issue of communalism did bring young people out on the streets after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and the Gujarat violence in 2002. But their participation was not on the scale we have seen today.

Since the 2014 election and the formation of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, the demand for “azadi”, in the way Kumar describes it, has been spurred because the state now defines what we can say and cannot, what we can do and cannot, what we can eat and cannot, what we can read and cannot. You don’t have to be a student of JNU to understand that this is unacceptable. Young people have always demanded the right to question, to rebel, to choose their own paths. As Kanhaiya Kumar presciently pointed out, the more you push them down, the stronger they will emerge.

This is precisely what has been happening. Instead of recognising the legitimacy of the demands being made by students on these different campuses, the government has chosen the hammer of “sedition” and the “anti-national” label to knock them down. In turn, it is now facing the ballooning rebellion of students, political and apolitical, who instinctively react against arbitrariness and oppression.

Pertinent reminders

What is particularly pertinent about the struggles of the students in JNU is that they are going beyond demanding freedom of expression. By placing on the same plate caste oppression, these youth have launched a campaign that has relevance and should have resonance. Relevance because it is unacceptable that in 2016 caste should still be a factor that determines a person’s future in this country. And resonance because in 2014, as Kumar reminded us, 69% of the voters did not vote for Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party. There is a large constituency of people out there who do not subscribe to identity politics and the divisiveness that is being deliberately fuelled by this government.

Kumar has also reminded us that there is an India that lies beyond university campuses and television studios. It includes places like his village, where his mother is an anganwadi worker. He is in JNU only because there is a system that accommodates people like him. In those places beyond the reach of the media, what is “India”, what is “the nation”, who is a patriot and who an “anti-national”? Does it really matter?

Listening to Kumar’s passionate speech at JNU, I recalled an incident from 40 years ago. I was meeting students at a village school in Panchgani, western Maharashtra. They were curious about Bombay. Some had heard of it, many had not. They had no idea who was the prime minister of India, or the president.

And then I asked, “Which do you think is the biggest city in India?” In an instant, a little girl dressed in the regulation uniform common in most village schools, with her hair neatly braided into two plaits, raised her hand. “Satara”, she said, with utmost confidence.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Irom Sharmila: Woman who will not bend

March 2, 2016

The news this morning that Irom Sharmila, that indefatigable campaigner against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) had been released, with the court stating that the police cannot rearrest her, came as some good news after a long week of terrible developments.  But by later in the day it was clear, that nothing has changed.  Sharmila is determined to fast and has said so.  And the police has once again arrested her, according to the latest reports.

Much has been written about this "Iron Lady".  I too have written about her ( and met her briefly in 2009 in Imphal when the same drama of release and rearrest took place.  She is a person one cannot forget -- frail yet strong, smiling through the pain visible in her eyes, and determined in a way one has never seen before.  It makes you feel humbled, even over-awed.

But we cannot stop at admiration. The cause for which she is prepared to inflict such suffering on herself is one that should be a concern for all of us, even if we are not subject to the draconian AFSPA that has made life a hell for people in Manipur.  The demand for its withdrawal should not be limited to the people living under it.  All of us who care for a just society, where abitrary powers are not placed in the hands of people with no respect for human rights, must oppose AFSPA.

In the meantime, we wait and watch.  Will someone listen -- anyone? To quote what I wrote earlier:

"What will it take for the deafness of the government, and its obduracy, to give way to a listening ear and an open mind on the issue? How many Sharmilas will it take? Should all of us who care, who feel outraged at this state of affairs, decide to become Sharmilas?"