Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Is a woman in India not a citizen with the same rights as others?

It is extraordinary that in a case that has grabbed headlines and been followed breathlessly by the media, the obvious gender angle has been almost completely overlooked.

I refer to the case of Hadiya, earlier Akhila, from Kerala who chose to convert to Islam.  She is not a child.  As a 25-year-old, she ought to know her mind.  Yet everyone, from her parents to the courts has treated her as if she is a person without the ability to think for herself.  Her "crime", as far as her family is concerned, is that she converted to Islam.  An RSS functionary from Kerala was heard ranting on television that they (by which he means, I presume, "the Nation") would not accept anyone converting to Islam.

And then to cap it all, Hadiya also chose to marry a Muslim man of her choice.  The result was a case in the Kerala High Court that pronounced that the marriage had no validity.  Extraordinary as that is, she was then sent back to her parents and confined, separated from her husband, and not permitted to interact with the world outside.  So an adult woman, who makes up her mind about what she wants, is essentially being told that she has no brains, no capacity to think, to make a choice and therefore needs others to decide her future.  If she had been a man, would the courts have reacted in similar fashion?  I very much doubt it.

The story has not yet ended.  Hadiya has been "sent" by the Supreme Court, back to the college in Salem, Tamil Nadu where she was doing a course in homeopathy. When asked by the judges what she wanted, Hadiya was unequivocal: "freedom", she said.  She only got partial freedom -- to complete her studies.  The question of whether her marriage is legal has yet to be decided.  And meantime the bogey of Love Jihad persists, with the National Investigation Agency tasked by the court to investigate cases of inter-religious marriages where women have converted to Islam. This is based on the suspicion that radical Muslims are "luring" Hindu girls into joining their ranks.  This calls for a separate article but it is extraordinary that the media too continues to perpetuate this through headlines that take the concept as a given without any proof.

For the moment, I will stop here even as I seethe at the lack of outrage about the manner in which this brave young woman is being treated.

Let me leave you with two good articles that have appeared on the subject.  An excellent article by Anjali Mody in where she writes:

"That Hadiya was in court at all is because she is a woman. That her marriage was annulled without the court even asking her if she had consented to it is because she is a woman. That the court placed her, an adult, in the custody of her father, is because she is a woman. That she was declared to be indoctrinated, or of unsound mind, is because she is a woman. That a Supreme Court judge, after hearing her speak her mind, felt the need to tell her that a woman is “an individual with her own mind”, is because she is a woman. This is how women were treated for millennia, and in India it seems even modern laws are no protection."

And another by the lawyer Gautam Bhatia in Hindustan Times, who clarifies our rights, that of women and men, guaranteed to us by the Constitution:

The Constitution, thus, is founded on a simple idea: to every adult citizen, it proclaims: “The State is not your keeper. Your family is not your keeper. You are free to make your choices, and yes – free also to make your mistakes.” It was as Ambedkar said: “The Constitution... has adopted the individual as its unit.” And the Supreme Court recognised this some months ago in its famous privacy judgment, upholding the “autonomy of the individual and the right of every person to make essential choices which affect the course of life.”

We are living in strange times if women have to fight to establish that they are citizens with equal rights.  

Stranger still when you see the blonde queen from the US, Ivanka Trump, holding forth about women's rights and men and media fawning over her, while the reality remains that women's rights are very far from being human rights in India. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The smog that India and Pakistan share

It is a crisis that requires our politicians to become statesmen, to think of the future generations rather than the next elections, to rise above petty point scoring to sitting down and working out feasible solutions. 

Writing in the Indian Express on 14 November, Nirupama Subramaniam writes about the fog that India and Pakistan share as it spreads its deadly footprint across the border, and envelopes towns, cities and the countryside on both sides.  She concludes: "Had Saadat Hasan Manto been alive, there would have been a short story by now on how India and Pakistan had agreed to exchange smog as a confidence-building measure."

But this is no laughing matter.  Pakistan and India share not just history but also geography. We share mountains and rivers, we grow the same crops, and the air we breathe is also the same.

Today, as dirty polluted air chokes people living in Lahore and in Amritsar and Delhi, we should remember that there are no border check posts that this filth has to cross in either direction. 

It is a crisis that requires our politicians to become statesmen, to think of the future generations rather than the next elections, to rise above petty point scoring to sitting down and working out feasible solutions.  It also means India and Pakistan must talk about polluted air and water even if strategic issues have to be set aside for the moment.  At this rate, there will be no Indians and Pakistanis left to do the talking if we continue to allow our cities and the countryside to become gas chambers.

It is easy to forget, but there was a time when India and Pakistan did talk to each other on these matters.  In 1989, there was an India-Pakistan Conference on the Environment in Lahore which I was lucky to attend.  It was initiated by the Pakistan section of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), headed then by a remarkable woman called Aban Marker Kabraji, a Parsi with family in Mumbai and Karachi.  On the Indian side, one of the main movers was the late Anil Agarwal, who headed the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi.

In their joint Preface to the report that emerged from the conference titled, "Beyond Shifting Sands: The Environment in India and Pakistan" (IUCN and CSE 1994), Kabraji and Agarwal wrote: "The 'environment' that we met to talk about...remains as ever, beseiged.  Under attack by those same forces of greed, ignorance and mismanagement as before. There is a crisis of governance in both our societies, and the ideals and values implied in the sustainable development paradigm appear urgently and relevantly as the only way forward. "

What they wrote then could not be more relevant today.

Both our societies face a crisis of governance when it comes to the environment.  Every crisis, such as the current smog, is dealt with in a piecemeal fashion, as if all one wants is one clear day without smog.  Yet it is the cumulative actions and mismanagement of resources spanning over decades that have led to the current crisis. 

Undoing the wrongs of past policies must necessarily mean acknowledging what and why things went wrong.  No one is willing to sit down and address that, or to heed those who are pointing out the long-term correctives that can still be put in place.  Instead every authority -- whether a state government, or a court -- is busy undercutting and criticising measures suggested by the other without any constructive alternative. 

The problem we face is not SMOG -- it is the fog in our minds, and our inability to rise above the clutter to see the clear light of day.

Monday, August 28, 2017

A Week to Remember

My reflections on a week on three important judgments.

Barely six days after India celebrated its 70th Independence Day, two Supreme Court ruling and one by a lower court made for an unforgettable week. 

On August 22, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court gave its much-awaited ruling in what is known as the Triple Talaq case.  Five Muslim women who were divorced through the practice of talaq-e-biddat, or triple talaq whereby a Muslim man can say the word 'talaq' three times in a row to divorce his wife, and several women's organisation including the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) appealed to the court to declare the practice unconstitutional because it was discriminatory towards women.  The case became high profile because unlike other cases of Muslim women who had appealed against this practice, this was the first time that several individuals as well as organisations representing Muslim women came together to challenge this 1400-year-old tradition.  It is followed by Sunnis belonging to the Hanafi sect who constitute the majority of Muslims in India.  In at least 20 other Muslim countries, such a form of divorce is not recognised.

In three separate judgments that partly overlapped and were partly contradictory, this one particular form of divorce followed by Muslims was discussed. The judges had to decide whether it was unconstitutional, in that it went against fundamental rights.  Two judges, Justice R. F. Nariman and Justice U. U. Lalit held that it was.  They stated: "It is clear that this form of talaq is manifestly arbitrary (emphasis mine) in the sense that the marital tie can be broken capriciously and whimsically by a Muslim man without any attempt at reconciliation so as to save it.  This form of talaq must therefore be held to be violative of the fundamental right contained under Article 14 of the Constitution of India."

A third judge, Justice Kurian Joseph, also struck down the practice as illegal but not unconstitutional.  He found it illegal on theological grounds and stated:
"What is held bad in the Holy Quran cannot be good in Shariah and, in that sense, what is bad in theology is bad in law as well."

These two judgments together are the majority judgment.  Hence, the practice of triple talaq is now illegal in India.

The minority judgment by Chief Justice J. S. Khehar and Justice S. Abdul Nazeer, took a very different line when they argued that personal law was essentially part of religion.  And as Article 25 guaranteed freedom of religion, the courts could not decide on the content of these laws.  If there was to be any change, it had to be brought in by Parliament.  They recommended that triple talaq be banned for six months and within that period, the government should enact a law that would ban it.

As one can imagine, this judgment is likely to be dissected and discussed for a long time to come as it has many layers within the arguments set out in the judgement.

I am giving below links to some of the articles that I think are particularly useful in understanding different dimensions of this ruling and how it is likely to play out in the future.

The Indian Express was probably the best amongst newspapers in the articles it carried on the judgment within a day of the ruling.  That itself was something of a feat given a tight news cycle.

Also always useful to understand complex judgments is the blog maintained by a lawyer like Gautam Bhatia, who is quicker off the mark than most of the media in setting out the important issues to flag in such judgments.  He did just that in the Triple Talaq judgment.

Columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued that this was only a small step forward and not "historic" as the government and others were claiming it to be and that the court had failed to hold constitutional values over religious belief and practice.

Also on the same day, Indian Express carried a piece by Faizan Mustafa, the Chancellor of NALSAR law university in Hyderabad that made another set of important observations.

Also useful was the editorial that day in Indian Express that commended the plurality in the judgment saying that it left space for reform. The editorial in Economic & Political Weekly made a similar point.

While Muslim women individually, and their organisations, welcomed the verdict even though the practice had been held unconstitutional as they had demanded by only two of the five judges and there was no mention in any of the judgments about gender discrimination, the Muslim clergy were quick off the mark in condemning the ruling and seeing in it interference in Muslim personal law.

Jyoti Punwani, who has kept close track of developments within the Muslim community for decades, dating back to 1985 when a 62-year-old divorcee from Bhopal, Shah Bano, won her case in the Supreme Court for maintenance, reported on the response of the conservative elements within the Muslim community.

Barely had we got our heads around the Triple Talaq judgment when the Supreme Court delivered what is a "historic" judgment in every sense of the word, that relating to privacy.  A nine-judge bench was unanimous that privacy is a fundamental right guaranteed to every citizen of India. 

Again, as in the Triple Talaq judgment, there are several critiques of the judgment but what is clear is that the clarity with which this assertion has been made will not have far-reaching repercussions on many laws and judgments.  Of immediate interest is the case concerning the use of Aadhar by the government beyond the stated purpose of ensuring that people get access to the welfare schemes to which they are entitled.  The ruling on that has yet to come.

As I write this, there are still many comments and analyses in the newspapers and digital platforms on this judgment.  Once again, Indian Express stood out for the range of comment it provided within a day of the ruling.

In his article on the judgment, Alok Prasanna Kumar writes:

"The right to privacy is not just a common law right, not just a legal right, not just a fundamental right under the Constitution. It is a natural right inherent in every individual. This, in sum, is the law laid down by a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India in K. Puttaswamy v Union of India. This finding of the Supreme Court has not come out of the blue. It is the inevitable conclusion of steady developments in the law in the last three decades where courts across the country, not just the apex court, have said that the right to privacy, to choose, to be free of unwanted intrusion and to determine what happens to their information, is a fundamental right under the Constitution. The judgment has consolidated the development of the law into a grand judgment of six concurring opinions that definitively lays down these principles."

Kumar also maintains a blog, which is useful during such weeks when you are trying to get your head around these judgments.  Have a look as he covers this extraordinary week.

Veteran lawyer and former attorney general of India, Soli J. Sorabjee provided another useful summary of the judgment in the Indian Express.  He wrote: "To my mind, the most outstanding feature of the judgment is its recognition of the right to dissent and the necessity to practice tolerance."

Read also Gautam Bhatia on the privacy judgment.  He was one of four young lawyers who argued the case.  Hence his analysis is particularly useful.

The Indian Express carried a full page on August 28 with a virtual A to Z on privacy that is also worth a read. Faizan Mustafa, who had earlier commented on the triple talaq judgment, also wrote about the privacy judgment in Indian Express.

I will not go into details on this judgment, as it requires more study and discussion.  But the links given above have been very useful.

And barely had we recovered from these important judgments when a court in Panchkula on the outskirts of Chandigarh announced on Friday, August 25 that the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda, Ram Rahim Singh had been guilty of rape.  This was in response to a case filed in 2002. That's how long some cases take in India.  Calling the process interminable would be a gross understatement.

In the build up to the judgment, thousands of his followers streamed into Panchkula and Chandigarh and the administration just sat on its hands.  They parked themselves on the roads, on pavements, on open grounds, virtually anywhere in the city.  Yet, the Haryana government looked on and allowed people with iron roads and material to make petrol bombs to assemble outside the courtroom.  These followers freely spoke to journalists and told them how they would not accept a guilty verdict because to them the man was equivalent to god.  Yet, the Chief Minister of Haryana, M. L. Khattar, who was seen publicly with Ram Rahim on August 15, did not find reason to evacuate the areas around the courthouse.

When the guilty verdict was pronounced all hell broke loose.  Rahim's devotees went on the rampage.  They attacked journalists, overturned and burnt OB vans, burnt cars and buses parked on the roads, attacked shops, went into residential areas and began entering houses.  All this while, the law enforcement machinery appeared paralysed.

When finally it did move, after the media played out the mayhem on the roads, the police shot into the crowd killing an estimated 38 people and injuring many more. 

As I write this, Ram Rahim has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.  The sentence was pronounced in a court in Rohtak where no one has been allowed to assemble.  But in neighbouring Sirsa there is already trouble.

So how have we come to this pass where self-proclaimed godmen, included those charged with rape, are protected by the state and their poor followers, most of them lower class and caste people who derive some comfort from this attachment, are shot down by the same state. 

Everyone watched with amazement when this convicted rapist was driven in a convoy to a helicopter that evacuated him to Rohtak jail in the company of his adopted daughter with the unlikely name of Honeypreet Insan.

This again is a subject that we will have to discuss more.  What is it that attracts thousands and lakhs of people to such men, and sometimes women? Why do politicians of all hues flock to them and use them to get votes? What does all this say about our democracy and our system?

The articles are still appearing on this but here are two that I found were questioning in the right way.  It is much too easy to come to instant and sweeping conclusions in this age of social media.  But we need to look more closely and think more deeply about why ordinary people of all kinds get attracted to different cults.

In The Hindu, Shiv Visvanathan analyses why people are attracted to such cults.  He suggests that the entire phenomenon has to be viewed outside the upper-middle class lens.  He writes:

"Imagine doing a human indicators study of these ashrams, comparing them with enclaves where the government has conducted its welfare projects. If these groups are evaluated on the ideas of community, solidarity and well-being, they will probably receive a better rating. So, is the secular the only idiom of justice or are there other vernaculars? Do we dismiss the faith of these people on their guru as another ridiculous Ganesh phenomenon?"

The argument that Visvanathan and several others have made is that such places provide people with more than just spiritual satisfaction; there is large component of meeting other needs such as for medical attention, education etc, things that the Indian state ought to provide.

In Indian Express, M. Rajivlochan, Professor of Contemporary History at Panjab University, Chandigarh argues that no one should be surprised at the manner in which the authority of the Indian state was challenged in the hours and days following the ruling on Ram Rahim.  He argues: "Since the state hardly works normally, it is impossible to make it function on special occasions, like when a 15-year-old rape case is finally reaching a verdict. Fifteen years? It took that long to decide upon a rape charge? This itself is an indicator of a dysfunctional state system marked by a dysfunctional system of justice."

I will stop this post here.  There is bound to be a larger fallout to this last story as well as to the two judgments delivered last week.  Together they tell us a story that is as complex as is this country of ours.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

It’s time for another freedom struggle: A Midnight’s Child looks back on India’s 70-year journey

Published in on August 14, 2017

I am almost Midnight’s Child. I arrived some weeks before the magic hour. On August 15, 1947, they celebrated by taking a ride in a Victoria horse carriage on Bombay’s Marine Drive with me, all of three months old.

As August 15, 2017, India’s 70th Independence Day approaches, I wonder whether this is the India my parents dreamed of. Neither is around to answer that question. But I am certain that their idea of India is very different from the new India that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged people to help build by 2022.

Today, apart from Independence, the painful memories of the Partition are also being invoked. Yet far away from the borders that wrenched one country into two, leading to mass migration on a scale not seen anywhere in the world and an unprecedented scale of communal killings, I grew up with little awareness of this cataclysmic event. So did many others like me, I imagine.

No one from my family went to Pakistan, or came to India from Pakistan. The only migration in the family was when my parents – from Mangalore and Mysore – moved to Bombay and then, after their marriage, to North India.

We grew up in a place that was once called Begumabad, a village near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. It was renamed Modinagar after Seth Gujarmal Modi, an industrialist who set up a textile mill, a sugar factory, a rubber factory as well as a school, a college and housing colonies for his employees. Today, most of the factories have disappeared and Modinagar has been transformed into an educational hub.

The author with her parents and brother in Modinagar

Cranking it up

In the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up as a middle-class kid in this company town, where the houses were identical. Television had not yet arrived in India but everyone had radios (not transistors though). No one I knew had a refrigerator but iceboxes did the job. A lucky few had a wind-up gramophone.

Also, no one had electric hot water geysers. Nor had I ever seen a shower. Copper samovars did the job of providing hot water; a steel bucket and a brass lota did the rest.
I cannot remember my parents buying readymade clothes. The tailor stitched our clothes, usually a size larger so they would last longer. And woolen sweaters were always hand knitted.

In these days of short attention spans, it seems unreal that one could spend long summer holidays without ever complaining of being bored. We entertained ourselves either playing chor-police in the colony garden, a hot favourite where the youngest was assigned the task of being the jailor; cricket and badminton, the latter without a net and the former with a rubber ball; or board games like Ludo and Chinese Checkers. Monopoly and Scrabble came much later.

Temptation to buy anything was strictly limited to the amount of money you had. If you were middle class, living in a single income family, there was practically no surplus. You bought only what you needed. This was not some high moral principle. It was necessity.

Did it make us miserable, hungry for more, feeling we were missing out on something? I think not. The differences between living in a small North Indian town like Modinagar and Bombay, which we would visit in the holidays, did not seem so stark as to make us restless.

Was this because India’s restricted economy flattened everyone to the same level? Or was our lack of restlessness about material things a hangover of the Independence struggle that still lingered even two decades later? Perhaps a little of both.
The author and her friends in Modinagar, Uttar Pradesh, in the 1950s.
The author and her friends in Modinagar, Uttar Pradesh, in the 1950s.

For the country’s good

I can remember constantly being lectured in school about how privileged we were to get a good education and that we must think of what we can do for “the country”, how we can use our lives to serve people less advantaged than us. This was not the nationalism of today; it was perhaps playing on guilt but also appealing to our conscience.

That message found a resonance in many of us. Despite our parents saving up to give us the best education possible and hoping we would become doctors, engineers or join the civil services, at least some Midnight’s Children let their parents down.

Our coming of age coincided with a time of questioning around the world. What contribution could you make to the country if the structures of oppression had remained in tact despite the end of colonialism? Was getting degrees and professional qualifications enough to make you understand what was going on in a country where the majority was abjectly poor? Could those of us who lived in cities ever understand the reality of rural India unless we went and lived there? Should our engineers be building bridges and dams or going out to see how technology could change the lives of people in rural India? These and hundreds of other questions infected our minds, refusing to allow us to slip into complaisance.

Caught in this churn of questions, many of us made choices that hurt and distressed our families. But at that time, it seemed the only thing one could do if you believed that coming from your class and your education, you had to do something to make a difference.

The point of this narration is to depict, briefly, the India in which people like me grew up. There was very little cynicism and a lot of idealism.

The dark period

So when and how did this tryst with idealism get dented?

Before I, and India could hit 30, the idea of a free and democratic India had already been shattered when Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency on June 26, 1975. She imposed press censorship, imprisoned the opposition and suspended fundamental rights. At the stroke of midnight, free India was un-free. Would it ever come out of this dark period? Certainly in the days after the declaration of Emergency, and the months that followed, there seemed no end in sight.

Yet, it did end, spectacularly and unexpectedly in 1977 when Indira Gandhi called an election and was defeated. We were a free country again. Or were we? For many of us, the principal lesson from the Emergency was how easy it is to erode democratic values and why the very concept of freedom has to be re-examined within the context of the gross inequalities in our society.

As India completes 70, that reality has not changed. If anything, it has become starker. What is also evident today is that the Partition of 1947 is now a reality at so many other levels in India, in the deepening divisions between class, caste and creed.

Yet Modi speaks of his new India being free of communalism. How extraordinary that a man who heads a party that has built its political fortunes on communal poison can proclaim this without a moment of embarrassment.

The old India in which I grew up also had communal schisms, between Hindus and Muslims, between upper and lower castes. But even though difference was acknowledged, it was not emphasised or demonised. Many of us grew up not knowing where we belonged – South India, North India, just India? I had coined the term “emotionally integrated Indian” to describe myself. Today, on the other hand, you are branded with your identity, in terms of region, religion and caste.

There is little in this new India that we are being promised that can keep alive the flame of idealism. Yet, I believe we can refuse to despair even though at times it appears that the unrelenting push towards changing the core of India is unstoppable; that the forces of the Hindutva will succeed in turning this country into a Hindu Rashtra where anyone who does not subscribe to their ideology will be rendered a second-class citizen if not a non-citizen.

What is more worrying is that this is happening so insidiously and at so many levels that it seems to have dulled our sense of outrage. Or perhaps there is too much to be outraged about. So one watches with despair and hopes that miraculously things will change.

If there is anything we can learn from these past 70 years it is that change only comes when people decide that they will not sit back and tolerate the intolerable. The sad reality is that even the Emergency would have continued if Indira Gandhi had not called an election. The silent majority were angry but were scattered and intimidated while the minority, who endorsed her actions, ruled with confidence.
The author and other members of the staff of 'Himmat', the magazine that distinguished itself by courageously criticising the Emergency.
The author and other members of the staff of 'Himmat', the magazine that distinguished itself by courageously criticising the Emergency.

Another midnight hour

Today, we cannot say for sure that the majority is angry. Many people are upset and disillusioned. But will they find a way to express this, or have they accepted that nothing can be done to change the direction in which this country is being taken?

We are approaching a midnight hour of another kind, not one that will lead this country into freedom, but “where the clear stream of reason has lost its way” as Rabindranath Tagore wrote. An hour when partitions at every level are becoming the norm and where based on this divided and hate-filled nation, the votaries of a Hindu Rashtra could succeed in raising their bhagwa jhanda.

There is not much point in harking back to the old India that has disappeared. But there is every reason to oppose the vision of a new India that is being thrust down our throats, that has nothing new about it as it goes about keeping alive outdated and old divisions and hatreds. Nothing new and lasting can be built on such poisonous foundations. Midnight’s Children and their progeny will have to get ready for another freedom struggle.

Kalpana Sharma is a consulting editor at the Economic and Political Weekly.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Behind closed doors: Noida society row reflects the ugly truth of how elite India views their ‘help’

Published in on July 21, 2017

Beyond the fracas at Mahagun Moderne are larger questions about how Indian society turns a blind eye to crass exploitation. 

It was a bomb waiting to explode.

A gated community surrounded by a sea of deprivation, called Mahagun Moderne – modern with a meaningless extra “e”. On one side were people living within high gates, protected by security personnel and closed circuit television cameras. On the other were occupants of tin sheds on vacant lands.

They connected without really connecting: everyday, from the surrounding squalor emerged women and men who “helped” those living in these luxurious enclosures of privilege. Yet for the people they help, these women and men were virtually non-persons.

When Mahagun Moderne in Noida sector 78 burst into the news on July 12, this hidden world of invisible workers and insensitive employers came into view. On that day, there was a riot-like situation in the posh society located in the National Capital Region after Zohra Bibi, who worked in one of the houses there, went missing the previous night. She was found in the basement, police claimed at the time, even as her compatriots were virtually breaking down the gates. In photographs, she appeared dazed and near-unconscious.

Though both sides traded charges and police cases were filed against the workers as well as the residents, only the group of workers who stormed the society were detained. Of these, 13 were charged with attempted murder even though none of the FIRs filed over the incident mentioned a physical attack on residents. About 81 workers were “blacklisted” and barred from entering the society for protesting on July 12.

But beyond the particulars of the Noida case is the riddle of why a country like India continues to tolerate, even justify, the exploitation of domestic workers. In fact, the “e” at the end of “Moderne” in the name of the Noida gated complex signifies the pretension, the unreality, the make believe that attempts to hide the feudalistic mindset that continues to justify the exploitation of domestic workers.
Zohra Bibi shortly after she was found on July 12. [Photo: Nilanjana Bhowmick/via Facebook]
Zohra Bibi shortly after she was found on July 12. [Photo: Nilanjana Bhowmick/via Facebook]

Hidden world

The millions of women, men and even children employed in domestic work in India, who cannot be accurately counted because most of them not registered are a daily reminder of how far we are from becoming the modern society we aspire to be.

The very concept that these women and men who sweep, swab, clean, cook, serve and sustain us are our “help” is vulgar. It is we, the employers of these invisible people, who occasionally help them, not the other way around.

The problem goes beyond the poor wages and the lack of legal protection. It extends to the very attitude we hold towards domestic workers that is so entrenched that it doesn’t even change with the generations. We commonly call them “servants” and we want them there to serve. She has a name but we care little about where she lives, what she eats, whether she has children and if yes, then do they go to school and how do they survive. What happens when someone falls ill? How many people does she support with her meagre wages? A hundred questions, never asked, by the people this woman helps.

It is also interesting that even as the Supreme Court debates the extent of our right to privacy, privileged Indians are willingly relinquishing their privacy because they want someone else to do their household chores. So, a stranger lives in our home, knows our likes and dislikes, cleans up after us, cooks what we like, overhears all we say, watches us watching TV, listening to music, arguing or talking on the phone. Yet, we pretend this person does not exist. Except when something goes missing. Then suddenly the, person comes into view. Without a moment’s hesitation, she is the first suspect. She is poor, you are rich; therefore she must be the thief.

Ironically, with the notion of safety, the rich are even willing to equip their homes with closed circuit cameras so that they can keep a watch on their help without seeing these as an intrusion on their private space.

So, while what women like Zohra Bibi do has to be recognised as work and not help, there have to be laws that guarantee her a fair wage, institutions she can approach if she is mistreated, there also needs to be a drastic shift in the perspective of those who employ domestic workers.

Exploitation and cruelty

What happened in Noida is not the first time a domestic worker has complained of mistreatment. In my memory, one of the worst such incidents took place a little over a decade back in Mumbai.

Ten-year-old Sonu from Bhopal was employed by an affluent family in the Lokhandwala area. There were three adults in the family for whom she worked – the mother, father and a grown up son. A married daughter lived in the same complex.

In June 2006, the daughter found Sonu trying out lipstick that belonged to her mother. For this supposed crime, the child was tortured, beaten and left to bleed to death. More horrific still was the cold-blooded way in which the family cleaned up the mess and suspended Sonu’s inert body by a rope from the ceiling fan. They then went to the police and reported it as a suicide.

Fortunately, despite their privilege, they did not get away. For this sickening case, all four members of the family were sentenced to life two years later.

Whenever an incident like this comes to light, there is some discussion about the conditions of domestic workers. But little changes. We need to stop and ask: why does this happen? Why does the Indian society turn a blind eye to such crass exploitation? How do generations of Indians grow up accepting that there are some people whose life’s mission is to serve and clean up after them? Why do we accept the concept of a “servant”?
Commenting on Katherine Stockett’s book The Help about black women domestic workers in the American South in 1962, Harsh Mander writes in his seminal work Looking Away:
“What deeply troubled me after I read the book was that the humiliation and exploitation suffered by domestic workers in southern US half a century earlier was, in fact, in many ways less oppressive than the daily lived experience of an estimated three million domestic workers in middle-class homes across urban India in the second decade of the 21st century. And that this causes us so little outrage.”
Indeed, there is only momentary outrage, until another Sonu is tortured or another group of workers break down the gates of our burgeoning gated communities.



Wednesday, June 28, 2017

'Media Owners Always Ensure That Journalists Crawl, During Emergency And Now Again'

Posting here this interview that appeared in The Citizen on June 26, 2017

Monday, June 26,2017
When the Emergency was declared on June 26, 1975, Kalpana Sharma was with Himmat, an independent news magazine, one of the few that chose to defy the censors and take an independent stand. Over the course of the next 21 months till March 1977 when the Emergency was finally lifted, Himmat got into trouble more than once with the authorities, but chose not to back down. During this time, Kalpana Sharma was in the direct line of fire as she took over the editorship of the publication in 1976 and was therefore directly responsible for everything that went into it.

In this interview conducted over e-mail, she talks of those days and draws parallels to today.

Q. How did the Emergency begin for you at Himmat? Did it begin right after the announcement or did things change over a course of time?

It began on the night of June 25, 1975 when the announcement of declaration of emergency was made on the radio. It took two or three days for the reality to sink in, that all opposition leaders had been arrested, that press censorship had been imposed, that fundamental rights had been suspended.

Q.What were some of the stories you wanted to run that were censored? Also, were there instances of self-censorship (yours or anybody else’s) you recall?

A. On October 2, 1975, a prayer meeting was held in Delhi at Rajghat. Amongst those present were Acharya Kripalani as well as the editor-in-chief of Himmat, Rajmohan Gandhi, who is a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. They were arrested along with others at the meeting. Himmat ran a report of this in the issue of October 24, 1975. By then I was the editor of Himmat and I was summoned to the office of the Special Press Advisor, or Chief Censor, and told that we had violated censorship "guidelines" and that from that date onwards, Himmat would be under pre-censorship. Incidentally, one of the guidelines was: “Where news is plainly dangerous, newspapers will assist the Chief Press Adviser by suppressing it themselves. Where doubts exist, reference may and should be made to the nearest press adviser.”

As for self-censorship, the government had issued these "guidelines" within a couple of weeks of the imposition of the Emergency expecting the press to follow them, or to self-censor. But the interpretation of the guidelines was left to the individual publication. We chose to mostly ignore them or interpret them so loosely that it made no difference in what we published. Until, that is, when pre-censorship was imposed. After that, we had to submit every single piece of copy to the censor before sending it to press. Even here we took liberties and sent only the main articles and editorials, many of which were so heavily censored as to be rendered unusable. For a weekly, this meant that with our shoestring budget and tiny staff, we had to keep standby material for almost everything that we submitted to the censor.

Q. Any anecdotes of how you slipped one past the censors in those days?

There were certain columns that we simply did not submit. We had a humourous diary column written jointly by several people on the staff. We didn't send this in and hoped that the censor would not catch the sly way in which we were trying to send across messages. We also had a column called This Was a Life in which we featured important women and men who had stood up for their rights. During this period, we made it a point to find people who had defied dictatorship and spoken up for their convictions. Our readers got the message. The censor, fortunately, did not catch on to what we were trying to do.

Q. Do you recall any puzzling/amusing censor guidelines from those days? Any parallels you want to draw with today’s scenario?

.There are no parallels to the situation today except that for mainstream media then as now, the decision to comply or defy was determined by the owners and not by the editors. Today, too, it is the owners, who fear repercussions if they are too critical of the government, who are making their editors tone down any negative reporting or comment and if a paper is speaking up, it is because the editor has the backing of the owner. Himmat was an independent weekly run by a trust. Hence it was not constrained in this way.

Q. Many people believe that liberals are overstating their case when they state that we are facing an Emergency-like situation today? Things, some believe, aren’t as bad. Having observed both times, what would you say?

As I said earlier, the situation today does not resemble the emergency in that the opposition is not behind bars, there is no pre-censorship and fundamental rights have not been suspended. But the government has been successful in curbing criticism through indirect ways, by making journalists feel that they are vulnerable, by reducing the spaces where honest criticism can be made.

Q. In terms of the Opposition that existed then and that exists now, do you see any difference? Was the opposition to the ruling regime better organized as compared to today?

Before emergency was declared, there was growing opposition led by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). Many young people were inspired and joined him. The JP movement took off even as George Fernandes called the first-ever railway strike in 1974. There were agitations in many places against the rise in prices. JP and his followers organised mass meetings in many places around India that openly questioned Indira Gandhi's government. Her supporters argue that she had reason to fear anarchy, especially when JP urged men in uniform not to obey illegal government orders. Compared to that, although there are spontaneous eruptions by Dalits, farmers and students, they are not organised in the same way. Perhaps they will eventually come under one banner.

Q.What about the quality of leaders, both in the opposition and in the ruling party?

People like JP were inspiring. They had integrity. There were others too but JP was the person around whom people rallied. Today, there is no one, on either side of the political divide with that kind of stature.

Q. Online trolling is a new form of goondagardi that we see these days. How is it similar/different from how the press was attacked in those days?

There is no comparison. At that time, the press was under direct attack from the state. Today, it is people organised and encouraged by the state who try and intimidate and threaten those who speak out. Given the violence on the streets and the lynchings, those who are threatened cannot take these attacks lightly. At the same time, the government can continue to pretend that it respects diverse views and freedom of the press. It is, in fact, far more insidious.

Q. There is a feeling that the press isn’t quite the ‘holy cow’ that is believed to be. The press (both print and the visual medium) have compromised themselves in many ways and when these are investigated, they cry that the freedom of the press is being attacked. What would you say to that?

"The press" or more accurately, the media, is a business. There are people employed in that business, the journalists, who are expected to make the product that has to sell. The content of that product is thus decided by how well it will sell. That sadly is what the media, not just in India but also elsewhere has been reduced to. The concept of a fourth estate in a democracy has been negated by this business model. And given that business relies on government, directly or indirectly, the government can dictate what the media can and cannot do. This does not mean that there is no brave, investigative journalism that holds power to account. But it is fast disappearing because it does not have the kind of backing it needs. That is why so much of that kind of writing is now appearing on digital platforms that are able to carve out business models that are different from the existing ones in the media.

Q. About the future of a fearless, independent press are you optimistic or do you think there is cause for despair?

I am optimistic because I see around me so many younger journalists infected with the same optimism and passion that we had in the 1970s when we worked with Himmat. They have a much tougher time, in some ways, but they are not giving up. And the evidence of that lies in the fact that despite all the efforts to intimidate the media, stories about atrocities, human rights violations, corruption in high places etc still keep coming out.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Media in the Modi era: How did India’s watchdog press become so docile?

Published on on June 16, 2017

India is talking about the 1975 Emergency again even as its 42nd anniversary, on June 25, hovers around the corner. Some people believe that freedom of the press is endangered once again. Yet how many people are really bothered about the freedom of the press? 
This is a question that was often asked during the Emergency. The answer then was: not many. It is possible that even today, if a survey were to be taken, that would be the answer. In the order of priorities in India, press freedom does not rank very high.
But the principal lesson from the Emergency was that while the absence of an inquiring and free press made no difference to the moneyed classes who were pleased that trains ran on time, for the poor, who are voiceless at the best of times, there was a void that swallowed up their tale of increased oppression. There were whispers about forced sterilisation, about ruthless slum demolitions, about increasing hunger and deprivation, but there were no reports on this in the media.
In the end, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi chose to believe the censored press that reported only the good news and what she wanted to hear. She called for elections in 1977 confident that the people, especially the poor, loved her. Yet ultimately it was the poor, in whose name she suspended fundamental rights, who turned against her. The full truth about their oppression during the Emergency only surfaced after press censorship was lifted.

Emergency vs undeclared Emergency

If there is any comparison between 1975-’77 and now, it is surely only in the fact that even without censorship, many stories of the way the poor are suffering do not find space in the mainstream media. The plight of the poor only becomes front-page news when they protest and are shot or beaten up. 
It is also clear now, three years into Narendra Modi’s term as prime minister, that his government does not need to impose any kind of direct censorship on the media. The media, by and large, has already fallen in line. Even documentary films on subjects the government does not like are stopped from being screened at film festivals. However small the critical component of mainstream and other media, this government is not prepared to tolerate any of it. Shut it down, is the clear message.
Many of us in the media are hesitant to navel-gaze at this particular juncture when the government is targeting media that is critical. Yet, the Indian media must ask, how is it that within three years of the Bharatiya Janata Party coming to power, it has turned from being adversarial, even hostile at times to the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, to being pliant, even docile, under this government?

‘Clear shift from UPA rule’

After talking to several senior Delhi-based journalists who have covered both the BJP and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance for many years, an interesting picture has emerged.
Those who covered the two terms of the UPA recalled how critical even those who were generally supportive of the government were during that time. Every new scheme introduced by the government was looked at closely – the media discussed whether these schemes could work, reporters checked on rural employment guarantee programmes, on government efforts to end open defecation, on urban renewal programmes, and often exposed shortcomings.
In the three years since the Modi government came to power, such investigations are few and far between. Take for instance the Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana, where families below the poverty line are given an LPG connection with the upfront payment waived. Hoardings around India, depicting Modi’s face, announce that his government has saved women from being slowly poisoned by smoke from wood-based stoves by this woman-friendly gesture. 
Yet, where are the stories checking whether such a scheme is practical, or even working on the ground? Some business papers have uncritically carried reports based on a survey by a company called MicroSave Asia, which gave glowing accounts of how the scheme was benefitting women. 
So far, I have only come across one story that tells it like it is – a report on this website by Dhirendra K Jha. After talking to the supposed beneficiaries of the scheme, Jha shows how impractical it is to expect families below the poverty line to have the money to pay Rs 650 or more for a gas cylinder even if the first one – as well as the stove – are given to them free of cost through a loan. 
Far from the “healthier, happier women” depicted in the MicroSave survey, many women who signed up for the Ujjwala scheme are returning to using wood for fuel.

Access denied

While decisions about investigating the reality behind government schemes often rests with editors, what is happening to journalists whose job it is to report on the government and major political parties? 
Like most capital cities around the world, Delhi is a city of patronage. Journalists work hard to build contacts. Newspaper editors and owners value journalists with important contacts. They prove useful not just in terms of getting stories, but also in helping owners gain access to the government at crucial junctures (remember the Niira Radia tapes?). Therefore cultivating these contacts is part of the game of journalism for journalists based in Delhi, or for that matter in any state capital. None of that has changed with the present government. What is different, however, say journalists, is that in the past, even if they belonged to a news organisation that was critical of the ruling party, ministers, bureaucrats and members of the ruling party would talk to them. Today these insiders are much more cautious. 
One journalist pointed out that before the Uttar Pradesh elections earlier this year, it was still possible to find people within the ruling party who would express some critical views about the way the BJP functioned, even if it was off the record. But since the saffron party’s stunning electoral victory in India’s most populous state, such talk has virtually dried up.
One senior journalist pointed out that today to get any information, they have to work much harder. For instance, they have to haunt the BJP office even if important functionaries are not present in the hope that over time someone would talk. These journalists say that there was greater access in the past.
While press conferences conducted by the official BJP spokespersons are usually quite cordial, and even those asking difficult questions are given time, this is not so during media interactions with BJP president Amit Shah. Since the big Uttar Pradesh win earlier this year, he has become even ruder with those he considers to be critics, usually asking them to shut up instead of answering their questions. The rest of the media fraternity present shows little solidarity with the journalist so treated.
The bureaucracy is also much more guarded while meeting journalists. They can cover routine matters, but attempts to try and dig into what is actually going on, what gets discussed at cabinet meetings, how decisions are taken, who is in favour and who is not, possible cabinet reshuffles – basically the grist of much political reporting from Delhi – throws up precious little.
Those who have access are the ones clearly on the side of the government. They report the good news – all the schemes are working spectacularly, the economy is doing well, demonetisation has had no negative impact, and achhe din (good days) are just around the corner. The negatives are reserved for bashing the Opposition, or whatever little there is of it.

All is (not) well

So the ordinary media viewer or reader is led to believe that all is well barring a few stray incidents – a lynching here or there, a few protests, a passing communal incident. 
This clever strategy has worked because the media too has played along. Individual journalists have bought into the government’s propaganda and owners of media houses have sent a message down the line that too much criticism of the government is unwarranted. So censorship? Who needs it?
Incidentally, most of my observations relate to print media. I am not even touching on the insanity that has taken over television news where the line between reality and hysteria has been erased.
To end, let me quote India’s wise and prescient Vice President Hamid Ansari. At the release of a special edition of the National Herald in Bengaluru on June 12, he said: 
“In this age of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ where ‘advertorials’ and ‘response features’ edge out editorials, we would do well to recall Nehru’s vision of the press playing its role as a watchdog in a democracy.”
But when the executive has figured out a way not to be watched, can the media be a watchdog?

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

NDTV raids: The BJP’s saffron-tinted view of India has no room for a watchdog media

Published in on June 5, 2017

The message to critics is clear: We are watching you and will find ways to silence you.

There has always been an uneasy relationship between the state and the media. This was reiterated by Monday’s raids by the Central Bureau of Investigation on various establishments owned by NDTV co-founder and executive chairperson Prannoy Roy – reportedly for defaulting on a loan that the television company claimed had actually been repaid seven years ago.

That this government will seek ways to intimidate its critics within the media is not unexpected. Nor is it unique.

In the past too, many governments, at the Centre and in the states, have investigated the financial dealings of media companies in an effort to silence them. They did not need to declare an emergency or impose press censorship to find ways to control or punish the media.


Intimidation an old trick

It is easy in these days of instant news to forget the times when media meant essentially the print media and radio, the government-controlled All India Radio. In those days, the government controlled newsprint quotas. The easiest way to punish a recalcitrant media house was to put a squeeze on newsprint supply.

It was also a time when government advertising was important for a newspaper’s finances. There again, the government could decide where to release government tenders and advertisements.

Apart from this, media owners had other businesses on which pressure could be exerted.
These methods were used selectively but the very fact that they were used suggests that the executive has never been comfortable with a critical media.

Today, private corporations control much of the media. But despite liberalisation, the government continues to have the power to put pressure on the media through its owners. There is ample evidence to show how this kind of indirect censorship has worked to suppress news, or to ensure nothing too critical or damaging about the executive is printed.

When and if powerful corporate houses choose to be critical of the government of the day, they can use their media to go all out to attack it. Note for instance the vociferous criticism by many media houses of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his silence in the face of corruption scandals and compare that to the fairly mild comment on the current prime minister’s silence in the face of a growing culture of public lynchings and cow vigilantism by people affiliated to his party.

None of this is to justify the actions of this government. It is only to put it in some perspective that all governments find a questioning media inconvenient, one they must tolerate in a democracy, but one they would ideally like to put in its place.

That NDTV is neck deep in financial trouble is well known. But when raids take place, the dominant narrative is not that NDTV is one of the few channels that has been consistently critical of this government, but that its owners are involved in allegedly crooked financial deals.


Uncomfortable ties

This government has made no bones about the fact that it has little time for the media unless it is willing to sing its praises. Its unwillingness to face critical questioning is exemplified by the fact that after three years in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not addressed a single press conference.

Party president Amit Shah has addressed the media, but his impatience has been more than evident. At a press conference in Chandigarh last month, he rudely told journalists to “shut up” and made no bones about his intolerance of critical media questioning.

This government has also shown its willingness to use the Central Bureau of Investigation, its denials notwithstanding, to teach any or all of its opponents a lesson. Whether these opponents are human rights activists like Teesta Setalvad or others, the first step is to call in the agency to investigate alleged financial misdemeanours.

Predictably, the focus shifts to whether the individuals being investigated are really involved in some illegality and not why some individuals are being investigated and not others. Or to the real message to critics behind such actions: we are watching you and will find ways to silence you.

In the case of NDTV, it is clear that neither Narendra Modi nor Amit Shah have forgotten the channel’s coverage of the 2002 Gujarat carnage and the fact that it openly reported on the alleged complicity of the state machinery in allowing the killings to continue. Modi was then the state’s chief minister and Shah a minister in his government. Also, Ravish Kumar, in his popular daily programme Prime Time on NDTV India, has remained a relentless critic of the government and the BJP, although he always manages to lace this with humour and sarcasm. Thus, one would not put it past this government to find ways to cripple NDTV, intimidate it, or shut it down altogether.

Given the cutthroat rivalry between media houses, it is unlikely that any of them will raise this issue as one concerning freedom of the press or circulate petitions supporting NDTV. All media houses are vulnerable if their financial dealings are investigated. They cannot take the chance of falling foul of this government.

What we are witnessing today is the typical arrogance of a party that believes it will rule all of India in the near future. Having won the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in March, the BJP is riding high. In its grand vision of a saffron-tinted India, there is no room for a critical, adversarial media.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Book of Memory and Forgetting

Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat by Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha; New Delhi: Three Essays Collective, 2016, pp 221, Rs 500 (paperback).

Does anyone even remember the communal violence that tore apart Bhagalpur in Bihar in 1989?  According to official estimates, around 250 villages and 50,000 people were affected.  The official death toll was estimated to be over 900 although the unofficial toll was higher.  It was familiar story because it had happened before.  And since then it has happened again.  And will do so in the future.

The partition of India after the British left is now history.  But every day there are partitions taking place in independent India, where people who have coexisted, tolerated difference, even celebrated it, are now being forced into separate territories, their differences highlighted and exacerbated by a dominant politics that has given a new twist to the old divide and rule policy of the British.

Why is it important to record these divisions, these conflicts that recur with such worrying frequency?  Would it not be better to erase these memories and look ahead? 

The writers of this book demonstrate convincingly why incidents of mass violence must be recorded and followed up.  If they are not, then history will only remember the version of the victors while the victims will continue to remain voiceless, unheard, without justice.

In this regard, the book under review serves an important purpose.  It is a record of the communal killings in Bhagalpur in 1989, and in Gujarat 2002. But instead of going over familiar ground, the authors help us understand the legacy of such mass violence.  These recorded memories show us the costs of a broken criminal justice system and the price that victims of mass violence continue to pay for decades.

Although a great deal has been written about the mass violence in Gujarat in 2002, not that much is known about Bhagalpur. Yet, this is a good time to remember it as the issues that triggered the violence are alive today, and are likely to be ratcheted up in the next two years leading up to the next general election in 2019.  In fact, with the Supreme Court having ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to speed up hearings in the two cases on the destruction of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992, the central controversy over the building of the Ram temple on the site of the demolished mosque will remain alive.

Fertiliser of Communalism

Bhagalpur happened before the Babri Masjid was destroyed.  It was one of the many incidents of rioting triggered by the frenzy that the Sangh Parivar built up by mobilising Hindus on the Ram temple issue.  While the embers of the communal killings in Bhagalpur were still glowing, L. K. Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launched a rath yatra to build up support for the temple in September 1990. It culminated in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992 when thousands of kar sevaks converged on the Babri Masjid and carried out their well laid plan to destroy it even as senior BJP leaders, including Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati stood by watching and even cheering.

The commission of inquiry set up by the Bihar government to look at the Bhagalpur riots in 1990 concluded that the Ram temple movement was the trigger that set off the killings and that it was "acting as a fertiliser to give nourishment to the soil of Indian communalism" (p28-29).  The commission also noted the failure of the district administration and the police to control the fraught situation in Bhagalpur.

One of the authors, Warisha Farasat, a trained lawyer, visited Bhagalpur in March 2011, 22 years later, to find that the "wounds are still raw, the hearts charred" (p 31).  Farasat sought out men and women who remembered what happened, who had witnessed the killings, who had attempted to seek justice through the legal system, and who were left only with bitter memories. As in other similar situations after a communal massacre, some of the victims decided to go back to their own villages while others moved on, fearful of returning to a place where even trusted neighbours had turned on them.

The exercise of looking at Bhagalpur and Gujarat together establishes several common threads. Irrespective of the party in power in the state or the centre, the system followed a similar pattern. At the time of the Bhagalpur killings, there was a Congress government at the centre headed by Rajiv Gandhi and a Congress government in Bihar headed by Satyendra Narayan Sinha.  In Gujarat in 2002, when the communal violence occurred, the BJP was in power in the state with Narendra Modi as Chief Minister and a National Democratic Alliance government headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee was at the centre.  In both instances, the party in the state and the centre were the same.

Yet, whether it was a Congress government or a BJP government, the state machinery was equally irresponsive. In both Bhagalpur and Gujarat, the cases filed after the riots by the victims mostly failed and were delayed for so long as to lose any meaning. In both places, victims had similar experiences in the course of seeking justice. For instance, they had a hard time getting FIRs recorded by an unsympathetic police.  Even if they succeeded, they would find later that the information in them was either wrong or incomplete. There were several instances of omnibus FIRs that clubbed the complaints of several victims together even if individually, these men and women had identified their killers by name, as they were people known to them.

Indifferent Prosecution

Many cases were closed because an indifferent prosecution did not put forward a convincing argument while the accused had private lawyers with the ability to browbeat and intimidate the witnesses.  Even where cases were reopened, through the intervention of civil society groups as in Gujarat, or by a different state government as in the Bihar under Nitish Kumar, many of the original witnesses had either turned hostile and were unwilling to testify, or had died, thereby weakening the cases. 

In both Bhagalpur and Gujarat, the story of inadequate compensation for loss of life and property is virtually identical.  In many cases, the information that should have been in the FIRs was simply not there because the police had not recorded it.  There were no surveys to assess damage apart from loss of life, and no one informed the victims of the processes they needed to undertake to access the compensation.  As a result, only a small percentage of the affected actually received the compensation to which they were legally entitled even if these amounts were far from sufficient and did not compensate for the real losses that they had incurred.

The book records the Gujarat government's shocking decision to differentiate between the victims of the Godhra train fire, all Hindus, and of the subsequent killings, all Muslims.  While the families of the former were given Rs 2 lakh, the families of the killings that followed Godhra were given only Rs 1 lakh.  Only after an uproar and civil society intervention did the government concede that both should receive equal amounts, fixed at Rs 1.5 lakh.

In Bhagalpur, where civil society presence was minimal and only one human rights group, the People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) sent a team to study and record the incidents of sexual violence, the fate of the victims was even worse.  In moving testimonies recorded by Farasat, we hear the hopelessness of people who have lost everything -- members of their family, their homes, the tools of their trade -- and given practically nothing by way of compensation. 

In the chapter titled, "The Unhealed Wounds of Bhagalpur", Farasat relates the case of Ali Ahmad of Shahpur Tamouni.  Both his parents were killed by a Hindu mob.  Seven months later, he received a cheque of Rs 3,500 as compensation. "That was the value the state put on two human being killed", writes Farasat (p 89).  Nothing was given to him for the 20 cows and bulls, the agricultural machinery and other valuable and household items that they had lost.

When the Bihar government under Nitish Kumar reopened some of the Bhagalpur cases in 2006, people did receive higher compensation.  But many missed out on this as they did not have the requisite paper work, nor did they know what they should do to avail of the higher amount.  The state too did not help as much as it could have. For instance, even though the government's policy acknowledges that an FIR is not the only proof of murder, and that other evidence must also be taken into account, in compensation cases for loss of life, only the FIR is accepted.  This is despite knowing that in communal riots, police simply do not register FIRs.

The strength of this book is that it does not depend only on secondary information.  It is a follow up to an earlier study by the Centre for Equity Studies based on legal documents, several obtained through Right to Information (RTI) applications.  They looked at Nellie, 1983; Delhi, 1984; Bhagalpur, 1989 and Gujarat, 2002.  This information was assembled in the book "On Their Watch: Mass Violence and State Apathy in India" (Chopra, Jha, 2014). The book under review goes further by including the testimonies of the victims of Bhagalpur and Gujarat recorded by the authors. 

Role of Judiciary

An important point that Prita Jha makes in her section on Gujarat is the role of the judiciary.  Not all judges were hostile, as victims told the writers.  In fact, many felt that the only people sympathetic and willing to listen to their story during the court hearings were the judges as the police was usually hostile, the prosecutors unhelpful and the defence aggressive. 

Jha mentions the remarkable judgment delivered on 29 August 2012 by Jyotsna Patnaik in the Naroda Patiya case in which 97 Muslims were killed in one day.  Patnaik convicted 32 people, including Maya Kodnani, a minister in Modi's government, and Babu Bajrangi of the Bajrang Dal. In her historic judgment, Patnaik calls 28 February 2002, the beginning of the Gujarat violence, as "the day of a cyclone of violence, one of the black chapters in the history of democratic India when violation of human rights and Constitutional rights was publicly done by the assaulters on the victims" (p 167).

In the course of the trial, Patnaik was aware of the problems victims faced in registering their cases with the state machinery and intervened often to ensure that victims would be able to speak instead of being bullied by the defence.  In doing this she was implementing the spirit of the 2004 Supreme Court directive in the Best Bakery case relating to the killing of 14 Muslims. Both the trial court in Vadodara and the Gujarat High Court had absolved all those accused, as the main witness had turned hostile. After going through the proceedings of the courts in Gujarat, the apex court ordered a retrial in a fast track court in Maharashtra headed by Justice Abhay Mahadeo Thipsay, who recognised that the investigation into the case had been defective.  He convicted nine of the accused.   

In its 2004 judgment, the apex court criticised the Gujarat High Court judge who heard the case and also the investigation and prosecution of the case by the state machinery. Justice Arijit Prasayat's observations on the role of a judge in a criminal trial are as pertinent today as they were when the judgment was delivered.  He said,

"If a criminal court is to be an effective instrument in dispensing justice, the presiding judge must cease to be a spectator and a mere recording machine by becoming a participant in the trial evincing intelligence, active interest and elicit all relevant material necessary for reaching the correct conclusion, to find out the truth and administer justice with fairness and impartiality both to the parties and to the community it serves. Courts administering criminal justice cannot turn a blind eye to vexatious or oppressive conduct that has occurred in relation to proceedings" (p 165).

There is a great deal of thoughtful material in this slim book and given the times we live in, what it contains becomes all the more relevant.  Apart from the way in which complicit state authorities have permitted these incidents of mass violence to rage on, the criminal justice system and an unsympathetic state machinery revisits violence on the people who have already suffered it.  This has to be fixed.


Chopra, Surabhi and Prita Jha, 2014; On Their Watch: Mass Violence and State Apathy in India, New Delhi: Three Essays Collective.