Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Vanishing -- our hills and our wild creatures

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

The Indian Express today carried an editorial on October 31 that speaks of a sobering reality, one that should damp down some of the political and media generated hysteria about the unveiling of the world's tallest statue.

That reality is that one of India's oldest mountain ranges, the Aravallis, which has been around for three billion years, is literally disappearing.  Quoting from the Central Empowered Committee, set up by the Supreme Court to advise it on forest-related issues, the editorial states that "31 of the 128 hills in the Aravallis 'have vanished'."  Not by natural erosion, but because humans with no respect for nature have literally clawed and eaten their way through these hills and reduced them to nothing.

Despite a ban on mining in this range, the Rajasthan government has done little to nothing to stop it. Now that the Supreme Court has stepped in to reprimand it, perhaps something will happen.  But even that will not bring back the 31 hills that have vanished from a range that extends 700 km from the east of Gujarat to Haryana, traversing Rajasthan and Delhi. 

This denudation is not just accelerating the spread of the desert, but also affecting the virtually irredeemable air quality of our nation's capital city and its surroundings. 

What is it about our country that we care so little for our natural heritage and instead waste money, time, emotion on cooked up ideas of "tradition" that must be preserved at all costs?  Who will pause and understand the connections between this kind of destruction and the disaster zones that represent most of the urban habitats in India?  How will tall statutes, superfast trains, energy guzzling construction compensate for this kind of loss that can never be replaced?

Also in the Indian Express today is a report based on the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Living Planet Report 2018.  Apart from an alarming loss of animal and plant diversity, India also faces "loss of above ground diversity, pollution and nutrient overloading, intensive agriculture, fire, soil erosion, desertification and climate change."  That is a long list of problems. Who is going to address them?

The one species that faces absolutely no danger of extermination is that of the politician. The Indian politician must be special breed.  I can bet there are no more than a handful who actually understand what the WWF report is saying, or can come up with one concrete policy prescription for stemming the rapid destruction of India's natural environment, its true and only long-lasting heritage that deserves to be protected and preserved.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Sexual Harassment: The more things change, the more they remain the same

With all the stories of sexual harassment, sexual assualt and inappropriate behaviour by men that are pouring out on social media as part of #MeToo, I was reminded of an article I wrote in 1989 on the subject in Times of India.  

This came to mind when I read the interview with Rupan Deol Bajaj, an IAS officer who was publicly molested by a celebrated police officer, the late KPS Gill, famous for his ruthless putting down of the Punjab insurgency.  Bajaj fought a protracted legal battle against Gill, that she finally won.  But her coming out at that time, when there was no social media, drew attention to the reality of sexual harassment even of powerful women like her.

This article, which appeared before the days of the internet, provoked some strange responses from my male colleagues of that time.  The senior editor, who looked after the edit page, wrote to me after it appeared, that he was surprised to see me writing on such a "tired old subject".  To which I sent back a sharp response, by way of a typed letter as there was no email then, reminding him that women did not think of this as a "tired old" subject even if men did!  Of course, the editor of the paper rapped me on the knuckles for being so cheeky with a senior colleague!

Just for interest, I am reproducing the piece which was published on July 8, 1989 in Times of India on the edit page.

There is one subject which even the most liberal amongst professional men and women prefer to avoid thinking about, leave alone discuss.  That is the uncomfortable fact of sexual harassment in the workplace which thousands of women accept silently as an occupational hazard.

A woman who so much as mentions this unmentionable subject is likely to be called rigid, militant, lacking a sense of humour and, worst of all, a "feminist".  In any case, the majority of women who object to the constant innuendos, propositioning and other forms of harassment reserved for their sex learn to smile their way through life.  The joke, of course, is most often at their expense.  But they believe there is no option.

If a woman holds a fairly senior position in an organisation, she may encounter nothing more than a few off-colour jokes or unnecessarily personal comments about her looks or about what she is wearing during a business meeting.  But, if she is lower down in the hierarchy, for instance, a secretary or a receptionist or a telephone operator or even a sub-editor in a newspaper, then she must learn to bear with much more.

This issue comes into focus everytime a woman picks up the courage to counter it.  When a senior IAS officer, Mrs Rupan Deol Bajaj, objected publicly to the behaviour of the Punjab director-general of police, Mr. K. P. S. Gill, at an official party, predictably she found few supporters.  It was suggested that not only did she lack a sense of humour and was too easily offended but that she was actually playing into the hands of terrorists by casting aspersions on the character of someone so central to national security.

Mrs Bajaj's case is now history.  But it illustrated only too graphically the problems that even a woman in as senior and powerful a position as she is will face if she dares to raise this most uncomfortable of issues.

More recently, Ms Tasneem Sheikh, a lecturer in a Bombay college, has once again drawn attention to this problem by filing a police complaint against the vice-principal of the college where she worked as a lecturer, for allegedly harassing and molesting her.  She bore up silently to several months of propositioning and finally decided to go public when the man allegedly made physical advances towards her.

Tasneem's reward is considerable sympathy from other women, who know what her stand represents, but not much else.  She has lost her job, has had to face the predictable questions about her own character, is facing a one-man inquiry set up by Bombay University to investigate the incident and is awaiting a decision on a case she has filed in the Bombay High Court. It is significant that, like others, Tasneem too first hoped that the issue would be sorted out following a private discussion with the principal of the college. Only when that approach failed did she go to the police and subsequently to the court.

Just as the question of the depiction of women in the media was considered a relatively minor issue until a few years ago but has now been accepted as integral to the struggle to enhance women's status in society, so also the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace will have to be faced squarely by women's groups and others concerned about women.

The issue is trickier than the more obvious ways in which women are ill-treated and harassed. How do you define sexual harassment? It is not just a question of physical assault on women.  The definition should include the constant verbal attacks in the form of innuendos and remarks which are aimed at a person merely because she is a member of the female sex.  It is true that there are similar attitudes reflected towards people of different communities and castes.  But most often, such remarks are made when a person of that particular group is not present for fear of causing affront.  But it is taken for granted with women that they will not fight back.  And, if they do, they are likely to be faced with an even stronger barrage of such remarks.  So many prefer to hold their peace.

Also, if women demand stringent safeguards against behaviour which demeans their status, could it not be used against them to limit their employment opportunities as has already happened with the provisions in the Factories Act which are especially designed for working mothers? Even big industrial houses are limiting the number of women they employ as managers because they do not want to be forced to abide by provisions such as providing creches if they employ more than 30 women.  In their view, employing women is a more expensive proposition and their numbers should, therefore, be kept below the statutory figure which mandates such provisions as creches.

Such a problem cannot be solved by law alone as it reflects the most fundamental prejudices against women that persist despite efforts to bring about an attitudinal change.  While a woman, who dares to make an issue of sexual harassment at work, can take recourse to certain exisiting provisions in the law, such as section 509 of the Indian Penal Code which considers any "attempt to outrage the modesty" of a person/woman a crime, in the long run only a sustained campaign to fight for women's dignity in every respect can make a difference on this question.

Here the role of women, especially those who are in positions where they can afford to raise their voices without fear of losing their jobs, is crucial.  Too often, women have attained high office by diluting their convictions on these issues and by distancing themselves deliberately from those of their sex who are openly fighting for the rights of all women.  That is why you constantly hear prominent women, even those who are onsidered progressive, hastily assuring their audiences, "I am not a feminist".

The issue is simple.  Women are demanding the basic right to be treated with dignity at home and at work.  This right is granted to them by law. Surely society should safeguard this right. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

And meanwhile, there is climate change

In a week when one of the main talking points in India has been the #MeToo campaign and the outing by a dozen women journalists of the sexually predatory behaviour of M. J. Akbar, with whom they worked at the various publications that he edited before entering politics, there is something even more urgent that we need to address.

Last Monday, October 8, the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came out with a Special Report on what would be needed to keep the earth's temperature from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius.  It contains much that we in India need to address, and urgently, apart from the steps that must be taken by the older industrialised countries, the USA in particular, that have brought us to this stage of crisis in the first place.

But sadly, there is little attention being paid to this report in India.  It occupied a few column inches the day after it was released, and since then has virtually disappeared.

Climate change is a mantra our leaders repeat every now and then, usually to assuage the concerns of international bodies, without really acting with determination on policies that we need to put in place here.

This article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, with whom I worked for a short period in 1998, shows us that the situation could become even more alarming than what the IPCC has predicted:

As the authors of this thought-provoking piece point out:

"Climate change should not be a divisive political issue. It is an issue of fundamental, data-driven science, an issue of human tragedy, and an issue of planetary ecosystems in peril. But above all, it is an issue we can still do something about."

Thursday, October 11, 2018

#MeToo in newsrooms will have achieved its purpose if Indian media houses simply enforce the law

We must foster a newsroom culture where everyone is respected for what they bring to the table as professionals, irrespective of their gender, class or caste.

It started two weeks ago with the actor Tanushree Dutta going public with her accusations of sexual harassment against the filmstar Nana Patekar. Now a small leak in a dam is close to bursting. While Bollywood remains an impregnable fortress, with the big names ensuring they protect each another, the code of silence is breaking elsewhere, particularly in the media, of which I have been a part for over four decades.

#MeToo has not come a moment too soon. Sexual harassment in newsrooms has been the elephant in the room and all media managers, including editors, have been skipping around it.

Sexual harassment is a term of fairly recent coinage. In the 1970s, when I started out as a journalist, we did not have the language to describe what we experienced. Many of us shrugged off the strange behaviour of some men, not used to seeing women in a profession that was largely a male bastion, as just another occupational hazard. You took precautions (dressing down, being one of them), tried being as invisible as possible and hoping people would not notice you were a woman! This applied in particular to those of us women who were reporting – very few in those years.

Concepts of feminism regarding the right of women to be treated equal to men were still trickling in and had not yet permeated our ranks. Still, we did feel that it was unjust that merely because we were women, we were repeatedly denied certain beats, certain stories, and were mostly relegated to the editing desk or features sections.

As for off-colour jokes, as we called them then, we would attempt a weak smile and pretend we did not mind, or had not heard. Our desire to be treated as equals meant we had to try and be “one of the boys”, especially if we wanted to report and write on subjects that were exclusively male domains.

Not only was the media different then (it was only print), our society was as well. The most significant factor missing back then in the context of what we are discussing today was social media, and the parallel space it has created for politics, argument, discussion, as also slander, threats and name-calling. Also, the male-female ratio in newsrooms, at least in the English language media, has changed dramatically, although the top positions are still dominated by men.


Relevant experiences

Over the past few days, story after story by women journalists recounting their experiences of sexual harassment at the workplace has come tumbling out. And there have been a few instances of media houses instituting inquiries and asking the named men to step down or go on administrative leave.

Not all of these accounts qualify as sexual harassment in the strictest sense of the term as defined by the law. But even if women are venting about their bad sexual experiences with men outside the workplace, using the anonymity social media offers, we should not dismiss them as silly, a word used by at least one senior woman journalist.

How can a story of sexual assault be silly just because it happened outside the workplace? Why are some senior women journalists infantilising their younger colleagues by referring to them as “girls” and dismissing their experiences? What these women narrate is relevant to them and to many others who identify with what they write. This is what is germane. Not whether their experiences fit in the hierarchy of sexual misdemeanours that we artificially create.

Furthermore, these personal narrations should not be used to discount the very real accounts by women journalists, many of them prominent in the profession now, naming specific editors and senior journalists.

Some senior women journalists have suggested that “creepy behaviour” by men, even in office, should not be seen as sexual harassment. What is termed “creepy behaviour” – not just in office but when women are on assignment, at functions that are an extension of work – is simply not acceptable and has no place in a newsroom. It does mean sexual harassment. The onus is not on women to push off the “creeps”. The onus lies on men, and the managements of media houses, to make sure such behaviour is unacceptable.

Even if the #MeToo campaign in newsrooms subsides after a while, it will have achieved its purpose if media houses wake up to the fact that they need to follow the law and institute mandatory redress mechanisms against sexual harassment. There is no data available on how many media houses actually have functioning internal complaints committees, as required by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013.

But even if media houses have such systems in place, how many work towards implementing the spirit of the law, that is, to ensure women can work as equals without having to, literally, watch their backs? How many have devised ways to inform all employees about the law, about what constitutes sexual harassment, whom they should contact if there is a problem, and how the system works? From conversations with young women journalists, one gets the impression that such diligence is the exception and not the rule.

So, if as a result of #MeToo, media houses, big and small, get their act together and simply implement the law, it will represent a positive step forward.


Time is up

One also hopes this moment will act as a deterrent not only to existing sexual predators in the media, but potential ones as well. They need to wake up and realise that the times have changed, and that their time is up.

On the downside, there could be a backlash against assertive and confident women in the media. There is already talk that employers might be wary of hiring women who come across as such, even though in journalism these are essential qualities.

There is also the danger – and some of it is already happening – of this movement being misused by those who want to target certain men on the opposite side of the political divide.

I am also aware that social media is a bubble restricted mostly to the English language media and, therefore, the urban upper class. The story in the Indian language media is vastly different as has been reported here and here. Yet, even if these women feel they cannot speak out, they are aware of the injustice and they are finding support.

Editors and senior journalists in all media organisations need to wake up and understand that there is now an entire generation of women in the workplace who know their rights, who want to be treated as equal, who are not prepared to put up with being demeaned. These are angry young women and they cannot be pacified with paternalism, or denial.

It will make a difference if we, men and women, and those who own and run media houses, have a conversation – not a slanging match – and work towards putting in place systems that deal with harassment.

At the same time, we have to figure how how to change the atmosphere in our newsrooms, which several younger women journalists describe as “toxic”, so that everyone is respected for what they bring to the table as professionals, irrespective of their gender, class or caste.

I know we are a long way from achieving that in this country, but the media is a place where this can begin given that we think of ourselves as people who try and uncover what is wrong with our society. When the rot lies in our own institutions, we are not exactly well placed to deal with what happens outside. Hence, it is time to deal with this elephant in all our newsrooms.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2018

The man we would like to forget

Image result for images of mahatma gandhi

Some thoughts on Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary

October 2, 2018. Not just another Gandhi Jayanti.  It is the 150th birth anniversary of Mohan Karamchand Gandhi, aka Mahatma Gandhi, aka Father of the Nation (that is India) etc etc.

There is no blaring music in my neighbourhood. Not even a recording of Gandhi's favourite "Vaishnavo jan to".  It is a day off.  In the middle of the week.  Nothing more it would seem.

So in the middle class apartment block where I have lived for almost five decades, which has been home to Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and non-believers, a new generation is turning the clock back.  From a place where tolerance was practiced without effort, they are bringing in rules that divide us on the basis of caste and class, and before long I am presuming on the basis on creed.

My day began when my part-time domestic help informed me that "servants" were not being allowed to use one of the elevators.  Why?  The manager apparently said that henceforth this was the rule.

When I went down to the building office to inquire and register my protest, I was told that a resolution had been passed by "the majority" at the Annual General Meeting to disallow "servants" from using one of the three elevators.  In the 50 years that this building has existed, such a rule had never been introduced.

I found it tragic, and ironical, that on a day when we were commemorating a man who spoke of peace, of tolerance, of compassion for the poor, of building an inclusive India, there is now a generation that thinks nothing of doing precisely the opposite.  Far from having any respect or gratitude towards those who make our lives so much easier through their paid (although often grossly underpaid) work, we want to make sure they are reminded daily of their lower status.  And the justification is that "the majority" voted for this.

The majority -- the same "majority" that is making life impossible for those of us who believe in a just society, where women and men are equal, where you don't discriminate on the basis of caste, class, creed or gender, where you respect those who work with their hands, where people are not divided into "higher" and "lower" castes, a terminology that we continue to accept unquestioningly.

In 2018, not only has India forgotten Gandhi, it doesn't deserve Gandhi.  Without elevating him to a god, or even a mahatma, can we not acknowledge that a good deal of what Gandhi said is relevant for our troubled times?

Fortunately, the anger and sadness I felt at the state of affairs in my building was dissipated when I stepped out to see whether Gandhi was being remembered elsewhere in the city. 

Early this morning,  a motley group of women and men, young and old, met at Chowpatty and then walked to Shantashram, where the Mumbai Sarvodaya Mandal and the Gandhi Book Centre are housed.  Established in 1956, after Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan campaign was launched, Shantashram has been a presence in the Nana Chowk locality for decades.  Since 1972, the one name that is associated with it is that of Tulsidas Somaiya, who has nurtured and developed the place with a dedication that is rare. 

I vividly remember meetings held there during the Emergency in 1975-76 when those of who who wanted to resist and fight authoritarianism met to plan, or just to vent.  It was a safe place, and a welcoming one.  The bonds we forged then have stood the test of time.

Shantashram is a house, unlike the buildings all around it.  It still has wooden balconies and windows, and an old tiled floor.  It is overwhelmed by the noisy and busy Bhaji Galli (vegetable market) on one side, and fronts a really busy road that is virtually impossible to cross.

Across it used to be Shankershett Mansion, where my grandfather lived on the third floor.  That building has disappeared making place for a tower, Orbit Heights and Annexe.  But the sugarcane juice vendor at the top of Bhaji Galli, who would go running up three floors to deliver the frothing, delicious juice whenever my grandfather clapped from his balcony to draw his attention and then gesticulated the number of glasses he wanted, is still there.  So there is change, but there is also continuity.

Today, Shantashram is busy.  In the courtyard as you enter, there is a group of mostly older people.  The oldest of them is the indefatigable, doughty almost 94-year-old socialist and Gandhian, Dr G. G. Parikh.  Along with others, he has decided to fast for the day.  Not just to remember Gandhi, but to remind us of the relevance of Gandhi's actions for these difficult times. 

Dr Parikh asks how many of us, after all these years of knowing about Gandhi's endeavour to build an inclusive India, have Muslim or Dalit friends, have lived in a slum and understood how the poor survive, have felt the need to reach out to people who are not like us?  He points out that this is the way to remember Gandhi, to realise that even after 71 years of Independence, the Dalits still live in a separate section in the majority of villages, that Muslims feel insecure, that there is more hatred between communities.

A floor above sits another indefatigable fighter, Aruna Roy.  She has come to the city for the day to show solidarity with people like Dr Parikh and others.  She has just finished talking with a group of women, led by Shabnam Hashmi, who are travelling from Kerala to Delhi to talk about harmony and healing, something Gandhi would have done had he been alive today. 

Meeting Dr Parikh and Aruna Roy, after the depressing start to my day, was not just uplifting but also humbling.  Their work and commitment remind me that it is possible to be realistic and yet not cynical, that you can be passionate and hopeful about the possibility of change if you set out to do what you can, what you must, even when the problems seem insurmountable.

In the Indian Express today, Avijit Pathak has written a really thoughtful article titled, "Gandhi for the young" in which he writes of his discomfort with the "official" Gandhi that is celebrated while not finding the real/living "experimental" Gandhi anymore.  The article is worth reading in its entirety but let me end with his concluding paragraph that, I believe, says it all:

"On January 30, 1948, when he was walking to attend the prayer meeting in Birla House in Delhi, he was trying to see sanity in the insane Subcontinent.  It is, however, a different story that Nathuram Godse, or the militaristic ideology of nationalist that created him, thought otherwise.  Do the youth realise that killing Gandhi is like killing a dream, a possibility; and this demonic force has not yet disappeared from our society?"

Saturday, August 04, 2018

ABP resignations: This isn’t the Emergency – so why are many media houses falling in line?


The ruling dispensation is determined to ensure that the Indian media is completely in sync with the dominant narrative. 

If you read only the print media, you would be oblivious to the news that two top executives of a leading media house have suddenly chosen to step down. Whether or not it is deliberate policy to avoid reporting such developments in the media, these resignations are ominous enough to invite introspection about the future of the Indian media.

It should come as no surprise that the resignations of two top executives, editor-in-chief Milind Khandekar and popular anchor Punya Prasoon Bajpai of APB News network, the television arm of the Ananda Bazar Patrika group, more than hint at government interference. This government is doing it; previous governments have also done it, albeit in other ways.

But should this be cause for worry for members of the media and larger civil society that believes a democracy needs a media that is reasonably protected from direct or indirect government interference? They should. For even if this development is not new or unusual, it is disquieting.

These days, each time such an instance comes to light, the almost-predictable response is to invoke the Emergency of 1975 when the Congress party government of Indira Gandhi imposed press censorship on the media. Today, even if government or ruling party pressure on the media does constitute indirect curbs on the freedom of expression, the comparison ends there. Indira Gandhi used existing laws to impose and justify press censorship. There was a face to the censor – an official who sat in a government office, or representatives who were sent to newspaper offices. The government felt compelled to issue what it termed “guidelines” that the media was supposed to follow.

There is no such structure in place today. There is no official censor. You have a government that swears by the freedom of the press. And yet there is increasing evidence that the long arm of the government is finding ways to compel media houses that question or expose its wrong-doings to fall in line.

This government deflects criticism or conjecture about pressure on the media to conform by constantly emphasising that the Congress party was much worse, especially during the Emergency. Yet there is a big difference between the events of the past and the developments today.

This generation, which gets its news on smart phones and will probably never know the joy of the tactile feel of holding a newspaper, is probably be unaware that despite the guarantee of freedom of expression in the Constitution, India passed a law in 1956, the Newspaper (Price and Page) Act. This restricted the number of pages a newspaper could print and the price it could charge the customer. It was legislated on the premise that smaller newspapers needed to be protected from the large media houses that could charge less for bigger papers because they had deep pockets. So the ostensible purpose was salutary – to protect the small against the big.

Subsequently, in 1972, under the government’s newsprint policy, a cap was placed of a maximum of 10 pages that a newspaper could print each day. Following the same argument of protecting smaller papers, in 1981 the government also introduced graded duties on imported newsprint, charging bigger circulating newspapers more. This was challenged in the Supreme Court by several large newspaper houses who argued that the policy impinged on their fundamental right to freedom of expression. They won the case.


Facilitating diversity

This history has to be seen against the background of the belief that prevailed in those bad old “socialist” days, as some would have it, that the media space should accommodate the small players and that the state should facilitate this. The state saw its role in interfering, if you will, in the infrastructure of the media. It even laid down the ratio of advertising to editorial content, something that one cannot imagine being policy in this day and age. Despite this, the bigger newspaper houses continued to prosper (although they constantly complained about government restrictions).

In fact, given the hostile relations between the government and some of the big media houses, it is an irony that even though they chafed at government restrictions on the grounds of freedom of expression, they quietly fell in line when actual censorship was imposed during the Emergency. On the other hand, some of the smaller publications, which should have been beholden to government for “protecting” them from the big media players, vehemently fought against censorship.


Job security

The other area where media houses resented government policy was in labour practices. Under the Working Journalists and other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1955, which the court upheld in 1958 and again in 2014 when newspaper owners challenged it, journalists had job security. They could not be hired and fired without notice and reason. Wage boards were set-up to determine the salaries newspaper employees should be paid according to the size of the media house.

All this is history now with the majority of journalists hired on short-term contracts that can be terminated at short notice. This lack of job security ensures that on the whole, individual journalists avoid falling foul of the owners of their establishments. Although those with a higher profile and greater social capital can take risks, not many do.

In 21st century India, media houses are free to expand, hold cross-media interests in print and television, and flood their newspapers with so many advertisements that you have to hunt for the articles. As a result, the business of news is no more “all the news that’s fit to print”, but only the news that sells the “product” in the “market”.

If there is government interference today with media content, it is entirely covert. You cannot prove any quid pro quo. For instance, it was widely suggested that last year the former editor of the Hindustan Times, Bobby Ghosh, was asked to leave because the owners got word that the party in power was unhappy with some of the paper’s coverage, in particular the Hate Tracker that recorded hate crimes that had taken place since 2014. There is no way to prove what leverage the ruling party or the government used on the owners of the paper. But the coincidence of Ghosh’s departure and the pulling down of the Hate Tracker online could not be missed.

As an aside, it is worth remembering that in 1975, even before Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, the much-respected BG Verghese was asked to step down as editor of Hindustan Times because of an editorial he wrote that was critical of India’s takeover of Sikkim. The paper then was known to be close to the party in power. 


Unanswered questions

In the case of the recent development in the ABP News Network, we do not know what kind of pressure was put on the owners to nudge the two top journalists to step down and a third to go on leave. The Ananda Bazar Patrika group is a family-owned business with its primary interest in media. It also owns Ananda Bazar Patrika, the leading Bengali newspaper, and the English language, The Telegraph. ABP News Network is the result of the merger of Star News, which was owned by Star India, and ABP Ltd when the two set up a joint venture, Media Content and Communication Services in 2012. Subsequently Star India pulled out.

ABP News Network has a national profile, unlike the group’s print publications that are largely restricted to the east, as it owns Hindi, Bengali and Marathi television news channels. Yet, it does not have the reach or spread of some of the larger media houses. Also unlike The Telegraph, which has been consistently critical of the Modi government, ABP News was not known to be so. Hence why this pressure on it after just one report about how a woman farmer was tutored to tell a positive story during the Prime Minister’s Mann ki Baat interaction with farmers in Chattisgarh? And why did it succumb? The answers will remain in the realm of conjecture.

The reason this latest attempt to force a media house to fall in line is worrying is that it establishes, if indeed that were needed, that we have at the helm of affairs in India a party that wants not just a Congress-mukt Bharat, but also a free-media-mukt Bharat.

There is little doubt now that through encouraging friendly corporations to take control of the media, and by way of some arm-twisting, the ruling dispensation is determine to ensure that the Indian media is completely in sync with the dominant narrative and that His Master’s Voice, or rather his Mann ki Baat will resonate across media houses.


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

In Pa Ranjith’s ‘Kaala’, a glimpse of what Dharavi truly is – and what it could have been

The Rajinikanth starrer engages with many of the real issues facing the Mumbai neighbourhood, says the author of a book on Dharavi. 


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“Yeh Dharavi toh jophadpatti ki rani hai” (This Dharavi is the queen of slums). This is what a woman who lived on the pavement opposite Jhoola maidan in Byculla told me in the mid-1980s when I spoke to her. Today, she has been moved out of her house to a distant suburb, but the “queen” of Mumbai’s slums now has a “king”, by way of Rajinikanth in the recently released Pa Ranjith film Kaala.

I must admit first that I have never seen a Rajnikanth film. My loss, I am told. But I did watch Kaala, mostly because it is set in Dharavi (the Hindi dubbed version, although I would have preferred the original Tamil version with sub-titles to get the full flavour).

Although the director has taken cinematic licence in telling the story of Dharavi’s redevelopment through two main characters, he has managed to engage with many of the real issues that people living in this place that is wrongly called a “slum” face every day of their lives.

Dharavi is, as one of the characters in the film says, a mini-India, something I was told repeatedly by the people I interviewed for my book Rediscovering Dharavi (Penguin, 2000). Ranjith brings this out without making a big point about it. You can see the mix of communities although the film is centered on the Tamil Dalit community, the Adi Dravidas who came to work in the tanneries that dotted Dharavi till the mid-1980s. In fact, a fleeting shot in the film shows a wooden barrel that was used in small tanneries that continued to function till the end of the ’90s, even after the big ones had been compelled to relocate because of pollution control laws.

Ranjith’s film also establishes that Muslims, Hindus, Dalits and other castes have coexisted in Dharavi and that the clashes that took place at various times were often because of external provocation. The scene where a piece of pork is flung into a mosque and ultimately results in a clash between Hindus and Muslims is an illustration of this. On December 6, 1992, the Shiv Sainiks took out a cycle rally through Dharavi celebrating the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. This was the provocation for the communal rioting that followed even though Muslims and Hindus had lived together with a high level of tolerance till then. There were provocations and minor skirmishes before this but not on the scale of 1992-93.

Above all, Ranjith has underlined the fact that Dharavi is predominantly a settlement of Dalits. Although the film centres on the Tamils, in fact there are Dalits from Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and probably elsewhere. Dharavi is a reserved Scheduled Caste constituency. At a time of growing Dalit assertion, this reality is often forgotten. Ranjith reminds us in different ways of this without making it the main theme of the film.

Ranjith also reminds us that Dharavi was literally “made” by the people who live there. Therefore, the repeated assertion by Rajnikanth’s character that Dharavi belongs to them. It was a swamp, a place where there could be no human settlement. Yet over time, the very people who came to live there filled it up. The side of present-day Dharavi touching Sion and the one next to Mahim were separated by that swamp. Today, you would not be able to tell.

This is part of Dharavi’s history, one that is often overlooked. The value that people have added to this land has never been recognised by those who view it as prime real estate, a realisation that first dawned in the mid-’80s when Bandra and Kurla were being developed into one business district. Dharavi lies just across the Mithi river from Bandra and Kurla; hence its importance.

It is, as people in the film state, located virtually in the centre of Greater Mumbai, although it once was the periphery. That is another reason why the eyes of the real estate developers light up when they think of the value of the land where Dharavi is located.
What makes Kaala stand out is also that it has not resorted to making some kind of generic slum and passing it off as Dharavi. Although Danny Boyle did not say that Slumdog Millionaire (2008) was about Dharavi, a lot of people presumed it was. Yet, anyone who knows Dharavi, and lives in the Mumbai where informal settlements are an integral part of the city, would have recognised the mixed shots from different “slums” that were used to create one generic urban poor settlement in that film.
Ranjith does not do this. Barring a couple of shots that were clearly not of Dharavi, he tries to stay true to the place.

I came out of the film thinking, “I wish, I wish.” I wish that the urban poor were united enough to fight against those trying to oust them from the land they built. I wish that greed, corruption and politics did not divide them so that they end up working against their own best interests. I wish journalists could play the role the sole journalist plays in the film of exposing the nexus between the police, politicians and builders. I wish the Dharavi story could have held up an example for other urban poor settlements across India.

The reality, sadly, is different. The residents of Dharavi are divided along political lines. They have different demands, and follow those most likely to fulfill what they want.

Also, it is interesting that Kaala is about Dharavi’s redevelopment. Ironically Dharavi’s identity is linked to the plan to “redevelop” it. Since 2004, when the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan was mooted, people living there have identified with the place in a much more immediate way. In 1999, when I spent time in Dharavi to interview people for my book, I found many of the older people identified either with the village or district from where they or their forefathers had come, or with the specific area where they lived.
So it would be Kumbharwada, or Kamraj Nagar, or Ganesh Mandir, or Muslim Nagar, or Matunga Labour Camp. Or Tirunelvelli, Jaunpur, Junagadh. This sense of Dharavi as a specific settlement with its own identity was not evident.

In fact, I recall a conversation with an elderly man in the Matunga Labour Camp who was a Valmiki from Haryana. When I asked a question about Dharavi, he interrupted and asked me, “What is this Dharavi you are talking about?”

Yet already by then, the younger people expressed themselves as being from Dharavi. So the identity of Dharavi had begun to emerge, but I would argue that it was consolidated once the state saw it as a piece of real estate to be developed under the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan.

Coming back to the idea of a “King” of the “Queen” of slums, for a film with a superstar like Rajinikanth, that works. But once again, the reality is somewhat different. In the ’80s, Dharavi did see gang warfare in the heyday of Varadarajan Mudaliar (on whom Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan, with Kamal Hasan, was based). But much of that kind of dramatic clash of opposing gangs ended once prohibition ended, and Mudaliar was chased out of Maharashtra.

That is not to say that they are no slumlords, or local strongmen, with their respective gangs. They do exist, as they do in any such settlement. But the kind of violence depicted in the film is a part of history, and not daily existence in Dharavi.

Builders and their political backers have several other ways to intimidate and coerce Dharavi’s residents to sign on the dotted line for redevelopment. But that too has been frozen ever since the entire area was designated a special zone for development under the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan. There are no more buildings coming up under the Slum Redevelopment Scheme that applies to the rest of Mumbai.

Dharavi in fact is caught in a limbo – between the Maharashtra government’s grand designs of converting it into a high-end residential and business enclave and the reality of lakhs of people continuing to live in sub-optimal conditions and hoping for a change. The Slum Redevelopment Scheme cannot be implemented there and the redevelopment plan is a dead horse that the government continues to flog, its latest effort being the attempt to bring in some interested parties from Dubai.

Meanwhile, the people of Dharavi live in a schizophrenic world where there are some high-rise buildings, mostly adjacent to main roads, while the interiors remain virtually as they were for the last two decades. And the city around them continues to develop and “redevelop”.


Friday, June 01, 2018

Seeking controversy: Germaine Greer

The iconoclastic and contrarian feminist Germaine Greer has once again kicked off a controversy with her remarks on rape at the ongoing Hay Festival in Britain where she spoke.  In this article in The Guardian she argues that the punishment for rape should be reduced.

She must have raised many hackles when she stated:

“Instead of thinking of rape as a spectacularly violent crime, and some rapes are, think about it as non consensual … that is bad sex. Sex where there is no communication, no tenderness, no mention of love.”

The problem is that she says some shocking things but her aim is not just to shock.  This is the way she thinks, and she makes no apologies for this.

I met her and interviewed her in 2015 when she was invited to Mumbai to speak at the Tata Lit Live literature festival.  She was energetic at 76, overflowing with strong opinions and at 10 in the morning, sat perched on a window sill with a glass of red wine in her hand and held forth.

Here is the interview for those who are interested:

Iconoclastic, controversial, contrarian, outspoken, unafraid, feminist – each of these adjectives fits the woman who gave us The Female Eunuch. At 76, Germaine Greer has lost none of her passion. Nor her ability to shock. In Mumbai to attend Tata Literature Live this past weekend, she declares that her 1970 book that woke up so many women around the world is actually one of her worst. There are many more quotable quotes. But it would be a mistake to condense her views to one-liners, to the television sound bites that exemplify today’s journalism. They can’t be.

Perched on a window seat at Prithvi House in the western suburb of Juhu, Greer spoke about equality, liberation, abortion, growing old as a woman and Hillary Clinton.

Greer does not like Hillary Clinton. She is not excited about the possibility of the United States getting its first woman president. Why is she running, she asks. “Because she was married to a president? It might as well be in Bangladesh. It’s ridiculous. The assumption that she’s the only woman in that position is nonsense. She was not even very good at any of the very important jobs that she was given. And she has a conspicuous lack of charm. People don’t like her. But they did like Bill. And they’ll get Bill if they get Hillary. At least in the Orient, the husband is dead. But in this case, the husband is in the background.”

The Orient? We don’t hear that too often.

Representation in corporations

Her irritation with Hillary Clinton apart, Greer has a larger point to make about equality. She has declared that she is a “liberation feminist” and not an “equality feminist”. Why this binary?

“They’re fundamentally different. Equality is a conservative aim. It means you have an idea of what you want for women, which is what men have got. But what have men got? They’ve got the corporate world. They’ve got the competition. They’ve got the corporate structure that gives you one top honcho, and everyone else struggling to get up there and falling by the wayside. In the corporate world, every man is a loser. Because that’s the way it’s constructed. In the end it’s the corporation that wins. Now a woman can go into the corporation and become a corporation man. Mrs Thatcher did that. Worked pretty well. And she’s the most bellicose, war-like leader we’ve ever had. And guilty of a war crime in the Falklands war.”

Greer is especially critical of the idea of representation of women in everything – corporate boardrooms, the armed forces, other professions. “For example, in England we hear all the time how women have to be introduced to the boardroom. How the boardroom must be 30% female and you think, why 30%? What’s so holy about 30%?”

What’s the point of such representation if it does not lead to any change, she asks. “There is actually no point. It becomes window dressing. You look feminist because you’ve got women doing things. But they’re not doing anything for women. If they were to upset the priorities of the corporation, they wouldn’t be there.”

Treatment of elderly women

Expanding on why the concept of equality with men should not drive feminism, she suggests we look at the areas where men cannot be included, such as reproduction. There is no talk of equality in the birthplace, she points out. As a result, she argues, in England, safe-birthing facilities, such as maternity centres, are neglected. Many are closing down. And women who choose natural birth methods are suffering. There are not enough midwives. As a result, obstetricians get their way.

Diseases like cervical cancer that afflict only women also expose the pointlessness of the equality debate, she stresses. In England, during some years there were as many as 300,000 false positive tests for cervical cancer, exposing women to unnecessary, and sometimes dangerous, medical procedures. But these issues are not debated because these are areas where men are not present.

Greer’s current area of concern is the treatment of elderly women in countries like England and Australia. “You know who we lock up? Old women,” she said. “They have no rights. They are incarcerated. Because there is not enough staff to look after them, and they might be demented, their civil rights are completely in abeyance. The matter has never been discussed in any public forum because nobody gives a shit. If I point out that these women have worked for other people all their lives, they are now frail and elderly and can’t live in their houses because they can’t afford to heat them, they now come here to be looked after and what do you do? You imprison them. They don’t go out. Ever.”

Stand on abortion

In her opening address at the literature event in Mumbai, Greer came dangerously close to sounding like a pro-lifer, someone who is against a woman’s right to abortion, when she called the fight for abortion rights “a historical accident” and suggested that in the end it has facilitated a kind of eugenics with surrogacy and made-to-order babies. “Feminists must realise some of their victories were pyrrhic,” she said, and that there was no getting away from the fact that “abortion is killing, don’t pretend it isn’t”.

So what is her position on abortion, including sex-selective abortion?

“Oh well. This is a really ticklish point. We’re dealing with female agency. And part of the decision-making when it comes to sex-selective abortions, is made by the woman as well as the man. Or maybe not the man at all,” Greer responded.

But in India, it is not a choice women make independently, I point out, that it is “the family”, including the husband, which decides that it is better to abort a female foetus than give birth to a girl.

Greer says she has revised her position on this issue after she learned of a Sikh woman in England and the choice she faced. After four and a half years of marriage, during which she gave birth to three girls, she found she was pregnant again. When she went for her scan after 12 weeks, she discovered it was a girl, again. She asked the doctors to terminate the pregnancy but was refused as it was against the law. So she went to a traditional birth attendant. And bled to death from a botched abortion.

“What annoyed me”, said Greer, “was that the coroner who sat on the case said she brought it on herself. It was her fault because she tried to do something immoral, which was to terminate a pregnancy because of the sex of a child. Damn it. You can terminate a pregnancy for the simple reason that you don’t want to bear the child. And you’re not going to explain it to someone who’s not even remotely involved. ”

Greer’s position on abortion remains unchanged but nuanced. “I’m not against abortion. But it’s even worse than that. The way people talk about the liberalisation of the access to abortion is to make it sound like a privilege. It isn’t a privilege. If you really can’t have a child, not because you don’t want to have one, but because you’ll lose your job, lose your place at university, or your parents will kick you out, or your boyfriend will dump you, if everything is pushing you towards the decision, you will hurt, you will be guilty, because you will not have wholly accepted your own behaviour. You’ll be saying, look what you made me do. I didn’t want to do that. Women’s lives are difficult.”

Don't imitate men

About the latest controversy, where she said that transsexual men undergoing surgery to become women are not women, Greer is unapologetic.

“Do I say to them, excuse me, you know women’s lives are really quite difficult. Be a 12-year-old and find blood on your pants and get someone to explain to you that you’re going to bleed like that every 28 days. And you think, what happened to my body. It used to be fine. And now look at it. And then you go through the whole thing of having to worry about your fertility. Worrying how to manage it. Worrying about whether you’re pregnant or you’re not pregnant.”

So women should not worry about equality with men, and transsexual men are not women. But what does Greer mean by “liberation”?

“It means to set women free to develop their own potential and not to imitate what the men have established. To discover how to bring their own notions of what is appropriate, what is worthwhile, how we should live, how we should interact,” concluded Germaine Greer as she finished off her morning glass of Indian red wine.

Published in

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Times Now’s Tejpal tapes mark a new low for journalism. Now, it’s the turn of viewers to speak up

What explains the channel’s decision to air footage submitted as evidence in an ongoing ‘in camera’ trial? 

Talking about ethics to some Indian television channels is like casting pearls before swine. But as viewers and members of the media, we need to keep raising concerns that to these channels may seem irrelevant. So, on Monday, when Times Now, a channel that claims to be the most-watched English news channel in India, decided to make a 2013 rape case the main focus of its 8 pm prime time show, one had to ask: Why? And why now?

The answer to the latter question can only be conjecture. But is it mere coincidence that in the week that the Cobrapost expose was the big story, the TV channel decided to expend its abundant energy on raking up the rape allegations against former Tehelka journalist Tarun Tejpal, a case that is being tried in camera – that is, away from the public and the press? Did Times Now make a deliberate decision to divert attention from a story that warrants discussion in the media? As we know, the best way to kill a story is to ignore it completely.

Cobrapost’s sting operation allegedly reveals that many mainstream media outlets, including the group that owns Times Now, are open to accepting payment for content promoting Hindutva to push the political agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Incidentally, only a handful of mainstream media organisations (essentially those not exposed in the sting) reported on the Cobrapost story. The conspicuous silence of the rest was something that the BBC commented upon. As the BBC article rightly pointed out, “It is a potential scandal that claims to strike at a key pillar of Indian democracy – the freedom of the press – yet it is barely being reported in the Indian media.”

A more relevant question than why Times Now chose the Tejpal story at this particular point is: how does the channel justify airing evidence from a case that is being tried? The former editor of Tehelka was charged with rape after a colleague accused him of sexually assaulting her during a conference organised by the magazine in November 2013 in Goa.

The case is finally being tried this year and details of the trial cannot be reported on without court consent, because it is being heard in camera. So how can a news channel that claims it is doing journalism explain its decision to air CCTV footage from a hotel lobby – ostensibly showing Tejpal and the survivor entering and exiting the elevator where the crime allegedly took place – and discuss it with a bunch of panelists as if they were judge and jury? Apart from it being illegal, what is the story here?

Great depths

As I mentioned earlier, perhaps there is not much point in talking about ethics or decency to news channels that have crossed all boundaries in their desire to grab eyeballs, but even by their abysmal standards, this surely is a new low.

Did the editors of Times Now even pause for a second to consider the impact of this programme on the survivor, who has had to face many trials outside the courtroom because she summoned up the courage to take on a powerful man? What is the message Times Now sought to send out to other survivors who consider taking a similar step? That they are fair game not only to those powerful men, but also to a powerful media?
Secondly, Times Now and several other Indian news channels claim they are in the business of journalism. They are not. Even a rookie journalist can tell them that they have forgotten what constitutes journalism. They are manufacturing content to sell their channel. That is not journalism. And that is the approach that can be sold to the highest bidder. The Cobrapost expose held out no surprises to those who have worked in mainstream media and watched its steady decline from doing journalism to providing saleable content.

We, the people

Apart from fairness, impartiality, truth and accuracy as well as accountability, humanity is one of the core principles of journalism. On all these counts, these channels fail miserably. How things have reached this level is another story, one that needs to be addressed if we believe that an independent and impartial media is essential to the survival of democracy in this country.

For now, we need to seriously consider what can be done. Every few months, television news channels sink to lower depths and trigger some outrage, mostly on social media. But then it’s back to business as usual. As viewers and readers, do we have any options to confront and challenge such gutter-level journalism which is justified as something people want?

It is time that the people who do not want this make it known. Media watchdogs and even courts can play a role in checking what is patently illegal. But ultimately, it has to be the readers or viewers who assert their right to decency and ethics and boycott such products. Media houses for whom only the bottom line matters, even if it means feeding viewers muck, need to be told that enough is enough.

Published on on May 29, 2018


Saturday, April 14, 2018

Remember Kathua

I am posting this on my blog.  It says what I feel with all that's going on.  And I wrote it although it is an editorial in the Economic and Political Weekly and hence unsigned.  Read it following on from my earlier piece. This is the link:
Stop and ask, can depravity, brutality and injustice be justified by religion and politics?

The brutal murder and serial rape of an eight-year-old Bakherwal-Gujjar girl living in village near Kathua, 72 km from Jammu, is horrific enough in all its detail.  But what has emerged ever since the police investigation led to the arrest of the alleged perpetrators of the crime is even worse, for it has exposed the fault lines in our society.  How have we reached a point where the rape and murder of a child is used to fuel communal hatred and promote politically sanctioned impunity for criminals?

The gruesome details about what happened to this child between 10 January when she disappeared to 17 January when her brutalised young body was found is terrifying because of what it represents in terms of human depravity. That a child could be abducted, drugged, confined in a temple, repeatedly beaten and raped, and then murdered and thrown out is horrific enough.  What makes it worse is that the perpetrators included members of the local police. One of them even joined the search party with her parents after they complained that she was missing, all the time aware of where she was and what was being done to her.

Once the state government finally instituted an investigation after the child's body was found, and the suspects, including the policemen, apprehended, politics took over. Instead of condemning the rape and murder, and demanding justice, politicians and even lawyers have taken up for the accused, cast doubts on the ability and the impartiality of the Jammu and Kashmir police, and demanded that the central government hand the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). This open display of support for rape suspects is unprecedented with the Hindu Ekta Manch, supported by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), marching with the national flag demanding justice for the accused and lawyers physically trying to prevent the police from filing the charge sheet.  In all this, the fact that a young child was raped, tortured and murdered seemed almost beside the point.

There is, of course, a larger political context behind these developments. For the BJP, in a coalition with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Hindu-majority Jammu has given it a firm foothold in the state. The communally polarised politics between Jammu and the Kashmir valley has remained undiminished despite this uneasy coalition.  Thus, it is not surprising that the rape of a child, who happened to be Muslim, and the arrest of suspects, who are all Hindu, has laid the ground for playing the communal card. That this can be played out on the savaged body of a young child surely represents a new low even in Indian politics.

Yet, even as we express outrage about the turn of events around this rape and murder, we need to consider the larger context. First, that child sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence are rampant in this country.  Statistics do not tell half the story. Women and girls are attacked, tortured, sexually assaulted in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, on the street, in the fields, in the forests -- anywhere.  Stronger laws have made little difference.  In 2012, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) was enacted. In 2013, the rape laws were tightened and the death sentence introduced.  Despite this, the incidence of rapes and child abuse has not decreased. There is a systemic problem.  Laws can be effective only if the systems that implement them work.

Second, we must also remember that this incident took place in Jammu.  In the same state, in the Kashmir valley, there have been countless rapes of women and girls that almost never trigger outrage in the rest of India.  Apart from the usual problems of justice delivery, women there also have to contend with the provisions of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that gives immunity to men in uniform from such crimes.

Third, when politics injects the poison of hate between communities, it is women who are targeted to teach the other side a lesson.  We have seen this played out in many locations since Partition and it has not stopped. But the new twist today is the confidence with which the purveyors of hate operate knowing that their supporters have the power to protect them.  How else can you explain the brazen nature of the support for the accused in the murder of this child?

So, apart from demanding that justice be done in this case, it is essential that there is a demand for the systemic changes that are needed to ensure that other girls do not undergo the same fate. The first port of call for victims is the police station.  Here they find no sympathy.  Even if the case is noted, and investigated, there is still little hope that there will be justice.  Lackadaisical investigation and indifferent lawyers virtually ensure that these cases will fail. Our justice delivery system is broken and needs to be fixed.

We thought 16 December 2012 when a young woman was gang-raped in India's capital city, was some kind of turning point in the conversation about crimes against women.  This little girl's death should surely be another such occasion, one that makes every Indian stop and ask about the direction in which our society is headed.  Is it going to be one where depravity, brutality, injustice are accepted and justified in the name of religion and politics? Or will basic humanity prevail to inform us that all lives are precious and that criminality knows no religion.