Friday, August 16, 2019

Where is that "heaven of freedom"?

Image result for Kashmir conflict images 
 Image courtesy Al Jazeera

India turned 72 on August 15.  It's now "running" 73, as we like to say in India.

But this August 15 has been a strange one. In the building where I live in Mumbai, there is a ritual flag hoisting every year.  The flag is tied up, hoisted on a bamboo pole on the terrace while residents, including the little kids gather around.  The oldest resident is invited to unfurl the flag.

This year, a retired dentist who lives across the corridor from me was persuaded to do the deed.  He tried.  But the flag would not unfurl.  Finally, after some effort at undoing the knot, that should have unknotted automatically, the flag went up and hung limply.

At this, the gathered crowd burst into the national anthem, at the end of which one resident lustily shouted, "Bharat Mata ki Jai".  No one responded.

A woman standing next to me declared it was the happiest day for her life because "Kashmir is finally ours".   She says she is a Kashmiri Pandit. A man chipped in that the flag should have been hoisted in Lal Chowk, Srinagar.

The rest of the gathered assembly quickly lost interest in the proceedings and instead drifted towards a table laden with delicious snacks -- from South Indian idlis, to North Indian jalebis, to Gujarati gathia and the universal Indian samosa. 

After consuming this symbol of national integration, the satisfied gathering headed back into their respective apartments.

The ritual of flag hoisting is meaningless at one level, especially if you are not imbued with patriotic fervour.  Yet for our building, each year it is a reminder of our differences -- of caste, community, religion, language, class -- as well as our ability to somehow tolerate all this, share food and laughter momentarily and get on with our lives.

This year, however, I did wonder how long this veneer of tolerance would last.

The reason is August 5, 2019, which in my view will remain one of the darkest days of the last 72 years.  And that is how old I am.

It made me think back to what I felt on the morning of June 26, 1975 when the full import of the State of Emergency that then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared dawned on us.  During the night all the leading opposition leaders had been arrested. Press censorship was imposed.  And human rights suspended. 

The lines of communication, however, had not been snapped.  Landlines worked, the only form of telephones available at that time. The telegraph office was functioning. Journalists could send out information through teleprinter, press telegrams, or phone-ins.  That much of that information could not be printed eventually because of press censorship is another story.  But we could communicate.

Yet, because newspapers could not publish these reports, and the only source of information was the sanitised government owned radio, All India Radio (AIR), people turned to the BBC and Voice of America to get news of what was happening in India.  It is then that we learned that thousands of people had been arrested. 

All you needed was a portable transistor with a long ariel. I can remember hanging out of my window at home to try and catch the news from these sources.

Anyone who travelled abroad for work, such as airline crew, for instance, was requested to bring back any newspapers or periodicals that carried Indian news.

These stories were then diligently retyped, cyclostyled, and then distributed, usually be hand.  A group of my friends named our four-page leaflet Mukti with all this regurgitated news from international sources. We posted it to people we thought would be interested.  We would take the extra precaution of dropping the brown manila envelopes with Mukti in postboxes located in different parts of the city so that the exact location of the source of this product could not be traced.

These memories came flooding as I read the stories of how journalists in Kashmir are struggling to get the news out in the absence of any form of communication, cellphones, landlines or Internet. That they are walking or driving to places, meeting people, putting together stories, saving them on pen drives, then taking them to a press where they can be printed. 

Regular and popular newspapers like Rising Kashmir and Greater Kashmir have been reduced to two or four pages. Their web editions don't exist at the moment.  But somehow, through the ingenuity of these journalists, they have found ways to continue to produce their papers.  Many of them have been spending many nights in their offices away from their families, missing Eid as this touching story that Bashaarat Masood, the correspondent of Indian Express recounts.

This story of printing curtailed newspapers also brought back memories of Himmat Weekly, of which I was the editor, in 1976.  Censorship had also resulted in printing presses shying away from journals like ours that were continuing to be critical of the government. 

It forced us to appeal for funds from our readers so that we could buy even a small printing press.  A tiny room in an industrial estate in Prabhadevi, central Mumbai, with two treadle machines (that could only print one side of two A4 size papers) was part of the deal.

Himmat managed to raise the funds, bought the space and the machines, and named it Anil Printers, in memory of Anil Kumar, a young man from Delhi who worked with Himmat and died prematurely in a road accident leaving behind his 8-month pregnant wife, Padmini, who worked as a journalist with Himmat. On August 14, Padmini passed away in Pune, leaving behind many memories of those times that were challenging but also stimulating.

But to come back to Anil Printers, the machines could not have printed the 24 page weekly that we produced.  Neither could it have typeset the matter as it only had some typefaces that could be set by hand.

Yet, to justify carrying the print line of Anil Printers, we had to print at least two pages there. The rest of the paper was typeset and printed at another press on the condition that each page of copy sent to them had the clearance stamp of the censor.

By choosing to print the last forme at our own printer, we were able to avoid submitting our editorials and the back page column by the editor-in-chief Rajmohan Gandhi, to the censor. The other printer did not have to worry, as the legal consequences of this matter, if it violated censorship guidelines, would be on our heads.

But we still had to typeset the matter.  We found a way around this by finding someone in south Mumbai who agreed to do this on a linotype machine.  The matter, which consisted of columns of type set in lead, was then carried by hand by one of our peons, by bus over a distance of 10-15 kms to Anil Printers. 

There we would proof read this last and most important part of the journal, make corrections with the help of the handset types available (resulting in a distinct difference being visible between the machine set and hand set type), and then printing the pages on the slow and ancient treadle machines.

Once the ink on the pages had dried, they were packed and carried to the printer where the rest of the magazine had been printed. Here the magazine was bound and ready for dispatch.

Each week it was something of a miracle that by Wednesday morning Himmat Weekly was printed and ready to be sold on the stands, or dispatched by parcel post to different parts of the country.

The parallels between that period of the Emergency and what is going on in Kashmir today are patently obvious.

The opposition has been locked up as in the Emergency.

Jammu and Kashmir's special status has been revoked using the law and Parliament, much as Mrs Gandhi did when she proclaimed the Emergency.

Although there is no direct press censorship today in Kashmir, blocking all means of communication is, in fact, a form of censorship. It has prevented any information about what Kashmiris feel about these developments and what is happening there from reaching the rest of the country.

Once again, as in 1975, the first detailed reports indicating anger and resistance came through the international press -- the BBC, Al Jazeera, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

After strenuous denials, and even accusing these credible news sources of telling lies, the government backed down.

The absence of free flow of information during the 20-month Emergency allowed the rulers to delude themselves that all was normal. In the last 11 days, repeatedly, India's rulers and a pliant press has declared that all is well in Kashmir.

In the initial months after Emergency was declared, very few took the risk of taking on the might of the State.  Yet, there was resistance from the start. It was building up behind closed doors, in whispered conversations, in undetected locations. People were planning and strategising what should be done, not least to ensure that news of the gross human rights violations taking place were broadcast through the underground network.

When Mrs Gandhi lost her seat and the elections in 1977, she was astounded as were her advisors. But not the people. It was their way of rejecting unequivocally what she had done to the country. To assert that freedom and democratic rights were not a luxury; they guaranteed that the voices of the most marginalised and oppressed were heard. 

Today, going by an increasing number of reports from journalists who are not part of the government's spoon-fed media -- which is being hosted in a posh hotel in Srinagar and taken on helicopter rides to "see" how normal and peaceful is the state -- are indicating that the same kind of sullen resistance is building up.  How long it takes to explode remains to be seen.

But to come back to August 15 and Independence Day, being an almost Midnight's Child, I had declared when I was 18 that I was as old as "free India". The key word was "free", not just independent of foreign rule.

Today, I cannot use that term when close to 8 million people in this country are un-free, unable to speak, and with a government and the majority of Indians unwilling to listen to what they have to say.

We were all brought up to recite Rabindranath Tagore's famous poem that ended with, "Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake".

Where is that "heaven of freedom"?

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Delhi 2012 vs Unnao 2019

Originally published in Mumbai Mirror on August 3, 2019

In his column on the Unnao rape case (Mumbai Mirror, August 2, 2019), Dushyant asks, "Why was there so much anger on the streets once upon a time and why is there so little now?" He was referring to the small turnout at India Gate in Delhi on July 29, at a demonstration to express solidarity with the 19-year-old rape survivor, now fighting for her life after a headlong collision in a suspicious road accident.

The public anger over the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi on December 16, 2012 (I have consciously chosen not to refer to her by the fictitious name given by the media), has become something of a golden standard for spontaneous civil society response to an unspeakable crime.

Yet, not all rapes or crimes against women bring forth such a response. Why? This question has been asked before, repeatedly. Women who are poor, Dalit and Adivasi, from Kashmir and the Northeast have often asked why when they are raped, there are no candlelight vigils and protests? Why is one rape more important than another?

There are many different reasons behind the politics of rape. But if we look at the difference between the response in 2012 and today, the reasons include the nature of the crime, the site of the crime, and the dominant politics of the day.

First, in 2012 there was space for protest -- both spatially and psychologically. People were not afraid to occupy the streets and register their anger. The government then was a loose coalition, with many gaping holes that made it approachable, as also vulnerable.

Today, after two general election victories, the Bharatiya Janata Party under Narendra Modi has a brute majority in Parliament, holds power in the majority of states, and has already shown why it need not pay heed to any opposition, political or otherwise. The government and the ruling party project themselves as coterminous with "the nation".  Hence, any questioning or opposition to the former is automatically "anti-national".

Secondly, the 2012 incident took place in the national capital -- the location of political and media power.  Protests there drew the attention of both.

In 2019, the crime occurred in a small town in UP, away from the media spotlight and the centre of political power. While media paid sporadic attention, the BJP-led state government ignored it.

Thirdly, the men charged with the crime and eventually convicted in 2012, were powerless, part of the urban poor, the 'other', people who could be pilloried, blamed, named without any fear of repercussions.

In 2019, the man charged with the crime, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, belongs to the ruling BJP, is an MLA with enormous economic clout. When the predators are powerless, all of us, including the media, can be angry and raise our voices.  When they are the powerful, our response is feeble, if at all.

The voice of the Unnao survivor has only been heard because she took a tremendous risk and threatened to immolate herself before UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's office.  But even that didn't work. Today, despite innumerable petitions and pleas by her to everyone, including to the Chief Justice of India, it is only when she is near death that we have woken up.

What can we learn from these differing responses to crimes against women?

When a crime is performed in public, so to speak -- in a moving bus in Delhi, for instance -- we are shocked and horrified.  When it occurs in the quiet interstices of a home, an office, by men who are supposed to be "protectors", or friends, or relatives, or neighbours, or representatives of the law, we do not hear or heed the cries for help. As also of those women who are invisibled, by virtue of their caste, class or geographical location.

Yet, what happened to the 19-year-old from Unnao represents more than 90 per cent of the crimes against Indian women, perpetrated by men known to them or who wield power over them.  This is what we should be raging about, because this woman from Unnao represents nine out of every ten women in India.