Jun 122014
 

An edited version of this appeared in today’s dna

Until a few weeks ago, most of us had a barely passing familiarity with Baduan in Uttar Pradesh.  Around 200 kms and less than a 4 hour drive from the national capital, Delhi – the area hit the headlines after a particularly brutal rape and murder of two teenaged girls.  It is an old story, told again with callous violence and viciousness. Two cousins – some accounts put them at 12 and 15, others at 14 and 15 – had to attend to nature’s call. They had no toilet in their house and they went into the fields to relieve themselves. They never returned home. Their bodies were found hanging, with their own dupattas, from a mango tree. They had been raped, strangled and strung up like the spoils from a shikaar. 2 young men from a neighbouring village, and two police officers are believed to be the culprits.

This is not the first rape in India, and it is unlikely to be the last.  A report by PRS Legislative in 2011, looked at the abysmal state of women’s safety in India. According to the report there were 23,582 rapes in India – almost 65 rapes on a daily basis and around 3 every hour. But, most experts believe that the number of rapes is underreported. There are a number of reasons for this – the starting point of which is the social stigma assigned to the victim of the rape, and the perception of her having lost her honour.  Rather than being seen as a survivor of a heinous crime, she is seen as the provoker of the crime. And, her gender is enough to stigmatise her for life. Different views are put forward – maybe she was dressed provocatively, maybe she led the boys on, maybe she had ‘loose’ morals, maybe she said no but meant yes. We have all heard these comments from people who should know better – politicians, policemen, ‘elders’ of the community and the like.

At the core of the debate on women’s safety lie 3 main issues. The first is the availability of safe spaces – sanitation within the house or rather the lack of it or street lighting or the lack of it, both indicate the lack of safe spaces. The second is the lack of spaces where the two sexes can meet socially on an equal footing – schools, colleges, employment, and social occasions. And the third problem is a age old problem of the distinctions in social hierarchies and the social acceptance of the rapist and the social boycott of the victim.

The one thing your realise when you travel the length and breadth of India – visiting small hamlets and villages, is the lack of sanitation. There are few public toilets that are usable, even on state or national highways. Those that do exist make you fear attack from scorpions and snakes, not to mention the fact that they have doors that don’t shut and windows that give your full view of the world, and the world a view of you –without any means of securing your privacy. Schools and colleges – public spaces where both genders congregate – show a similar problem.  Toilets, and the privacy to use them, are such an important facet of safety and we don’t discuss this problem enough. The norm is to use the world at large as a public toilet – apart from issues of health and hygiene that crop up – there is also the very grave issue of safety. The first thing to do is to address this. Young girls, even if they lived in the most secure state in the universe, should have the right to perform their bodily functions in relative privacy. This is factor that most of us, living in relative middle class comfort in cities, take for granted. Associated with this is the issue of darkness. Unless you have electricity our towns and villages are going to be in dark. And darkness encourages the breach of law.

Where boys and girls grow up together, studying together, sharing playtime – and understanding and respecting differences there tends to be a natural evolution of gender sensitisation. On the other hand when girls and boys are segregated and social intercourse is considered taboo, you have scenarios where stereotypes and older mindsets are perpetuated. The second important factor to help build a safer world for women is creation of spaces where they are not just considered to be equal, but also where their  individuality and personal preferences are respected.   The creation of these spaces needs to be backed by education not just of young boys and girls, but also their parents, teachers, elders in the community, and administration.  Police reforms and Judicial reforms would help, but unless society as a whole is in synch with the need for social reform that prevents young men from seeing young women as prey for the taking – no amount of police on the street or stringent punishment is going to help.

And lastly, there is a problem social hierarchies and what is considered acceptable behaviour. While caste is a factor as is class, there is a third problem, and that is the unwillingness of those who wield power to bring about change. Caste and class reform may take generations and women’s safety cannot be held in abeyance till that is achieved.  And, this is where the Indian State needs to step in. With the recent changes in law rape trials are speedier and more stringent. We have seen the effects of this in both the Nirbhaya and the Shakti Mills rape case – due process was followed and the guilty were punished. This needs to extend to the smallest hamlet in India. Women will be safer, if the system punished the guilty – without fear or favour of powerful local interests.  However,  as long as the guilty walk around with their heads held high and their chests puffed up with pride, and the victims cower in their houses in shame – nothing will change.

May 312014
 

An edited version of this appeared in the DNA last week -

And, we have a brand new Government of India, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).   This is a Government that has the undisputed mandate of the people. There are those who may argue, till the cows come home, about percentage polled and number of votes; but the fact remains that we are a first past the post system and the BJP has won more seats than everyone else put together.

As data comes in, and people conduct various forms of post poll analysis, and as reporters talk to ordinary voters, and as you yourself interact with more and more people what is evident is that people voted for Mr. Modi rather than the party; and that they voted against the Congress, UPA partners and major regional satraps who can routinely hold the Central Government to ransom. Mr.Modi’s victory is as much about the decimation of the Congress, as it is about marginalising State level parties, and reducing them to absolutely local level players, in those areas they still exist. The AIADMK, and the BJD are prime examples of this – they won, but they are limited to their State, with their central influence severely marginalised. In other cases the political graveyard beckons – be it the Samajwadi Party or the Communists, be it the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)  or the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Even NDA allies who won, won less on their merit and more as a result of the BJP election juggernaut. What Mr.Modi has done, is reduced them to near irrelevance, at least in the short run. In most of these cases the parties have deeply frayed their connect with the voter base, and representation of  local level aspiration and ‘pride’, and have become a family run business. The moment a Party, that is supposed to represent the people becomes a family run entity, then, sooner or later, it becomes disconnected with the people it claims to represent. The other problem is that fresh blood, fresh ideas, and passion cease to be injected in the system because there is no hope of growth unless you are part of the family. These parties have a grave future ahead of them and the only way to avert death is to free up parties from family control. The Congress as well as parties such as the SP or the DMK, or the MNS and the SS have to redefine their existence in the context of the 21st century and goes beyond the family name of its’ strongest leaders.

The other important aspect of the elections is it is the most significant one in terms of the India’s overall construct. A large number of Indians did not vote for regional issues or even local issues, or even because of caste or religious affiliations.  They voted for a Government of India. The lesson for Parties is that they need to fight on issues other than identity. Their raison d’être has to go beyond their past. They have to be future ready – and that means, at the very least, the promise of not just governance, but also a promise of hope for a better tomorrow.   With the permeation of the media, distances in India, as elsewhere, have shrunk. Voters have glimpses of lives that are more comfortable than their own – better roads, better jobs, better infrastructure, water on tap, schools with teachers and hospitals with doctors – and they realise there is a world not so far away from them where things work. The burgeoning middle class – which includes cab drivers and maids, shop assistants and courier boys, Office assistants and drivers– all aspire for a better tomorrow, not just for the next generation but our themselves.   They have been most impacted by inflation, often seeing them at the precipice of slipping back into the ‘poor’ category again. Their world is less about austerity and more about the desire to consume. Also, as the middle class base increases people define themselves less by what they do and more by who they are as people and aspirations.

The last factor to consider is the change of elite. India is no longer run by the old elite.  Even since liberalisation began in the early 1990’s a change in society has been underway. New elites have begun coming up in every field from media to telecom, from construction to retail.   It has been the era of the calculated risk taker, the buccaneer who had the vision and foresight to invest into newer areas – be they areas at the outskirts of rarefied upper class city centres to develop as new cities, where the new elite would live; or service sectors that employed this new elite. This new strata in India, is bound by, at best, loose ties of caste, religion or linguistic identity. It may follow various customs and traditions, celebrations and rituals of their associations, but beyond that it plays very little role in their lives. This elite is a meritocracy – which has gotten there as first generation achievers in every field. You see this in all sectors – people from smaller towns, people from humble backgrounds achieving great heights. In the last decade the two men at the helm – Dr.Manmohan Singh and Mr.Narendra Modi  – were not from the elite. Far from it. Both of them acknowledged it in their final and first speeches to the nation. Dr Singh said “I, an underprivileged child of Partition, was empowered enough to rise and occupy high office” and Mr. Modi said “It is proof of the strength of our Constitution that a man from a poor family is standing here today.” It is this that has changed in the core of India – the ability to move across economic and social strata, and not see India through older prisms.  India, possibly for the first time in memory, is becoming upwardly socially mobile. People can aspire to more than they were born into.   And, they can hope to achieve it. The election results reflect that.

Apr 262014
 

The NYT has this interesting piece on instant celebritydom of some intellectuals, when ideas find resonance …

The 21st century has been less welcoming to big thinkers. The Internet and social media favor the bite-size thought over the grand thesis, the sharp insight over the belles-lettristic narrative. Gifted thinkers, like the political scientist Robert Putnam and the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, are better known through the writings of popularizers than through their own work. It has been the age of idea-savvy journalists (Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis) rather than of scholars and intellectuals.

Apr 222014
 

My column, in last week’s DNA

In the last three days there have been two instances of suppression of expression due to ‘hurt’ sentiments and political beliefs. The first was the independent publisher Navayana that is focused on literary works based on caste from an anti-caste perspective. They decided not to publish the English translation of Tamizh writer Joe D’Cruz’s book Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (The Ocean Ringed World). Considered by many to be a modern epic, the novel tells the story of Parathavar fishermen in Tamil Nadu. On the face of it, a story based on the lives of fishermen that delves into their history and culture would be an ideal topic for a publishing house that gives a platform for fiction, poetry, non fiction and graphic novels by anti-caste voices. However, Joe D’Cruz came out in support of BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and that was enough for the translator, V Geetha, to withdraw consent for her translation to be published. In her letter to the publishing house she states “given D’ Cruz’s insistent and clear-cut support for Narendra Modi, I cannot bring myself to allow my translation to be published.” And so, a novel that should find a wider audience is sacrificed at the altar of personal sentiments. The second incident is that of the newspaper The Hindu that put out an internal circular instructing its employees not to consume non-vegetarian food in the office canteen as it causes ‘discomfort to the majority of the employees who are vegetarian’. In both cases it can be argued, that private organisations have the right to choose who they publish, what they decide as dress code and what they allow into their canteen. However, this is less about private organisations and more about the society and the increasing intolerance towards diversity in tastes, views and political leanings.

James Madison, the fourth President of the United States of America, had a very interesting observation about free speech and its curtailment. He said “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” And, that is precisely what has been taking place in India. Be it non vegetarian food or books that ‘cause offense’, be it women’s rights in terms of wearing western clothes, or carrying a mobile, wearing a veil or going to a pub, be it a song in a film or a play that questions sacred cows, the creeping intolerance resulting in restrictions to freedoms bodes ill for all of us.

A recently released report by the Hoot.org’s Free Speech Hub shows how censorship has crept in. The report states that in the first three months of 2014, there have been 52 instances of censorship across the length and breadth of India. The petitioners, says the report, cuts across society — “courts, student organizations, state governments, publishing houses, the Lok Sabha Secretariat, the Central Board of Film Certification, a lawyers’ association, Hindu groups including the Shiv Sena, the RSS and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Tamil groups and individual industrialists; they all moved to exercise various forms of censorship”. What is more is that the censorship cuts across media, platforms and forms of expression — books, Facebook posts, films and plays have all been at the receiving end of offended sensibilities.There have been 52 acts of censorship in the last 90 days — a record that a democratic republic should not be proud of. In fact, if anything, we should hang our heads in shame that there have been so many instances of violations of free speech and expression — where ‘hurt sentiments’ have triumphed over freedoms.

The year started with Penguin losing its nerve and withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. This was in response to a court case brought by an aggrieved individual. Rather than wait for the verdict and fight for the right to express, Penguin bought peace by withdrawing the book from the market. This was followed by the Kala Ghoda arts festival in Mumbai withdrawing a play Ali J based loosely on the life of Jinnah, after threats on a right wing website. In neither case did the State ask for censorship — this was voluntary.

There are four sources of restrictions of freedoms. The first is the State — and this is the one that we get to see the most. If the State, that is supposed to guarantee our freedoms, restricts it, then there is a problem for all of us. The second form is organisational — all organisations have a code of conduct and we accept those codes as a part of our everyday life. But, if that code descends into discrimination — not employing people of a certain community and women, having a discriminatory attitude towards the LGBT community — then it is definitely a restriction of individual freedoms. The third is societal — societies own dos and don’ts. The reason there is an uproar over the actions of khap panchayats or fatwas issued by mullahs, or restrictions by building societies, is that they impinge on individual freedoms. And the last is self censorship — the fear that you may step on toes, and those toes will retaliate with violence. More often than not, it is the last that is the most worrisome. If we start curtailing our expression of the truth for fear, then it is a slippery slope from where pulling back will be very difficult.

If we have to leave a better country for future generations that fear has to go. It is as Rabindranath Tagore said “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…. into that haven of freedom, my father, let my country awake”. When there is a choice between the rights of the majority, and the freedom of the individual, the freedom of the individual will have to triumph. If we, as a nation, cannot guarantee that freedom, it is dark times indeed for the society and the nation.