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 142012

The Times of India, today, quotes a report which claims that Rahul Gandhi said that he was a Brahmin.

While it can be argued that since he enjoys a special kind of family based reservation that is dependent on birth not merit, and that birth accords him privelages and power – what he says could be right, theoretically it is not so.

The last Brahmin in that family was Nehru. His daughter broke the caste rules, she married an ‘outsider’. We are a patriarchal system, and you inherit caste and all stuff associated with it from the father . In a way that also explains the Gandhi Nehru family’s sway across the decades. they are not restricted by region or by caste or even by religion. It is as misal paav as it gets.

Manu’s codes are very clear on what happens to people who broke caste laws – they are made ‘out caste’  or Jaati prashta. Caste no longer applies to them or their progeny or their progeny’s progeny. And, in the modern era that is a curiously liberating feeling, you can be what you are without bothering about caste and what caste has to say

How do i know ? my parents broke the caste laws, way way back 😀

Mar 072012

The Amul Advertisement 

The question is, are they ? worthy that is… not in my opinion. they represent the worst of all other Parties in India, the corrupt brazenness of the Congress, the willingness to take to the streets and disrupt like the BJP, the parochialism of the regional parties, the unwillingness to look at an open market like the left front parties. But, above all, the aspect that gives them their own unique flavour is the nexus between the criminals and the Party. While others may take covert support, there is nothing subtle about the presence of criminals in the SP. It is upfront and present.

But I guess people deserve the Governments that they elect  and UP has elected this lot. The rest of India, as always, will pay a price for the largest, most populous state – remaining backward.

It is strange and surprising that the Congress and the BJP targeted Mayawati and her administration to such a level, without having their own organisational mechanics in place. While Mayawati may have been imperious, and mercurial and turning a blind eye to corruption, – those were not the reasons to target her. It is, as a Dalit Activist friend pointed out, the feeling that “how dare she ? How dare a Dalit Woman not know her place”… that was behind a lot of the attacks on Mayawati.  When you read the English language press on her, you realise how deep rooted caste is in the psyche ..’how dare she wear diamonds’ ‘how dare she carry a bag’ …There are others as corrupt, if not more – remember the scenes of Jayalalitha’s adopted son’s wedding ? – but Jaya speaks English, is convent educated, is one ‘of us’.. Maya, unfortunately, is not.

Yesterday a commentator on DD made a very interesting point – he said that the campaign attacks by Rahul Gandhi, the BJP were so virulent that they served the purpose of shifting the vote to the SP rather than the Congress or BJP.


The Punjab, the Uttarakhand and the Manipur elections were neither here nor there. Yes, they took place. yes, someone won. Should the winners have won — if there was any sense of right and wrong in the world, no … the Congress should not have won Manipur. the SAD/BJP should not have won Punjab. Khanduri should never have lost…yet these were the results :(.

The only election result that gives me some hope is Goa. The people of the State came out in large numbers – cutting across caste, community and religious lines – to vote out a Government & a criminal cartel that has pillaged their state, and voting in an Honest, effective man. Manohar Parrikar gives me hope to the same extent that the Samajwadi party drains that hope from me.


And finally, If the Congress wants to win, it needs to decentralize power & let others come to the fore. This is not a family business, and over reliance on one family is suicidal.  The reason for this rout is neither corruption nor any other issues. It is Organisational Paralysis brought about by all decision making – party and Government – being concentrated in the hands of two or three people. If the BJP wants to win, it needs to consolidate power in fewer hands. Too many chiefs and too few followers. Where leadership was clear, they won. Where there was too much they lost.

And why do i care ? because I don’t want a third front government. Rather one or the other – the Congress or the BJP ….but, for that they need to get their act in place.


Aug 012011

When, on day 14, I wrote about Dr.Ambedkar and his words of freedom – a friend ( a real life friend) posted a recommendation – Read Bhimayana. And, JM is a person who knows my reading habits. He has, over the years, recommended a great many books that I have enjoyed. And then Bhimayana went onto my monthly order on Flipkart.



I got the book this evening.

The first thing that strikes you about the book is the Art. Illustrated and coloured by Durgabai Vyam & Subhash Vyam – the art has an almost lyrical quality to it. Unlike most graphic novels there are no boxes. The art just flows. The graphic novel flap describes the Vyams as Pardhan Gond artists – strangely the bulk of the references I found on google were not from India, finally found something – in the Caravan magazine –  remotely related to the Pardhan Gond Art form.


bhimayana page


The artists say

“we’d like to state one thing very clearly at the outset. We shall not force our characters into boxes. It stifles them. We prefer to mount our work in open spaces. Our art is khulla (open) where there’s space for all to breathe” (pg.100)

In contrast to the art that is curvy and non linear – the writing by Srividya Natarajan and S.Anand is very linear. The story begins with an upper caste person cribbing about reservation. And the person he is talking to tells him the story of Dr.Ambedkar. The questions asked are similar to comments that I get from my students ‘oh maam but caste is over’ ‘caste was abolished’ Ambedkar didn’t want reservation’ ‘caste only happens in some villages’ and so on.

The way the authors have mixed today with yesterday – is hard hitting .

The story starts in 1901 – when 10 year old Bhim faces discrimination at school and the world at large. It looks at how people went hungry – not because they didn’t have food – but because they didn’t have access to water. It then goes on to all those instances in Modern India where Dalits have not just been not allowed to go near the water source, but harmed if they did.


The art in the book switches between black and white and colour – there seems to be no reason why it is so, but that is part of the artists’ call.

bhimayana pg 23


The book looks at key facets of Dr.Ambedkar’s struggle against the system. is a good introduction to someone who knows nothing about Dr.Ambedkar or about caste. It is not an easy read. There are parts that make you really angry. an impotent kind of rage – because you know it is not gone. you know those attitudes still exist. It may not be so blatant, at least in the cities – but it is there. JM had once told me, the only people who say caste doesn’t matter anymore is the upper caste.

You wonder while reading it, why the Dalits didn’t take up arms against those who have traditionally oppressed them. And, the term oppress is a very mild term for what was done to the Dalits for generations. The fact that Dalits did not go down the path of armed revolution is because of one man. Dr.Ambedkar.

Do buy. Do read. And get your kids to read … Bhimayana – experiences of Untouchability


this from Flipkart

Book: BHIMAYANA: Experiences Of Untouchability
Author: Durgabai Vyam, Subhash Vyam
ISBN: 8189059173
ISBN-13: 9788189059170, 978-8189059170
Binding: Paperback
Publishing Date: 2011
Publisher: Navayana Publishing For Social Change
Number of Pages: 108
Language: English


30 day Project Day 24 -gold 2

What comes to mind when you see this ?