Sep 262014
My column in the DNA, earlier this week
The Times of India’s stand is pretty much the same as that of khap panchayats – she was wearing revealing clothes, therefore she asked for it
  • PTI

Last week, the Times of India, that claims to be the most read English daily in the world, peeked down actor Deepika Padukone‘s dress and put up content titled “OMG – Deepika Padukone’s Cleavage Show”. Ms Padukone, unlike most who grin and bear this sort of intrusion into personal space, hit back in a series of tweets that essentially took the news brand to task, in no uncertain terms.

In a Facebook post that has attracted over 2000 comments and over 150,000 likes (at the time of writing), Ms Padukone says, “I am not naive about my own profession; it is one that requires lots of demanding things of me. A character may demand that I be clothed from head to toe or be completely naked, and it will be my choice as an actor whether or not I take either. Understand that this is a ROLE and not REAL, and it is my job to portray whatever character I choose to play convincingly.”

And then the TOI decided to explain itself: “Deepika, we accept your reel vs real argument, but what about all the times, and there have been many, when you have flaunted your body off screen – while dancing on stage, posing for magazine covers, or doing photo ops at movie promotional functions? What ‘role’ do you play there? So why the hypocrisy?”

Well, since the old lady of Bori Bundar has asked, I thought I would help them understand the most basic aspect of women’s rights. And that is actually just one word – one simple yet elegant word – consent. Consent, very loosely defined, is permission or assent. Has the person in question said yes? At a second level is a related question, just as equally valid in the context of women’s rights: “Do women have the rights over their own body?” When a woman says no, no matter who she is, does it a) mean yes? And, as importantly, b) is she going to be judged by what else she says when she says no?

It is all very well to say, you are flaunting your body, albeit in a different context and therefore it is all right for us to intrude on your privacy, and use your body to our advantage. But at a very fundamental level, this is pretty much the same argument that we have been hearing from every regressive element in the Indian ecosystem. What the paper and everybody else needs to understand is that it is very clearly a matter of a woman’s right over her body and her consent for anyone else having a right over it.

The response of the TOI on the Deepika Padukone issue occupies the same space as a famous film scene. In the film Dostana starring Amitabh Bachchan, Zeenat Aman and Shatrugan Sinha, Zeenat Aman plays a modern woman who wears a bikini and a sarong at a beach. When ‘eve-teasers’ whistle at her, she complains to the policeman (played by Amitabh Bachchan). His retort is, “Aap aise kapde pehen kar ghar se niklengi toh ladko ke seeti nahi toh kya mandir ki ghantiyaa bajengi?” (if you wear such clothes and leave your home, what do you expect men to do – whistle or ring the temple bell). Today, we can look back at these lines and say regressive, regressive attitude, blaming the woman for violence and the rest. And we would be right. What do you say to the leading English language daily?

It looks like almost three decades later nothing has changed. It is the same argument that is being used. Today, when we talk about women saying no to sex and then being forced, or to being groped, or being whistled at, the same set of counter arguments pop up.  The argument, whether made by a leading English daily or by the head of a khap panchayat, ‘but she was asking for it’ needs to be treated with the same contempt that you would have for a traditionally dressed woman or man, who with the full fire of righteousness, and in an Indian language tells you that girls who don’t cover up their bodies will be prey to rapists If that had been the case, we could be sure that all of us, including the newspaper in question – would have outraged over medieval attitudes and patriarchal behaviour.

This entire argument goes beyond Deepika Padukone and into the space of women and media created perceptions. I would argue that it is not Bollywood or item numbers that demean women, rather it is these sorts of attitudes that do. When a leading newspaper tells ‘you that you flaunt you body, therefore we can peep into your cleavage’ it is far more dangerous than the head of a feudal setup saying something similar. We know we should oppose the latter as it is antediluvian and archaic insofar as its perception of women is concerned. But, what about the former? If the feudal organisations think of women as their property, this treats women as much the same. And frankly, there is not much to choose from between the two ways of seeing women. Except that one is in English and the other is in an Indian language.


A ‘roadside romeo’ is lumpen, but a media house peeking down a woman’s cleavage is ‘respectable’.
A khap panchayat that says a woman must be well covered to avoid rape is regressive, and a leading English daily which asks but if you flaunt it anyway, why do we need your consent?
No means no, except when we understand it as yes .

I agree with one point in the TOI article, and that is it reeks of hypocrisy. Unfortunately, it is not the hypocrisy of Ms Padukone, but of the media outlet. When the largest English Language daily in India justifies the invasion of the body of a woman – without consent – you should hardly be surprised that you have a system that justifies rape.

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.

Mar 092014

And, my column last week for the DNA – on the UPA retrospective 

Ever been to a theatre to watch a film that on paper sounded fabulous — great director, good casting, top-of-the-line banner, great promos? But when you get inside the theatre the film simply won’t get over.
Every moment drags; every dialogue in the film has the monotony of something you have heard before, and no matter what you do, you cannot escape from the highly intrusive soundtrack. Worst of all, you cannot get out of the movie hall.  Most of us have at least watched one such film, trapped inside the theatre for, what seems like, days, unable to get out, unable to move our eyes from the screen while asking the question “what  on earth were they thinking about, when they put this together”. And, when the end credits start rolling, you clap out of the sheer relief that the film is over, and you can get into the bright lights and fresh air outside, and scrub all memory of the movie from your subconscious. Think Ram Gopal Verma ki Aag or Kites. Know the feeling? It is pretty much the way that most felt while watching the last two years of UPA II — it just dragged on, and on, and on.

As the credits roll, this column takes a look at some of the characters and scenes from UPA II:

A for Anthony: The Minister for Defence. A man who confused inaction with integrity and took the old adage ‘if you don’t get out of bed and get on the road, you won’t get run over’ seriously. Unfortunately, that is no guarantee for the ceiling falling on your bed.

B for Bills: The trouble with leaving most of your key bills to the last minute of a five-year Parliament is that nothing is thought through, the sense of dissonance is high and like a bad film, certain elements are put in just to give a sense of faux completion.

C for CWG: The Commonwealth Games that really marked the begging of the end.

D for DMK: The key ally then, fence sitter now and the hands behind the 2G scam.

E for Elections: #Elections2014 and the UPA hoping for a sequel, ie. UPA III. But when a film is such a box office dud, will you really buy a ticket for the sequel?

F for Food Security: Nobody, with a conscience, will disagree with the concept of Food Security — the principle that no individual should go hungry, but as with all concepts, the devil is in the implementation. And, implementation in this particular case is fraught with internal opposition.

G is for Gandhi: The name that ruled the Congress for the best part of the last 45 years. And, it seems that the aura is finally waning, though Sonia Gandhi still has some of that aura. But for all his earnestness, it does not seem that Rahul Gandhi has that aura — the aura of wanting to handle power.

H is for High Command: See Gandhi above. All organisations need hierarchies, and a chain of command. But, if all power is concentrated in one set of hands , then currying favour rather than competence becomes the order of the day, leading to poor decision-making

I for Indian National Congress: The grand old party. It seriously needs to introspect and reinvent itself for the new millennium.

J for Janata: That is us, the people. The voters. Just get this over with seems to be the general sentiment all around.

K for Kaajneeti: That is on hoardings across the country, with voters looking at each other and asking “what is that”?

L for Leadership: Conspicuous by its absence through the five years, especially towards the end.

M for Mani Shankar Iyer: The architect of the Chai pe Charcha campaign. Enough said. M is also for Manmohan Singh, who didn’t say enough.

N for Narendra Modi: If politicians  in the Congress spent as much time in talking about what they did right, as they did about why Modi is wrong, they may have fared better in both  perception and the ballot box.

O for Ordinance: When bills aren’t passed, the route is ordinance. But, in Parliamentary democracy, bills are meant to be debated, deliberated on and passed. It is a good job that the last few bills were not passed via an ordinance, because…

…P for Pranab Mukherjee: He put his foot down and said ‘no’. A leading character in UPA I and in the first part of UPA II, his political skills would be sorely missed, even if his economic skills were not.
Q for Questions: That the people had, for which there were no answers. In fact, part of the UPA’s problem was the fact that it rarely spoke to the people or the press, and when it did it was either so stage-managed or so full of wordplay that it alienated.

R for Robert Vadra: The son-in-law. The man who could get away with everything, or so it seemed.

S for Sheila Dikshit: The Empress of Delhi, who is now the Governor of Kerala after losing her seat to Arvind Kejriwal.

T for Telangana: The disaster of the last five years. While smaller states are not a bad idea, pandering is.

U for UPA II: Coming to an end in a few months from now

V for Voter: That is us. Are you even registered?

W for Win: Winning seat by seat, state by state, to take the nation. From all accounts that is a tough one.

X for X: Marks the spot where we vote, and UPA II hopes that it is for their constituents.

Y for Gen Y: The first and second-time voter who cares less for the ‘isms’ of yesterday and more for how good their tomorrow will be.

Z for Zero Loss: Made famous by Kapil Sibal when confronted with allegations of misallocation of spectrum. If only humility was in action instead of hubris, this government may not have ended up in this state of being generally disliked.

Feb 122014

My column in @DNA last week

My earliest memories are of growing up in Delhi, and going to school there. Amongst those memories was a line that a six-year-old had seared into her subconscious — tu kaali hai (you are dark). It wasn’t a line thrown at her by classmates on a playground, but by the teacher in the classroom. A first standard student does not really have the wherewithal to cope with race, and I guess I was no different. I cried to my parents, and they assured me that my colour was the best, and the teacher was possibly jealous and brave girls don’t run away from school or teachers but face them with confidence. My father was transferred to Mumbai the following year, and in a multicultural school with classmates from different parts of India, I never felt different.

Much later, I came to know that Mumbai was the setting for anti-South agitation before I was born, and my parents lived in fear of the violence encroaching into their lives. Then, the 1990s saw the Bombay riots targeting Muslims, and more recently the anti-North Indian agitation — the anger against the perceived ‘outsider’ played out to its logical conclusion by those who benefit by these divisions. Studying in England, I was very conscious of ethnicity and nationality. The occasional taunts of “Yo Paki, go home” were met by “I am an Indian student, and will go back when I finish my studies.”

India has always lived with flashpoints based on differences. There have been a multitude of Hindu-Muslim riots since (and even before) Independence. Through the early 1980s, there was the targeted killing of Hindus in Punjab by Khalistanis. There was the targeted killing of Sikhs in the 1984 riots. In 2002, there was the targeted killing of Hindu pilgrims in Godhra, and then there was the targeted killing of  Muslims. More recently,  in 2012, there were riots in Assam between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims that combined aspects of religion, ethnicity, race and linguistic divisions to a bloody end. And towards the end of last year, we saw the Muzaffarnagar riots that were neither ethnic, nor linguistic but based on religious ‘otherness’. We have seen violence against South Indians (Madrasis) in Bombay, against Tamil speakers in Bangalore, against North Indians (bhaiyyas and Biharis) in Mumbai and more. And, I am not even counting the violence in the name of caste in this list.

Every time there is a riot or violence, we blame the political class and reassure ourselves, “We have lived in peace for generations, they fanned the flames.” This is an argument that has been bandied about and accepted. As a result, we have never really examined our own individual biases towards the other — religion, race, ethnicity, linguistic. We live with the myth that we are tolerant towards others, liberal about different ways of life, respectful of diversity. The fact remains that we are not. We may pay lip service towards values of tolerance, wring our hands when there is a breach of peace, shed tears at violence — but the reality is that, as individuals, we are not very tolerant of those not like us. The most recent manifestation of this has been the violence towards Ugandan women and the killing of Arunachal Pradesh student Nido Taniam. These, as much the riots, highlight the deep intolerance and fear of the other.

There can be many steps taken to address this. The first is at home. Our values are formed by what we learn at home. What is it that we teach our children? Our concepts of sharing, mingling, forming bonds with others are shaped here. So when we tell children not to ‘play with others not like us’ what is it that we are teaching? The second is at school. Unity in diversity is not just a phrase; it is real. Do we teach children about heroes from other states, do we let them understand the beauty and vastness of India beyond data points? Maybe at the 9th and 10th standard level, we relook at civics to examine diversity and differences and how those who are not like us are also like us.

The third is the media. How much of diversity is reflected in the images that we see and consume? How many of us even know about the lives and lifestyles of people not like us beyond the stereotypes? Hollywood adopted positive role models of African-Americans long before Barack Obama became the President, way back in the 1960s. Where is the diversity on our screens? The fourth is society. How welcoming are we of people not like us? Do we rent accommodation to them? Do we hire them? Do we make friends with them? And lastly, it is the state. What is the kind of mechanism put in place to make people who are immigrants feel at home? Much as we complain about the racism in the west, go to any government office there and there are multilingual forms available as are translators. If you, a Hindi speaker, went to a Chennai police station (or vice versa) to fill a report, would you even understand what was being said? How do you assimilate if you are not made to feel part of the system?

Race, religion, ethnicity and language — factors that unite us but also mark us as being separate from others. This sense of ‘otherness’, unless dealt with, can and has become a flashpoint for violence and hatred. The solution is not being separate and guarding what is perceived by some as uniqueness; rather, it is accepting and living with diversity. There are many ideas of India, possibly 1.2 billion of them  — and each of these is just as beautiful and as wondrous and as Indian and as real  as your or my idea of India is. Maybe it is time that we recognised and accepted that.

Feb 122014

My column in DNA on 23rd January 

On Tuesday evening, the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, ended one more high-pitched protest. At the end of it, two police officers were sent on leave, pending judicial investigation. The seeds of the drama were sown when the newly appointed law minister of Delhi, Somnath Bharti, decided to take the law into his own hands. Aggrieved at what he believes was police neglect, he and his supporters held up Ugandan women, assaulted them, subjected them to a humiliating body search, got them to give urine samples in public — and then threw a hissy fit when people objected to their behaviour.

Bharti’s contention was simple. There is a drug menace in the locality he serves, Africans are associated with drugs, ergo, Ugandan women who are also Africans must also be drug pushers, involved in prostitution and guilty by virtue of their race. Confronted with dissent, from an otherwise fawning media, Bharti became shrill, even threatening to spit on the lawyers —Arun Jaitley and Harish Salve — who had dared to question his behaviour and represent the women.

In any other organisation, Bharti would have been pulled up and reprimanded. However, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is not just another organisation. It is the self-styled representative of the common man (not woman). It has a sense of self-righteousness and moral superiority that makes it believe that its members have the right to do whatever they deem fit, and anyone who questions this is morally inadequate and compromised. Therefore, rather than taking action against the overzealous minister, Kejriwal took to protesting against the police and Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, and sitting on dharna outside Railway Bhavan. AAP’s demand was simple — transfer the policeman who dared to offend the minister. When accused of anarchy, Kejriwal said in a statement to the press, “They say I am an anarchist. Yes, I am. Today, I will create anarchy for Mr Shinde.” Part of the protest was a threat to disrupt Republic Day celebrations. Again, Kejriwal had a well-crafted sound byte, “Republic Day does not mean people enjoying tableaux at Rajpath… it means the rule of people.”

The problem of setting yourself up as morally higher than mere mortals is that logic, rationality and the rule of law go for a toss, and the demands of the party become the demands of not just those who support it, but the demands of all citizens in general. India is a constitutional republic, where elected representatives exercise power on behalf of the people and within the rules laid down by the Constitution. While protest is a right guaranteed by the Constitution, protesting without negotiation is childishness. The behaviour of the Aam Aadmi Party over the last week has been akin to children throwing a tantrum after being told that they cannot have an extra helping of sweets. It is not the behaviour that one expects of elected representatives.

There are multiple problems that India faces. A system that is infected by corruption, a political class that is arrogant in its approach to the issues facing common people, large business that tries to subvert the system by collusion, an administrative system that gives citizens the run around. In all of this, a party that claims to stand for the interests of the aam aadmi and speaks up for their concerns and issues is an obvious attraction. However, a ruling party taking to the streets in protest against policemen not bending to the will of a minister is less about the general will of the people and more about the hubris of power and the imposition of will and wilfulness on the system.

That citizens of India (or Delhi) want to live in a safe and secure environment, without being bothered by drug addicts, drug pushers and commercial sex workers, is not being questioned. What is being questioned is the presumption of guilt and vigilante action to tackle this guilt. The excuse given is that it is a new party, give them time. The problem with giving a free pass to a new party, or anyone else, is that you are condoning mob action that deprives individuals of liberty, in the name of keeping ‘society at large’ safe. If behaviour like this is not checked, then tomorrow, it could be your liberty and dignity at stake.

BR Ambedkar in his famous speech to the Constituent Assembly in 1949, said, “The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enables him to subvert their institutions’. …As has been well said by the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty.”

The first thing, of course was the need “to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods.
These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.”

Dharnas and drama are great for television viewing, wonderful for ratcheting up the pitch, and increasing audiences for TV news — but the question we all need to ask (and answer) is, what is the cost to the Republic of India?