Dec 292014
 

First published in the @DNA
296559-congress-leadersThe Indian National Congress celebrated Foundation Day on Sunday. 130 years ago, the first session of the party was held in Mumbai. In these 130 years, the Congress has fought many battles – lost some, won some others.

But never in its history has it been so bereft of focus and leadership as it is in its current situation. Today, it is less a matter of 44 seats, and more the fact that the party seems adrift, waiting for someone to come by and save them. That is not going to happen. The transformation has to happen from within, and it is not going to be simple. So here are 5 things that the INC needs to do to revive itself (if it so wishes).

Democratise: There was a time that the party attracted the brightest and the best. The most idealistic. It was at its most glorious and its most effective when people from all walks of life associated themselves with the party and worked with it to achieve a certain common objective. The party was home to Jaiprakash Narayan an ardent socialist, and Rajaji- who was not; to Gandhi who believed in the village economy, and Nehru who believed in industrialisation; to Gokhale and Tilak whose ideological clash was legendary; to Patel who believed in a strong Centre and an Ambedkar who believed in a Federal State. It was people from different ideological standpoints who were secure enough in their beliefs and ideals to work with others with differencing ideologies for a larger goal. The party could bring together different strands and weave them to a greater goal. The modern Congress, since the early 1970’s has been failing in achieving this. Pluralism is not just a word. It is a practice.

Get rid of hereditary rule: Republicanism is a higher form of evolution. Hereditary rule is two versions earlier. As a party the Congress has moved from Republican mode to a monarchy. And, it is showing. In video technology there is a simple technical rule – you cannot move from a higher form of anything to a lower form of that something without perceptible loss in quality – ironically it is called ‘gen loss’ or generational loss. With each subsequent transfer, the gen loss is higher – sounds familiar? Look at point one again. The party needs to throw its doors open, and let meritocracy be the governing mantra. While this still does not mean that the best will get to the top, the most adept at survival may. The problem with the principle of dynastic succession is that your leaders have no survival instinct – they never had to fight to get to the top or fight to stay there. It is all too easy for them.

Get rid of High Command culture: If you follow one and two, then this is natural progression. The state units cannot be subservient to the central party. Not if you want the state units to thrive. And if you don’t have healthy state units, it will be very difficult for them to command respect amongst the people, and without respect you cannot win. It is actually quite simple. With the passage of years, the top down mode of leadership no longer works, especially in a dynamic environment. If you need to build strong units – you need to decentralise, and empower your cadre and local level leadership. If you don’t empower your own party workers, how do you propose to empower the people?

Buy a calendar, take a crash course in colloquial language: It is almost 2015. Stop talking like you belong in the 1980’s. People have moved on. Their aspirations have scaled up. They are no longer looking at being saved by you (or any other party). People are looking for service delivery. We are looking for professionalism. Ask yourself one question – if you weren’t the Congress Party, and all other things being equal, would you vote for yourself? Then ask yourself what do you need to do to change that?

Apologise to your supporters: People like my parents have voted for the party all their lives. The party has let them down. Terribly so. Many of their lifelong supporters did not vote last time – they were too angry with the party to vote for you, them, but loved it enough not to vote for others. So they abstained. The party needs to talk to its base to find out how it has erred in its direction.

This is not an easy route, nor is it a guarantee for success. However, if as a party they want to survive they need to try. To build back credibility is not going to be easy, nor is it going to be a cakewalk in rebuilding an organisation ground up. But, if the party needs to celebrate its next decadal anniversary, it definitely needs to heed the wake up call that it has got from the people of India.

Dec 292014
 

The Amnesty US report on the IS’ war crimes – for the DNA on 27th December

AFP

The Amnesty USA Report on “Torture and Sexual Slavery in Islamic State captivity in Iraq” makes for difficult and brutal reading. Amnesty spoke to some of the 300 women and girls, from the Yazidi community who had managed to escape the IS, and the accounts of systematic brutality, torture and rape of girls and women are laid out in a matter of fact manner, that makes it even more impactful.

Narrative after narrative focuses on the utter dehumanisation of prisoners and the treatment meted out to them.
A 15 year old girl Arwa, had this account :

“In Rambussi we were held in a house with five other girls. There they did to me what they did to many other girls. I was raped. My cousin was not molested; they wanted to take her to marry her to a man but in the end they left her with us and then we managed to escape. One of the girls said she was not raped but I don’t know if it is true; I hope it is true. Another did not talk about what happened to her. The others were raped. The men were all Iraqis. They said that if we killed ourselves they would kill our relatives.”

A 16 year old, Randa, had this account:

“I was taken to Mosul and kept there all the time. First in a building which they called the maqarr (headquarters). We were about 150 girls and five women. A man called Salwan took me from there to an abandoned house. He also took my cousin, who is 13 years old; we resisted and they beat us. He took me as his wife by force. I told him I did not want to and tried to resist but he beat me. My nose was bleeding, I could not do anything to stop him. I ran away as soon as I could. Luckily they did not do anything to my cousin, did not force her to marry, and she escaped with me. I went to a doctor here, who said that I was not pregnant and didn’t have any disease, but I can’t forget what happened to me.”

Girls were raped, sold into slavery, sold into ‘marriage’ – the report is unclear as to what happened to the men. It is estimated that hundreds of men were killed in the battle, or forced to convert under the threat of death. The 300 women and girls who escaped, are the lucky ones. It is estimated that 1000’s of women and girls are still being held by the Islamic State and most are facing brutality and violence on an ongoing basis.  Most of the women were taken captive in August 2014 when the IS invaded the Sinjar regions of North West Iraq. According to Amnesty, most of the families in this region have at least one family member missing.

The IS preferred women and girls who were ‘beautiful’, as they did girls who were virgins. One of the accounts by a girl who escaped : ““They kept bringing prospective buyers for us but luckily none of them took us because we are not beautiful and we were always crying and holding on to each other.”

Another escapee said,  “My sister and I told them we were married but they said they would bring a doctor to examine us and those who were virgins and had lied about being married would be punished, so we admitted that we were not married. If we had known that they were going to kill us we would have continued to lie but we were afraid that we would be raped….”

However, being married was no protection from being raped or sold:    “I had my little boy with me and my pregnancy was very visible already but one of the guards chose me to be his wife. He said that if I did not consent to marrying him he would sell me on to another man who would take me to Syria. I let him believe that I would marry him and managed to run away before he could carry out his threats ” is the testimony of 19-year-old Abla, who was pregnant when she was taken prisoner.   Many of the young women committed suicide rather than face a life of sexual slavery. The accounts of their death are chilling.

“Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself. She was very beautiful. I think she knew that she was going to be taken away by a man and that is why she killed herself.”
Not all suicide attempts were successful. Wafa, 27, talks about her unsuccessful attempt at suicide: “The man who was holding us said that either we marry him and his brother or he would sell us. At night we tried to strangle ourselves with our scarves. We tied the scarves around our necks and pulled away from each other as hard as we could, until I fainted. Two girls who were held with us woke up and stopped us and then stayed awake to watch over us. When they fell asleep at 5am we tried again, and again they woke up and stopped us. I could not speak for several days after that.”

The women who escaped are so traumatised by their experience that relatives fear that they may never heal, and watch over them in case they commit suicide. The men who ‘purchased’ Yazidi girls and women, were Iraqis and Syrians and from other Arab nations. They were not necessarily fighters. And, the ‘marriages’ were registered at a shariah court.  One of the escapees said of her husband’s family “His wife was very nice to us and felt sorry for us. She cried with us and wanted to help but she couldn’t.” This is a tragedy on so many levels that it is going to take generations of sustained work to restore some form of rights to women in the region.

While the world collectively wrings its hands and wonders what can be done, the IS is cutting a swathe through the region with tactics like this, that spread fear. And, if we believe that this is against just the Yazidi , we would be  wrong. As the Amnesty report points out, the IS  kills everyone who is not like it and doesn’t support the Islamic state – which means pretty much all sane people. IS “ carried out a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing in northern Iraq. It forced hundreds of thousands of members of ethnic and religious minorities, who had lived in the region for centuries – including Shi’a (who are a minority in northern Iraq),Assyrian Christians, Turkmen Shi’a, Shabak Shi’a, Yazidis, Kakai, and Sabean Mandaeans – to abandon their homes and villages”.

The report makes for hard reading. But, read it, we must, because if nothing else we owe it those who died, who are still in captivity, who are slaves in a modern world. What the IS has committed, is war crimes. But, how do you deal with a force that refuses to recognise the basic rules of the modern world, and is hell bent on burning and destroying everything that is  not in the image of its own distorted view of the universe?  In a world where most modern Nation States are bound by basic rules, which they may bend but not break, how do you deal with an entity that follows none? The more one reads on this, the great fear is that, the rest of the world has to sink to the same brutal levels to put an end to this

Dec 292014
 
Looking back at 2014 – in @Dna
Tectonic political shifts, space exploration and global terrorism mark the year
  • Getty Images

Even before it began, 2014 had a special place in history. It is the 100th year after the war to end all wars, as World War 1 was called. A century after minor potentates and major Empires slugged it out on the battlefields of Europe, Africa, with cannon fodder from the colonies, the world was revisiting the possibility that ‘Peace in our Times’ may still be a distant mirage. Many of those former colonies, now independent states are shrugging off intellectual and academic legacies of the past to determine their own path. Many of them are seeing the rise of classes traditionally kept away from command structures, to positions of power, thereby giving established elites and processes a jolt. It is a situation akin to what Europe faced at the end of the Second World War, where the old order crumbled, making way for the new. As the old year draws to a close, here are three key events that will possibly make it to the history books a 100 years from now.

An Electoral Shift: While the world, in 2014, grappled with violence and war, there was also hope. India reaffirmed its faith in the power of democracy and electoral politics. While progress might be relatively slower than a nation where fear rules, this progress is more long term and sustainable. This week marked the results of the last set of elections for the year 2014. For the first time, since my generation was in school, has there been such an overwhelming mandate not just at the Centre but also in the states. And, like that time too, it is less for a party, and more for a leader. Travel to any state and travel by public transport and ask people who they are voting for, and the answer is clearL “voting for Narendra Modi”. It doesn’t matter if he is the Prime Minister and these are state elections, the answers are similar. For the first time, since Rajiv Gandhi’s overwhelming mandate in 1984 has there been such faith reposited in one person. And that, history tells us, is a double edged sword. Mr Modi and his Cabinet have to be cognisant of this fact and see that nothing, not even the chatter from their own party and supporters, derails thedevelopment agenda.

Also evident, is the rejection of dynasty – not the just the Congress Party but regional parties. If they want to survive, these parties have to recast themselves to be in line with the aspirations of a modern India. Parties can no longer be the fiefdom of one family – be it the Congress, the Shiv Sena, Samajwadi Party, RJD DMK, NCP or NC – it is the lack of internal democracy and the stranglehold of one family at the helm that are slowly eroding the base of once mass parties. 2015 will tell us if the political obituaries of these parties need to be written or not. It finally depends on them.

A New Hope: for the first time since the 1960’s, when the then Soviet Union and the United States competed in the space race, has the world been so excited about space travel. Mars, our planetary neighbour, is in the spotlight with space missions trying to delve into it’s mysteries and secrets. India’s Mangalyaan – made with a budget lower than mostHollywood blockbusters – hushed the naysayers and the sceptics to successfully reach the red planet and send back valuable data. The question often asked is: Should a country that has inadequate sanitation be spending money on space exploration, and the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. It is an investment for future generations. The question is not whether India can afford to invest in space exploration (or in science) the question is whether India can afford not to. Hopefully, the success of the Mangalyaan will have the same impact on young students in India as the Sputnik and Apollo missions had on Russian and American students four decades earlier – inspiring scientific curiosity and the desire to reach for the stars.

Barbarians at the Gate: At the international level, there is nothing more disconcerting than the return to barbarianism – as depicted by the Islamic State (IS) and the Taliban. The treatment of the Yazdis, of Shias, of anyone not like the rampaging armies is horrific. There are stories that are coming out about people being sold into slavery, women being used as sex slaves, of the horrors of beheading and mass graves, of torture and pillage, and these are just the tip of the iceberg of the turmoil in the entire West Asia. Kingdoms and States built at the point of the gun, are disintegrating rapidly. Unfortunately, these States had killed or exiled most of those who opposed it. Their finest minds live elsewhere. And as these States crumble, the power vacuum left behind is filled not by those who want progress or development or a better life for the citizens – rather by ruthless psychopaths who think nothing of using slavery, beheading and other medieval methods of warfare that have left the world shaken, and the people in those nations bereft of hope. The massacre of children in Peshawar is just one of the long list of atrocities that have been perpetuated by these groups against people in this region. Europe and the United States, who have caused this problem in part, are in no position to solve it. It is left to the impacted states, and nations in the neighbourhood to try and find a solution. But, the question remains – how do you negotiate with nihilists – people who would rather see the world burn than sit at the negotiating table for everlasting peace? A solution has to be found sooner rather than later, before the region burns even more, creating toxicity and instability worldwide .

As the year draws to a close, one can only hope and pray for peace and prosperity, for a world without rancour that works in a collaborative manner for a better tomorrow. The colonisation of other planets is still sometime away, and for now there is only one planet that we have, where we need to learn to co-exist.

Dec 292014
 
I write for the print edition of @dna on the 11th of December
The first step to tackling crime against women calls for radical attitudinal changes

One more December and one more rapein the nation’s capital that has made women across the board feel far more insecure than before. Last weekend, a woman called for a radio cab using an app on her phone – it was a Uber app. She believed that travelling by radio cab would provide her the safety and security of being able to reach home without being attacked. Her faith was shattered, her security breached, and her person attacked by a man who threatened to do to her what was done to the woman in the December 16th rape case — brutalised with an iron rod. Unlike the December 16th case, this woman survived, complained to the police and a manhunt resulted in the accused being arrested.

Most women in India (possibly elsewhere too) would tell you that at least once in their lives they have faced momentary terror at the thought of their safety and security being violated brutally. Most of us would tell you of all the things that we generally ignore — being groped in trains, buses, planes or any crowded space. We would tell you of the taunts that we block out on a regular basis. What we would also tell you is the truth — it is not about the clothes we wear, or the lifestyle that we adopt, or the time we get home. It doesn’t matter if we are young or old, modern or traditional, inside the safety of our home or out and about; whether we work outside the home or are homemakers, whether we are students or workers. It doesn’t matter who we are, and what we do. We are attacked for one and only one reason — we are women. And, what we see is the increased frequency of the crime of opportunity, an almost Russian Roulette with any one of us being a target. The woman who went to Shakti Mills to cover a story, a Jyothi who climbed into a bus expecting to get home to safety, a woman who gets into a rickshaw or a cab, you or I — we are all walking targets, except that we don’t know where the attack will come from, or the men involved.

Like the December 16th incident, there is collective outrage over this case. That outrage is looking for a target — the cab company in question (Uber) — whose promise of security turned out to be a marketing line; the home minister, who is ultimately responsible for the safety of citizens; the system that allowed a man, accused of rape to be out on bail. As more details of the case emerge, the level of rage increases — the accused was a serial sexual offender and had prior cases against him. He was out on bail for sexual offences. While Uber failed to conduct background checks on the man, it is also true that there is no centralised database of those convicted of sexual offenses. While things can definitely improve if employers conduct stringent background checks and law and order is enforced in Delhi and elsewhere, there is one area that needs to be addressed, and is often ignored: Women are seen as targets because that is how boys are brought up. “Jaa rahi hai woh chhammak challo’ “kya item hai’ “Aati kya Khandala” are all things most women have heard at various points of time. Most of us have developed filters to block these out — because hearing them means reacting, and reacting means starting a fight which you cannot win. And, the bigger problem is the consent of many political elders on this. Every time I hear a politician say “boys will be boys” — when it comes to this sort of behaviour — the reaction is not a civil conversation or an outrage on women’s rights, but a primeval desire to pummel sense into him. Physically. Along with other women who feel the same rage.

There is a list of things to improve safety for women. Starting with sensitising police and the judiciary to crimes against women and sensitising politicians and leaders on a changing world. You can have better background checks, but they won’t deter the first-time rapist. You can have more police on the street and faster courts, but they won’t prevent rape at home. So what do you do? Whatever you do will be doomed to failure if boys are brought up thinking every woman is out for the picking and that they have the right to force sexual intercourse on women. If women and girls have to be safe, there has to be a systemic societal and attitudinal changes at the individual family unit. Laws have to be strict. Punishment has to be stricter, and this ethos of ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘what happens to the Indian family if marital rape is penalised’ needs to be met head on and demolished.

The Justice Verma Committee Report that made so many fantastic recommendations to ensure women’s safety needs to be accepted in its entirety. Those dilutions that were made to ensure its passage through Parliament would need to come back in as amendments and, hopefully, passed. The security and safety of women cannot be held hostage to politicians who want to give a free pass to stalkers and rapists.

Being paranoid is not going to help. Being angry is not going to help. Effecting tangible changes that is what will make the world safer for the next generations. It is too late for my generation – we have to live in a world we have made. But, can we ensure a better tomorrow for your daughters and sons, for your grand children – and the answer is, if we have the will to make hard decisions and make the change.

(A version of this had earlier appeared on dnaindia.com)

Dec 262014
 

I wrote this for the @dna on the 8th of December :

Radio cab services allow you to believe that you are safe. Last Saturday, I was out with friends, and I booked a radio cab service to take me home. As is my normal practice, I ordered a cab a few hours before the time I planned to leave. The service, after accepting the request and confirming details, sent a message back an hour later saying that the cab that I booked was not available, and that they would send me another one. I thought nothing of it, until I reached the parking space – there was a cab, with a driver – but it didn’t have the company markings. It was a tourist cab, it had a nice pleasant driver, and I got home without any problems. But, when I got in to the car, my heart did miss a beat – one of my mobiles had the map switched on to track every movement of the journey, the other one was clasped to my ear, while I was talking to a friend, through the journey. I used phrases like “I am travelling in X cab company’s car, have messaged you the car details” etc etc. There is a part of me which laughs at, what it describes as my over the top safety measures. It is the part of me that hates feeling insecure. But there is another part of me that whispers in my ear ‘better paranoid than sorry’. On most days I listen to the paranoid me, sometimes I don’t.

I haven’t always been paranoid about my safety. For the last two decades as a producer of television content, I was used to working late in far flung places (even within Mumbai). This was before the era of late night drops that most companies employ now. There have been times I have returned home well past midnight, after two shifts of solid work, exhausted to the point of slumber, through areas that are not inhabited. Anyone who has filmed in the areas around Madh Island, would tell you the sense of isolation that the place has. But, the sense of security being breached was never there. Now, a combination of high profile cases in rapid succession, have shaken that sense of safety. And, it is hardly surprising.

Women are being attacked for the simple reason that they are women. It is a crime of opportunity, an almost Russian Roulette with anyone being a target. The woman who went to Shakti Mills to cover a story, the woman who climbed into a bus on December 16, 2012, a woman who gets into a rickshaw or a cab, you or I – we are all walking targets, except that we don’t know where the attack will come from, or the men involved.

On Saturday evening, a woman called for a radio cab using an app on her phone – it was the Uber app. She believed that travelling by radio cab would provide her the safety and security of being able to reach home without being attacked. Her faith was shattered, her security breached, and her person attacked by a man who threatened to do to her what was done to the girl in the December 16 rape case – brutalise her with an iron rod.

Naturally, there is outrage about the incident. There are those who want Uber Cabs to be banned. There are those who are protesting outside the Home Minister’s house. There are others who are talking about women travelling in groups and staying indoors, forgetting that most rapes take place at home, by men they know. While Uber should have had stringent background checks, while the Home Minister is ultimately responsible for law and order in Delhi – the fact remains that all of these are ways of diverting attention from a very basic fact – women are seen as targets, because that is how boys are brought up. “jaarahi hai woh chamak challo”, “kya item hai”, “why this kollai very di’  are all things most women have heard at various points of time. Most of us have developed filters to block these out – because hearing them means reacting, and reacting means starting a fight which you cannot win. Every time I hear a politician say “boys will be boys” when it comes to rape, the reaction is not a civil conversation or an outrage on women’s rights, but a primeval desire to pummel sense into them. Physically. Along with other women who feel the same rage.

There is a list of things to improve safety for women. Starting with sensitising the police and judiciary to crimes against women as well as sensitising politicians and leaders on a changing world. You can have better background checks, but those won’t deter the first-time rapist. You can have more police on the street and faster courts, but they won’t prevent a rape at home. So what do you do? Whatever you do will be doomed to failure if boys are brought up thinking every woman is out for the picking and that they have the right to force sexual intercourse on them. If women and girls have to be safe, there has to be a systemic, societal and attitudinal change at the individual family unit. Laws have to be strict. Punishment has to be stricter, and this entire ethos of ‘boys will be boys’ and questions on ‘what happens to the Indian family if marital rape is penalised’ needs to be met head on and demolished.

The Justice Verma Committee Report, that made so many fantastic recommendations to ensure women’s safety, needs to be accepted in its entirety. The dilutions that were made to ensure its ‘passage through Parliament, would need to come back in as amendments and, hopefully, passed. The security and safety of women cannot be held hostage to politicians who want to give a free pass to stalkers and rapists.

Being paranoid is not going to help. Being angry is not going to help. Getting through tangible change is what will make the world safer for the next generations. It is too late for my generation – we have to live in a world we have made. But, can we ensure a better tomorrow for your daughters and sons, for your grand children? The answer depends on whether we have the will to make hard decisions and make the change.