Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Sensitize Political Class for Gender Equality

From “dented, painted” to “boys will be boys”, the latest addition to this series of misogyny by political class is TMC MP Tapas Pal’s appalling remark, where he threatens to kill CPM workers and have his men rape their women. After the video clip was brought to notice by a 24-year-old whistleblower, it has caught attention of the media, a large section of which has condemned his remark. It is yet another case where political speech has become misogynistic banter.

Owing to party pressure, Pal has offered an unconditional apology saying, “Some remarks made by me in the heat and dust of the election campaign have caused dismay and consternation…” Thus, justifying that it was in a fit of euphoria he made the remarks, only to further underline the inherent tendency of gender violence rampant among the political class.

Despite Trinamool Congress being headed by a woman—Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal Chief Minister admitted that his speech was a blunder, only to further attack the media with her, “What should I do? Should I kill him?” What Banerjee can least do is to sack Pal and set a political deterrent to highlight zero tolerance towards misogyny which needs to be observed by political parties in order to put an end to politics of rape culture.

There are three perspectives to be noted here: the insensitivity of the political class, silence maintained by senior party leaders and the mindless support offered by fellows in the political class.

Post December 2013 gangrape, the discourse pertaining to crimes against women has amplified with more number of citizens vehemently criticizing the state machinery and complicity of police in several cases of sexual crimes. Laws have been amended, the media have become more vigilant however, the selectivity employed by political class while addressing crimes against women remains alarming.

While Narendra Modi election campaign focused on “Bahut hua nari par war, abki baar Modi Sarkar”, PM Modi’s government too has not quite fared well when dealing with crimes against women. Despite an additional district court in Jaipur issuing a notice to his cabinet minister Nihalchand in a rape case, where he is one of the accused, the minister has refused to step down rather boasted of his proximity with the top brass.

When Satabdi Roy, Tapas Pal’s close friend and a female MP from Birbhum was asked to react on Pal's comments, she said “We do not support his comment but he is a good human being and he must have spoken in reaction to some provocation...He is an actor and he might have become emotional..”

Similarly, the indolence of the Uttar Pradesh state machinery while dealing with Badaun gangrape and murder case has further unveiled the double standards maintained by our political class. The incident happened only days after when Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav had said, “Boys will be boys” with respect to rape of women.

Incidents of delayed justice in cases like the Bhanwari Devi murder and Suryanelli case, where the victim was forced to have sex with forty men, only reflect on the laxity of the state machinery when a male politician’s name spirals in a case. There is victim-blaming, character assassination and threats directed at her to withdraw the case.

When political leaders who also represent citizenry observe such imbecility with respect to a grave concern the country is grappling with, the struggle for gender equity remains unending. When leaders endorse rape, when mum becomes the word of the top brass of political class, when innuendos and insinuating references to rape and other sexual crimes translate into a political speech being addressed to hundreds, no significant change can be expected in the mindsets of people which profess gender discrimination.

Gender disparity should have never existed; there is nothing ‘natural’ about the subjugation of women. These differences are socially constructed and validated by those in power. And till the political class maintains its status quo, no change can be expected towards bridging these constructed gender differences.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Caste kills, rapes, mutilates

In a chilling reminder of the Badaun gangrape incident where two teenage cousins of backward caste were gangraped and hanged from a mango tree, another similar case had come to the fore in Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh yesterday. The body of a 45-year-old woman, belonging to a backward caste was found hanging from a tree after she was abducted and gang-raped. 

Many cases of caste-based sexual violence are grabbing headlines everyday. From abduction to gangrape and mutilation, this increased recurrence of sexual violence on women belonging to backward castes only suggests the intersectionality of violence against women and caste. Thus, it seems increasingly impossible to understand violence against women in a country where one's caste, which is attributed at birth, determines the course of life-- in terms of opportunities, social status and very often, occupation.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, rape cases against women belonging to Scheduled Castes (SCs) have been at a constant rise. The number of rape cases have shot up to 1,576 in 2012 from 1,457 in 2008. While 729 women belonging to Scheduled Tribes (STs) were raped in 2012 as opposed to 585 in 2008. These numbers most often underestimate the rise in crimes against women as many cases go unreported. 

A country which professes discrimination on the basis of caste, where women belonging to lower castes are considered "available" at the whims of men from upper castes, what comes to the fore is double discrimination faced by Dalit and other lower caste women.

The National Commission for Women states, "In the commission  of offences against…[Dalit] women the [dominant caste] offenders try to establish their authority and humiliate the community by subjecting their women to indecent and inhuman treatment." Further, when they transgress caste norms such as those prescribing caste endogamy or untouchability practices, or assert their rights over resources or public spaces, violence is unleashed on them.1

While patriarchy remains a constant, affecting all women, the perception that a woman belonging to lower caste must be subservient to men of upper castes manifests the culture of rape and violence against women. Thus, caste culture becomes a significant contributor to increased atrocities of violence against women. The question persists: Can culture be an excuse for misogyny?

Two cousins who were gangraped and hanged from a mango tree in Badaun were not Dalits but belonged to a lower caste in a village dominated by upper caste, politically influential Yadavs. It is the culture of impunity and perception among upper class men that they can get away with it, which leads to unleashing of sexual violence.

The infamous Khairlanji massacre of the Bhotmanges serves as a reminder of what is the 'outcome' when a Dalit family spoke up over grabbing of land which rightfully belonged to them, by upper caste men.

In 2006, many villagers had seen mother Surekha and daughter Priyanka being paraded naked, only to be gangraped later with iron rods shoved up their vaginas. However, none dared testify against the politically strong men belonging to Kunbi caste involved until the case created political storm and caught media attention.

The complicity of police, in Badaun case or the sheer reluctance to facilitate justice to the victims, like the Khairlanji massacre, reveals a vicious web of injustice where, very often the state and custodian of the law are hand-in-glove with perpetrators of sexual violence.

The excuse for caste-based sexual violence is very often attributed to culture, where a female Dalit becomes a double Dalit and citizens of lower castes are considered subservient to socially and politically superior, where a way to shame a woman is to physically mutilate her. Such a culture of caste which denies women the human right to equality, only helps embolden the perpetrators.

Although many feminists have highlighted caste-based atrocities yet, the issue remains out of bounds from the political discourse.

In the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls, although the tenor of political discourse remained significantly high on violence against women, caste-based sexual violence on women of oppressed caste was intentionally absent. On the contrary, the politics of vote bank heavily relied on caste, wherein leaders were no longer muffled to evoke caste segregation to fill up their vote banks.

Thus, rather than subsuming Dalit  and lower caste women under general women category, the issue of sexual violence and caste atrocity must be dealt with clearly demarcated fences because caste like patriarchy, kills. A briefing note by International Dalit Solidarity Network identifies public spaces--streets, women's toilet areas, fields as most vulnerable spots where majority Dalit women face sexual violence. 

Construction of toilets, better sanitation facilities, stricter policing after implementation of police reforms, end to the culture of impunity must help break the culture of silence.

Picture courtesy: http://www.unitedhumanrights.org/wp-content/woo_custom/6-svaw06square.gif

Monday, May 12, 2014

Why Condom Vending Machines may not work?

Commuters in Delhi's Central Secretariat Metro Station enter from gate four only to encounter a vending machine which does not have cookies, water bottles, namkeen and wafers. Many commuters pass by it but need to look back to register. A re-look and it takes a giggle to fathom that the new machine vends an array of products such as condoms for males and females, sanitary napkins, oral contraceptive pills and ayurvedic oils.

Condom vending machine unveiled at Cental Secretariat Metro
Station, Delhi. Image: Google
While many giggle, nudge their friends, others are just red-faced to pass by a condom vending machine erected at a conspicuous location at a busy metro station.

This initiative is Delhi Metro's new scheme with HLL Lifecare Ltd (HLL) to make available contraceptive solutions at every nook and corner of many Delhi metro stations and raise awareness about safe and protected sex. Whether this will work is highly doubtful.

With sex being a taboo in India, it is highly unlikely that people would want to open up about the fact that they need a pack of condoms or contraceptive pills in public spaces. Although, it is a step forward by the government to publicize safe sex and contraception but it may occur too ambitious for a society which is still getting used to the fact that 'sex is okay' and 'so is talking about it'.

We live in the times where women are still apprehensive to ask for a pack of sanitary napkins at drug stores. A female friend recently saw one of the drug vendors smirk at her when she asked for an oral contraceptive pill. In fact, many married women I have spoken with believe their spouses must buy sanitary from the chemists’ as they feel shy to ask for napkins from male vendors. Another acquaintance recounted a recent incident when she was too hesitant to ask for a pregnancy test from a chemist in the neighborhood with the fear of being judged. "I pass by the area everyday. I was hesitant to ask for a test with the fear of being judged so I delayed buying it by a day," she had said.

In the times, when many women are ashamed and embarrassed about revealing their menstrual and sex life because of the fear of being judged or smirked at, will a lone condom vending machine a metro station with an average footfall of two-four lakhs per day, draw customers?

Having said that, a vending machine with sanitary napkins may prove to be the best resort for women in emergency situations.

The case of men is not very contrasting either. Many a times, a number of men while asking for condoms at drug stores try to be as muffled as possible implying, one is always both conscious and shy to put out in open their sex lives.

It is not always about the personal restraint which men and women observe while putting out their sexual lives in open. Mostly, these behaviors can be seen an outgrowth of one's upbringing, where menstruating girls are impure and must remain in isolation. While puritanical ideas such as pre-marital sex and abortion before marriage are given significance.   

Interestingly, the installation of condom vending machine did lead to discussions on microblogging site Twitter. Many opine that the spots where these machines are installed should have been more strategic, keeping in mind the Indian attitudes towards sex. There were quite a few murmurs about placing them outside public restrooms or at inconspicuous locations however, past such initiatives of placement at discreet locations answer in the negative.

Few years ago, Hindustan Latex Ltd Family Planning Promotional Trust had installed condom vending machines at several public zones-outside toilets, at railway stations in Mumbai. However, owing to poor sales, often one pack a day, the NACO withdrew its decision to fund the programme. The initiative had then cost the government Rs 2.57 crore including procurement and installation of machines across Mumbai.

While the initiative also aims to educate people about safe sex and thereby reduce the number of AIDS cases, according to the report1, NACO in they 2013-14 distributed only 15.3 crore against the target of 36 crore. The report states a steep decline of nearly 40 percent in condom usage. These figures further seem to threaten AIDS awareness. Furthermore, the report says "a CAG report released in October last year reveals that of the 22,000 condom-vending machines installed across the country, 10,000 went missing and 1,100 were not working. NACO had invested Rs21 crore in these machines," 

In such a scenario, the model of Thailand serves an ideal example. With population being a daunting issue in the seventies, its far reaching family planning effort in 1971 by Mechai Viravaidya, a former government economist was well-received. From a high-profile education campaign to condom balloon blowing contests, condoms had become ubiquitous--one could find it outside movie theaters, at traffic signals. In fact, vendors would give away a condom in place of change. It must be noted that relationships in Thailand between men and women, the concept of parenting are more egalitarian than many countries in the world.

However, In India, everyone has sex but no one is willing to talk about it. One needs to hush up, discuss these matters within closed doors. Sex education yet remains a grave concern as many schools have agreed to have workshops for parents but no one is willing to take it on with kids. In a scenario like this, condom vending machines may only draw stares and giggles without being commercially successful or pushing the safe-sex campaign as they ought to.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Does cheering for Pakistan amount to sedition?

It was last week when sixty-seven Kashmiri students were sacked from a private university in Meerut for allegedly cheering for Pakistan cricket team and celebrating its victory in an Indo-Pak match. This piece of news caught the fancy of several media houses where both news channels and newspapers including the Indian Express flashed it as the front page lead.

Amid several developments in the story, the air was that of anxiety as the students were not only expelled for a span of three days by university authorities and sent to national capital Delhi but sedition charges were also slapped against them for raising anti-national slogans.

Subsequently, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah intervened and raised objection over the expulsion of students, saying that they were the recipients of Prime Minister’s scholarship and the sedition charges were totally uncalled for.

As reported by the news-agency PTI, Abdullah argued that if youngsters from any other part of the country would have cheered for Pakistan, it would not have been noticed. “But the fact is that these people are from Kashmir automatically changes the context.” He further went on to say that the students should not be confused about their identity but even if they are confused, it does not call for slapping of sedition charge.

Although most mainstream media coverage remained limited to spot reportage, there are larger questions which need to be addressed here, many pertaining to the validity of sedition law in India. Previously, noted writer Arundhati Roy, cartoonist Assem Trivedi and activist Dr. Binayak Sen, were among others charged under the draconian sedition law.

Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code defines sedition as "Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine."    

Having said that, article 19 (1) of the Indian Constitution grants a citizen of India the freedom of speech and expression with reasonable restrictions. Therefore, under the fundamental right to the freedom of speech and expression, the students had the means to be critical of the Indian cricket team’s performance.

However, it would not be an extrapolation to classify this move of the Uttar Pradesh administration as an abuse of the sedition law. The Supreme Court of India too, had previously made it abundantly clear that without an actual incitement to cause public disorder, disaffection cannot be termed as sedition. Thus, criticizing the Indian cricket team, let alone the Indian government does not qualify for sedition and defeats the very spirit of democracy in turn, muzzling a citizen’s right to free speech. Thus, when Abdullah called the slapping of these charges “uncalled for”, he was correct.

Needless to say, Abdullah also invoked a contentious issue of a ‘Kashmiri identity’ while condemning the UP administration’s response to sacking of students. There’s a question we all need to ask -- had there been a furore if the students belonged to any other Indian state but Jammu and Kashmir? Or had the crisis deepened if it were not for the Pakistani cricket team? In the more bitter than sweet relations between India and Pakistan, the state of Jammu and Kashmir remains contentious, very often sensitive to matters of border negotiations and India’s relations with Pakistan. Therefore, seemingly ‘anti-national’, ‘unpatriotic’ voices from the inhabitants of the state do not only catch the fancy of the national mainstream media but all those desperate to jump into the fray. So when Abdullah points out the issue of identities, he underlines the need to not let this turn to an ugly episode which will alienate Kashmiris from the Indian ‘mainstream’.

Additionally, in the electorally charged state where the poll bugle has been sounded, such a move with subsequent involvement of the UP government for revocation of sedition charges only helps polarize votes in the run up to elections.

What’s more disturbing is the principal opposition Bhartiya Janata Party’s stance on the revocation of sedition charges, saying that the ruling Samajwadi Party government is only bothered about vote bank.

Recently, BJP’s state unit president Laxmikant Bajpai said that the party will meet the Home Minister and will demand a CBI probe into the matter. The BJP which has previously taken regressive stands on homosexuality among others, now strongly pitches for sedition charges in an unprecedented turn of events.

After all, caught in the eye of Indian electoral tornado, hope still remains that democracy and the right to free speech does not get butchered amidst poll brouhaha.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Reclaiming Spaces

At noon on February 5,  the sight of Parliament Street police station was like never before. Scores of students from the North East Indian states had courted arrest to demand their right for safer spaces in the country. From Arunachal Pradesh to Manipur, students holding placards- ‘We want anti-racial law’ and ‘Justice for Nido Tania’ stormed the station premises and exchanged views on what needed to be done to root out racial discrimination inherent in ‘mainland’ India towards those hailing from the Northeast. Most present had chosen not to attend college lectures, while many other activists believed it was high time and something needed to be done.

Feb 5: Outside Parliament Street police station before the
  protesters had courted arrest

It all began when after days of lodging their protest against the racial killing of 19 year old Nido Tania, the community received an initial lackluster response from the government, which was when on February 5, they decided to march to the Indian Parliament. Contoured with water cannon vehicle on one side and barricades on the other outside the Parliament Street police station, activists huddled up to raise the pitch of their demands. They wanted justice for Nido Tania, they wanted a speedy investigation, they wanted to be treated equal to Indians with 'big eyes, sharp noses, defined facial features,' and they wanted to reclaim their right to live in the country.

As a result of the belief in representative democracy, the last few years have seen citizens coming out on streets to press for their demands. And yet again, those from the Northeast Indian states had assembled in the nation's capital to table their demand.

Cut to the scene outside Parliament Street police station. After not being allowed to march to the Parliament which was in session then, students exchanged ideas, expressed wrath and disgust towards how fellow countrymen have treated them. Within an hour’s time faxes were sent to MPs from the Northeast Indian states, who were then in the national capital to come and address the gathering. The previous days had seen AICC Vice President Rahul Gandhi, former Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and MoS DONER ministry Paban Singh Ghatowar addressing the protesters but none of their MPs had come to address them yet.
Feb 5: MPs representing the North East India states join
 the protest at Jantar Mantar

The arrival of more than eight MPs representing the Northeast Indian states resulted in a verbal slugfest where irate protesters targeted them for not representing their cause or lobbying for an anti-racial discrimination law. This is when the news of formation of a committee for the Northeast rang the police station doorbell. There were doubts about why no student representatives and activists but only bureaucrats constituted the committee which was when they were inducted in the committee. Another committee at the Delhi government level was also formed to look into cases of discrimination of North easterners.

Today, with the induction of student leaders and representatives, the hopes of those hailing from the Northeast Indian states have bolstered. One of the core committee members D Apao says they are fully cooperating with the committee formed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which also has numerous student leaders. The request now is to include legal experts in the committee. Until an anti-racial discrimination law is in place, the cries for safer spaces will continue.

No longer a ‘Northeast’ issue-
A striking feature of these protests was the scanty numbers of Indians with ‘big eyes, sharp noses and defined facial features’. Although, Jawaharlal Nehru University students and professors among others did express solidarity with their cause, yet the numbers of ‘mainland’ Indians remained less. 
A defining moment in the history of women’s movement in India would be when in the aftermath of the December 16 gang rape of a paramedic student, cutting across the caste, class and gender lines people assembled outside the citadels of power to demand safer spaces for women. Quite unlike that protest, the less number of 'mainland' Indians only reflects our indifference towards fellow citizens’ demand for their right to live. Reclamation of spaces for all would require a collective and sustained effort to make people aware of plurality of races in India.

No ‘Please’, it’s their right-
Days after the death of Nido Tania due to severe brain and lung injuries after being beaten up in South Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, the mainstream media flocked the protest premises at Jantar Mantar to fill up the prime-time. Popular journalists led a campaign, incessantly highlighting how the northeastern students are ‘pleading’ with the mainstream to consider them Indians, how they ‘want’ no discrimination towards their people. After several minutes, the journalists' tone seemed like the ‘mainlanders’ would do these people a favour by offering them petty alms; subverting their cause for equality in a country which boasts of plurality.

Back to the basics-
One of the protesters at Jantar Mantar was Pushpa Gurung, a businesswoman originally from Nepal. She drew attention towards the very subtle forms of discrimination coming from people they know. Many a times, racial discrimination surfaces in everyday life which otherwise may pass off as stupid, she says.
"I have many friends so when we meet up, racist jokes against me are very common. I know they are only poking fun at me but a racist mentality is what we need to change," she says, At other times, upon being dropped home at Khirki extension, many rickshawallas have often asked her “Yahaan aapke desh ke bahut log rehte hain na?” (Many people from your country live here)
She points out how fellow countrymen are least aware of the different races in India. “So all those with “chinki” looks are either from China, Nepal or even Bangaldesh,” she says.
Pamei Abison, a DU student from Manipur has now become indifferent to questions about his nationality by fellow students in college. “I have been asked where I come from. It’s sad how those claiming to be educated have little knowledge about us.” He also points how being called “chinki, chowmein, momos” has become a reality they are compelled to accept. 
Several others northeastern students point out how, if they raise an objection to being called names, the locals would gang up against them to retaliate. “We are the minority among the 'mayangs' here.”

From being a tolerant nation, we have increasingly become a nation offended by alternatives, differences and even plurality. However, what happened in the aftermath of Nido Tania’s death is a clarion call to those who may have been blind to differences. For now, at least the malaise of racial discrimination has come to the fore. No longer is the issue of racial discrimination a western phenomenon. Under the cloak of plurality and richness, the dirty little secret of rampant racism in the country, which remained hidden so far has now grabbed the limelight.