Archive for the ‘human interest’ Category

Revisiting Old Favourites

In the summer of 1975, I was a typical middle-class college student: apolitical, though not unaware of political events, immersed in college activities and casting fleeting glances at the road ahead in life. The Emergency was a turning point for me and many others. After the initial shock, we witnessed the arrests of many activists, including prominent members of the current ruling elite, on the Delhi University campus, and got used to boring fare in the daily newspapers. Slowly, frustration started setting in — fear of speaking out because of rumours of police informers prowling around the campus, being incessantly subjected to glowing accounts of the achievements of the government, including the heir-apparent, and the reports, as 1976 wearily dragged on, of demolitions in Old Delhi and forced sterilisations, most markedly in the Hindi belt. The announcement of elections in January 1977 came as a relief, followed by joy when Congress party stalwarts deserted an obviously  sinking ship and euphoria on the morning of 20 March 1977 when Indira Gandhi’s party was given marching orders by the people of India.

I am not, though, soliloquising on those momentous days, but rather on three books that strongly attracted me during the Emergency and its aftermath: George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon. The Emergency era, with its midnight arrests, glorification of the leader and breathless media  accounts of remarkable economic achievements, was drawn straight from the scripts of  these three classics. Post-1980, although India went through its multiple convulsions, these books, while occupying pride of place on my bookshelf, gathered dust as the Fukuyama liberal democracy era seemed to indicate that we were moving to more hopeful times.

Not any more, though. 1984 has been replicated in the scenario of recent years. Big Brother, in the shape of the Great Leader, beams at us from giant-size hoardings, full-page newspaper advertisements and from television screens, in country after country. Media reports are full of government’s achievements in the financial, economic, social and foreign policy spheres. The television screens scream shrilly at us when exposing dastardly “anti-national” conspiracies, with news anchors frothing at the mouth and their coiffured hair popping up a la Kishore Kumar in the Hindi film Padosan. And with the daily cacophony of alleged attacks by disaffected elements, including migrants, minorities and liberals, that day is not far when we will be treated to public displays of captured enemy soldiers.

Darkness At Noon has its echoes in the recent midnight drama at the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) headquarters in New Delhi. That the government saw fit to undertake a coup against a senior police functionary under cover of darkness is alarming; that it posted ham-handed, heavy-footed sleuths to snoop on him the next day betrays a paranoia that would have done Stalin proud. The pattern is the same elsewhere in the world: a senior Interpol representative vanishes in China, a journalist is strangled and dismembered in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul and journalists and liberal thinkers are summarily despatched in countries like Russia and India. Concentration camps and Gulags may have become passé but detention camps have come to stay in the world’s largest democracies, India and the USA, all set to house “migrants” from neighbouring countries.

Animal Farm is, of course, a perennial favourite in describing politics of any hue. Every politician promising change morphs into the image of his/her predecessor: the “oppressed” imitate their oppressors in every single case. Even more telling is the popularity of fake news, reminiscent of “Four legs good, two legs bad” metamorphosing into “Four legs good, two legs better”. History is rewritten so that the dumb animals can no longer remember their initial revolt against the tyrannical Farmer Jones.

Where then does it look as though humanity is collectively headed to? Hopefully not the terrifying society envisioned in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which the United States of America becomes an authoritarian theocracy, with the regulation of thought and speech at every step and selected women serving as reproductive vessels for a fast-vanishing elite. For me, the mind-numbing moment in the novel came when the central character, June, is suddenly informed at a shopping counter that she can no longer draw money from her bank accounts. Flashback to 8 PM on 8 November 2016 when over one billion citizens were summarily informed that in four hours’ time, currency of particular large denominations held by them would become worthless and they would have to approach their bank branches as beggars to release even limited amounts of their own money. Even though the Supreme Court has not accepted the mandatory linking of bank accounts to Aadhaar numbers, the fact remains that 99 percent of Indians have been compelled to link their bank accounts with their Aadhaar numbers. I shudder at the thought of a future dictator arbitrarily and unilaterally deciding at the stroke of the midnight hour to freeze all bank accounts and gain complete control over the finances, and other actions, of his/her country’s inhabitants. Should that ever occur, our venerated poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore’s famous line in Gitanjali will have to be modified to “Into that hell of unfreedom, my Father, let my country  not awake.”

 

Why!!!… Loiter!!!

The Age of Aquarius was a pop song in vogue in my college days. Expressing the angst of the hippie world, it also refers to an age of great upheaval. Such an age seems to have arrived in India circa 2018, as far as gender equality and uprooting traditional sexual identities are concerned. The Supreme Court has played the lead role in this denouement: decriminalisation of same-sex relations and adultery, triple talaq, Sabarimala temple entry for women in the 10-50 age group have been some of its landmark judgments in recent months. The latest bombs to shake Indian society and polity have been the #MeToo accounts of women of sexual predation by influential male figures in areas ranging from journalism to advertising and entertainment, which is now threatening to spill over to other areas like academia and politics.

By any standards, the promise of equality in the Preamble to the Constitution of India seems to have bypassed an overwhelming majority of Indian women, in terms of access to education, employment, decision-making powers and, shamefully, even to the right to life. Even in the very sectors, like journalism, academia and entertainment, where we have been trumpeting the achievements of women, sexism and patriarchal attitudes are rampant, as recent disclosures by aggrieved women make amply clear. The top floors in politics, the bureaucracy and the corporate boardroom are still the exclusive preserve of the old boys’ club, with the occasional token genuflections to the odd woman. In the bureaucracy, which I am familiar with, it is only the southern states — Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka — which have seen women at the helm of the civil service and the police forces (the odd exception from the north notwithstanding). Even a supposedly socially aware state like Maharashtra has passed up opportunities in the past to promote a woman to the top job in the bureaucracy.

Which is why three articles, in as many days, by a well-known college contemporary of mine, raised my hackles. Titled Limitations of the #MeToo campaign in India, If harassment was open secret, why the conspiracy of silence? and Guild can’t tell Akbar not to move court, they sought to respectively hint at a class bias (English and social media based), an open conspiracy of silence of the victims and others, including male colleagues in the know of things, and the suggestion that the person at the centre of the furore was sought to be denied his legal rights. When a former journalist and a current Member of Parliament comes out with all guns blazing, it brings into question the motives behind the heavy artillery shelling and whether palatable explanations for a gullible middle class are being trotted out.

My former college contemporary being, like me, an upper middle class, Hindu male, can never really comprehend what it means to be a woman in her late teens or early twenties who encounters a celebrity. Many of them were setting foot in the relatively unknown universe of print journalism. In one sense they were seeking to fly at a time when the environment was generally adverse, whether at the workplace or even in the larger social world. Reporting humiliating experiences of inappropriate behaviour by a powerful, reputed person who could spell finis to their careers would either not be believed (or be casually dismissed), as they often were, with the collateral damage that conservative families would dissuade these women from continuing to do what they wished to do. With no directions on handling sexual harassment complaints in place till 1997 and even these (the Vishakha guidelines) being openly ignored by the organisations they worked in, no avenue for redress was open. More importantly, the point that most people, especially males, miss is that inappropriate contact, as detailed in most of the accounts published till now, would have been well-nigh impossible to prove in a court of law in the absence of witnesses and with the financial and institutional might of the person they sought to arraign being deployed against them.

It was not till social media provided the avenue for catharsis that women, from different age groups and backgrounds, felt emboldened to come out in the open and share their mind-numbing outrage with others who went through similar experiences. To now accuse them of elitism and class bias smacks of downright cynicism. Every social movement has to have a beginning. Whether it is the Arab Spring or the #MeToo upsurge, the wellsprings generally lie in the educated, articulate middle class. This anger will then spread to the hinterland from its hitherto metropolitan roots: those who think that this is a passing moment, soon to be forgotten, are mistaken.

What occasions real sadness are the attitudes of patriarchy and misogyny displayed by sections of the “enlightened “ class (both women and men) in response to the recent events, all the more so at  a juncture when girls (and women) from different states and different walks of life are trying to carve out their distinctive identities, separate from father or husband. Even in a gender-skewed state like Haryana, the number of girls who have acquired laurels in sports ranging from wrestling to shooting is heartening, not to mention examples like Dutee Chand and Hima Das, who come from modest backgrounds. Women are also now increasingly entering the hitherto largely male preserves like the armed forces and the upper echelons of the police force. The social environment still militates against their advancement — witnessed in the recent assault on girls in a residential school in Bihar and the rape in Haryana of a young girl on her way to tuition classes.

It is equally infuriating to note that not a word is uttered about responsible, decent, courteous behaviour on the part of males, despite more than adequate evidence over the years of their misdeeds, both in private and public settings. We are talking about saving and educating daughters (Beti Bachao Beti Padhao) without thinking of the concomitant measures that need to be taken to educate and discipline boys to become caring, compassionate men who respect women. Ultimately, we need to shed the patriarchal mindset (prevalent in both sexes) that the woman is responsible for her harassment. Regardless of what she wears, what she drinks or eats and who she goes out with at what time, a woman is entitled to all the freedoms granted to her male counterparts by the Constitution of India. Else we will end up with an Uttar Pradesh-like scenario, where the anti-Romeo squads in effect become anti-Romeo & Juliet squads, given the rampant misogyny prevalent in both vigilantes and the local police.

Before I conclude this blog, I must explain my rather cryptic title, which has been shamelessly borrowed from a book by three researchers Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. The book deals with the limited access of women to public spaces, unless they have a specific purpose for being outside the home, like shopping, picking up children from school, etc. Otherwise, they are expected to be accompanied by a male to protect them from the prurient male gaze. When did you last see a group of women chatting at a street corner, drinking cutting chai and eating crisp pakodas? Contrast this with scene right outside my balcony where, from six in the morning, I am witness to groups of men, young and old, drinking tea at the local bakery and exchanging aimless banter. When women can loiter where they want at any time of their choosing, whether at midnight or at 5 AM, without irksome male attention, I can truly say that the India of my dreams has arrived.

Cutting to the chase

ये दाग़ दाग़ उजाला, ये शब-गज़ीदा सहर

वो इन्तज़ार था जिस का, ये वो सहर तो नहीं  “

This feeble blemished light, this dawn mangled by night,

This is not the morning we had all so longed for” (Faiz Ahmed Faiz)

 

Three incontrovertible facts emerge from the latest bovine related lynching in India’s lynch district of Alwar:

  • Rakbar Khan was in the dairy profession
  • Rakbar Khan was murdered on the night of 20/21 July 2018 within the boundaries of Alwar district
  • Rakbar Khan leaves behind a large family with no visible means of support.

I find it necessary to state the above facts because I am never sure nowadays when fiction will rear its Hydra-like head, especially with Twitter trolls on the prowl. There is a numbing sensation of déjà vu, as yet another bovine-related lynching enters the statistics. Notwithstanding the Supreme Court admonitions, the pious statements of union government ministers and the incessant analysis on TV and in print media, we, as a people, seem to be asserting that lynching is our birthright.

Why am I less than sanguine that things will change for the better? Six reasons inform my pessimism:

  • The role of the police is getting more and more questionable, especially in states like Rajasthan. One Gagandeep Singh in Uttarakhand does not a summer make. Sometime before the latest lynching, we were informed that the Rajasthan police have found no evidence against six of the alleged perpetrators of the Pehlu Khan lynching, although they were named by him before his death. It is also puzzling why the statement of the dying person was not recorded before a Magistrate under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code. If no evidence of actual commission of the offence is made out against the accused, there is every likelihood that they may be acquitted. Final result: one murder, zero conviction.
  • Apologists for the accused, in states from Rajasthan to Jharkhand, claim that those accused/convicted were not actually part of the lynch mob but were innocent bystanders. If the police discount both dying statements of the deceased and video evidence, there is no way anyone can be convicted. Even where the local police, as in the Kathua (Jammu) and Ramgarh (Jharkhand) cases, carries out a thorough investigation, justice is sought to be delayed by the demand for the investigation to be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
  • A mindset has been encouraged in the general public that any apprehension in their minds about the commission of an unlawful act, especially related to cattle, justifies lynching. This has been exacerbated by the mindless enactment of laws in state after state outlawing the sale of beef. Regulations on cattle trade were also sought to be stupidly enforced but withdrawn once there was public outcry and judicial intervention. My friend Harsh Mander has pointed out that the Meo Muslim community in the Mewat region of Haryana have traditionally been in the dairy trade. The virtual pogrom against members of this community when they seek to acquire and transport cattle would seem to be a vicious campaign to deny them their livelihood. Add a potent mixture of love jihad to this and murderous mobs can acquire nationwide licence to kill.
  • Any effort to painstakingly put together data on lynching incidents, relating to causes, community background of the victims and actual convictions, is immediately dismissed by apologists of the ruling establishment as partisan. The latest to face this ire has been the IndiaSpend site for its documentation of the frequency of lynchings since 2010.
  • Well-meaning advice to the government on tackling this menace suffers from the same attribution of motives. Former civil servants are allegedly supporters of the previous ruling dispensation (never mind that they suffered under them) or are peeved because they were denied the loaves and fishes of office after retirement (never mind that no evidence of any such link is given in even one individual case). The feeling is that a lie, if repeated often enough, will be deemed to be the truth by the public.
  • Finally, the actions and statements of prominent members of the ruling party over the past four years have emboldened those who feel their actions are beyond the pale of law. Bland statements by the Prime Minister and Union Ministers on the law taking its course have cut no ice with the rank and file, who continue to issue irresponsible statements without being reined in by their leaders. The latest culprits are a Minister in the Jharkhand government and a senior ruling party functionary in the same state (in the Swami Agnivesh assault case) and a Union Minister (after the latest Alwar lynching).

I am not (as yet) a subscriber to conspiracy theories or to deep, hidden motives behind the actions of politicians who are not thinking beyond the next elections. But, as a citizen of the great Indian experiment in democracy and as an active participant in public service for over three decades, I feel I must stand up for the basic values and ideals that motivated me and my colleagues in the civil services to give of our best to the people of India during our careers. After seeing how things have evolved over the recent past and how justice has more often than not been denied to those at the receiving end of violence and injustice, I am firmly of the view that we must now come to the point. Justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done. With this objective, I offer my own two bits on what needs to be done to restore faith of the families of lynch victims in the rule of law:

  • Lynching, that is mob violence directed against a person or persons, needs to be codified in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The issue is too grave and urgent to leave it to states to pass their own legislations. It needs to be specified that all persons comprising the crowd at a lynching site will be deemed to have acted with a common intention (as defined in Section 34 of the IPC) and will, as abettors, be liable for the same punishment as the actual perpetrators (presuming that culpability of the latter can be established in a mob situation). All such persons should be liable for the same punishment as prescribed in the IPC for causing death, grievous hurt, etc.
  • Sections 217 to 223 of the IPC must be rigorously invoked against police personnel who try to save perpetrators of lynching offences by doctoring/falsifying First Information Reports, deliberately destroying evidence, etc. Needless to say, police personnel who are present at the site of a lynching and do not use all the resources at their disposal for prevention of the lynching (which they are authorised to by law) should, in addition to the punishment for public servants mentioned above, also be culpable for the offence committed and punished accordingly. Removal of such elements from the police force would also send out a very strong message.
  • Section 51 of the Bombay Police Act, 1951 empowers the District Magistrate to fix compensation payable to affected parties in cases where unlawful assemblies result in death/serious injuries to persons. The compensation amount can be recovered from all inhabitants in a particular area or from specific classes of persons. Forcible recovery methods, as in case of land revenue arrears, can be employed to realise this compensation amount. Such a measure will not only discourage public participation in such offences but may also help in advance intimation being given to the police by parties who do not wish to be held liable. In the present case in Alwar, such compensation would provide much needed succour to a poor family which has lost its breadwinner.
  • Administrative responsibility must be fixed for such acts, especially where they recur in a particular area. In the present case, there are good grounds for seeking the resignation of the Rajasthan Home Minister under whose watch a series of incidents, which have shocked the conscience of all right-thinking citizens, have taken place over the past couple of years and whose police have not been able to convincingly bring to a final conclusion even one case of lynching thus far. More than just administrative responsibility, a case is also made out for the ruling party to take action against its Union Minister who has tried to draw a parallel between the spate of lynchings and attempts to defame the Prime Minister. The utterances of the Jharkhand Minister, who sought to deflect the seriousness of the assault on Swami Agnivesh by commenting on his character and antecedents, are equally reprehensible. Such statements by responsible state functionaries, who have sworn to function in accordance with the Constitution of India, reduce the sanctity of the rule of law.

Democracy is always a tender plant that needs to be nurtured carefully. The responsibility for its nurture falls most on those entrusted by the people of this country with ensuring their safety and security. The time is past for delivering homilies. Justice, in accordance with the rule of law, has to be delivered speedily and efficiently. Let not the present ruling dispensation go down in history as one which destroyed the people’s faith in democracy and the rule of law.