Behind the mist wall

Last year heads had turned when a tall, slim and elegant woman turned up at the Mountain Echoes literary festival in Thimphu, Bhutan.

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Last year heads had turned when a tall, slim and elegant woman turned up at the Mountain Echoes literary festival in Thimphu, Bhutan. When the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck (a writer who is also the festival’s patron), escorted this young woman to the front row, necks craned further: who was this woman? Was it true that she was going to be the next queen of Bhutan?

Last week, 31-year-old King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangyal announced his engagement to the striking Jetsun Pema while inaugurating his country’s Parliament session. Later, the royal couple made their first official appearance at the inauguration of Mountain Echoes at India House, holding hands, posing for photographs, stealing glances and smiles. Every Bhutanese I congratulated beamed with pride as if it was a family wedding. At newspaper offices the next morning, irritated readers wanted to know why extra copies hadn’t been printed in anticipation of the huge demand for the first royal portrait. This is, after all, a country where hip teenagers sport buttons of the king’s image on their shirts. “For us Bhutanese, it’s a profound moment that symbolises continuity,” said a journalist.

Continuity and change run like a leitmotif through Bhutan. The subject of change — when it will come, how to deal with it, how to negotiate it — is nearly obsessive in this tiny country of seven lakh people. Driglam namzha or traditional etiquette was debated last year at Mountain Echoes, and this year too. For years this land-locked mountain kingdom kept the world out. Now, it’s beginning to pry open its doors — television, internet, democracy — and is wondering how much to let in, and how.

How does a nation retain its identity when change is all around? In Bhutan the question is even more complex because so much has happened in such a short time: television and the internet are less than 10 years old, roads and modern education less than 50. Bhutan is probably the most self-conscious country in the world and included in the concept of Bhutanese identity is the preservation of dzongkha, the national language. “Dzongkha is the essence of Bhutan’s ancient culture and values,” says Sherub Gyeltshen, secretary to the Dzonghka Development Commission. Bhutanese officials worry that dzongkha is losing out to English. English-speaking Bhutanese are more likely to get better paid jobs and training.

Then there is the matter of dress. All the film posters I saw had Bhutanese actors in traditional dress — the knee-length gho for men and the full-length kira for women. Under the regulations, film-makers can’t show Bhutanese actors in western clothes (and must include at least two pieces of traditional music). Debate informs the air: should a dress code be enforced? What about alcohol control regulations to counter the serious problem of alcoholism? In recent times nothing has been debated as much as the country’s new Tobacco Control Act under, which a monk was sentenced to three years in jail for carrying 48 packets (roughly R2 each) of Baba chewing tobacco. The sentence is now the subject of a raging controversy: some say the law is draconian, others say tobacco goes against the essence of Buddhism.

Despite all fear about a ‘McDonalds’ culture’, Bhutanese are introspective, and optimistic. As in India, the language of the masses is constantly enriched with new words: logrig (literally intelligent machine run on electricity) for computers, for instance. The local film industry, despite its ‘inspiration’ from the Hindi film industry has kept interest alive and the numerous singing competitions on TV are nearly all in dzongkha. “Our youth value our culture and traditions,” says author Kunzang Choden. There will always be need for individual expression, even if it takes the form of tattoos and spiked hair. The good news is that the Bhutanese question the value of that expression. When it comes they are ready to face it.

The marriage of the king in October will reignite feelings of nationalism and raise questions of identity and change once again. It was this king’s father who gave his country both a constitution and democracy. Now his son must negotiate the trickier path of making both work and aligning Bhutan with the 21st century.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer

The views expressed by the author are personal

Negotiating the crossroads

Post the 2G scam, India can either be a banana republic or rise above the mess. The choice is ours, writes Namita Bhandare.

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As temperatures dip in the Capital, there is a strange whiff in the air. It’s not the smoky smell of wood fire around which chowkidars huddle at night. It’s another odour altogether. It’s the stink of corruption that will not be cleansed.

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No matter how many Ashok Chavans are given marching orders, no matter how many Suresh Kalmadis are snubbed, no matter how many A Rajas are dropped, the prevailing stench of something very rotten indeed will not go away.

We are no longer surprised when our politicians turn out to be crooked. We’ve always suspected that big business and the media are complicit. But this time the rot encircles some of India’s most iconic names: Ratan Tata and Manmohan Singh. We ask where does this trail of corruption end? Is there no finish line in sight?

The telecom scandal seems to have emotional resonance not just because of its scale (how do you even begin to imagine a sum of R1 lakh crore?) or even because of the reputations of those involved but because we see our telecom revolution as symbolic of India’s rise as an economic power; our talisman of a 21st century can-do nation. Now it turns out that the biggest beneficiaries were not the paanwalas who bought mobile phones or the students who hooked into an interconnected world but the recipients of an ongoing licence raj where largesse — mining rights, spectrum, coal contracts, land, natural gas — are distributed to favoured courtiers.

In the latest round of 2G revelations, independent MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar says that the Tatas were one of the biggest beneficiaries of out-of-turn spectrum allocation. Ratan Tata — who has moved the Supreme Court on grounds of right to privacy against the leaking of his publicist Niira Radia’s taped phone conversations — accuses the BJP of changing the norms of award of telecom licences. The last word’s not been heard yet.

A CWG here or a 2G there could have been individual instalments in an ongoing soap of corruption. But the latest tales point to the PM. How much did Manmohan Singh know about Raja’s scam? Did his office give in to pressure from the DMK to bypass the Empowered Group of Ministers on pricing issues? Did he drag his feet when Subramaniam Swamy asked for permission to have Raja prosecuted? If he was in the dark, then how effective is his leadership?

Singh’s personal reputation for integrity is unimpeachable. Yet, it is not enough for the PM to wrap himself around his own lily white sheets of reputation. It is incumbent on him to forward the impression that he will not tolerate corruption, or even impropriety, in his team. As a leader he must be able to dispel the gathering notion that he is unable to control the shysters in his government. Arguments of political expedience (‘we are clean but we cannot control our allies’ etc) are rubbish. There is always a moral alternative: step down.

The moral universe, to pinch Sonia Gandhi’s term, is shrinking. For this the UPA must shoulder the blame. Transparency International’s 2010 global corruption barometer finds that 74% Indians believe that the country has become more corrupt in the last three years while another 75% say Singh’s government has been ineffective in fighting this.

By refusing to concede to the Opposition’s demand for a JPC, the UPA is reinforcing the perception that it has something to hide. The attempts to stop the bleeding — replacing Raja with Kapil Sibal, getting a retired judge to probe the extent of the scam, the CBI’s raid on Raja — is not enough to regain its ‘moral universe’.

Over 20 years ago, the Congress lost power over charges that were never proved. The courts eventually exonerated Rajiv Gandhi but Bofors became synonymous with corruption. The 2G scam could become the morality tale of our times, not just of corruption but of crony capitalism, of what India ultimately stands for. Are we doomed to be a ‘banana republic’, in Ratan Tata’s words? Or can we, ever, rise higher, above the odour that now surrounds us?

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.

Make it work for working women

The sexual harassment bill is a step in the right direction. But can laws alone change the male mentality? Asks Namita Bhandare.

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A bill to protect women from lecherous bosses is whipping up fear and loathing, at least in some quarters. In DNA newspaper Nirad Mudur writes about the Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill: “I — and all male employees, for that matter — better fear the workplace.” In Bangalore, an organisation called Save India Family Foundation says the bill will, ‘endanger genial gender relationship in workplace (sic)’. And in office canteens the buzz includes the possibility of misuse by vengeful women employees while others wonder why men aren’t being offered the same protection.

Give me a break.

Fear the workplace? Because unwelcome sexual advances (and we’re not talking ‘consensual flirtation’ to quote a famous publisher) will now be punishable offences? Genial gender relationships? Save India Family Foundation’s notion of places of employment as frolicking havens of genteel interactions between men and women is a joke. And women bosses stalking men — yes that is a possibility, but compared to men, how many women bosses do you know? And, for the record, the bill does have provisions for false complaints. Miffed women employees would be better off spitting into their boss’ coffee.

Forget the workplace for a minute. Delhi, our ‘world-class’ capital is unabashedly hostile to women. We teach our daughters to walk fast on streets, avoid eye contact with men and return home before dark. Working women have no special immunity from this generalised hostility — as the killings of Jessica Lal, Soumya Vishwanathan and Jigeesha Ghosh show. A survey of 600 women in the IT and BPO industry by the Centre for Transforming India found a whopping 88% had been subjected to or witnessed sexual harassment in their workplace. Things can get rough even for those in uniform. In September this year, a woman constable was raped and murdered by two policemen in Chechat police station in Kota district.

Two words then to all the misogynists: shut up.

It’s hard to believe but until the landmark Vishakha judgement in August 1997 women in the workplace had absolutely no protection against sexual harassment. The Vishakha judgement spelt out what sexual harassment was (sexual behaviour including physical contact and advances, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands whether by words or actions), the responsibilities of employers in providing women with safe working places and the punishments that could be prescribed. Many of these features are now included in the bill.

Yet the bill, tipped to be introduced in Parliament’s ongoing winter session, is far from perfect. Its most glaring omission, according to news reports, is domestic helpers, clearly the most vulnerable among working women. According to a 2004-05 study by the National Sample Survey Organisation, there are more than two million household helpers in India. These workers have no job security, paid leave or minimum wages. They are often subject to deprivation and gross abuse, verbal, physical and sexual — a fact brought out ironically by the Supreme Court during a recent ruling on maintenance. “If a man has a keep whom he maintains financially and uses mainly for sexual purpose and/or as a servant, it’d not, in our opinion, be a relationship in the nature of marriage,” the court ruled in an inadvertent equation of servants with sex, a problem that is clearly prevalent but one which gets highlighted only when the odd film star gets arrested on rape charges.

The sexual harassment bill is, if nothing else, a nod to the growing visibility of working women. From high profile achievers in banks (Chanda Kochar), business (Kiran Majumdar Shaw), sport (Saina Nehwal), film (Kareena Kapoor), politics (Mamata Banerjee) to anonymous and unsung employees in the unorganised sector, women are shattering glass ceilings, surmounting huge odds, working for a variety of reasons from economic to aspirational, juggling home work with paid work.

Yet, at a function to felicitate Commonwealth Games women’s wrestling gold winner Anita at Bhiwani, Haryana, her proud father, Dalip Singh Sheoran had this to say: “She must follow the customs. If she violates those, I can even kill her.”

It will take more than mere laws to get men like Sheoran to change their minds. Until then, we’ll take the law, thank you.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.