Don’t be willing to adjust

Domestic violence rages in India even today because society allows it to, writes Namita Bhandare.

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A day before she died, Supriya Sharma called up her mother and said, “I fear for my life.” It was the last time she would ever speak to her. Supriya had been married to Chandra Vibhash Sahu, a surgeon at the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital for under a year. The families knew each other; the fathers had been colleagues in Jharkhand. It should have been an ideal marriage.

It wasn’t. Within weeks, Sahu began beating his wife. She complained to her parents. He sent her back home to them. The parents sent her back: make up, make it work, they said. The husband said she had mental problems. Then Supriya was offered a job for Rs85,000 a month. Her husband said she couldn’t work. A few days later she was dead.

The portrait of this urban marriage is now another statistic in India’s expanding landscape of domestic violence. Chetan Chauhan reports in this newspaper that domestic violence kills more people than terror strikes – 8,383 domestic violence deaths for 2,231 in terror strikes in 2009. A National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) finds that nearly one in three women in the age group 15-49 have experienced physical, sexual or emotional domestic violence.

With a BTech degree and a post-graduate management degree, Supriya didn’t fit the stereotype of a battered woman. Why would a young woman capable of earning Rs85,000 a month tolerate daily humiliation? What kind of parents would send their daughter back to a man who is torturing her? Why does an educated woman backed by a law against domestic violence not seek legal intervention? And who do we blame now that this woman is dead?

According to NFHS-3, only one in four women report abuse, mainly to parents rather than the police. Often the advice they get is ‘please adjust’. And when there is no happy ending (how can there be?) these parents belatedly wake up to justice. If these women are to get justice, then perhaps we need to think of their parents as enablers of the crime.

Despite the Domestic Violence Act, we treat marital violence as a private matter that is none of our concern, unlike, say, terrorism which is seen as a crime against society. When battered wives find the courage to file complaints, they are often coerced by parents, in-laws and their own warped sense of social propriety to withdraw those complaints.Vijayalakshmi’s five-page police complaint against her husband, Kannada actor Darshan is a tale of horror that includes a swollen left eye, cigarette burns, a bite mark on her ear, a fractured hand. Yet, hours after filing the complaint, following an intervention by ‘friends’ including actors Ambareesh and Vijay Jaggesh to ‘save the family’, the wife recanted – not a beating, she said, she had fallen in the bathroom.

Fortunately, two lower court judges have not bought her story. Bail has been denied twice to Darshan who is in jail. But public opinion is more generous. A Times of India survey found 68% respondents saying Vijayalakshmi was wrong to have filed a police complaint. Kannada film producers have withdrawn an idiotic ban on an actress Darshan is alleged to have been having an affair with but there has been no condemnation of Darshan himself. In fact, there has not been one voice of approbation from the film industry, including Bollywood’s rent-a-soundbite celebrities.

The battered wife, like all battered wives, stands alone. Domestic violence is a crime committed by one person against another. But it’s a crime in which society participates either by silence or by pressurising women to compromise. ‘But he’s a good father.’ ‘This is your karma.’ ‘What will people say?’ ‘Who will support you?’ ‘You provoke him with your nagging.’

Domestic violence rages in India, even against women of a new generation – educated, capable of being financially independent, articulate. It rages because we allow it to.

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

Mission Saving Bapu

When they’re not scamming the country, disrupting Parliament or schmoozing with businessmen and film stars at cricket matches, our netas fall back on their next favourite past-time: Saving Bapu. Namita Bhandare writes.

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When they’re not scamming the country, disrupting Parliament or schmoozing with businessmen and film stars at cricket matches, our netas fall back on their next favourite past-time: Saving Bapu.

We have a fine tradition of Saving Bapu. In 2009 liquor baron Vijay Mallya saved Bapu by coughing up Rs 9.27 crore for assorted memorabilia including his sandals and glasses. In 2007, the government threatened YouTube for a video of admittedly bad taste that showed Gandhiji dancing.

And, of course, we will Save Bapu from companies who use his name to sell overpriced fountain pens.

Now the Save Bapu movement is on full swing as this government mulls a law that would ban ‘insults’ to Mahatma Gandhi. The provocation comes not so much from a book but reviews of that book that conclude that author Joseph Lelyveld claims that Gandhi was both bisexual and racist.

Lelyveld is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has reported out of India and South Africa. He denies that his biography, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India reaches either conclusion. “The word bisexual nowhere appears in the book,” he says. He also denies calling Gandhi racist.

But so astute is our political class that it has raised the Save Bapu alarm on a mere reading of the reviews — the book is still unavailable in India — in such journals as the Daily Mail, Britain’s middle-market tabloid.

The first state to ban the book is BJP-ruled Gujarat. This is ironic because the Hindu right detests Gandhi nearly as much as the radical Left. Next to likely follow is Maharashtra, which has a long record in banning books from James Laine’s Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (the Supreme Court overturned the ban in 2010 but the book remains unavailable) to Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, which was removed from the Mumbai University syllabus last year under pressure from the Shiv Sena.

Gandhiji has no shortage of detractors in this country. His ongoing battle with Bhimrao Ambedkar is well-documented. In 2009, Mayawati created a minor rumpus by calling him a natakbaaz.

Historian Ramachandra Guha tells of how Naxalites in West Bengal brought down statues and how Kondapalli Seetaramaiah, founder of the People’s War Group, made a trip to Gandhiji’s parental home just to spit on it.

In recent times there have been serious attempts to understand the work, life, philosophy and evolution of this remarkable and complicated man. That we still feel the need to revisit Gandhiji is to pay tribute to his continuing relevance not only to Indians but to the rest of the world.

Not all accounts are flattering. British historian Jad Adams’s 2010 Naked Ambition claimed that Gandhiji was sex-obsessed. Much has been written of his somewhat bizarre views on celibacy, birth control, alcohol and women. Few, if any, in India follow his lifestyle. Post-1992, many values lie officially abandoned. So much for Saving Bapu.

To ban on a book, no matter to what extent it deviates from the officially permitted deified portrait, is to limit our understanding of the man who brought freedom to this country. We owe to future generations a complete picture of a completely human man — full of misgiving and doubt but great in spite of them.

Gandhiji’s own family is against a ban. Gopalkrishna Gandhi says his grandfather “is best protected by the strength of his own words”. Rajmohan Gandhi, another grandson, says a ban would be wrong ‘from every point of view’. And Tushar Gandhi, Bapu’s great-grandson points out: “How does it matter if the Mahatma was straight, gay or bisexual? Every time he would still be the man who led India to freedom.”

If India is to be a global leader then surely we must be more than an outsourcing destination or a market for consumer goods. We must be thought leaders and equal participants in a knowledge society where there is free exchange of ideas. We must demonstrate our maturity to absorb, debate and then, if need be, reject unpalatable ideas.

Banning books will not save Bapu. Reading about him, trying to understand his ideas and placing him in contemporary relevance will.

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

A loss of memory

There are few memorials for terror victims here. We don’t honour the dead, writes Namita Bhandare.

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The remarkable thing about the Ground Zero memorial is not its aesthetic or its scale or even that Dubya and Obama had buried party differences to come together to honour the 3,000-odd lives lost ten years ago on September 11. The remarkable thing about it was that it existed.

We’ve had our 9/11s too, far too many of them. An estimated 8,856 civilians have been killed in terror strikes (not including left-wing terrorism) across the country since 2001, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. Yet you’d have to look really hard to find even a plaque commemorating these lost lives, innocent civilians caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and collateral damage in someone else’s war.

In Mumbai we’ve had prayer meetings and candle-light vigils; flag marches and speeches. The Taj Hotel has a Tree of Life for the 31 people, including 11 staffers, who lost their lives on 26/11. But at busy Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway terminus there is no sign that points to where 57 people shed their blood on the same day. Two years ago, then railway minister Mamata Banerjee spoke of a memorial — or was it a museum? But the blueprint of this structure and when, if ever, it will come up remain a State secret.

Perhaps life is cheap in our part of the world where people die ever so often in bomb blasts and hospital authorities ask next of kin to pay for shrouds to take the bodies home. Perhaps we have too many 9/11s to keep track of. Perhaps so many memorials to so many dates from 26/11 to 7/9 dotting our landscape from Kashmir to the North-east would serve as a rebuke to a State that has failed to protect aam aadmi lives. “You can’t have a memorial for something that happens all the time all over India,” says a former home secretary.

Americans believe that those who died on 9/11 are heroes, even though they were like us, men and women earning a livelihood, rearing families, sharing hopes and disappointments through the conduct of life. But in India we tend to see our dead as victims, individual lives meshed into a larger tale of collective karma, unsung statistics undeserving of even the dignity of a permanent memorial.

Those in uniform, and I am not belittling their sacrifice, still manage to get their due, however niggardly. At Mumbai Police Gymkhana, there is a martyr’s memorial to the 18 policemen who died on 26/11 but a national police memorial in New Delhi is still under construction. We have yet to get a national war memorial. The Amar Jawan Jyoti beneath India Gate, built by the British in 1921 to honour soldiers who died in World War 1, honours the unknown soldier. Two years ago, Karnataka MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar sent a proposal, with designs, for a national war memorial to be built in Delhi. That proposal, say sources, is ‘under consideration’; meanwhile Chandrasekhar has managed to get one going in Bangalore.

And yet, we have no shortage of memorials to great and not-so-great leaders. The Mayawati government, to give one example, has made the construction of statues from BR Ambedkar to Mayawati herself something of a cottage industry. Behenji’s drive is so exuberant that the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) took note of the escalation in costs of two projects, one for Ambedkar and the other for Kanshi Ram, from an initial R881.22 crore to R2451.93 crore.

Memorials are largely symbolic, often reminding succeeding generations of a life well lived. What inspired Gandhiji? Are there lessons that we can continue to learn from his life? At Rajghat, hundreds of people continue to seek those answers.

But who will speak for the innocent citizen of a terror strike? “It’s not about a memorial but about honouring the dead,” says Chandrasekhar. Yet, a memorial to Indians killed in terror attacks would do more than serve as catharsis for a shocked and increasingly benumbed nation. Ultimately a memorial is also a signal of determination. At Ground Zero, ten years after 9/11, that message is clear: no more, these lives were lost, but never again.

Can we in India really say that?

( Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer )

The views expressed by the author are personal