Let’s abort our biases

There’s a gap between the law and reality when it comes to gendercide. Namita Bhandare writes.

HT Image

The 40th anniversary of legalised abortion in India went by unnoticed. Women’s groups remained silent. The government was quiet. And there was virtually no mention of this landmark legislation in media.

Perhaps there was a reason for the sobriety. Forty years after the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, abortion is now increasingly being used to kill unborn daughters. The situation is grim and United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) says 7,000 fewer girls are born everyday in India than should be. The Lancet reckons that between three and six million girls were aborted in India over the past decade. And our latest Census figures reveal that the male-female ratio is the worst since we started counting in 1961 – just 914 girls for every 1,000 boys.

Some people call it a gendercide. But no matter what term you use – female foeticide, sex selective abortion – our daughters are going to inherit a world where women will (literally) count for less and less, and crimes, including rape, will spike, and so will discrimination in all forms.

Sex selective abortion doesn’t happen because abortion is legal but because the tests to determine the sex of an unborn child are becoming cheaper and easily available. Ultrasound tests are now a part of the drill. It’s illegal for doctors to tell mothers the sex of their unborn children. It’s illegal to then kill them if they are female. There has been a law in place to check this since 1996. But 14 years later, despite six million missing girls, there have been a sum total of 55 convictions.

If this is a law that the State doesn’t bother to implement, then part of the blame must lie in the gap between legislation and social reality. Where honour killings prevail, where women suffer chronic hunger and deprivation, where dowry (like sex selective abortion) is banned by law but persists all the same, how much control can women really have over their fertility? When to give birth, how many to give birth to, and ensuring that they continue to give birth until they produce that much coveted male heir is often determined by larger family and social pressure. Complicit in all this is the medical profession that diagnoses and aborts unwanted babies.

Mara Hvistendahl, the author of Unnatural Selection writes how doctors at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), where the amniocentesis test was unveiled in 1975, were happy to tell women the sex of the foetus, and abort it if so desired. When the State’s goal is a small family norm, you will hear these arguments: 1) It’s better to abort a female foetus than have an unwanted child. 2) It’s better to have an abortion than repeated pregnancies. 3) What about the right of a woman who has had, say, three daughters, to have the son she desires?

These are specious arguments for the following reasons: 1) If the abortion of a female foetus isn’t an option, the child will be embraced and loved, not unwanted. 2) Repeated pregnancies? You can stop at one or two if you stop thinking of daughters as not ‘completing’ the family, and 3) The right of a woman to have an abortion is inviolate, but to have an abortion because she is carrying a girl isn’t a choice she can make. When individual choice and the larger social good clash, social good must win.

Last week, Maharashtra’s Satara district saw a minor revolution where parents who had made their disappointment clear by naming their third or fourth daughters Nakoshi (unwanted) were made to go through a renaming ceremony. As many as 265 Nakoshis were allowed to choose a new name. Waiting for her ceremony to begin, 10-year-old Nakoshi Bavdhane told a Hindu reporter that she was excited by her new name, Aishwariya, the goddess of wealth (though she could well have had the popular actress in mind).

But when gender bias begins with a name, renaming can only be a small step forward in a long, hard journey ahead.

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

When reality is boring

Are we the world’s greatest conspiracy theorists? The question struck me while watching two eminent doctors argue with Mark Toleman, one of the co-authors of a Lancet article on the presence of a superbug in Delhi’s water. Namita Bhandare writes.

HT Image

Are we the world’s greatest conspiracy theorists? The question struck me while watching two eminent doctors argue with Mark Toleman, one of the co-authors of a Lancet article on the presence of a superbug in Delhi’s water.

Lancet had reported last week that Delhi water samples had tested positive for the multi-drug resistant superbug, NDM-1. But the doctors’ chief concerns seemed to revolve around nomenclature: ND stands for New Delhi, and if you must know the full name, it’s New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase-1.

Why should this bug be named after our great city, asked doctor #1? The Lancet article was designed to derail our medical tourism, fumed doctor #2? And then, in stepped the anchor, virtually draped in the tricolour, wasn’t this a conspiracy theory by the big, bad west?

Surely, this can’t be true, I thought. Surely the only questions that matter: is there a superbug — and I don’t care if it’s called NDM-1, R2D2 or Santa Claus — in my water? How did it get there? How do I get rid of it? And if I get it, then what?

None of these questions seemed to matter as much as superbug-as-conspiracy. In the din of ‘ulterior motives’ (Ghulam Nabi Azad) and ‘sinister design of multinational companies’ (SS Ahluwalia), we seemed to forget that bugs are named after various cities from Verona to Sao Paolo and countries from Sweden to US, and nobody minds. Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit almost instinctively rubbished the report.

Yet, within hours of issuing a ‘no need to panic’ statement, she had agreed to a six-month study with the assistance of WHO. I’ll be happy if the superbug turns out to be a superdud, but on the basis of informed research not fake nationalism.

Why single out the poor Delhi government? In Jaitapur, the Maharashtra state government sees a foreign conspiracy behind the protests against the proposed 10,000 MW nuclear plant. “India is fast becoming a superpower and many people are not comfortable with it,” chief minister Prithviraj Chavan warned after a recent tour of the region.

That the Jaitapur protest is led by retired judge BG Kolse-Patil or that it has the support of the Shiv Sena and the Left parties or that a group of 50 scientists and academics have written to the prime minister asking him to review the project in the wake of the Japanese nuclear crisis is perhaps irrelevant.

Conspiracy theories are not the monopoly of the State. Outed for supporting Narendra Modi, Anna Hazare has been speaking of a ‘conspiracy’ to derail the anti-corruption movement. Modi sees references to the communal riots of 2002 as an anti-Gujarat ‘conspiracy’ — no doubt his denial of a US visa is part of that conspiracy too.

The helicopter crash that killed former Andhra Pradesh chief minister YS Rajashekhara Reddy smacks of a conspiracy. And even the forces of nature are not immune: an attack by bees on a Mayawati rally last year led to an investigation by the state horticulture department that concluded that no beehive had been disturbed, ergo the bees were manuvadi agents.

Is it an old subcontinental instinct to react with the words ‘conspiracy theory’ when faced with unpalatable truths? Indira Gandhi saw a ‘foreign hand’ in virtually everything that didn’t go her way from railway accidents to cricket Tests. Pakistan does it all the time: you have only to follow the Ray Davis story to know what I mean.

And, of course, we’ve never really gotten to the bottom of the conspiracy that led to the massacre of the Nepal royal family.

But conspiracy theories, from the moon landing to the death of Princess Diana, abound all over the world. Partly this is to do with trying to make sense of the big questions that face us: why did Hemant Karkare’s bullet-proof jacket go missing and why did it take so long for help to reach him? Partly this is to do with the lightning speed of the internet that acts as a breeding ground for madcap theories.

But mainly this is because today’s conspiracy theories — Watergate, Iran-Contra — have an uncomfortable way of becoming tomorrow’s truths.

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

Ab bus karo, please!

LK Advani’s yatra is a last-century tactic to deal with this century’s problems, writes Namita Bhandare.

HT Image

Oh-ho, there he goes again. Like an Annual Day school theme, every edition of LK Advani’s rath yatra comes with its own slogan. This one’s against corruption. And black money. Heck, it even has its own rock anthem: ‘Ab bus’ (Bus? What happened to the rath?).

If you’re looking for novelty, look elsewhere. In the past one month, six different politicians will be rolling out their own yatras. There’s a ‘sewa yatra’ by Nitish Kumar and a ‘kranti yatra’ by Akhilesh Yadav. Even yoga teacher-turned anti-corruption crusader Baba Ramdev has a yatra.

There’s a sense of déjà vu: been there, seen that. Advani is a veteran; this is his sixth roadshow since 1990s Somnath to Ayodhya tour. The story goes that Advani was planning a padyatra, or walking tour, to drum up support for the Ram mandir when Pramod Mahajan came up with the idea of converting a truck into a ‘rath’ because a walk would take too long. The plan worked; newspapers reported how people were flocking to the rath, smearing dust from its tyres on their foreheads. The BJP won the next election, even though it was AB Vajpayee, not Advani, who became prime minister.

The pilgrim’s progress has been a bit bumpy since. None of Advani’s subsequent yatras, whether in 1993 or in 1997 could reap the gains of 1990. If anything, Advani’s 2004 India Shining yatra ended with political defeat for the BJP.

Perhaps the problem was that yatras had simply run their course. Padyatras have been used successfully in Indian politics since Gandhiji’s walk from Saba-rmati to Dandi in 1930. In independent India, Sunil Dutt walked through Punjab during the height of militancy in the late 80s. And in 1983, Chandra Shekhar walked 4,000 km from Kanyakumari to Rajghat in Delhi.

But if Gandhiji showed how yatras could be an effective tool in connecting people, he also gave independent India its most favoured tool of protest: the fast. Sundry politicians, trade unionists, activists, students have fasted with varying degrees of success. Anna Hazare flexed muscle with his recent 12-day bhookh hartal. In Koodankulam, 5,000 villagers are on a ‘relay hunger strike’ – a pragmatic adaptation surely – against the setting up of a nuclear power plant. And in 2009 Chandrasekhar Rao’s 12-day fast got the central government to concede to Telangana. Irom Sharmila who’s been on a fast for 11 years – she is force-fed through a tube in her nose – has met with less success.

If we needed a signal that fasts could descend to farce, it was last month’s competitive fasting in Gujarat. To counter chief minister Narendra Modi’s ‘sadbhavna fast’, Congressmen undertook a fast of their own outside Sabarmati Ashram. Adding to the theatrics, a social organisation also announced a fast to protest cow slaughter. Why get left behind?

Yatras, fasts, bandhs, gheraos are old political tricks inherited by an independent India; last century’s tactics to deal with this century’s problems. And, yet, India has moved on. An increasingly youthful population has embraced free markets, global brands, social media, new cinema. Everything has changed, it seems, except our politics, still locked in caste, lineage and a seniority mindset.

The average age of our Cabinet ministers is 65. Younger politicians seem to be overshadowed, rarely speaking up on issues that touch young India. An Omar Abdullah might create momentary flutters with a tweet and Rahul Gandhi’s sleepovers at Dalit homes will spark comments, but by and large politicians have failed to come up with a big bang new idea.

Instead we have deference to seniority, a clinging to status quo and the same tired old script being played out before an increasingly jaded audience.

Meanwhile, Advani’s rath yatra hit a snag on day one with a malfunctioning air-conditioner emitting exhaust fumes. So noxious were these that poor Sushma Swaraj became sick. A doctor had to be called in. Perhaps the fumes, and the sickness, were a sign. A sign to really say ab bus.

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