No shades of grey

We must fight for real reforms, not vent our frustrations on easy targets, Namita Bhandare writes.

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It was not the slap that landed on Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar that alarmed me as much as Kiran Bedi’s tweet: “Pray proper Lokpal Bill gets passed in Winter session or else pent up anger may come on streets. Politicians may be targeted.” You’d think a former policewoman would know better than to tweet a thinly-veiled call to arms a day after her mentor Anna Hazare made headlines for his novel way of dealing with alcoholics with a public flogging in his village Ralegan Siddhi.

But Bedi perhaps was counting on public sentiment to back her astounding tweet. Never before have so many people had so much contempt for politicians. Never bef-ore has opinion been as polarised as it is today. And never before has civil discourse been reduced to the sort of ‘tu tu main main’ it has descended to on TV debates and social network sites.

A slap here or there might not have mattered so much. But what were once isolated incidents are now having a copycat effect. Harvinder Singh, who says he slapped Pawar for rising prices and corruption, has a bit of a history; just last week he apparently assaulted 86-year-old former telecom minister Sukhram in court. What was once the monopoly of the Shiv Sena has now become de rigueur for goons on all sides of the political divide, right as well as left. In the past few weeks, we have seen separate but equally revolting attacks on Team Anna members Prashant Bhushan and on Arvind Kejriwal. In 2009 it was hurled shoes that were all the rage: the prime minister got one and so did home minister P Chidambaram, leader of the Opposition LK Advani, Congress MP Naveen Jindal and jailed former minister Suresh Kalmadi.

Incredibly, physical assaults are often sought to be justified. When journalist Jarnail Singh hurled a shoe at Chidambaram to protest Congress non-action on Jagdish Tytler, allegedly involved in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, he was hailed as a hero in some sections and a reward of R2 lakh was declared. When Prashant Bhushan was attacked, it was said that his views on Kashmir were ‘controversial’. When ordinary people are attacked there is even less outrage. When young girls and boys at a Mangalore pub were beaten up by Sri Ram Sena workers, there was condemnation from the media but also a lament on the loss of Indian values.

The justification from some quarters on Pawar’s attack is disquieting. This is not the time to score political brownie points by calling the attack a ‘wake-up call to UPA 2’, as Balbir Punj described it, or to rationalise it by talking about people’s anger over price rise, as BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad did. Yes, people are angry, rightly so. No, violence can’t be condoned, whatever the provocation.

Team Anna fared no better. Anna Hazare condemned the attack but first remarked: “Only one slap?” Later, his supporters said he had been misunderstood. Perhaps they were being mindful that Hazare’s non-violent image has been taking, well, a bit of a beating. On television, Kejriwal and Bhushan also condemned the assault but with clarifications: “I am not condoning violence but we have to understand the anger at the enormous corruption,” said Kejriwal.

While Pawar played down the incident as no big deal, NCP supporters in Maharashtra were throwing stones, announcing bandhs, blocking traffic and shutting down shops. If the assault on Pawar was shameful, then the reaction was no better.

Violence for any reason is wrong. There are no shades of grey. Accepting or justifying a culture of violence signals a dangerous slide for a country once proud of its tolerance and inclusiveness. Worse, violence has a nasty way of descending into lazy shorthand (all politicians are crooks, ditto for journalists, all bureaucrats are inefficient etc). Instead of fighting (metaphorically, of course) for real reform, we merely vent our frustrations on the easiest target. Instead of debate we use fists. Instead of change we get anarchy.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer

The views expressed by the author are personal

Less equal than others

Women athletes deal with sports chauvinism everywhere, every day. Women who must observe hijab by law or custom have the additional burden of demonstrating that their athleticism does not mitigate their faith: switching games, wearing restrictive garments, performing before an all-women-audience, facing fatwas and death threats — whatever it takes. Namita Bhandare writes.

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In the photograph they are just numbers: 3, 14, 7. But their headscarves, covered necks and full-sleeved shirts do not mask their cheekiness. The one with #3 on her jersey has her chin up and eyebrows raised. The goofball is clearly #14, the tomboy with a scar on her left eyebrow, the practical joker of this team. On #7, there is a look of passing confusion as if asking, what just happened, how could it?

Moments later, another photograph captured the Iranian women’s football team collapse in tears after being banned by FIFA for wearing tight headscarves. The ban came minutes before a qualifying match against Jordan, the outcome of which would have determined whether they would make it to the 2012 Olympics. FIFA authorities say the so-called ‘snood’, a headscarf that covers head, ears and neck, contravenes its dress code. They say the Iranians were ‘informed thoroughly’ of this. Not so, says Iran. FIFA had amended its dress code last year and the new outfit had been approved by the federation’s Sepp Blatter — a man who had recommended in 2004 that women wear tighter shorts for a more ‘feminine aesthetic’.

In Saudi Arabia, women are banned from competing in sport. So, you could argue that the Iranian women, who must observe hijab under law, have it somewhat easier. Women athletes have shown remarkable resilience in repressive environments. In the 2004 Olympics, Nassim Hassanpour, a teenage gymnast and the only Iranian woman to participate in the Athens Olympics switched to shooting because it was one of the few events that allowed her to participate in a headscarf and long coat. In the 1992 Olympics, Algerian Hassiba Boulmerka won the 1,500 metres wearing a pair of shorts, received death threats and was forced into exile. The Muslim Women’s Games, allows women to compete on one condition: no men are allowed to watch.

Amazingly, they play on. Yet, regardless of where they live, hijab or no hijab, women athletes face discrimination. They earn less in prize money and get niggardly media coverage, as if they are adjuncts to the main game. Sports writer Rohit Brijnath writes of how in 1970, tennis star Billie Jean King was told by a male player, “No one wants to watch you birds play anyway.” Things are better today, he writes, but ‘equality in sport is still an idea’.

It is. Last month, the Badminton World Federation with only two women on its 25-member council ruled that women must play in skirts to create a more ‘attractive presentation’. Following an uproar over such an obvious attempt to sex up the game, the federation has agreed to ‘further study’ the proposed dress code.

In India, Sania Mirza, the country’s highest-ranked woman tennis player, has been scrutinised nearly as much for her skirt — briefly earning a fatwa for its length — as for her game. Another athletic role model, Saina Nehwal, born in Haryana, which with 847 girls to 1,000 boys has one of the worst female-male sex ratios in the country, counts herself lucky because her parents allowed her to play: “Many Haryanvi sportspersons, particularly women, are not half as lucky,” she says. Women’s hockey had its moment of shame when players accused their (male) coach of sexually inappropriate behaviour. On TV, Ashwini Nachappa said it was not uncommon for coaches to get women athletes to do sundry chores, including washing their sweaty clothes.

Women athletes deal with sport’s chauvinism everywhere, every day. Women who must observe hijab by law or custom have the additional burden of demonstrating that their athleticism does not mitigate their faith: switching games, wearing restrictive garments, performing before an all women-audience, facing fatwas and death threats — whatever it takes.

The photographs don’t tell the stories of the Iranian women’s football team. We don’t even know their names. What battles were fought just to play? What taunts were faced? What hurdles overcome? What now of shattered dreams and hopes? We don’t know. FIFA should have been more welcoming, more accommodating, certainly more understanding in order to fulfill its stated goal of helping women overcome ‘social and cultural obstacles’. The ban only serves to push them down.

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

Not breaking news

Justice Katju’s views on journalists are over-the-top, over-generalised. Namita Bhandare writes.

When the new chairman of the Press Council of India says he has a low opinion of the media and journalists are of “poor intellectual level”, you can just hear the hurrahs from the cheap seats.

With the finesse of a pugilist, Justice Markandey Katju delivered his observations to Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN. He then went over the same points in The Hindu: the media are “anti-people” because they focus on such “non-issues” as filmstars and cricket instead of honour killings and poverty. Self-regulation doesn’t work. The council must have more teeth or at least a big stick that would include suspension of licenses in ‘extreme’ cases.

Over-the-top, over-generalised and over-combative, these are views that nonetheless find resonance with many people, including those in the media. Who can dispute that there is not enough research/too many hand-outs; not enough accountability/too much bias; not enough of the big issues/too much fluff? Who can dispute that a Council cannot be limited to print and must include TV? Don’t we all believe that more accountability is warranted? So regardless of the indelicacy of his manners, Katju does get the big picture right — more or less.

The problem begins when the former Supreme Court judge reaches sweeping conclusions, perhaps oblivious to the fact that many issues that make him queasy (sensationalism, celebrity journalism and paid news) make most journalists queasy too. Perhaps he needs to meet more journalists.

Problem No. 2 lies with Katju’s idealised notion of the media’s role in society. Indian journalism has come a long way from the 1980s when magazines (Sunday, India Today) and newspapers like The Indian Express did investigative stories ranging from the Bhagalpur blindings to the massacre at Nellie. These were milestones that inspired a generation of journalists hungry to work for low wages and dreams of a better world. Today’s media exists in a marketplace where TRPs and circulation figures are hard facts in every democratic country where a free Press exists. But Katju would have us go further back, to the Age of Enlightenment in 18th century Europe. How devoid is this of any understanding of economics and competition and the need to run media outlets as professional organisations with a code of conduct and standards, not as balladeers of someone’s ideal world?

Katju’s selective indignation chooses easy targets — astrological shows and poor quality TV debates. But to ignore the huge amount of first-rate journalism on TV and print — exposes on 2G corruption, campaigns on hunger and infant deaths — is disingenuous. It is true, as he says, that self-regulation isn’t working but external regulation is a bad and dangerous idea that will compromise the free working of media. What we need is a debate not a wagging finger harangue. Unfortunately, Katju just queered the pitch.

Equally unfortunate is the media’s response. While the Editor’s Guild has ‘deplored’ these views, the Broadcast Editors’ Association baffling reaction came in the form of a 10-point diktat on how Aishwarya Bachchan’s delivery should be covered (no declaration of ‘breaking news’, no astrological predictions, etc etc). All that is left for Katju to say: I rest my case.

Journalists do not inhabit some remote planet. We are products of our environment, just as judges and politicians and bureaucrats are. You cannot have declining standards everywhere and yet expect media to rise above.

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