“A matter of great importance touching upon judiciary’s independence”

In 2019, a junior woman staffer accused then chief justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment and, subsequently, a targeted harassment of her and her family. The Pegasus revelations tell us that her phone and that of 11 phones associated with her was likely under surveillance along with those of 10 prime ministers, 3 presidents and one king.

Ranjan Gogoi, former chief justice of India is now a member of the Rajya Sabha, nominated by the ruling BJP-led government. Pic: Wikipedia

At the height of the 2019 sexual harassment scandal involving then chief justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi, ran the frisson of a rumour — was there a larger conspiracy?

Gogoi has since retired and is now a Rajya Sabha member nominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government. His accuser, after being dismissed from service, has been quietly reinstated.

All would have been forgotten but for the Pegasus revelation that the woman and 11 phone numbers associated with her were potential targets of surveillance. Who had the power to subject a junior court assistant to a level of global scrutiny that reportedly includes 10 prime ministers, three presidents and a king? Was the intended target someone else? Was there a quid pro quo? One can only speculate since Gogoi has refused to comment.

Challenging Patriarchy in Religion

The Tamil Nadu state government’s announcement that women, and non-Brahmins, can apply to be temple priests signals the beginning of the end of another male stronghold.

When the pujari at the Durga temple in Nalluthevanpatti village, Madurai, fell ill and could no longer perform the ritual pujas, his only child, a daughter, Pinniyakkal stepped up. Two years later when he died in 2006, she staked her claim to be the full-time pujari, a hereditary position at that temple.

The local populace was appalled. Even though the temple deity was female, tradition dictated the pujari could only be male. So, Pinniyakkal went to court. Agreeing with her claim, Justice K. Chandru of the Madras High Court ruled: “The altars of the God must be free from gender bias.”

Some 15 years later, the DMK’s state minister of temple administration announced earlier this week that women — and non-Brahmins — can apply for positions as temple priests, provided they’ve undergone training in “agama sastra”, the manual that lays down rituals of prayer and worship. “Women must be given opportunities to participate in every sphere of life, whether spiritual or material,” Justice Chandru who retired in 2013 said to me on the phone.

How The Special Marriage Act Is Killing Love

The withdrawal under social media pressure of a Tanishq ad that depicts an interfaith marriage tells us that even in modern India some alliances continue to be out-of-bounds. Provisions in a law that enables secular marriage are, ironically, often a tool for harassment. My story with Surbhi Karwa for Article-14.

The Tanishq jewellery advertisement that depicted interfaith marriage was withdrawn after the company succumbed to a coordinated hate campaign on social media.

When she was in the fifth standard, the last of her four elder sisters got married, and her mother asked: “Who is going to help with the housework?” Amreen Malik never again went to school. While her mother worked in the fields, it was the job of the 12-year-old to cook, clean and care for the rest of her family, including three younger brothers.

“I was not allowed to go out or have friends,” she said.

Mohit Nagar’s father had a small medical store right across the road from Amreen’s house in the village of Kharauli in the western Uttar Pradesh district of Meerut. Elder to Amreen by four years, Mohit would often hang out at the store.

One day when she was around 15 or 16, she can’t remember when, he called on the landline at her house. She picked up. And so began a relationship by phone until his father found out and told Amreen’s father.

Life Through A Nariwadi Chashma

How a digital platform in Bundelkhand is telling the story of rural India through a feminist lens.

The Khabar Lahariya logo

At Hathras, a gaggle of media and OB vans has descended on the house gutted by tragedy. Reporting from the scene, Khabar Lahariya’s editor Kavita Bundelkhandi and reporter Meera Devi have clambered up onto the roof to take a look. What they see is swarms of police and a media melee where excitable reporters who’ve taken over the house, chatter, laugh, eat biscuits, and, every now and then, shriek into their mikes.

“The family is pleading that they have no strength to speak but the media has not stopped thrusting mikes into their faces,” reports Kavita. The bereaved and beleagured family has had no time to even cook and the children are hungry.

The women-led digital platform that today counts 30 reporters and stringers across 13 districts in Bundelkhand has for close to two decades, been chronicling a side of India that is rarely seen and seldom written about.

Despite the fact that 65.5% of our population lives in rural India, stories from the “hinterland” make up no more than 2% of all stories in the mainstream press, finds a recent report. When these stories are told, they tend to fall into two buckets: the sensational crime report or heart-rending agrarian distress. When you think of exceptions, website like PARI (People’s Archive of Rural India) come to mind, taking the trouble to also look for human interest stories of aspiration and hope.  

Being A Dalit Woman In Modern India

To say don’t make the rape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras about caste is ignorance, and privilege. But, the systemic oppression of Dalit women isn’t new.

Two nine-year-olds are fighting over something inconsequential in district Patna, Bihar. As the fight shows no sign of flagging, the elders of one of the boys, dominant castes as it turns out, decide to get involved. The Dalit boy must be taught his place.

The dominant caste men catch hold of the Dalit boy’s mother. They strip her and parade her through the village. The woman’s mother and daughter try to intervene and are thrashed. Finally, the village sarpanch steps in and a bystander offers the woman a shawl. An FIR is filed but the accused gets bail.

This story is being told by the woman’s husband at a conference organized in New Delhi by the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch.

The Unacceptably High Price Of Love

Couples who wish to marry under the Special Marriage Act must serve a 30-day notice during which their personal details are on public display. This violates their privacy and leaves many vulnerable to parental and community reprisal.

Courtesy: The Indian Express

In October last year soon after ‘S’ informed the district magistrate’s office in Lucknow that she wanted to get married under the Special Marriage Act (SMA), she received an unexpected invitation at home: to visit the local police station.

The police met her, her partner and her father to conduct an ‘inquiry’. Why get married in court? Was the father ok with her decision? Fortunately for ‘S’, he was, even though the Act does not require parental permission, only consenting adults.

“In Uttar Pradesh it is routine to call couples and often their parents to the police station, particularly in cases of inter-religious marriages,” said Lucknow-based lawyer Renu Mishra.

Enacted in 1954, the SMA was for those who wished to marry outside their religion’s personal laws and customs, caste and, often, parental consent.

India’s worrying surge in child brides

The spike in child marriage, a side-effect of the pandemic, threatens to reverse gains by years of activism. But a government proposal to raise minimum age to 21 for girls is not going to solve the problem, I write in Hindustan Times

Photo courtesy: TheBetterIndia

Gita got married when she was 12 but, like most married girls in her village in Rajasthan, continued to live with her parents and go to school. Her gauna — a ceremony when the bride moves to her marital home — would happen years later. But when the lockdown began, her family decided it was time. Gita, on the verge of completing secondary school, was dispatched to her husband’s home. When she left, three other girls from her village had their gaunas too.

The surge in child marriage is an unanticipated side-effect of the pandemic.

Between March and May, Childline India, an organisation helping children in distress, intervened in 5,333 such marriages. “Given that there was a lockdown and no events, no movement and no mobility, the number is very high,” a Childline official explained. When the lockdown eased in June and July, child marriages spiked, marking a 17% increase over the previous year.

There’s a strong correlation between Covid-19 and child marriage.

India’s one million strong fighting force of women

India’s army of community health workers, the one million Asha workers and 1.3 million anganwadi workers, are invisibilised despite the critical role they play in fighting Covid-19

Courtesy: Behanbox

Sunita Rani knows the meaning of hard work. As an Asha — the acronym stands for accredited social health activist — her days used to start at 7 am: distributing supplements to pregnant women, taking them for check-ups and to give birth in hospitals, tracking their children’s weight and vaccination records, even advising young wives about contraception.

“You had to be on call day and night. You never knew when you would be needed,” she said on the phone from Sonepat, Haryana.

Then coronavirus struck and ‘hard work’ took on a whole new meaning.

Since March, Sunita has completed 11 rounds of interviews and data collection among the 1,000-odd people under her care. Under a scorching sun she walked up to five km a day, telling people to stay home, documenting the elderly and the sick, monitoring for symptoms, checking on those who needed medicines for conditions like diabetes or tuberculosis.

Rules of engagement

Netflix’s new show, Indian Matchmaking is regressive, but not more than the patriarchy that governs the rules of marriage.

Sima Aunty, everybody’s favourite matchmaker, in a still from the Netflix show.

One critic calls it “this year’s scariest horror show about arranged marriages”. And on social media, there is a raging storm over sexism, casteism, colourism and a range of other isms.

As Netflix’s eight-episode reality show, Indian Matchmaking kicks off, the conversation about the business of arranged marriages has gathered pace.

Indian Matchmaking doesn’t claim to wear a reformist cloak. Executive producer Smriti Mundhra calls it an “unscripted, fun, crazy, light look on the surface of the Indian marriage industrial complex.” It’s an industry that places a premium on women who are fair, tall, “slim-trim”, and, above all, “flexible”. Families must be “respectable”. After all, alliances are not between individuals, but families. One eager mum tells her son she’s looking for “someone to take care of you”. The son, no surprise, is looking for someone like mummy.

And yet, Indian Matchmaking underplays the seedier underbelly of the marriage market. Dowry, for instance, is excised from the show. And non-conforming clients include a single mom as well as a Catholic man who says he’s open to meeting women from other religions. In one case, the match-maker introduces a woman who is seven years older than her prospective groom.

Word play

Gendered language has its roots in sexism. It invisiblises women, reinforces bias and can cause real harm.

Last week, my friend Kanta Singh took issue with a retired bureaucrat for his tweet on how civil servants must “evolve in a manner that those who want to corrupt him aren’t able to muster the courage to do so. His conscience must be his firewall”.

Kanta’s objection wasn’t the content. “Will request you to write a more inclusive language,” she tweeted. The objection is not irrelevant. Of the 700 officers working in the central government at the joint secretary level and above as of June 2019, 134 (19.14%) were women.

The use of the male pronoun to describe a group ends up invisibilising women. God is a solid, upper case He. And he/him/his are default settings for all manner of truisms: “A man is the sum of his actions,” (Mahatma Gandhi) or, “Technology is the nature of modern man,” (Octavio Paz) — but “mankind” excludes half of humanity.