Women should lead the way in rebuilding Kerala

Today, we know that while floods, droughts, fires, earthquakes, and tsunamis do not discriminate on the grounds of caste, religion or gender, their impact is profoundly discriminatory. Studies have shown that it is women (and the poor and marginalized) who bear their heaviest burden.

When Swarna Rajagopalan, a political scientist who specialises in gender issues, mentioned the g-word at a meeting to discuss natural disasters, she was told curtly: “This is not about gender. It’s about an emergency.”

That was 10 years ago.

Today, we know that while floods, droughts, fires, earthquakes and tsunamis do not discriminate on the grounds of caste, religion or gender, their impact is profoundly discriminatory. Studies have shown that it is women (and the poor and marginalised) who bear their heaviest burden.

Continue reading “Women should lead the way in rebuilding Kerala”

Over-indulgent parents and brand-conscious schools are failing our kids

There’s a sickness infecting some of our boys caused by a toxic combination of over-indulgent parents, schools obsessed with ‘brand image’ and the normalising of sex and violence by mass media.

On Instagram, the seventh-grader threatens to have his teacher and her daughter raped. The eighth-grader emails two of his ‘very hot’ teachers and invites them to a ‘candle light date’ since “I feel like f***ing you right now.”

These kids are respectively 12 and 13 years old. They study in a posh Gurugram school and it is tempting to see them as aberrations, silly boys with raging hormones.

Yet, how do we continue to ignore a rising graph — all involving young male perpetrators — that includes at its most extreme, the murder of a seven-year-old student in another school allegedly by a senior student of the same school because he wanted the exams postponed? Or a 17-year-old who is allowed to drive his family Mercedes and ends up killing another man? Or the two teenagers who shoot to death an Uber driver? Continue reading “Over-indulgent parents and brand-conscious schools are failing our kids”

We, the elite of India, are to blame for the state of our cities

Delhi’s well-off function as independent city-states with their own security, water filtration and supply, power back-ups and, now, air purifiers. Our kids don’t study in government schools, we don’t use public transport, we don’t seek treatment at government hospitals. With no stake in public services, we don’t demand better quality or, for that matter, any quality at all.

Just as surely as the seasons change, our angst at the state of our cities will pass. The capital’s toxic air will cede to other crises. Again.

In Chennai and Mumbai, the annual rite of monsoon flooding will hold sway, then the rains will cease and we’ll move on. Again.

Every season, we reignite the same debates, ask the same questions and read the same analyses.

Take the zeitgeist, air pollution and its unwavering script: Children and seniors advised to remain indoors; schools shut, construction stopped, traffic rationed. Relax, says our environment minister, this isn’t the Bhopal gas tragedy. How reassuring. When the weather changes, the haze will lift and all will be forgotten. Continue reading “We, the elite of India, are to blame for the state of our cities”

I have just one word on my new year’s resolution list: Empathy

It can help me cope with a changing, unpredictable world, enlarging a personal worldview to embrace those outside my own experiences and ideology.

And before you know it, it’s here again. That time of year to make fresh resolutions, determined to wake up energized and renewed.

Learn a foreign language; meet new people; read more books; exercise more; get a new hobby. After years of facsimile resolutions (and years of breaking them), I gave the ritual a break. But this year, I’m going back, and instead of the usual self-improvement missives, I have just one word on my list: Empathy. Let me explain why.

As individuals, we ask, what can we do to make the world better? Can I take a position that will make society less divisive? Continue reading “I have just one word on my new year’s resolution list: Empathy”

Women vendors who exist on cash income hit hardest by demonetisation

Narendra Modi’s decision to strike at black money and corruption by wiping out 86% of the currency notes in circulation has hit women vendors the hardest. These are women who are not part of the banking system, survive on one income (their own), which is entirely in cash earned daily and must negotiate petty bribes and hafta just to survive.

At 10 am, it’s peak business time. A time when the delivery boy from the big grocery shop nearby and the Uber driver about to start his day, stop by for a quick breakfast at Savita Ketarkar’s vada-pav stall under a sprawling banyan tree in Mumbai.

Stuffing the freshly fried vadas into bread laced with green chutney and red chilli powder, Ketarkar has no time or patience for reporters who want to know how women are facing life post demonetisation. “How does speaking to you help me?” asks the 40-something single mother of two. I mumble something incoherent, special problems of women etc. She’s unimpressed: “When the cops and the municipal people come to take their bribes, are you going to come to fight for me?” Continue reading “Women vendors who exist on cash income hit hardest by demonetisation”

Annihilation of an old order

Atrocities against Dalits are hardly new, even if the sense of impunity to the gau rakshaks is. Dalits have been denied entry into temples, access to drinking water and beaten for the most minor ‘transgressions’. Beyond the politics lies the far greater moral question of social justice. How does any modern nation tolerate such widespread, blatant apartheid against its own citizens?

T he yatra is on the move. Starting on August 5 from Ahmedabad, the Azaadi Kooch March (march towards freedom) will cover 350 km to converge at Una where it all began with a video of Dalits being thrashed for skinning the carcass of a dead cow. Neither Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel’s resignation nor Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s belated condemnation of vigilante ‘gau rakshaks’ has made a dent. On Independence Day, if things go as planned, the procession will arrive at and unfurl the tricolour at Una.

The purpose is not to raise the flag as much as it is at ‘giving a message to the government that Dalits will not tolerate any atrocities’ 35-year-old Jignesh Mevani, a former reporter turned activist who is leading the march, told PTI.

Mevani wants alternative economic opportunities for Dalits. At every village the rally passes through, Dalits take an oath to never pick up a carcass again. But the implications of the padyatra go beyond Gujarat.

Dalits comprise 16.6% of the total population; in Gujarat it’s 7% and in poll-bound UP, 20.5%. This might explain the uncharacteristic alacrity with which the BJP expelled its vice president Dayashankar Singh for his offensive remarks against Mayawati.

The Dalit vote is impossible to ignore. An analysis by India Today magazine finds that the BJP’s Dalit vote share doubled from 12% in 2009 to 24% in 2014. But caste-based violence continues to plague India 69 years after Independence. Article 17 of our Constitution bans the practice of untouchability while the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989 provides for strong legal protection. Yet, the data is grim. The National Crime Records Bureau reports a 44% increase in violence against Dalits — up from 32,712 in 2010 to 47,064 in 2014.

Partly this spike is because of better reporting, partly it’s a backlash from upper castes as Dalits grow more assertive. “The upper castes are still stuck in a world where the Dalits and tribals are untouchables,” Kancha Illaiah, director of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy told the website IndiaSpend.

But it is not just crime, including routine rape and systemic murder. It is not just the denial of jobs or the persistence of abhorrent practices like manual scavenging. It’s the ingrained and persistent practice of untouchability that grates. A November 2014 survey across 42,000 households across India by the National Council of Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland found that one in four Indians admitted to practising some form of untouchability.

The focus on cow vigilantes is undoubtedly political. Emboldened by the BJP’s victory of May 2014, thuggish gau rakshak groups have crossed a line that could cost the BJP valuable votes in states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab that have sizeable Dalit populations. It could also serve to create a new Dalit-Muslim political alliance that could potentially destabilise this government.

Atrocities against Dalits are hardly new, even if the sense of impunity to the gau rakshaks is. Dalits have been denied entry into temples, access to drinking water and even cremation grounds and beaten for the most minor ‘transgressions’. Beyond the politics lies the far greater moral question of social justice. How does any modern nation tolerate such widespread, blatant apartheid against its own citizens?

There is one difference and it lies in the nature of the protests. What we are witnessing in Gujarat could mark a new beginning of the annihilation of an old order. A new generation of a largely apolitical movement that is savvy on social media and articulate on various platforms, is no longer willing to tolerate the indignities heaped on their parents.

To dump the carcasses of cows outside administrative offices is a dramatic signal that sends an unambiguous message: Dalits can no longer be taken for granted. Patience for injustice is running thin, as it should. “My birth is my fatal accident,” wrote scholar Rohith Vemula in his suicide note. The march to Una aims to reverse that thought. Here’s wishing for its extinction.

See the article in Hindustan Times

We no longer hear the voices of our citizens in Kashmir Valley’s narrative

In the narratives we weave, Kashmiri citizens must be blamed for their own swift repression. In the Kashmiri narrative, the crackdown is yet another instance of the mainland’s immoral suppression of the natural Kashmiri longing for azadi. Neither side is prepared to hear the other.

At the time of writing, 37 people are dead in protests following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. Hundreds of others have been injured, many with eye wounds from pellet guns that could cause them to lose their sight. Amongst them is a 14-year-old girl, shot by forces from within her house.

As curfew continues in the Valley, the front pages in New Delhi have shifted attention to India’s statement to the United Nations denouncing Pakistan’s use of ‘terrorism as State policy’. On TV channels, talking heads either focus on perfidious Pakistan or bemoan the growing alienation amongst Kashmir’s young and angry.

There are casualties on both sides. On July 11, protestors pushed a police vehicle into the river Jhelum near Sangam, drowning its driver Afroz Ahmed. Close to 100 officials and 2,000 civilians are reportedly injured. There are reports of ambulances being attacked. Depending on which side of the argument you are hearing, these attacks are either by security forces or by protesters. Continue reading “We no longer hear the voices of our citizens in Kashmir Valley’s narrative”

Mob at Mumbai cinema diminished spirit of national anthem

Who decides what is nationalism and how best it is to be displayed? For some, standing up for the national anthem is tokenism; for others it is a sacred duty. For some, our flag and national anthem are the glues of nationhood; for others, nationalism is best expressed through being good citizens.

In 2009, months after the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai, Ram Gopal Varma made a film called Rann. A critique of media’s insatiable appetite for TRPs, the movie’s title track was a remix of the national anthem, with the added word rann (or war). Jana Gana Mana rann hai, is rann mein zakhmi hua hai Bharat ka bhagya vidhata and so on. To nobody’s great surprise, the Censor Board raised objections and Varma had to drop the song.

What a long way we’ve come since 2009. Then, I wrote about how Varma had crossed a line. But nobody suggested that he was being unpatriotic or less than Indian or should be dispatched to Pakistan.

Now, forget about remixes, people who fail to stand during the playing of our national anthem are abused, threatened and ejected from movie halls by vigilante audiences. Continue reading “Mob at Mumbai cinema diminished spirit of national anthem”

The road to tolerance begins with civility

Perhaps I have been watching far too many intolerant nightly debates on our lack of tolerance, which tend to wear me down with their decibel level and leave me no wiser. In the words of a friend, I am suffering from intolerance fatigue.

Walking along the hills near Shimla, schoolgirls in pigtails greet me with a shy ‘good morning’. In the market, the response to my rushed demand for provisions is replied by a smiling ‘namaste’. It takes a second for me to realise that I’m inhaling not just the crisp mountain air, but a quality now rare on the plains: Civility.

Perhaps I have been watching far too many intolerant nightly debates on our lack of tolerance, which tend to wear me down with their decibel level and leave me no wiser. In the words of a friend, I am suffering from intolerance fatigue.

The script is predictable. The latest instance — and there are new ones by the day — is dissected. Should Shah Rukh Khan be dispatched to Pakistan for speaking his mind? Did the crowd in Mumbai behave disgracefully by booing Anupam Kher at a debate, ironically, to discuss intolerance? Continue reading “The road to tolerance begins with civility”

Letters to the editor: We must get this write

Readers wrote letters to the editor — and they still do — because they wanted to express an opinion, vent or just see their name in print. This was their space. In India, most editors agree, the art of letter writing has plummeted. Perhaps the imperative to win the argument in our polarised times has resulted in communication being replaced by polemic.

Readers wrote letters to the editor — and they still do — because they wanted to express an opinion, vent or just see their name in print. This was their space. In India, most editors agree, the art of letter writing has plummeted. Perhaps the imperative to win the argument in our polarised times has resulted in communication being replaced by polemic.

My source in this newspaper tells me that it was the poor quality of letters combined with a shrinking pool of letter writers that led to the quiet burial of the letters column sometime in April.

Even though I hadn’t noticed — I was getting mail in my inbox after all — I couldn’t help feeling a little sad.

Call me old-fashioned, or just old, but I grew up at a time when the Letters to the Editor was an essential part of the newspaper business. Continue reading “Letters to the editor: We must get this write”