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March 26, 2017

Anti-Romeo Squads will arrest rule of law, not sexual violence

This is an AHRC article. 

First, the facts. Yes, crimes against women are a major problem in Uttar Pradesh. As per the data of the National Crime Records Bureau, the state has the dubious distinction of being the most unsafe Indian state for women in 2015 despite losing ‘top rank’ in number of rapes reported, to Madhya Pradesh, followed by Maharashtra. Further, the state lost ‘top rank’ in reported cases of ‘Assault on Women with Intent to Outrage her Modesty’ to Maharashtra (11,713 cases) and Madhya Pradesh (8,049 cases), standing distant third (7,885 cases).   

Crimes against women are a reality of Uttar Pradesh. Just like in many other parts of India, but more commonly so, sexually harassing women in public spaces is a constant. It is a reality that many men, convinced of their impunity, make lewd comments on women and leave no chance of groping and molesting them go waste. It is also a sad truth that the situation gets worse in crowded spaces in general and in proximity to ones that should be safer for women, women only colleges, in particular. Such men tend to stand at the gates and the passages leading there for a chance to harass the women. 

It is in this context that the decision of the new Bhartiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh to deliver on an electoral promise, a rarity in our times, and form an 'Anti-Romeo Squad' in every police station to combat sexual harassment of women in public places seems to be a pleasant surprise. Dig deeper and the dreams of a safer Uttar Pradesh for women are again dashed. 

The problem is that the Anti-Romeo Squads, ironically named after someone known for love and not sexual violence, may only slightly improve the situation at best, but in doing so will usher considerable hardships for young adults who get together with mutual consent. At worst, it is doomed to end in the adding of another avenue of moral policing armed with state power, making public spaces even more unsafe for women by curtailing their freedom. 
Crimes against women are neither limited to either sexual harassment in public spaces nor can they be stopped by some cosmetic measures. Stopping them would require overhauling the overall law and order situation that gives criminals courage to flout the law and harass women and commit other crimes. It would require putting up a policing system in place that responds to every single distress call of women getting harassed in public or private and taking stringent action against the harasser. 

It would require making police stations women friendly and making them confident enough to complain of stalking – a distant dream in a state where even ordinary men shiver at the thought of entering these spaces. It would require a gender sensitised police that listens to complaints seriously, ending the current practice of asking the complainant, for example, why did you go out so late that evening? 

Does the state have any of this in place? No. Uttar Pradesh did lose to Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh in number of reported rape cases, but it did rank ‘first’ in cases of custodial rape, with a staggering 91 out of a total of 95, i.e. 95.79 percent, of all custodial rape cases in country in 2015 being registered in the state. Add to this, four of them were cases of gang rape, involving not one rogue cop but many in the police station. Can one trust a police with such a record to protect women and not harass them even more in the name of Anti-Romeo operations? Has there been any screening, any psychological assessment, to keep such perverts and criminals in uniform out of the squads? 

And, this is not the only problem with the idea of Anti-Romeo Squads. It also opens the floodgates of State support to vigilantism by self-designated custodians of society. India has seen no dearth of such vigilantes. Yogi Adityanath, the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, has led Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) one such vigilante group of his own for decades. The HYV has always indulged in similar exercises from harassment, and often even resorting to physical assault of couples on Valentine’s Day, for flouting “Indian Culture”. There is nothing to believe that such groups will not join the Anti-Romeo Brigades and indulge in similar violence, albeit with State support. In fact, media reports suggest that this has already started happening. 

Allowing this compromises a basic tenet of the rule of law – granting the state complete and absolute monopoly over the legitimate use of coercive force, or violence, with due process of law. Use of violence by any other group is essentially lawless and any government that supports such violence flouts the rule of law. 

This is exactly what the Supreme Court of India has said in its verdict in the Nandini Sundar & Ors vs State of Chattisgarh (Writ Petition (Civil) NO. 250 of 2007) case, while declaring Salwa Judum, a State appointed vigilante group, unconstitutional, and ordering that it be  disbanded. Further, the Court did not limit its order to Salwa Judum. It ordered that the State cannot allow any such group to operate that  "… in any manner or form seeks to take law into private hands, act unconstitutionally or otherwise violate the human rights of any person." 

So what is the way out, if any? There is a simple one. Only way through which crimes against women can be curbed is the strengthening the policing system and making it people friendly. It begins with making beat policing functional and responsive. Neither any sexual harasser nor the hotspots for harassment can escape the eyes of the beat constable frequenting his or her area. Such cops should be sensitised to take the matter seriously and intervene. They should be trained not to harass women and not to ask them what they were doing at the place no matter what time of the day it was.   

This should then lead to encouraging women to report any sexual harassment, including in private spaces like homes and not keep them limited to public spaces, to police, and the taking of immediate and stringent action. This should, also include respecting the rights of consenting adults to be together without harassment even if against the wishes of their family. This solution will have nothing to do with moral policing and reporting ‘wayward’ ways of sons and daughters to their parents. 

In its current form, the Anti Romeo Brigade is not going to achieve any of that. Alas, they seem to be poised to make life even more miserable for the women they are supposed to protect.  

March 10, 2017

Women’s Day to celebrate institutional collapse?

[This is an AHRC Article.]  

Yesterday, on 8 March 2017, International Women’s Day was observed with much fanfare across India. Everything was in place, almost orchestrated to perfection with nothing amiss. The President and the Prime Minister issued customary greetings and honoured women who had made their presence felt and achieved something. There was something peculiar in the mix though. The women Indian premier Mr. Narendra Modi honoured as ‘clean warriors’ for their contributions in improving rural sanitation included a certain Sushila Khurkute.

Mrs. Khurkute, 30, was recognised for digging the rocky grounds of her village continuously for three days to build a toilet. She was seven months into her third pregnancy at the time of her toilet building, a time when she should not have been engaging in such heavy work, so she could keep herself and her child safe.

In fact, she was doing the work all by herself, i.e. more than 2 years after the launch of PM’s pet project, the Mission Swachh Bharat on 2 October 2014, which has had a budget earmarked for constructing toilets for people like Mrs. Khurkute. She had not received any help from local administration, which she should have received. The district authorities were in fact unaware of her efforts until UNICEF volunteers chanced upon her and alerted them.

This, in essence, sums up the monotony of everyday lives ordinary Indian women face usually living away from the reach of International Women’s Day greetings. They have to fend for themselves, expecting nothing from the plethora of welfare schemes launched in their name with much fanfare. They have to live by dint of their own effort, with no access to public institutions of welfare or justice. They have to achieve everything despite these instituions. And if they do come into the radar of State institutions, they should be ready to get ‘honoured’ provided no uncomfortable questions get asked.

Sample this one: Why was Mrs. Sushila Khurkute exposing herself and the unborn child to danger by digging up rocky terrain during the seventh month of her pregnancy? Where was the government’s Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), duty-bound to counsel women about birth preparedness and importance of safe delivery. The questions only start here.

Everyone knows she was in seventh month of pregnancy while digging rocks for constructing a toilet, relentlessly for 3 days. Who was taking care of her children at the time? As reports indicate, her husband, a poor daily wager, was working elsewhere in the district under the state’s employment guarantee scheme and had hardly time to be home. Who was taking care of her children? Do they go to the local Anganwadi centre? Does the village have one in the first place? How were their nutritional requirements being met while she toiled on a toilet?

This brings us to a bigger question. Why did the whole system fail to even acknowledge such a colossal failure to ensure the rights of Mrs. Sushila Khurkute? Fixing accountability for this failure may be a bridge too far in the present circumstances. But, acknowledgment? Is celebrating her effort enough to push the violations of her rights under the carpet?

Unfortunately, we, civil society members, end up often being complicit in such crimes, by not asking these questions ourselves.

Celebrating Women’s Day is not only about celebrating the women who have made achievements despite public institutions, often even when faced with active opposition of these institutions. They are daring role models and must be celebrated.

There are countless women unable to chart their own path in the face of powerful dysfunctional institutions that may work against them. These women can only succees with the active support of functioning public institutions. And, these majority women are entitled to this much, support of the public institutions that are meant to support them.

We would be failing them if we do not make these institutions deliver.

We would also be providing the State a rationale to keep abandoning citizens by “honouring” the odd ones who thrive no matter what, pushing millions into continuing to live in misery, unsupported and handicapped by dysfunctional institutions.

March 09, 2017

अमेरिका में नफ़रत के निशाने पर आप्रवासी भारतीय

राज एक्सप्रेस में 8 मार्च 2017 को प्रकाशित। 
कंसास, केंट और फिर वाशिंगटन-  कभी उन भारतीयों के सपनों का नाम होते थे जिनकी ख्वाहिशें हिन्दुस्तान की के अपने सपनीले शहर मुम्बई की जद में भी नहीं समाती थीं. सिर्फ 10 दिन में आप्रवासी/अनिवासी भारतीयों पर तीन जानलेवा हमलों के बाद अब वे एक दहशत का नाम हैं. समुदाय की रीढ़ की हड्डी में उतर आयी उस दहशत का नाम जिससे वे पहले कभी बावस्ता तक न थे. होते भी कैसे, संयुक्त राज्य अमेरिका के इस सबसे सफल, सुशिक्षित और धनी आप्रवासी समुदाय ने अमेरिकी सपने को दशकों नहीं, सदियों से अपने खून पानी से सींचा था, नासा से लेकर पेंटागन और सिलिकॉन वैली तक में बैठ उसको सैन्य महाशक्ति से ज्ञान महाशक्ति बनने का सफर तय करते देखने में अपनी भूमिका निभाई थी.

फिर अचानक यह जो हुआ वह किसी सदमे से कम न होना था, न हुआ. खासतौर पर इसलिए भी कि इस बार हमले जमाने से श्वेत दक्षिणपंथ का निशाना रही इस्लामिक पहचान पर नहीं बल्कि सीधे सीधे भारतीय पहचान पर हैं- दक्षिण एशियाई शक्लों पर हैं. 'अपने देश लौट जाओ' की धमकी के साथ हो रहे ये हमले अब किसी ख़ास पहनावे पर भी नहीं हैं- कंसास के बार में बैठे श्रीनिवास कुचिभोटला और केंट के अपने स्टोर में मौजूद हरनीश पटेल दोनों सामान्य अमेरिकी नागरिकों द्वारा रोजमर्रा पहने जाने वाले कपड़ों में ही थे. यहाँ से देखें तो साफ़ है कि पूरे समुदाय में डर उतर जाना लाजिमी है. या फिर सिर्फ समुदाय में ही क्यों- अमेरिकी अखबार न्यू यॉर्क टाइम्स के मुताबिक़ अब भारतीय समुदाय काम या और सिलसिलों में अमेरिका की यात्रा करने से भी घबरा रहा है. 

सवाल यह कि 9/11 उर्फ़ वर्ल्ड ट्रेड सेंटर पर हमलों के बाद उपजे नफ़रत के माहौल और नस्ली हमलों से भी अछूता रहा भारतीय समुदाय अब निशाने पर क्यों है? बेशक कानून के शासन वाले किसी देश में किसी समुदाय के किसी एक भी व्यक्ति के खिलाफ ऐसी एक भी घटना का होना दुखद है, पर घृणा की राजनीति से जन्म लेती ऐसी घटनाओं को पूरी तरह से रोकना असंभव भी है. फिर भी तब यह दिखा था कि भारतीय समुदाय पर जो चंद हमले हुए भी थे वे सिख समुदाय के सदस्यों पर उनकी दाढ़ी के चलते पहचान की गलती से हुए थे. साफ है कि भारतीय पहचान तब नस्ली नफ़रत का निशाना नहीं थी.

यहाँ सवाल बनता है कि फिर वही समुदाय एकाएक निशाने पर कैसे आ गया. जवाब भी है, एकाएक नहीं आया. एक अरसे तक गर्भपात और समलिंगी विवाह जैसे कुछ धार्मिक मुद्दों, अश्वेत अमेरिकन और हिस्पैनिक्स जैसे नस्ली समुदायों से घृणा और हथियार रखने के अधिकार जैसे मुद्दों की जुगलबंदी  के दम पर टिके अमेरिकी दक्षिणपंथ ने अपनी रणनीति बदल कर आर्थिक मुद्दों पर भी निगाह गड़ानी शुरू की थी. बाद में तो वर्तमान राष्ट्रपति और तब के रिपब्लिकन पार्टी प्रत्याशी  डोनाल्ड जे ट्रम्प ने इसे ही अपने चुनाव अभियान का केंद्र बना दिया था. याद करें कि उन्होंने अपने चुनाव प्रचार के शुरूआती दौर से ही आप्रवासियों को अमेरिकी नागरिकों की नौकरियाँ चोरी करने का आरोपी बताना, उन्हें वापस भेजने की बात करना शुरू कर दिया था. यह भी कि इन आप्रवासियों में भारतीय, चीनी, मैक्सिकन्स और जापानी उनके ख़ास निशाने पर थे.

अफ़सोस, ट्रम्प के ऐसे बयानों पर और देशों से उलट भारत सरकार ने कोई कड़ा आधिकारिक ऐतराज भी  नहीं जताया और बेशक इससे श्वेत नस्लवादी ताकतों के हौसले बढ़े ही होंगे। अमेरिकी-भारतीय समुदाय से भी यहाँ एक चूक हुई, यह कि उन्होंने खुद भी भारत सरकार पर ट्रम्प चुनाव अभियान के ऐसे नफ़रत फैलाने वाले बयानों के खिलाफ हस्तक्षेप करने की माँग को लेकर कोई दवाब बनाने की बड़ी कोशिश नहीं की. शायद भारतीय सरकार और समुदाय दोनों यह सोच रहे थे कि अंततः ट्रम्प चुनाव जीत नहीं पाएंगे। पर अफसोस, कूटनीति तथ्यों और तर्कों से चलती हैं, कयासों से नहीं!

दुखद यह है कि इन हमलों के बाद भी भारतीयों की सुरक्षा के सवाल पर भारत सरकार की हीलाहवाली जारी ही लगती है. बेशक हमारी विदेश मंत्री ऐसे मामलों में लगातार और सार्थक हस्तक्षेप करती रही हैं, इस बार भी उन्होंने पीड़ितों की जानकारी ली, उनके स्वास्थ्य की सूचना देने वाले ट्वीट किये, अमेरिका में भारतीय राजनयिकों को उनकी मदद करने को कहा- पर यह सब दरअसल दूतावास के काम हैं. विदेश मंत्री का काम होता है तुरन्त अपने समकक्ष स्तर पर राजनयिक हस्तक्षेप करना, अपने नागरिकों की सुरक्षा की गारंटी माँगना, अपने देश में मौजूद उनके राजदूत को तलब कर कड़ा सन्देश देना, पर ऐसा कुछ ख़ास होता दिखा नहीं. आलम यह कि खुद भारतीय दूतावास ने इन हमलों को लेकर अमेरिकी स्टेट डिपार्टमेंट से आधिकारिक 'चिंता' जताने और भारतीय समुदाय की सुरक्षा करने की मांग करने में पूरे 10 दिन लगा दिए! तब तक जब बाकी 2 हमले भी हो चुके थे. फिर ट्रम्प के हमलों की निंदा करने में हफ्ते भर से ज्यादा का समय लेने पर आश्चर्य कैसा!

बावजूद इसके कि हमले में जान गँवा बैठे दोनों भारतीयों को वापस नहीं लाया जा सकता, शायद औरों को बचाने के लिए अब भी बहुत देर नहीं हुई है. बशर्ते भारत सरकार इस मुद्दे पर अपनी स्थिति कड़ी कर ट्रम्प प्रशासन से तीखा ऐतराज जताए और अपराधियों के खिलाफ त्वरित और समयबद्ध  कार्यवाही की माँग करे. साथ ही भारतीय समुदाय को भारत सरकार पर दबाव बनाना पड़ेगा कि वह ट्रम्प प्रशासन से 'आप्रवासियों के खिलाफ नफ़रत बढ़ा सकने वाली बयानबाजी तुरन्त बंद करने की माँग करे.  

यह नहीं किया तो हालात और बिगड़ेंगे ही. "घृणा का जो वातावरण बन गया है वह किसी में फर्क नहीं करता" कहते हुए भारतीय अमेरिकी समुदाय के नेता जसमीत सिंह यह ठीक समझ रहे हैं।  वह देख पा रहे हैं कि नफ़रत की आग अब दरवाजे पे है.

January 22, 2017

अथ श्री सोशल मीडिया कथा

[ नवभारत में 22 जनवरी 2017 को प्रकाशित।] 

सोशल मीडिया क्या है यह समझने के लिए अभी हाल में बीएसएफ के जवान तेज बहादुर यादव का सीमा पर तैनात जवानों के लिए इंतज़ामात में बदहाली का वीडियो जारी कर देने पर उठे भूचाल से बेहतर कोई सूत्र नहीं है. दुनिया की किसी भी उग्र राष्ट्रवादी विचारधारा के लिए सेना से ज्यादा पवित्र कुछ भी नहीं होता, अपने देश की वर्तमान सरकार के लिए भी नहीं है. यही वजह है कि तमाम सरकार समर्थक बात बेबात किसी भी बहस में सेना को खींच लाते थे- वहाँ सीमा पर सैनिक शहीद हो रहे हैं और तुम... और लीजिये जनाब. बहस पलट गयी.
ऐसे में किसी जवान का ऐसा कुछ कर देना जो राष्ट्र भक्ति को सेना भक्ति में बदल देने की कोशिश वालों को उनके प्रति कम से कम लापरवाह साबित कर दे तो? तो वही हुआ जो होना था- एक के बाद तमाम जवान सामने आते गए, सरकार किसी भी तरह हालात सँभालने की कोशिश में लगी और सैनिकों के नाम पर राष्ट्रवादी बनते फिरते लोग एकाएक या चुप हो गए या फिर उन जवानों पर ही पिल पड़े. हाँ  दोनों हालातों में ही उनका मूल तर्क़ कि सेना महान है, अप्रश्नेय है भहरा कर गिर पड़ा.
पर ऐसा हुआ कैसे? अगर सोशल मीडिया न होता तो क्या किसी फौजी छावनी से ऐसी किसी खबर का छन कर बाहर निकल आना संभव था? सीधा जवाब है नहीं। इसलिए क्योंकि सोशल मीडिया ने सूचना के प्रवाह को अराजक सही, आजाद किया है. उस सूचना के प्रवाह को जिस पर नियंत्रण दुनिया के अब तक के इतिहास में सत्ता कायम रखने का सबसे बड़ा हथियार रहा है. जी, कोई भी तानाशाह, कोई भी सत्ता किसी और चीज से उतना नहीं डरती जितना वह सूचना के मुक्त हो जाने से डरती है- लोगों तक तमाम जानकारियों के निर्बाध पहुँचने की संभावना से डरती है. यही वजह है कि हिटलर हो या अमेरिका समर्थित निकारागुआ या अर्जेंटीना जैसे 'केला लोकतंत्रों' के मुखिया- सबकी कोशिश यही रही है कि सूचना संजाल पर एकाधिकार बनाये रखा जाय, जनता तक वही सूचना पहुँचने दी जाय जो वह चाहते हैं, जो उनकी सत्ता के लिए ख़तरा नहीं बनेगी।
इसी नियंत्रण की इच्छा वह कारण भी थी जिसने शीतयुद्ध में अमेरिकी और सोवियत दोनों खेमों को प्रोपेगंडा युद्ध में लगाया- जनता हमारी तरफ बेहतर है खुशहाल है की छवि गढ़ने की जद्दोजहद में लपेटा। उस वक़्त जनता के पास कोई तरीका नहीं था कि वह अपनी बात कह सके- वह सिर्फ श्रोता या 'ऑडियंस' थी. बेजुबान श्रोता जिसे सरकार जो भी कहे उस पर हाँ करना है. सोशल मीडिया के उदय ने सूचना पर सत्ता के एकाधिकार को ध्वस्त कर उसको जुबान दे दी. पहले आपके पास छापाखाने थे, जनता के पास कुछ नहीं। सोशल मीडिया का पहला रूप बन के ब्लॉग आये तो ये एकतरफा रास्ता दोतरफ़ा हो गया. दिलचस्प बात यह कि इसी वजह से ब्लॉग को अमेरिकी संविधान के प्रथम और क्रांतिकारी संशोधन के नाम पर 'फर्स्ट अमेंडमेंट मशीन' भी कहा जाता है. उसके बाद तो फिर खैर सिलसिला रेडियो को चुनौती दे सकने वाले पॉडकास्ट तक गया- अब यू ट्यूब से लगायत लाइव वीडियो तक अपने निजी चैनल जैसे कुछ तक आ पहुँचा है ये फ़साना फिर कभी. 
ब्लॉग के रूप में शुरू हो जाने के बाद फिर सोशल मीडिया को कहाँ रुकना था. ब्लॉग की अब भी एक सीमा थी- वहाँ जनता विचार रख सकती थी, टिप्पणियों में बहसें भी हो सकती थीं पर मामला अब भी तात्कालिकता से बहुत दूर था. सो अगली कड़ी में सोशल नेटवर्किंग साइट्स आयीं जहाँ दोस्त एक दूसरे से जुड़ सकते थे, उसी समय और काल में बातें कर सकते थे. यह शायद वह जगह थी जिसे सोशल मीडिया को बदल देना था और इसने बदल भी दिया। लोगों के आपस में जुड़ सकने की संभावना कभी भी परिचितों तक नहीं रूकती- वह हमेशा आगे बढ़ती है. छोटे से निजी घेरे से निकल मोहल्ले तक, मोहल्ले से निकल शहर तक, उससे भी आगे बढ़ किसी फ़ुटबाल टीम के समर्थकों तक, किसी राजनैतिक विचारधारा से जुड़ने तक, या यूँ ही किसी एक मुद्दे पर साथ खड़े हो सकने तक.
सोशल मीडिया ने यह तो किया ही, अनजाने में ही सत्ता के खिलाफ एक बड़ा हथियार भी बना लिया- अनाम होने का, अदृश्य होने का हथियार. आप ट्यूनीशिया की सड़कों पर तब के तानाशाह के खिलाफ कुछ बोलते ही चिन्हित कर लिए जाते थे, और फिर परिणाम भुगतने के लिए भी. चुप करा दिए जाने से लेकर मार दिए जाने तक. पर फिर आप सिर्फ एक प्रोफाइल हैं तब कोई फौज क्या करेगी? इस हथियार ने सोशल मीडिया को जैसा बदला वैसा किसी और चीज ने नहीं बदला. ट्यूनीशिया से शुरू हुई आग देखते ही देखते मामला इस्तांबुल, यूक्रेन के कीव, आक्युपाई हांगकांग से लेकर हिन्दुस्तान तक पहुँच आया- काश्मीर में बात बेबात इन्टरनेट प्रतिबंधित कर दिए जाने से लेकर जाट आंदोलन के समय हरियाणा और पटेल आंदोलन के समय गुजरात का उदाहरण सहज याद आता है. 
पर फिर, जनता का कोई भी हथियार सत्ता की नज़रों से बहुत देर तक कहाँ बच पाता है. फिर समाज के भीतर अपने हजार विभाजन हों तो और भी. अनाम होने, अदृश्य होने की सुविधा एक दोधारी तलवार है. यह प्रतिरोध ही नहीं, सत्ता को भी अनाम होने का रास्ता थमाती है, अपने किये की जिम्मेदारी लेने से बच निकलने का रास्ता दिखाती है. सो जहाँ एक तरफ सोशल मीडिया प्रतिरोध के संगठन का आधार बन रहा था वहीँ इस पर दूसरी तरफ ट्रॉल नाम की उस प्रजाति का जन्म भी हो रहा था जो उस पर बिना किसी नैतिक सामाजिक मर्यादाओं के पिल पड़ता है. यूँ तो पूरी दुनिया महिलाओं को बलात्कार और हत्या की धमकी देने वाली ऐसी ट्रॉल सेनाओं से परेशान है, पर अपने देश में जहाँ प्रधानमंत्री मोदी भी ऐसे कुछ ट्रॉल्स के 'अनुयायी' (फॉलोवर) हैं वहाँ तो कहना ही क्या।
खैर, इस खटराग को छोड़ दें तो सोशल मीडिया ने सारी दुनिया में एक और बड़ी जमीन तोड़ी है- तमाम लिख पढ़ रहे लोगों को एक ऐसा मंच दिलाने की जमीन जो अब तक उनकी पहुँच से बाहर था. खुद अपने सोशल मीडिया नेटवर्क पर नजर दौड़ाएं तो ऐसे तमाम लोग शानदार लिखते हुए, विमर्श करते हुए मिलेंगे जिनके पास पहले खुद को अभिव्यक्त करने के लिए निजी दायरे से बाहर कोई जगह नहीं थी. एक मित्र का कुछ अरसे पहले व्यंग में कहा वाक्य याद आया- देख रहे हो- सब आंटियाँ लेखिका हो गयी हैं. अपना जवाब था- हाँ, उनमें से तमाम तुमसे बहुत बेहतर भी. उस की नाराज़गी अपनी जगह, पर सच में सोचिये कि हमारे जैसे पितृसत्तात्मक समाज में अब के पहले एक साथ बोलती, कहती, लिखती पढ़ती स्त्रियों को कहाँ देखा था- हाईस्कूल वाली सपनीली आँखों वाली बच्चियों से लेकर शादी के बाद अपनी कविताओं वाली डायरी किसी बक्से में छुपा आयी अब पचासवाँ छू रही स्त्री तक! मतलब उन स्त्रियों को जिनका आखिरी परिवार के बाहर आखिरी भाषण, आखिरी नृत्य आखिरी नाटक स्कूल कॉलेज के वार्षिकोत्सव में होता था, फिर कपड़ों के साथ यादों में तह कर रख दिया जाता था.
बेशक सोशल मीडिया के अपने खतरे हैं और वही हैं जो समाज के हैं. समाज में चौराहे पर जाती किसी भी लड़की पर यौन हिंसा कर सकने वाले शोहदे होंगे तो फेसबुक के इनबॉक्स निरापद होने की उम्मीद बेमानी है. समाज में किसी असहमति पर माँ-बहन की गालियाँ दे सकने वाले लोग होंगे तो सोशल मीडिया पर उनसे मुक्ति पाना बस दिवास्वप्न भर हो सकता है. समाज में इनसे जूझना है तो सोशल मीडिया पर भी जूझना होगा।
सोशल मीडिया की एक दूसरी दिक्कत अलबत्ता है जो बेहद खतरनाक है- इस पर सब कुछ की स्वतःस्फूर्तता। लिखने की, पढ़ने की, समझने की, सोच का विकास करने की, आगे बढ़ने की. हमारी पीढ़ी तक में बोलना और लिखना एक सचेत काम होता था, वरिष्ठों द्वारा लगातार परखा जाता हुआ. कहीं कुछ गलती हुई नहीं कि डाँट पड़ी. बेशक तब कई बार बुरा भी लगता रहा होगा पर फिर उन फटकारों ने चिंतन से लेकर लेखन तक जो माँजा वो आज तक दिखता है. अफ़सोस, सोशल मीडिया पर 'डिसलाइक' का बटन तो खैर नहीं ही दिखा, असहमति के स्वीकार का साहस भी बहुत कम मिला। वजह शायद वही- लिखे पर बरसते 'लाइक्स' 'सेलिब्रिटी' बनने का अहसास देते हैं, और फिर वह अहसास आपको वहीँ रोक देता है. स्वतःस्फूर्तता बरतने की चीज है- रियाज़ करना पड़ता है. सोशल मीडिया ने एक पूरी पीढ़ी से वह रियाज़ छीन सा लिया है! 
बाकी लौटें तो सोशल मीडिया हमारे समय का सब कुछ है.  काहिरा के तहरीर चौक पर हथियार बंद फौजों के सामने भिंची मुट्ठियों के साथ खड़े तानाशाही से लड़ रहे आजादी के जियालों से लेकर सुबह जागते ही उनींदी आँखों से फोन टटोल फेसबुक खोलने को आतुर हाथ- यह दो छवियाँ सोशल मीडिया को जैसे परिभाषित कर सकती हैं दरअसल कुछ भी और नहीं कर सकता। जी, न हमारे समयों को अतियों का युग कहते एरिक हॉब्सबॉम ने सोचा होगा कि यह अतियाँ सोशल मीडिया में मूर्त होंगी न ही धर्म को जनता का अफीम बताते मार्क्स को जरा भी अंदेशा रहा होगा कि बस एक सदी में धर्म नाम की अफीम सोशल मीडिया नाम की चिलम में पी जायेगी!

January 19, 2017

Another Adivasi Student Suicide Marks Rohith Vemula’s Death Anniversary

[This is an AHRC Article.
Also Published in CounterCurrents.]

Rohith Vemula’s suicide a year ago shook the country. The circumstances of his death left no doubt that it was an institutional murder committed through continuous harassment, and not a simple suicide. It exposed how the culture of caste discrimination was alive and kicking in Indian campuses despite being outlawed by the Constitution. Though it was no secret even before Rohith killed himself, the violent end to his dreams opened up the pent up rage against caste-based discriminations quite in the same way as the notorious gang rape and murder of a girl in Delhi in 2012 unleashed an outpouring of anger against the culture of rape.
The past year without Rohith was marked with protests demanding a law criminalizing caste-based discrimination in campuses, i.e. a Rohith Act, for prosecution of those responsible for his death and so on. His first death anniversary was not going to be any different. Quite on the contrary, it was going to be a solemn moment of stopping for a moment, looking at what the protests had achieved, and charting a way forward. And, so it did, with countless protests across the country and virulent crackdowns by those responsible for pushing Rohith to the wall.
They left no stone unturned to suppress the voices seeking justice for him and denied permission for protests in the University of Hyderabad where continuous harassment by the authorities had forced Rohith to end his life. They did not think twice before apprehending his mother, brother, a leading journalist, and all others they could get their hands on when people defied the ban and protested. Hundreds of similar protests were broken down with brute force in many other towns, including Delhi, where around 300 peaceful protesters were arrested.
Alas, terrible news that emerged on the very day was lost in the chaos. Exactly a year after Rohith had killed himself, another student from a marginalized community had to end his life in another premier institution of the country. Not many seemed to even notice the death of Lokesh Meena, a third year student of IIT-Kharagpur.
The biting coincidence exposes the fact that nothing much has changed on the ground despite all the cacophony, chaos, claims, and counterclaims that ensued in the aftermath of Rohith’s suicide. Nothing much, despite the vehement protests seeking justice on one hand, and the entrenched system rewarding those behind pushing him to the extremes.
Take, for example, the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the Indian Science Congress, 2017, presented the “Millennium Plaques Honour” to University of Hyderabad Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile. He got the award despite, lo and behold, having admitted to plagiarism and having been booked for abetting Rohith’s suicide as well as under the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Exact circumstances that led Lokesh Meena to take the extreme step are still unknown. A stinging reality stands out nonetheless: the reality that he came from a marginalized community just like Rohith. Lokesh was from an Adivasi (tribal) community, one of the few severely disadvantaged and marginalized communities of India.
That leads to the second stinging reality: students from marginalsied communities like Dalits and Adivasis account for the bulk of suicides committed in premier educational institutions of the country.
Why they are pushed to take their promising lives is also a giveaway. Thousands of articles, reports, and studies document the systemic and systematic harassment they face in these institutions. They elaborate upon the structures of violence – from emotional to physical –unleashed upon these students who have nothing to bank upon to. With the executive authorities having power to reward or punish every subordinate, in-house institutions earmarked to deal with discrimination often end up as their fiefdom and more often penalize the victims rather than support them.
In sum, the whole thing plays out in cycles. The students from marginalized communities get discriminated against. Then they have to make a choice between two equally distressing options. First is to suffer in silence, get depressed, and wish to make it out alive. Second is to stand up, approach Equal Opportunity Office, or whatever the local equivalent institutions are called, register a complaint, and continue to be even more victimized. This vicious cycle breaks many of the victims from within and, at times, forces them to commit suicide.
Further, tucked away in a single column snippet in the bottom left corner of newspapers or just below the main screens of the websites carrying them, if at all, these students are lost without even anyone registering this loss. The reason behind this is simple, as explained above; most of these struggles end up as being solitary ones waged inside the walled ghettoes that premier educational institutions have become in India. The victims have often to fight it out all alone without any support, without having anyone to even keep records if they fall.
They fail to make it to news in most cases, and some not even after they kill themselves. Take for instance, the struggle of eight Dalit students suspended by the Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in September 2016 on the allegations of assaulting a teacher and vandalising his vehicle despite clear CCTV evidence rubbishing the same. Their suspensions arrived after they protested against attempts to dilute reservations for Dalit students in the University. Their struggle and suspension has not excited even those in civil society known for outraging.
Not all discrimination and suicide catch attention. Rohith Vemula’s suicide was not the first one by a Dalit scholar in the University of Hyderabad. He was ninth one to kill himself in a 10 year period and yet the authorities ‘failed’ to see the distressing trend at best and criminally ignored it at worst. Hyderabad University is not the sole offender or an aberration; similar reports have been received from across the country.
A documentary named ‘Death of Merit’ counted 18 suicides by Dalit students in premier educational institutions including AIIMS and IITs in a mere four years, from 2007 to 2011. The number rose to a staggering 22 by 2016; Rohith was the 23rd.
His case stirred the nation because there were people to take the case up, to fight for justice for him, and to hold those responsible accountable. But, what did even this struggle achieve? Nothing much would be the answer, if one goes by Lokesh’s suicide. Asking why and seeking answers would be natural corollary.
A simple answer to the question would be that no amount of outrage could be certain of getting justice in a system with flawed institutions to begin with. Even a cursory look at the valiant struggle of Irom Chanu Sharmila can bring this fact to the open. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act stays intact despite a 16-year long hunger strike by Sharmila and all the outrage it caused. To put it simply, outrage is no substitute for a functioning justice system that anyone and everyone, including those living on the bottom rungs of society, can approach and seek redress from.
Unfortunately that is where our struggles have failed. How many have asked and pursued the status of investigations against Vice Chancellor Appa Rao Podile and others booked for abetment of Rohith’s suicide. Where has the case reached? How many years would it take to conclude, provided it does? Would it not have created an example and deterrence had he indeed been found guilty and sentenced against future harassment of students from underprivileged communities?
Let us add to this a question over efficacy of any new law getting enacted in this fundamentally flawed system with entrenched vested interests. What if we indeed get a Rohith Act but those responsible for its implementation remain the same?
This is definitely not to say that there is anything wrong with outrage. In fact outraging can at times even help achieve justice; it did in the Jessica Lal case. However, it can only do that in an odd case or two. And India has over 3 crore cases pending. Outraging has a limit; it tires the ones outraging and sets in a fatigue unless it is the system that they are able to change.
There is an even more important question: why should a rule of law based justice system need outrage to deliver justice? Why cannot it operate as it does in a civilised world – so anyone who goes to the court is listened to? Of course, this is not to say that justice there is flawless, but then it is not a rarity like in our system, either.
Justice for Rohith would remain a distant dream until we add the struggle for justice institution reforms to all our struggles. Those who pushed him to death will keep getting rewarded despite the ongoing cases involving allegation as serious as abetment to suicide. We will keep losing Lokesh Meenas without even noticing, forget about outraging.

January 14, 2017

India: Where police rape women and NHRC seeks mere compensation

[This is an AHRC Statement.]

It is almost a week since the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) admitted to having found prima facie evidence of the security personnel of state government of Chhattisgarh having raped and sexually and physically assaulted at least 16 women, mostly women belonging to the indigenous communities. It is also been a week since the NHRC put the state government on notice, though in doing so, merely asking why the women should not be monetarily compensated, with a sum of Rupees 3 lakh for each of the eight victims of rape, Rupees 2 lakh for each of the six victims of sexual assault, and Rupees 50,000 for the two victims physically assaulted.

NHRC only cited compensation, and sidestepped the directive to invoke SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in all the cases when the victims belong to Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes. It has not sought even suspension of the cops accused and named in the first information reports, never mind taking the investigations into the cases away from the Chhattisgarh Police, the force whose personnel are accused of these rapes and assaults. The Chhattisgarh Police has itself of course not sought to hand over the cases to an independent body to ensure an impartial investigation.

The NHRC omission comes out of no unintended dereliction of duty. NHRC for once has stood as true to its mandate as it can, taking suo moto notice of a media report detailing the assaults and acting on them, to at least do this much. Had it not been for this timely intervention by the Commission, the crimes committed by those obligated to protect the victims might have been forgotten, like so many others committed in the state marred by an ongoing armed struggle between Maoist insurgents and the State.

What the case indeed betrays is a total collapse of the rule of law in most Indian states. Particularly in the hinterlands, public justice institutions have been rendered completely incapable of providing redress for victims, whatever the nature of the crime committed by either private citizens or State personnel. The reality is laid bare in this case of rape and assault. In a functioning rule of law system, a victim of rape and/or assault would rush to the police to seek justice. What if the cops themselves committed the rapes, though? And, what if the justice system is corrupt and dysfunctional? Whom would the victims go to seek justice?

There is a high possibility the women will not get any justice even if some other institution enters the fray. The same force whose personnel are accused of committing the crimes will still investigate these cases. Further, prosecutors, being from the same state administration that NHRC held as “vicariously liable” for gross violations of human rights, would sniff out any hope of justice remaining. Any intervention by an outside agency, even if it were independent, would become meaningless. So the only possibility in the current scenario is some financial compensation, i.e. if even this snails its way to the point of reimbursement.

It is in this context that the NHRC intervention – stopping at seeking compensation and invoking provisions of SC/ST (PoA) Act – turns into a welcome, but cruel, joke. It will remain so unless the NHRC puts its act together and orders transfer of investigation to an independent body in a time-bound manner, monitored by either itself or any other competent and independent body.

If it does not, the intervention will be just another, in a state notorious for security forces themselves committing crimes against women, raping and assaulting them, with impunity. One does not get much hope from the developments in the Meena Khalkho rape and murder case. Nothing much has happened in that case despite the Anita Jha judicial inquiry commission having indicted Chhattisgarh Police officers and ordering them to file an F.I.R against 25 cops in 2015.

January 05, 2017

Farmlands ‘Developed’ A Bit More Into Farmer Graveyards In 2015

[This is an AHRC Article.
Also published in Counter Currents.]
How does one deal with a 42% spike in suicides by farmers/cultivators in a country where “development”
has been the buzzword for the last couple of years? If the question isn’t creepy enough to send a shiver down one’s spine, consider that “Bankruptcy or Indebtedness” and “Farming Related Issues”, i.e. non-personal reasons, account for 58.2% of these suicides. No pretensions would be enough to hide the fact that the agricultural crisis has in fact deepened in the middle of all the brouhaha over India’s superpower dreams.
The giveaways from the recently released data on suicides in the farming sector by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the national record keeper, are alarming. And they are so despite the clear discrepancies hinting at the possibilities of either deliberate fudging to mask the extent of crisis or unconscious mistakes. Take the fact that the NCRB puts the numbers of farm suicides in Odisha in 2015 at 23, while the Odisha state Agricultural Minister had put the same number at 139 while replying to a question in the state Assembly.
Similar discrepancies in data from other states would not be surprising, and would mean the NCRB data reflects numbers lower than reality. The NCRB has some explaining to do here.
Also disconcerting is the difference between the major causes reported for suicides of farmers/cultivators and agricultural labourers.
As noted above, agricultural reasons, bankruptcy, debt, farming related issues, and poverty accounted for 59.3% of total suicides by farmers/cultivators. The situation changes inexplicably for the labourers. NCRB attributes 40.1% of total suicides for labourers to family problems and another 19% to illness. In other words, together, these two reasons alone caused 59.1% of suicides among agricultural labourers.
In a contrast to farmers/cultivators, bankruptcy/indebtedness was found to cause a mere 2.2% suicides amongst agricultural labourers, and poverty 3.9%. Lo and behold, farming related issues apparently caused no suicide according to the data.
Why is illness killing almost double the labourers than farmers? Could it have something to do with them not having any money to get treatment, because of farming crisis? Just asking.
Look at the family problems killing around 3-and-a-half times more agricultural labourers than their employers and the cause behind these family problems becomes an obvious question, albeit not for NCRB. Why are their families so troubled? Has it got something to do, again, with them not being able to fend for the family because of the (ahem) agricultural crisis?
Evidently, the figures are trying to hide more than they tell and yet end up betraying the real extent of the crisis. The crisis that killed “(a) total of 12,602 persons involved in farming sector (consisting of 8,007 farmers/cultivators and 4,595 agricultural labourers) have committed suicides during 2015, accounting for 9.4% of total suicides victims (1,33,623) in the country.”
A few of the findings state the obvious. The land holding status of the victims is one among them; the figures show that 45.2% of total farmers/cultivators who committed suicide were “Small Farmers/Cultivators” (3,618) and another 27.4% “Marginal Farmers/Cultivators” (2,195). Together they accounted for 72.6% of total farmers/cultivators’ suicides (5,813 out of 8,007). The figures are comprehensible as the small and marginal farmers are the ones who often have nothing other than their meagre land holdings to depend upon. State failure to support them in such circumstances, even a single crop failure, can push them into taking the extreme step.
To make more sense of the numbers, bankruptcy or indebtedness killed 38.7% (3,097 out of 8,007) farmers/cultivators; the corresponding figure for the same head in overall suicides in India is a mere 3.3%. Obviously disproportionately more farmers are indebted and bankrupt than those in other professions. Farming related issues killed another 19.5% (1,562 out of 8,007 suicides) in total with no corresponding figure in overall data.
Another notable takeaway from the figures is that a whopping 2,474 farmers out of the total 3,097, or 80% of the total who killed themselves because of indebtedness had taken loans from “Financial Institutions like Bank/Registered Micro Financial Institutions”, and a mere 302 from “Money Lenders” in 2015. The figure hints at unacceptable callousness of the formal banking system towards farmers despite the system being well aware of the aggravating farm crisis for decades.
It also debunks the myth of local money sharks being the main culprits behind pushing the farmers to death, while letting off the real ones, the banks and other formal finance institutions. In other words, the farmers are in fact falling prey to State hounding, not private individuals!
The figures are yet another wake up call for the State to stand up and get its act together before it is too late. It can begin with reining in finance institutions from harassing the farmers affected by crop failures and other such eventualities beyond their control.

December 18, 2016

Trying misogyny welcome, but how about curbing all crime against women?

It is fourth anniversary of 16 December 2012, the brutal gang rape and murder of a student in Delhi that shook the conscience of the nation and led to unprecedented protests against sexual violence across India. Crime against women has been common in India, as has been the support for such crime in the form of misogynist statements by those holding seats of power. The grammar of shame in cases of sexual violence has always been inscribed on the bodies of victims, avoiding most perpetrators.

It is in this context that the Supreme Court of India taking on Azam Khan, a powerful minister of Uttar Pradesh government, and making him unconditionally apologize for a brazenly misogynist statement against gang rape victims, is a welcome step.

Even more welcome is that the Court has done so while framing a few fundamental constitutional questions over such statements impeding with rule of law in general and getting redress for the victims in particular. The Court contemplated whether a person holding public office making such statements can create "distrust" in the minds of victims about a fair probe in the case and whether such a statement can be a part of freedom of speech and expression. The Court had also asked if such statements could influence the investigation into alleged crimes and thus affect the chances of victims getting justice.

Having said that the Supreme Court has rarely shown similar zeal in dealing with such misogynistic statements by those in power, including many sitting Union ministers, Chief Ministers and other lawmakers. For instance, Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal has done the same time and again. She had once termed the infamous Park Street gang-rape case as “shajano ghotona”, i.e. a staged incident to destabilise her government. She had similarly termed villagers of Kamduni as Maoists for protesting the rape of a girl student!

There is no dearth of similar statements by other notables, including by Mulayam Singh Yadav, who has several terms as Union Minister and Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and is chief of Samajwadi Party that is in power in Uttar Pradesh even now. Opposing death sentence for rapes, he had termed the crime a mere mistake by “boys” and went on to promise to change such rules! Om Prakash Chautala, former Chief Minister of Haryana, had similarly proposed early marriages as the way to stop rapes in 2012. To add his name to this list of dishonour, Goa Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar had asked protesting nurses to not sit on hunger strike in the sun as it could ruin their marital prospects.

The worst of the lot, however, came in 2014 from Tapas Pal, a member of Lok Sabha from Trinamool Congress when he openly threatened to send party cadres to rape female family members of opposition parties. That was until the current Union government upped the ante by appointing Nihal Chand Meghwal, a gang rape accused summoned by courts, as a Union Minister. Thankfully, he was removed as Minister in the last cabinet reshuffle, though he continues to be a Member of Parliament, one amongst 186 of his parliamentary colleagues that have serious criminal charges against them, including that of murder and rape.  

The Supreme Court of India, which sat many-a-time over Azam Khan’s remarks and even rejected his conditional apology, did not take notice of many of these statements and appointments. It has not taken on the misogyny that legitimises institutional bias against women in society and systemises it into all its arms, official as well as social.

One might hope that the proactive handling of this case by the Court would not end up as a one-off case over a powerful Minister of a state ruled by a party that is in opposition in the centre. One might also hope that the Court would take the process ahead and would also direct the justice institutions to deal with all crimes against women, including sexual violence, with the seriousness they deserve and would get the women redress.

One might hope that the Court would summon, say, top cops to enquire about such abysmally low conviction rates and direct them to tighten up loose ends of investigation process. One might hope that it would also take on the defence lawyers who often end up converting the trial into traumatic repeat rape for the victims. One might hope that it would also take on other misogynist leaders to create a deterrence India so desperately needs against sexual violence.

Alas, all this seems a far cry today, with conviction rates even in rape cases standing at a paltry 28% in 2014. To put the figure in clearer perspective, let’s take the case of Delhi, which reported 706 rape cases in 2012, the year that shook the nation’s conscience.

Only 1 of those 706 rape cases has ended up in a conviction till now!

Evidently, if the Court stops at making Azam Khan apologise, it would seem more like a farce than the quest to build a gender just India safe for its women.

Post script: Yet another case of rape in a moving car has been reported from Delhi today.