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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.