By Dr ZooviaHamiduddin
“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”
— Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde’s essay ‘The Decay of Lying’ cheekily sets out that life follows the plots and aesthetics of art, not the other way around. Current events in today’s climate, especially when it comes to women’s rights, have an eerie, déjà vu quality reminiscent of that.
In 2018, the narrative of Vampire, a slim novel written by Mirza AzeemBaigChughtai in 1932, jumped out from mildewed, dusty, cobweb-covered and forgotten corners of libraries and came to life on the cover of major Western newspapers.
When Chughtai — a women’s rights activist and the first feminist Urdu writer — wrote Vampire, he already enjoyed a certain level of fame, notoriety and controversy (the latter for his unwavering support of women’s rights). At the age of 35, at the height of his popularity, he decided to address the unmentionable, unrecognised and unpalatable subject of rape in conservative Muslim society. It was considered an act of literary suicide.
Vampire is the story of a 16-year-old Muslim girl, raised in strict purdah, being brutally raped by people of her own kind, ie Muslims. It is a dark, tragic, heart-wrenching novel written in the first-person. The girl tells us her horrific tale through a veil of tears. Her story has great intimacy, incredible delicacy and is written in the most chaste Urdu. Her desire to keep her experience concealed is so obvious that the reader feels embarrassed about invading her privacy.
2018 turned out to be the year when her story suddenly lit up all media. Headlines addressing sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape were everywhere. The #MeToo movement rose, gathered momentum and then erupted like a nuclear mushroom. Women suddenly felt empowered. Around the same time, Brett Kavanaugh, a judge at the United States’ Court of Appeals, was nominated for the Supreme Court. Right on the heels of his nomination came Dr Christine Blasey Ford, a shy, highly accomplished middle-aged woman who stated that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when she was 16. Her story echoed the narrator of Vampire, the horror story written 86 years earlier in a conservative Muslim society in British India.
Chughtai’s heroine remains nameless throughout the novel. The naive, purdah-observing girl is on her way to a wedding celebration with family and friends. She falls asleep on the train and is left behind. Awakening to find herself alone on the dark and empty train, the frightened, panicked girl encounters a member of the cleaning crew who, upon noticing her burqa, tells her about a Muslim family nearby and takes her to their home. “When I saw the curtain on the door, I breathed a sigh of relief and entered confidently into the house of God-fearing, purdah-observing people,” she says. These are people she identifies with, with whom she feels safe.
Decades into the future, in the real world, after a swim meet, 16-year-old Christine confidently enters a house in Maryland. She has been there before; inside were her kind of people who belonged to the same country club and attended the same social events, church and school bazaars as she and her family did. These were people she identified with, with whom she felt safe.
Vampire’s narrator is alarmed to find only two men in the house. She is coerced into stepping into a room to wait for the women of the house to come. She hears the two men whispering conspiratorially.
Christine climbs the stairs to go to the bathroom, followed by two drunk boys. She is aware of them whispering conspiratorially.
Vampire’s narrator is cornered in the room and violently thrown on the bed. Pinned under the weight of her attacker, she feels his hands on her neck. “He was choking me. I was afraid he was going to choke me to death. I was afraid he would kill me.” The man did not want the girl to scream. “Don’t scream,” he said. “No one can hear you.”
Eighty-six years into the future, Christine describes how she was pushed into a room and thrown on a bed, pinned under the weight of Kavanaugh while his friend egged him on. “Kavanaugh covered my mouth with his hand to prevent me from screaming. I was afraid he would kill me, he would choke me to death accidentally.” The boys raised the volume of the music playing in the room so that no one could hear her.
The narrator of Vampire, after fiercely struggling, is brutally raped. Christine manages to escape and lock herself in the bathroom.
Neither the narrator nor Christine whisper a word of what has happened to anyone. They become co-conspirators to the very men who assaulted them. The victim in Vampire weeps and covers herself up. She becomes an accomplice to her assailant’s crime; she suffers and blames herself. Her personality changes — from a happy, carefree young girl she becomes silent, brooding and dazed.
Christine, too, becomes an accomplice to her attacker. She, too, suffers, but is afraid to tell anyone. Her personality changes — from being outgoing and carefree, she becomes silent and unhappy. Her schoolwork suffers, she struggles in college, she has difficulty adjusting to her life.
The victim in Vampire says, “I hide it like my own sin, for I know that even though it is not my fault and I am innocent, I would be the one who will suffer the consequences of this heinous crime. I would be the one who is gossiped about. I am the one who will not be allowed to live a full life. Society distances itself from women such as me. Not just men, but women want to distance themselves from me; their delicate sensibilities are violated and disturbed by my presence. They who have been fortunate never to have undergone something like what I had to go through, convince themselves that what happened to me is my fault, that this only happens to those who deserve it, that my fate is somehow my own character flaw. I know I will not receive justice in this world; the light of Ahura Mazda, the god of fire, sunlight and life has been extinguished by Ahriman, the lord of darkness, death and destruction. But on Judgement Day, Christ, the miraculous life-restorer, will give life to truth and honour. They will speak to the Almighty on my behalf; they will invoke my story in words more powerful than the melancholy melodies of David and the sighs of the martyred Imam Hussain’s mother. Angels will weep, prophets will shed tears and the light of God will shine again.”
Christine, too, keeps her secret hidden, sharing it only with her husband, a few friends and her therapist. When Kavanaugh becomes a federal judge, she — holding a PhD in psychology and with a powerful career of her own — thinks about exposing him, but hesitates. When Kavanaugh is nominated to become a justice of the Supreme Court, the dam breaks. She comes forward with her story and then follows a storm of harassment. Ugly rumours label her a liar and a stooge of the Democrats. Reporters at her door and threats to her and her family’s lives force her to leave her home and move to a safe house. She takes a lie detector test. She presents a most compelling case to a group of older, white men who ignore all evidence and make this into a political partisan matter. Throughout the ordeal she remains composed, controlled and ladylike.
Kavanaugh, meanwhile, comes in with an angry, red face. He cries, he screams. Entitled and arrogant, he refuses to take a lie detector test, not wanting an FBI investigation. Women activists and public demands force a limited investigation by the FBI. They do not talk to Christine, her therapist, the two other women who have also accused Kavanaugh or his male colleagues from Yale University who confirm his drunken behaviour. The only person they talk to is the friend who egged him on while he attacked Christine.
This incident, that has haunted Christine since she was 16 years old, creates barely a hiccup in confirming Kavanaugh’s nomination. Christine must now live with this latest humiliating chapter of her assault. What the narrator of Vampire said — that society will not let you live after they find out — is now happening to Christine.
Chughtai was the first to talk about what is now called ‘secondary rape’, when the victim is assaulted once again by society. Christine is now undergoing a witch-hunt led by the leader of the so-called free world; he mocks her openly to a jeering, laughing crowd of thousands who shout and boo with him. Christine is assaulted once again, not by a crowd of thousands, but of hundreds of thousands who witness all this on television.
When the narrator of Vampire says that “she who has been assaulted will be remembered for seven generations after her death”, she is talking about Christine. History will read that Justice Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite Christine’s accusation. People will continue to disbelieve her. Perhaps, like the narrator of Vampire, she too will have to wait until Judgement Day when the ancient God of light will be on the throne, when Christ will give life to truth and honour, and rise and speak on her behalf. Angels will weep and prophets will shed tears.
Chughtai’s literary, timeless and timely classic Vampire lives and breathes even today. Literature, more than history, reminds us that some aspects of human society are universal; they raise their ugly heads regardless of who we are and where we live. These horrors committed against women are not by strangers, monsters and vampires, but by the very people they have reason to trust. We need to remember and fight these hideous aspects of the human race till kingdom come.
Being fair and transparent
By Navin B. Chawla
Two phases of the 2019 general election have been completed. Polling has finished in 186 out of 543 parliamentary constituencies. Polling in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, has been cancelled for corrupt practices. Five phases still remain till counting is comprehensively undertaken for all the seven phases of the election, on May 23. The reason to complete all the phases is that the result of any one phase should not influence the choices that electors may make.
Having served the Election Commission of India (EC) for five-and-a-half years during which I conducted the 2009 general election, I have an insider’s view, but of course am not privy to the inputs that the EC has and on which its decisions are made.
As I have argued in my recent book, Every Vote Counts, several negative features of our electoral scene have worsened. Since the Model Code of Conduct came into effect, in just the first two phases this time, money power has so reared its ugly head that seizures made of unaccounted cash, liquor, bullion and drugs amounting to ₹2,600 crore have already surpassed the entire seizures made in the nine phases of the general election in 2014. Most depressingly, this includes huge hauls of drugs, the vast majority smuggled into Gujarat. Uttar Pradesh is awash with liquor. Tamil Nadu has seen the largest seizures of illicit cash —over ₹514 crore.
These vast sums intended to bribe or influence voters prove several things. The first is that these sums almost certainly represent only a fraction of current illegal spending, a tip of the iceberg as it were. They have been detected by the EC’s machinery acting on the basis of tip-offs, or else by the vigilance of electoral officials in the States. Unfortunately, the bulk of illegal tranches of money, liquor or freebies would have reached their destination. Second, political players have refined their methods in being many steps ahead of the EC’s observers and their vigilance teams by moving their funds to their destinations even before the elections are announced.
Does this not make a mockery of the statutory limit of ₹70 lakh that each Lok Sabha candidate has as his poll expenditure limit?
As a country we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. When every rule in the book is being broken, when there is no transparency on how political parties collect or spend their funds, when limits of candidate spending are exceeded in every single case, then the time has come to debate whether we need to re-examine our rule book. In order to supervise the matches in play, the EC has had to deploy over 2,000 Central observers for the entire duration, drawing them out from their ministries and departments at the cost of their normal work at the Centre and in the States. Thousands of vigilance squads are set up and must act on the information they receive, which is why the current level of seizures have already made this India’s most expensive general election yet. An intelligent guess may lead us to a final tally of spending in excess of ₹50,000 crore, the bulk of which is made up of illicit funding and spending.
It is by now clear as daylight that electoral bonds, far from enabling a legitimate and transparent means of political funding, have proved to be the reverse. The EC, in its own affidavit before the Supreme Court, has admitted as much. The Supreme Court’s order has made sure that full disclosure, albeit to the EC, has already effectively killed further funding along this route. Nothing is a better disinfectant for camouflaged funding than sunlight itself.
With my experience this compels me to say that any serious reform with regard to funding must come from the EC itself, for it is very unlikely that any government will take an initiative in this direction. The EC must take stock after this election is over. It should convene a conference of all stakeholders, including of course all recognised political parties, both Central and State. But this should not be exclusively confined to them, for they will tend to support the status quo or they will be unable to reach consensus. The list of stakeholders must also include the best constitutional and legal minds in our country.
In my book I have also raised the twin problem of candidates fielded with criminal antecedents. The 16th Lok Sabha that has now passed into history, saw almost 30% of its members declaring, in their compulsory self-sworn affidavits, the list of criminal cases registered against them. They are also legally obliged to declare their wealth and their educational qualifications. This is the result of two vital orders passed by the Supreme Court in 2002-2003, the result of a battle that the Association for Democratic Reforms fought tenaciously. Unfortunately, in the first phase of this election, 12% of the candidates perforce declared that they had heinous cases pending, while in the second phase the figure was 11%. It may be noted that these cases include murder, attempt to murder, dacoity, kidnapping and rape. Have we forgotten Nirbhaya and 2012 already?
The matter of the Model Code of Conduct and its administration by the EC has been the most frequently reported single issue in this election. For those of a certain generation, the 10th Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), T.N. Seshan — he once famously declared that “he ate politicians for breakfast” — was the man who made the country sit up and take note when he decided to level the playing field as never before. There is little doubt that he reminded the EC that it had powers inherently enshrined in Article 324 of the Constitution — powers so great that there is arguably no other electoral management body with similar powers.
I learned this during my years as Election Commissioner, and these are the powers I exercised during the course of the 15th general election in 2009; I was successfully able to confront three Congress-ruled State governments and one Congress ally too. One of them even convened a special press conference to declare that his government would move the Supreme Court against the EC’s “arbitrariness”, but I personally had no doubt about its outcome. As it happened, he chose not to in the end.
The point I seek to make, by virtue of my own experience, is that the powers of the EC are so enormous and so all-encompassing that they exceed the powers of the executive in all election-related issues during the course of the election period. Of course, these must be exercised judiciously, fairly and equitably, not least because every decision is analysed in every “adda”, every home, every street corner and every “dhaba” across the country, where the EC’s decisions must be seen to be fair and transparent. During the years precedent to becoming CEC, I was fortunate that Mr. Seshan advised me whenever I called on him. As a result I never felt any need to make reference to government or court, once the process was under way.
If there is anything for me to applaud thus far in this election, it is the decision made by two political parties which have selected over 33% women candidates — Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (41% for 42 Lok Sabha seats) and Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (33% for 21 Lok Sabha seats). After years of patriarchy or at best lip service, these parties have taken a vital step towards empowering women politically.
Why Imran bats for Modi
By Ayesha Siddiqa |
It seems that people from very odd quarters — such as Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan — want Narendra Modi to win the upcoming elections. Khan’s recent comments, in which he desired victory for his counterpart as good for the future of a peace initiative, may be driven by pragmatic reasons, but it indicates the separation that exists between the two countries. Following comments by the Opposition and in segments of the social media, the federal information minister intervened and pretended that Khan, who can often open his mouth before engaging his brain, was misunderstood.
Intriguingly, despite India being the most significant country in the neighbourhood, its election outcomes have marginal impact on the region. Khan’s statement, in fact, indicates that disconnectedness in which the head of the government of a neighbouring state refused to measure the implications beyond tactical effect. It seems a right-wing government in India does not matter to Pakistan. Or, perhaps, a Modi-led right-wing government is a wish come true for the ideological right-wing in Pakistan. For the first time since 1947, people do not have to convince each other of how right Muhammad Ali Jinnah was in creating Pakistan: Not that Pakistan was ever designed for all Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, but it now sees its formula for ideological nationalism justified in the face of rising religious-ideological nationalism next door in India. I have lived through the times when Pakistan’s intelligentsia was confused in the face of Indian secularism and democracy. Despite having their own country, there would be an internal conversation about the Indian experiment being better. The last four to five years has brought about a change in that thinking.
The BJP leadership of the last five years cannot be held entirely responsible for all the political and sociological change. If anything, the last four years have helped expose the true colours of the rising Indian middle-class that does not necessarily think very differently from the Hindutva supporter on certain issues. There is no sign that the Congress under Rahul Gandhi would have the gumption to change the course of society. Hearing the young Congress leader speak at a university in London, he did not seem to possess the temerity to deviate markedly from the ideological path that the BJP has chosen for India. However, there is an opinion in Pakistan that a Congress-led government, or any dispensation other than the present formulation, may be more cautious in how it approaches issues in the region.
Meanwhile, the general sense is that with Modi at the helm of affairs, war and conflict will mark the tone of relations between the two countries. However, this would be beneficial for Pakistan’s nationalist project that gets strengthened with every news of mob lynching of Muslims and other minorities, from India. This is not to argue that the state of minorities in Pakistan is any better: But New Delhi no longer represents a secular ideal. For Islamabad, a non-secular India is easier to contest.
The only limitation that Pakistan faces in fighting a BJP-led India is its own internal problems, like the dearth of financial resources, and not the intent. This also means that conflict cannot remain the only shrill refrain: A resolution would have to be negotiated for which the establishment in Rawalpindi prefers a BJP-governed India. Khan’s statement basically means that he, and others who share his thinking, believe that a strong right-wing government is the only credible element with which Pakistan could settle its matters. The question then is, what happened after the Lahore declaration? Wasn’t it a BJP-government that was willing to talk peace? Or, what happened to the peace initiative between the A B Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf governments?
Seen purely from the Pakistani establishment’s perspective, Kargil happened because the military wanted an equaliser at a time when the political government had not taken it into confidence. As far as the breakdown of talks at Agra are concerned, the right-wing in India was divided at the time and the segment represented by L K Advani did not want peace. For Rawalpindi, Modi represents a neat synthesis of India’s right-wing. Hence, the negotiations would be more comprehensive than ever before. The only problem, however, remains that how does one predict Pakistan’s deep state — whose contours, today, are even more difficult to define.
This understanding goes hand in hand with the thinking that the pragmatism of the Hindu right-wing would not stop Delhi from talking to Pakistan despite the latter’s habitual U-turn from peace initiatives. While the emphasis following most track-II dialogues, particularly after a bilateral crisis, is on the Indian members of the group to apprise their counterparts of the anger in India, the Pakistani side has always maintained that it is possible to pick up the conversation thread from where it was dropped. A decade into this behaviour, there is barely anyone on Pakistan’s side with the capacity to remind their own the highly problematic nature of this approach.
Not unlike today’s India, the cost of dissent in Pakistan is very high. There is little traction in the corridors of power towards an alternative approach to resolving the conflict. The deep state in Pakistan — which is not necessarily the entire military, but is symbolised by it — has gained excessive control of all discussions and dialogue. There is also the confidence that international and regional geopolitics allows Rawalpindi the opportunity to continue with its old approach. Money matters are critical, but it will not force a course correction unless Pakistan reaches a breaking point.
The Violent Misuse of a Sacred Symbol
By Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee
A friend had pointed it out to me, in an Arya Samaj Mandir. It was more than a decade ago, when a roommate in JNU, who hailed from Haryana, was entering into an inter-caste marriage with his long-time, Bengali girlfriend. The wedding was taking place against the wishes of their respective parents. There were only friends from the university, who were present to take part in the couple’s happiness. Such is the price of love, in a society where the celebration of “family values” and “religious values” have for generations, meant the celebration of patriarchy, caste interest, and economic interests. It inevitably meant the refusal to accept, the free laws of love. We were in the middle of the short ceremony when my friend drew my attention to a poetic line written on the wall: “Om means a thousand things. One of them is, welcome to the abode of the gods.”
Growing up in a Hindu household, I was of course aware of the symbol. It used to be drawn in red, on small urns made of copper, and placed before a deity. On the urn, Dūrvā (or Darbha, or Kusha) grass would be dipped in water. The Dūrvā grass comprises of three blades, which symbolises the sacred trinity for Hindus. Om, I slowly learnt, was considered the primordial sound, the sacred syllable, that would precede all chanting. The word has been associated with cosmic significance in the Aitareya Brahmana of the Rig Veda, as something that connects the liberated human spirit with the universe, as “essence of breath, life, everything that exists”.
It shook me from inside, to see the photograph of the Om symbol, being violently engraved on the back of a man I learnt is Nabbir, an undertrial Muslim prisoner in Tihar jail. Nabbir was forcibly marked and denied food for two days on April 12, allegedly by the jail superintendent. This is not just a terrible incident, but marks of a sickness that can quickly, if unchecked and not punished by law, spread into a fascist method of torture and humiliation. This is a bizarre act of classifying a non-Hindu victim.
It is necessary to pay attention to what is taking place in this incident. A language of horror is being established through this act of power. By engraving the symbol, the Muslim prisoner’s body was robbed of its sovereignty. Sovereignty here is political in the religious sense. The invisible presence of the sacred exists in the prisoner’s body. The marking of the Hindu symbol on his back, is a violation of the prisoner’s sacred world, where the meaning of sacred becomes territorial. The body is no longer the body of a man who can exist within his ‘human rights’, despite his lack of political rights as a prisoner.
What is ‘human’ within the man’s belief system is intrinsically his ability to exist as a man who belongs to a god. It is a spiritual relationship that belongs to the realm of another law, where governmental power is marked off, and ideally has no control over. What has occurred in this case is precisely this ‘human’ breach between governmental power and sacred power. The superintendent did not limit himself to the task of holding juridical authority over his prisoner. That limit was overcome by a violent superimposition of another authority (or power) that the superintendent had no right to use over the prisoner.
The act of marking a Muslim prisoner’s back with a Hindu symbol is not a sacred but a territorial act, where the mis/use of power involves marking someone with sacred symbols as proof of dominance. The act of marking the prisoner’s shoulder with the sacred symbol that does not belong to the world he inhabits within, is to humiliate his inner sense of sacredness by deliberating implanting an alien symbol on his body. That symbol is also torn from its own sacred universe, and made to symbolise something territorial.
In the Tihar jail incident, everything is reduced to the trembling of a body, where the sacred is turned into a mark of horror. It is a space where everything corresponds to nothing, where symbols are reduced to bones, where the holy is reduced to what in the Book of Revelation (13: 16-17) is called “the mark… of the beast”. The “essence of breath, life and everything that exists”, what is symbolic of Om, is violently taken away from the prisoner. He is left to breathe, and live, only his humiliation.
Whether you believe or not in the human soul, we can name the soul as an invisible entity that remains in correspondence with something unnamable. It is this soul that all forms of barbaric power want to control and humiliate, in order to reduce the human to a nonhuman status. Even in the Germany of 1938, Jewish prisoners were marked by a yellow star, which was a perverted form of the Jewish Star of David. When history repeats itself, it is not just as tragic or farce, but sometimes pure horror.