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To be a woman and to be in India

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By Shobha Shukla

Is the situation dismal? In a survey of experts done in 2018, India ranks as the world’s most dangerous country for women. It had ranked 4th in the same survey done 7 years ago. The Global Gender Gap Index 2017 by the World Economic Forum placed India at 108 position out of 144 countries benchmarked on the basis of gender parity in the fields of economic participation, education, health and political empowerment. India ranked 131 out of 153 countries in the global Women, Peace, and Security Index 2017-18, that is based upon 11 indicators incorporating inclusion, justice, and security. Despite women accounting for 49% of India’s population, only 12% of the seats in the national legislature are held by them. The female labour force participation rate in India fell from 37% in 2006 to 27% in 2017, as per World Bank report, ranking India at 163 out of 181 countries.

More women are getting educated and coming out of their cocooned existence. They are entering professions that were till recently considered to be the domain of males. They are flying planes, driving e-rickshaws and trains, wielding the surgeon’s knife and winning Olympic medals. It is heartening to know that amongst the top 79 global airlines, Indigo Airlines employs maximum percentage of women pilots (14%) followed closely by AirIndia (nearly 10%). Even rural women are becoming more independent, working outside of their homes and exhibiting active leadership at local government level. The Economic Survey 2018 shows that 43% of all gram panchayats (village councils) in India are headed by women.

 

Two young female staffers at a 5 star hotel told me that though they come from humble backgrounds, their education and job has given them the courage to take their own decisions and to raise their voice against gender injustice. Some domestic helpers said that there are more job opportunities for them today. And though gender equality is a distant dream, they feel more confident than before. A domestic violence survivor said that girls are now becoming more self sufficient and raising their voices against male dominance. She herself took bold decisions to walk out of an abusive marriage through sheer determination and strong will. Her courage has inspired her daughters to take life’s challenges head on and not bow down to the whims of a patriarchal society. Very gratifying indeed!

Renu Mishra, Executive Director, Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives (AALI) rues that the number of women in the work force is dismally low and even those who are working do not get equal wages as compared to their male counterparts. Women do not even have the right to take personal decisions; they do not have the right to enter into matrimony or walk out of a relationship of their own choice.

For Dr PoojaRamakant, breast cancer and endocrine surgeon, striking a balance between family and career is a huge problem for women of her age. “As a female surgeon, I have to struggle more than my male counterparts. Why is a woman expected to fit in the framework designed by a patriarchal society and conform to the social norms laid down by others, even if they are detrimental for her own well being? I have come across many financially independent women also who suffer in silence and stay in abusive marriages. Perhaps, due to emotional weakness, they are scared of what others will say”, shares Pooja.

Even though more and more girls are going to school, education of the girl child is still beset with problems, thinks educationist Dr Chitra Singh. “This is more so in rural areas where girls’ schools are still not a plenty and parents do not feel safe for their daughters to travel long distances. Also most rural schools have poor toilet facilities, which is another deterrent for girls. Patriarchal mindsets when coupled with poor economical status, make matters worse. They think it is a waste of their meagre resources to spend on the daughter’s education, as she will have to be married off. They would rather educate the sons who they think would support them financially later on”, she says.

Life cannot be a bed of roses, but neither does it have to be a throne of thorns. Renu is emphatic that at a personal level each woman should ensure that she would not allow herself and her family to abide by any patriarchal value system. “All of us will have to, and can, contribute to bringing about gender equality in our own life. Let us not do anything that helps propagate patriarchy. We must also contribute to have an enabling environment at home, in schools and outside where girls/women can speak openly and fearlessly”.

Pooja exhorts women to speak up and not remain silent- “I do not remain silent if I see any injustice being done to a woman. Rather I make it a point to speak and make my voice heard and I face such situations very often in my professional life. I encourage my young girl students (interns) to not get de- motivated by society, but make their own informed choices regarding their professional and family life. Also, women should insist on an equitable distribution of work between all members of the family. Men will have to contribute equally to household work and responsibilities. Let us not forget that all women are working women, whether employed or not.”
Chitra wants all girls to get at least some basic education plus job oriented skills to make them employable. They should not be married till they are economically independent.

Renu, who is also a lawyer, is happy that India has several women friendly laws on girls’ education, prohibition of child marriage, equal inheritance of property, curbing of sexual and domestic violence, etc. However, lack of political will power and a deeply entrenched patriarchal society makes their implementation very poor. Moreover, most women- even the educated and working women- do not have much knowledge about them and many are clueless even about their existence.

She wants these laws to be part of the education curriculum, to make women, as well as men, informed about them. Also, the government’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry needs to play a more proactive role in spreading awareness around these laws and government welfare schemes for women/girls, through channels like radio, television, newspapers, and billboards. It is the onus of the government to disseminate all this information, and then act on speedy delivery of redressals if it is really keen for women to benefit from them. One reason for rise in the number of sexual offences is no quick redressal—the case could drag on for long and/or accused goes scot free in most cases.

Recognising that women in today’s world have to balance multiple responsibilities at home as well as outside, Dr SoumyaSwaminathan, Deputy Director General for Programmes at the World Health Organization (WHO), urges women to take care of their own health-both physical and mental health. In an exclusive interview given to CNS, she said that “Women play a very big role in healthcare delivery. Not only do women constitute the majority workforce in nursing and community healthcare work, they are also the main caregivers within households and communities. But their efforts are often taken for granted and are not publicly recognised. I would like to put the spotlight on these women who are providing healthcare either in formal or informal settings. We should appreciate this unrecognised army of women healthcare providers, and ensure that they are able to provide these services in a labour and time saving manner.”

India is a vast country, which, despite the skewed up sex ratio (945 females per 1000 males), is home to 65 crore women. That is a huge woman power, who should neither bow down in fear nor remain silent, but be brave and snatch their rights to exercise their choices- be it their education, marriage, profession, or health (including sexual and reproductive health).

The International Women’s Day 2019 campaign theme of #BalanceforBetter also calls for driving gender balance across the world- gender-balanced boardrooms, a gender-balanced governments, gender-balanced media coverage, a gender-balance of employees, more gender-balance in wealth.

So, let us celebrate our womanhood every day and fight till we win. In solidarity we stand together!

Note: In response to this message I had posted on my FaceBook page- ‘To all the male readers of this post: Please share at least one action you have taken in your personal life to advance gender equality’ I got just one response and that was from a retired Professor of IIT Kanpur. He wrote-‘I have been instrumental in getting the PhD Degree to 3 males and 10 females. Hope this justifies my contribution’. Indeed it does.

Shobha Shukla is the Managing Editor at CNS (Citizen News Service) and a noted gender justice activist. Follow her on Twitter @Shobha1Shukla or visit www.citizen-news.org. Source:countercurrents.org)


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Opinion

Embattled Ayodhya’s syncretic past

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By JAVED ANAND

The cover title of the book would suggest that even without turning a page we know what it is all about. Since the late 1980s Ayodhya has been lodged into the consciousness of most Indians as a metaphor for growing discord and bloody violence between Hindus and Muslims because of the as yet unsettled Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi dispute. Yes, Valay Singh’s Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord is about the smouldering conflict which continues to hover ominously over the entire country.

However, the book is not just about the long pending dispute over a few acres of land, of Hindu-Muslim, mandir-masjid. The meticulously researched text by the journalist unravels for us the fascinating 3,300-year-old history of this “sleepy city” in north India which for centuries had been considered sacred space not only by the followers of Hinduism but Buddhism, Jainism and Islam as well.

 

For example, did you know (I did not) that among the Muslims of the region the significance of Ayodhya is not limited to the Babri Masjid which was demolished by Hindutva’s kar sevaks on December 6, 1992, or the fact that even today several dozen mosques dot the city’s landscape? According to the author, “Ayodhya is called Khurd Mecca (mini-Mecca) or ‘Ayodhya Sharif’ [holy Ayodhya] even now?” (p 145).

Or, did you know (I did not) that Nageshwarnath, the oldest temple in Ayodhya, is dedicated not to Ram but to Shiva, that “as in most of the country, Shiva worship preceded the cult of Ram in Ayodhya as well”? Before the Vaishnavas (Ram bhakts) finally emerged victorious in the 18thcentury, “Vaishnavism had to encounter the violent and bloody obstacle of Shaivaism in north India” (p 59). Singh quotes from the biography of one Devmurari (16th century) to record: “’The daily ritual of Shaivas was to kill four Vaishnavas before doing datoon (brushing teeth)’. And on days when they couldn’t find a Vaishnav to kill the Shaivas would make voodoo-like doll-Vaishnavas out of dough and slit their throats.” (p 60).

In other words, long before the Hindu-Muslim conflict in Ayodhya there was the bloody intra-Hindu feud, not to mention the targeting of Buddhists by Hindus earlier. On the other hand, the eruption of the Babri Masjid dispute — for the first time in 1885 — was preceded by long years of Muslim-Hindu accord and the flourishing of a composite culture (Ganga-Jamuni tehjeeb) while the Muslim nawab-kings ruled in the Awadh region, of which Ayodhya was the capital before being shifted to Faizabad nearby and to Lucknowsubsequently.

Singh quotes Lala Sitaram, the first British-era chronicler of Ayodhya’s history who wrote of Nawab Asif-ud-Daulah’s munificence thus: “He was famous for giving large donations. Thousands of rupees were given to Brahmins from the royal treasury. Ayodhya’s Hanumangarhi [much revered temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman] was built during his time and stands as a testimony to his religious good”. (p89)

The decline of the Mughals and the nawab-kings of Awadh following the arrival of the British in India coincided with the deterioration in Hindu-Muslim relations in Ayodhya. It is a widely held view among historians that, “the first recorded Hindu struggle for Ram’s birthplace dates back to 1855”. That’s when Muslims attacked Hindus in retaliation for alleged demolition of a mosque in Hanumangarhi. (p 98).

The year 1885 marked the birth of the legal dispute over Babri Masjid when Mahant Raghubir Das of the Janmasthan temple filed a civil suit in the court of the district sub-judge of Faizabad, seeking an order to construct a temple over the Ramchabutra, a raised platform abutting the Babri Masjid. It is significant that until then there was no claim that Lord Ram’s birthplace was exactly on the spot where the Babri Masjid itself stood. His plea in the lower court, as also subsequent appeals before the district judge and the judicial commissioner of Oudh were rejected.

Ayodhya is a book in two parts. Book 1 begins with the city’s early history and ends with the ‘Indian Rebellion of 1857’ (many call it India’s first war of Independence from the British). Book 2 spans the period post-Independence till date.

In recent decades, local guides in Ayodhya have confidently asserted before visiting Hindu pilgrims that, one, “It has been nine lakh and fifty-six thousand years since Ram left Ayodhya for heaven, taking his subjects who loved him dearly along with him”; and, two, Babur destroyed the Ram temple that stood at his birthplace in 1526 and built a mosque over the ruins using “the blood of 1,76,000 Hindus to prepare the mud mortar”.

Relying on facts instead of myths, Singh informs us that the Babri Masjid premise itself was proclaimed as the actual birthplace of Lord Ram after an idol of Ramlulla “miraculously” appeared within the mosque premises on the night of 22-23 December 1949. On the morning of December 23, the then District Magistrate of Faizabad, K.K.K. Nair, sent a radio message to UP’s chief minister, chief secretary and home secretary that read: “A few Hindus entered Babri Masjid at night when the masjid was deserted and installed a deity there… Police picket of 15 persons was on duty at night but did not apparently act”. (p 189).

This notwithstanding, thanks to political subterfuge with bureaucratic connivance and failure of the judiciary to intervene expeditiously, from then until 1986 the gates of the Babri Masjid remained locked, Muslims were denied the right to offer namaaz inside, but Hindus were permitted to worship Ramlulla from outside the mosque while his idol remained undisturbed within.

Fast forward to 1984, when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) elevated what until then was a local dispute to a national platform with the launch of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti. Two years later, in 1986, in a brazen instance of pandering simultaneously to Muslim and Hindu communalism, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government misguidedly chose to balance its appeasement of Muslims in the Shah Bano case by engineering the opening of the gates of the Babri Masjid for Hindus.

As was only to be expected, before long the Sangh Parivar snatched away the “Ayodhya card” from the Congress and used it to the hilt in its bid to political power. The demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, under the watch of the BJP government led by Kalyan Singh in UP, the Prime Minister Narasimha Rao-led Congress government at the Centre, and a Supreme Court which failed to read the ominous signs, is part of that sordid story.

Missing conspicuously from Singh’s otherwise meticulously researched account is the report of the Liberhan Commission, which is a searing indictment of the insidious role played by the entire BJP/VHP/RSS leadership, the UP state bureaucracy and the police, and Muslim communal leaders in the brinkmanship that took the Indian republic to the abyss in December 1992. Albeit obliquely, Justice Manmohan Singh even questioned the role of the Supreme Court.

A three-member committee headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court (a Muslim) is currently at work in an attempt at the Supreme Court-mandated effort at mediation to find a resolution to the decades-old dispute. Among the three mediators is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who is on record having warned that any obstacle in the building of a Ram temple where the Babri Masjid once stood will only lead to more bloodbath.

There is little in Singh’s book by way of clues to the committee in its effort at solving the complex communal puzzle. But that does not in any away belittle the importance of Singh’s book in unveiling the role of the various institutions of post-Independence “secular India”, the judiciary included, in the unraveling of a Hindu majoritarian agenda, with more than a little help from a communal Muslim leadership.

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Kashmir: A land with a rich history is now in turmoil

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By INDRANIL BANERJIE

Kashmir’s history, especially its recent past, is viewed by most in the Kashmir valley as one long miserable struggle. Professor Saifuddin Soz, an academic and long-time Congress politician from the valley, is apparently no exception.

Professor Soz in his book argues that Kashmir or, more accurately, the Kashmir Valley, is different from the rest of India because it has its own unique civilisation. He claims “no other region in India possesses such an ancient historical record.”

 

He believes that ever since Independence, the Government of India has wronged Kashmir and this is the reason why the Valley continues to be shaken by an armed uprising. The professor’s Kashmir narrative is not incorrect; New Delhi has indeed often and consistently been obtuse in its dealings with Kashmir. However, the very real and compelling reasons that have often prompted Indian leaders to take hard, and apparently wrong decisions are also not adequately appreciated.

For instance, much is made of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s decision to imprison Kashmir’s most popular political leader, Sheikh Abdullah, in 1953. What are often left unexplained are the reasons behind Nehru’s seemingly undemocratic decision.

The counterview is that Nehru; once a great supporter of Abdullah, felt betrayed after it was known that he was secretly conspiring with the CIA to create an independent Kashmir. The so-called “Kashmir Conspiracy Case” slapped against Abdullah and his collaborators are a fascinating but often glossed over chapter in Kashmir’s slippery history.

In other words, it would be unfair to hold New Delhi responsible for every problem that has beset Kashmir in its recent history. Professor Soz’s narrative fortunately is far from being one-sided and is perhaps one of the best expositions of Kashmir’s history that has emerged in recent times.

Professor Soz is a mild, thoughtful figure who genuinely wishes for the best for Kashmir as well as for India and it is in this context that his work needs to be taken seriously and read carefully.

Especially relevant is the last section of the book where the author offers a roadmap for the future. “I have lived through the years of turmoil in Kashmir, always considering myself to be part of the life of Kashmiris”, writes the author. “I had got elected to the Lok Sabha in a by-election in June 1983 and since then I invested time to understand the life and times of Kashmiris.”

The author lists 10 points that need to be taken up in order to move towards a resolution of the unending crisis in Kashmir. These need to be perused with great care by all those who would like a solution to the problem.

Professor Soz himself maintains: “My dispassionate assessment is that a credible discussion and dialogue without any pre-conditions can be meaningfully initiated by the emissaries of the union of India directly with the Hurriyat. The dialogue and discussion with other political parties and groups could then follow successfully.”
Where one could differ with Professor Soz is in his understanding of Indian nationalism. Professor Soz’s basic assertion that “Kashmir has the unique distinction of being a civilisation on its own” and is one of the oldest in history is unexceptionable. However, it is equally true that India is made up of several civilisations that are equally unique and thousands of years old.

The Tamil, Telugu, Kalinga, Bengali and other civilisations all have histories that go back several millennia. They too have rich, unique cultures with their individual ethos, language and traditions. Being part of India does not require them to submerge or lose their unique identities.

Professor Soz, like many of his ilk, appears to have completely missed the fundamental precept on which Indian nationalism stands. For, the Indian state is not based on civilisational homogeneity but on diversity. Its people have come together to form a single nation state not because they all have the same history or ethos. They have come together because of the belief that diverse people can coexist and prosper irrespective of history, language, religion or culture.

India, like the highly successful nation state, the United States of America, is not based on cultural or racial unity unlike most other nations in the world, which are dominated by one kind of people. Indians do not even look alike; they have varied histories and legends going back many centuries; their diets are unbelievably diverse and so on.

Yet over the decades they have come to live together and despite aberrations learned to celebrate their diversity. Despite all its shortcomings and myriad problems, India has emerged as one of the most successful nations in the world with a quintessentially liberal ethos and open institutions.

The India concept was perhaps best elucidated by Novelist Salman Rushdie, who wrote: “Churchill said India wasn’t a nation, just an ‘abstraction’. John Kenneth Galbraith, more affectionately and more memorably, described it as a ‘functioning anarchy’. Both of them, in my view, underestimated the strength of the India-idea. It may be the most innovative national philosophy to have emerged in the post-colonial period. It deserves to be celebrated because it is an idea that has enemies, within India as well as outside her frontiers, and to celebrate it is also to defend it against its foes.”


Need one say anything more?

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Blood-splattered birth of a nation

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By PATRALEKHA CHATTERJEE

But some images remain seared into my memory. Like the famous picture of the surrender of December 16, 1971 which showed General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, in charge of the Eastern Command of the Pakistan Army, publicly surrendering to the Indian Army’s Lieutenant Jagjit Singh Aurora. That clip played in every cinema theatre across India. I also have vivid memories of eagerly listening to the savagely witty news updates from Chorompotro (Extreme Letter), a popular underground radio show in Bengali. While Bangladeshi civilians battled Pakistani armed forces, the radio talk show host shared his humorous takes about the discomforts of the Pakistani forces and the victories of Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters).

Those childhood memories came back in a flash as I read Nadeem Zaman’s In the Time of the Others. Zaman, who was born in Dhaka, and grew up there and in Chicago, uses the format of fiction to give us the multiple sides of the story and the backstory of Bangladesh’s War of Liberation. This is his first novel.

 

Everyone is familiar with the big story of 1971 – the horrific repression of Bengali citizens in what was then East Pakistan by the military regime in (West) Pakistan, the battle for freedom led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the Awami League, the killings of Bengali civilians, rapes of women and the millions of refugees who poured into India through the eastern border, triggering a military confrontation between India and Pakistan. That blood-soaked, gut-wrenching big story which took such a massive human toll had a happy ending. Bangladesh became an independent nation. And it was among independent India’s most triumphant moments.

Zaman tells the small stories that swirl around that big story.

The novel is a compelling fictionalised account of the lived experiences of a whole galaxy of characters from all sides. The more academically-inclined would perhaps read the book as a treatise on identity and culture, the making of a postcolonial nation state from Bengali nationalism to Bangladeshi sovereignty. To me, the book’s power lies in the many truths it seeks to convey about the monumental, historic event of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 through compelling and nuanced stories.

Zaman’s cast of characters are human beings, not cardboard heroes and villains, with their human frailties, caught in the crossfire of conflict, upheaval and violence.

There is no one central figure. But someone through whose lens the story is largely told is Imtiaz Khan, who arrives at his uncle’s house in Dhaka, for what he imagines will be a short visit to sort out an inheritance issue. It’s a personal matter. But within days of his arrival, the military regime of then West Pakistan declares a crackdown on Dhaka. Civilians are killed in cold blood, and young, feisty fighters from the Mukti Bahini take refuge in the home of Khan’s uncle and aunt. Khan is sucked into the whirlpool of a narrative over which he has little control.

On the other side, there is Faizal Shaukat, a young captain in the Pakistan army, a military man of pedigreed stock, who finds himself conflicted on many occasions, which starts affecting his domestic life. His superior Major Pervez Shahbaz is a more predictable character, cast in a classic, villainous mould.

Interesting though peripheral characters in the novel include Helen and Walter, a journalist couple from the United States who get a ringside view of the momentous events; and Sam Truman, a member of the diplomatic corps.

What really resonated with this reviewer are the internal stories of conflict playing alongside the big story of violence and upheaval.
What does a ‘war’ do to a relationship between husband and wife? A telling example is the conversation between the Pakistan Army captain Fazal Shaukat and his wife Umbreen.

The following passage leapt out. “How many people have you killed, Fazal? Have you raped women? Did you watch your soldiers rape them?” The shoe dropped from his hand. “You are a drunkard and a slut.” Shaukat’s trembling had him spent in seconds. He sank onto the bed. Umbreen’s clenched fist next to his head, inches away. She wanted to ask him how many lowered heads he had looked at in the same position, at his feet, begging for mercy, before sending bullets into them.”

Even Helen and Walter get punchy lines. They spar with each other on whether the Mukti Bahini can be compared to the Vietcong. To Walter, the Vietcong is nothing more than “a bunch of Communist thugs. Murderers.” He is horrified at the suggestion that they have anything similar to the Mukti Bahini. “The Vietcong wants the US out of Vietnam; it is seen as an occupying force and they want them out, the same as here,” quips Helen.

The other interesting character is Suleiman Mubarak, a Bihari judge, who empathises with the Bangladeshi cause but is viewed with suspicion owing to his non-Bengali heritage and is killed by Mukti Bahini soldiers the day Dhaka was liberated.

It’s a sharp contrast to the camaraderie between the Indian and Pakistani military officers, even as Niazi signs the surrender document. Niazi had reportedly refused to lay down arms at the feet of the Mukti Bahini. A decorated officer of the Pakistani Army bowing in defeat to a Bengali guerrilla force was not a humiliation Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi was prepared to take to his grave…” the author writes wryly.

The novel is full of these contrasts — between the loud violence and death on the streets and the minds of the characters caught in a maelstrom.

Zaman’s novel deep-dives into the minds of each of his characters, exploring their motivations and anxieties. But it does not shun the raw violence of the events on the ground.

As the author describes in unsentimental detail the Dhaka University killings, the savageries on ordinary civilians, the torture sites, even a brothel where captured women are kept as sex slaves, the effects on the minds of both perpetrators and victims are finely etched.

The storyline is taut; the plot never flags. I finished the book, 300-plus pages long, in one sitting.

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