Tag Archives: Activism

Respectful & Necessary: India’s Daughter

I am posting this on March 9, 2015. A regular Monday. Rape is not just an International Women's Day issue. It is an everyday-of-the-year issue.

Death and Birth of Nirbhaya

On the night of December 16 2012 a 23-year-old woman, a medical student, was gang raped by 6 men in a moving bus in Delhi. She had boarded the bus with her male friend after watching a movie. There was no one else in the bus but them and a group of intoxicated men who were out for a “party”. An altercation between the woman’s male companion and the group led to his beating and her brutal rape. All the while the bus kept circling a strip of highway. The rapists then dumped her and her friend, naked, by the side of the road into the cold Delhi winter night. She died a few days later in the hospital of her wounds. The doctors were surprised that she had lasted as long as she had, given the extent of internal organ damage that she had suffered.

On December 17 2012 when the news started circulating about the horrifying rape and its shocking details young Delhi-ites took to the streets demanding justice for ‘Nirbhaya’, as the young woman was metaphorically named to keep her identity safe. Nirbhaya means “without fear”. The demonstrators cried for justice for rape victims, for equal rights and equal freedom for Indian women everywhere.

(c) Ramesh Lalwani CC BY-SA 2.0

(c) Ramesh Lalwani CC BY-SA 2.0

The fire spread to other major cities of India. All this is very reminiscent of chapters from our history books on the Indian Independence Movement, and it rightly should because we, Indian women, are still fighting for our independence from the Patriarchal Raj.

The controversial India’s Daughter

When I first learnt that the incredibly insightful documentary series, BBC4’s Storyville, will be premiering a documentary film-“India’s Daughter“-on the Nirbhaya rape case on March 8, to coincide with International Women’s Day, I was nothing less than proud. I was proud of being a citizen of a country which was open to unbiased documenting of an incident that had cast such bad light on its gender values for the world to see; that was mature enough to revisit the trauma, not to rekindle pain, but to educate; was unafraid to expose its weakness in order to give voice to its weakest. Having been a long time viewer of Storyville documentaries and appreciative of its programming quality I knew that the film would be well done (to say the least). I marked the date on my calendar, sent out a tweet about it as a ‘to whomever it may concern’ (as I thought it should concern everybody), and went to bed.

Over the next couple of days I picked up on some odd goings-on. I caught snippets of Twitter chat on…the idiocy of giving airtime to rapists…disrespect to society…the commercial interests of foreign channel…ban of a documentary…

No, it could not be!

Quick searches on Google and Twitter led me to these outrageous headlines,

Read article by clicking here.
Read article by clicking here.
Read article by clicking here.
Read article by clicking here.

My pride in my nation was replaced by bewilderment which soon gave way to anger. It seems we are not a rational country, we are an emotional one. The ruling party of India, BJP (which recently cut expenditure on its initiative for rape crisis centre by 92.6%!) was extremely annoyed by BBC4’s documentary and banned it from being aired in India.  The reasons for the ban against the film as a whole are superficial, ironically mocking their own logic:

“…rationale that the ban was in the interests of justice and public order as the film “created a situation of tension and fear amongst women” and the convicts would use the media to further his case in the appeal that was subjudice…”

(as summarised by the Editors Guild of India in its public appeal for revoking the ban)

If a convict’s statement of his innocence is considered to be true just because it was on television and on no other merit then  our Judiciary clearly doesn’t know how to conduct its business. I think it’s insulting and shocking that that is how much faith the Executive and Legislative branches of our government have on its most precious democratic institution. #JudgesAreNot Stupid.

As the ban was announced the public became aware of the aspect of the film that had stirred up the controversy: giving a convicted rapist (who was driver of the bus), Mukesh Singh, a public platform to profess his views on rape. If you thought that was soul cringing then how about dedicating film footage to the defense lawyers, (so-called) educated Indian men from higher social and financial classes, whose arcane ideas of female decency and role in Indian society weren’t so far away in their essence from that of the rapist’s notions. Now that struck a sensitive nerve. While many applauded the dissolution of the thin veneer of modernisation that Indian society boasts at any given opportunity, thousands took to online forums to voice their anger against the presentation of the film. The director of the film, Leslee Udwin fled the country in fear of arrest and BBC4 decided to air the film early (in the UK) on March 4 stating that the issue had been handled responsibly and refusing to bow down to external pressure. A BBC effigy was burnt in a protest in Varanasi, a sacred city for Hindus as a warning to BBC.

The key lessons that make India’s Daughter necessary

I didn’t want to enter the debate without first seeing India’s Daughter in its entirety since placing judgement on anything seen or heard out of context is much too similar to high school drama for me and I swore to stay away from all that the day I graduated high school.

The film makes a compelling case for facing the evil spread of the cancer that is gender inequality“.

Although it is the rapist’s voice that has stirred so much controversy making it seem as though that is what the documentary is all about it in fact makes up only for a fraction of the film. Yes, I knew beforehand what he could say in his defense. We’ve been given excuses for rape for a long time and they have come to be used as scare tactics/advice/disguise for misogyny: girl was “under-dressed”; was out late; was “mixing with boys” and other such banalities. So when I considered his statements they did not shock me. I was certainly angry. On the contrary I am surprised by people’s shock at Mukesh Singh’s unrepentant stance. Even those who have seen the documentary and reluctantly appreciate it seem to not understand the impact of the film.

Rape is about power, a misplaced idea of power. Power is the real source of the evil here, as is the case in many other circumstances. (I wonder how many people realize this.) Singh’s statements make this abundantly clear. He still feels powerful because he believes he is right. He believes he is right because we live in a society that propagates the same ideas. Society however does not condone Singh’s and his friends’ chosen expression of power (rape), which surprises Singh because he thinks he was acting within the rights given to him by society. That is a crucial message that hits home and makes the documentary necessary: Indian society as we know it right NOW gives POWER to men and not to women.

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

– Lord Acton

Also, I can’t imagine why a man who could indulge in such a heinous act would change his lifelong-held beliefs just because of incarceration. We like to think that if we caught sexual offenders, locked them up, sentence them to death our job is done.

So why should we hear a convicted unrepentant rapist?

Because the solution to making India a safer place for women is not by locking up rapists, it is EDUCATION ABOUT GENDER EQUALITY, and that is the primary lesson of India’s Daughter.

The other major lesson gleaned from hearing Singh speak his mind is that of a sobering reality that exists not only in Indian society but also worldwide, a message that is amplified by the point-counterpoint nature of the narrative. The realization came when I heard from his parents and also relatives of the other rapists: These rapists (or devils, demons, animals, scum as we usually refer to them) are PEOPLE. They are OUR people, born to ordinary folks and who were living ordinary lives. They weren’t born as sociopaths they were made into one. We use language to distance ourselves from horrifying acts and their actors. When we give dehumanizing labels to people we remove society’s culpability. We can then sit proudly in judgement of these “others”. I suppose here’s where many of the detractors of the documentary chime in: “Why does this animal need to be heard?” Because by calling him an animal and giving him a sub-human status we refuse to face the ugly aspects of our species-nobody is above or beyond evil. Scary? Yes, it is. Right now it is scary to be a woman. (What is scarier however is a moralizing government for a seemingly democratic country.)

The main question here is could we have learnt all this without Singh’s interview? Was his interview necessary? I think so. He is a concise representation of the mistakes we are making. Perhaps some of these lessons are out there in the obtuse reviews made my investigative committees and in court documents; social scientists’ theses; lost amongst the indecipherable shouting matches dubbed as TV talk shows; or even rant-y blog posts on the internet. How far and wide would these sources of information reach when compared to an hour-long hard-hitting documentary on cable TV? Let’s take into account here the populace that does not use the internet regularly for social commentary and relies on television for everything.

A lot can also be learnt from the delusional statements made by the defense lawyers (ML Sharma and AP Singh), that are anachronistic to the point of hilarity. Especially when paired with the liberal views of Nirbhaya’s parents (whom we would consider of being from a lower social class and “unqualified”), make for the disturbing realization that India’s gender equality problem is not class-based or educational degree-dependent. How many Indians believe that only poor, uneducated people rape; women are oppressed only in the lower classes of society? Prejudice doesn’t play favourites. We need to stop generalising about our societal problems.

It’s convenient to blame the British for everything

I am also happy to note that India’s Daughter does not generalise. People were certain that a documentary made by a foreigner would provide wrong and overly generalised inferences about the problems in India. The film makes so such claims. It does not spin the idea that ALL Indian men are misogynistic with rapist-like tendencies. Neither did I hear a foreigner’s view on the issue. The film has been produced for a TV show that has a dedicated following. I think if Udwin or the BBC wanted to make money off it then we’d have heard of them submitting India’s Daughter to film festivals. I find this argument highly ridiculous especially given how ubiquitous rape scenes are in Indian cinema. I learnt the word Balatkaar (“rape” in Hindi) synchronously as I learnt Pyaar (“love”).Where did I first hear the term “ Uski izzat loot lee” (“stole her honour“)? It was Indian cinema. There is even a wiki page dedicated to Indian movies ON Rape (which now includes India’s Daughter)! How many generalisations have we gleaned from these other movies and how much money has been made? How much of this went to the  supporting rape victims? Also, I don’t think Udwin, who has been a victim of sexual abuse, would make this film for commercial gain (Source: “India’s Daughter” – A Young Woman’s Open Letter to the Prime Minister).

Will giving Singh a public platform encourage those who think like him to rape?

I don’t think it will; but ONLY when put in context of the film. When watching the film I realised that it is Nirbhaya who is the champion here and it is her life that needs emulating. The heart wrenching accounts from her parents and tutor paint a picture in such bold, resilient and joyful colours that Singh in comparison is a dull, ugly blotch. His act and his ideology pale into nothingness in comparison. The film crew have not been “disrespectful” as touted by many before the film’s release. They haven’t killed her memory. They have immortalised her achievements and her person forever. Even though there is quite a bit of eulogising in the beginning of the film towards the end we see Nirbhaya simply as a daughter who was taken away, in the most horrific manner possible, from her parents. She is the average Indian woman that we can relate to.

However over the past week we have just been hearing about Singh’s statements. He has received more publicity than ever before. If we were to believe that “publicity of rapist can entice rape” then the ban and the media circus that ensued has done more to further this cause (dubious as it may be) than the movie could ever have. Ironically the ban intended to protect our society has silenced the one who needed to heard the most: Nirbhaya.

Why should you want to watch India’s Daughter?

  • Because only by facing your biggest fears can you fight them.
  • To talk about things that make us most uncomfortable because that is how we tackle ignorance.
  • Because you need to know that every woman in India country is disempowered right now.
  • To realise that the ban is a myopic stand taken by a government that has essentially shot itself in the foot. (For more on the incredulous reasons given by politicians for the ban please read the op-ed piece (“BJP Government, Don’t Embarrass India“) authored by writer, ex-diplomat and politician Shashi Tharoor.)

It must however be said that India’s Daughter is by no means the BEST documentary ever made. It is certainly good. It is also not a piece of comprehensive investigative journalism. I don’t know if it was ever meant to be one. There are some open questions, which are best outlined in the article: “The Selective Amnesia Of ‘India’s Daughter’ – What The Film Conveniently Ignores!” by Dr. Shivani Nag.

Let us remember

Your parents remember you, Nirbhaya, in the name they gave you. They call you Jyoti, “light”, that was born to remove darkness from their lives. I use your name now because your parents think that you, as a person, should be remembered in as much detail as your death, if not more. You have achieved more than what your parents dreamed. You have brought your searing light to our entire society, to burn through prejudice and patriarchal interpretation of Indian cultural values. You have made me nirbhaya to carry your jyoti for the freedom of all women. I don’t know what you looked like and I don’t need to. I see your face in every woman. Those who have missed the point of the documentary on your life and death have missed the point of all revolutions: to depose oppressive ideas by public activism.

(c) Ramesh Lalwani CC BY- SA 2.0
(c) Ramesh Lalwani CC BY- SA 2.0

Today I blog to feed to a child

I admit that I have been selfish. I haven’t been able to look past my own needs and write something for the sake of another. I have been procrastinating, thinking I will do it at some point before Christmas. Now I realize that today, midnight (IST), is the deadline. I have to hand in my minimum 300 words for a child in India to eat for 300 days of his/her school year.

I have known Akshaya Patra since its inception in 2000. When the NGO started in Bangalore our school organized a donation day and all us kids brought in a kilo or so of raw rice. Rice that we, as privileged children, never considered something that is worthy of presenting to others. When we opened our lunch boxes we hated the look and smell of it. We went instead to the canteen and bought oily unhealthy samosas, or if finances were running low we’d just chum it up with those of us who had better options – macaroni, sandwiches or even a nice chapathi wrap. The rice would surreptitiously then be emptied into the garbage/gutter close to school or outside the house (but just far enough that mom never suspects). The days we forgot to cover our tracks were the days when routine phrases like ‘You are ungrateful’, ‘You have no sense of the privileges you have’, ‘I slave and slave and slave…’ and my personal favourite from the arsenal of parental guilt – ‘When I was your age I did not have…’ story. So, that simple request to bring just rice – not money or clothes (things we were more interested in) made me realize for the first time that in the order of things a child truly needs provided FOOD always comes first.

Food as incentive to education

In 2001 the Supreme Court of India decreed that “Cooked mid-day meal is to be provided in all the Government and Government-aided primary schools in all the states.” But Akshaya Patra had been at it for a year already. The idea being that if parents with lesser means knew that if sent to school then at least one meal time a day their child would eat heartily and healthily and they wouldn’t have to pay for it then they would be eager to send their kids off to get an education rather than have them labour for wages. Akshaya Patra’s website has listed studies that show that its work has had a positive impact.

What I can offer to this rhetoric is what I have witnessed in my own family. My father comes from a poor family and was born in a little fishing village on the coast of the Arabian Sea. My father had to walk many miles to attend school and could not afford a pair of slippers. He made the walk with calloused feet and a fresh mind eager to learn. My grandfather, having sired more children than he could afford, moved to a city 800 kms away on the coast on the Bay of Bengal with his eldest son (my father) and worked at a menial position in a restaurant in the big city. He sent back all he could to his wife and kids in the village. My uncles and aunt attended the local village school run by a temple trust foundation and temples in that part of the country provide food (mid-day meal) as well. It’s part of the tradition there; a form of blessing. My grandfather wanted his children to study and work hard and not having to worry about them going hungry must have been such a relief. This school with its practice of providing free education and free food has consequently provided our family with 1 banker, 1 teacher, 1 NASA engineer and 4 highly successful doctors. I will not say that my uncles and aunt studied so that they could eat. No. They knew that education was their only ticket out. But I am sure that the commitment they have to education and the respect they have for their parents, country and its traditions has to do a lot with the school that fed not only their hungry minds but also their hungry stomachs.

Hunger Games is creative non-fiction

While preparing to write about hunger among children in India I did some light research. I went on to World Food Programme’s website and learnt something I didn’t know about my country: India is home to a quarter of all undernourished people in the world. There are some shocking statistics in there about the situation worldwide for you to read and they motivate you to be at least thankful this holiday season if not giving.

I wanted to learn more about malnutrition in children in India and I found an article recently published by The Economic Times helpful and disturbing despite its optimistic undertones.

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 11.17.12

It seems that my country has gone from being 63rd out of 76 countries to 55th in the Global Hunger Index, which is determined and reported by the International Food Policy Research Institute in collaboration with the NGOs Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide.

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 11.22.19
Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 11.22.35

The reason India has moved ahead is because a lot has been done, successfully, to undercut malnutrition in children over the past few years. This has taken India from being “second to last on underweight in children, [to] 120th among 128 countries with data on child undernutrition from 2009-2013”. Compare this standing with another fact: India is the tenth-largest economy based on nominal GDP and third-largest based on Purchasing Power Parity in the world, according to the recent IMF report (2014). It doesn’t take a degree in social sciences to know that something’s wrong. We are still behind Nepal and Sri Lanka on the GHI but ahead of Bangladesh and Pakistan in case any one is keeping track of competing countries in the sub-continent. Nothing gets us going like wanting to beat our neighbours at everything.

Social responsibility is taught by example

Donating food and sharing food with strangers is not a new concept in India. In the days of yore Brahmins who had given up their right to possessions used to go by houses for alms. The very act of supplication was considered a lesson in humility since one can become very egocentric as a Brahmin, as an intellectual. My maternal grandmother would always cook for an additional person for, ‘You never know who may turn up’ and ‘We must never refuse anyone food’. As children growing up in India you are taught that it is your moral duty to provide food from your own plate to your guest even if it all that you have. It is part of Indian hospitality: ‘Athithi Devo Bhava’, a Sanskrit adage which is translated as ‘Guest is God’. Anna-daanam or rice donation is considered a form of prayer.

So why is it that while we have such core beliefs about food so many of us go under-fed? It’s obvious really – we share only within our own worlds. Robert Pirsig had it right when he wrote,

We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

But it’s not very difficult to take it a bit further than our doorstep I find. My parents have set a fine example for me. I have seen them regularly contribute for years to a local school for it to buy supplies and even for its structural renovations. My mother, when she lived in Ukraine, visited an orphanage with toys and edible goodies even though she does not speak any Ukrainian or Russian. She has been fortunate enough to have had enough to eat growing up but it has come at a cost of her father eating only boiled peanuts for dinner so that his children (mostly girls no less) could eat and study. Neither of my parents have ever taken their comforts in their adult years for granted, for the precise reason that they were hard-earned. They studied, ate what they received, worked hard and made our lives so easy. They were right to tell us those guilt-inflicting stories. That’s also how they taught us social responsibility.

I look back on those lunches I took for granted and I don’t think I have committed a bigger crime. The idea of wasting food now makes me cringe and I cannot abide by it no matter where I am. Here in Switzerland there isn’t any obvious poverty but that doesn’t mean there are no hungry people. We took the left-overs from our Swiss wedding to the local homeless shelter. The people were shocked to find a Swiss man in a three-piece suit and a brown girl in a white wedding gown dropping off a lot of expensive food at 9pm on a Wednesday. In turn we received such sincere wishes for a happy married life that it left us both aglow with contentment.

As Indians living abroad it is easy to fall into a shame spiral and feel like we are not contributing to the betterment of our nation. Even if you don’t actively contribute to an NGO and rather want to do this yourself it is still not so hard to do. Ask your family or friends back in India about the schools in your community that could use monetary assistance or fresh stationary. In fact when we were having our wedding in India my husband’s best friend considered it worth his while to engage a major Swiss retail store, Migros, to contribute some stationary to be taken to an under-privileged school in India. We had organized a trip across Mangalore-Udupi districts for our friends and we took them to a school in the tiny fishing village called Uchila, the origin of my paternal grandmother. They were really happy to receive the gifts. The children were thrilled to see white people and I witnessed for the first time a mid-day meal in progress. If you have ever felt that your tax money is not doing enough then go to a school while they are serving food. I guarantee that you will come out smiling. Taking some chocolates with you is not a bad idea either. It was a great day and here are a few photos from that day,

This and all the images herein were taken by Laura Zimmermann (2013). All rights reserved by Laura Zimmermann.


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Q & A

How to eliminate classroom hunger? I am not a policymaker or a social scientist to have the ‘right’ answers or a POA. All I can say is do what you can in every way you can wherever you are. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. There are many platforms where you can contribute. Heck! All I am doing right now is writing a blog. And while you are at it, why stop at classroom hunger?

What will it mean to have a generation that is fed and educated? You will have peace and prosperity. If every child is educated and not just literate then we’ll have less rape and abuse and more empowerment. We’ll find that a nation can, not only produce efficient professionals, but also caring patriots who act as global citizens.

I leave you with this touching video by Akshaya Patra presented over a lovely song composed by the amazing A. R. Rahman. It’s a song in Tamil about the purpose of one’s life but you don’t need to understand the words to get the message. I wish you all a wonderful life without hunger.

I am going to #BlogToFeedAChild with Akshaya Patra and BlogAdda.