Tag Archives: opinion

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

Taking stock of the shock

ssp

I was already perturbed after the hostage situation in Sydney on Monday, December 15. But nothing could have prepared me for the horrendous act of brutality perpetrated in Peshawar the very next day. It has taken me a while to collect my thoughts and assemble them with enough coherence so that I could express them in the written form.
 Last week I had started to draft a post on this year’s Nobel Peace Prize awardees. Here’s what I had saved,

There is immense power in One. I come from a land of a more than a billion Ones and we are here and free because of One Mahatma who inspired our collective intelligentsia to peacefully assert our identity. Yesterday saw the amazing testament to the Power of One in Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai winning the Nobel Peace Prize to bring the plight of children in South Asia in world’s view again, to reintroduce it into the limelight. I absolutely loved their Nobel lectures.

The speech for the awardees was flawless and incredibly moving,

While it is in the nature of extremism to create enemies and frightening images, and to divide the world into us and them, the laureates show us something else: A young girl and a somewhat older man, one from Pakistan and one from India, one Muslim, the other Hindu; both symbols of what the world needs: more unity.

Fraternity between the nations!

This is exactly what the world needs right now. I am so thrilled to see the Nobel committee press upon this while the entire world watches. We, in South Asia, take tremendous pride in our ‘golden stars’; our blazing thinkers and doers who have shined on the world stage. We are young democracies that seem to be still battling for freedom. There are, after all, different sorts of freedom. So, it gives our collective ego a huge boost to see one of our own shining above the people of the so-called ‘developed’ part of the world. With such glory at hand, for Indians to see that it must be shared with a young Pakistani woman is a much-needed lesson in distinguishing humanity from politics.

I leave you with Malala’s thoughts that shook my core,

I had two options.

One was to remain silent and wait to be killed. And the second was to speak up and then be killed.

I chose the second one. I decided to speak up.

We could not just stand by and see those injustices of the terrorists denying our rights, ruthlessly killing people and misusing the name of Islam.

We decided to raise our voice and tell them: Have you not learnt, have you not learnt that in the Holy Quran Allah says: if you kill one person it is as if you kill the whole humanity?

You may read the awardees’ lectures here and here. They make me believe that there must be good in people. There must be.

I never published this post. I never got to it. The terrorists did their needful first. I re-read this yesterday and I was in tears. Is there any good in people?

My understanding

Of religion

After following #sydneysiege on Monday on Twitter my husband and I discussed it in the evening over dinner. We were talking about Taliban, Islamic State (IS) and the Islam religion. I realised that growing up in India had given me a tremendous advantage: to understand and interact with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. I definitely had more personal anecdotes to share than him. The great part about growing up in secular India is that you have days off school for special days of all religions. So as a child you inevitably like all religions and unintentionally learn about them (since they get you off from doing schoolwork!).

I was born a Hindu but suffice to say, for the time being, that I am not a religious Hindu but a philosophical one. I have had Muslim friends growing up; many actually. We have wished each other on our respective religious holidays. I have been invited to Ramadan feasts. In our cities, in India, we have the ‘Muslim quarter’ where the best tea is served and also the best food. There is discrimination and it works against them. They suffer the plight that any minority suffers and probably the worst of them all due to our troubled history.

I have heard bigoted remarks by own family members that I have borne in silence because ‘one must not speak against elders’. It is not the right way to behave to go against the grain. I wonder when it became right to judge a person’s integrity based on their religion. I have also heard the most amazing story of public display of kindness – shown to one of my family members in her time of great need – by a young Muslim who was a complete stranger, who was poor and who also went on to call her ‘Mother’ when addressing her. He stands for what Islam truly is about, as is any religion at its core – compassion and kindness to all living things. I have immense respect for all my Muslim friends. It also extends to the Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, Jewish, Afro-Cubano, Athiest, Agnostic friends I have made in my life. This has nothing to do with me being born a Hindu but has everything to do with me being willing to understand and learn from people different from me.

What happened this week is not about Islam, that much is obvious to me. I am going to have to disagree with Richard Dawkins.

This is not about faith. I am a scientist but I know that one’s belief in one’s own ability or another ‘power’ can help sustain us. It is naïve to think that this attack was a cause of faith and rather glib to say so. These acts came out of fanaticism, ideological extremism and irrational anger at the world.This was Faith Delusion, Mr. Dawkins.

For everybody who takes a moral high ground claiming their religion is superior to Islam because it doesn’t condone violence I say read your history books and then dump those and read others’ history books. Everybody has a different version of the events. I recently visited Andalucia, Spain and saw the beautiful ‘fusion’ architecture – combining Moorish and Christian styles. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The cathedrals are amazing but, stand on Mosques long gone. I admired the beauty of the place but it didn’t escape me that we were standing on lands that have soaked blood. It’s been so long that we see only the red rust of the sand and think it is the iron content but maybe it is not.

Everything goes both ways. It needs to – in order to survive the oscillating nature of history. In India I have seen monuments for Islam built over ancient Hindu ruins and vice versa. Everyone has suffered. Alas, suffering cannot be tallied neatly and neither can emotions; hence it is only our emotions that have always caused the greatest catastrophes. They cannot be reasoned with and cannot be questioned.

I propose logic and reason.

Please think, think deeply about why this has happened, I try to tell myself. Man Haron Monis was mentally unstable, a self-styled clergy and was well known to the Australian police (read here). The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that claimed responsibility for the massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar said that they had targeted the schools because “nearly all the students are children of Army personnel.” Read article here. A survivor of the attack said that the gunmen played ‘sadistic games’ with them and said this to a teacher who was asked to watch his students being shot, ‘Watch as your loved ones die. Ours are also being killed in the same way.’ Read article here.

This is not about Islam. Violence always begets violence. When, as an impressionable youth, you see your friends and family being murdered and then you see and hear nothing but hate for the killers, you then do go on to kill their children and loved ones. You can no longer empathise. It was destroyed the day you saw the first act of violence. I have witnessed this, at much milder tone, in my own life. I have lived in Delhi for many years and have heard from Sikhs about how it was for them after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. They were not harmed themselves but their community was butchered and that was enough for them to be scarred for life. I have heard from a daughter for an Indian army official who has seen loss in her life and in her friends’ lives because of the ‘Kashmir issue’ and she openly speaks about how she will never forgive Pakistan. These people have been directly affected but I have been fortunate enough to witness it from the sidelines. That gives me the opportunity to be objective and at the same time, however, doesn’t give me a right to judge their feelings, precisely because ‘feelings’ cannot be adequately judged and should not be either.

If you want to learn more about Islam’s history there’s a great series ongoing on Lex Solo’s blog. You can find it here.

Of history, politics and society

I had my own misconceptions about what had happened and who’s to blame for the events that have led to the rift between India and Pakistan. My ideas were coloured by my surroundings. I had never hated Pakistan. I disliked their cricket team but I had nothing against the country. When I witnessed hatred amongst my people I was ambivalent at best (or worst). Then I read ‘India After Gandhi’ by Ramachandra Guha and I realised that I had been so wrong about so many things.170920_afterghandi_jkt I shouldn’t have been ambivalent. We are two nations despite being the same people. We hate because we tell different versions of the same events. It’s a marriage undergoing a divorce that’ll never be settled since we need to live together despite our differences and we are also continuously fighting for custody of our beautiful heavenly baby – Kashmir – with eyes of blue, skin of green and hair of white. The process has ravaged both the ex-partners and has left Kashmir hollowed, shell-shocked and abandoned to its own devices. Why won’t hate breed there? What’s there to stop it?

If there ever could be a personification of evil we all saw it this week. B5C-C3TCEAA0e19.jpg-large There are so many horrifying images of blood soaked auditoriums, shoes, books, bullet-ridden classrooms, tiny coffins, waling family and friends that I wouldn’t even know which one I should try to reconcile with first. The truth is none of it will be erased from my memory.

Family members at the hospital looking to see if their child is on the 'Death List'
Family members at the hospital looking to see if their child is on the ‘Death List’

B5CYmkDCEAA3pms The only thing that brought some consolation was the solidarity of people this week seen over social media with #illridewithyou (where Muslim women were offered escorts in Sydney so that they feel safe) and #IndiawithPakistan (where Indians showed their empathy for Pakistan’s tragedy) trending. We seemed to all bear the burden for the loss of humanity. It was all too perfect.

School child in chennai keeping vigil (c)Indian Express
School child in chennai keeping vigil (c)Indian Express

Then I see a newsclip where Mr. Pervez Musharaff is blaming India for supporting terrorist factions,

I decided not to indulge in this nonsensical war-mongering. Then this morning I see this,

You can read the article here... http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Pakistan-court-grants-bail-to-26/11-accused-Zakiur-Rehman-Lakhvi-Reports/articleshow/45560638.cms
You can read the article here… http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Pakistan-court-grants-bail-to-26/11-accused-Zakiur-Rehman-Lakhvi-Reports/articleshow/45560638.cms

26/11 2009 saw the terror attack in Mumbai orchestrated by the Lashker-e-Taiba based in Pakistan and Lakhvi is said to be the commander of the operation.

The hate is back again. I don’t know how many people actually took the time to hear the news report before putting up banners detailing the cross-border atrocities in the past 6 decades. His bail is not politically motivated. It is a judicial decision. When there is not enough proof, as judged in an impartial court of law, then there is nothing that can be done. I don’t think Pakistanis are rejoicing right now knowing that a terrorist is out on the loose. I just have to read the comments’ thread here, running into 100s, to know how deeply entrenched this hatred is.

Am I absolved of being part of this hatred completely? I can’t even say that. A family member a while back, when choosing a restaurant for lunch, saw that the cuisine was described as North Indian and Pakistani at which point they went on to make out as if they were going to throw up and said , ‘No! I will never go there!’ I didn’t say anything. I wish I had. I have wished every day since then that I had said something. Is it ignorance that makes seemingly educated people speak this way? If it is then it is certainly not the proverbial blissful ignorance. It is such ignorance that has led to violence. It is people like me, who don’t speak up against such ignorance that also share the burden. We must be held responsible.

Of the future

I am writing this today because I wanted to record my thoughts, so that I can revisit them whenever I choose: as a reminder  to think before judging, before saying and definitely before acting; as a reminder that there is still great power in One and there are people like Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai in this world; to know that I can choose my humanity. I hope that the children who have survived the massacre,  and have seen horrors I can scarcely imagine, grow up in a loving world. I hope they don’t see and hear hate alone. I hope we don’t ask them to kill but instead ask them to distill the true meaning of religion. I hope we teach our histories in a more balanced way and keep our politics out of the way of innocence. I would one day like to share this with my own children, for them to see what had happened on December 16, 2014 through my eyes, not shadowed by hate. I hope that they will be living in a better world.

B5CNLBrIgAADkuM.jpg-large

Fashion Advice

Black to hide the tears
that drip off your chin,
or white
to heal the senses?

You either wear anger
disguised as anguish,
or helplessness stitched up
as disappointment.

You wear a patchwork
of your life,
or a crochet
of your dreams.

You model the look
of being in control.
That what’s about to unfold
is part of a grand design.

You choose the palette,
the fabric, the pattern.
But the norm
dictates your style.

What do you wear,
to an abortion?
Anything really,
but a smile.

(..)