Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Sanju Baba Touchstone

Why are we all getting so uptight about the rush of support for dear Sanju Baba, with film stars, politicians, former lawyers and former judges pleading that he be not sent to jail? Why can’t we blinkered Middle Class Morons (as one journalist friend described us) realise that these people are showing us the way to end the problem of overcrowded jails once and for all?
There are so many extenuating circumstances in his case:
# he has already spent 18 months in jail, it’s unfair to expect him to spend the remaining 42 months behind bars
# he has already gone through so much mental trauma, he couldn’t even get bank loans and had to get court permission to travel
# he is a good human being
# his parents were patriots
# he has a wife and three children, think of them
# he only got the weapons because he was feeling insecure about his family
# oh come on, he was just a immature kid when it all happened
After all, it’s not as if courts have never been influenced by the context of a crime when handing out a sentence. In December 2009, two Supreme Court judges reduced the death sentence pronounced on a brother who killed his sister's lower caste husband, and his father and brothers in 2004 in Bombay. The sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. The judges rationale:
. . .Caste is a concept which grips a person before his birth and does not leave him even after his death. The vicious grip of the caste, community, religion, though totally unjustified, is a stark reality. The psyche of the offender in the background of a social issue like an inter-caste-community marriage, though wholly unjustified, would have to be considered on the peculiar circumstances.
So if a sentence in an honour killing (shudder, shudder) could be reduced on grounds of that shameful factor called caste, why can’t poor Sanju be let off for all of the above reasons?
And why can’t the same logic apply to a whole lot of others?
# Manu Sharma, who shot dead Jessica Lal. The poor boy only wanted a drink. So what if it was after bar closing hours? Hadn’t that model heard of Indian Standard Time? Manu comes from a larger social milieu in which boys are pampered and given whatever they asked for. If not, they throw tantrums. It was perfectly normal behaviour on his part. He was pampered more as a child because he suffers from asthma. How can someone who suffers from asthma be allowed to stay in jail? What if his condition aggravates?
In any case, Manu is from a family that had served the Congress Party selflessly. His father was a minister and his uncle’s father-in-law a former President of India. Doesn’t this all show he came from a family of patriots? And if he is in jail, who is going to manage the discotheque he owns in Chandigarh. His earnings will be affected.
# Vikas Yadav, who killed Nitish Katara, his sister’s boyfriend. Please remember the social milieu from which he came. Daughters are not supposed to choose their own husbands. They can wear jean-pant and tops, study in management institutes but have a boyfriend and then want to marry him? That is terrible. Look at the trauma the young man must have gone through. It is perfectly understandable for him to want to kill that chota-mota afsar ka beta whom his sister fancied. He wanted his sister to marry right into a thaat-baat vala family. He didn’t kill her, did he? That shows he is a good and loving brother – upholding family values. Should a person be in jail for upholding family values?
# Santosh Singh, who raped and killed Priyadarshini Matoo, whom he had been stalking. Really, he was only stalking her because he loved her. Hasn’t Sharad Yadav said there is nothing wrong with that? Priyadarshini Matoo should have reciprocated his advances and then she would have been alive. After all, didn’t that girl in that TV serial, Pratigya, do the same? She finally fell in love with her husband. What trauma Santosh Singh must have gone through when Priyadarshini, a mere ladki, rejected him. And then on top of that she complained about him to the police. His father was in the force; imagine the humiliation the family must have gone through when a girl – A GIRL – complained about their son to his father’s colleagues. Bechare ka sar ghum gaya hoga. Please understand his mental condition when he committed the crime. And he is also a family man. After his acquittal by the lower court, he got married and had a child. What about his wife and child? He also had a good lawyer’s practice.
It was only because Enlightened Elite held candle-light vigils and vented their outrage on television channels (much like we Middle Class Morons are doing today) after Manu baba was acquitted that his case was also reopened and he was sent to jail.
Hell, if Sanju Baba was a kid at 34 years, all these people were twenty-something toddlers when they committed these crimes. How could they have known what they were doing? Didn’t Lord Jesus himself say, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?
Why should the alleged rapists of the December 16 gang rape victim be in jail? Look at the environment in which they grew up – one marked by poverty and lack of access to basic facilities, let alone proper education and employment. How are they to know that a young woman wearing jeans and a top and out with a young man at 9.30 pm is not ready to have sex with just about anyone? You expect them to know about things like consensual sex? Or a woman's right to her body? It is their mental conditioning caused by their social environment that made them commit the crime. So set them free.
Heck, there is a larger issue behind every crime. Why should taxpayer’s money be spent on jails to keep people who couldn’t help commit the crimes they did?
India’s jails are chock-a-block with over 2 lakh under-trials, a large number of whom are there for longer periods than the prescribed jail term for their offences. Get them out immediately.
Thank you Bollywood, Markandeya Katju, Digvijaya Singh, Amar Singh, Jayaprada and Shanti Bhushan. Now the money I pay in taxes won’t be wasted.

Monday, 18 March 2013

After Roti, Now Makaan

(this was published in Firstpost last week) 

So, after roti, it’s going to be makaan.
There has been talk for some time now that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is working on a right to housing legislation. Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh had made a commitment to this effect to the Ekta Parishad – a network of activist groups – last year, as it led a Jan Satyagraha march to Delhi in October last year.
One had hoped that saner voices in the government would nip this in the bud. But with elections looming in the horizon, sanity obviously goes out of the window. So Ramesh’s ministry has finalised a draft National Right to Homestead Bill, 2013, the details of which have been published in The Indian Express.
The highlights of the housing scheme are the following
1: Every landless and homeless poor family in rural areas will be entitled to a `homestead’ of not less than 10 cents” (0.1 acre, or 4,356 sq ft).
2: Homestead is a dwelling with adequate housing facilities. The definition of ‘adequate’ includes access to basic services (drinking water, electricity, roads and public transport), appropriate location, accessibility and cultural adequacy.
3: This right has to be enforced within five years of the enactment of the law.
When Finance Minister P Chidambaram unveiled a budget shorn of election-driven populist announcements, there were cynical predictions that this was merely to please rating agencies by providing a semblance of an effort at fiscal consolidation. And that pork barrel giveaways would resurface as we got closer to 2014. The cynics are being proven right. The Indian Express report says the Bill could be tabled in the monsoon session of Parliament.
Sure, it’s unfortunate that India has close to 8 million homeless rural families. The Twelfth Plan working group on rural housing estimates the shortage in the Plan period (2012-17) at around 40 million. But is giving such families a right to housing the answer? There’s reason to believe it isn’t.
It’s not as if the problem of homelessness has been ignored completely by policy makers. The Indira Awas Yojana (IAY) was started in 1985 to help below poverty line rural families build houses or upgrade existing kutcha houses. The central and state governments share the costs on a 75:25 formula.
In 2005 the UPA government brought it under the umbrella of its flagship Bharat Nirman scheme to give it extra support and thrust. Implementation of the scheme may have improved – achievement of targets has increased from 66 percent in 2007-08 to above 80 percent – but it has also been dogged by scams, with stories coming from as far as Assam and Kashmir, apart from Bihar and Odisha. There are irregularities in the selection of beneficiaries and the quality of construction has also been found to be extremely poor.
The IAY also has a provision for the government to provide land for families on its waiting list who don’t have land. That’s easier said than done. Where is the government going to get the land from? No doubt, from all the surplus land that state governments have acquired under various land reform legislations or donated under the Bhoodan movement started by Acharya Vinobha Bhave. But what is the record of such land being redistributed (which was the rationale behind the land ceiling laws and Bhoodan)?
Let me quote Ramesh’s words back to him. “Five million acres has been pledged as part of the Bhoodan movement over the last 60 years but only 50 percent has actually been distributed…This is a land scam beyond everything, without any parallel,” Ramesh said last year. (See the report here.) A Land Reform Commission that Nitish Kumar appointed in Bihar also came to a similar conclusion.
Even in West Bengal, which is supposed to be a benchmark for implementation of land reforms, the iconic Operation Barga has not been as successful as it has been claimed to be. For every registered bargadar (sharecroppers who were given redistributed land) there are several unregistered ones. Land sharks and other goons have taken away land from people who got titles. Can Ramesh ensure that people who get land under his proposed law will not have it taken away, either forcibly or by subterfuge? Many of the landless have been allotted land, they have not got titles. It would be better for Ramesh to focus on that first, even though it is a state subject.
Forget land grabbers. The proposed law says it will give land to the landless. But the government can also take away land for public purposes. And its record of  compensating those whose land is taken away (especially those with small patches of land) is abysmal, at best. There’s an inherent contradiction here. Would it not be better to restore the right to property (abolished by the 44th Constitution Amendment in 1978) and enforce it?
These are reasons enough to conclude that a right to housing will be meaningless at best and a scam at the worst.
There’s no point arguing that a scheme or an idea is good and that it is the implementation problem that needs fixing. Grand ideas, which are not practical to implement, are nothing more than empty dreams. So long as they remain dreams, there’s no problem. But when they become the basis of pushing through laws with huge financial implications for a country with a faltering economy, there’s a very serious problem, indeed.
This whole rights-based entitlement approach of the UPA is hugely problematic.
There is ample evidence that each of the rights that it is championing – education, work, food and now housing – can be better achieved by means other than legislated guarantees. Ending the licence raj in education can ensure better access to schools, even for the poor. Unshackling agriculture and small rural and urban enterprises could generate more and productive jobs than NREGA. Ending distortions in the food economy can ensure that food stocks are managed more efficiently so that people don’t go hungry.
But the record of the UPA in listening to voices of reason when it is set on reviving the mai-baap state is poor.
So what’s the next right it will confer, as we move closer to 2014? Kapda?

Questioning The Quota

This had been carried by Firstpost in January, but I had forgotten to post it here.
Why we should junk the idea for 33 percent women’s quota

The brutal gangrape of, and what has turned out be fatal assault on, the young Delhi woman has given rise to a welter of demands relating to women’s safety and sexual violence – capital punishment for rapists, castration/chemical castration, emergency session of Parliament to pass tougher laws, fast-track courts, to name just a few. Some of these, like tougher laws and setting up of fast-track courts, are justified and have been brushed under the carpet till now. Some are clearly an over-reaction. Worryingly, the incident and the public outrage it evoked are being used to push through ideas that should be junked.
One such idea is reservation of 33 percent seats in legislatures for women. The Hindu in a front page editorial on 30 December, titled No Turning Back Now, argued that “the Indian political system would not have been so indifferent to the problem of sexual violence if half or even one-third of all legislators were women”. The early passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill, the editorial noted, could be “Parliament’s way of honouring the death of the Unknown Citizen”. That same evening, the BJP’s Shaina NC was also making much the same point on news television.
I am worried that an emotionally charged atmosphere could well see the Bill being given the green signal by the Lok Sabha (it was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2010).
Some ardent advocates of the Bill say it is flawed in its current form. I am not going into that. I am questioning the very concept of reservation of seats for women in legislatures on two counts.
One, that there needs to be a law to get more women into politics. Women have stormed male bastions in several professions and carved a niche for themselves without the benefit of gender-based reservations. In each, one generation of women has struggled and made a space for itself, thereby creating room for the next generation to struggle and make some more space. Sometimes this has been achieved with some noise, but mostly it has been done silently, away from the headlines. Why should women politicians have it easier?
Two, that getting more women into our legislatures will result in more women-sensitive laws and policies.
Yes, there is clout in numbers but do those who make up the numbers exercise the clout they have?
Is it the lack of a Women’s Reservation Act that prevented women politicians cutting across party lines from coming together and addressing the protestors at Raisina Hill, or promising the nation that they will ensure the passage of tougher laws against sexual assault?
Have we forgotten that some extremely insensitive statements about rape and rape victims have come from women – Mamata Bannerjee, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar and Rita Bahuguna Joshi (Joshi made a comment about Mayawati similar to the one Anisur Rahman made about Mamata last week)?
Who stood up to Rajiv Gandhi on the Muslim Women’s Bill? One man – Arif Mohammed Khan. What were all the women politicians in the Congress – many of them enjoying significant political clout – doing? If they had all come together and lodged some form of protest, would the party have gone ahead with the Bill?
The case for a Women’s Reservation Bill is based on certain assumptions that are, to my mind, flawed.
One is that women will vote as a homogenous mass. That is based on another flawed assumption – that women’s issues are devoid of ideology. Women from the extreme left and the extreme right of the political spectrum will have completely divergent views on the role of women in society. One set will want laws that make divorce easier. The other will say divorce should be made more difficult. How can these two opposite views be reconciled into one Woman-Friendly or Gender-Sensitive stand?
The third assumption is that women will act as women and not as members of a particular party (in cases where there is no ideological divide). When a party issues a whip asking its members to vote for a law that is detrimental to women, will the women MPs oppose the party whip, which will invite disqualification?
Besides, has the performance of women in Parliament given any hint of promise that they will do good by their gender, if elected in larger numbers? Have they done the utmost that their less than 10 percent presence lets them do? As a journalist, I once researched a story on the performance of women parliamentarians. The picture was not very encouraging. PRS Legislative Research worked out some figures for the newspaper I wrote for that showed that while attendance levels were more or less the same, the participation of women Lok Sabha MPs in legislative and non-legislative debates was less than men.
Women politicians have an answer to all this. Party leaders don’t give women a chance to speak. The party leadership doesn’t give tickets to women and that is why this Bill is needed.
I ask them and those who endorse their views – if you can’t fight for yourselves within your respective parties, how are you going to fight for all of us in state legislatures and Parliament?
Till they do that  – fight for their voices to be heard within their parties – nothing will change for women regardless of the number of seats they occupy in our legislatures.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Don’t Make Nirbhaya an Industry

This is a slightly longer version of a piece that was published in Firstpost. Giving the link to that here.
So Delhi’s December 16 gangrape victim who died in Singapore is to get a “Women of Courage’ award from the United States government. This is in addition to the Nirbhaya fund that the finance minister announced in the 2013-14 budget, a MIG (middle income group) flat from the Delhi government for her family, refund of her fees by the physiotherapy institute she studied in, a science institute being named after her, the ancestral village which she didn’t like visiting being promised a primary health centre and probably a job for one brother and scholarship for another.
All this makes me uneasy. And this uneasiness overrides the horror, anger, fear and despair I still feel over the incident.
Notice that I say “Delhi’s December 16 gangrape victim” and not Braveheart or India’s Daughter or Nirbhaya or Amanat. That is because but for the brutality of the incident, she would have been just another number in Delhi’s rape statistics. The brutality grabbed the headlines, hyperactive television news channels and social media networks fuelled protests, and these had an irrational snowballing effect, resulting in the rise of what I call the Nirbhaya Industry.
Lost in all this are the stories of other rape victims – including the three-year-old who was raped in her playschool even as crowds protesting the December 16 rape laid siege to Raisina Hill. Does anyone even know what happened to that case? Does anyone even care?
The victim of the Dhaula Kuan abduction-cum-rape case has been sacked from her job, has got no government aid and her case has not made much progress. Read this interview of hers to understand the unfairness of the attention being showered on the December 16 victim.
Also completely ignored is the plight of the young woman’s friend who was with her that night. He also fought the rapists and sustained serious injuries. But even as the woman’s family is being gifted a Rs 50 lakh flat and her brother being promised a job, no one is helping him with his medical expenses or ensuring that he won’t lose his job because of his frequent trips to hospital and to court to give evidence. This came to light in an interview with Firstpost. His testimony as the sole witness will be crucial in deciding the fate of the case. What if he decides that this fight is not worth the toll it is taking on him and says he doesn’t remember anything? All of us will rush to condemn and ridicule him and then feel smug about ourselves, just like we did when Shayan Munshi backtracked in the Jessica Lal case.
The US State Department has said “for millions of Indian women, her personal ordeal, perseverance to fight for justice, and her family’s continued bravery is helping to lift the stigma and vulnerability that drive violence against women”. Today’s Times of India has a front page interview with US Secretary of State John Kerry saying he is inspired by Nirbhaya’s determination to bring her assailants to justice.
The State Department and Kerry probably do not know about another young girl who went to Buddha Jayanti Park with her boyfriend one afternoon in 2006. They were assaulted by a group of the President’s Bodyguards and the girl gang-raped. She wasn’t left half dead. She didn’t die. The young couple could have gone home quietly and left the matter unreported (and thus avoided raised eyebrows and unwelcome questions about their relationship). But they went to a police station and reported the case. They persevered till the accused were sentenced.
Equally brave was the student of Maulana Azad Medical College who was raped in a tomb on the busy Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. She too could have gone home quietly and hushed the matter up. She too did not. Her rapist too was sentenced. There are several other rape survivors who have persevered and brought their rapists to book. Or the Dhaula Kuan victim who is persevering but not getting anywhere.
Aren’t these examples of perseverance? Don’t their families deserve a salute for not let letting the fear of stigma overpower them and supporting their daughters’ fight for justice?
Would the victim of December 16 have persevered like this had she lived, without the case having grabbed the headlines the way it did? Would her family, commended by the State Department for its `continued bravery’, have allowed her to? Two media reports make me doubt this.
One, soon after her death the family lamented that only a few immediate neighbours and relatives knew their plight and that the visits of VIPs had revealed their identity to everyone. To me, that’s a sign that for the family, the incident was something that needed to be hidden.
Two, in another interview, the father dismissed stories that she was planning to marry her friend. The boy was of a different caste, he said, so where was the question of them marrying. His daughter, he said, was a good girl and would have married someone the family chose. Would someone who couldn’t countenance his daughter marrying someone from a different caste have let her fight a rape case? We don’t know for sure and we never will.
The December 16 incident undoubtedly shook all of us up in a way that other rapes have not. But showering awards on the victim and goodies on her family does disservice to countless other rape victims.  By constantly praising the way she fought her rapists, aren’t we implying – and assuming – that other victims did not fight strongly enough? Is that fair to them? Why shouldn’t each one of them – and future rape victims – be given similar compensation in cash or kind?
Quite parenthetically, in her interview, the Dhaula Kuan victim, says she was quizzed about how hard she resisted. So now, is Nirbhaya going to be the touchstone of the way women resist rape? If they are not left half-dead, they will not be seen to have resisted enough?
If Braveheart/Nirbhaya/Amanat is to be immortalised, let it be in the form of better laws, better enforcement of these laws, better policing, improved social attitudes, safer public and private spaces. Let the voices that spoke up for her also speak up for the Suryanelli rape victim and the three sisters in Bhandara and for all future victims of rape. A church in Kerala has banned the Suryanelli rape victim's family. Why is no one protesting about that? Let those who kept vigil for two weeks in central Delhi keep similar vigil on other cases and on laws being drafted and passed.
Let Nirbhaya not become an industry but a catalyst for change.