Thursday, July 23, 2009

Let's Face the Truth

Let’s face the truth. Let’s admit there’s a bit of a voyeur in all of us. Our ordinary, mundane lives, stitched together by humdrum routine, make us easy prey for TRP hunters. We ogle, we leer and we drool at the sight of nasty idiot box sirens exposing their oh-gawd-how-terrible past. We watch the sizzling emotional striptease in rapt attention. So, if Sach Ka Saamna confronts an Urvashi Dholakia with the disrobing question if she had been expelled after she conceived during her college days, the prude in each one of us says yes and no at the same time. In public, we let the nays have it. We have to make a show of the verbal abuse we can rain down on the Moment of Truth. We love it but we shout out aloud from rooftops how deeply offended we are.

That is the despicable plateau of what we presume to be the moral high ground of Indian culture. We allow ourselves to be titillated but we would never on this godforsaken earth admit the fact of that titillation. We forget that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Hypocrisy is an integral part of every culture. The Taliban builds its morality superstructure on foundations of fantastic hypocrisy. Even the open and frank Americans are neat and tidy hypocrites. The degree of advancement of a civilization depends on the subtleties and finesse of its inherent hypocrisy. It can’t be as crass and obvious as that of our Rajya Sabha MPs who raised the Sach Ka Saamna issue in such a helplessly offended manner.

Societies and their moral policemen survive on concealing their women’s attitude to sex or lust. Dholakia made the viewers quite excitable with her admission that she loved watching male strippers. Another contestant gave away the truth that she would have probably loved sleeping with somebody else other than her husband. Skeletons like her husband was an alcoholic tumbled out with liquid ease. There may have been even more interesting episodes, similarly sparkling in content, which I unfortunately didn’t have the time to watch. Kambli’s revelation that Sachin never did much for him was a relatively innocent confession and paled into insignificance in comparison with what followed.

Our politicians who believe it is their business to have an opinion on everything have now intervened. They want the content suitably inspected before the show-host goes on air. Censorship is the only option available to politically-inclined wise men when they find new truths have overtaken their stagnant lives. Their response, therefore, has been predictable. Culture is a living entity and it knows that it has to be finally answerable to the logic of commerce not to the stale wisdom of politicians imprisoned in medieval inhibitions.

At the same time, let’s agree also there’s nothing to laud about Sach Ka Saamna. It is possibly a fixed entertainment show planned carefully with out-of-job entertainers. It’s a game with your dirty linen that you play in public for money. If the credulous audience laps it up, so be it. I subscribe to the fundamental logic that every society gets the soap or reality show it deserves. A political protest, which doesn’t have the open backing of the viewing public, is bound to help the ratings soar. More people will be attracted to the nudity of a soul whose old wounds are yet to heal and sores fester before the powerful camera lenses.

Drab lives they say feed on lives that are lived with a greater degree of fun and sin. For some, as Robert Frost explained, the road not taken would always be a regret. Let not a discussion on the indefinable word -- Culture -- lose its way in that labyrinth. Let's not analyze the reasons for greater viewing of Saach Ka Saamna. Let’s only admit there’s an insatiable hunger for a confession-based reality show in today’s India.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Shabana Azmi's Afghanistan speech

Shabana Azmi's speech at a UN function, Kabul, Afghanistan, 8 July 2009


• Where almost half of the population lives below the poverty line.
Where adult literacy for women over 15 years of age is less than 15 percent and in many areas even less than that.
• Where one woman dies every 27 minutes due to pregnancy related complications, amounting to around 25,000 deaths per year.
• Where violence against women, both in the public and private sphere is a normal every day occurrence for many women. Many of whom are subjected to sexual violence and find that, not only are they the ones who are condemned to a lifetime of stigma and shame if this crime becomes public, but that they are further victimized in a justice system that fails them and may prosecute and convict them for the crime of the ZINA.
• Where women participating in public life are threatened, harassed, attacked and even KILLED.
This unfortunately, ladies and gentleman is the reality in Afghanistan today. We have gathered here in solidarity and sisterhood knowing that SILENCE is VIOLENCE and that together we must break this vicious cycle.
We know that violence against women and girls has the tacit approval of society, not just in Afghanistan but all over the world. In the United States for example, one out of every six American women have been the victims of an attempted or completed rape in their life time. In India, in spite of the great strides women are taking, it is also a sad fact that female foeticide is being practiced, even in big metropolitan cities cutting across class structures. More often than not, violence against women is practiced across countries due to patriarchal mindsets, often under the cover of "religion". Harmful traditional practices are often about not challenging the misconceptions that are reinforced by skewed and distorted views of religion that are allowed to propagate.
But identity is fluid and has many aspects. If you ask me who I am, I will say I am a woman, an Indian, a wife, a daughter, an actress, a Muslim and an activist etc. My being Muslim is only one aspect of my identity. Unfortunately however, there seems to be a concerted effort to compress identity in to the narrow confines of the religion one was born into, erasing all other aspects so I become a Muslim, she becomes a Christian and you become a Hindu. This construct of identity is a tool to control, to subjugate, to deny visibility to women. Fortunately there are forces of resistance that exist against this domination and are gaining strength with each passing day.
All over the world it is being recognized that the progress of a society or a country can not be measured in terms of its GDP alone. It must be measured in terms of its human development index in which empowerment of women must become the most important yardstick of progress and development.
I was very fortunate to be born to parents who were progressive and liberal. My father, the noted Urdu poet Kafi Azmi, wooed my mother, theater actress Shaukat Kaifi, 60 years ago by reciting his poem ‘Aurat’/ ‘Woman’. In an age when the women were expected to stay confined to the four walls of her home while the husband braved the world, my father wrote ….., "Jannat ek aur hai jo mard ke pehlu mein nahin, uth meri jaan mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe…," which roughly translated means, ‘There is another heaven that awaits you that is not in the arms of your man. Arise my love, come march with me…. ’
India has a long history of democracy. I believe democracy is a critical factor in the empowerment of women. I have a stake and a claim in the democratic space my country gives her citizens. I shout from the roof top when my community is victimized but also have the freedom to tell my fellow Muslims that it falls upon them to tell the world that Islam is not a monolith. It resides in more than 53 countries in the world and takes on the culture of the country in which it resides. It is moderate in some, liberal and others, intolerant and fanatic in some. The liberal moderate must stand up against the intolerant fanatic of his own faith. It is not one religion against another. Unfortunately all too often the debate descends in to a clash of civilizations theory that closes the door on sane dialogue and intervention. Deliberate distorted views of religion must be challenged or else the space that women get will continue to shrink even further.
I repeat that democracy is a critical factor in empowerment of women. Not just in terms of their vote, but in how democracy responds to women -gives public space to get messages across and their voices heard and responds to their needs.
This belief is reinforced by my own experience as a parliamentarian for six years in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament. Our participation in all aspects of political life enables us to bring attention to issues that concern us, be involved in the processes that affect us and challenge laws and policies that restrict us.
The key issue in Afghanistan is that the very space that women have negotiated for themselves is under attack.
Women not only need to be encouraged to enter public life, society also needs to welcome them and the state needs to protect them in the face of any kind of threat. Women want to be included in local, national and global dialogues and discourses - they need to be able to participate fully and on an equal footing with their male counter parts.
I was heartened when I learned that Afghanistan has 25% of parliamentary seats allocated to women. Of course this does not automatically translate into effective participation but this figure is huge. Civil society needs to support these women parliamentarians so that they get informed by the women’s agenda as a primary concern. Access to security, health, education, employment - access to equal rights must be non-negotiable. If a quarter of Parliament speaks and acts as one, let alone other male defenders of women’s rights who join them, then the results could be better than the best.
Across Asia, we women must unite and challenge ideas, theories, beliefs and indeed laws that keep our sisters in servitude. When discrimination against women is endorsed by society, or the state, then we all become partners in crime. We cannot remain silent, we must not remain silent.
India is in my view getting it right because it is placing women at the centre of development and support for the girl child. We have strong laws in place to protect women. For example, in the past rape victims were silenced into not reporting rape because the kind of proof that was demanded, the verbal assault they were subjected to, where it was assumed that the victim must have somehow ‘invited’ the rape, the shame and stigma that the girl’s family had to face, the ostracisation by society was terrifying. But because of relentless advocacy by women’s rights groups and parliamentarians things are changing. Convictions for rape are rising and there has been greater sensitization of the police on these issues. Women also have the freedom of in-camera proceedings. The onus of innocence lies on the accused and there is a seven year non-bailable imprisonment at the very least if found guilty.
In Afghanistan laws on rape and protection of rape victims needs to be similarly strengthened. I understand from Afghan activists that this process is underway. I sincerely look forward to following this process and I salute all the activists in this room who have campaigned against the sanctioning of sexual violence and for the rights of victims.
We all know well however, that laws alone can not bring about change. Legal reform does represent an important first step but what is needed is a mindset change that treats women as second class citizens.
I end with a couplet from the famous Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Bol ke lab azaad hain tere Bol Zabaan ab tak teri hain Bol yeh sutwan jism hai tera Bol ke jaan ab tak teri hai Bol ke sach zinda hai ab tak ….
Speak: your lips are free Speak: your tongue is still yours Speak: this lissome body is yours Speak: this life is yours Speak: so that the truth can prevail ….
Thank you

Friday, July 10, 2009

Don't Judge the King

Why are we so frightened of the judiciary? Why don’t we want to know what happened in the mysterious Justice R.Reghupathi case? Did the Madras High Court judge receive a phone call from a union minister or not? Here is the strange story of a judge insisting in open court that he had been called up by a Union Minister requesting him to grant bail to two accused in a mark-sheet forgery case. A week later when the accusation by the judge has snowballed into a major controversy, Justice R. Reghupathi, son of a respected freedom fighter, withdraws his allegation.
Withdraws? Withdrawal of a charge as serious as this and, that too, against a Union Minister? Is such an act of submission expected of a proud High Court judge, sworn to the Constitution and under oath to be the fairest of them all? Yet, this happens. Long after the judge had removed himself from hearing the case, he woke up one fine morning to the revelation of a new and completely different truth – he hadn’t received any phone call at all.
By then, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley had gone on record saying that nobody was a king or a rajah (alluding to the much maligned Union Telecom Minister of Spectrum notoriety , A. Raja) that he enjoyed the right to bully the judiciary. A Raja’s name was publicly mentioned by AIADMK supremo, J.Jayalalitha. Her political emissary in Delhi, Maitreyan asserted as much in the Rajya Sabha. Newspapers reported that the Kalaignar (Karunanidhi) himself had demanded to know the whole truth from Raja.
Raja whom the Prime Minister never wanted as part of his Cabinet in the first place was ducking for cover. He sent word through his aides that he was being unfairly made the fall guy. He reiterated he hadn’t made that astonishing phone call. Subsequently, he overcame his initial reluctance and stepped out to tell the intrusive television channels he hadn’t dialled Justice R. Reghupathi’s number.
Why did then Justice Reghupathi say what he had said in full public view in the first place? Obviously, he was agitated. He was so furious that he wanted the secret out. He wanted the world to know that a Union Minister had dared to humiliate him. Then why did he withdraw his charge and retract despite the insult the retraction heaped upon him? Obviously, the powers-that-be in Chennai and Delhi wanted him to shut up. Reghupathi knew that his future was more secure if he kept his mouth shut and forgot about the strange affair of the telephone.
Interestingly, when he was interviewed by journalists in Delhi, Chief Justice of India, K.G.Balakrishnan said that it was up to Justice Reghupathi to reveal the minister’s same. Speaking to CNN-IBN, Justice Balakrishnan did not take any name but did denounce the minister who had made that call. There was strong disapproval in his voice. It seemed as though the highest judiciary in the country was seriously peeved.
Ninety six hours later, after the demand for the minister’s resignation had gathered volume, the Chief Justice of India said that the judge had never received any call. There appeared to be little further explanation. It was as though the perturbed judiciary had suddenly been lulled into quiet submission. Gone were the days of intense and healthy confrontation between the judiciary and the executive. Here lay the bruised and battered example of compliance and of surrender.
Justifying the retraction, the chief justice said that the fault was actually that of the advocate appearing on behalf of the accused. It was he who had brought out his mobile phone and had requested the judge to talk to the Union Miniser who was reportedly interested in the case. Chief Justice Balakrishnan argued that the politician had not actually spoken to the judge. So, the phone call had only been suggested. It didn’t actually happen.
The explanation raises two questions which haven’t been answered. How does a High Court judge fail to distinguish between an actual phone call and a mere insinuation or the suggestion of a phone call? The judge had given clear indication from day one that he had felt threatened or, at least, pushed. If the phone call hadn’t happened, he shouldn’t have lost his composure and raised the issue in open court. Secondly and more importantly, why doesn’t anybody suggest any strong action against the offending lawyer who handed over the mobile phone to the judge?
Karunanidhi’s blue-eyed boy and DMK’s Dalit face, A.Raja was all along suspected to be the one who had made that unconstitutional and irresponsible telephone call. He comes from the same Perambalur district from where the two accused, the third year MBBS student of a Pudducherry private medical college, S. Kiruba Sridhar and his doctor father, C Krishnamurthy also hailed. The father-son duo was involved in the mark-sheet forgery case and had sought anticipatory bail in Madras High Court. Raja’s aides admitted that the minister knew the family.
There is no way of denying that an effort was made to influence a verdict by somebody wielding enormous political clout. The judiciary possibly retraced its steps fearing a backlash from the political establishment. For those of us rooting for undiluted independence of the Indian judiciary, the Reghupathi episode is worse than a setback – it is hell of a compromise.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Naming Game

Can somebody please tell me what the late Rajiv Gandhi has got to do with the Worli Sea Link? He was a wonderful Prime Minister who had ushered in an era of technological reforms. Along with Sam Pitroda he had championed the STD revolution. But those who have known Rajiv Gandhi from a close quarter will vouch that he was a proud man who wouldn’t have lent his name to an engineering marvel he was not associated with.
Then why does the Gandhi family agree to the sycophancy of nomenclature? Is it because they are aware that in India, history bears no animus towards myths and legends and that the perpetuation of a family’s name by any means serves the great electoral purpose decades later? Frankly, this is cynical politics – a kind of politics that a free and liberal democracy of the 21st century cannot be indulgent towards. Such politics gives enough leverage to a Mayawati when she erects her own statues as though Dalits deserve their separate brand of idolatry.
Who said there’s nothing in a name? Why should grandchildren of those who drove around the Bandra Worli Sea Link for the first time as proud Mumbaikars be compelled to remember Rajiv Gandhi’s name every time they drive down the corridor fifty years from now. In the past we have hero-worshipped our freedom fighters to such a ridiculous extent that there are more than two roads named after Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru in most cities of the country. Greatness is acknowledged far better when later generations comprehend the essence of the man. One wonders if today’s India is eager to understand the values and principles Gandhi and Nehru stood for and find out what their legacy is all about. Naming a road or a sea-link is a desperate effort to enforce greatness where it is possibly far from due.
So, let’s admit that the naming of the Bandra Worli Sea Link after Rajiv Gandhi is a deliberate attempt to capture a place in history in a silly but purposeful manner. The Congress attempt to glorify its heroes rather unabashedly has given birth to the phenomenon of competitive history writing. The saffron intelligentsia has been demanding for quite some time that the likes of Veer Savarkar, Hegdewar, Golwalkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyay be granted greater space and visibility in modern Indian history. It’s no doubt an unfair demand given the limited impact they had on the lives of their contemporaries but there’s no denying that the demand has been borne out of the Congress propensity for bestowing extraordinary greatness on its leaders.
What also offended sensibilities is the manner in which the naming of the Bandra-Worli Sea-Link was accomplished. Maratha strongman, Sharad Pawar, has fallen out with the state Congress leadership after his pre-poll flirting with the Third Front and his optimistic eve-of-the-election projection of himself as a Prime Ministerial hopeful in the case of a badly hung Parliament. The Congress-led coalition came back with a stable majority reducing Pawar to a minor political player on the national stage. He managed to secure his old, respectable portfolios but the guru of cricket knew he was on a sticky wicket; so much so the state Congress in Maharashtra had begun baying for his blood and insisting that it could take on the Shiv Sena-BJP combine alone. The NCP was truly marginalized.
No wonder then that Pawar grabbed the opportunity which came his way when he was sharing the dais with UPA chairperson, Sonia Gandhi. Conveniently forgetting that this was the woman whose authority and source of power he had questioned a decade ago, Pawar lobbed the suggestion that the corridor be named after Rajiv Gandhi, given the slain leader’s scientific vision and temperament. And when such suggestions are made, Congress politicians traverse the traditional, much-trodden path. Chief Minister Ashok Chavan who seconded Pawar’s proposal was a delighted man. He said yes with a respectful smile that even the most pliant of yes-men would be embarrassed to wear. Worse, even Sonia Gandhi agreed gratefully, giving the definite impression that the charade was not of her making anyway.
But it was a charade in the end, a charade that will only fetch disrepute for an otherwise healthy democracy.