Thursday, 24 January 2013

When Good Sense Seasons Justice - The Justice Verma Committee's Report

After weeks of hearing nothing but the most mediaeval claptrap emerging from the mouths of India's public figures, it was a pleasant shock to read page after page of sweet reason in the long-awaited report of the Justice JS Verma Committee. The report, modestly titled "Amendments to Criminal Law", can be thought of as the thinking man's (or woman's) reasoned response to the brutal gang rape in Delhi in December last year. I would recommend that people at least download the document and skim through it, because it's almost a mini-degree in liberal arts for the aspiring cultural sophisticate.

The references in this report to the Indian constitution reminded me of the mental model that I have of the Indian justice system, without which I find it an infuriatingly contradictory mess. When one understands the Indian system of law as comprising three different layers that represent three completely different world-views, the madness becomes partially understandable.

A simple explanation of India's legal schizophrenia (click to expand)

[Of course, this is a gross oversimplification, and can be faulted on several levels. Still, I believe it represents a fairly good working model that explains the often puzzling contradictions between the various voices that are heard in Indian forums.]

Justice (Retd) JS Verma, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, flanked by Justice (Retd) Leila Seth, former Chief Justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court and former Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium

I especially like the following aspects of the JS Verma Committee report:

1. It recognises the multi-faceted nature of the problem and does not come up with facile and simplistic solutions. It blames lacunae in the law, lax enforcement, an unsympathetic officialdom and a pervasive culture of patriarchy, and then follows them up with recommendations in all these areas.

2. It recognises the concept of "marital rape", which should come as a welcome cultural shock to Indian society.

3. It unwraps the national flag from around the armed forces, explicitly recommending that soldiers be held accountable for crimes against women in disturbed areas under the control of the military. Any criticism of the military has been considered unpatriotic, and armed forces personnel have operated with impunity for far too long under the protection of the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act). A similarly uncowed treatment of police misbehaviour occupies a full section.

4. It resists the pressure of the mob baying for blood by ruling out death and castration for rape. The maximum recommended sentence for rape is life imprisonment with no chance of parole. We are reminded that we are talking about justice here, not revenge or retribution. India cannot and must not be a Saudi Arabia.

5. It excoriates traditional "morality" with many examples, such as the misplaced notion of "honour" and the outrageous idea that rape victims ought to marry their offenders for the problem to be "solved". It also quotes from Sohaila Abdulali's famous autobiographical article on why rape is horrible (hint: it has nothing to do with the loss of "honour" or "virtue").

6. It highlights the need to recognise the rights of citizens with different gender identities and sexual orientations, such as gay and transgender people.

7. It guides Indian law towards greater compliance with UN resolutions and international treaties. No country is an island; there is a web of shared values that needs to tie human civilisation together. It demolishes the stereotypes of Indian women versus Western women that have characterised even some Supreme Court judgements.

8. It comprehensively addresses the issue of sexual harassment and has a number of recommendations not just for the government but also for independent tribunals and for employers of all kinds.

9. It does not neglect various other forms of violence and injustice, such as acid attacks, domestic violence, human trafficking (with very moving testimony from victims), dowry-related harassment, child sexual abuse, the notorious Khap Panchayats, etc.

10. It addresses the need to improve public safety for women and provide better amenities. It also lays out a very comprehensive code of practice for the medical and legal examination of sexual assault victims.

11. It doesn't shy away from raising the issue of electoral reforms, given that so many MPs have rape and molestation charges against them.

12. It talks about educational reform and social engineering to improve perceptions.

In short, this is an amazing document. In much the same way that Thomas Huxley was "Darwin's Bulldog", the Justice Verma Committee's report is the Indian constitution's bulldog. It can shock awake the conscience of those who read it.

Refreshingly, the report does not artificially curtail its content in the interests of conciseness. It is 630 pages long. It recognises that certain things need to be said, and that this is the most opportune time in Indian history to say them, a time that President Obama would call a "teachable moment". It is a comprehensive critique of everything that is wrong with Indian society and Indian systems where the treatment of women, children and the "different" are concerned. And it only took 30 days to produce!

Much has been made of India as a civilisation, and the scriptures that are deemed the spiritual foundation of that civilisation. But if India as a nation is ever to be thought of as truly civilised in the modern sense of the term, this document could well be the moral foundation on which such a civilised society is based.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Stigma of Rape And Where It Belongs

I am outraged by the constant tendency to blame the victim in cases of sexual harassment, molestation and rape, and we've seen many recent examples of this over the past few weeks.

"She must have asked for it"
"She was wearing indecent clothes" (substitute "Western" for "indecent" when preferred)
"What was she doing out so late at night, anyway?"
"She's unmarried, and she was out with some guy."

The focus is always on the woman, her purported character or the lack of it, her "indecent" clothes, her decision to be out late, the relationships she has with men, etc.

The focus is never on the sexual offender, the molester, the rapist. His behaviour is always excused on some grounds or the other.

Rape is not treated as a crime committed by a man. The incident is taken as an opportunity to impugn the character of the woman. Worse, it is also made out to be a loss of honour - again, for the woman. Never mind that it was the man who acted dishonourably.

As an example of this latter bias, media stories on rape are generally accompanied by an illustration of a defeated woman sitting with torn clothes and covering her face in shame. Such a conventional portrayal reinforces very mediaeval attitudes even among people who condemn the crime, because it stigmatises the woman and turns the focus of a violent crime into a loss of "honour" that she has to suffer.

 What has she got to be ashamed of?

This is from a recent article in DNA, an otherwise refreshing voice:

Again with the shame and the torn clothes. Hello...?

This is from an article in OneIndia News:

Obviously, expressions of shame cannot be depicted on shadowy figures, so the victim will have to wear one.

This is from a recent article in the reputed magazine India Today:

This is getting ridiculous. One would think a relatively enlightened mag like India Today would be able to break free of stereotypes

This is from a news item in the Times of India.

Should even a teenage girl feel ashamed of herself for what was done to her?

It isn't just the Indian media. Western media also seem to associate shame with the victim rather than with the perpetrator.


I was finally motivated to create a picture of how rape should be represented in the media, with the onus placed firmly where it belongs.

Here's my humble contribution (acrylic on canvas):

"The Stigma of Rape" (Click to expand)
I'm obviously no Michelangelo, but someone had to step up and do it

I've represented a few different concepts in this painting.

All of these go towards making the single point that the stigma of rape is on the rapist, not on the woman who has been raped. This is a deliberate reversal of the conventional pictorial portrayal of rape, which features a shamed woman.

In this painting, for a start, there is more than one category of victim - a poor and uneducated construction worker, an educated college girl or working woman, a schoolgirl and a female foreign tourist. They're wearing different types of clothes, - a sari, a T-shirt and jeans, skirts.

The clothes themselves are normal ones that women would be expected to wear in any civilised society, so this is deliberately confronting the idea that certain types of dress are immodest. Also, even the woman wearing a traditional, conservative dress like a sari has been a victim, so the point being made is that there is no link between a woman's dress and rape. Western clothes are not "indecent" and Indian clothes are not "decent". The cause of rape is in a man's mind, not in a woman's clothes.

The crowd is behind the women. This shows that the women have the full support of their family, friends and society at large. Many men are in the crowd supporting them, so this is not a gender war.

The four pairs of disembodied eyes in the background represent the judgement of society (The Tamil phrase naalu peyr ("four people") means "society"), and they are all on the rapist. He is clearly the one whom society blames.

The rapist is standing in a defensive crouch with his handcuffed hands covering his face. He clearly understands that he is in the wrong and he is ashamed. The handcuffs symbolise the fact that the law too is sympathetic to the victims, practically manifested through fast processes and high conviction rates.

The women are not covering their faces. They are able to look the rapist in the eye and point an accusing finger. They have no need to feel ashamed because they have done nothing wrong. They are also not afraid of any threats.

All shame and dishonour are on the rapist.

This is the way a progressive society looks at rape.

Now, I'd like to have this image professionally photographed and made available under a Creative Commons Licence so that it can be freely used by anyone instead of the regressive images being used today. Any suggestions?

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Liberal India Plays Whack-A-Clown With Joker Politicians

[This is an ever-lengthening blog post because of the never-ending parade of clowns that is emerging from the woodwork.]

Reading the daily news coming out of India these days, I'm reminded of the arcade game Whack-a-Clown. Whenever a clown pops his head out of one of several holes in a board, you have to be fast and whack him before he pops back in. The more clowns you manage to whack, the higher your score.

If only they could talk and say outrageous things, whacking them would be so much more fun!

The Indian version is played with live politicians and is vastly more entertaining.

However, this game had a very sombre beginning. A girl was brutally raped and assaulted by a gang of men in Delhi, and she later died in hospital. The incident shone a spotlight on the appalling lack of safety for women in India, and this is when the clowns started to appear, each with his assessment of the situation and a prescription straight from the middle ages.

Each time a clown popped his head out of a hole and made a statement, the liberal media and Twitter were all over him. Whack! Dazed and confused, the clown would mumble an apology and duck back into his hole, only to be followed very shortly after by another clown from another hole. Whack! And so the game continues.

1. Abhijit Mukherjee, MP and son of the President:

Women who are participating in candlelight vigils and those who are protesting have no connection with ground reality. These pretty ladies coming out to protest are highly dented and painted, they're giving interviews on TV, they've brought their children to show them the scenes. I have grave doubts whether they're students, because women of that age are generally not students.

After a public dressing-down from his own sister, Mukherjee apologised for hurting sentiments, but pointedly did not disavow his remark.

Abhijit Mukherjee - dented, yes; repented, no.

2. Botsa Satyanarayana, Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee President:

Just because India got freedom at midnight, is it necessary for women to move on the streets at midnight? [...] The woman should not have boarded a private bus at such an odd hour. She should have assessed the situation before getting into the bus [...] Though it was a minor incident, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi was gracious enough to intervene and hold negotiations with the protestors to bring the situation under control.

When his remarks drew strong criticism even from his own party, Satyanarayana called a press conference to apologise and offer a breathtaking spin on what he had meant, "What I meant was that the government should create an atmosphere where women can move around even at midnight."

Whack! This was a satisfying one.

Botsa Satyanarayana - At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India produces clowns like this

Young men are provoked to commit rape because of the way women dress. Since they dress like Europeans, incidents of rape are taking place in the country. Such mishaps happen because of women's provocative clothing. Earlier there was a decency in the way women dressed, but that is missing now.

No word on whether Barq has apologised for his remarks. This clown seems to have managed to duck back into his hole before he could be whacked on the head.

Shafiqur Rahman Barq - We already have a saffron Taliban, but I suppose we can make room for the real one

4. Kailash Vijayvargiya, Madhya Pradesh BJP Industries Minister:

Women must keep themselves within the limits of 'maryada' (morality/dignity) or face the music. [...] Everyone must stay within Lakshman Rekha (line in the sand). Ravan grabs and takes away those who cross the line just as he kidnapped Sita.

I guess his tortured misquoting from the Ramayana annoyed even his saffron groupies, and after some criticism from all quarters, he finally apologised. Whack, whack!

Kailash Vijayvargiya - realised too late the perils of crossing the Lakshman Rekha

5. Mohan Bhagwat, RSS Chief:

Such crimes hardly take place in 'Bharat', but they occur frequently in 'India'[...] You go to villages and forests of the country and there will be no such incidents of gang-rape or sex crimes. They are prevalent in some urban belts. Besides new legislation, Indian ethos and attitude towards women should be revisited in the context of ancient Indian values.

The BJP did not turn on Bhagwat the way it did on Vijayvargiya, and defended him. The clown ducked, only to pop up again very soon.

A husband and wife are involved in a contract under which the husband has said that you should take care of my house and I will take care of all your needs. I will keep you safe. So, the husband follows the contract terms. Till the time [sic] the wife follows the contract, the husband stays with her, if the wife violates the contract, he can disown her.

To be fair, there is some controversy over whether he said this as a statement of his belief, or whether he was quoted out of context and was actually referring to Western marriages as contracts with these terms. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. However, even in the clarification by the RSS, what emerges is this:

He (Bhagwat) said that western marriage system is contractual [...] Whereas the Indian marriage system is a sacred concept where women have a lot of respect and men have certain obligations.

Even in the sanitised version, what emerges is Mohan Bhagwat's and the RSS's contempt for Western marriages, where (just as a simple example of practical respect) men happen to do much more of the housework than Indian men are wont to do. The cultural jingoism of the RSS is beyond belief.

Mohan Bhagwat - the official RSS clown outfit and idiotic faux Nazi salute make the red nose superfluous

6. Ashok Singhal, VHP International Advisor:

This western model is alarming. What is happening is we have imbibed the US. We have lost all the values we had, in the cities. [The live-in relationship style] is not only foreign to our culture, but also hostile. [...] Indians lived a life of 'purity' prior to the arrival of British rulers [...] 'purity' of virginity ('brahmacharyam'), is being disturbed. Virginity was preserved. But the purity has been totally disturbed. Now we are losing it.

No criticism was fast enough for this clown, who managed to duck back into his hole.

Ashok Singhal - The western model of overseas Hindus filling VHP coffers with dollars is even more alarming

It isn't just political leaders. Babas and godmen are not to be outdone.

7. Asaram Bapu, "spiritual" leader:

It's not just 5-6 people who are the culprits. The victim daughter is as guilty as her rapists. She should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop. This could have saved her dignity and life. [...] Can one hand clap? I don't think so. [When the girl encountered six drunk men] she should have taken God's name and could have held the hand of one of the men and said I consider you as my brother and should have said to the other two 'Brother I am helpless, you are my brother, my religious brother.' She should have taken God's name and held their hands and feet...then the misconduct wouldn't have happened.

Protests have been organised against him and even the BJP has condemned his statements. Other godmen have also condemned his statements. But so far, no apology. This clown refuses to bow even after being whacked.

Asaram Bapu - Can one hand clap? No, but it can slap. Too bad no one did.

Cartoon in The Hindu

8. T Thiagarajan, Education minister, Union Territory of Puducherry:

The meeting resolved to introduce overcoats for girl students, operate special buses for them and ban mobile phones in schools. Our government is committed to ensuring safety of women, particularly girl students.

Puducherry is not exactly known for a cool climate, so clearly the government considers heat strokes from the use of overcoats to be the lesser evil.

And I don't know about you, but if I was concerned about the safety of my school-going daughter, I would sure as hell ensure she had her mobile phone with her at all times! How will taking away a girl's means of communication keep her safer?

It was a cowardly response that was just meant to show that the government was doing something, with no regard to whether the solution was appropriate or even workable.

There was thankfully no shortage of willing hands that emerged with alacrity to whack this set of clowns down.

All India Democratic Women's Association general secretary Sudha Sundararaman, who strongly criticised the government's decision to make overcoats compulsory, charged that the government had trivialized the issue without addressing the root of the problem. "By evolving a dress code, the government has made women answerable and accountable for the crime instead of perpetrators of the crime, which is totally unacceptable," she said.

That's telling them.

The Puducherry government hastily backtracked, as all cowards are known to do.

T Thiagarajan, sans overcoat, put his own spin on the government's original decision as well as its U-turn, which fooled nobody and simply offered more entertainment.

The idea to switch from dupattas to overcoats for women students was only for the sake of convenience, as dupattas often tend to get caught in cycle chains [...] the term “overcoat” itself is a misnomer [...] The government was considering changing the uniforms anyway and instead of the earlier dupatta, many principals thought that a waistcoat over the student’s uniform would be more comfortable for them to wear.

Nice try!

T Thiagarajan - Southern stupidity
With apologies to the old patriotic slogan, "Kashmir to Kanyakumari, India is one...big bunch of jokers"

9. Abu Azmi, Samajwadi Party MLA, Maharashtra State assembly:

Women should not venture out with men who are not relatives [...] What is the need for roaming at night with men who are not relatives? This should be stopped [...] Such incidents (like the Delhi gang rape) happen due to influence of western culture [...] Scantily-clad women attract male attention [...] rape cases are on the rise due to women wearing less clothes [...] rape is a phenomenon that happens in cities and not in villages

Wow! This guy pretty much covered it all. He trumped all the rest by casting the widest possible net in search of stupid things to say.

His own family was embarrassed. His son apologised on his behalf, and even his daughter-in-law (a role expected to be docile in Indian families) publicly disagreed with him.

Even after the familial whacking, this clown remained defiant.

The statements made by me were out of concern for women's safety. I stand by them. There is no need to apologize for any of those remarks

His later remarks were telling.

My party may disagree with me, but I find nothing wrong in my statement. I have every right to express my views. I have the freedom to express my views. Similarly, (son) Farhan and (daughter-in-law) Ayesha have the freedom to express their opinion. Differences among family members are because of generation gap

He hit the nail on the head with that last comment. It's the generation gap that is showing in most of these comments (with the curious exception of not-so-old Abhijit Mukherjee).

Abu Azmi - "Do I look like a guy with a plan?...I just say things"

10. Babulal Gaur, Madhya Pradesh BJP Urban Administration & Development minister:

Women in foreign countries wear jeans and T-shirts, dance with other men and even drink liquor, but that is their culture. It's good for them, but not for India, where only our traditions and culture are ok [...] Let women consider what is good and bad for them

Not wishing to go as far as his ministerial colleague Kailash Vijayvargiya, who ominously drew a Lakshman Rekha in the sand that women dare not cross lest the demon Ravan abduct them, Gaur magnanimously left it to women to "consider what is good and bad for them".

Babulal Gaur - He hopes voters don't consider what is good and bad for them

The comments on the news site reporting it were almost unanimously scathing. Here's a sample:


Then what is the difference between Taliban and BJP

Arre Babu lal Guar, which world do you reside in? Have you become senile? wake-up. Our women are no more just those who help milk the cow, clean the floor with cowdung etc. etc. wakie, wakie buddy!

And what about Men.. No sermons for them

If BJP comes to power in India, this will be the fate of Women folk.

chal be anpad aadmi....ja apne gaao me jaakar apni bhainso ka dho.mantri ban ne laayak nai hai tu... (Get lost, you illiterate...go to your village and wash your buffaloes. You aren't fit to be a minister)

Historically in India women and men, especially elders, have been smoking hukkaahs socially and also have been drinking liquor together. This New-Age "Hindu" tradition is actually wrong and made up by mor0ns. It is not against Indian culture for women and men to socially indulge in drinking wine or smoking tobacco.

Ministers!!!! Kindly understand its not WOMAN who are r@ping . So instruct the MEN FOLK how to behave and what to drink or not.

Mr Babulal, would you care to clarify if men aping western culture is Ok with you and if yes then why?

Bjp Leadership Please ask these cartoons to shut their mouth if at all it hopes of coming in to power.....

another politician aping an APE

I am against any restriction on freedom of women.

may be personal views of babulal gaur.looking backward mentality.

A couple of comments like the above may not mean much, but there were so many! This could truly mean India has crossed a civilisational milestone. No politician can turn back the clock. Even better, such obscurantist pontification is no longer even populist.

And now the disease has spread to other officials.

11. Satyapal Singh, Mumbai Police Commissioner:

Sex education needs to be carefully thought out. Look at America. It has sex education as part of its curriculum, but students are simply being taught about how to have intercourse [...] According to a survey, rape is more common than smoking there. Countries with sex education in their curriculum only have an increased number of crimes against women. [...] Television serials openly show pre-marital and extra-marital sex. Nobody condemns it. Plus, the current generation has easy access to pornographic websites. Even cellphones have Internet these days, making it all the more easier

It's shocking to see that a Police Commissioner believes that sex education is about teaching kids to have intercourse. And the traditional morality that inflicts so many has confused his thinking to the extent that he conflates (consensual) pre-marital and extra-marital sex to rape and crimes against women. When will people stop judging consensual sex through the lens of their own morality, and learn to recognise that the evil lies in non-consensual sex?

A commenter named Anushka (Tuesday , 15 Jan '13 21:53:00 PM) posted the most reasoned rebuttal:

One of the first things sex education in the West teaches children is that if someone touches them inappropriately or uncomfortably, they should report this to a responsible adult. If that adult does not report this to the police, he/she becomes complicit and liable in the crime. I can understand why the Police Commissioner is made uncomfortable by the idea of the people, even the youngest members of society, being given the right to protect themselves. At later stages, sex education comprises issues of health, hygiene, love, affection, friendship, acceptance of difference. At all times, respect, for oneself and others, is the keyword. It gives power to the people, which ignorance does not. Police commissioner, please consult expert educators, the UN etc before you make utter such dangerous, ill-informed opinions.

In a previous set of comments, the same Police Commissioner had rambled on about the lack of culture in modern education.

What has happened in Delhi or what happens in Mumbai, it is the consequence of the absence of culture. The education that is imparted in our schools and colleges is devoid of cultural content. Life values are not taught.

Innocuous enough. But he then took his argument a step further, bizarrely claiming that suicides are more common among English-educated people.

Most suicides are committed by those who have studied in the English medium. I have never heard of or seen a Sanskrit-medium educated person committing suicide. And it is a known fact that more and more people are today sending their children to English-medium schools.

I see. So a Sanskrit-medium education can save lives. Better a dead language than dead people, the Commissioner seems to say.

Satyapal Singh - Sex education bad, English education bad. Education is the root of all evil.

While there has been some reaction over the commissioner's remarks, it hasn't attracted the same level of outrage as previous comments from officials. Perhaps, as the doctor-patient cartoon would have it, the liberals aren't suffering from apathy, they're suffering from outrage exhaustion.

The hand that whacks is getting tired. There are simply too many clowns!

First politicians, then Hindu gurus, then non-elected public officials, now the baton passes to non-elected leaders of the Muslim community.

12. Maulana Jalaluddin Umri, head of the Indian Jamaat-e-Islami:

The problem starts with co-education. We are saying educate the girls as much as you want, but give the education separately. [...] Today our society is tolerating and even accepting live-in relationships. This is opening the doors to evil. Why will (such a man) marry? [...] Hindus, Muslims and Christians marry according to their customs. Only such marriages should be legally recognised," he said. Others are living together for years and then going to court to get that registered. Such relations are not good for society.

I guess the silver lining in his speech was that he was willing to recognise marriages performed according to Hindu and Christian customs. That's a great leap forward for a leader of the Muslim community.

And while not an emphatic whack on the head, the Jamaat's Kerala wing was distinctly uncomfortable with the anti-co-education stance of their national leader, and the youth wing of the Jamaat, the JIH-Solidarity, spoke out to say that "the organisation believes in gender equality and gender justice and so there is no need of a separate education system". Wha-aek!

Maulana Jalaluddin Umri - "Educate girls separately"; Just what is it about women's empowerment that scares these old men witless?

13. Mufti Maulana Bashir-ud-din, Kashmir's Grand Mufti:

Girls are responsible for the rape. They should be in their limits. They must wear the veil at all times. They can sing inside their homes. They shouldn't sing in public. They are giving bad signals to men.

He was expressing his disapproval of three Kashmiri high school girls who had formed a rock band and were giving public performances.

Kashmir's young, urbane and Twitter-happy Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, tweeted in retort:

Given the importance people attach to the fatwas of the Grand Mufti, the less said the better

(He later deleted the tweet, perhaps out of fear for his own skin?!)

The issue has kicked up a storm, and the Mufti is not without his allies who vie with him in issuing similar statements. However, the fatwa has done wonders in stirring up support for the girls across the country, and the Grand Clown is being whacked from all sides.

Mufti Maulana Bashir-ud-din - he and his band are facing the music

Update 14/02/2013: And now that it's Valentine's Day, here's some more.

14. Manoj Solanki, state convener, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (Society for Awakening the Hindu People):

Since the Bharatiya (Indian) youth is turning towards indulgence by blindly following westerners, it has been noticed that the sale of contraceptives peaks on this day [Valentine's Day].....This leads to a rise in incidents of rapes and other atrocities.

Manoj Solanki - wants Indians to awaken, not sleep (together)

So far, news sites have only reported his statement. There has been no public rebuttal. One can only hope the silence means people are shaking their heads in disbelief.

The disconnect in views shouldn't be too surprising when we remember that the average age of the country is 25, and the average age of its ministers is 65. Only a wholesale purge of the political class will  bring about some semblance of a connected government. And not just the political class but every position of authority held by "old fogies".

It's clear that the culture war is on. The purported saviours of the country, red noses proudly on display, have made their views clear. The cities, the educated, the liberal, the independent women, all of these are the epitome of evil. Only a return to the glories of Indian culture, best preserved in its villages, can save the country.

How many more clowns must we whack before the game is over?

Saturday, 5 January 2013

India Learns The Wrong Lessons

The Delhi rape case at first seemed to have a silver lining in that it was forcing India to introspect about the way it treats women.

Alas, the news since then has been bitterly disappointing. It appears that the only lesson learnt has been to blame the victim and "Westernisation".

This news item ends on the following note:

The continuing incidents of rapes have caused such a panic among the local villagers that they have started charting out their own laws putting a blanket ban on use of “sexy” clothes for girls to check rape cases. Since the time Delhi rape victim succumbed to her injuries in a Singapore hospital, as many as six village panchayats and government schools have put a blanket ban on use of jeans pants [sic], skirts and also mobile phones for girls, holding them responsible for such social perversions.

God! What are these earthmen thinking??

Couldn't these people see that in the very cases they were so concerned about, the victims were probably not wearing Western clothes? And doesn't this serve to strengthen the attitude of entitlement among rapists, "But she was wearing Western clothes!" "Ah, that's all right, then. Carry on."

The Hindu right wing had an opportunity to show its colours when a state minister said women would have to pay the price if they crossed a line. His party, the BJP, had to scramble to distance itself from his statement, and forced him to apologise. No prizes for guessing whether he's truly sorry, or whether his party genuinely considers his remarks out of line.

Soon enough though, the BJP was forced to pin its colours to the traditionalist mast when it defended another of its own. The leader of the RSS, the ideological fountainhead of the Hindu right-wing (how is this organisation still allowed to exist after the murder of Gandhi??) said that rape only occurs in "India" and not in "Bhaarat" (the Indian name for India), in effect blaming Westernisation for this evil. Perhaps the best rejoinder would be that rape only occurs in India, since it is balaatkaar (Hindi for rape) that occurs in Bhaarat.

God! What are these humans thinking??

With all this talk of Westernisation and Western clothes being responsible for rape, hasn't it occurred to even one of these geniuses to ask why Indian women living in Western countries, wearing Western clothes and (yes) carrying mobile phones, feel safer travelling and working there than in India? Could it (gasp!) have something to do with the men?

Since then, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has only covered himself in further glory by claiming that women should stay at home and confine themselves to housework, while men go out and earn.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat - a ridiculous uniform with schoolboy shorts and a black cap born out of juvenile spite for Gandhi's white one, a silly fascist salute, and hopelessly outdated views. This is another dinosaur who sees the meteor of modernity but has no idea what it means for himself and his ilk.

These events only serve to convince me that there is nothing short of a culture war going on in India, and it is between secular, egalitarian, liberal, urban and educated people and regressive, feudal, patriarchal, orthodox people who are merely literate.

Thanks to globalisation, the Internet, the influential English-language media, the increasing numbers of educated urban youth, and the aspirations of countless others who see such a society not as an evil but as something to aspire to, I have no doubt which way the battle will ultimately go. But it's sad that it has to be a battle in the first place.

God! What are these adults thinking??

Thursday, 3 January 2013

AEIOU - Five Ingredients For India's Progress

Not everyone is going to agree with this, but here's my list of the essential ingredients for a more modern and progressive India, conveniently organised by the 5 vowels A, E, I, O and U.

  • Atheism (or at least Agnosticism)
  • English
  • Internationalism and the Internet
  • Opportunity
  • Urbanisation

A) Science holds the key to human progress, and superstition is the greatest enemy of science. India is one of the most religiously superstitious countries on earth, and if Indians can shake off the shackles of religion and become more atheistic (or at least agnostic) in their outlook, scientific progress can take effect. I'm shocked at the number of "educated" people who still look up their horoscopes and believe in superstitions. I remember a science class in middle school where the textbook said we should not believe in superstitions, but the teacher, while sort of agreeing, said that there were some superstitions that were true! When her father was in hospital, she said, a house lizard fell on her left shoulder. The next day, she said with a dramatic flourish, they brought home her father's body. I don't know how many of her young class were influenced, but I thought she was being dishonest by undermining the core lesson that we were supposed to learn. She's dead now (and I don't know if any lizards fell to herald that event), but she certainly did damage to a few young minds before she departed.

The sooner we can turn our children to the path of true science and away from superstitious nonsense, the better. Religion, as the biggest superstition of all, has no place in a modern society. However, temples, mosques, churches, etc., should not be demolished but turned into museums. People should be able to marvel not only at the works of art in them but also at the past generations of Indians who actually worshipped imaginary deities within their walls.

E) I have believed for a long time that the English language is the most progressive one on earth, for at least two reasons.

One, it is difficult to express retrogressive or even cloying sentiment in English to the extent possible in Indian languages. Many common Indian cuss words are names of "lower" castes. Vernacular magazines unselfconsciously bear titles like "Dharmyug" (Age of Righteousness), which would sound corny in English. Lyrics of Bollywood songs that sound so appealing in Hindi/Urdu are positively cringe-inducing when translated into English subtitles. Let's face it, English is an unsentimental language better suited to scientific and rational thought.

Two, English is perhaps the only language in the world to have a single word for the second person singular - "you". Every other language has an honorific and a familiar form, which immediately serve to classify people into "higher" and "lower" categories. Only English, of all the world's languages, is egalitarian at its core. I have seen the power equation in marriages change when couples switch from English to their mother-tongue. Equal status gives way to male dominance since the man can address the woman using the familiar form of "you", but the woman has to use the honorific form, otherwise it sounds "disrespectful".

Language is not just a medium for communication. Language shapes thinking and remakes character. And of all the languages in the world, none is as revolutionary as English, with so much potential to liberate people and make society more egalitarian, more rationally skeptical and less reverent of tradition, which is why it is hated and feared in many quarters.

If more Indians speak English, their very thinking will change. This is what the traditionalist Old Guard dread as a terrible evil, but this is what I believe will be India's salvation.

I) Exposure to the world will draw Indians out of their comfortable thought cocoons. Tradition and culture are often euphemisms for backwardness and social oppression. It's time winds of change blew in from the wider world. Television has opened a few windows over the last few decades, but only in terms of commercialism and the desire for material things. Straitjacketed by language, TV could not bring new thinking to India. Indian TV is a cultural echo chamber where the most backward sentiments bounce around along with the most crass commercialism, all tied together by Bollywood-themed programs. What India needs is simpler living and higher thinking, and I see this much more frequently in the West than in India. If the language barrier between the bulk of Indians and the world is broken through a knowledge of English, then more progressive content can find its way into Indian minds.

O) This is not a set of prescriptions for the government. All that government needs to do is step aside. Indians of all kinds need an opportunity to escape from their oppressive surroundings and to discover themselves. Rural folk, women, people of "lower" castes - every one of them must have the freedom to find themselves and be the best they can be. When I began my career in Mumbai, my epiphany was that freedom can only come when every individual is in a minority. Every community is a minority in Mumbai. What freedom that brings! No shoulds, no oughts, no moral policing.

U) I am not a fan of the Indian village. I believe there is a direct correlation between the narrowness of a community's streets and the narrowness of the minds that live there. Urbanisation alone will civilise Indian minds. Yet large-scale migration from India's villages to its 6 largest cities will make those cities a living hell. The alternative is for the so-called Tier II cities, some 30 to 50 of them, to step up and absorb the influx, and beyond these, a Tier III set of about 200 to 500 large towns, to do the same. The Golden Quadrilateral and its offshoots can help to tie these far-flung urban areas into a more connected megapolis without overwhelming the infrastructure governed by any single corporation.

The city does not discriminate the way the countryside does. Its jostling crowds and cramped accommodation (relative to the countryside) do not easily allow one to choose one's neighbours on the basis of caste or religion. Its hectic schedule leaves no time for elaborate (and wasteful) traditional rituals. The city forces people into initially grudging coexistence, then into greater tolerance and understanding that "everyone is in it together". The city encourages ambition and then satisfies it, and it offers a more meritocratic and fair system of rewards than the feudal countryside. It is only in the city that a Dalit can employ a "higher" caste Hindu, or a "lower" caste woman can employ "higher" caste men. The city can shake out India's historical injustices and intolerances like nowhere else. India needs urbanisation, and urgently.

To add to the five vowels, there's also the semi-consonant Y.

Y) As a country with one of the most favourable demographics in the world, India can tap its youth bulge to grow strongly over the next half-century. I have stated my opinion before that ideas only die when people die, so a wholesale upgrade of India's backward thinking will only come with a fresh new generation.