Saturday, 9 May 2015

How to Get Married Without an Aadhaar Number

From the time of its inception, in the year 2009, a key question at the centre of the Unique Identification (UID) project has been whether the 12-digit Aadhaar number can be made mandatory, and whether people can be denied services for not having one.

The judiciary has ruled unambiguously on the question. On 23 September 2013, the Supreme Court, in response to a writ petition filed by the former judge KS Puttaswamy, challenging the government’s mission of universal Aadhaar enrolment, and of linking various benefit schemes to the programme, ruled that “no person should suffer for not getting the Aadhaar card,” despite the fact that some authorities had issued circulars making it mandatory. On 24 March 2014, in another case, it ruled that the biometrics collected for Aadhaar are to be confidential, and, additionally, that “no person shall be deprived of any service for want of Aadhaar number ... All the authorities are directed to modify their forms/circulars/likes so as to not compulsorily require the Aadhaar number...”

One might presume that two clear rulings from the highest court of the land would suffice to lay down the law across the country. And yet, when we—the writers of this piece—reached the office of an additional district magistrate (ADM) in Delhi on the morning of 20 February 2015 to submit our marriage application under the Special Marriages Act of 1954, we were ordered to provide our Aadhaar numbers. “Without Aadhaar, we cannot process your application,” the ADM’s assistant said.

We pointed out that such a requirement was not mentioned anywhere in the law. The assistant responded that he could not help us, since the software in which he had to key in the information to register our application would not allow him to proceed unless an Aadhaar number was keyed in first.
This was in clear violation of the Supreme Court notice of 2014, which directed all authorities to modify their “forms/circulars/likes so as to not compulsorily require the Aadhaar number.” Laws, it seemed, can lose all power as they percolate through many layers of government before they reach the average citizen.

Neither of us had enrolled for Aadhaar, but the office staff informed us that if we did so immediately, our enrolment numbers would suffice to process the application. Though exasperated, we were keen on getting married soon and so chose to enrol, deciding that we would take up the fight later.
Our experience at the enrolment centre further strengthened our impression that the average citizen is arm-twisted into falling into step with the requirements of the Aadhaar programme. For starters, we were charged Rs 100 each by the enrolment centre, when in fact, the procedure is supposed to be free. We also found that the application form asked users whether we granted consent for the information to be shared (without specifying what information would be shared, with whom, and for which purpose). Neither of us wanted to consent to any such thing, but when we received a slip acknowledging our enrolment, it showed that we had in fact given consent. When we asked the person who was enrolling us about this, his response was the same as the person at the ADM’s office—that the software would not allow him to enrol us unless he indicated that we consented to share our information.

We had resigned ourselves to being bulldozed into doing the government’s bidding when, later that day, we had the good fortune of meeting the activist and scholar Usha Ramanathan, who has been opposing what she sees as the flagrant wrongs of the Aadhaar project. When Ramanathan offered to accompany us to the ADM’s office to argue our case, we gladly accepted.

Three days later, we returned to the office to argue our case with the staff. In the course of our discussion, we offered the staff a solution that we thought might circumvent the software’s hiccups: that they key in random characters in the box for the Aadhaar number. The assistant smiled at us indulgently and said that he had tried it all. He then asked us to meet the ADM himself and sort out the matter.

The ADM, who, as it turned out, was a polite and patient man, explained to us that as a government officer, he was caught in this matter between obeying the orders of the judiciary and those of the executive. While the former ostensibly lays down the rule of law, it can only be put in operation, and thus trickle down to the layperson, by the executive. After the Supreme Court orders, the ADM said, the Revenue Department of Delhi should have sent around directions to operationalise the court’s order. It had not done this. Therefore, he had to follow the existing system, which mandated the use of Aadhaar. With the executive ignoring the judiciary’s rulings, the law remained a theoretical truth. The ADM suggested that to pursue the matter, we take up the matter at the Department of Revenue.

The Department of Revenue, which handles “issues of various statutory documents,” including marriage certificates, had issued a circular in December 2012 stating that the Aadhaar platform would be used for many of their services. “Hence, it is considered necessary that the Aadhaar information of the applicants seeking the various certificates from the Revenue Department is to be given in the Application Forms itself,” the circular stated. (The certificates listed included the SC/ST certificate, OBC certificate, domicile certificate, income certificate and others, but, curiously, the marriage certificate is not mentioned in the list.)

At the office, we were directed to another official, a sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) who handled Aadhaar-related matters. If the ADM had been polite, and unhelpful only because he did not know how to help, this SDM was pointedly rude. We waited outside his door for about half an hour without being shown in. Finally, we intercepted him when he stepped outside the office on his way elsewhere. “Who sent you here?” he asked, looking at us suspiciously. We told him why we were there. “It cannot be done without Aadhaar,” he scoffed. We pointed out that such a requirement was against court orders. “Go file a contempt petition then,” he said, before storming off.

As we waited there, determined to take him up on his challenge, we received a call from the ADM’s staff, asking us to come back because they had figured out a way around the problem. Back at the office, the ADM told us that he had spoken to the legal department, the legal cell and some other ADMs in other jurisdictions. All this legal consultation yielded the following advice, which we had already suggested: if we were determined to register our marriage without the Aadhaar, all they had to do was key in dots instead of digits in the box provided.

They proceeded to do this, and our application went through successfully. After this was done, the ADM struck up a conversation with us to find out why we were so set against the Aadhaar project. We explained our various concerns, ranging from privacy issues to the sheer inefficacy of the system. “Actually I haven’t enrolled myself either,” the ADM said. “My wife complains that I am enrolling the whole world but not our family.” He added, “I’m not fully convinced of its benefits.”

Ahead of the wedding date, we discovered another potential roadblock. Subsequent to our previous rounds of the offices, the Revenue Department had issued a follow-up circular. Absurdly, the circular attempted to fulfil the SC’s stipulation that no one should be denied any service for want of an Aadhaar number, by ordering that anyone without an Aadhaar should be taken to be enrolled at the nearest centre so that they could then provide the enrolment number. The fact that this was still a form of coerced enrolment seemed to escape the authorities completely.

By happy coincidence, a hearing in the Supreme Court on Justice Puttaswamy’s writ petition—during the earlier hearing of which the initial order in 2013 was issued—was scheduled for 16 March. With the new circular in hand, Ramanathan went to meet the lawyer in the case, Gopal Subramaniam, to apprise him of the developments in the lower rungs of the government.

Six days later, at the hearing, Subramaniam began by pointing out that there was widespread violation of the court’s order against mandatory Aadhaar. A lawyer who was present told us that he cited our example: two people seeking to get married who were turned away for not having enrolled. Justice Chelameshwar, who was heading the special bench constituted for the matter, asked whether it was an arranged marriage or a love marriage. “Special marriage,” Subramaniam responded. Chelameswar jovially retorted, “Mr Subramaniam, you should be pleased that government has not mandated that they need to have Aadhaar to even love one another.” “Thankfully, that is just about the only thing they have left out, your lordships,” Subramaniam said.
Subsequent to this hearing, the Supreme Court issued an order reinforcing its earlier stand on the issue. “It is brought to our notice that in certain quarters, Aadhaar identification is being insisted upon by the various authorities,” the court said. “We expect that both the Union of India and States and all their functionaries should adhere to the Order passed by this Court on 23rd September, 2013.”

On 27 March, Ramanathan visited the Revenue Department to check that there would be no further Aadhaar-related hurdles to our registering our marriage. There she learned that the SDM who had earlier advised us to file contempt, had issued a note stating, “All concerned are requested to ensure strict compliance of the orders of Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. Any administrative instructions in violation of the order of Hon’ble Supreme Court will have no validity.” Finally, the impact of the law seemed to reach at least some of the lower offices. The ruling has not ensured compliance across all government offices, but this one circular represents one small step forward.

And so, we were married at the ADM’s office without any further trouble. But, in our first encounter with the system, we had in fact enrolled for the Aadhaar number, even if we didn’t provide it for the marriage application. Thus, we now have two more battles before us. One, to revoke the consent we were forced to give to have our information shared. Two, more ambitiously, to try and get our Aadhaar numbers revoked.

First published in Caravan, 9 May 2015.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Stirrings beneath the peepul

In recent years khaps have induced horror in the public eye with what are called their barbaric judgments. In the debates around violence against women gaining prominence everyday, they have recurred as a figure that represents the worst kind of regression when it comes to gender equality. A Supreme Court judgment declared their orders unlawful, and they have been at the end of much criticism from activist organisations and many sections of the general public. 

Then began reports of  some khaps banning foeticide or stating that it is an outdated custom to ban inter-caste marriages. There was talk of their wanting to contest elections and it was said that some of them are trying to change their public perception in order to gain votes, or to maintain their relevance in changing times. Some said that maybe public disapproval has actually made them aware that they were wrong and now they are trying to make amends. Meanwhile, crimes against women continued and in February 2015 one of the most brutal ones was the rape and murder of a mentally challenged Nepali woman in Rohtak district of Haryana. Next week, I interviewed some khap pradhans to hear them talk about how they see their role, and also the role of women, in present day society.

'I am not fit to stand next to my wife. I have ill-treated her.'
Ram Mehar Singh Hooda
Erstwhile pradhan, Hooda khap

The ex-pradhan started with a background of khaps. 'It is a job involving immense responsibility as God is our witness.' Khaps, he says, started so people could solve their own problems, related to property, marriage or debt, and did not have to go to court. 'Going to court involves several expenses, and money could be used to influence witnesses. A khap is formed by different people's recommendations. The khap pradhan cannot lie or it would be a weight on his conscience. In his decisions he would not observe enmities or friendships. If he errs, his community would correct him.

'A khap is a group of multiple villages. A khap pradhan can preside over matters of members of his community living in different villages. The pradhan has to be from the village which is the origin of the community. For instance, Hoodas came from Khidwali village and so the Hooda pradhan has to be from the same village each time. From that village, the choice of the pradhan thereafter depends on his familial repute, his leadership qualities and the absence of a criminal background.'

When asked what he feels about gender equality, he says it is unfortunate that despite campaigns to save the girl child, politicians do not implement the laws because they do not want to upset people. 'Panchayats have favoured girls. Also earlier women had  no property rights but now they do. I can say from experience that a man is nothing in front of a woman. Women fulfil so many roles while men struggle in one.' 

He states that men have dominated society and exploited women because they know that women are 'kind, forgiving and generous'. Adding to the praise that has often kept women trapped in their oppression, he says, 'A woman has qualities that sustain the world. The moment a mother sees a child, her breast overflows with milk.'

Sharing his experience over marital disputes, he talks of a possible situation where the girl does not want to return to her marital house but the boy wants to bring her back. 'There are some things the girl finds unspeakable and so shares only a portion of her troubles with her mother. The mother, who is from an even older generation, finds some of the troubles trivial. So when she goes to the panchayat she represents only a portion of what her daughter has told her. The panchayat too may find some things “normal” and asks the boy's parents to correct their son's behaviour. The son, who is the culprit, is not even present in the hearing so he does not get to realise what he has done to really be able to correct it. The girl takes recourse to her last option, suicide.'

Expressing his regret over such cases, he says that in order to deliver justice, khaps have to go deep into the circumstances. It is tough to take a decision, and tougher to ensure its implementation. 'To follow up is my duty. Otherwise I should not have a right to preside over these disputes. After seven-fifteen days of announcing the decision, the pradhan should ideally follow up by speaking to the petitioners' neighbours for their testimonies. In fifty-sixty cases, the women were found to be happy as the men had corrected themselves after our orders. In one case when the man failed to comply, we got a police complaint registered against him and he spent a year and a half in jail.'

He talks of three kinds of people who come to khaps with their cases. 'Those illiterate may have done many wrongs but apologise easily. Those who are literate are superior. But the toughest cases are the ones where people are semi-literate. They keep cases hanging and the worst sufferer is the girl. We say that if there cannot be a reconciliation, let the couple separate. But do not keep the girl waiting forever. It is additionally unfortunate that boys remarry easily but girls who remarry are scorned.'

His wife, Rajdulari, is sitting quietly listening to the conversation. The pradhan goes on, 'Once there was a case of fraud when the boy had given the girl's family a false impression of his assets. We said if there is to be a separation the boy should give the girl a divorce so that when she works outside, her marital family does not come to trouble her again. Later the boy came to say he did not want a divorce. He was from our village and the girl was from another. Though some people criticised us for it, we stood by the girl. Girls are naturally weak and they deserve all the support they can get. 

'In one case the girl came back from her marital house on the third day of the marriage and refused to go back. She said if she is asked to go back she would give up her life. Both sides were ready for a separation. I could sense that there is some serious problem that the girl is uncomfortable in sharing. But how could I ask her?' 

He got to know of a close friend of hers and called her to give her version of the events. The friend was reluctant. The pradhan urged her to treat him like her elder and reveal the truth as many people's happiness was at stake. 'She finally agreed to speak to me privately. It was then discovered that the boy had said to the girl on the night of the wedding that till both of them find jobs the relationship would not be consummated and they would stay in the house as “brother and sister”. 

'Upon knowing this, I called the families aside and asked them to decide if they wanted a divorce. I said, “If the girl dies I will too, so make sure of what she wants.”' Since both agreed to separate, he had the wedding gifts returned. 

'Later there was another problem. The girl's parents could not find anyone. They said, “Even though she is pure, nobody will believe that.” They looked towards me to find a boy. I knew a decent guy from a good family. His family had told me that he should listen to me and agree to whatever I say. The boy said he is willing to accept my decision. I said the people who are going to spend their lives together should take the decision themselves. 

'The first time I arranged their meeting they did not talk at all. I said this was not a matter to be shy about. Things needed to be clear before one decided to marry. I told the boy, “You know for a fact that the girl has been married once. You should never repeat this in front of the girl.” The girl's condition was that she could not do the housework but wanted to open her medical clinic. I asked both the families to contribute to the setting up of the clinic, though the girl's parents willingly gave more. The couple is very happy today and keeps coming to see me. I support girls because I want to follow nature; nature favours and blesses girls.' 

I request him and his spouse to stand together for a photograph. He obliges but fidgets, 'I am not fit to stand next to my wife. Maine iske saath bahut durachar kiya hai (I have ill-treated her).'

Ram Mehar Singh Hooda, Rajdulari

'Some  boys involved in the act were totally spoilt, cruel. Others were innocent who got blinded by lust.'

Hardeep Singh Ahlawat
Pradhan, Ahlawat khap

'The media portrays us as Taliban. But no khap has got any honour killing done till now. As for some of the things we believe in, they are not without reason. I am not a doctor but I have met doctors, professors. To marry within the gotra (clan) has scientific problems. We can only try to save our society and traditions.

'Nowadays boys have become so scared that they dare not harass a girl. Look at the case of the Rohtak sisters. They have done wrong. The media clips prove this. Yet the girls and their families are not ready to withdraw the case. The girls wanted to get popular and get government jobs through the bravery awards.' 

How then do we move towards eliminating sexual harassment and regrettable public safety for women?

'People do not know anything in their youth, from the age of 14 to 20. They are blind. Earlier there were people like Dayanand Saraswati who tried to bring in some samaskara like brahmacharya in society. Now such values are not imparted either in homes or schools. My wife could be inside working and my child could pick up the phone and see anything. A young body is always ready to make a mistake.'

When asked about sex education, he says, 'I agree that all our definitions about good and bad in society are not correct. If I talk to anyone about sex education, I would be called shameless. The health of one boy in our family had been falling and we could not fathom the reason. One day his father accidentally discovered that the boy had been masturbating. We counselled the boy and told him how it could make him weak. He understood and gave up the bad habit, and recovered his health. So yes, I agree, that sex education can guide young people properly.

'If you take the example of the Nepali woman who was raped and killed, some  boys involved in the act were totally spoilt, cruel. Others were innocent who got blinded by lust. You know how it is. Some of these spoilt boys go out to party, call other, more naive, boys from their mobile, and they just join. Because of the mobile phone networking all the boys were caught. One section of people would say they should be hanged. But would it help in the long term?'

I think of how tradition, or rather orthodoxy, transmutes in the weirdest of ways to fit inside a narrative of progress. It is one thing to say that boys rape because they are not aware of the consequences, of the punishment. But what about feeling compassion and respect for another human being? 'That differs from person to person. I am the kind who would not hurt a fly. My brother is completely different. The Taliban is cruel. I cannot even slap a person. One can't say why people's souls are different. Even for the 16 December  rape case, I had said that the juvenile should not have been let off so easily. He was the cruellest.'

Some people come to ask for donation for an organisation that saves cows and other animals. The pradhan says that he cannot pledge too big an amount because khap pradhans do not get paid. They have to bear the expenses of their work themselves.

He then gets back to the follies of youth, talking of how thirty years ago there was a fight between 'Harijan' and Jat boys just because they bumped against each other while walking, an incident which led to killings. Whether the folly was the murderous instinct of caste purity, or the innocuous folly of the Dalit, he does not clarify. 

'We ask people to do many good things: not to flaunt the dowry they give or take; to have simple weddings; to marry in the day so that money can be saved and there is less drinking and, therefore, fewer drunken brawls. People don't listen to us.' I wonder if the force of 'moralising' is as powerful as the force of the commands, the edicts people have come to know and condemn khaps for. 

Right outside the living room where the interview is taking place, Hardeep Ahlawat's wife is cleaning the cattle shed. I ask her if I could speak to her too. She enters tentatively and takes a seat. We talk about girls' education and she shares, 'I studied a bit when I was growing up. Now people are educating their daughters more and so are we. But yes if she has to go for tuitions in the evening, we cannot allow her to go alone. That kind of environment is still not there.' Ahlawat says, 'Only 20-30 per cent people do not educate their girls now. The rest do. And after marriage if her marital family allows she can work also.'

For the photograph, when Ahlawat's wife comes to stand next to him, he says she will look too short standing next to him. I show the photograph I have clicked and the wife looks unsure. When I start clicking again, Ahlawat tells his wife impatiently that one cannot really change the way she looks, that photographs can only reflect what's out there.

The Ahlawat pradhan and his spouse

'If you uplift a Dalit, within a week his tone would change.'
Kidar Singh Kadyan
Pradhan, Kadyan khap

When I introduce myself, he ritualistically raises his hand to bless me like priests do, assuming all who come close would want to be blessed, and I stagger in discomfort. He too shares the mechanics of the ritual justice system of his khap. 'Usually women and the elderly are not called to panchayats. Someone is deputed to go and get their statements. That person has to be conscientious and honestly report to us. As for the culprit, he has to come with his family. If the culprit is absconding, the family comes. But if the guy does not make an appearance we can also report him to the police.'

Perhaps anxious if my attention is wavering, he asks me if I am looking at something. I point to his little grandson peeping from behind the curtains. He calls the child, 'Jat ka balak hoke sharma raha hai?' (You're feeling shy despite being the son of a jat?) Then he turns to me, 'Even when there are cases of people known or related to us, we have to pronounce fair judgments. Once a boy's parent I knew created a furore over how his son was being implicated. But when I investigated and asked him why his son's shoe was found at the crime scene, he had no answer.

'Each community is different and so are their rules. For example Dalits work in the fields while we do not. The same goes for rural and urban spaces. In cities people come home as late as 11 pm. Here even in the day if someone comes back late by an hour or two, we ask for the reason. Members of our communities who have migrated to cities easily agree to an intercaste marriage while here in villages, it is only under compulsion - when someone within the community is not found. 

'There are practical problems with intercaste marriages. If you uplift a Dalit, within a week his tone would change. He would become disrespectful towards you. People would tell him that he has been exploited by upper castes so he would always be wary of them. In such a situation even if he marries someone from that community, he would always be mocking and taunting her.

So exogamy is a problem. What about endogamy? 'Years ago there was a double murder of a same gotra couple by the family. They were arrested but the police kept struggling to find witnesses. Villagers also agree that people within a gotra share a brother-sister relationship. It is not that we ostracise such people. These families feel ashamed to go out and interact with others. If someone does something wrong, naturally the person would feel ashamed. 

'As for mobile phones and ways of dressing, rather than imposing bans our stress is on doing things within control. Some people issue a farman (decree). Who follows them? They just get photographed and make fools of themselves in the media. Go and check their homes. Are they or their families following what they are preaching? 

'If girls are pure, they cannot be harmed.' An air of heaviness punctuates our conversation. 'They should be gutsy enough to slap the person. But it is sad to look at cases like the Rohtak sisters' where they bashed up a boy with prior planning.'

I ask for his views on the most recent failure of all. 'What happened with the Nepali woman was worse than the other rape cases because she was not mentally fit. The boys deserve to be hanged for the pain they caused her. What they committed was a blunder, not a mistake. It is our responsibility to ensure such things do not get repeated.'

On the subject of women's education, he says, 'Our granddaughter studies in another city. We wanted her to study in the best place. I approached so many ministers at the time of her admission. None of it worked. Then she cleared the entrance test and got admitted. Just like that! Both my daughters-in-law are teachers. My wife is class 2 pass.

'Education has become so important. A best mother award was given to a “Harijan” woman who worked as a labourer and taught her children. My mother studied till class 2. She could have taught in a school. But my grandfather said no. Nobody suggested to him that she need not have taken the salary; she could have just taught.'

His wife comes in and says she was busy keeping the children quiet while we talked. Vimla Devi looks easy and confident. Kadyan warmly introduces me to her and continues, 'Khaps must continue. Our youth can then be saved. Khaps will keep them under check.' He asks me to note down that the youth today is averse to guidance. 'Road accidents mostly occur due to young people who have a lot of their parents' money.'

He reiterates, 'As for intercaste and intra-gotra marriages, we are clearly opposed to them. There have been interstate marriages outside the community which are fine. These are to women who come from other states. Their natal families are not here. So the question of taunting her or her family for her caste does not arise.

Coming back to his family, he says, 'We would encourage our granddaughter to pursue what she wants. Yet there are some things we would not allow like going to nightclubs.'

Kidar Singh Kadyan and Vimla Devi

Listening to the stakeholders


In an effort to see how it is for women in the cities, I spend some time with two families in Rohtak. In one of them, the woman, possibly in her late twenties, one of the gentlest I have met, remembers she never did any work while living with her parents. 'My father would tell my mother, “Do not give her any work. Who knows what sort of a household she gets after marriage? She may have to work there. At least here she should have some rest.' 

She has two sons, 'Once I wasn't well and my husband asked for a second cup of tea. I was irritable and refused. He said something sharp in turn. That day my son did not finish his lunch. His teacher called to say he was extremely quiet in school. My husband and I decided never to speak loudly with the children around.' 

When I ask why her spouse did not want to her to complete her graduation, she is annoyed, 'Meri toh ab nibh gayi' (I have adjusted now). After a pause, she asks, 'You have a job. You are independent. Why are you thinking of marrying?'

In another home where education and high profile government jobs came four generations earlier, the woman I talk to is much more vocal. 'Khaps may tell you they do not do honour killings. But their pressure of ostracisation is so strong on families that couples are killed or commit suicide.' She had her first child, a daughter, now in primary school, after almost twenty years of marriage. 'First they asked me to have a child. Then they said I should have a son and I did too, in the next few years. Now people say I could have one more. 

'When we didn't have a child, my mother-in-law would tell me she would get her son married to my younger sister. I asked if they would do the same for me if my husband turned out to be the one with a medical issue. This created a storm and my natal family was summoned to show them how “rude and indecent” I was. Today I tell them they are welcome to bring another woman into the house. I am not a child producing machine.

'I am criticised for paying more attention to my daughter, and it is true that I am more protective of her. My son is pampered by everyone. My daughter has got only me. But maybe I have been overprotective because without me she doesn't want to go anywhere or make friends. I should change that. I want her to grow into a confident person.'

I ask the mother-in-law if she feels people shouldn't differentiate between sons and daughters. 'How can I lie to you about something I didn't do myself? After two daughters, my husband suggested an operation. But I and my mother-in-law did not agree. The chief minister asks people to have only two children. But his own relatives are unable to follow that.'

And the world

As infamous it is for its skewed sex ratio with men hugely outnumbering women, Haryana's name also comes up regularly during major national and international sports championships when women players from Haryana feature among the winners. On the main sports ground of Rohtak city, I meet a batch of women wrestlers practising. Some also wrestle with men. When I ask about their experience at the time that they started training, one of them, Nikki Jatain, shares, 'Our parents were told, “Teach your son, feed your son. What is the use of feeding daughters so much? If you feed the sons, they would grow muscular.” Our parents did not care for such comments.' 

I recall my phone conversation with Anuradha Beniwal, a chess player from Haryana who has been playing in international tournaments since a child and now teaches and plays the game in London. She feels lucky to have parents who nurtured her talent and never pressurised her to marry or do a certain job or a course. She says that she remembers khaps as a benevolent body while she was growing up, who would give prizes to girls who won sports competitions. I ask the group of wrestlers about their opinion on khaps, and the unanimous answer comes that they should cease to exist. 

Anuradha Beniwal: Checkmating the masters

I told them about how pradhans feel they are not obeyed anyway. Kanta Jatain answers, 'Tell me, how can anyone listen to them looking at the kind of things they say? They say girls should not wear jeans. Are we expected to wrestle in salwar kurtas?' Another one, Rekha Kadyan, pitches in, 'We are worried that if the sarpanch gets to know that some girls are preparing a dance programme for the school function, he would ban that as well.' The fourth one says, 'We are wrestlers. We have physical strength. Yet we are afraid to be out in the dark.'

Have the strongholds of patriarchy really started giving way?

During my trip, I went to attend a khap hearing where the Rohtak rape-murder case was to be discussed. Upon reaching the meeting place, I was told the meet was cancelled because the pradhan had to rush back to the village where a woman got burnt. I met the pradhans I interviewed individually, where they spoke in the privacy and comfort of their homes. Would their statements have been any different if they had met collectively or while performing their 'official' functions as khap pradhans? 

One common factor binding them was that they tried to use logic to explain their stand on issues. Whether that logic appeals to others or not is a different question. But are they making this effort to justify and explain their position in order to gain relevance in present times? Or is this simply defence of spurious logic in order to secure more people's obedience arising out of belief and not merely from fear? Or is it due to the most common reason for changing one's position, to gain electoral power?

In any of the situations, if the final aim is to win more ayes, khaps in the state would do well by directly engaging in a conversation with the Rekhas, Kantas and Nikkis of Haryana, instead of denying them the right to be who they have already become.

Krishan Singh Beniwal participated in conducting some of the interviews.

First published in The Equator Line, Apr-Jun 2015.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Actually, the ladies compartment in the Delhi Metro isn’t such a bad idea

Last week when I was reading this article on the need to do away with the ladies coupé in the Delhi metro, I could relate to the author's views that segregation takes away responsibility from the culprits (harassing men) and places it on the already aggrieved (women). It makes men feel that only a corner belongs to women and solidifies the myth that to be safe women need to shrink themselves and keep away from men they aren't related to. But when I flinch at separated compartments am I being myopic?

Ten years ago I was in the middle of a discussion meeting organized by the Women's Development Cell of the college. As a fresher, I was listening starry eyed to an articulate senior argue that we do not need separate seats for women on buses because we are equal. Our teacher agreed with the premise but gently reminded us that 'it's not a level playing field'. That gave me something to think about, and I keep going back to it because the field is still not level, except that some of us have become hardened nuts to survive the bumpy ride.

That toughening up takes time though. A middle aged woman, an MTNL employee, said that she can set right any man who tries to mess with her. But, she added, even young girls travel in the metro and at that age they may be at a loss when they are harassed. Another woman said she teaches her daughter to be strong and not fear anyone. So while this gender training has been taking place, it is not a feature of all homes and often girls don't know the first thing about how it would be to venture into the 'jungle' out there. This is where the ladies' compartment comes in to make that girl's first step outside a little easier.

Solidarity and support

To get diverse opinion, I went to a group of three young women who seemed to be from outside Delhi. When I tried to speak to them, they seemed a bit nervous and I realized that they couldn't speak Hindi or English. If they had been travelling in the general compartment and had had the guts to speak out, which language could they have chosen?

Public support at such times is as infrequent and short-lived as rains in Delhi. Before a spunky woman can have the satisfaction of having brought her harasser to book, she often has to go through the the process alone, which entails speaking out, reporting the harassment, calling the police, convincing them that you don't want to "let it go" and finally registering an official complaint. The system of online reporting started by the Washington metro, even if started in India, will be a complete success only if all the women commuters are that familiar with technology.

For the past three months I have been part of a team called Genderventions that has been using theatre in an effort to make the city a more accessible place for women. To watch our act while men gather around more easily as audience, we have often had to approach women and request them to watch. Watching a road show surrounded by men isn't something they are used to. We even had to intervene once when a lone young girl at an inter-bus state terminus kept going from one spot to another trying to watch us perform but the shoving crowd of men won't let let her be. 

Even while performing, in our heads we used to desperately count the number of women in the audience and mostly they could be counted on your fingers. Our other women team members would stand around these women, talking to them, listening to them if they had a point to make that they were softly uttering, urging them to speak out. Some of them were quite vocal when they began, and a few confidently participated without being persuaded. But the latter were not the rule. 

We hope that the hesitant ones who broke their silence would continue the practice. To do that, if they needed that initial solidarity from other women like us (who were in turn encouraged by other women when we weren't too articulate ourselves) in a predominantly male space, which would have sometimes jostling, sometimes drunk men, we don't think it's a reflection on their capabilities. 

One of the places where I learnt to articulate resistance was my college. In class when the question of limited seats in the girls' hostel came up, our teacher felt that the ideal way is to let people have the hostel in the first year, and in the second year these residents should make way for the next batch of freshers who could live on campus. 

Back to the compartment

The ladies compartment could also be used just for this initial push. It could be used by women whose families feels comfortable in sending them only to girls' colleges or women dominated spaces, if there are any. Or when a woman wants to work and her family says she shouldn't travel alone, the existence of a ladies' coach may help her convince them that travel won't be an issue. 

Of course the coach doesn't guarantee safety, and work or education cannot be completely empowering if it has to be customized according to orthodox familial and social conventions. But the first foot forward into a brave new world brings to many of these women the courage to break out of these very conventions. 

This applies to all of us, not just to women of a certain class or background, because it is a process that we have all gone through or are in the middle of. Priyanka Sharma, a member of the Genderventions team, recalls that till college she was picked up and dropped in a car. The first time she needed to go somewhere in a rickshaw she wondered about what exactly she should say in order to hire it. Her wish was not to forever stay in the cocoon her family offered her but to come into her own. In the company of other women in college, this wish only got strengthened and she saw the endless possibilities waiting for her. By the end of her final year, she was heading the dramatic society and rushing alone to railway stations to book tickets for her team for inter-city competitions. And today while she is still trying to convince her family, she has fulfilled her resolve to do theatre full time and travel anywhere her work would take her. 

The ladies' coach could be in a way a space for unspoken solidarity where women from different backgrounds travel together, drawing strength from and learning from each other. For any woman who has felt the pinch of assumed inferiority and aspired for the self-respect brought in by equality, the ladies' coach may be the passage but would never be the final stop. 

First published in Quartz, 1 December 2014.

Loving and Living in India

A boy and a girl come from their respective hometowns and take admission in the same or respective colleges. It's a new life; friends provide the high in life. Once life starts getting 'serious' and one opts for higher studies or a job many friends, intent on making a living, start drifting apart. Families, joint or nuclear, had already been left behind. One is left alone to deal with the big bouts of loneliness brought in by big cities. Girl meets boy in college or office, love is fallen into, a bond of empathy is established. Life is busy, whatever amount of time they spend together seems less, running two different households in a pain. They think it only makes sense they should live together. But two different flats are still retained, rent for each is still paid. For when the parents come they must not know. (Many parents are kept off Facebook by their kids for these and similar reasons.) 

Live-in relationships are still considered beyond the pale in India. But, in a country where parents often murder their children for marrying out of caste, many brave couples do live together without getting married. They face social opprobrium and many legal hurdles. 

When I and my long-distance partner started visiting each other, we too could see that there isn't complete acceptance yet of a couple living together. I then thought it’s worth doing some research and preparing a guide for what a couple intending to live together should be prepared for. 

Dealing with family

Despite live-ins having mushroomed in India for years, parents prefer to live in denial. And having never discussed love or sex with their parents except as a 'dhokha' (deceit) to be wary of, their young 'uns prefer to avoid the confrontation with parents 'liberal' enough to marry them to the person they claim to have met, liked and decided to marry, not lived with. But what if one wants to live in not as a guarded, temp arrangement until married? What should one be prepared to deal with if planning to live-in openly with or without any plans for marriage?

Families cringe at the idea of live-ins because it hints at sex for pleasure instead of for procreation, which marriage implies. They see marriage as commitment while live-ins as abstinence from responsibility. Often it is assumed that in future the man would shirk and the blind-in-love woman who had been led into such an ignoble union shall cry her eyes out, for which other man shall accept her thereafter? This assertion of choice and independence to lead her life by a woman insults those who believe that the woman is to be given away through 'kanyadan'-the gift of the virgin. The guy would be branded less harshly but would still have to fight for the respectability of a householder. At times the families would say that they do not have an objection to the arrangement but their relatives in the village and the city, their neighbours and their service providers-clubbed under the much abused term 'society', which TIME magazine can certainly put on the list of words to ban as far as Indian youth is concerned-would simply not approve. So while personally parents might end up seeing things from your perspective, it seems an anomaly when they see it in the context of the social spaces they inhabit. 

Getting even to the point where your parents may not be convinced by your stand but would respectfully and peacefully agree to disagree may be a long and arduous process requiring much patience but some people find it worth the effort. Anupama, a product manager in Bangalore soon to be married to her live-in partner, insists, 'People in live-in relationships should definitely have the guts to talk about it without hesitation to their parents, friends, colleagues or anybody else.'

Since such debates are held between logic and rationale versus rhetoric and emotional blackmail, they do not progress in a linear fashion and are immensely frustrating for both the parties. At this juncture, some feel that the only way to observe ceasefire is to stop communication. One party lives with the fact that the other is 'too orthodox' or 'too rebellious'. Some others, resilient enough not to give up on their families or the idea of bringing in change, believe that one cannot stop there.

'Just as it is their duty to protect us from the big bad world, it is the responsibility of the child to open up new worlds for the parents. Educate them about gender equality, about the freedom to act upon your convictions, follow up on your dreams in your own terms, question social conventions . . . In a way, equip them to answer back to the nagging society. But most importantly, show them that you are a responsible, strong and independent person. When they see that you are happy in your surroundings, or unhappy on your own terms, they will come around,' said Paloma Dutta, an editor in a publishing house in Delhi and someone who has been in a live-in relationship for five years. It took her half a decade but she was eventually able to convince her mother to stop worrying and feel confident about her daughter's choice and her ability to live with it.

Looking for that room on the roof

Emotional and mental tugs-of-war apart, a live-in couple in confronted with their first pragmatic hiccup when they set out to find a house to live in. The first question a broker or a landlord would ask you is, 'Single or family?' Interestingly, family doesn't mean you have to live there with your parents or grandparents or children. You can be a couple and still be called a family by real estate hawks as long as you are married. Or say that you are. In some people's experience, it is only in posh areas that people accept you as live-in partners but if you cannot afford those you have to lie to the owner of the house. But in my own experience of house-hunting when my partner moved to town, reservations exist in both expensive and more modest localities. 

In some cases regardless of the area the owners do not care if you pay your rent on time. In others, many would ask you if you are married and would be satisfied with your verbal answer (though a friend told me that in Mumbai they look for a marriage certificate) and not willing to probe further. It is not that they care that much but do not want to go into uncharted territory and are essentially saying 'if you say you are married we will expect “decent” behaviour and trust that you shall not be found to be leading a drug and sex racket'. Their efforts to stay out of the reach of the long arm of the law also stems from the fact that they are letting out their properties without paying tax on rent. 

Staying in hotels

Some hotel websites mention that they entertain 'married couples only'. It is best to call in advance and say that you would be checking in with your partner so that you do not end up having an unpleasant argument at the last moment. Once despite prior notice I had an argument with the owner when the caretaker stepped in and apologized, saying that while they do not have a problem with two consenting adults staying together, they are wary of the police regularly checking their records and questioning them. Another owner of a bed-and-breakfast establishment in south Delhi said that he never plies his guests with personal questions as long as they are adults and have their identity proofs in order. He added that because he follows this the police has never found anything amiss in his records.

The benefit of staying honest about your live-in status is that nobody will get a chance to try to make you uncomfortable by probing or try to 'report to parents' when they realize that you have nothing to hide. From your own confidence in your conviction, your act would stagger their limited understanding of legitimacy.

Live-ins and the law 

In many other countries there has been a broader understanding of the idea of a couple and a family, which can be seen in their legal recognition of prenuptial agreements, cohabitation, civil union and domestic partnership. In India the Domestic Violence Act 2005 included within its purview live-in relationships under which a woman having with a man 'a relationship in the nature of marriage' can go to court if abused. Since this covers economic abuse, it affords women protection in case of a violation of their financial rights. The Supreme Court has stated that if a man and a woman '"lived like husband and wife" for a long period and had children, the judiciary would presume that the two were married.' In another case the court even declared, 'Living together is a right to life'. This was when film actor Kushboo petitioned the court to quash the 22 FIRs filed against her by groups in Tamil Nadu for allegedly endorsing pre-marital sex in her interviews. The court went one step further to assert, 'If living together is an offence, then the first complaint should be filed against the Supreme Court, because we have permitted living together.'


The apex court has clarified that children born of parents in a live-in relationship could not be called illegitimate. Lawyer-activist Pyoli Swatija points out that if a child is born of live-in partners, then, unlike within a marriage, the mother is the natural guardian of the child. However, it also means that the father is not obliged to fulfil any responsibility related to the child. The Supreme Court held that a child born out of parents in a live-in may be allowed to inherit the property of the parents, if any, but doesn't have any claim upon Hindu ancestral coparcenary property. 

Pyoli, earlier in a live-in and now married, said that many live-in couples planning to have kids decide to marry to secure the legal rights of their children. Recently an elderly couple in Kerala reluctantly married after forty years of living together. Having taken the ideological position that their relationship was not dependent on social sanction, they had to alter course when they felt that the legal rights of their family, including those of the grandchildren, were threatened. 

Additionally, not everyone wants the children to face and be confused by people's questions about their parents' unconventional union. In her own case too, Pyoli felt that legal rights apart, if they have a child s/he, unlike the parents may not be able to deal with society's questions at a young age. 

A different argument is that if children are raised in a certain way and made to understand their parents' choice they would actually contribute to making a more tolerant, open and equal society, which would ultimately make the world a better place for the child. Envrionment activist Manshi Asher working in rural Himachal Pradesh has a child with her live-in partner and has not considered marriage. 'When we landed in the village with a baby in our arms, no one around really considered that we were not married. For the neighbourhood and local community we are a married couple. If people ask when we got married, we just mention the year we started living in together. If they look for a story behind how we got married, I say we didn't, if it's someone with the sensibility to understand or someone curious about if there is another way possible for a couple to be together.' 

Official documents 

In having joint accounts, insurance and visas, and possibly in visitation rights to a hospital, it could be tough if the couple is not legally married. International chess player and solo traveller Anuradha Beniwal was peacefully living in with her partner with no objections from family. (She did face veiled disapproval from some mothers who stopped sending their daughters to her for chess tuitions.) But when her partner decided to take up a job offer in London and she too was willing to move, they got married in a rush to avoid visa troubles. Of course many see this legal arrangement as the structure of a patriarchal state where only one kind of family is recognized. So there is also an informed choice either not to care for these privileges or to keep on fighting for them. 

More than just rebellion

Live-ins are not a new phenomenon in India. Apart from it going on in hushed or open ways in cities, it has been the standard norm in many of our tribes, some of which believe that the contemporary marriage system 'brings with it several impositions, especially on women'. Of course there were also live-ins more exploitative and unequal in nature like the Maitri Karaar (friendship contract)in Gujarat, later declared illegal, which involved a single woman in a relationship with a married man. In fact it was to secure the rights of tribal women in live-in relationships that the Madhya Pradesh State Women's Commission had recommended that such unions be accorded legal status. That more and more people are opting for it due to their own respective reasons is attested by the fact that the Internet has extended its matchmaking services to include finding live-in partners. In the year 2011, an NGO in Ahmedabad organized a first-of-its-kind event to help single senior citizens find companions. So clearly living together goes much beyond the simplistic notion of 'the rebellion of youth'. 

It wasn't mere coincidence that almost ten years back when the Hindi film industry decided to make a commercial film (Salaam Namaste) with a live-in couple, they placed the story in Australia to maintain the purity of the usual Bollywood romance genre. By not situating the pair in India, they could concentrate on their mutual relationship and not deal with messy societal influences (a bit of which was later done in the more recent Shuddh Desi Romance). 

Contrary to popular belief, live-ins are not devoid of work but confer much more responsibility upon both the partners since in many ways they are on their own. In such circumstances, it is best to appraise oneself of the socio-economic-legal aspects (like the guidelines for when the relationship would be seen as being in the nature of marriage to be covered under the 2005 Act), and go in prepared.

First published in Quartz, 28 November 2014.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Legacy of a Warrior

Like all legends, Param Vir Chakra awardee Abdul Hamid too had his share of myths around him. A popular one going around was that he had confronted a Pakistani tank with a grenade tied to him in the 1965 war. But when I reached his village Dhamupur (Ghazipur district, Uttar Pradesh) and met his family in nearby town Dullapur, the figure of Abdul Hamid unravelled itself as one of extreme determination, empathy, courage and loyalty. He was not just someone who got acclaim through a solitary heroic act. Absolute surrender to the call of duty, to identify the need of the hour and do exactly that, was a way of life with him.

Abdul Hamid

Not one but two wars

Company Quarter Master Havildar Abdul Hamid was in the 4th Grenadiers of the Indian Army. In the Indo-Sino war of 1962, after having ousted Chinese infiltrators, he lay unconscious for thirteen days and having hoisted the Indian flag on the recaptured land, emerged on the fourteenth day, when the government had almost declared him dead.

Naturally after he came back from the clutches of death, his family grew all the more concerned for his safety. So when he came home in 1965 and got a letter from the headquarters cancelling his leave because of impending war with Pakistan, his family felt apprehensive and asked him not to go. To this, he is said to have replied, 'I have to be loyal to the country that feeds me.' For his family it seemed like a day full of forebodings when the string holding his bedding together gave way, his cycle tyre burst and a black cat crossed his path. He dismissed their superstitions and said once he had stepped out there was no going back. When he reached the station with his father and almost missed the train, his intuition told him something was amiss and he said to his father, 'Do not expect me back.'

That year when he went to join the war Hamid had already served the army for ten years. But neither he nor his fellow soldiers in Khem Karan Sector were prepared for the Pakistani army's Patton tanks advancing towards them. His grandson says the story was reconstructed for the family and others later by a fellow soldier (who lost his hand but was the only one of the team to survive) who was there with his grandfather on the battleground. An old man from the village sympathetically advised Hamid to run away, saying the Indian army wasn't equipped to face the tanks. The friend who survived remembered sharing his anxiety with Hamid, 'Look, their tank says “Allah-hu-Akbar”. Do you think they would really win?' Hamid reassured him, 'But it is us and not them who can see the writing. So it is our victory that is being predicted.' 

Soldiers on the other side also tried to use religion to sway the Indian army, reminding them that they were Mussalmans and should not fight for kafirs. But pledging loyalty to the country they lived in, they fought on. When the soon to get infamous Patton tanks arrived, under heavy firing Abdul Hamid is remembered to have completed the task usually done by three. He drove the vehicle, loaded the recoilless gun and also fired. Constantly changing his position so as not to get exposed to the enemy, he destroyed one tank after another till he suffered a fatal attack launched by the other side. This extraordinary act posthumously brought to him the highest gallantry award-the Param Vir Chakra. Not only that, after Hamid's open challenge to the Patton tanks that ruined their credibility, they were completely withdrawn from subsequent wars.

The wait that wouldn't end

Back in Dhamupur, Abdul Hamid's village, the village head was trying to tune in to the news on the radio. He told Hamid's family that soldiers who had died during the battle were being mentioned in terms of numbers and not names. Another recruit from a village with the same name had also gone for the war, which added to the confusion. An old letter lying at Hamid's house was sought out. The numbers matched and it was confirmed that Hamid had been lost.

The village house where Hamid lived

His son says that he has very faint memories of that time but there was a gathering of ministers at his home. The administration announced a sum of Rs 10,000 for the family and land in Ghazipur. Abdul Hamid's death anniversary is marked every year in Khem Karan setor, Punjab, on 10 September, where the tanks are displayed and scenes from the war are reconstructed to acquaint the public with his singular courage under fire. In the year 2000, a stamp bearing his picture was issued by the government and a television serial featuring Naseeruddin Shah was also produced. Syed Ehsan Ali wrote a book detailing his personal and professional history. 

Where it all began

Hamid's father Usman Farooqi wanted his son to be a khalifa, a chief wrestler like him. And Hamid could wrestle too. But then he was also a swimmer, a sword fighter and a marksman. The villagers testified to the fact that he could not be beaten at any sport. He loved playing with kids just as much. During a flood, with his strong swimming skills he was able to save many lives. The army was not just any job but a dream for him. 

Entrance to the village

To detain him from joining the army, his father arranged for him to be married. Hamid grew restive that he would no longer be able to pursue his aspiration of becoming a soldier. He secretively went to meet the girl chosen for him and said, 'I like you a lot but we can marry only if you do not dissuade me from joining the army.' The girl, later to be his partner, Rasoolan Bibi, answered, 'If you join the army, it will be a matter of pride for me.'

Those who were left behind

Rasoolan Bibi immediately strikes one as a resilient woman who has seen much and still has a lot of endurance left in her. When I try to speak to her, she regretfully says that I will have to get all information from her son and grandson because she does not keep too well these days and that her memory has been failing her. Yet when I do begin to interview the other two, she interjects to ask me, 'Tell me something. We have met so many people and so many have come and written in their books like you do now. Help me understand. When will something come out of all this? There isn't even a hospital in our village yet. The park built in his memory is hardly looked after.' 

Memorial park

Her grandson Jamil Alam, a determined young man employed with the railways, shares his grandmother's hurt that they have had to meet and appeal to so many people for what should have been rightfully theirs. 'If we had been asking just for ourselves, it would have been one thing. But we ask for the village, the community.' Recently after he took up the matter with chief minister Akhilesh Yadav the CM made an announcement for the hospital but after the chief medical officer's survey, they have just been waiting. The other fear is that if the government changes it may not honour the promises made by those who were in power earlier. Jamil admits that his generation did not have to face poverty but this was not the case when Rasoolan Bibi was left alone to fend for her five children after the death of the soldier. 

Her son Juned Alam says, 'In those days, it used to be a monthly pension of Rs 200. After having to fight for it over the years, it has now become a somewhat decent sum.' He says when the government had announced two bighas of land for the martyr's family, the village head had felt it did not suitably honour Hamid's exploits. Then the administration raised it to five bighas, to which the village head added another five, adding that Abdul Hamid had brought honour to the entire village. 'When Ram Vilas Paswan was the railway minister, he had considered naming a train and the nearest railway station after my father,' Juned Alam says. But, he laments, those who fight for their country aren't though of worth much in this country. He appreciated how the minister announced a job for him and a railway pass for his mother even though at that time the election commission had warned against making promising announcements in election constituencies. Turning to me anxiously, he asks, ' Is it possible to edit the book written by Rahi Masoom Raza? It mentions that my father destroyed three tanks when in fact they were seven.' After so many years, reconstructing history is a tough job and oral narratives have to be relied on, or at least heard as they are meant to.

Juned Alam's son and Abdul Hamid's grandson Jamil Alam is a doer like his famed ancestor. He started accompanying his grandmother to public functions and meetings with ministers at the age of fifteen. In Rae Bareilly he was assertive enough to meet with his grandmother Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. When a car was sent for them, he said he did not believe in hiding his identity and went ahead in a rickshaw. Despite chief minister Mayawati's assurances that their petition would be considered, he and Rasoolan Bibi also wanted to meet the then President Pratibha Patil. Upon looking at their demands the President said they could have approached the local MP or MLA for the same. Jamil's reply was, 'You are the most important figure of the country. We would not have come to you if things would have got addressed at that level.' When they met Lalu Yadav during his tenure as railway minister he sanctioned Jamil's job, and recently upon meeting prime minister Narendra Modi he was offered a ticket to contest a parliamentary election. 'I refused; I felt it was too soon.' 

Juned Alam says that wherever his father's memory can be honoured by spending some money, he and his family do that according to what they can afford. They organise an annual function at the memorial park with their own money. He worries, 'The waterproof tent itself costs around Rs 50,000. How much can we do?' Jamil adds that ministers and actors earlier used to be reluctant to come to a village to attend such a programme. But over the years he has worked hard to make it bigger and well known people have started attending. He is grateful to the media for having always being supportive. Three Hindi film directors, along with actors like Salman Khan and John Abraham, have also expressed an interest in Abdul Hamid's story being adapted into a film. While they have promised full support, Jamil hopes that the filmmakers would be able to find enough money to finance the productions. 

Some time back Jamil went to the administration with a plaque in his grandfather's name, requesting it be put in the marketplace. The magistrate said they could not do this without permission. Jamil then met the CM who sanctioned it and Hamid Chowk came into being. The marble stone with Abdul Hamid's name inscribed on it at the Dullapur railway station had weathered away. Jamil got a new one put in place, also replacing the deteriorated marker of another war martyr on the same platform.

Hamid Chowk

The family speaks of an NRI who had come to India from the US especially to attend the annual programme held at Khem Karan. He was greatly touched by Hamid's story and even invited the family to the US, where he wanted to organise something similar. Jamil's cousin Rizwan smiles, 'If our grandfather had been from the US, probably he and his family would have been valued more.' 

Jamil agrees, 'Why would anyone martyr themselves for a cause if they cannot feel reassured that their families would be looked after? Nobody came to see how Dadi was bringing up her children alone. The district has become famous because of my grandfather's deeds. But not enough is done to preserve his memory.' His own little son talks of his great-grandfather's heroic acts like he has witnessed them himself. 

Four generations: Jamil Alam with his grandmother, son and father

Once at a public function Jamil had to interrupt a minister and correct the facts he was relating about Abdul Hamid, much to the minister's chagrin. Then there are times when people try to use Hamid's name to gain leverage themselves. Jamil says that on a TV show Anna Hazare claimed to have been with Hamid in the war. When Jamil asked for details and queried why he had never come to see the family as a friend, he was told by the show host not to ask such questions. Arvind Kejriwal, also on the show, tried to tell him that the issue was corruption. The answer did not satisfy Jamil.

Admitting that he too gets excited upon seeing film actors, he says, 'But people like Dadaji are the real heroes. And I want to follow in his footsteps.' And yet, the family feels, film actors with a Bharat Ratna are accorded more value than a martyr with a Param Vir Chakra. He and his family from time to time organise relief work for the poor. Actor Salman Khan advised Jamil that he too would like to donate once they have a trust. So the family is now about to set up a trust in Abdul Hamid's name, which they can then use to help the community. 

Fragmented memories

While they may get mixed up about the details, many in Ghazipur district do know of Abdul Hamid as an exceptionally brave soldier. My own local taxi driver had been able to share with me a lot of information even before they later got corroborated by the family. Telling me of the bridge and the road named after the martyr, Hamid Setu and Vir Abdul Hamid Marg, Chhotelal Yadav proudly narrates, 'The people of Ghazipur are known to be courageous. They are not afraid of dying on the battlefield. In fact they long for a such a noble death. That is why every year special recruitments are done from this district.'

Apart from his wife, not many from Abdul Hamid's generation have survived to tell the tale. In the school named after him in Dhamupur village, I ask the children what they know of him and a little boy tentatively says he was a freedom fighter. An annoyed principal corrects him and tells me that Vir Hamid used to be a part of the textbooks but it was changed with a change in government. Jamil is upset about it and wants to report this to the chief minister. 

Shaheed Vir Abdul Hamid School, Dhamupur

The modern soldier's predicament

To join the army is an individual's choice. But the wars an army fights are those between two political establishments, where the lives of the powers that be are least at stake. Yet for Hamid things were relatively simpler. The 'other', the enemy, lay across the border. Today when under various Special Powers Acts the army is pitted against its 'own' people and is also ordered to keep civilians under fear, when so many army personnel undergo mental trauma and others quit, more than ever the definition of a patriot is in question. What would someone like Abdul Hamid have felt in such a situation?

His grandnephew Rizwan shares, 'The attempt should be to maintain cross-border relations in a way that wars do not happen at all. The money spent on buying weapons can be spent on the country's development. It is good to have security. But what's the use if your country is weak from within?' Jamil agrees, 'Many people like Naxals take up arms because their basic needs are not fulfilled. The inequalities in this country are too steep. Like I was reading the other day, while one person wonders what to eat with so many options about, another has to think of whether there is anything to eat at all.' 

Rasoolan Bibi had to struggle to fend for herself and her children. By the time her grandson's generation came, with education and an awareness of their rights, things had become easier and at present they are financially stable. They have a house in Ghazipur on the land the government gave them and live in Dullapur, close to the native village. A lot of it also had to do with the resolute nature of family members like Jamil who fought to get the family their rights. 

The Dullapur house where the family currently lives

But we know that this is not always the case. Joint families themselves are no longer such a common feature and so the first generation of survivors, especially in rural areas with limited access to education, administration and resources, most in need of support, often fail to get it in time. 

And this when those killed on duty in the army are clearly recognized as having died for the country. Let alone compensation, have we been able to calculate the human cost of war itself - whether when lives are wasted as cannon fodder fighting someone else's war or as collateral damage while contributing to the 'development' that will never reach them?

First published in The Equator Line, January-March 2015.


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