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.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Whatever happened to the great debate?

On 6 November 2014 BBC World invited three panellists from different sectors to debate on ‘A New India: Free, Fair and Prosperous’ as part of the World Economic Forum. Issues of content and objectivity apart, one still has high expectations of a group like BBC when it comes to setting high standards of form. But this ‘debate’ fell flat on its face on all counts.
No rules of the game
One would think that in a discussion like this all three panellists would bring in varied viewpoints due to their specialization in their individual sectors. However, if one wants to quote either the minister or the corporate voice in the debate, it would require constant rechecking to distinguish who said what. Of course businesses and governments need not always be in conflict with each other. But this smooth overlapping can be dangerous if those who are to be at the receiving end of this coalition between corporate bodies and governing bodies get completely left out. So for all practical purposes, instead of having three distinct voices, the format of the session (to keep calling it a debate would be to perpetuate technical erroneousness) was two against one. The yesmanship resulting out of this format naturally dulled the sparkling energy any debate worth its salt should have.
In terms of an outline, the talk failed to meet its own description. The issues to be discussed had been listed on the website as:
- Balancing growth with development to reduce inequality 
- Improving governance and transparency 
- Upholding political and religious rights 
Hardly any time or importance was given to the last point. Even with regard to the first two, when questions were raised by the activist, they were dismissed as non-existent issues. For instance, in response to the activist’s question about religious tensions, the minister said there is no such thing in the country, despite the very recent incidents of communal violence in Trilokpuri, Delhi. He also insisted that ‘Dalit’ is an unnecessary adjective and that the government will remove all caste divisions, at the same time refusing to recognize them. One can go on picking up several such superficial statements and proving how they do not hold water. But to question unbacked claims and probe deeper during the debate, if only through pointing the already raised rebuttals in the right direction, was the moderator’s job and he chose not to do it, except in passing.
Have we forgotten to listen as an audience?
As members of the audience, we have our task cut out for us: to listen, and when we are sure we have heard it right, to ask relevant questions. Look before you leap, think before you speak. Someone had put it that simply for us. But we manage to screw up even this simple task. The worst crime scene exhibiting the murder of articulated thought is Twitter. Stomach this excerpt from the debate and a corresponding tweet:
Aruna Roy (in the debate): ‘The other India is unhappy . . . distressed with a whole spate of promises which are being retracted . . . beginning with a promise of keeping the works programme [NREGA] . . . putting back labour laws . . .
Tweet: Nikhil Pahwa ‏@nixxin hypocritical of Aruna Roy to complain about lack of jobs & then complain about the current governments [sic] business focus.
Apples and oranges? Since when did ‘government’s business focus’ start meaning the same thing as ‘jobs for the rural poor and safeguarding of labour laws’? In fact, a ‘business focus’ means exactly the opposite.
Then there are columns where the writer gushes about how the poor of this country do not need ‘schemes’ like NREGA. But all this concern for the underprivileged is not motivation enough for her to find out the difference between a scheme and an Act in her years of writing and tweeting on the same subject while making the same point, before deciding to deprive its beneficiaries, presumably for their own good.
Stigmatization of dissent
The debate was in English for a global audience. Rural India was being discussed by a platform in which they could not participate. On an occasion like this representation of their voices becomes as important as the person in office. (With regard to the government’s work in rural India, the minister could only mention the Jan Dhan Yojna, which, one hears, isn't really in the pink.) No one activist or civil society group can claim to solely represent all of India’s poor. But those who have worked in rural India for a substantial period of time on particular issues are a more direct source of information than others.
This lack of accessibility and representation also applies to minorities or dissenting groups, increasingly being targeted. Yet if an activist working with these groups or if a member of any such group speaks out, they are instantly branded as the perpetual malcontent. The debate was a mere microcosm of how constructive critique is being illogically refuted using reductionist stereotypes. This notion of dissent as being something obstructive, as minister Piyush Goyal called it, cannot further the cause of any government that truly intends to cater to the interests of all of India. It was said that merely pointing out the problems is not enough. But legislations like RTI and NREGA were solutions envisaged by the people suffering from the lack of information and employment themselves, processes that the civil society has been an active and long-standing part of. Laws hard won after years of dialogue and persuasion cannot be sacrificed in a democracy to the caprice of changing governments. It is not a matter of changing the curtains of a newly acquired office.
This deliberate dismissal of strong factual and on-ground evidence, much of which often comes from the government’s own records, is irrational and prejudiced. The concern of grassroots workers is conveniently dismissed as emotion and rhetoric, though to be completely dispassionate about the issues you are invested in shouldn't really add to your credibility. If representation is an issue, the government is welcome to take the debate to ground zero: to the rural workers who fear unemployment; to the victims of riots; to the villages whose land was forcibly acquired; to the women forcibly separated from their interreligious partners.
India did not get independent for a section of the people. These voices being snuffed out will lead to extreme distress and its consequences. If we go on dismissing their pleas, and demand a sacrifice of their lives, even the so-called development would not take place. We need a peaceful society for progress. The persistence that they must pay the cost of ‘development’, whose rewards others reap, cannot be heard in passivity in the era of mobile phones and TVs. People hear election promises and read manifestos. Their articulation is vital. They should be able to decide how much time they want to give to the government, to articulate whether these five months of governance have been too short or too long for them.
Deprivation and injustice are suffered, not taught. Hunger, unemployment, displacement, unfair indictment, communal, casteist and gender-based violence are felt and lived by people everyday. The repeated accusation that civil society is stirring discontent underestimates the power of these unheard voices. It is a negation of the ordinary Indian’s intelligence and sensitivity.

First published in Kafila, 14 November 2014.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014


I assumed it went without saying; I took it for granted
Thought you could read my thoughts whenever you wanted.
Didn't strike me why you would bother to go through the fine print
When I couldn't make the effort to say the simplest thing.

First published in the anthology The Rainbow Hues, October 2014.


I've got a love letter to post 
And nowhere to post it to
A red red letter box 
For a red red love letter
Which doesn't ask 
For a mailing address

And does 
What the sea does 
For a message in a bottle
Would be welcome.

First published in the anthology The Rainbow Hues, October 2014.

Monday, 20 October 2014

A Curse Be upon It

For years now I have been looking to enrich my vocabulary of swear words with no troublesome arrows in the quiver. There are times when I urgently need to use profanity, for example, against all the harassers on bikes and in cars who would hoot at or brush past me, literally giving me a run for my money. I must have the last word, if not the last hand, in the situation and need to yell something out at these harassers. I become frustrated if the limited choice of words in my outdated assortment makes it seem that I am actually providing weapons to the other party, instead of employing the same against them.

Here, I'm using the term 'swear word' to refer to abuse, words that are very clearly directed at another party and not just to be muttered under one's breath as a form of venting. Let's do some stocktaking.

We have motherfucker, sisterfucker, son of a bitch (thereafter referred to as MF/SF and) as well as bastard and several more complex variations of the same, as deployed for instance by Scorsese. (I do not know if I am missing significant, powerful pelt-stones in English but in Hindi, my first language, we do not have a very wide range). Now to use MF/SF would suggest I have resigned myself to believing that men would be the eternal doers and women, the 'done-upons'. The broader connotation is that if some men are not MFs or SFs it is because of their kindness and the goodness of their hearts, though they can (denoting natural ability) fill those roles if they so wished, because women of course will never have any choice in the matter. And not on my life am I going to rob women of agency. As Germaine Greer writes in The Female Eunuch, 'All the verbal linguistic emphasis is placed upon the poking element; fucking, screwing, rooting, shagging are all acts performed upon the passive female . . .'

SOB is again supposed to be offensive to women though there can be ample speculation on what kind of dark legends were unearthed around bitches to put them in this category and represent them as worse than human. A word like asshole circles back, again, to the body. Why is a body part supposed to cause offence? In a word, shit. The only insult it causes is to Rabelais's scatological oeuvre, which his narratives used in the most imaginative ways. Even if it's a child's idea of grossing out someone, my use of it is not just to make the other person feel bad but also to tell them how exactly they were abominable.

Some suggest that women should use the 'male equivalent' for men of misogynist terms. Many expressions of profanity have already become unisex in their use. In Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Melissa Mohr tells us, 'With the development of feminism, many swearwords have become more equal-opportunity, not less. Bitch can now be applied to men and women, as can cunt. In the 19th century shit as a noun was reserved exclusively for men — the “West Somerset Word-Book” defines it as “a term of contempt, applied to men only,” as in “He’s a regular shit.” Now, women too can work, vote, own their own property, and be called a shit.'

But what am I really gaining by calling someone a fatherfucker or brotherfucker? And using these terms now in a gender-neutral way certainly doesn't alter their sexist history. Even if a woman is saying 'Don't be a girl' to another woman or to a man, this is still a reductionist approach where a particular notion of a 'girl' (or woman) as unfortunately feminine and therefore lesser than remains frozen throughout time.

While the above-mentioned expletives are offensive to women, others do not stray far from sex and its consequences. A bastard, for instance, brings to mind the 'illegitimacy' of a union out of a wedlock, a relic from the dark ages. Restoration drama, on the other hand, was busy wishing all sorts of sexual maladies upon its characters. One option is to continue with the old terms and simply use them to vent out, without their having any real meaning at all. But in this way we are merely apprising the other person of our anger and not really telling them why we are angry. So they can attribute it merely to our 'feeling' rather than their 'doing'. Alas, the purpose of swearing would be lost. (I myself have had to bite my tongue several times before calling out one of these very names.)

For all of our forward thinking, the damned spots of regression continue to show. We still shudder to think of the 'sins' of the flesh and therefore think the worst ills of the world have to do with sex and the body. Surely it is not a bigger 'sin' to be born a 'bastard' than to be fundamentalist, cruel or dishonest. Yet these latter words are mere adjectives, not 'swear words'. Our choice of abuse is a reflection upon ourselves, of what we consider acceptable and what we let pass. Even if we are able to invest these words with a stronger meaning, the shadow of their sexist etymology would continue to loom large above them. If we are truly committed to equality, now is our chance to build a novel, gender-neutral vocabulary of profanity.

First published in The Feminist Wire, 20 Oct 2014.


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