Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Inexplicable 30%: A Postscript

Postscript to "And what if their baby could choose?"

The newspaper that carried that report conducted a poll whose results as of this morning were depressing: 47% favoured sex selection, 47% opposed it and 6% could not decide. By the time the poll closed, this had, happily changed, although not enough: 70% oppose, 25% favour, and 4% cannot decide.

What accounts for this 30%? So much in a poll depends on phrasing. What if the question posed was: is it right to abort a foetus because it is female? Would it have been so hard for the 4% to decide?

So much in a lawsuit depends on the frame of the argument. What is truly disturbing about this is its choice of a right to freedom of choice frame. It subverts the liberal opposition to any modification of the pre-conception and Pre-natal diagnostic tests (prohibition of sex selection) Act by using its language to further a very fundamental discriminatory attitude built into our society. It obfuscates what is to most of us a very obvious choice. And it raises secondary issues about the conditions in which the decision to abort (or in the mirror image way the issue is framed in the US, the right to choose to abort) is acceptable if this is not.

The campaign against female infanticide and foeticide has been waged with varying success across several planes--the legal, the moral, the intellectual and the political. A sampler of this campaign is available here.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

And what if their baby could choose?

Mayura Janwalkar, Couple wants to determine sex of unborn third child, wants only a son, Daily News and Analysis, February 27, 2007.

This couple have two daughters and want only a son now. They are suing for the right to choose the sex of their third child. Anger is my first response, so I am going with my second and third in this post.

What are the limits to freedom? This classic question manages to take an ugly twist whenever it comes to women: the right to determine the sex of your baby, the right to mutilate bodies in the name of culture, the right to protect girls through depriving them of education and so on.

The limits to freedom lie somewhere in one question that springs to mind when I read this: what if their baby is witness to this and decides, male or female, I don't like these parents, let's get rid of them?

One feels deeply for the plight of daughters (their older one is old enough to understand what is going on) who witness this.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Base-ic Concerns

This morning, the Indian Express reported the setting up of India’s base at Ayni in Tajikistan: India’s first footprint in strategic Central Asia, the reporter wrote. Bases leave more than one kind of footprint in the communities where they are located.

In her 1989 book, “Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics,” Cynthia Enloe describes the relationship between a military base and the local community. The base depends on the community’s acceptance which serves as camouflage and in turn, the community comes to depend on the base for jobs and a ready market. Writing primarily about American bases around the world, she identified the interaction between soldiers and local women as particularly controversial. During the Second World War, it was social interaction between Black American soldiers and white British women leading to interracial romance and marriage that provoked concern. Elsewhere however, it was a different equation that obtained between armies of occupation and women in occupied countries, most infamously, Japanese soldiers and Korean “comfort women” and after the war, American soldiers in Okinawa and Japanese women.

The relationship between soldiers and sex workers resembles a contractual or consensual arrangement; however, as Enloe shows in this book and again in “Maneuvers” (2000), they are deeply embedded in and enabled by an unequal power relationship. Enloe’s work provides examples from British policy regarding overseas cantonments, and asks whether we only see this in the context of settings where those stationed on the base are from a different race than local community members. AIDS has added an extra dimension to this multilayered issue; for instance, the part played by UN peacekeepers in spreading the infection in parts of Africa and the part played by US soldiers in doing the same in parts of Asia where there are US bases has been documented and protested.

There are all kinds of military bases; armies step outside their original homebase in a variety of contexts. The Indian base in Tajikistan, like US bases in so many parts of the world, will serve as an observer mission of sorts, also providing a rapid deployment facility if needed. There are bases set up by armies of occupation, a contentious term that is used to refer both to invading armies and armies fighting insurgencies over a long-term. The Indian army presence in Kashmir and northeastern India and the US army in Vietnam are examples, as is the advancing and retreating Sri Lankan army in northeastern Sri Lanka. Finally, there are peacekeeping forces, whether their presence is mandated by the UN Security Council or bilateral treaties like the Indian Army in Sri Lanka. Accusations of sexual violence are common to all these contexts, and until recently, it was possible to brush them aside as ‘the spoils of war’ which are to be expected when soldiers are stationed away from families for a long time. In 2001, the Sri Lankan army was even reported to have prescribed the impotence drug, Viagra, to injured soldiers to raise their morale.

In the last decade, feminist mobilization has resulted in the acceptance of the idea that rape is a weapon of war. Apologies have been made by the Japanese government for their wartime excesses in the first part of the twentieth century and Pakistani feminists apologized to Bangladeshi women for the actions of the Pakistani army in 1971.

Feminists, but also any other Indians who care that those who act in our name should act in a righteous fashion, must draw attention to these experiences and beyond challenging the rationale for establishing bases abroad, must advocate the adoption and strict implementation of behavioural codes that prevent soldiers from acting in an exploitative way. Human rights advocacy has done that, especially in Kashmir and northeastern India, but beyond redress, punishment of individual offenders and removal of particular laws, we need to press for a renewed appraisal of

(1) how we understand base-civilian relations;
(2) how the establishment defines, investigates and punishes sexual violence;
(3) the degree of transparency brought to such proceedings, and finally,
(4) our own willingness and ability to monitor base conduct in the interests of the community in which Indian bases are located.


Of related interest, a handful of links:

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Passport to Fury

Where did I spend Valentine's Day? At the Regional Passport Office, Chennai. And the diatribe that follows is the other side of the reluctance to issue visas to scholars from abroad. Please appreciate, however, that it is written in a far calmer tone than I have felt through most of today. (There is an MSN emoticon for what I have felt: it is a little unsmiling head banging against a wall repeatedly.)

Our day

When we got to the Passport Office at 930 (very late, we were told; it opens at 10), the queues stretched out to the gate. People had come there at 4 am, we were told. We went up to see if there was a Senior Citizens Counter (I was with my mother) or at least a place for them to sit. All the seats were taken, and not just by senior citizens or pregnant ladies. We came back down to join the queue for the Tatkal service (which by the way takes a whole day, and don't let your agent or anyone tell you otherwise). My mother sat on a parapet for a while.

We decided to abandon the queue and went to our travel agent and said, "Forget Tatkal, we can wait." He informed me that I had a problematic case and so my best hope of getting a reissued passport was to do this. So what is my problem? Yellow fever? Al Qaeda connection? Visits to Pakistan? Sex change? No, no, worse. I got my passport reissued the last time in.... Chicago. And not in a shady alley--at the Indian Consulate there. I challenged that but knew it was futile.

So back we went. The people who were standing around me at 945, were inside the building now, but only about ten steps ahead of me and halfway to the first floor. The queue took almost two hours to snake up to the point (on the second floor)where tokens were issued. Yes, this was just for tokens!

Picture this. 11 am and it is getting hotter and hotter. People are getting tired and a little dehydrated and thank god this is not Madras' kattri season! Hundreds in the queue but there are no signs, so there is a current of doubt constantly as to whether people are in the right queue. Can you imagine standing like that for several hours, only to find you are in the wrong place? No signs anywhere. An occasional: this is ECNR queue, no? Or, neenga Tatkal-aa (are you Tatkal)? A little flurry of anxious activity. People descend but the queue doesn't move.

My cousin was in another section today. The laminated portion of his passport came off and he just got his new passport. So he is here to get it stuck or re-laminated again. And as he comes down, he says, "They stuck the same one, what if it comes off?" But as to my woes, he shrugs. No point writing, he says. (The agent earlier quoted had tried to reassure me, "Even people from Hindu have to go through this.") Everyone writes. Everyone has written. Nothing changes. And I want to scream: And that is okay? Why do we accept lower standards in governance than we would in the private sector or everyday housekeeping?

(February 16, 2007: My cousin's replacement label has come off. He was back at the RPO today and asked to return another day to meet a superintendent. For some reason, the Nashik Security Press is unable to create adhesive identity stickers.)

I pass the time calling a journalist friend. But even as I speak to her, I know that she will not write about this. She says she will call a friend. I know that her friend will not write about this. My friend says: tell me if you want this done for you. And my point is: so you and I can always call someone and get things done. But what about the other people in the queue?

My mother and I have already passed up a couple of facilitation offers because our conscience will not permit us to walk past people who got up early and came with their entire extended family to wait! My anger is not that I should have it easier, but that this should not be difficult for anyone. After all, the passport is a symbol of that other 'janmasiddha adhikaar'--swarajya. Although today, I have felt like complete moron for having held on to my Indian passport, even to the scandalous point of getting it renewed in Chicago, the fact is this document means something more to me than a way to leave this country.

Like many Indians, I too come from a family where people made sacrifices and conscious choices to fight for the right--our right--my right--to carry this pocket-sized document with "Republic of India." The Indian passport carries, for me, not just a depressing weight of sombre sacrifice but the entire repertory of dreams that we have collectively dreamed for ourselves. When you make it this hard to get or renew a passport, and raise stupid objections like, "But you renewed it abroad!" I can only make two things of it: one, you are insulting my citizenship (and your own passport services elsewhere) and two, you are looking for a bribe (and therefore, insulting my citizenship).

In the course of this day, I realized something. Most of the people I know--people from my class of Indian society, the somewhat educated, just above the middle class--do not go hang out at the Passport Office all day. But "the queue up in a government office" experience is something that most Indians, most South Asians, I daresay, are quite familiar with. I have three complaints that follow from my experience today and I am blogging about this because I think this is so outside the experience of mediapersons, decision-makers and others who can actually make a change that if I don't, it will just go nowhere.

My experience was just tiring and exasperating. Can you imagine what it must be like for people who don't have a way to shorten queues at all? Or who can barely muster together the property and banking papers they need for a first passport, which will be their ticket to doing better in life? What of senior citizens who don't have children to go with them? And really, what a stressful job for the people working in that office facing that massive crush of applicants every single day, all day?

A three-pointed diatribe

First, there are no clear instructions anywhere. It is not clear where the queues end. It is not clear what they are for. It is not clear whether there is any point to the queues at all. Of course, the website is marvelous. But when you ask travel agents, they give you entirely different instructions and then say, "Madam, we know, we do this everyday." Which they do. There are boards with information apropos of nothing in particular. Why can't we have clearly demarcated lines to follow? The effort to improve customer service in every other sector seems to have stopped short of the rationalization of services in the Passport Office. Either we genuinely believe that Indian government officials cannot perform efficiently at all, in any circumstances, so that we wipe the floor with our expectations of good governance, or we really feel obliged to government for any scraps we get and don't feel entitled to complain.

The arguments for rationalization are innumerable; what are the counter-arguments?
Shortage of labour? In India???
Shortage of skilled labour? In India???
Shortage of space? There is a large lawn outside, and space can be created by optimal planning.
Shortage of funds? Money is never really the reason that something doesn't happen, which brings us to shortage of will? And here the board lights up: we have a winner!

Which brings me to my second complaint: Of course, you know and I know that Indians are also very good at not following instructions and will wander off, circumvent the line, move the posts. We crowd at counters. We use cellphones under signs that prohibit them or ask for silence. We have absolutely no civic sense, and no sense of common courtesy. But while we are wild children in wild places like government offices and railways stations (and increasingly, the India-bound gates at Heathrow Airport), we are also models of good behaviour in nice stores like Westside, in good performing arts centres and in the presence of disciplinarian spiritual teachers like Satya Sai Baba.

It seems to me that both administration and citizenry are content with imposing on each other a bar that is so low as to be virtually non-existent. This brings me to my final complaint: around me, people were so accepting of this unacceptable situation. The travel agents we consulted said, "It is like this." When I asked why, they said: "Crowd is too much." But the crowd was arguably larger in the railway booking centres and they have really cleaned up their act. Then they said, "These are the rules." I asked why the procedure had gotten harder when it should have become simpler. Then they said, "Madam, it is like that. You cannot expect your ideas here." But I am from here. I am also an Indian. So I asked, if your travel agency and my office can run efficiently and rationally, why can't this office? No reply. Just a shrug and acceptance. And that is what tips my temper over the edge.

Some of it has to do with the fact that all of us depend on fixers and the rhetoric of changes in governance have far outstripped the ground reality of registrar offices, passport offices and the like. Even if there is no need, builders and travel agents and others who interact with these offices everyday have a well-oiled network of easers and fixers and they do not have enough confidence in the will of the political leadership in the country to initiate and implement genuine reform. So they keep this machine well-greased, and people who ask too many questions slip in the slick.

The media, in India and elsewhere, has been celebrating the citizen journalist all year. I am coming around to the view that this is a fictitious character modeled loosely on a large number of individuals in love with messaging services on their cellphones. That is all. We like to vote and this is even easier than standing in the sun (in another queue) and voting during elections. For the rest, chalega, we are like that only.

Well, I am not like that only. I want to live in a country where the administration seems to think through the regulations it creates, where service-oriented offices are oriented to serve, where the smallest of services can be accessed transparently even before I think about exercise my Right to Information. I am driven, capable, efficient, thoughtful and have a social conscience; I think I deserve a government that is the same way, don't you?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Back in Alberuni's India (But did we ever leave?)

About a thousand years ago, a scholar wandered into India in the wake of an army. He found many things to see and learn, but was dismayed to find the spirit of inquiry diminished and xenophobia masked as exclusiveness among the locals. What has changed in a thousand years? From this series of reports in the Indian Express this week, just the speed with which xenophobic anxiety is expressed--it takes much longer now!

We complain bitterly about the long queues of visa applicants around US and European Consulates and about the piles of documents it takes to apply for those visas. But when scholars apply for visas to undertake research under a binational educational exchange programme (yes, India is also a partner in this exchange), we drag our feet and our sacks of paperwork. Having benefited greatly from the openness and hospitality of other societies where I have been able to study, conduct research and attend conferences, I find this response to genuine expressions of interest and intellectual curiosity baffling, embarrassing and counter-productive.

Travel, study and research abroad are some of the best ways to learn about another country, and it is in that country's interests to facilitate the visits of foreign tourists and scholars. While tourists can come and go at a level of superficiality so that sometimes our only benefit is economic, we can expect long-term returns from welcoming visiting scholars. Fulbright scholars for instance, typically live where Indians do. They shop in the same bazaars. They learn Indian languages or musical instruments or dance. They work in Indian colleges and think-tanks. They learn slowly to see us as we do and then to see the world as we do. They will of course, remain American, but they will be able to understand why we have certain values and why we are guarded on certain issues and why some of the people they cannot understand are met with so much warmth by us. And almost always, they keep coming back and they send their students as well.

Sometimes, scholars do come to study things that we consider less innocuous than the Natyashastra or Jnaneshvari. But how large is that category? Does studying socio-economic change in Dharavi seem as threatening as studying foreign policy in the Vajpayee government? Is the latter more of a threat or less to Indian national security than a history of Indian naval doctrine?

This way of thinking is objectionable on two counts. First, a restrictive category cannot include everything other than hairstyle trends in South Calcutta. It should perhaps place limits on a researcher aspiring to be a participant observer in present-day National Security Advisory meetings or Cabinet discussions. But is there any reason to limit even the study of Indian naval doctrine or nuclear doctrine? Do we not trust our own functionaries and offices to withhold classified information or access to particular sites?

Second, if we are a confident, democratic society and an ancient civilization that has survived so much, why are we afraid of academic dissertations and scholarly books? I have done field research in Sri Lanka, and this entailed wandering around asking questions about the ethnic conflict and xeroxing kilos of articles. I remain very grateful to the people who took the time to patiently explain their perspectives to me and to share with me their libraries and their experiences. My understanding of events in Sri Lanka builds on that foundation of access and that glimpse into their experience of events around them. Nothing I read, no legion of Indian or American "experts" on Sri Lanka could have given me that. And my visit seems to have had no adverse impact on Sri Lanka!

We want Indians (or Pakistanis or Sri Lankans or others) in foreign locations so that they will raise our profile and speak for who we are. We will not however let others in to learn the same from us on our turf. A foreign student or scholar is an investment, not a threat. Those of us who have studied or spent time abroad can testify to the bonds we build, not with the heads of state and heads of intelligence in those countries, but with the people who study with us, people who work around us, people who live in our neighbourhood and have children the same age as ours. These are the bonds that colour our feelings about the other country over time. Even as we criticize its foreign policy or its cuisine, we cannot erase from our consciousness (or hearts) the many people who have touched our lives. Welcoming foreign scholars and students is a way to give them a chance to connect their lives with ours in this meaningful and lasting way. We need to understand that their research product is only one small part of what this win-win interaction will yield.

To be in 2007, to be in this globalized, instantly networked village called the Earth and to be making an argument which was not new in the mid-1970s (the last time India more or less barred foreign research scholars from working here) nor even new in Alberuni's time, is shameful. What was new in Alberuni's time and is no longer new is our unwillingness to engage with people from the outside, and to learn from them and let them learn about us. Whether it is paranoia or arrogance that drives our response, there is no good place for us to go from here.

PS: Another comment on the same issue.


Reports and editorials from the Indian Express on the visa clearance issue will be linked here as they are published.

Incredible India: Are we a liberal democracy? Do we want to become a global academic center?, Editoral, Indian Express, February 12, 2007.
Colour-blind research, Editorial, Indian Express, February 15, 2007.
C. Raja Mohan, Welcoming foreign scholars, Indian Express, February 15, 2007.

Shubhajit Roy's reports:
Are you an American scholar? You aren’t welcome in India, February 11, 2007.
Help us: Fulbright scholars to Rice, February 12, 2007.
Fulbright board wrote to three govt depts, none heard, February 13, 2007.
More US scholars stranded: PIL, cotton, ‘dangerous’ subjects, February 14, 2007.
When it comes to clearance for a Fulbright scholar, even an Indian passport is no help, February 15, 2007.
‘Given the choice of re-applying... I chose to walk’, February 17, 2007.
UPA, eat your liberal heart out: NDA welcomed Fulbright scholars whatever their subject, February 18, 2007. (Comment: Note the preponderance of religion-related topics; what does that say both about the NDA and the future of scholarship about India? On the latter, back to Max Muller?)

Government responses:
Vinay Jha, Govt brainwave: red & green channels for scholars, subjects, February 14, 2007.
Vinay Jha, Decision: red, green channels for scholars, their subjects, February 16, 2007.
Shubhajit Roy, On China research green channel: Tibetans’ dilemma, Stalin Ghost, February 17, 2007.

For all the restrictions India places, India wants liberal visa regime, Pak says NO, PTI/Indian Express, February 16, 2007.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Right thoughts, right speech, right society

This morning I read two articles that brought home to me, not for the first time, how incurable and insufferable the snob within can be.

The first is an article about a new manual for Indian Army wives. It tells them how to dress, how to speak and how to carry themselves. I urge you to read it because even the most superficial attempt to summarize or comment further will send me on a rampage. For this moment, I am choosing to find this amusing and anachronistic, just so I will have energy for the rest of the day. But one tiny thought must be expressed: all of us making a case for the importance of considering women in our contemplations on security, look no further, it's all in her manners!

One person says in the second article that he gets tired of responding to the racist attitudes embedded in the polite conversation addressed to blacks. This article takes on those nice things people think they are saying about those whose competence surprises them, only because they actually expect very little from their class, caste or colour.

Anjali Puri, Minding Mrs. Manners,, February 12, 2007.
Lynnette Clemetson, The Racial Politics of Speaking Well, New York Times, February 10, 2007.