Friday, March 30, 2007

The role (if any) of public intellectuals (if any) in India

At the risk of this seeming like an Indian Express promotion blog, I want to point to two articles in that paper that raise important question about the role of intellectuals in Indian public discourse.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, On their Marx, ready to bow, Indian Express, March 27, 2007.
Peter Ronald DeSouza, And miles to go before they wake, Indian Express, March 30, 2007.

For Dr. Mehta, these questions go back to understanding the role of the university in cultivating "the life of the mind," as he puts it. These are issues he raised several months ago during a debate in the editorial columns of the Indian Express (again) and Outlook magazine between him and Yogendra Yadav, among others. That debate was sparked by a disagreement within the Knowledge Commission about the efficacy of reservations.

What is the role of public intellectuals in any society, and what can it be in this one? More important, we need to ask what makes a person a public intellectual as opposed to an expert, a retired government servant, an academic or a senior journalist.

What do you think?

Sunday, March 25, 2007


There is a new movie about the 1971 conflict, one reads, but that is not why I am thinking about the events of that year in South Asia. Last night, we were reminiscing about a little girl I used to know.

We were both little girls. Standard I or younger, St. Joseph's, RC Church, Bombay. She lived a few buildings away from me in the Port Trust compound in Colaba. Her name was Nafisa and we used to play together. The reminiscences began with my mother reminding me of how we would walk each other home. Nafisa would walk me home because I was not allowed to walk by myself. But neither was she, so I would walk her home. Then she would walk me back. The loop was endless till an adult accompanied us. Our laughter reminded me of something else.

Three girls, on the primary school platform, discussing the world around us with the gravity of seven year olds. Nafisa announced that they were going to Pakistan because they were Muslims. I did not understand the connection at all, but was impressed by her serious face. And so it was that one day we were walking each other home back and forth, the next she was making this announcement and then she was gone. To Karachi, I think. A few months later, there was war.

But 1971 in my life was not just about Nafisa and war. That hot May, we moved to a new home in Cuffe Parade, where tall apartment buildings had just come up. A few months later, we travelled abroad and my parents who never treated their children like retards took me along to see the places they always wanted to see. The United Nations Headquarters in New York, for instance. My introduction at the age of seven to the manifestation of one battle-weary generation's dream of lasting peace. A dream that captured and still holds my imagination captive.

Then Nafisa and her migration. Adult discussions about East Pakistan and the refugee crisis were in the air. I cannot claim to have understood much, but I can remember that there were surcharges on many things to pay for the refugees who were flooding West Bengal. We had to put extra stamps on envelopes, I seem to remember. And then Sukhdev's photographs of what he witnessed from his hiding place somewhere in East Pakistan, published in the Illustrated Weekly of India. No one else my age seems to remember them when I ask, but they were striking. My memory of them is not of detail but of the impression they made on me; they remain my first images of the horror of conflict after all these years.

And then war. Our buildings were five minutes from the cantonment and harbour in South Bombay and stood out like sore thumbs. We had sirens and air raid practice, black paper on doors and windows and stories by candlelight. But even the delights of daily story-telling did not obscure the fact that something horrible was going on. Everyday, fathers of schoolmates who were army or navy men were killed or went missing and we would observe a moment's silence. INS Khukri went down, and its brave captain was known to people in school and I seem to remember his daughter also went to our school.

Impossible to forget.

I carry the year with me everyday into every piece of work I do. For another generation, Partition was the defining influence but for me, it is 1971. And I am not alone, I think. I have met at least one person, growing up in Karachi, who could remember the mirror image of my experiences--school shutdown because of war, bombs on places we knew. Both our experiences are nothing at all compared to what thousands go through everyday all over the world, in the name of larger causes and principles, but this little teaser and its memory reinforce my commitment, even when I feel that my work really is irrelevant.


I included details here about Nafisa and school in the hope that somewhere she is surfing the net and finding this, so that on the brink of middle age, we can catch up on where we've walked since those endless excursions of childhood.

More ruminations in the same vein are to be found here. I am looking for links to Sukhdev's work and will add them when I find some that are functional.

Monday, March 12, 2007

From India to Liberia

Indian women from the Central Reserve Police Force guard Liberia's first elected President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

See report here.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

DON'T celebrate Women's Day....

...unless you understand WHAT you are celebrating?

Several years ago, when my Russianist sister would describe the Soviet celebration of International Women's Day with flowers and cards, I laughed in scorn. Then, in the US, I saw the day turn into what Americans call a 'Hallmark Holiday.' Now living in India, the laugh's on me: movies starring leading actresses on TV, fatuous statements about mothers and wives, getting a break from cooking and cleaning... and sales! Now I have nothing against TV, movies, food and shopping, but what happened to the original reason we began to observe--not celebrate--this day?

International Women's Day is a marker in the worldwide struggle for women's rights and equality. It is a day where we remind ourselves of how much remains to be done in our quest to stop this very patronizing and trivializing way that society has of treating us and our struggles.

What have these struggles been? In India, I would say it has been and remains first and foremost, a struggle for survival. Some of the liberal struggles waged elsewhere--suffrage, for instance--have come more easily than the right to life and the right to livelihood.

The struggle for an equal right to life goes back to the campaign against sati, followed by the pioneering efforts of other nineteenth century reformers against child marriage, for widow remarriage (as opposed to sati or a long life in poverty and vulnerability in one of India's pilgrimage centres), and for the education of women. The nationalist movement mobilized women, both in its Gandhian and in its violent, revolutionary streams. From there to the granting of suffrage and equal rights was a small but insufficient step.

Insufficient, because the advent of a consumerist modernity has brought new travails to women's lives. The practice of demanding dowry has now spread throughout the country, and the killing or other abuse of young brides whose dowry is deemed inadequate is known around the country. This is true of female infanticide and its terrible new technology-enabled version, female foeticide (or sex-selective abortion, which sounds euphemistic to me sometimes). Women and girls face many other kinds of sexual abuse, from incestuous rape to sexual harrassment in the workplace to what we quaintly term 'eve-teasing'. All this, plus the residuary category of domestic violence (meaning the battery and torture of wives)--not much reason to celebrate, is there?

We are still splitting hairs over the right of women to participate in politics and be represented in numbers more closely approximating their presence in society. Scarily, even as we do so, the child sex ratio drops, and I wonder where that meeting point will be between equal access and the sex ratio: will the former rise to meet the latter as it is presently, or the latter fall to meet the former as it is presently.

I grew up a feminist because I did not know there was another way for an intelligent, spirited young woman to grow up. As Cheris Kramarae and Dale Spender wrote, to me, feminism is the 'radical notion' that women are human. I did not learn feminism in women's studies classes (they did not exist when I was growing up). I learnt it from strong women and men in my family and from my gut response to inequities I witnessed around me. So much has changed in the last few decades, but so little of it for the lives of women--who may now buy washing machines, but not political access or security. So much remains to be done. Yes, I will look at the glass as half-empty because it prevents me from settling in a sanguine fashion into my own comfortable middle class life. It reminds me of how intertwined my fate is with those of other women.

Don't 'celebrate' Women's Day, observe it! If you cannot be part of our struggle with us and support it, ignore or challenge us, but do not reduce this life-and-death battle we wage to a greeting card or a posy or worse, discounts for the very things that shackle us to stereotypes and limits.

An off-the-cuff, point of departure list for reading further:
Radha Kumar, The History of Doing, Kali for Women, 1993.
Sakuntala Narasimhan, Sati - Widow Burning in India, Anchor, 1992.
Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India, University of California, 1998.
Raka Ray, Fields of Protest: Women's Movements in India, Minnesota, 1999.
Veena Talwar Oldenburg, Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime, OUP, 2002.
Mala Sen, Death by Fire: Sati, Dowry Death, and Female Infanticide in Modern India, Rutgers, 2002.
Flavia Agnes, Law and Gender Inequality: The Politics of Women's Rights in India, OUP, 2001.
Manushi remains, to my mind, an important resource. It may be accessed here and also here.
and if you will excuse a little self-promotion (hey, it's my blog and I'll write what I want to!):
Farah Faizal and Swarna Rajagopalan, Women, Security, South Asia: A Clearing in the Thicket, Sage, 2005.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

No End to Stupidity

(Though All Good Things Must End)

To pick up on the saga of elusive Indian visas for scholars that I commented on in mid-February, we now hear that a Chinese scholar has given up on getting a visa to do biotech research.

Ananda Mazumdar, Still no luck for foreign scholars: Visa delay makes Chinese give up, Indian Express, March 6, 2007.