Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mr. Modi's marital status

So, the big news this morning is that Narendra Modi has admitted to having married Jashodaben, the teacher who has been occasionally interviewed and profiled as his long-forgotten wife. They were married at 17 and stayed together only two weeks, according to reports.

There are three issues with this. First, that he has consistently lied about his marital status. Perhaps having lived together only two weeks, one can grant that he must not 'feel' married. However, that does not change legal reality and the word 'separated' should at least have shown up on previous declarations.

Second, one cannot overlook how tough it must have been for Jashodaben over the years. She seems to have been the iron lady here--getting an education, getting a job, building a life. Based on her interviews, she also seems to have done this within the framework of Indian social norms around marriage, thinking of herself as being married to him. Think of the cruel words and thoughtless comments a woman placed in that position would have overheard and ignored over a lifetime. Her acceptance cannot have numbed the hurt.

Finally, and for me, maybe this is hardest to understand--if you have been married before you were ready for it, if you were so unprepared when you were made to get married that you broke the marriage within a fortnight--then why, when you have power, are you not an advocate for eliminating child marriage and forced marriage? Mr. Modi should feel for this cause very strongly and put his considerable clout behind it. But as far as I know, he doesn't. This would have been a great way to acknowledge his personal reality and use it as an argument to change something that is wrong.

It does not matter to any of us whether a candidate is married, separated, single or otherwise. It should not. But if "it's complicated" because you prevaricate, and if someone pays the price for that, there is a very big problem in my view.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

On election eve: What's different this time

Every Indian General Election is historic because of its scale. This election to me seems to mark a turning point in our politics for another reason.

Between 2009 and 2014, we have witnessed political mobilization on a scale rarely seen since the freedom struggle, and in multiple locations. We have seen the villagers of Odisha protest and turn back projects by multinational corporations. We have seen the villagers of Idinthakarai and Jaitapur speak up on nuclear installations in their neighbourhood. We have seen the massive crowds at Anna Hazare's rallies to demand a Janlokpal Bill. And finally, for the first time, we have seen crowds protest against the failures of governance and policing that make public spaces unsafe for women. We are now talking about law and governance, accountability and patriarchy in ordinary conversations with each other.

Social networks have amplified this change and facilitated it somewhat, but one could argue that the actual mobilization has been a long time brewing. The people who are conceptualising and leading these movements are from the real world--the old world--of social movements and political activism.

It is all these people who have allowed politics to disrupt their hitherto apolitical lives in Jagatsinghpur, in Kudankulam and in New Delhi (among other places) that are going to make this election a game-changer. Everyone seems to have a political opinion and many more than one would have ever imagined are willing to put their time and other resources behind their favourites. Many are now party workers--for the outsider parties like the Aam Aadmi Party and Lok Satta--but also in some measure in the mainstream. Joining a party is no longer something that middle class people don't do.

The entry of famous professionals and celebrities has been striking, but that does happen to some extent in every election. It is the entry of non-celebrity professionals that is interesting this time, and again, the large numbers of first-time political volunteers with them.

From tomorrow, we will be monitoring the turnout in each location, and it will be interesting to see whether the mobilization of the last few years will make a difference. Will awareness and activism translate to the willingness to come out and vote? Or will it remain at the level of social network 'shares' and 'likes,' and occasional attendance at candlelight vigils? Will there be major differences between urban and rural India?

The fate of the professionals and celebrities and the election outcome are of short to medium term interest to us. In the long run, we will want to know whether India is about to enter a phase of pro-active citizenship, where "ordinary" citizens use a variety of new and old tools to be informed and stay engaged with policy issues.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Citizens and stakeholders, nothing less

This was first published as "Lok Sabha elections 2014: Women are citizens and stakeholders, nothing less" on March 15, 2014.

“Is there no more to the experience of being a woman than the ever-present threat of violence?” In the last eighteen months, this question has been troubling me a great deal. At Prajnya, while we do other things, most of our time and energy has always been taken up by gender violence awareness work. This spills over into my academic and other writing, where everything seems to default to the fear and reality of violence. Since December 2012, all things gender equal violence in public discourse and especially media. Reflecting this, the newly released Womanifesto for the upcoming elections (which I have endorsed too) devotes a great deal of attention to this issue. This Women’s Day, to do something meaningful meant to talk about solutions to this reality and to showcase achievement meant to talk to survivors. This is all terribly important, but as someone who has lobbied for such a change, I am wondering how much is too much. Is there nothing more to my life experience than growing up with cautions about going here or there, and being groped on a bus or having family worry about my dowry?

I know for a fact that in my life, there is a great deal more. The fear and anticipation of violence are a thread that runs through my life, but it is like noisy water pipes or a loose plug point—always risky, always there—but that you get so used to, you live with it. If you survive electric shock, you find a way to move on. The rest of your waking hours are spent doing other things—mundane, creative, essential, indulgent.  Most women I know have a wide range of interests.

Even women you call “just housewives” have areas of policy interest. These women who “don’t work” have to contend with the vagaries of power and water supply. Many are financial alchemists, taking a fixed wage and turning it into an elastic resource. They are savings and investment experts, using a range of methods to put away a little money and multiply a small amount through informal schemes and make strategic investments in ways they can. “Just housewives” who “don’t work” have a natural interest in infrastructure policy and in financial policy issues. Their interests could go well beyond “lights make a road safe” and “price onions affordably.” But we do not give them the chance that we are willing to afford their brothers and husbands. Our gendered assumptions—and in the “our,” I include women—deprive women of voice on these issues and all of us of the benefit of their insights.

Women are self-employed, run small business and large businesses, work as professionals and in the informal sector. Their interest in workplace issues goes well beyond workplace sexual harassment and diversity. We are concerned about tax—income, service, professional, property and inheritance—and we have an interest in all of this being rationalised and transparent. Women care about credit, interest rates and investment incentives, including infrastructural incentives. Industry and sectoral issues are critical to women—whether that takes the form of a decision to clear pavement stalls or the development of an industrial estate.

The freedom movement and the other social movements of the time offer documentary evidence that women are concerned about political and social issues. For some, this has been a class obligation—“persons with privilege must do charity works”—and for some, this is a professional choice. But if you look closely at the majority of women who walk in those marches and sit in the rallies of our time, political activity is a political choice. And interest in politics is not confined to the Women’s Representation Bill and its predecessors and successors. Some women enjoy discussing the machinations and manoeuvres of our political class as much as anyone else. Some women have particular areas—environment or accountability—they practically monitor. As this current election season shows, women will enter politics when there is an opening. And when they can’t, they find ways to work in the social and educational sectors on the same issues. But are women political animals as much as men are? Certainly!

Women are not just interested in the areas of politics and policy labelled “home affairs” and “domestic politics.” They are also interested in military history and military doctrine. They are interested in foreign policy—in our most important bilateral memberships, in our multilateral commitments and in the debates surrounding how we should relate to the world. As international conventions and UN resolutions express a global consensus on women’s rights and participation, as well as a host of other everyday issues from immunization to labour conditions, they are stakeholders in these normative regimes and affected by India’s ratification and implementation of them.

Cultural policy has always been a realm for “ladies” but only in the sense that rustling silks and traditional hospitality rituals constitute how India plays culture. Women are also however interested in cultural policy in the way that it expresses national identity and in the consequences of that effort for citizenship. Cultural policy is also about inclusion and exclusion, about livelihoods and about lived heritage. Debates about conservation versus development, and the political deployment of rhetoric about culture, religion and civilization has an effect on women too. 

I don’t ask whether the male bank clerk understands ecology, heritage or engineering before entertaining his views on Sethusamudram. I don’t ask whether the chartered accountant understands nuclear physics or international relations when he talks about the importance of a nuclear deterrent. The male newspaper editor is an expert on cultural policy on the first cup of tea and budget writing on the second; I do not challenge his superior knowledge. The retired general is the best judge of classroom practices, based on drill experience. But when it comes to their female counterparts, I raise the bar and shut the sluice-gates. The fact of their interest and the fact that they are citizens and stake-holders is not enough for me; I want them to be “qualified.” And the only qualification I will grant them is on the narrow subject of violence against women.

We have moved from denial that sexual and gender-based violence happen to essentialising the lives of women to this one reality. What has been gained by dumping denial may be in danger of being cancelled out as a result. If the status of women (anywhere) can be defined in terms purely of the fact of violence, then it can be fixed simply by protecting women from violence. Once women are protected, their status will automatically improve and their lives will be perfect.

Now that just sounds wrong. It is wrong.

We make the case that it will take more than a paternalistic, protectionist culture to create a society free of gender-based violence. What is that “more”? It is the idea of equal citizenship and equal rights for everyone. But that applies to every kind of inclusion, and requires an openness that admits that there could be more to all of us than patriarchal or other norms dictate. We use the word “inclusion,” which sometimes evokes the image of someone opening a door and say, it’s alright, you can come in. But the world we want to walk towards is not one run by right-thinking, benevolent gate-keepers but one that is already there if we would only adopt the right lens and expect to see it. This is a world in which we are equal and live in an interdependent, mutually supportive way. And in this world, there is more to men than temperaments that need to be mentored into non-violence and more to women than the experience of violence.

I agree that today’s suspension of denial about violence is a good thing, and I hope it will not be temporary. My concern is that while we are fretting and fuming about sexual and gender-based violence, we will reduce women to nothing more than humans who are especially more vulnerable to violence—an act of violence in itself. What we really want is a full acknowledgment of the humanity of women (and other human beings), and as a corollary, recognition that they are and should be qualified to and engaged with all parts of public life.

And how does this matter this election season? Quite simply, when a party wants to prove to me that it cares about gender equality, I don’t just want to hear a few paternalistic measures and see a few schemes for protection and support services for violence survivors. It is not even enough to have a more significant number of women candidates than before; after all, the baseline is hardly formidable here. What I want is to see women in that party speak up on substantive issues and with the backing of the party. I would like to hear domain experts like Meera Sanyal speak about banking policy and I would like to hear career politicians like Supriya Sule address a range of policy questions. I would like to read that they are a part of policy think-tanks on all matters and not just on women, children, the price of onions and the safety of public spaces. Women care about society and all kinds of policy, and I want to see the words, deeds and style of political parties and media coverage reflect and respect that.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist and the founder of Prajnya ( 

Peace, women and elections

This was first published as "Lok Sabha elections 2014: What price polls for women in disturbed areas?" on March 8, 2014.

The big news in India this week is the announcement of the 2014 Parliamentary election schedule and candidate lists are headline fodder. There is excitement in the air. For professional experts and social media pundits, there will be much to do and say in the next three months.

Feminists and women’s organizations would like to raise two sets of difficult questions. The first set pertains to the inclusion of women candidates; after all, for a truly inclusive, gender-sensitive political party, an official quota is hardly a prerequisite. How many parties will “give tickets” to how many women? Then, because feminists too hold the bar higher for women, we ask: But who are these women and how did they qualify? Perhaps that question is a lost cause for male candidates. Finally, we look at the seats they are allocated and the kind of support they get from their party.

The second set of questions relates to women’s rights issues, including gender-based violence. Political party manifestos have always been ponderous, politically correct and studiously ignored; however, people now seem to take them seriously. More important than the manifesto, I think, are three criteria. First, what is the track record of the party and its members in speech and action on women and gender? On other occasions, have they made misogynistic comments? Have they supported women’s rights legislations? Second, given the tendency of political parties (across the spectrum) to nominate candidates charge-sheeted for criminal offences, I would not want to vote for a candidate against whom sexual harassment or sexual and gender-based violence charges have been made. I would not want to vote for a party that chose to disregard such charges either (though that might leave too many of us checking the ‘none of the above’ option we now have). Finally, it is likely that in the new climate of outrage and awareness on the question of violence against women, political parties doff their hats to the public mood. My filter on this is prevention versus protection. The rhetoric of “we must protect our women and children” reflects the very attitudes that make violence possible. I would vote for the party that talks the language of equality and prevention, of rights and freedom.

Going into this election, as a feminist, I ask myself, how much have we done and how effective have we been in moving Indian politics towards better standards and outcomes on both these sets of questions. I would not honestly give myself a passing grade on this test.

Anyway, such election-time assessments are good for those of us that live in relatively peaceful areas. The Government of India does not acknowledge the existence of armed conflicts within its territories. This is hard to comprehend, but suppose we were to side-step this discussion, and use its own framework, we find that millions of women live in what it has designated as “disturbed areas” and “difficult circumstances.” How much does the election matter to them?

First, what are “disturbed areas”? The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) simply requires that the civilian authority should deem an area so disturbed as to need the intervention of the armed forces. The Disturbed Areas (Special Courts) Act, 1976, has a more specific description: “extensive disturbance of the public peace and tranquility, by reason of differences or disputes between members of different religions, racial, language, or regional groups or castes or communities.” In other words, conflict of some intensity. In the last fifty years, Jammu and Kashmir and the states of North East India have been described as “disturbed areas” but similar laws and rules have been applied across other parts of India to deal with situations ranging from communal violence to insurgency.

To be “disturbed” is always twinned with increased security and infringement of civil rights. Right away, this has two consequences for women. On top of patriarchy and the immediate conflict, it adds a layer of militarization to constrain them in everyday life. Moreover, the curtailment of civil liberties brings with it lack of accountability and enhanced impunity for acts of sexual and gender-based violence.

Recently concluded field studies across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India point to the comprehensive impact of militarization on women’s lives. Even the simplest facet of military presence or the presence of multiple armed forces—security—yields diminishing returns. Over a period of time, with special powers enabled, soldiers and officers turn perpetrators and sexual violence, particularly, becomes a tool of intimidation for all sides. Women live in fear of violence—happening to them, happening to others around them—and they internalise the trauma. More tangibly, it limits their mobility, and therefore, their access to education, health care and to jobs and markets. Caught between state and non-state forces, the local people, especially women who are now house-bound for security reasons, find their access to information limited; censorship results in news blackouts, cable TV outages, blockades and blocked mobile signals. As people turn informers or work on opposite sides of the conflict or play both sides, trust within the community breaks down; and when trust breaks down, so does the support system most immediately available to women. Moreover, as security concerns force civilian authorities to cede more functions to the military, the opportunity for corruption presents itself to soldiers and officers as well. Now, everyday services are harder to access. Cash injected into the economy through payment for small services and information creates a parallel economy that works on patronage and favours. Women become vulnerable to many layers of policing and exploitation and it is hard for them to approach anyone for justice.

So here’s the point: what price elections for Indian women living in the many parts of India described as “disturbed” officially? We know from history that the more fraught their lives, the more valiantly Indians attempt to make a change by voting. But what will actually change, given the degree of consensus on matters deemed “national security” and the climate of denial with regard to the gendered experience of conflict? There is but a marginal difference between the parties on this score. It is when we take human rights, nation-building, citizenship and peace out of the “security” box and open them up for public debate—which does not need to be acrimonious and hostile, but can also be in the spirit of sharing and learning—that we will have some chance of making elections and democracy equally salient to all citizens.

Further, what does peace or democracy mean to women in violent marriages in Chennai, or women exploited in the name of employment on construction sites in Mumbai, or girls who are groped and fondled on the pretext of extra Board Exam coaching in Gurgaon, or internal examinations that turn into sexual assault in Kolkata hospitals—all outside “disturbed areas”? (All plausible but imagined examples, by the way.) There is no answer to that question.

The hardest work in a democratic society happens outside of election season. What elections provide is a moment to summarise and articulate to ourselves and others, what we consider important. An upcoming election makes me stop and think: what is the deal-breaker for me? And it shames me into remembering that I too have something to deliver in the next five years—a track-record of taking these messages out where they matter: to those who would capture power, to those who would contest elections and to those who must vote, no matter what. As politicians formulate promises to make and voters sit in judgment, each of us should get ready to go back to the long-term work of building a peaceful democracy where all citizens matter equally all the time and not just during elections.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training, who has written extensively on women and security issues. She is the founder of Prajnya and a member of the Women’sRegional Network.