Thursday, December 21, 2017

#nosgbv Dignity and violence

Yesterday, a short video made its public appearance. It ostensibly showed the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa, as she lay in her hospital bed,  sipping juice and watching TV. Her clothes were in disarray, as ours get when we are relaxing, thinking we are alone.

This suggests that the video was shot without her knowledge, and shot by someone who did not care about her sense of dignity or her privacy. It was shot without her consent.

The video was meant,  we are told,  to convince voters that she was well taken care of and to tip the balance in favor of the Shashikala faction. In fact, it tells us that these were people who did not and do not care about JJ and what she would want. She was and is an instrument for them. But that is a different discussion.

Suppose this were not a hospitalized leader but a young woman changing clothes or a teenager in the shower. What would we call this video? There are penalties in the law for shooting photos and videos without consent. It is a violation of rights,  privacy and the law. A crime.

The law uses old fashioned language like 'outraging modesty'  and we are wont to smile. But what else is a video like this and who is going to file an FIR on behalf of a leader who fiercely guarded her privacy and public persona?

Last night, CNN India played the video over and over. What is the penalty for that?

We will not ask. We use and lose the leaders we claim to idolize. Like we do all other human beings.

If this is the fate of someone who was so powerful, what can the truly powerless expect? How meaningless are the memes that dominated 2017 for the elite? Consent? #metoo?

Where do we begin to change thinking about respecting each other, about rights, about borders, about privacy?

Monday, December 18, 2017

Mea culpa: I too have eaten dinner with Pakistanis

For over a week now, my conscience has been pushing me to write this mea culpa, for I too, have eaten dinner with Pakistanis. Yes, those same Pakistanis that Indian social media insists can never be innocent or trustworthy. Alas, I too am anti-national.

I have not just had dinner with Pakistanis, I have had breakfast, lunch, mid-morning coffee, afternoon tea, anytimeisteatime chai and late night green tea with them. And also, ice cream. I won't apologise, but I do confess.

The first Pakistanis I got to know, although they then were too far away to share any meal, were my Pakistani brother and his family. I did not eat with them until 1985, but I did send the occasional rakhi across the border. In 1985, I visited my brother on his American campus, and stayed with his cousin sister who, as a very hospitable South Asian, fed me. I also ate with him and his many Pakistani friends--dal chaval and pizza, as I recall. But all that was in the US, so it may not count.

In the meanwhile, my uncle visited Ajmer Sharif and came to Bombay just to meet my parents. I was not there but I believe he did not eat anything at our home. This is a terrible thing in South Asian culture, as you know. He did not eat. But many years later, when I visited their home, I ate many meals--lunch, tea, dinner--all specially planned for the visiting vegetarian daughter. A treasured memory remains sitting at the dining table, enjoying delicious apples from Pakistani Kashmir. The apples were sweeter for the affection with which they were chosen for me.

Long before that, my only other South Asian classmate in my MA International Relations course was a Pakistani woman about ten years older than me. She and her husband were both lecturers in Political Science in Pakistan and had come to study in the US. They were shocked (him, especially) that my parents had sent me alone to the US at 20, and adopted me. I ate at their home regularly--yes, usually dinner--when my classmate would cook sabzi separately for me, and feed me dal, subzi and roti early with her two little kids. In her eyes, I think I was not much older! They would make sure I ate--and what did they have that they shared so generously, she was a student and he had a campus job, and they had a relative staying with them too--and then one of them would walk me to the bus stop and make sure I got back to my dorm. They were family. But I am told now, they could not be trusted. So maybe there was arsenic in the delicious firni I ate in their house that I miraculously survived?

You might say, these are 'ordinary' people but it is the security-diplomatic gang one should be leery of. Perhaps. Perhaps.

You see, I have eaten dinner with them as well. Many of the people whose op-eds you read and that you watch on hydra-headed TV discussions are people who were in non-official track, confidence-building programmes with me in the early 1990s. We stayed together for weeks, and ate together, and talked all night, and much more... and confidence was built. And friendships that will last a lifetime. Friendships between people who shared similar experiences, across borders, with sometimes contradictory perspectives--but friendships, anyway.

And the women peace activists I work with now, who have gone from strangers to friends to sisters, who know what sorts of bangles I like and that I want to have a blog about fabric and embroidery someday using photographs of their clothes. The alliances made when eyes meet over shared hurt--one complains, the other consoles, without words. And yes, I am so sorry, many meals have been shared with these terrific women--and a regional buffet of munchies fuels our meetings, where chilgoza meets murukku.

And many other meals all over the world with friends and professional colleagues from the Pakistani side of the border.

I forgot to tell you about the Pakistani fellow-intern from Karachi whose 1971 memories were a mirror-image of mine. But I don't think we ate dinner together, so it doesn't matter.

I meant to write a detailed, chapter and verse confession, but I realise there have been too many meals in over half a century to list here. Also, too many deep and too many silly conversations. Too many books and too many mixed tapes. Too much tea and too much laughter. Tears too, when I first moved to a city where I (still) have few friends, but I could call Islamabad on my cell-phone and share my transition travails with close friends. Too much silliness over international calls made just to get instructions on how to receive faxes on a home printer. Too much water under this friendship bridge.

Mea culpa, even though I do not understand how warmth, love and friendship can ever be anti-national.

Do you think that sharing salt and bread build mutual obligations that keep us from hurting each other? Isn't that a good thing? Isn't that why breaking bread together is a part of spiritual practice? Not eating together preserves the walls between us; Indians have used that as a way of maintaining caste difference over thousands of years.

Do you think that hearing each other's stories reminds us of how similar our struggles are, making it hard to demonise each other? Isn't that a good thing? Is it not a good thing that we get to know each other's frailties from a place of care than of enmity? That we can protect each other?

Isn't communication--over dinner or tea--especially important when you disagree? And a good friendship is not one in which you agree all the time or that you follow slavishly, but where there is enough honesty not to fake all that and enough respect to give each other space to be quite different--but not so much that a helping hand cannot reach.

All my life, I have thought these were good things, and that building the personal ties that keep us from mutually destructive policies was a fabulous idea. I still do. Mea culpa, for that too.

Let me close by sharing with you something a Bangladeshi diplomat said to me during an interview in 1985. I was being clever and asking how he defined South Asia. His brilliant reply: "South Asia stops when you go to someone's house, and the food no longer tastes like home." My South Asian home has many rooms, each quite self-sufficient and separate, but our dining tables merge under the force of that common civilisational instinct to stuff people's stomachs to the point of stupor--and food across the region tastes of spices and condiments we have traded across millennia. Wherever I move, across this table, whoever I break bread with, I am still eating at home and that is how it feels.

But have it your way--so, mea culpa.

The fear of not writing

There really is no need to be so freaked out over words not written. After all, they are words no one is ever going to read.

But being read is incidental to the need to write. Which is about the words that run through my head day and night, barely allowing me to sleep, crystallising into dreams in which books are read and speeches are made and letters, life-changing letters, disappear as you are reading them with anticipation. They must be continually emptied and my brain defragmented. Unlike my cupboard.

The need to write is about reminding myself that I am alive. Somewhere beneath the endless smiling and supervision and editing and showing up... I survive in that little space deep within all these external layers that I have to wear to be an adult in the world.

And as that world transforms into something I deplore, writing is resistance. Even when no one reads it, writing is resistance. It is the only form of resistance I may perform competently. But today, this kind of writing is time-bound. News happens and if you haven't outraged, written, published and gone viral in five minutes, do you exist?

To which that voice inside me asks, luckily, 'Does it matter?' Does it matter only when you respond immediately or does it matter that you do not respond at all? I am going to go with the latter, and still write all these blogposts that have been in my head, waiting for my body and mind to synchronise just enough to put them down.

If I do not write, even belatedly, I will be the weak link that lets the chain down. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

#nosgbv #stoptransbill2016 Why we should all care about TG Bill 2016

Last night, I finally read several of the #stoptransbill2016 tweets and was horrified. I was sorry that I had been running around so madly with campaign activities that I had not been reading or retweeting any of the protest posts before this.

I am not an expert on LGBTIQA+ issues, and I have a great deal to learn. But I am, and always have been, 1000% clear that every human being has the same rights and that each of us has a right to live happily and well, with love and without violence. From that vague, generalised starting point, my journey with Prajnya has also been a journey of learning new perspectives, new vocabularies and new frameworks. I don't speak or write very much about LGBTIQA+ issues because like a lot of other people, I am afraid of inadvertently saying the wrong thing. I don't want to hurt in the name of support or being an ally.

But here I am. Outraged and shocked enough that I am going to take a chance on this and try and tell you what I understand as well as point you to others who can explain better. 

In 2014, in a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court directed the Central and State Governments to recognise trans persons as a third gender. They recognised that trans identity is determined by a person's choice and not by biology and held that forcing people to have Sex Reassignment Surgery is illegal. The recognition of third gender rights extends to social, economic and infrastructural spheres. This judgment was welcomed by trans persons and activists as it reflected their own thinking and wishes. 

In 2015, Tiruchi Siva introduced a Bill to enshrine the ideas and instructions of the NALSAR judgment in law. That too, was widely welcomed. 

Not to be outdone, the government then introduced its own TG Bill and it is this Bill that we are all protesting. Why?

First of all, it is underpinned by some horrific thinking about gender and sexuality and trans persons in particular, that dehumanizes and others them. Read this Twitter thread for an illustration. 

Second, it reverses the gains made in the NALSA judgment by returning to thinking about gender identity in biological terms. That is, my gender is what someone else says it is, based on my body parts, and not how I feel and what my own instinct about myself is. Not only do trans persons not have the right to choose their identities, but from this follows the right to choose to live in a way that makes them feel right, feel happy. 

Third, it removes agency from the trans person's life by placing them in the custody of others in the name of protection. Beware of patriarchy's protective instincts because it only protects itself. What it does to those that do not fit its unnatural taxonomies is to infantilise and dehumanise them. Women know this, but we must extend this understanding beyond our gender. 

Finally, the Bill is silent about violence, and in fact, reduces the punishment for sexual violence against trans persons from the usual seven years to 6 months to two years. Why? Is this not an equal violence? And is it a lesser violence to the promoters of the Bill because individuals who do not fit into a textbook binary are lesser humans? 

Actually, this is the crux of the matter. In 2017, a proposed law that tells us that some of us are less than others must not be countenanced by anyone with a heart. Forget the words you don't understand. Forget the politics you don't follow. Forget everything. Just think: If someone told you they were going to make a law that said you were not as human as they were, how would you feel? Abandoned? Betrayed? "You would cry too if it happened to you."

STOP THE TRANS BILL 2016. Do whatever you can. 



Shalini Nair, Transgender community terms govt’s Bill as ‘regressive’, launches nationwide protest movement, Indian Express, December 9, 2017.
Sampoorna India, TG Bill Factsheet



(Happy to add other sources and links, and follow recommendations, as advised!)

Friday, December 8, 2017

What's on your mind?

Every social network prompts us: What's happening? What's on your mind? Having hit some mental wall made of thermocol and sawdust, but desperate to blog--to show myself that I am still moving--I am going to answer that question.

Very mundane things are on my mind.

Why has no one designed a sensible way to store saree blouses? I have kept them in drawers. I have kept them on shallow shelves and deep shelves. I have kept them in organizing racks. But before you know it, they are a mess. All that ironing wasted and never to be found when you need. This is on my mind as I rush out to a campaign meeting every morning. Why has no one designed a good way to arrange saree blouses?

I am also thinking about do-nothing vacations because I would really love one, thank you very much. I want to go somewhere--no, not Pondicherry--where I am not required to do anything. I don't want to feel guilty that I am not seeing everything there is to see. I don't want to feel like I am wasting nature by not wanting to vigorously walk. I want to eat, read, sleep, daydream, stare, and rest to the point where I am then ready to do some yoga and strolling around. And no unnecessary chitchat. I don't want to be responsible for anything. I Googled 'do nothing vacation' because those who can, go, and those who can't, Google. I must say that everything listed sounded like hard work--and also full of non-Indians, which means that some desi creature comforts, like tasty vegetarian food, are unlikely to be available. And no, I don't want to go to Pondicherry--because I would take a car from Chennai, and then feel responsible for the welfare of the driver.

Finally, I am thinking of fruit. Because I am so very tired that fruits are the only thing that appeal to my palate right now. And for some reason, I alternate through the day between craving cranberry juice and Indian-style nimbupani (not sweet lemonade).

Gender violence is not on my mind although I do a satisfactory simulation thereof when I am at a campaign event. Therefore, despite setting myself this blogging goal, I seem unable to pull myself together enough to say anything about anything relevant to #nosgbv.

So, in answer to those who want to know, all -3000 of you, this is what is on my mind.

PS: As I write this, my heart wishes it could be at Sharanya Manivannan's poetry reading and book launch but my body and mind will not budge. Also on my mind.

Monday, December 4, 2017

#nosgbv "Self-care"

Words enter the public discourse as if they have always been there. And young people especially, use them as if they have been and are self-evident. After all, they have no idea of what has gone before; in addition to youth, they are also largely bereft of history education.

"Self-care" is one such phrase. It rung true but awkward when I first heard it, from our 2014 Campaign Coordinator. We were talking about service providers and burn-out and a host of other work-related issues. "Mental health" holidays are similar; I knew people in the US who took them. I write this, putting one word after another, feeling desperately in need of both self-care and a mental health holiday. Both are elusive in my world.

I think about the women who attended last week's consultation on women and work, and how many--if any--of them have the luxury of self-care. I see them waking up early and running through the day, meeting one set of obligations after another. We ask about hobbies in the ice-breaker round and many of us mention sleep. No one remarks about this because it does not surprise us that we are all so tired. 

But when we talk about work conditions, exhaustion, burn-out and self-care do not figure. We talk a great deal about toilets, about sexual harassment and about workplace equality. We do not talk about being tired. 

Some of the women in the room are extroverts. At the end of the day, they say they like to spend an hour chatting with neighbours. I recoil at the thought. I wonder, yet again, if things are just easier for extroverts? Are they simply less tired because they are energised by all that human interaction? 

I think about my work and how it seems to never really end. How can I rationalise my workload while meeting all my responsibilities? I have tried zoning by day, by hour. I work hard and I am actually very efficient, too, if you look at how much and how many different things I do in a day. But it's never enough. And self-care feels like work. 

Someone at the consultation talked about self-actualisation. I am very privileged but even I feel like that is a distant goal when I think of my daily task lists. 'Getting through' seems like the most ambitious goal I can set. Between the ten thousand things that need doing--drafting, formatting, listing, chatting, encouraging, web update, this, that and some days, most days, I want to put smiling on that list--there is no time to do the things that would replenish one's energy--painting, reading, music, daydreaming--leave alone to self-actualisation. 

I start to say, when will other structural issues be resolved so we can think about this. And then I realise, if we don't think about this now, we will not be around to enjoy those gains!

#nosgbv Politics, with passion

I heard the term Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) for the first time in 2011. I was not convinced of the category--and as with self-nominated awards which are the norm now--I was sceptical: How do we sift the genuine defender from the many pretenders? I did not contest that WHRD faced a special category of challenges in doing their work. That seemed obvious. When you layer patriarchy's obstacle course for women seeking to work in the public sphere with the state's antipathy to challenges, it is clearly going to be very, very hard--especially hard--for women to do human rights work.

The other concern is, what is human rights work? Pretty much everything, really. So again, who is a WHRD? It seems to me I am an ordinary person doing some work on gender, peace and rights until the state decides it doesn't like. So it really is the state's reaction to WHRD that necessitates and creates the category? Perhaps.

Six years later, the analytical concerns remain but they feel insignificant next to the work that WHRD do.

There are the famous ones. The women of Idinthakarai. Teesta Setalvad. Soni Sori. Ruth Manorama. Those names are only the beginning of a list. And then there are the countless others--the uneducated women who can talk labour law and economics as well as anyone in an economics think-tank; the women from communities in the crossfire between state and militants who are able to talk about counter-insurgency and impunity; the journalists who take risks and face rape threats for writing about what is happening in the world. Honestly, the list is very, very long, of women who get up and go out and do what is needed to build a better, a fairer world. All of them are extremely important to the world in which they work and most of them are insignificant in the eyes of the world. Whether we hear about them or not, all of them face any number of challenges doing their work.

The double burden of housework and outside work, that dogs women in any sphere, does not spare them. Women multi-task because they have no choice. They face criticism for neglecting their families, even if they don't, and many women receive zero support from their spouses and children, forget appreciation. They are ridiculed, reviled, threatened and in the case of women defenders, the threat extends to family members--"I will hurt your children. Your spouse." After all the work that they do, day to day, they are rarely the face of their movement. When time comes for the official dialogue, the negotiation or the UN conference, it is the man who gets to go. Women are sent out as the vanguard of protest marches, bearing the first lathi blows, but decisions are made by men.

And yet, women go on for the simple reason that Jody Williams, Nobel Laureate, gave me last month: "I can't un-see."

Against all the odds, they are out their fighting--not for their rights, but ours. They do it with passion, and with humour.

Both of which were conspicuously missing from a student debate last week on whether WHRD deserved special attention. It made me wonder whether making something part of a curriculum simply sucks the life out of it. Does education hammer out every last sign of life in the human spirit?

I have had the privilege of knowing--on pedestals and as peers--many, many women human rights defenders, most of whom may have not cared about the term. They do care from the bottom of their toes to the tops of their heads and back about the world in which we live, and they pour every last particle of spirit into what they do. They cry, they rant, they laugh, they sing, they listen, they connect with others and they love. Being with them is a renewal of one's own spirit.

The debate on Wednesday was lacklustre and ill-informed despite an OCD prep-sheet we had despatched in advance. And most heart-breaking, the speakers seemed to be going through the motions. I ask you, if those who fought for us everyday--through all the storms of life and through all the barriers of patriarchy, class and state--brought this (lack of) spirit to their work, where would we stand?

WHRD certainly deserve a fraction of the passion and love they invest, as a return.

Please support those who are trying to support WHRD, in their work and when they are in trouble, by supporting their evacuation and asylum:


Within India, you might consider donating to:

  • (PUCL does not accept donations, but you can certainly find a way to support their work)

These are some of the people who consistently work to defend human rights defenders. There are many others, and you can Google, do your own 'due diligence' and give. Bear in mind that you are making this decision to support human rights work at a moment that is fraught everywhere in the world. Governments take human rights activism personally and respond with pettiness and force. WHRD (and other human rights defenders) stand their ground in the face of this; won't you? If not now, then when?

The warm-up post and the sabbatical

(This should be sub-titled: What you can write because no one is reading!)

It is far easier to think up a blog project or blogpact than to keep up the writing. Obviously. Writing for one's own blog is like exercising--it only really is for oneself, so how important can it possibly be? If you don't do it, no one cares. A couple of people may care that you don't exercise but that you are not writing--absolutely no one cares.

To me, not writing is like losing sight of a lifeline in a large ocean of infinite responsibility and duty. This is about the only thing I do that is for me. Everything else I do because I am supposed to, because it is an obligation, because it is my responsibility, because it is my duty. If I don't, who will. But with writing, if I don't, who cares? Well, I do. And this is the one thing I really try to keep up in order to remember that I am alive.

But the press of those responsibilities and the growing limitations of my body mean that if I miss a certain window in the day, I simply cannot make the time to write. The demands of the day have consumed me whole.

More frightening is to discover when you do fight your way through the jungle of everyone's needs and sit down to write, only to find you have not a thought in your head. You are so weary that every thought or idea has been sucked out, feels stale... you are not really living but simply putting one foot before the other, minute to minute.

And so yesterday, I dragged my body to an event, praying fervently that my mind would keep up. It managed. But I was struck by how difficult it all felt and started talking about taking a break. It feels do-or-die at this point. But I cannot go away, and unless I do, I cannot detach from all the demands--the one urgent question that becomes a one-hour discussion, the cheques that I must sign--the document that must be read... I am stuck.

But I must find a way to truly detach, especially from the work of the NGO, which is now becoming unbearably overwhelming. My great failure is not to be able to walk away at ten, not because I don't want to but because I have not raised enough money to hire enough full-time staff with a professional leader that can manage everything.

So the challenge this morning is not just to catch up on those SIX blogposts I should have written on schedule, but also to find a way to come unstuck and free myself so I can do the things that will help me reclaim my time and space for work that I love.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

#nosgbv #LetterboxResistance: Two poems

#nosgbv Note to Self

"I write myself a note each day,
and I place it in my hat.
The wind comes by, the hat blows high
but that not the end of that
For ’round and ’round the world it goes
it lands here right behind myself,
I pick it up, and I read the note,
which is merely to remind myself
I’m Hans Christian Andersen,
Andersen, that’s me!" (Frank Loesser, c. 1952)

I heard this song in my teens, as part of an album of Danny Kaye songs, and have loved this idea of reminding oneself of who one is. Too much of our intrinsic self is altered by the world around us. Physical and sexual violence are not the only ways in which one can be diminished. One is also diminished and damaged by the ways of the world.

For instance, a crawling infant picks up an odd-shaped, bright colourd object lying within reach. She puts it in her mouth. Someone calls out, "Girls don't play with cars!" She does not know she's a girl, she does not know it's a car. It's handy. It's bright and attractive. It has an interesting shape and texture. It may have a good taste, or better yet, make for a good bite. But now we've begun to place limits on her curiosity. At fifteen, when she would rather play a game than read the news, we will reverse our instructions, and say to her, "You must show an interest in the world." In both instances, we will expect that curiosity to follow set patterns. She should show an interest in these questions and not those. With a little bit of luck (to borrow from another song), she will pay attention neither at eight months nor at fifteen years.

There is also our running commentary on physical appearance. Who the baby looks like; is the toddler tall for her age or not; does the boy have girlish eyelashes; is the girl too active for her own good--even little children are not spared. Puberty unleashes the worst in us. "Better take care of those pimples or you'll be scarred for life." "15 and still such a girlish voice?" And this before people move on to temperament and skill-sets--can she cook yet? why are you letting him choose a subject without job prospects? I want to say that we are changing, but I suspect that is still largely an affirmation. 

By the time we reach our 20s, what is left of that infant--blithely unaware of gender, curious about everything, accepting of everyone? Gone. Long gone. Doesn't matter. 

What matters is what is left within us. We are full of do's and don'ts, taboos and inhibitions. We convince ourselves of what we cannot do, for one reason or another. So many of us do not feel entitled to dream. We would like, very politely, a good job, a decent partner who is not too abusive and a good life. We would love more, love to have it all, but in our station, our dreams must be drawn within the borders of a limited space on the universal canvas. 

By the time we reach the middle years, it's hard to find ourselves--our truest selves, our best selves--in the middle of this mess of strictures and strings. And so today, as part of #LetterboxResistance, Prajnya's 16 Days Campaign activity of the day, I want to write myself a note--an aide-memoire. 

Dear Self,

Clear the clutter. 
Cut the crap.
Throw out the don't's.
Be ruthless with should's.
Sort out the do's,
and discard what you won't use.
Dust off the cobwebs
of duty and fear.

Find your true self,
bright, unafraid
and full of heart.
And hold on tight,
that's the hard part.
Through storms 
and fires and wars
that wage, stay still,
glow steady,
refuse to be caged.

From, Your Shadow.  

Monday, November 27, 2017

#nosgbv That feeble no

We have been talking about consent since yesterday, and the infamous 'feeble no' judgment has come up just once--maybe because we've really been talking basics.

But I want to reflect a little bit on the 'feeble no' that you know and I know is out there. It's the feeble no we teach our daughters to say so that when they visit someone and are asked, "Would you like some tea?" they know how to simper and say, "No, Aunty." It just needs to be loud enough to register as a polite answer. One level up and it would be too boisterous.

In workshops on sexual harassment, I hear that 'feeble no' all the time. I ask young women what they would do if someone propositioned them, and how they would communicate lack of assent. They reply, with the energy of a two-day old bouquet without fresh water, "No." That no. Then I make them repeat the 'no' with more and more energy and feeling till it brings the house down.

It's not their fault. They've been told to be seen and not heard. To be useful and not impose. To serve and to please without consideration for their own needs and feelings. To efface themselves.

Aunties and Uncles and Akkas and Dadas of all descriptions have felt free to pinch their cheeks in childhood and comment on their physical growth in adolescence. "Big girl you've become, aaah?" And then of course, "Come, give me a hug, I have a teddy bear for you." The girl that says 'no' audibly is the one who is a brat, a disgrace to her parents and watch out, will go nowhere in life thanks to her bad temperament.

That feeble no, carefully calibrated so as not to be heard, is the one that gets the most practice and praise all of one's life.

"Do you want another piece of dhokla?" No, thank you.
"Do you want to watch another channel?" No, thank you.
"Would you like some more tea?" I wouldn't mind. (Not, "I would love some!")
"I love you. I think you should go on a date with me." No. Please, no.

We tell girls that adding the word 'please' is wrong. That assailants hear the 'please' and nothing else. That they think it's the no-that-means-yes. 'Please' enfeebles 'no.'

There was that whole piece in the judgment about how educated women should be able to come up with more than a feeble 'no.' Agreed. The problem is educated women are also raised in a patriarchal society to be nice girls. And educated women are also afraid of assailants provoked to even greater violence. And educated women think, let me get away with the least physical injury.

I don't know. The truly mysterious element in the whole consent conversation is what goes on in an assailant's mind when he pushes past the push-back, the no, the attempted escape--to force himself. How do you not read the signals when someone does not want you near them, touching them, on them or in them? How self-obsessed do you have to be? How entitled?

And that's really what it is. Entitlement. Entitlement makes consent irrelevant.

"I love you. I think you should go on a date with me." No. Please, no.

It's not the 'no' that is feeble. It's the inner "But naturally!" in the assailant's mind that is too loud.


The distaste for 'no' runs very deep. We wanted to make a word-cloud graphic for the Twitter chat Prajnya had today on consent. Several attempts later, we realised that the various softwares we were trying were filtering out 'No' and 'Not' from the artwork. We figured out how to re-set the filters to get the image below. But... art imitates life?


As I write this almost-frivolous blogpost, Hadiya's right to choose has been dismissed as irrelevant. Rather than allowing her to pick where she wants to live and what she wants to do, she has been assigned a guardian. Women are too silly and emotional to choose and must be infantilised and protected. So not only are men entitled, but women are also less than human. How then can their assent or dissent matter to anyone?

And this is exactly why people feel free to make decisions for women--including whether they should have intercourse forced on them. They couldn't possibly be able to arrive at a preference on their own. And as for rights, those are for equal citizens.


The tone of these blogposts is a little flip, maybe, but I realise as the words tumble out that there is a clutted and overgrown forest inside my head, accumulated over the years of reading about these issues. I get to write and speak about them all the time but in sanitised, palatable and formal ways. Where does all the clutter and confusion and incoherent fury go--because, believe me, it is in there, dictating these words faster than my fingers can make them appear on this screen.... they must find a home in order for better ones to appear.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

#nosgbv Men, and the matter with including them

I want to write about men. 'Men and boys,' to be specific.

In the years we have been doing this gender violence awareness work, it has become quite a mantra to say, "Oh, we must include men and boys..." and I am always ambivalent. Today, Prajnya's event was a panel and discussion (I do mean that) on the theme 'Men Talk Consent' and so, given that writing a little bit to reflect on what we are doing, this would be apt today.


So why this ambivalence? After all, society will not progress if one part of it is kept behind, and that part cannot move forward unless everyone is on board with the idea. So yes, of course, men and boys matter.

I think I worry that patriarchal habits die hard. I worry about how well-trained we women are, even feminists, to take care of men that we may roll over and let them play, once we let them in. I worry about how much we worry about them. But, one by one...

Patriarchy looks after its own. That is how it has survived for yugas, not just centuries. So we say to men, you are the good guys, you are our allies, and we let them into the safe spaces we have carefully built. In their presence, we reproduce the politics of the world outside--of heterosexual sexual politics, of currying favour, of taking care, of pandering, of deference. We share our secrets because they are our allies. But does that empower them to dominate us further?

I worry about who we become when men are around. We become girls. We become mammas. We stop being the whirlwinds that will sweep aside injustice and iniquity.

I worry that we will let men in and then because they know everything, they will mansplain our lives to us, simplify feminism to binaries, organise the work-flow, make the money decisions, and run the movement--like the world we are trying to change.

I worry that feeling obliged to listen to how men feel about how we feel about ourselves will make us edit and dilute the very articulation that strengthens our resolve. When I am in a workshop and women ask--always the women--about the misuse of laws that are supposed to protect women, I want to say, "Men have a law that protects them. It's called patriarchy." Sometimes, if I am tired or hungry, I crabbily snap, "You know, I really don't worry about men." But usually I talk about the probability of abuse, the likelihood of wrong use... and I hate that. I worry that all our work time will be like that.

I worry that including men will make feminism about them. It is about them, too, but it is so hard for us to find any space where our voices are primary. I begrudge them that of which I have so little.

I worry about our tendency to praise and reward men for every small thing--from making beds to making feminist revolutions. Will we fall over ourselves trying to make the men feel important and special?

And then there is a strategic worry--in a cosy domestic feminist universe that admits male allies, those women who are paired with the allies will have strategic alliances, but what about gay women, trans women or single women? If men come in and take over feminist spaces, we will be left on the margins. Again.

Patriarchy is like that. You give a photo of an inch and it acquires the entire football field.


And so I overstate my case just a little (just a little).

Today, we had a panel of three men and a male moderator and an audience that was fifty percent male. And they were asked to speak about how adolescents learn about masculinity, about being men and about navigating the yes-no minefield. About consent. All of them talked about never having learned to talk about this--about not even having heard of consent till they were adults.

And as I listened to the conversation, I knew that we needed to take this much further. But for men to be able to talk about these issues, we really need to create safe spaces for them too--to say the wrong thing, to not be performing for women--and we need to bring them to the point where they can take the conversation about consent and connect it to a larger conversation about privilege and entitlement. They need to have the awkward and bumbling personal sharing that has sharpened feminist analysis. They need to find the words that feminist have been tap-tap-tap-tapping and waiting for them to learn. With the best hearts, men still have a long feminist journey to undertake before they can be fellow-travelers, leave alone allies.

But how do we get them into those spaces? Surely not through celebrity concerts and VIP-led programmes. For women's organisations, this is the puzzle. Whatever we design and set up, it bears the impress of our perspective and our agenda--just as the rest of the world reflects a patriarchal perspective and agenda. If we want men to journey on their own and arrive where we are, we cannot be plotting the route for them. Or can we? I don't know.


I guess we need male allies to reach men and boys, but can we keep them in their own quarter in our feminist safe-havens, unable to roam around and mix freely, dipping into this interesting confidence or that important decision-making conclave? Let's allow them to stay but show them their place. (See, I told you, patriarchy's lessons are hard to shake off! )


Full disclosure: I run a feminist organisation which has an all-woman Board, a mixed Advisory Panel and several male volunteers. I am also part of a feminist women's peace network which does not admit men, although they are invited to participate in some of our public programmes.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

#nosgbv The Power of Collective Campaigning

Today is International Day for Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women.

It is also the first day of the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence against Women, an initiative of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University in the US. Over the years, women's organisations, most of them feminist, have adopted this fortnight of activism and made it their own, sometimes conforming to the global theme, sometimes not. As those who read this blog may know, in Chennai, Prajnya (my organisation) does this with a full calendar that literally takes in every one of the 16 days.

We have been doing this since 2008 and today, our eight campaign begins.

What has changed since our first campaign? When we started out, in most places, we had to begin by describing how pervasive gender violence was. It cut across caste, community and class, and also actually, gender--if you embrace the idea of a spectrum of identities. Then, in 2012, the Delhi gang-rape changed that. More people were talking about violence against women, especially rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. It became less difficult to convince middle class people that this was something that could happen to them or someone they knew. We extended our agenda to include legal information and bystander intervention on a more routine basis.

In 2017, I look around and even in Chennai, there are at least 5-6 other organisations doing something this fortnight. And I think: So is this time to get out of this game? To hand over the baton.

In many ways, our campaign is unusual--even if I say so myself. We have something going on everyday for 16 days, as exhausting as it is. We cover a range of gender violence issues, in various degrees of depth, and we reach out to a wide variety of audiences, through very different media. This year, 'consent,' sexual and reproductive health rights and violence against women in politics stand out in our calendar, but we also have a session on heteronormativity (as a kind of violence), two sessions on domestic and intimate partner violence and one consultation on workplace issues. There are arts programmes and there are policy-oriented discussions.

But given the cost to the organisation (we lose momentum on a lot of our routine work because this takes so much from us), I do wonder if it is worthwhile. If we do awareness work year-round, what does it matter whether we are part of the global campaign or not.

And then, we come back next year and do this all over again, and this is why.

The observance date--all observance dates--allow us a way to gain access to new audiences. We are able to say, "Do you know it is this UN date, and we would like to do a programme with you or for you?" There is a greater likelihood of hearing a positive response. The 16 Days expand that window considerably. We say, "This is a global campaign," and our ability to reach new people is vastly improved. Our partners (especially those outside the social sector) are able to say they were part of this observance.

Over the years, as more and more organisations have become part of this global calendar, the buzz is louder. Wherever you turn, someone is hosting an event, writing an op-ed or posting a video on gender violence. It is hard to pretend the issue doesn't exist. It is as if we are trying to break down a door and more and more shoulders are bringing their heft to it.

There is a sense of solidarity, as people make time from their own calendars to support each other's programmes. We co-create programmes and help each other out. We retweet each other and share each other's videos and posts. In all our diversity, we are one for a fortnight with a singular objective--to end sexual and gender-based violence. As the campaign catches on beyond the women's movement and the UN--with institutions for instance, wanting to organise something--we can see the beginnings of a shift crystallise. When the 16 Days are referenced in people's conversations, we know this is working. It's the power of the collective. We work year-round, but this fortnight makes a difference.

And so we hang in there, using it to the best of our ability, year after year. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

#nosgbv Sounds of Silence

"And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share...
No one dare
disturb the sounds of silence."

I have been listening to this Simon and Garfunkel classic most of my life. But yesterday, as I listened during my evening walk, ahead of writing about the impossibility of speaking up about everything that happens, I was struck by how apt it was. "No one dare disturb the sounds of silence."

I too have been reading about the controversy over Padmavati, and have retweeted a couple of articles and posts I agree with, but have not said anything. Of course, I have views on this but I have not aired them, for many reasons. Today, I am wondering if they are reasons or excuses, and I have to conclude that maybe they are both.

You wake up in the morning and turn on any news source or pick up an old-fashioned newspaper, and there is a barrage of information that you can barely process. If you let one grab your attention and start to respond, you do little else in the day. And I tell myself, I run an organisation that works on gender violence awareness day in and out. Surely, my time is best spent doing my work. A hundred philosophical aphorisms support my view from Voltaire's 'Il faut cultiver son jardin' to a refrain of many Tamil spiritual teachers, 'Chumma iru.'

But someone threatens to behead a woman and I have nothing to say.... how do we reach that point?

It's not just the threat to an actress for doing her job. It is that entire flood of news, each item of which is devastating to someone's life and symptomatic of horrible, inhumane traits deeply embedded in our society. Like the incident my mother read about yesterday, where a five year old boy followed a girl of his age to the bathroom, forcibly pulled down her underwear and raped her by inserting a pencil up her vagina. What is the reaction you can have to something like that? My first thought is that he is learning this from the adults around him. Violent abuse is a widespread habit and normalized in many households. Who is doing this to whom within his line of vision?

And just where do you begin to fix such a horrible world?

Decades of hard work by the women's movement and the exigencies of filling up 24/7 news have brought us to a point when in a day, we hear not about one or two or even three incidents like this but several and then one or two are chosen for their dramatic values and replayed to us over and over. We tune out in order to function.

The result is that we normalize cruelty and inhumane behaviour over time. For instance, when Gauri Lankesh was killed, we had actually created enough room for people to say, "But you know these were her views." The point surely was, no matter what her views and your disagreement with them, it was wrong to kill or hurt her. But we have missed that point completely.

With Padmavati, we are debating historicity and freedom of expression and all of these are very important, but the bottomline is surely: since when have we come to accept violence as the normal language of disagreement between people? Since when is it normal for us to be distracted by relative trivia (was she real or not?) and governments to remain silent about physical threats? And then, if the government was to use my own logic, then it could arguably say, "If I took a position on everything that happened, who would introduce demonetisation or collect your garbage?"

When do we speak and when do we let something go? This is a really hard decision. This blogpost is not about my sharing an epiphany on this question but simply working my way through it by writing.

First of all, as I said, it is hard to react to everything that happens--one does not know everything that happens, one cannot be in responsive/reactive mode all the time, one wants to think things through... that said, when do I decide that it is time to say something? When does an issue feel critical enough that it is important for me to speak?

Second, do I have something constructive to add? Usually, no, and that is one reason I stay silent. My tweet or my blogspot would add nothing that is not already being said. On some issues, I stay out all through. On others, I voice my support by signing a petition that makes sense to me. On a few others, I say something by placing it in a broader context, historical or comparative, which is what I am trained to do. But then, in the face of escalating violence, is being selective important or should one just push back all the time?

I don't know much about most things that happen. I know a little but "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," as many school autographs reminded me. Should I wait to learn, should I leave it to experts to lead or should I say, at this moment, it is the heft that counts--all hands to the deck, all voices into the chorus that must push back this silence.

Finally, we are quiet because we don't think it will make a difference what we say. This is the silence that breaks my heart. Where do we go from here? We abdicate our right to protest because we don't think it makes a difference. Governments--this one, any one--are not going to pay us any attention. We are schizophrenic about buying into everything the government tells us but not trusting that it will pay us any attention. Why are we investing so much in a government that we cannot hold to account? My mind says to me now, "Don't go down that road today. Don't digress." Yes, but it is also part of the problem, no? Citizens are quiet when citizens are helpless and when citizens secretly agree. I don't know which one scares me more.

There is the silence of the hive or of ants as they go about their work. And there is the silence of those that will not speak because they are in denial. Which one is mine? I am realising I have to ask this question every single moment of the day if my own silence is not to be read as tacit consent.

I genuinely don't know.

Postscript (added 25.11.17)

The best comments on the Padmavati question have come from this cartoonist:

Thursday, November 23, 2017

#nosgbv Giving thanks in a season of #metoo

With this post, I am setting myself the task of blogging everyday about sexual and gender-based violence from now until at least the end of the 16 Days of Activism to end VAW season--which, for us at Prajnya, ends mid-December. I am committing to writing--not to anyone style, so some of this is going to be fact, some fiction, I am guessing.

I will tag all these posts #nosgbv.


Today is Thanksgiving in the US, arguably the most important American holiday and for academics, a moment of relief at the break-point of a semester when you can catch up on reading or term paper research.

It's been an autumn in which many male icons have fallen from their pedestals like the auburn leaves from northern trees. And women around the world have said, #metoo. None of us has escaped the touch of sexual and gender-based violence.

And yet.

The oft-touted statistic is that one in three women have experienced abuse in their lifetime. The universality of #metoo suggests that the number may be higher--two in three or even three out of three. I suspect that many women and girls simply don't code their experience as violence and therefore, don't talk or report. It's life as they know it.

But just for this moment, I want to think about those who have not experienced violence and express the profound gratitude in those hearts. I want to express gratitude for the violence we escaped.

Thank you for shielding me from all the violence I have not experienced.

Thank you for helping me realise why women pray so hard for good relationships and marriages, but sparing me experiential learning.

Thank you for that time I went into the office building alone on a weekend, did my work and came back, unscathed.

Thank you for the foremothers and forefathers whose struggle and advocacy put in place conventions and laws designed to give me access to justice.

Thank you for every journey on which the man in the next seat has kept to himself and not "accidentally" groped me.

Thank you that the liftman did not flash himself before me alone in the lift, returning from school. And thank you that the librarian did not accost me in the stacks.

Thank you for the times I was too innocent and ignorant to be fearful of what might happen to me, for that moment of blind faith that made a learning experience possible. And for preserving that innocence by keeping me safe.

Thank you for the unknown women--sisters--who form a buddy system for each other on trains and buses and aircraft. And elsewhere in the world. Thank you for solidarity and caring.

Thank you for the times when I put myself in danger and you quietly took me out.

Thank you for lifting my colleague's hand from my knee before a nudge became a caress I did not want.

Thank you for making sure that although #metoo, it was not as bad as it could have been. Thank you for the realisation that I can survive and help those who had it worse.

Thank you for the dates that ended as I wanted and from which I returned fully conscious.

Thank you for sparing me displacement, exploitation and the personal experience of collective violence.

Thank you for the late evening interview where we stayed on our sides of the desk and from which I walked back in the dark of a dangerous city, safe.

Thank you because I escaped that abusive relationship.

Thank you for putting kind and gentle people in my life.

Thank you for the privilege--that I feel guilty about but that shelters me from countless kinds of oppression and abuse.

Thank you for the fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins and in-laws that did not abuse my trust.

Thank you for every cutting word you stopped from exiting my mouth. Thank you for every impulse to help. Thank you for keeping me from hurting others or committing violence.

And I know this is selfish, but thank you for making me the one person that the lecherous supervisor did not hit on.

Thank you for sparing me all the bad things that could have happened, even more than I smart from the ones that did.

Whoever, whatever is responsible for my good fortune, thank you a million times over. Thank you for the sheer random, dumb luck of being safe.

Next year, please spare everyone else too--the weak, the meek, the unorganised, the scattered, the scared, the silent, the dispossessed, the abandoned--and spare those who are not these things, but still do not escape. They did nothing to deserve this (no one ever does). I thank you in advance for your consideration.

I also thank you in advance for the sensitivity and awareness that all of us will develop this year. I thank you in advance for the pandemic of kindness and non-violence for which I pray.

Really, just thank you.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Remembering Shankari Devi, the quiet Shakti of Trinco

One year ago, today, on the first morning of Navaratri, I was in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, scheduled to drive back to Colombo. Of course, the day--and Navaratri--had to begin with a visit to Shankari Devi, the Amman, whose presence makes the Tirukoneeswarar Temple a Shakti Peeth.

The first time I went to visit her, I could barely find her. I kept asking where the Shakti Peeth was and no one around knew. She sits on the side, quietly, uncelebrated and waiting her turn for attention, even during Navaratri. That's patriarchy for you. 

I reach on time for the 6:30 a.m. aarti. I have 'tickets' for archanai at both sannidhis. But all the screens are down. There is no activity in the temple. Suddenly, as happens in Sri Lankan temples, there is a frantic burst and people run out of the temple. I don't understand and I stay in place, till a kind gentleman calls me outside.

The main aarti, the main lingam is actually in the open air, and that is where the first poojai takes place. I am entranced. I have passed this lingam and paid it little attention.

But now, as the sun rises directly over the impossibly beautiful sea behind, sitting under a pipal, almost invisible beneath the incense and dhuni and chanting and flowers, I am touched by a magic I never expected. This is one of the most beautiful aartis I have ever seen. I am so grateful for this moment of exquisite beauty.

And then, it's over, and the same crowd runs (literally, runs) back into the temple where then the main idol gets an aarti and finally, suddenly, it's Shankari Devi's turn. Mine is the solitary archanai chit for her. And her aarti takes barely a minute.

And so we celebrate Navaratri at this Shakti Peeth. I go home, entranced and sad, and a little angry (my mother later admonishes me, "Don't bring gender into the temple!"). I wonder what her neglect means for the people of her town. If you love and treasure him so much, how can she who empowers him, mean so little to you? A good question for many families, isn't it?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki: A Chance for World Peace?

One month short of the seventy-second anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, one hundred and twenty-two countries met and voted to ban nuclear weapons. The one hundred and twenty-two countries did not include those who hold nuclear weapons, nor the only country to ever experience their use, Japan.

At the 72-year mark, it may be important to remember what happened in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. At 8:14 that morning, as commuters headed to work and school-children into school, an atomic bomb was dropped on central Hiroshima.

Suddenly--the time is approximately 8:14--the whole valley is filled by a garish light which resembles the magnesium light used in photography, and I am conscious of a wave of heat. I jump to the window to find out the cause of this remarkable phenomenon, but I see nothing more than that brilliant yellow light.” (Father John Siemes)
“Suddenly, a strong flash of light startled me - and then another. So well does one recall little things that I remember vividly how a stone lantern in the garden became brilliantly lit and I debated whether this light was caused by a magnesium flare or sparks from a passing trolley.
Garden shadows disappeared. The view where a moment before had been so bright and sunny was now dark and hazy. Through swirling dust I could barely discern a wooden column that had supported one comer of my house. It was leaning crazily and the roof sagged dangerously.Moving instinctively, I tried to escape, but rubble and fallen timbers barred the way. By picking my way cautiously I managed to reach the roka [an outside hallway] and stepped down into my garden. A profound weakness overcame me, so I stopped to regain my strength. To my surprise I discovered that I was completely naked How odd! Where were my drawers and undershirt?” (Dr. Michihiko Hachiya)
Well, it was like a white magnesium flash. I lost consciousness right after or almost at the same time I saw the flash. When I regained consciousness, I found myself in the dark. I heard my friends, Ms. Asami, crying for her mother. Soon after, I found out that we actually had been attacked. Afraid of being caught by a fire, I told Ms. Asami to run out of the building. Ms. Asami, however, just told me to leave her and to try to escape by myself because she thought that she couldn't make it anywhere. She said she couldn't move. I said to her that I couldn't leave her, but she said that she couldn't even stand up. While we were talking, the sky started to grow lighter. Then, I heard water running in the lavatory. Apparently the water pipes had exploded. So I drew water with my helmet to pour over Ms. Asami's head again and again. She finally regained consciousness fully and went out of the building with me. We first thought to escape to the parade grounds, but we couldn't because there was a huge sheet of fire in front of us. So instead, we squatted down in the street next to a big water pool for fighting fires, which was about the size of this table. Since Hiroshima was completely enveloped in flames, we felt terribly hot and could not breathe well at all. After a while, a whirlpool of fire approached us from the south. It was like a big tornado of fire spreading over the full width of the street. Whenever the fire touched, wherever the fire touched, it burned. It burned my ear and leg, I didn't realize that I had burned myself at that moment, but I noticed it later.…
The whirlpool of fire that was covering the entire street approached us from Ote-machi. So, everyone just tried so hard to keep away from the fire. It was just like a living hell. After a while, it began to rain. The fire and the smoke made us so thirsty and there was nothing to drink, no water, and the smoke even disturbed our eyes. As it began to rain, people opened their mouths and turned their faces towards the sky and try to drink the rain, but it wasn't easy to catch the rain drops in our mouths. It was a black rain with big drops....
They were so big that we even felt pain when they dropped onto us. We opened our mouths just like this, as wide as possible in an effort to quench our thirst. Everybody did the same thing. But it just wasn't enough. Someone, someone found an empty can and held it to catch the rain.
No, no it didn't. Maybe I didn't catch enough rain, but I still felt very thirsty and there was nothing I could do about it. What I felt at that moment was that Hiroshima was entirely covered with only three colors. I remember red, black and brown, but, but, nothing else. Many people on the street were killed almost instantly. The fingertips of those dead bodies caught fire and the fire gradually spread over their entire bodies from their fingers. A light gray liquid dripped down their hands, scorching their fingers. I, I was so shocked to know that fingers and bodies could be burned and deformed like that. I just couldn't believe it. It was horrible. And looking at it, it was more than painful for me to think how the fingers were burned, hands and fingers that would hold babies or turn pages, they just, they just burned away. For a few years after the A-bomb was dropped, I was terribly afraid of fire. I wasn't even able to get close to fire because all my senses remembered how fearful and horrible the fire was, how hot the blaze was, and how hard it was to breathe the hot air. It was really hard to breathe. Maybe because the fire burned all the oxygen, I don't know. I could not open my eyes enough because of the smoke, which was everywhere. Not only me but everyone felt the same. And my parts were covered with holes.” (Akiko Takakura)
The citizens of Hiroshima will never be able to forget August 6, 1945. On that morning, exactly two years ago today, the first atomic bomb to be unleashed on a city in the history of mankind fell on Hiroshima; it instantly reduced the city to ashes and claimed the precious lives of more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens. Hiroshima turned into a city of death and darkness. Yet as some slight consolation for this horror, the dropping of the atomic bomb became a factor in ending the war and calling a halt to the fighting. In this sense, mankind must remember that August 6 was a day that brought a chance for world peace. This is the reason why we are now commemorating that day by solemnly inaugurating a festival of peace, despite the limitless sorrow in our minds. For only those who most bitterly experienced and came to know most completely the misery and the guilt of war can utterly reject war as the most terrible kind of human suffering, and ardently pursue peace.” (Shinzo Hamai, Peace Declaration 1947) (Emphasis added)
The impact of the bombs was immediately destructive but the injuries and radiation sickness they left behind ruined the health and well-being of more than one generation. There are places we visit to remember our best moments as a species and there are places that are reminders of the worst we have been. Hiroshima and Nagasaki should belong to the latter.

The seven decades since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been three parallel movements. First, several nuclear arms races—between pairs or groups of states that have nuclear weapons, are trying to build them or are trying to stop each other from getting them—have shaped international relations globally and regionally. Second, the idea that nuclear energy has peaceful applications and offers a clean, safe and cost-effective solution to the world’s growing energy hunger took off in the 1950s and 1960s and still influences government policies around the world. This idea has been shaken by human acts of omission (Chernobyl and the Rajasthan Power Plant) and the catastrophic impact of disasters (Fukushima, raising questions about Koodankulam). Third, anti-nuclear struggles persist around the world, like voices in the wildnerness but also like stubborn weeds that resist destruction.

Women have played an important part in anti-nuclear struggles everywhere.  The women hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been advocates, raising awareness around the world of the impact on health and life of atomic weapons. The women’s peace camp at Greenham Common stayed put from 1982 to 2000, to protest a US missile base in rural England, raising questions about the legitimacy of both the base and of nuclear weapons. The women of Jaitapur and Idinthakarai are raising questions about safety, environmental and health impact of the nuclear installations in their neighbourhood. These are just three examples from around the world. But despite this, and despite the growing numbers of women nuclear physicists, there are very few of them at policy tables  (also, this)and there is no reason to expect that women physicists will have different views on weaponisation or even the efficacy of nuclear energy, but the fact that the physical and social impact of nuclear weapons or even accidents are gendered should make diversity imperative.

Women too, fight shy of learning to engage with technical discussions—an ingrained patriarchal notion of both capability and interest that is taught at home and in school. This week, marking the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, may be a good time to commit to gender inclusivity in the nuclear debate:
  • Do we understand the gendered consequences of our choices?
  • Are we inclusive in whose accounts we read?
  • Whose voices do we consider authoritative?
  • What do we know about the century-old legacy of women’s peace and anti-nuclear work?
  • What do women know (bother to/ have the chance to learn) about nuclear energy, nuclear policy and nuclear weapons?
  • How do we build capacity among women professionals to engage with these issues?
  • How do we ensure women’s inclusion in policy discussions on matters nuclear? 
The challenge is that we are forgetting. Seventy years is a very long time, and even the memories of Chernobyl and Fukushima now seem distant, as new topics and controversies claim our attention everyday. As we clamour for uninterrupted power supply, it is easy to forget that we never quite settled the debates over nuclear energy and never adequately supported research into alternatives—indeed, by voting with our consumption habits, we are now pronouncing our verdict.

And yet, when the world votes to ban nuclear weapons, and there are prominent absences and abstentions, it seems we are still standing where we were seventy-odd years ago, and the promise of world peace, optimistically held out by the Mayor of Hiroshima in 1947, has not come to fruition. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Reflections from Dhauli, July 2017

A Rock-Face Mirror to Indian Politics: Reflections from Dhauli

You would think that a medium-sized rock-face that can only carry so much text would evoke a reaction that is finite. Wrong. On my third visit to Dhauli, the location of a rock edict promulgated by Asoka, I was again struck by its relevance to our time and this time, it was the text on the Archaeological Survey of India’s information board that had me thinking. They summarise the First Special Rock Edict thus: “Addressing the Mahamatras of Samapa, Asoka proclaims that all his subjects are just like his own children and he wishes their welfare and happiness both in this world and the other as he desires for his own children. He orders his officials to be free from anger and hurry so that no body will be punished without trial.”

The last sentence stays with me.

The drama inherent in the story of Asoka’s renunciation of war is irresistible. It captures the imagination the first time you hear it and stirs your soul when you think of the enormity of the epiphany. You forget the years of terrible, often fratricidal violence that preceded the epiphany, and Asoka’s change of heart seems to fill yours with forgetfulness and forgiveness both. You stand at the top of the Dhauli rock and think, “This was the field, this was the river of blood and that was a moment the world should be proud of.” Not quite the same field or stream, but it is hard not to be humbled by the imagined memory of that moment.

The times we inhabit are surely what the Chinese point to in their curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Bad news is everywhere—war, oppression, discrimination, cupidity and stupidity. In such times, the story of Asoka’s epiphany lights a candle of hope. Dare we dream of just such a change of heart in our times?

This time, my third visit, I remember that the drama of the epiphany is captured by another edict (the 13th Major Rock Edict) that is found at locations outside Kalinga—the king’s transformation stopping short of telling the conquered people that he felt bad about conquering them—but this line reminds me of certain qualities of governance which we have prized in other times: “He orders his officials to be free from anger and hurry so that no body will be punished without trial.” Vindictiveness is not acceptable, nor is acting in such haste that the person at the receiving end is defenceless.

I read this in the age of an Aadhaar expansion that feels like the death-grip of a python, in the aftermath of a demonetisation that seems to have been characterised by prioritising speed over preparation and in the long-time coming but no clearer for it adoption of the Goods and Services Tax. In an age where governments—across parties—regard people as impediments and dissent as disloyalty, it is the coercive potential of instruments they create to regulate our activities that we must consider more than any transformative potential governments claim. We will lose our privacy and personal security to Aadhaar and I can no longer remember what benefits we are supposed to receive from it. Though WhatsApp polemic dismisses it decisively, real world, ground-level reports are that people did suffer greatly as a result of demonetisation. And GST seems to have created several layers of compliance—where compliance is potentially and in fact, a lever for control.  Haste is disguised as efficiency and the instruments for many a future vendetta lie embedded in these policies. This is history; this is how the state operates.

What we know from Kautilya’s Arthasastra and from Megasthenes’ Indika about Maurya administration tell us about the importance given to two-way communication between the government and local communities. Officials at different levels were required to regularly tour and report back to their supervisors in a chain that ended in the Emperor’s chamber. The first Separate Rock Edict at Dhauli states, “This edict is to he proclaimed on the eighth day of the star Tisya, and at intervals between the Tisya-days it is to be read aloud, even to a single person.” The 14th Major Rock Edict states that the edicts are to be found all over the empire in longer or abridged formats so that people may learn about and conform to them.

To be fair, our government believes in talking to the people—but when the feedback loop is usually left incomplete, either in the design or by not listening, it is not really communication, is it? And this is the question I now have about Asoka’s empire too. So he promulgated these messages and had them carved everywhere, and we learn from other sources that in his time, administrative structures provided for a feedback loop, but did he listen? Did any of the other idealised kings of Indian history listen to anyone who could not insistently ring the bell before their palace and demand justice? Rama acted on popular opinion that he had been wrong to accept Sita after her abduction by Ravana, but did he not act in haste? Did he ask Sita to share with the public her experience of abduction and life as a hostage? Did he consider alternative actions? We know Asoka’s ‘mann ki baat’ but did he know what was in the hearts of his people? We are so impressed by his renunciation of war that we do not stop to ask; everything else he did must also be ideal. In an age where we have both the Right to Information and the means to learn for ourselves, are we asking enough questions of our own governments, persistently enough?

Our credulity is apparently age-old, as we like to claim about everything else—culture, democracy, tolerance. I write these words of doubt, not to detract from Asoka’s moment, but to remind myself that it is one thing to give the benefit of the doubt to a distant king more than two millennia removed from my life and another thing to forsake the right to ask questions in our moment. We all need faith and magic, and as a peace activist, I am unwilling to lose the hope Asoka’s epiphany holds out to me—I need to believe changes of heart are possible. I need to believe in the power of love, to use Kenneth Boulding’s words. I need to be able to hope that those who have an ‘accidents happen’ perspective on communal violence, state-sanctioned coercion or militarisation, will someday see things differently—but I cannot afford to grant them anticipatory forgiveness. If the easiest way to raise questions about today is to raise them in the context of a 2000 year old edict, so be it.

Usually associated with a realist, pragmatic, ruler-centred politics, Kautilya’s Arthasastra recognises that the people will and have the right to rebel when their rulers are greedy or unjust. Rulers should guard against rebellion first and foremost by remaining righteous and of course, concerned with the security of the state, the text suggests measures for countering rebellion and treachery but it does not equate the two. But the beginnings of disaffection can only be understood by those who pay attention and want to learn, and disaffection festers. If you suppress or ignore it, it does not go away.

In Indira Gandhi’s centenary year, we are reading a great deal about the Emergency and it is instructive to remember that the road to that hell was also paved with good intentions. Mrs. Gandhi had a closed circle of counselors and she completely misread public opinion, so that the outcome of the 1977 election came as a shock to her. Like Asoka’s edicts and the Prime Minister’s ‘Mann ki baat’ episode recordings, the mission of the 20 Point and 5 Point Programme were also laid out on street corners and in advertisements. In the interest of “order,” censorship silenced those who would have asked questions. “All men are my children,” every government tells us—this implies they know what is good for us and we should trust them—but the citizens of a democracy are not children, and anyone who spends time around children know they start out instinctively curious, egalitarian, fair and open. In a democracy, governments should consult and debate with citizens and citizens should pay attention, be informed, question and communicate with the government. Government exists to serve the public interest and this means, all kinds of people. This is the message that Asoka’s edicts also convey repeatedly: That Asoka, seeks the welfare and love of the people; that officials should behave respectfully towards them and that there should be both the perception and reality of fair-play. We are credulous about Asoka because these are values we today hold dear but these very values require us to be sceptical—our Constitution has given us all speaking parts in the unfolding drama of Indian democracy. The success of this play depends also on how we play our roles—with preparation, with courage, with faith in our values but doubt about everything else!