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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Mumbai gangrape and our outrage - some thoughts!

(At the outset, I'd like to say that while most of this piece refers to rape, it applies just as much to VAW (Violence Against Women). And in fact, it applies not just to women but to men too. It needs to be seen in its broadest sense, even if most of the context seems to be, quite understandably I would think, women-related.).

There’s been another gangrape in India. This time in Mumbai.

The entire country is outraged.

Mumbai? Supposedly India’s safest city? That too in broad daylight?

And the girl was accompanied by a male colleague?

How could this happen?

Within a couple of days, we have more rape stories. Like this , this and this .

Over the next few days, as the outrage continues, I expect the media to keep unearthing more stories of rapes.

The subject will be hot for a few days, so it makes perfect business sense for the media to keep rape in the news.

Till, like any product that has reached its sell-by date, this topic is also discarded by the media and replaced in its space by the latest hot topic.

That’s how things work in the media world.

The fact is the truth has long since stopped being absolute. It has become what we are told it is.

The fact is before the Delhi gangrape last December, rapes used to happen in India every single day.

The fact is that after the Delhi gangrape, rapes have been happening in India every single day.

The fact is that a few months after the Delhi incident, the media moved on to other topics.

And, in a sense, the foot went off the pedal.

During those early days following the Delhi rape, there was intense pressure on the government and the police to be seen to be doing something. 

The Delhi police chief held press conferences, explaining what actions he and his staff were taking. The CM of Delhi felt public pressure as there were protests in the city. The government constituted a 3-member commission, headed by Justice JS Verma, to look at stronger anti-rape laws. The commission submitted a 630-page report within 29 days. This led to the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013.

The topic of women, their empowerment, their safety was so hot that even the Finance Minister had special provisions in his budget for women. Including the setting up of women’s banks and a Nirbhaya fund for women.

But then the foot went off the pedal.

As it will, once this Mumbai case also goes off the media radar.

For a while, there will be debates on TV channels with “experts”.  There will be a lot of people active on social media – on their blogs, on Facebook, on Twitter – outraging and, like the “experts” on TV, discussing what ails the system and what needs to be done.  There will be talk of the “death penalty” and “fast track courts”. There will be protests and candelight vigils.

And then, undoubtedly, something else will happen and capture everybody’s imagination.  And that will suddenly become the debate topic, the blog topic.

That is the nature of news.  Mediapersons love to tell us that it’s about the people – but actually it’s about the story.

And a story has a shelf-life.

The fact is that the people who CAN make a difference are just not doing it.

Society at large, the government, the police force, the media – we are all part of the problem.

As a society, we create a mindset where women are objectified. Where they are not seen as human beings, but as a set of body parts. We have the advertising industry thrusting female body parts at us to sell products that have nothing to do with women at all. We have men glorified as “macho” men depending on how many women they can “conquer”. 

This objectification is sweeping in its ramifications - we have the man whistling at the girl walking past and passing lewd comments, we have the male office colleague staring at his female colleague’s body lustfully , we have men groping and grabbing women in public spaces. Each of these men is not seeing the woman as a human being, he is seeing her as an object.

So we as a society need to first change ourselves. In right earnest. Coming down strongly on anything that suggests objectification. I know some will think I’m making too much of a deal of this point, some may even consider objectification a way of life in today’s society, but I do think its role in how men see women cannot be overstated.

Another thing we really need to do as a society is to try to understand the mind of (potential) rapists better.

Now, although some women may not agree, not every man is a pig. There are thankfully still many men out there who respect women for who they are. We need to see why these men respect women - and others don’t. Is their upbringing different? Are their living conditions different? Is it to do with social circles they move in? Is it that acts of rape happen more under the influence of drugs or alcohol?

If we are to reduce rape, we need to reduce the conditions under which this happens, in every possible way. Nobody is born a rapist – but somewhere along the line, rapists and potential rapists get created.

There's much more we can do as a society.

For example, bringing up our children to respect all others, regardless of gender (or other discriminatory societal grouping).

For example, not tolerating patriarchal behaviour, regardless of where we see it happening.

The fact is, we are just not doing enough. 

As a society, our end-objective is to ensure that men and women are both seen and treated as equal human beings, with their sex being only a biological differentiator. It is much easier said than done, no doubt – but I believe it is very much doable. And the onus is very much on us as a society. We keep making demands on our government but there is a lot we can do ourselves.

Talking of the government, it is of course one of the government’s primary functions to provide a certain level of security for its citizens. Clearly, this is not working well enough at the moment. And although there have been some changes in the laws recently, clearly more needs to be done.

And not just on the legislation front. Much more needs to be done at the ground level. Police reforms have been talked about for ages, but somehow it keeps going off the radar. If we need deterrence against crime, we need criminals first and foremost to be brought to book. Only then can the law kick in at all.

While various political parties will keep pointing fingers at each other, I believe the best way to get the government to act is to make personal security an election issue. Governments, even in a democracy, have been known to have scant respect for the common man – until they feel that their existence is at stake. So the common man needs to hurt the government where it hurts – and that is usually at the polling booths.

Then there is the media.

I am sometimes amazed at how much power the media has – and how poorly it has used this power. The media is supposedly the fourth estate – it is supposed to safeguard the interests of the public. And it can do SO much. Governments may not care about the voice of the common man – but there is not a politician out there who would want to run foul of the media. The media has been known to make or break personalities. And politicians need the media to build their image and to carry their message to the public.

With all this power, the media could support the fight for equality of the sexes by supporting and promoting the right messages to the public. By coming down strongly on all things patriarchal and discriminatory. By following up on stories and ensuring that appropriate pressure is put on law enforcement agencies to book criminals. And pressure is put on the judicial process to ensure criminals are not allowed to get away lightly. 

Fighting crime (of which VAW / rape is a part), using its power, could be one of the media’s most responsible actions. 

One thought. If we can have an NDTV Profit channel to discuss money, maybe we could even have an NDTV Crime channel? Or a Times Crime or Zee Crime channel? Or a Doordarshan Crime channel? Surely there's enough 24 / 7 material for a full time crime reporting channel?

I know much of what I am saying will be dismissed as wishful thinking. We live in cynical times. And yes, going by evidence on the ground, one can hardly blame the cynics.

Yet, I think we have the solution only in our own hands. Things are not going to change overnight – but they are also not going to change with these debates on TV or these candlelight vigils.

As a society, we talk too much. Maybe it’s time all of us backed up that talk with some action.

(I recognize that this blogpost is also another of those blogposts written in the aftermath of the Mumbai gangrape.  The very blogposts that I have referred to earlier in this piece. The point is not that we should not express our views – of course we should. The point is that we need to do much more than just “outrage and move on”).

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Independence Day (15th August) thoughts

Today is the 15th of August – a date that has a very special meaning and significance for all Indians, wherever they may be in this world.

For it was on the 15th of August 1947 that India got its independence from British rule.

This date is therefore understandably celebrated by Indians. It is a national holiday in the country too.

Such an occasion is also a good moment to reflect on the state of the nation. What its achievements are, how it has got to where it is, what its aspirations are, and what needs to happen for it to meet its aspirations.

Before I do my bit of reflection along these lines, my mind goes back to Independence Day 1972.

I was then in primary school. As usual, Independence Day was a holiday but there were events lined up by the school to celebrate the day.

There would be the usual flag unfurling by the Chief Guest, there would be a March Past at 7.00 or 7.30 a.m where we would salute the flag as we marched past it. Later that day, there would be some sports events, mainly athletics.

Like most of my friends, I would enjoy the day. Dressed in uniform but wearing white canvas shoes, it was a day of great joy and pride for all of us. When the flag would be unfurled and all those petals would come down, we would all heartily clap and our chests would swell with pride.

This would be the school routine every year. I specifically remember, and mention, 1972 because I remember it was the Silver Jubilee year of independence and we had even more activities and events lined up that day.  The mood was very upbeat – the war against Pakistan had been won in December 1971, so this was the first Independence Day after that achievement.

(Of course, a year later, the OPEC financial crisis happened and inflation went through the roof. A couple of years later, Emergency was declared and the 70s in India suddenly began looking different. I was too young then to understand the rationale or significance of these events, though I did notice the price of Coca Cola significantly going up. But even at that young age, since I used to read the newspaper regularly, I could notice changes happening, even if I didn’t understand why.)

The other non-school related elements of Independence Day used to have a comfortable ritualistic feel about them. The Prime Minister would address the nation, there would be patriotic songs played on radio. No radio programme on Independence Day was complete without airing “kar chale hum fidaa jaan-o-tan saathiyon”. We didn’t have a TV in those days but later when we did get one, we would see the Doordarshan film on Independence Day.

Those memories still linger on in my mind, although forty years have passed since. The rituals continue to this day – even today, the PM of India addresses the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi. Even today, All India Radio plays patriotic songs on Independence Day. Even today, there is the flag unfurling ceremony and there are March Pasts all across the country.

Even today, in schools, there must be excited children waiting for Independence Day, wearing bright white canvas shoes and waiting excitedly for the Chief Guest to unfurl that flag. The players are different, the rituals are still much the same.

This is part of tradition now. And, whatever our reservations about a whole host of things, I am glad that we still perpetuate these traditions, at least for the sake of the youth and children of this nation. They need to grow up with a sense of pride and belief in their country – and these rituals, though they may only be symbolism, help in building this sense in them.

Later in life, as they discover more about their country, they may not have quite as rosy a picture of it as in their childhood. But I think every child deserves to live with pride in his country and hope for its future. It is hard to find a sadder spectacle in society than a disillusioned and embittered child. If a child has no hope, society has no hope.

This now ties in, even if somewhat uncomfortably, with my reflection on the state of the nation.

(I want to clarify that my views are about the country as a whole, not about any political party.)

It would not be unfair to say this this is one of the most sobering Independence Day celebrations that we’ve had in a long time. I thought last year was sobering enough, but this year seems to be a notch lower in terms of people’s moods and spirits. If last year, cynicism had entered the public mindset and found its place, this year its roots deepened as it firmly entrenched itself across the national psyche.

It’s not hard to see where this cynicism is coming from. Every day when we open the newspapers (or read news on the net), it’s not difficult to see that there’s not exactly a whole lot of good news to read about, is there?

From bad economic news (rising inflation, rising fiscal deficit, falling rupee, falling industrial production) to bad governance news (rising crime, increasing corruption and scams) to the rising risk to internal security (thanks to an increasingly fractured social fabric due to religion-based or deprivation-based divisiveness), there is not very much for Indians to feel good about their country right now.

Many Indians today have no trust in their government or in their institutions, be it the police or the judicial system or the media or any other institution. There is a sense of lack of accountability across the board for those in power and in positions of responsibility. And, at the same time, a sense of helplessness amongst those who have ironically vested in these powerful people this power.

While this is understandable, it is clearly not a healthy situation. Many Indians are celebrating this Independence Day with a hollow feeling within. I have already had people telling me “what’s there to celebrate?”. Some are even questioning whether they are really independent. Their feeling is that they may have got freedom from British rule but are now being ruled by a different set of rulers, albeit Indian.

My mind often goes back to our Founding Fathers and to those who fought for freedom from the British. What struggle they must have gone through! So many of them sacrificed their lives. So many spent years in jail.

Even when they did wrest independence, India was a very fragile newborn. There were communal riots and a lot of tension. There were 500+ kingdoms/states to be united as part of the same nation. There was rampant poverty. There was rampant illiteracy.

Despite all this, those Founding Fathers persevered. They had a dream, they had come this far in getting independence for India, they were not going to slacken their efforts. Although Gandhiji died soon after independence, the rest took upon themselves the task of building the country in right earnest. They came up with the Indian Constitution, which in itself is a tremendous achievement and the basis for running the nation.

If they were alive today and could see the state of the nation, how would those Founding Fathers feel?

Would they be proud of today’s India? Is this the India they dreamt of? Have we done justice to their dreams?

The famous words, as if spoken by our Founding Fathers, “Hum laaye hain toofan se kashti nikaal ke, is desh ko rakhna mere bachon sambhaal ke” ring in my ears. And I cannot help feeling somewhat ashamed that we might just have let them down.

We are not answerable only to our Founding Fathers. We are also answerable to our future generations.

Our children and grandchildren will inherit the India that we leave for them. Just as we inherited the India that our Founding Fathers left us with. 

Are we leaving them an India that they can be proud of? That they would be happy living in?

Let me not paint too bleak a picture here. To be fair, we have come a long way. It is not all just doom and gloom.

Overall, we have far better literacy, far better lifespans, far better standards of living than ever before.

India today is counted among the more powerful countries in the world, even if it is still tagged (as it was way back in 1972, when I can recall this tag) as a developing nation and not a developed nation.

And very importantly, inspite of the occasional threat to it, we are still a proudly pluralistic nation.

And we are still a vibrant democracy, where we have (at least on paper) a choice in who we elect to represent us in Parliament.

But all this is not enough. There is still a long, long way to go. And all of us know it. There is no point in fooling ourselves.

Now, we can keep complaining about all that’s wrong with the system and in the country. But the fact is that we ourselves are responsible for the society and nation we build. Each society builds itself, it is not built from outside. We need to stop blaming the British (they left the country  66 years ago) and look at ourselves.

In a sense, we are both the problem and the solution. We haven’t quite taken proper care of the country that our forefathers fought so dearly for. And yet, only we can solve our problems.

I believe it starts with a belief that we can – and will – stem the rot. If we give up, saying “nothing can be done”, the battle is already lost. Sure, the problems facing the country are huge, but they are not insurmountable. 

We need to realise that as an independent country, India is only 66 years old – and in the lifetime of a country, this is nothing. You could even say much of what has happened is part of the churn from a colonial mindset to an independent, confident mindset. "Power to the masses" is a great slogan but these are masses who are used to having been ruled for centuries. 

Following on this belief, there must be a strong desire, a burning passion to change. Passion does strange things – it makes people far more powerful than they think themselves capable of being. If everybody just wants to run away from the problem (“let somebody else fix it”), we deserve whatever mess we get.

Following on this belief and passion, we need a community spirit. There is only so much an individual can do. Even Gandhiji, for all his belief and passion, would never have succeeded if he had not got the support of the millions of Indians who went along with him. And this spirit must cut across all the barriers that we have placed on ourselves – barriers of religion, of caste, of class, of language.

And then of course, action. Finally all this has to culminate into a series of actions that will deliver us the India we dream of. It is not enough to just discuss or to write books – we need to translate all this into action.  And though we have our unique issues, I do think it would help perhaps to learn from experiences of other nations. What do they do well that we don’t? It’s important to keep an open mind and learn from others.

I could go on and on – I have a lot more to say on this subject. But I think I’ll take a break for now. It’s already become a long post and perhaps I’m beginning to get a bit preachy. I do tend to get carried away, my apologies.

I’d like to end this particular post with one point though that I’d like all Indians to remember.

Today we are a free country. And despite everything that’s not going right, this freedom is something that we hold – and need to hold - very special to our hearts. It didn't come easy.

This freedom allows us to hold our heads up high. It allows us to express our opinions freely – something that we were not allowed to do during colonial rule.

So let’s all appreciate the value of this freedom.

Let’s all make it count.

We owe it to our generation.

We owe it to our future generations.

We owe it to the Founding Fathers of our nation.

Happy Independence Day! Jai Hind!