Monday, September 24, 2012

This awkward business of sedition

Once upon a time, a man wrote three letters. He wrote that he hadn’t heard from his correspondent in a while. He talked of the gulf between rich and poor, of the need for propaganda, of how their organisation needed to do more to achieve their goals.

These letters were carried by a doctor. The doctor was subsequently arrested. For sedition. Which means that his actions hurt the nation.

Dr Binayak Sen was already known for the years he spent serving the poor, providing medical aid that the government should have been providing. He was then accused of waging war against all of us. Those letters he carried were written by a sick senior citizen called Narayan Sanyal, who was in jail for Maoist/Naxalite activities.

In a new book, The Curious Case Of Binayak Sen, journalist Dilip D’Souza points out that the judge who found Binayak Sen guilty offered the interpretation that a letter describes certain murders as reactionary. But the letter does not mention the word ‘murder’ at all. At another place, the wording has been twisted around. Instead of a request for ‘MR’ to send funds for ‘friends here’, the judge interprets it as a request to send money to a person or group called ‘MR’.

D’Souza mentions that there are people who dislike Dr Sen because of his alleged support of Maoists, or even just because he was trying to help Sanyal in jail. The author describes his own brief brush with the law. 

D’Souza writes that he — along with some other men — was once arrested for travelling in the Ladies compartment of a local train in Mumbai. He was bailed out and asked to appear in court. The other men did not appear in court. They had already bribed their way to freedom.

Which brings us to this awkward business of corruption. Now a cartoonist called Aseem Trivedi is accused of doing the nation harm. He drew a cartoon that seemed to suggest that the lions on our national emblem have turned into wolves, their mouths dripping blood. Their motto reads: Bhrashtamev Jayate. The Corrupt Win.

Whether it was a good cartoon or not is a separate matter. But it did citizens no harm. It did the national emblem no harm. The emblem remains where it was, engraved on a pillar. As for our motto, Satyamev Jayate, it should be engraved on our hearts. But seeing how corrupt we actually are, how every law turns into an opportunity for someone in governance or administration to extract money illegally from harried citizens, Trivedi was probably just telling the truth as he felt it.

So who does that cartoon actually damage? It damages, I suppose, our image of ourselves. That image of us being lion-hearted defenders of the truth.

If only we were. If only our policemen arrested people who do damage the nation. If only the policemen themselves did not damage the nation.

In D’Souza’s new book, he quotes historian Ramchandra Guha, who has written of his encounter with a Muria tribal in a jail in Chhattisgarh. Dabba Boomaiah had a job as a labourer on a lift irrigation project. One day he offered to take a road-building crew to the Bhopalpatnam police station. The police began to quiz him about Naxal activity in the area and pressured him to become a vigilante, via the Salwa Judum. When he refused, he was arrested.

Neither Guha, nor D’Souza, nor I, know what has happened to poor Dabba since. Let us hope he is out of jail, at home, safe. Perhaps, he is considering engraving upon his lion heart, the words: Satyamev Jayate.

First published here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Smoke that!

What would you make of a man who told your daughter that it is her duty to suffer violence? And what would you do if this man happened to be the person to whom we all turn for justice?

A certain Justice Bhaktavasala has gained notoriety recently for his handling of ‘family matters’ — which means divorce or domestic violence cases. First he rebuked an unmarried lawyer for arguing a divorce case, implying that she couldn’t possibly understand the significance of marriage. He also forced the estranged couple to spend time together though they were reluctant; at least, the woman was.

There was a minor furor when this judge confronted another young woman who was getting beaten up by her husband — in public, and sometimes at night when she’d be thrown out of the house. Reports quote Justice Bhaktavatsala as saying: “Women suffer in all marriages. You are married with two children, and know what it means to suffer as a woman... Your husband is doing good business, he will take care of you. Why are you still talking about his beatings? I know you have undergone pain. But that is nothing in front of what you undergo as a woman."

He proceeded to ask the woman if her father had never beaten her mother, and cited the example of the film actor Darshan, whose wife went back to live with him despite reports of violence. When her lawyer produced photographs showing the young woman’s face after being assaulted, this judge is reported to have said: “You have to adjust… You have to give him a divorce or go with him... What is on your mind and what is on your agenda?”

If the honorable judge had been getting beaten up himself, he might have had a slightly different take on the matter. But anyway, my problem is not his personal attitude to wife-beating. That is his own wife’s or his daughters’ problem. My problem is his disregard for the law.

Petitions were sent out to the Chief Justice at the High Court in Karnataka and eventually, ‘family matters’ was taken away from Justice Bhaktavatsala. While this is a relief, it is also horrid to know that this man is not likely to be penalised for this blatant defiance of the very laws he is supposed to uphold. God knows how many lives have been destroyed along the way.

Last year, a Bangalore resident had filed a petition seeking to be reunited with his wife. He claimed that she was being illegally detained by her parents. Justice Bhaktavatsala had remarked that the Hindu Marriage Act ought to be amended so a girl under 21 could no longer marry without the permission of her parents.

And thisman, who would rather send a loving husband to jail than the violent man who beats his wife, is being paid by all of us. To think that I work hard and pay taxes to enable this man’s livelihood!

He isn’t the only one with strange ideas about women. V Shekhar who was representing the health ministry in the Supreme Court, made statements like: “Indian tradition doesn’t permit a lady to smoke.”

Which makes me wonder if Shekhar even knows who India is. With my own eyes, I’ve seen women smoking in Rajasthan, in Madhya Pradesh, in Maharashtra, in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh (I haven’t travelled much in the south or northeast). None of these women were urban, nor did they watch many films. They were as ‘traditional’ as they come. They had their beedis or chillums, often in front of children. And they enabled and passed on culture. Smoke that!

First published here.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Short 2

And here is a new short film I made. It was great fun working with the actors. The whole thing was shot in a day and a half. Feedback welcome.

The Millionaire Effect

When I first went to Dharavi I wasn't wearing my middle-class-gawker glasses. I was researching a story on successful businessmen and already knew the sprawling slum was host to industries ranging from plastics to pottery, tanneries and bakeries. I knew there was serious money involved and also that the slum once tagged the largest in Asia (currently, the Orangi township in Karachi is the largest, according to the United Nations) is no longer even the largest in Mumbai.
The UN defines a slum as a run-down urban area, "characterised by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security". While these characteristics do exist in the 557 acres that comprise Dharavi, that the definition is inadequate becomes apparent as soon as you set foot there.
Which brings us to the other question – if you could avoid it, why would you set foot in a slum?  Yet a whole lot of people are doing just that, and paying for the privilege. There are at least four tour operators within Dharavi that offer guided tours, charging between Rs 500 to 2500 per head, depending on whether you want a private tour or travel in a group. There are no clear figures, but based on operator estimates, in 'season' – roughly from the end of October until March – Dharavi has thousands of visitors.
Call it the Slumdog Millionaire effect, or just that old thing, curiosity. People have always wanted to discover the lives of the 'other': the phrase 'slumming it' comes from members of the upper class touring poor neighbourhoods in London and New York in the nineteenth century. Indian cities have no dearth of squalor, poverty or insecurity. Mumbai has slums, or slum-like conditions, in almost every suburb. But what distinguishes Dharavi is its unique economic ecosystem. The poor don't just go there to sleep. They create wealth.
Krishna Pujari, who runs Reality Tours and Travels, lived in the Prateekshanagar slums for two years but says that Dharavi offers a unique experience. He says since 2006, when he co-founded the firm, Dharavi has changed. "Slum policies are changing too. People also work for BPOs, MNCs, hotels. There are schools and hospitals. Infrastructure is better but nowhere close to good. And we get more and more tourists. Perhaps, people are developing a social conscience. Or maybe they are just intrigued."
This curiosity is not always appreciated though. Pujari himself admits it was hard at first. "When Chris Way, one of our partners, first visited Mumbai, I took him to Dharavi. People said, 'Take him to Malabar Hill or the Gateway. Why are you bringing him here to show off our poverty and filth?' So, I asked, 'Do you think you are poor and dirty?' They said, no. I said, 'So, let him see that you're not'."
Since then, resident tour guides have taken a measure of pride in 'their area'. Fahim Vora, 24, says that when he was first approached to be a guide, he baulked. "I felt, 'What? Bringing those people to my area?' But I did it once, and realised that nobody really minds."
Fahim was working with Reality at the time but soon developed independent ambitions. Along with partner Tauseef Siddiqui, he set up 'Be The Local' in 2010. Now they employ other Dharavi boys, mostly college students, as tour guides.
Pujari trains English-speaking students for a month on the history and economic spread of Dharavi. He says he prefers to take students "from humble backgrounds" and also works with government schools and local teachers. The firm also supports some NGOs either through money or the use of their space and skills. They help fund a girls' football team. But the tour itself, he says, is like an empowerment program for young people who cannot find jobs.
The guides agree. Despite 'knowing' English in theory, Fahim couldn't draft a coherent email until he started the job and Tauseef didn't have the confidence to talk to people until his first tour. For students, there's some pocket money to be made and the chance to meet interesting people. Nilesh Vaidya, a student who has worked with Reality for six months now, says that he has grown from being a shy, silent type into an aspiring radio jockey. Since he lives in the Mahalakshmi Dhobi Ghat area, his learnings have been greater. "I came here for an interview, and that was my introduction to Dharavi. I'd heard of the filth and the bhai-goondas (goons, often those with mafia links). But now I say every Indian should visit this place once," he says.
But few Indians do. Even those who live an easy cab ride away are uncurious, perhaps nervous about going into a slum. Deepa Krishnan, who organises tours through Mumbai Magic, says she gets at least 500 visitors a year but most are overseas tourists, ranging from "upscale" to backpackers.
Some like Emily Lawrence, 20, already have some exposure. "I'd seen a documentary. It looked interesting and I was curious." She'd never seen this sort of slum in the UK, but conditions were better than expected. "I was surprised by how people live together in these cramped spaces and are still so organised. I didn't expect that."
And then there are visitors like Anna Wagner, 22, who takes Bollywood dance lessons in Austria. She wanted to see the city where the films get made but she also wanted to find out more about Dharavi. To her surprise, the streets were not full of people begging on the streets. "They are all working," she said, adding that she wishes her Indian host, who lives in Mumbai, would visit too. "More upper and middle class Indians should go. It is more important for them."
There are Indians who do visit slums on work, of course, but they'd rather not go as tourists. Suman, a volunteer at a social school (name changed, because she prefers to remain anonymous) is critical of this "exhibition of misery". She believes that instead of sensitising them, slum tours merely gives tourists something to talk about at home. "It's an ego boost, making them feel blessed because they don't have to live in such conditions." She was particularly riled by a note on the Internet (posted by 'Bollywood Tours') that says 'their life is full of struggle for existence but still make them happy'. Suman wants to know, "How can they be happy? There is a don in every lane; the men are crippled by bad habits and they force their women to work and bring home money to buy more booze... Slum tours show none of this. For God's sake, these people are not freaks or animals in a zoo that we need organised tours!"
People certainly don't want to be seen that way, which is why most tour companies have a no-photo policy. Rajesh Prabhakar, a researcher who co-founded the Red Press and Media, and a life-time resident of Dharavi, says that people have become especially sensitive after the movie Slumdog Millionaire. "They still hurt about being called 'dogs'. Besides, the depictions of life were false. That toilet scene, for instance, belongs to the 1950s, not the '90s," he says.
Some parts, according to Prabhakar, were shot guerrilla-style, which makes people suspicious of cameras now. Recently, a friend of his was interrogated in the Rajiv Gandhinagar area when he was out shooting without permission. When hutments near an important water pipeline were demolished last year, residents believe it was because of foreigners taking pictures and the media publishing them, though it turned out the municipality did so for different reasons.
On my first visit, attempts to discuss the fruit business with a banana vendor were firmly rebuffed. But I did have a long, rambling conversation with L. Kannan, who runs the Murugan Laundry. As I sipped on a bottle of cola (which he insisted on), he gave me the shop's history, living conditions – the lanes are so narrow that if you have a medical emergency and an ambulance needs to be brought in, god help you – and his hopes for his sons. All along, his hands were busy, ironing.
On that trip, I'd been led by Prabhakar, who doesn't do conventional tours. "I take people to meet people. I don't take them to pre-decided spots. I take them to families. I can arrange for you to spend a few hours just talking to a potter, for instance. But if you say you want to do a tour tomorrow, within two hours, I can't do that."
The debate about the ethics of slum tourism is an old one. Some claim that it helps to bridge the psychological divide between rich and poor. A Wall Street Journal article has talked about how 'philanthropic travel' – that seems to be politically correct term – is growing, with large international travel firms diversifying into slums. But it poses the question of whether this could help 'bridge' the gulf of understanding between rich and the poor, especially if the traffic is one-way. Surely, the poor too must be allowed to see how the rich live, and where they work?
The question is interesting but perhaps, a bit unfair. After all, the upper classes in India areexposed to the scrutiny of slum residents who work in their homes or offices. It is the reverse which almost never happens. Tour operators believe that they are helping tear down negative stereotypes. In fact, Deepa Krishnan emphasizes, "This (Dharavi) is not a 'slum' tour. If you are expecting extreme poverty and despair based on movie depictions, you will be disappointed."
Even in Indian movies, locals complain, Dharavi is represented as squalid and dangerous, full of dons, drunks or drug addicts. But the young men who work as tour guides insist that the problem is no larger than it is elsewhere in Mumbai. It is just that Dharavi's problems have nowhere to hide.
First published in the Sunday Guardian.

A little justice

A few days ago, there was much relief when Ajmal Kasab, the man who killed innocent people in Mumbai, would hang after all. The Supreme Court had decided. There was no doubt about his guilt, of course. It was only a question of time. And though the wheels of justice turn slow, we needed to know that they do indeed turn.
And therefore, it was an even bigger relief to hear about the conviction of BJP MLA Maya Kodnani, and Babu Bajrangi, formerly of the Bajrang Dal, for inciting mass murder during the Gujarat riots in 2002. About 29 others were convicted too, but we were actually sort of surprised about Bajrangi and Kodnani. These two won’t hang, but if the Special Court’s verdict holds, they might spend their lives in jail, especially Bajrangi. This is so rare for riot cases in India that even if we — well, many of us — were convinced of their guilt, we were sceptical of their ever getting punished.
We have had a terrible track record of punishing rioters, even those who commit horrific crimes, but most importantly, we have rarely punished political leaders or those who have links to the government. Justice Jyotsna Yagnik certainly isn’t the first judge to convict a rioter, but her judgment comes at a time when citizens have very little faith in institutions. Elected representatives, administrative officials, even judges and prosecutors are assumed to be either corrupt or cowardly. And nothing is as damaging to the fabric of a democracy as a lack of faith in the law. 
The road to justice is very long one. There are appeals and counter-appeals, especially if the rioters have more money than the victims. Gujarat 2002 is already a decade ago. Kodnani’s career actually flourished. As for the victims’ careers, I can only imagine how they’re doing.
Actually, I can’t imagine. But I did read a report about riot victims recently. This wasn’t about Gujarat 2002. It was about Kandhamal 2008. A wave of violence was unleashed after Laxamananda Saraswati, who was affiliated to the Sangh Parivar, was killed allegedly by the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Thirty eight people were killed. There were instances of gang-rape and torture. Around 5,600 homes were burnt and 55,000 ‘minority’ people across 415 villages were displaced.
Last month, a fact-finding team visited 16 of these villages. Most of the riot victims used to work as labourers in fields or homes belonging to ‘other communities’. Now they are either not given work or they are too afraid to go. They can’t get temporary work offered by the rural employment guarantee scheme, because that’s controlled by local leaders with majority muscle.
The team found that 10,000 people who fled during the riots have not returned home. Some tried to return, but were told they’d have to convert. Most victims in Kandhamal were Christian dalits or tribals. According to the fact-finding team, they can’t get caste certificates now because the administration issues certificates on the basis of "recommendations" from leaders, and these leaders are often affiliated to right-wing groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
Many people were convicted for the Kandhamal riots by a fast-track court, and cases are still pending. And the Odisha government did offer compensation — Rs50,000 for houses that were completely burnt and Rs20,000 for partly damaged ones. But people lost more property than that. They lost pots, ploughs, crops, documents (like certificates and land records), schools, hospitals, NGOs, churches. How do you go about compensating the loss of the things that people call ‘home’? How long does it take to collect all the pieces of life and start over?
First published here.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Knocking on god's door

So word is that our billionaire Member of Parliament Vijay Mallya, donated doors worth Rs60 lakh to a temple. With Kingfisher Airlines in serious trouble, employees have not been paid for months. Some of them finally began to strike, which led to flight cancellations. Instead of reassuring his employees, though, Mallya asked them to leave if they had no faith. His own faith, of course, is not in question, given that he is running to temples with such rich offerings.

I can’t help but wonder, what makes a man, perhaps one with a measure of self-respect, do this? 
Donating golden doors to the lord, but expecting the government — which is you and me — to help tide over a financial crisis? If he has Rs60 lakh to spare, the moral thing to do would be to pay his workers, or else, donate to the government. He could have created a welfare fund for his employees, so that those who face personal emergencies could borrow money. Or he could have donated to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. He could even have fed all the hungry people in Bangalore for a day. What made him spend on a door?
I suppose it comes from a certain conception of god. In Mallya’s conception of god, He prefers nice doors on one of His innumerable houses to a just society where people actually get paid on time. This god rewards pricey gifts, not a commitment to your own employees. But if you can only weigh yourself (and other people) against material possessions, then the only thing you will bring — even to the lord — is an expensive object.
If you are this sort of person, then you probably have very odd ideas about where wealth comes from, and what you owe people who help you get rich. The earth, its minerals, its capacity for heat, water, the trees, their fruit — all this existed before you were born, and in a nation, it technically belonged to all citizens equally. You were fortunate enough to inherit a larger chunk of these resources, and then you hired other citizens to work, so that you could harness even more resources. You took bank loans, which are enabled through millions of other people and their savings and investments. But if you are a decent sort, you try to acknowledge their very legitimate concerns about their future. You try not to sound like you were doing them a favour. You very definitely don’t take money that morally belongs to your workers, and offer it up to god as a personal gift.
Perhaps, Mallya should have offered his donation to the ruling party in his home state. The Karnataka government reportedly wanted to invest in a new form of drought relief — ordering pujas at about 35,000 temples to appease the rain gods. The money for this would have come from our taxes, if there had not been an immediate outcry.
Speaking of favours and temples, we certainly don’t seem to believe in the equality of all citizens, especially before the gods. It has taken us this long to stop the VIP ‘pass’ system at temples in states like Tamil Nadu. But the state still wants a list of ‘exceptionally treated’ persons, including IAS officers and judges, who can get special appointments with the gods. ‘Security concerns’ are being cited. Clearly, the administration doesn’t trust in god alone when it comes to personal safety. Perhaps they should look to their colleagues in Karnataka. As Mallya puts it, if you lack faith, leave.
First published here.

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