Second CRG Media Programme on Gender,
Media and Human Rights
Edited by Nilanajan Dutta
Section One: Second CRG Media Programme: A Summary
Section Two: Five Letures
1. Gender and Human Rights Issues in Audio and Visual Communication
2. What Do We Mean by Gender-Just Reporting?
3. How Women Victims Communicate to Media
4. No Woman’s Land
5. Why Should We Listen to Her: Draupadi in Mahabharata
1. Programme of the Creative Media Workshop at Bhubaneswar
2. Programme of the Orientation Meeting at Kolkata
3. Programme of the Consultation Meeting at Kathmandu
4. Participants’ List at the Creative Media Workshop
5. Some of the Investigative Reports by CRG Media Fellows published in
Newspa pers / Vinati Bhargava (India) and Gunaraj Luitel (Nepal)
The report of the second CRG Media Programme is divided in three sections.
The first section carries details of the programme – its various phases, focus, theme and activities.
The second section carries invaluable contributions by the resource persons to the second Creative Media Workshop held as part of the programme. These contributions in form of short notes, addresses and written texts of lectures and are intended to work as guidelines or source material for similar workshops. They tell us how to look at the world of the media, ways of spreading and deepening media literacy and how to read our own cultural past and political present in terms of understanding the growth of public values and public sphere.
The third section gives us programme details and some of the investigating reports filed by the CRG media fellows in different newspapers as part of their work. The third section is in form of annexures. The research work done as part of the media programme has been separately published in form of a CRG Research Paper entitled Unequal Communication (Policies and Practices No. 5) and a monograph on women in Tripura facing conflict situation in Bengali entitled Abiram Raktapat: Tripura Narir Sangram.
It is a happy occasion to recall that the first Media Programme of CRG was of immense value in shaping CRG’s media and human rights programme and creative media activities. On both occasions WACC, London, proved to be of enormous encouragement. We sincerely hope that CRG’s media programme, started on an experimental basis, will retain its innovative and experimental character, and will be able to sustain itself. Several media practitioners and creative media persons have come forward in this period to assist the programme. In order to gain understanding as to how to retain the experimental nature of the programme yet provide stability to it, we shall request the readers to delve into the report and find out its different features.
This document is at the same time a report of a programme, a chronicle, and a compendium of fascinating write-ups on how to be creative in communicating acts.
Section One: Second CRG Media Programme: A Summary
Gender, Media And Human Rights In South Asia A Programme Of Reporting, Research And Intervention
The eight-month long CRG Media Programme (2004-05) has concluded successfully with the Creative Media Workshop at Bhubaneswar between 7 and 10 January 2005. This was the second media programme conducted by CRG. In 2003-04, it had held the first one on Media and Displacement. The second programme was titled ‘Gender, Media, and Human Rights in South Asia: A Program of Reporting, Research and Intervention’.
1. A Note on the Programme
1. The programme sought to address questions of women’s actions and movements for empowerment and achieving their rights in areas of conflict in South Asia (on the basis of case studies from India and Nepal), and the representations of such actions and movements in the media. South Asia is one of the most conflict prone zones of the world. Yet there is very little analysis and understanding of women’s activism for dignity, peace, and rights within conflict zones and conflict situations much to the detriment of not just the position of women but also to the broader cause of peace and conflict resolution. In any state-level political negotiations, women are often marginalized without even a murmur of protest from any quarter including the media. The main image of women in conflict as represented in South Asian media is that of a victim. By marking women as victims their voices in negotiations for resolution and reconstructions are lost. The situation is such that when questions of human rights appear women’s rights are marginalized from that discourse as well. When the media cannot sensationalise women’s victim status, they make it banal by referring to women as mere numbers. The main aim of this project is to work against such trends and centrally locate questions of women’s rights within the discourse on conflict and human rights and media representations of it. In the project, effort were made to encourage realistic representations of women within conflict situations, in particular of the rights they demand and work towards, the initiatives they take in various forms for peace, the leadership that comes up, the new organisations that surface in the process, and the nature of justice, peace, reconciliation, and democratic participation and accommodation that they envisage.
2. States in South Asia are strongly influenced by patriarchal norms. Citizenship has long been viewed as a male domain. Women’s identities and lives are often subsumed within and examined primarily in relation to cultural and communitarian groups. In most of South Asia women have been traditionally distanced from the public domain. South Asia states have often created idealised models of citizenship that is both majoritarian and male. In the process women are distanced from discourses on state and law and placed within discourses on communities. Very little has been done to explore questions of women’s rights as human beings and as citizens. In such a situation women’s negotiations in the public domain are at best overlooked and at worst trivialised. By placing women within the domain of communities that space is sanctified and abuses faced by women there are often silenced. The public space is represented in the media as a male space. Such a rendition makes women appear as passive, voiceless and without agency. The project attempted at correcting this distorted image.
3. The project facilitated a close scrutiny of the media situation by the rights and peace activists and media persons themselves. The media, particularly controlled and managed by the big business, emphasises on the profiles of smart male managers, executives, leaders, politicians, generals, feel-good people to whom conflicts are an aberration to be dealt by the State heavily or to be glossed over by silence. Even the few women reporters and desk editors we have become probably unwillingly accomplices of the male-representation game. Thus, caste, reservation, minority issue, peace movement, women’s rights, social security, food security of peasant women, job prospects threatened by globalisation-reforms-liberalisation, women of dead soldiers’ or dead rebels’ families, mothers of the disappeared, victims of rape, torture, and forced labour for the army, and the forcibly displacement of women – all these momentous issues of women’s lives and dignity are considered politically insignificant and therefore ignored by the media. Women lose out in the representational game.
4. The feminist writings have reminded us repeatedly in view of the fact that South Asia is a region of complex and protracted conflicts, that the conflict zones are often considered as masculine spaces. There are a number of conflicts in South Asia, which are over fifty years in duration. In India particularly there are numerous conflicts between state and communities. Both the state and the rebel groups have histories of violent actions in such conflicts. Women are often at the receiving end of this nationalised violence and yet there is very little understanding of the gendered nature of this violence. Even the media reports at best patronise women and at worst trivialise them. In such situation, interventions both in terms of programme and research becomes necessary to reveal the gendered nature of the problematic. In this programme, gender, media and human rights was the field in which we sought to intervene in howsoever a small way.
5. The programme was in tune with a long-term objective of CRG to interrogate the prevailing state of affairs and make gender a central aspect of enquiry in its work on conflict, peace and human rights, and in particular in critiquing the dominant male-centric representations, thereby making the work towards human rights sensitive alternative media and creative media work more fruitful.
The project comprised three different but related segments:
Three media (research) fellowships of three months duration each. Two of the fellows were women, one from the North-east, who shared her fellowship with a colleague.
Three media (reporting) fellowships, also of three months duration each. One of the two fellows from India was a woman and one fellow was from Nepal. Each of the fellows published at least three articles in well-known newspapers and periodicals on the issue of gender and human rights.
A four-day creative media workshop on gender, media and human rights;
The work of both research and reporting fellows had a special focus on women in conflict situations. The media fellowships covered stipend and reporting and research expenses. The articles produced were well researched and based on first-hand coverage. All writings are being put on the CRG website. Two research and one reporting based articles have been published by CRG in its occasional papers series ‘Policies and Practices’ (No. 5). One of the research papers, on the media coverage of women in conflict situations in Tripura, has been published separately as a volume in Bengali. In this way, the products of the research and reporting segments will become resource material for future work in this area, available for all engaged in similar work.
All media fellows, along with invited resource persons, participated in an orientation meeting at Kolkata in September as well as in the creative media workshop at Bhubaneswar in January. Some of the participants at the workshop were selected separately from candidates who applied specifically for the workshop.
The objectives of the programme in the short run are:
Publication of one research report combining the three studies;
Publication of nine newspaper or audio-visual media reports on gender and human rights in conflict areas in South Asia;
Training of 15 journalists, media practitioners, and creative writers to develop a gender sensitive and a human rights approach to reporting on conflict.
In the long term the objectives are:
To develop gender sensitive media activities;
To gradually build up a core of gender sensitive human rights reporters in a particular region;
To build up exchange of information, media writings, and creative work;
To provide an alternative approach to media representations of violence that neither sensationalise nor trivialise women’s negotiations in conflict;
To build up a coalition of human rights and peace activists, women activists for gender justice, and media activists working on peace, and creative communicators, so that the fruits of these can be used in other work as well;
In that sense, networking and aligning several forms of work on peace, gender justice, and rights around a media programme is the most significant long term goal
Link up of research and reporting, thus bringing in 2 results – improvement in the quality of reporting and diffusion of results of research;
Popularisation of the creative writings and the media training activities;
And, finally, a rich website on all these.
Strategically the programme aims to highlight the following:
Media representation of extraordinary legislation and measures of impunity and its effects on women in India
Women’s roles and their media representations in conflict
Inquiry into how media has often silenced voices of women and their fight for human rights and peace and against conflict
Finally, the research will also address media response to the marginalisation of women from peacemaking
The segments which can gain from the programme are:
Gender and media activists;
And, people living in conflict zones.
1. Consultative meeting for the programme was held at Kathmandu on 16 July 2004
2. Announcement and selection for the fellowships were made in end of July 2004.
3. The fellowship period extended from 15 August to 14 November 2004.
4. The orientation meeting was held on 23 September 2004
5. The creative media workshop was held from 7 to 10 January 2005.
6. The CRG publications were brought out in February 2005.
On spot, content analysis-based, evaluation by outsiders, transparent, and published, and two stage evaluation (individual and in the workshop) – all these based on stated objectives;
Criteria used in the evaluation – participation of women, circulation, publication, and popularisation, indication of follow up activities, potentiality in the long run, new issues being unearthed and engaged with, impact assessment, timeliness, and local interaction and involvement
CRG Media Fellows, 2004-05
Biswajit Roy: ‘The Role of Muslim Women in Polio Eradication Campaign in West Bengal’
Guna Raj Luitel: ‘Case Studies of Women from Families of Persons Disappeared During the Maoist Movement in Nepal’
Vinati Bhargava: ‘Transition from Female Infanticide to Female Foeticide in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh’
Minakshi Sen Bandyopadhyay & Jayanta Bhattacharya: ‘Treatment of News on Women in Conflict Situation in Tripura’
Dulali Nag: ‘Reporting on Health and Gender in Calcutta Newspapers’
Nilanjan Dutta: ‘Media Coverage of Flood and Erosion Disasters in West Bengal’
2. Consultative Meeting, Kathmandu, 16 July 2004
The meeting was chaired by Paula Banerjee. CRG Director Ranabir Samaddar reported on the last year’s programme and briefed the participants about its results, strength and weakness, and the suggestions that CRG had received on the design of the programme.
Paula Banerjee, CRG research coordinator, presented the design of this year’s programme and spoke on its three components – fellowships, creative media workshop and publications. She also spoke on the two segments of the fellowships – research and reporting. This year’s tentative schedule was placed before the participants for consideration.
Participants stressed three aspects of the programme at the outset:
Importance of participation of various organisations from various quarters
Importance of the design of the programme
The significance of linking experiences of the conflict zones, women’s experiences, human rights and media activism.
There was a discussion on whether parity should be maintained between the proposed 1000 word essay and 15-minute documentary as assignments in the workshop.
Participants emphasised on the proper resource persons and on the facilities to be provided for the participants in the Creative Media Workshop. It was also agreed that to make the programme more effective, partnership with good channels and production homes would be important. CRG would have to act as facilitator in production and in dissemination of the product in different media.
Suggestion for the research segment:
Conflict and the reproduction of masculinity (to study the exclusion of women from the configuration of conflict and contest)
Manipur situation, where women have come to the fore as the catalyst of protest against militarism
Floods, river bank erosion, women villagers, and election politics
Globalisation, insecurities, and the women
Forced disappearances in Nepal
Massive internal displacement
Comparative study of de-industrialisation in Gujarat and West Bengal in the wake of globalisation
It was pointed out that in Nepal, although there was sensitivity on the issue of human rights, it was lacking relating to women’s issues. This would have to be kept in mind while implementing the programme in Nepal. It was also pointed out that the issues of migration and trafficking of women should not be mixed up.
Some media websites could be consulted for circulating the outputs of the media research.
Some names were suggested for this year’s media fellowships. The participants of the meeting were advised to follow up their suggestions, so that concerned applications reached CRG in due time.
It was stressed that in awarding fellowships, there should be emphasis on solid case studies. In the ensuing discussion it was however appreciated that there has to be a balance between theme selection and case studies. While theme study may lead to a preference for a comparative approach, rigorous case study should not be neglected.
There was a suggestion that it would be better to organise the proposed media workshop at an early stage of the programme instead of the final stage of the programme. Finally it was decided after deliberation on this issue that there could be two workshops: one as an orientation workshop for the selected fellows, the other as a way of concluding the programme.
There was also an emphasis on formal and informal monitoring, including the system of having mentors.
On the issue of collaboration, the Centre for North East India, South and Southeast Asia Studies, OKD Institute of Social Change and Development of Guwahati and Asmita of Hyderbad, and Nepal Institute of Peace, Kathmandu, volunteered to become probable partners of the CRG.
Websites of other organizations would be utilised for dissemination of the research outputs; similarly, well-researched reports could be brought to the notice of the BBC as that organisation encouraged (particularly the radio service) freelance inputs. These could also be circulated through the BBC online.
The meeting ended with thanks to the Chair. WACC was also thanked for making a gender-sensitive CRG programme on media possible.
3. Orientation Meeting for Media Fellows, Kolkata, 23 September 2004
The meeting began at 9:30 A.M. with Subhas Chakraborty as the chairperson. Ranabir Samaddar, Director, MCRG, gave an introduction on the media programme. After this, Uttam Sengupta, Editor, Jharkhand, The Telegraph, Kolkata, delivered the keynote address.
Sengupta said he was a little surprised to have been invited at the meeting, because academics and activists usually invited media persons for “target practice”. He held no brief for the media, but tried to explain what the media had done, and could do, in respect of gender and human rights, which were the focal theme of this year’s media programme. Narrating his experience as a journalist working with the UNICEF and various agencies in Bihar and Jharkhand, he noted that the women were still at the receiving end. They had less access to education and health care. This was particularly true of the poor and the backward castes. The findings of the Pratichi Trust founded by economist Amartya Sen revealed that the situation in West Bengal was not too different.
Women also suffered because of a “mistaken sense of honour among the judiciary and the media”, he said. Though there were examples of the media taking up the issues over the years, once problem was that reporters were not adequately trained. The training was occasional but not institutional. NGOs had a responsibility to sensitise them. Institutions like MCRG could hold workshops for young reporters for at least three months, he suggested.
Presentations by the media fellows began with Biswajit Roy. He is working in the reporting segment on the role of Muslim women in the polio eradication campaign in West Bengal. Commenting on his presentation, Miratun Nahar, one of the resource persons, said that Roy explained clearly the conflict situation faced by the Muslim women as mothers, wives, and “blind followers of a community”. She observed that “some showed that they are more mothers than anything else”.
Roy said there was a problem of in-depth reporting on such issues. “Journalists are supposed to provide quotes, work as foot soldiers and not go deeper into a problem.” Rajashri Dasgupta, Surojit Mukhopadhyay and Abdur Rauf also commented on the work in progress. There were suggestions from the house that talking in demographic terms and one should avoid stereotyping in such studies. Ranabir Samaddar advised Roy to have a clear work plan so that the study could be put in a three-part article. Paula Banerjee suggested that later, Roy could submit his detailed study for consideration for publication as a research paper by MCRG.
This followed presentations by Media Fellows Dulali Nag and Vinati Bhargava. The former is working on the media coverage of health and gender issues by the Lolkata newspapers and the latter on the transition from female infanticide to female foeticide in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
Commenting on their work, resource person Sujit Das advised them not to follow the WHO definition of health but the “old definition based on the common people’s wisdom”, according to which, “health is absence of disease”. For Nag, he said specifically that she should remember that health was not a fundamental right in India, but the Supreme Court in some judgements had held it as a right “in a limited way”. Das urged Bhargava to probe whether the change in sex ration pattern had something to do with new technologies. MCRG researcher Madhuresh Kumar added a question: Whether it had anything to do with family planning. Bhargava said she was finding her study difficult as “hardly anybody is willing to speak”. Rajashri Dasgupta requested her to consider using the term ‘sex-selective abortion’ instead of abortion.
Uttam Sebgupta remarked that studies by Nag and Bhargava should also see whether the media were playing a “watchdog role” and being able to influence any change in public health policies.
Media Fellow Minakshi Sen Bandyopadhyay gave a brief of her work, jointly with Jayanta Bhattacharya, on the coverage of women in conflict situations by Tripura newspapers. Guna Raj Luitel, a Media Fellow from Nepal, introduced his topic: Case studies of women family members of persons disappeared in course of the ongoing Maoist insurgency in Nepal.
Commenting on these two studies, resource person Rajashri Dasgupta observed that whether in the Northeast, Nepal or Kashmir, there was a “complicity of silence by the civil society”. “If the press also becomes pliant, that would mean the death of democracy”. So, both of these studies would be very timely and pertinent. She, however, cautioned that there seemed to be a “reader fatigue about victim stories”, and the “proactive role of women” should come into the focus. “Don’t forget what Chomsky calls the filters within the media,” she said, ending with a suggestion that media researchers should analyse photographs and captions, too. Subir Bhaumik and Paula Banerjee also took part in the discussion.
Nilanjan Dutta’s presentation was the last among the media fellows. He said he was trying to analyse the media coverage of the recent floods and erosion in West Bengal from the point of view of a “media insider”. Resource person Kalyan Rudra gave him a briefing on the extent of the problem and the ground realities.
Subir Bhaumik, in his concluding remarks, said media research would not be much useful if it did not communicate with the media and could not be implemented or absorbed by the media. Research and reporting could be done together, but packaged differently for different publications. The questioning of stereotype and gender insensitivity was important, as well as class analysis. Observing that the media had become a victim of consumerist culture, he remarked, “Identify the stereotypes to know how to demolish them.”
In the evening, two public lectures were delivered at the same venue in keeping with the objectives of the media programme.
Kalyan Rudra spoke on riverbank erosion in West Bengal with an audio-visual presentation. Pradip Panjoubhaum, Editor, Imphal Free Press, spoke on media and the recent unrest in Manipur.
4. Second Creative Media Workshop, Bhubaneswar, 7-10 January 2005
The Second CRG Creative Media Workshop was held at Bhubaneswar, Orissa, from 7 to 10 January 2005. This year’s theme for the workshop was ‘Gender, Media and Human Rights’. It was attended by 30 people, including seven CRG Media Fellows of the 2004-05 batch, seven other presenters, six resource persons, eight commentators and two administrative personnel. Thirteen of the participants were women. The participants came from various parts of India and two were from Nepal.
Both the inaugural and the valedictory sessions were held as public programmes in order to reach out to a wider audience. The former session was held at the Utkal University, in collaboration with its School of Women’s Studies (SWS) and Department of Journalism and Electronic Communication (DJEC). Activist filmmaker Suhasini Mulay delivered the keynote address on Gender and Human Rights Issues in Audio-visual communication. Speaking about audio-visual communication, she aptly chose the audio-visual form. Her lecture covered television ads and serials, films – the so-called mainstream, alternative and documentary – as well as the radio, interspersed with clips from selected examples from each genre. While presenting a sharp critique of the communication establishment – both government and private – Mulay also presented a glimpse of the initiatives around the country to develop the people’s own media, ranging from Video SEWA to Kutchhi Lok Vani. Her address provoked a few questions from the audience, the most provoking of which was: why does she herself act in commercial ads, soaps and films then? The answer was as candid as the question: sometimes she has to do, because an independent woman professional like her needs money to maintain her independence. The session was presided by Utkal University Vice-chancellor A.K. Samantray. SWS Director Asha Hans delivered the welcome address. Paula Banerjee introduced CRG and its media programme. S.N. Mishra, Co-ordinator, DJEC, delivered the vote of thanks.
In the evening, a photo exhibition on Women and Displacement by one of the participants, Sabuj Mukhopadhyay, was inaugurated at the Orissa Modern Art Gallery by writer Pratibha Ray. In terms of attendance, the three-day exhibition was a huge success. The visitors included students, activists, local journalists and photographers and many other inquisitive people.
The next day’s programme started at The New Marrion hotel with a lecture by Ammu Joseph on ‘What do we mean by Gender-Just Reporting?’ Drawing from a long list of instances covering the Kargil war, the Gujarat pogrom, the post-9/11 situation and the recent Tsunami disaster, she showed that the media focused on women’s special vulnerabilities only as scattered glimpses. An important point for gender-sensitive media coverage was the need to expand the range of news sources to be tapped even in crisis situations that appear, on the surface, to have nothing to do with gender, she said. The discussion on her lecture also covered a range of issues such as the selection of news sources and the use of various filters, checks and balances in order that the reporting is gender-just. While the participants agreed that there should be equal representation of the genders in presenting news, some of them also mentioned about the difficulties in using the gender lens in every aspect of journalism. In order to overcome these difficulties, it was necessary to increase interaction between the women’s movement and decision makers in the media.
After this, the three CRG Media (Reporting) Fellows presented their findings, followed by discussion. The topics were:
The Role of Muslim Women in the Polio Eradication Campaign in West Bengal by Biswajit Roy,
From Female Infanticide to Female Foeticide – case studies of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh by Vinati Bhargava, and
Case Studies of Women Family Members of Persons Disappeared During the Maoist Insurgency in Nepal by Guna Raj Luitel.
While the first two papers were related to health and women, the third one studied the situation of women from a different perspective. Roy’s paper showed that Muslim women, particularly in the districts of West Bengal, faced a triple dilemma over getting their children vaccinated. They often faced pressures from their husbands and religious leaders not to allow vaccination. On the other hand, the “coercive” state and consideration of their children’s well-being pushed them to accept it. However, these women were not a homogeneous group. While many of them went ahead to vaccinate their children against the wishes of their families or religious leaders, there were others who resisted vaccination even violating the family or community diktat. The resistance to polio vaccination, Roy observed, was often a manifestation of the resentment against the state officials’ indifference towards their day-to-day health care needs. The paper attracted a debate on an old issue with the Indian media: whether to clearly say ‘Muslims’ or use the term ‘minorities’. Does resistance to polio vaccination really have anything to do with religious identity? The speaker was in favour of naming the community. It would not be fair to club all minorities together where the matter pertains to a particular religious group, he felt. And even if there were other factors – such as poverty or resentment to routine negligence by the state health care system – behind the aversion to vaccination, there were certainly reasons for the aversion to be expressed by a particular religious group. If one shuts one’s eyes to that, one might never be able to overcome the alienation. Bhargava, too, triggered discussion on the question of terminology: she used the term ‘sex-selective abortions’ to indicate female foeticide. The change, she said, was incorporated following suggestions at the orientation meeting. This time, however, the majority of participants seemed to be inclined towards the old usage. The word ‘abortion’ gave a sense of voluntary action, while women in this case were forced to do it, they pointed out. Luitel’s account touched everyone. There was great interest among the audience in the situation in Nepal. Some of the Indian participants, particularly those from the North-east, found similarities with their own situation. The forced disappearance of male relatives put the women in terrible hardship, Luitel observed, but in a sense also empowered them as they not only had to take up economic activity to maintain their families in their absence, but also to interact with the power centres – both official and rebel – in their search for their near and dear ones.
In the afternoon, three parallel working group meetings were held. The groups presented their reports at a plenary session moderated by Manoranjan Mohanty and shared their concerns with other participants.
Group 1: Truth and reporting on victims of human rights abuses
Presenters: Subhabrata Dutta, Jayanta Bhattacharya, Dulali Nag
Participants: Gunaraj Luitel, Madhuresh Kumar, Kalpana Kannabiran
Shubabrata Dutta presented a description about the movement by a tribal group in Maharashtra. He narrated how the group conceived its demands and launched and carried out its movement. He pointed out that though the demands centred round economic rights, which were an inseparable part of human rights, the movement was not well covered by the press. Jayanta Bhattacharya presented a report on his experience as a working journalist in Tripura. He, too, drew illustrations from movements by indigenous populations in the state to show how biases of individual journalists and media houses influenced reporting. Dulali Nag’s presentation in the working group was based on her work on public health issues and coverage by the Kolkata newspapers. Her inferences were similar to that of the other two participants. The main points that came out of the first group’s plenary report were:
The presentation of truth in reporting on human rights abuses depends largely on the reporter’s involvement and ideology.
There are many truths and one chooses to present one kind of truth.
A journalist often has to face hazards and limitations in reporting the truth.
Group 2: Objectivity and creativity in human rights reporting
Presenters: Biswajit Roy, Sabuj Mukherjee, Shoma A. Chatterji, Sreemoyee Mukherjee, Vinati Bhargava
Participants: Paula Banerjee, Ranabir Samaddar, Samir Kumar Das
Shoma A. Chatterji focused on the increased amount of reportage in the last few months on women as perpetrators of crime against men. The question was whether this was a sign of women being driven to desperation as a result of apathy of the law-and-order machinery to crimes against them. Does it empower women or make them even weaker? According to Sreemoyee Mukherjee, objectivity was a myth that could not be achieved. But one could try to be objective, by sticking to the fact. Creativity enabled one to find fresh ways of saying what had been already said or what was being said by everyone else. Biswajit Roy spoke about what he called selective objectivity. The ideological dilemma of activists over whether to report violence by rebel groups and the spiral of violence between the state and the insurgents put the people at the receiving end. Sabuj Mukherjee spoke on how, as a photojournalist, he had to always strike a balance between objectivity and creativity. Although it is said that the camera does not lie, at the same time it is true that the angle, field and focus chosen had a strong bearing on reality as seen through the lens. Vinati Bhargava said a healthy and free media rested on the skills of journalists to interpret and report facts with both objectivity and creativity. Objectivity, according to her, could be best brought out by way of creativity. During the group’s presentation, the participants were unanimous that accuracy and fairness were two non-negotiable factors in reporting. There was a debate on whether accuracy and objectivity were always the same. It was also mentioned that orality was often the only way of communicating the truth by victims of human rights abuses, but it might not be the most effective way of disseminating the information. Care had to be taken about maintaining truthfulness during the transformation.
Group 3: Legal knowledge in human rights reporting
Presenters: Elisa Patnaik, Purna Basnet
Participants: Nilanjan Dutta, Minakshi Sen Bandyopadhyay, Manoranjan Mohanty, Suhasini Mulay
Elisa Patnaik stressed the need for having knowledge of customary laws in order to protect the rights of indigenous populations or report on them. Purna Basnet added that in Nepal, journalists reporting on human rights issues faced threats both from the authorities and the insurgents. Many of them had been killed or had disappeared. There was no legal protection against such hazards. Collectively, the group reported that its members felt legal knowledge was desirable in all kinds of reporting, but it was desirable and essential in reporting on human rights. However, mere legal knowledge was not enough. Lack of sensitivity and carelessness resulted in misreporting and misinterpretation of legal clauses and terms. The consensus was that though journalists were not expected to be legal experts, they should have a perspective of the national and customary laws as well as international laws and conventions, at least in the specific areas they were covering.
On 9 January, the morning lecture was delivered by Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhuri on ‘Public Radio Broadcasting and Interactive Communication’. The problem with radio in India, he said, was that it was largely monopolised by the state, which used it as a propaganda tool. As a result, voices of other groups were muffled. Although FM provided an opportunity for expansion of radio frequencies, it was still limited to metros and emphasised more on lifestyle issues rather than public affairs. However, there was immense potential for radio as a medium of social relevance and it needed to be used more innovatively. Talk shows, plays and discussions should be more oriented towards people’s cause. During the discussion on his lecture, participants expressed concern over the restrictions on the phone-in and interactive programmes, but also upheld the role of radio as a tool of democratic resistance to the neo-liberal economic globalisation. In response, the speaker warned that as the state owned radio system did not serve the people’s interest, there was the same danger in private radio systems, too. The latter, particularly, had a tendency to turn listeners into consumers. Hence, the need was to promote community radio systems.
This was followed by the presentation and discussion of papers by the three CRG Media (Research) Fellows. The papers included:
How Kolkata Newspapers Cover Public Health Issues by Dulali Nag,
Reporting on Women in Conflict Situations in Tripura Newspapers by Minakshi Sen Bandyopadhyay and Jayanta Bhattacharya, and
Natural Disasters and Media Sensitivity in West Bengal by Nilanjan Dutta.
During the discussion on the first paper, several participants felt that the researcher should not have read so much into the spatial presentation of news in a newspaper, i.e., the placement of news in the respective pages such as the front, city, state or nation pages. One of the participants said that classification of news items on the basis of location depended on the proximity of the area to the newspaper’s place of publication. Though this logic could be questioned, it was a purely geographical technicality rather than a decision prompted by ideological considerations. It was pointed out that news was mainly about events and processes were often not reported. This had to be paid attention to. From Nag’s presentation, it appeared that an English (The Telegraph) and a Bengali (Ananda Bazar Patrika) newspaper published by the same group (ABP) took different approaches in carrying news concerning gender and public health. When questioned about this, she replied that Ananda Bazar Patrika did cover the issue in detail as compared to The Telegraph because of the nature of its readership, but its coverage of national issues was not that broad.
The authors of the second paper contended that the Bengali newspapers in Tripura were biased in their coverage of news of rape and violence on tribal women. They covered violence against women by the tribal insurgents, but not that by the security forces. They raised a controversy by saying that rape was unknown in tribal society in Tripura but had become rampant as a weapon of retribution and used both by the security forces and the armed opposition groups. If that was the case, the phenomenon merited closer scrutiny, it was felt. The researchers said that the influence of the larger community of Bengalis on tribals might be one of the reasons for the increasing violence against women. A communal divide had been created in the state between the Bengalis and the tribals, they observed. Sometimes the ruling party, ethnic organisations and security forces collaborated to perpetrate atrocities on tribal women on the pretext of fighting militants. What was the role of civil society groups in this regard? The researchers said there was no independent civil society organisation in Tripura and initiatives to form such platforms were yet to bear fruit. This made the situation worse.
The researcher on disaster reporting noted that love for the spectacular and sensationalism had gained primacy for the media over human suffering or human endeavour. One of the participants commented that the quality of reporting on such matters depended on the training of younger journalists and the instructions they got from the editors and managers. Another stressed on the need to engage more with the human stories rather than trivilise these, because the point was also to reach out to people. The researcher’s choice to analyse mainly the news pages, leaving out the edit pages came into question at the workshop. He explained that the reason for the choice was that it was the news pages that were read the most and influenced the common readers the most. Editorials and post-editorials, however well-written and well-intentioned, did not have so much reach and influence, he felt, and so one needed to concentrate more on the hard news items for the purpose of analysis and recommendation.
Kalpana Kannabiran spoke on ‘How Women Victims Communicate to the Media’. She cited three case studies: a victim of domestic violence and failed marriage, a 10-year-old raped by her father and a woman whose daughter was raped and killed by her second husband. Analysing the behaviour of media persons in each of these instances, she pointed out the impatience and constant exclusion of certain groups displayed by the reporters. A question was raised as to how do we recover reality in the public domain. Kannabiran emphasised that in order to do so, journalists had to be sensitive to factors such as access, diversity and representation while dealing with victims of human rights abuses, particularly women. After the discussion on her lecture, there was a film session. Three recent documentaries were shown:
Images of Development by Pramod Gupta, on the eviction drive for city development in Kolkata,
Quest by Soma Ghosh, on the Kamtapuri ethnic movement in north Bengal, and
he Village of Death by Sabuj Mukhopadhyay, on the consequences of arsenic contamination of water in the West Bengal countryside.
The last day’s programme began with a lecture on ‘Creative Writings, Documentation and Mixed Genres on Conflict, Conflict Zones and the Women’ by Ritu Menon. Objectivity did not rule out moral positions, she emphasised. Menon went on to ask, why was there an absence today of people like H.G. Wells, who had the gift of fiction as well as journalism? The reason, according to her, was the absence of the romantic imagination. Questioned about the cause of this absence, she observed that journalism had displaced the forms such as diaries, travelogues and ground reporting from combat zones by others. This was to some extent responsible for the devaluation of the romantic imagination and quest for inquiry.
Sabuj Mukhopadhyay made a Powerpoint presentation of his photographs and Nilanjan Dutta showed his documentary film, Dream in the Time of Terror, on the human rights situation in West Bengal-Jharkhand border villages in the wake of state repression on the Naxalite movement. Then, three other working groups met separately and later made a plenary presentation at a session moderated by Paula Banerjee.
Group 4: Creative writing and publication
Presenter: Minakshi Sen Bandyopadhyay, Krishna Bandyopadhyay
Participants: Biswajit Roy, Sreemoyee Mukherjee, Jayanta Bhattacharya
Minakshi Sen Bandyopadhyay highlighted the role of small newspapers and alternative publications, such as the little magazines of West Bengal. She based her presentation on the experience of her involvement with the publication of the magazine Spandan since the 1970s, which had became a rallying point for radical and independent writers. Krishna Bandyopadhyay spoke about her experience of publishing the periodical Khonj Ekhan, focusing on women’s issues. It was the result of the dissatisfaction she and many like her faced throughout their girlhood. She said alternative media was a necessary first step for creative writers. However, she complained about the paucity of funds. At the plenary session, Elisa Patnaik supported her with the example of Sucharita, a literary magazine that gave a platform for many young writers in Orissa. The publication had recently stopped coming out, but many of the writers it had brought to the fore were still writing. The members of the working group as well as the audience expressed a common concern for possible sources of funds, the lack of which was forcing many of the small publications to close down. Concern was also expressed over the market economy helping big media houses creative space rather than nurturing independent creative writing.
Group 5: Literary circles and human rights campaign
Presenters: Gunaraj Luitel, Nilanjan Dutta
Participants: Sabuj Mukhopadhyay, Subhabrata Dutta, Ammu Joseph
Gunaraj Luitel focused on the part played by writers in Nepal who were in a way more successful in documenting and conveying the crisis of the common people in the midst of gross human rights violations. He cited the example of Khagendra Sangraula, who introduced a character, Kunsang Kaka, who speaks as an observer and gives a touching account of the conflict in Nepali society, the ‘disappearance’ of persons and the difficulty faced by their family members. During the Emergency, Luitel himself had tried the literary expression instead his routine journalistic reporting and was more successful in communicating his observations on the situation in the villages to the readers at large. Nilanjan Dutta spoke about similar experiments and their results in the context of the literary scene in West Bengal. He, however, lamented that though Bengali literature had been much sensitive to human rights issues in the past, particularly in the 1970s, it seemed to have lost its passion now. The plenary discussion hailed the role of literature as a very effective medium of human rights campaign. Members of the audience provided many other examples, including Ammu Joseph drawing attention to Salman Rushdie’s writings on Nicaragua and the writers’ reaction to the post-9/11 events.
Group 6: The e-medium
Presenter: Madhuresh Kumar
Participants: Dulali Nag, Vinati Bhargava, Elisa Patnaik, Paula Banerjee, Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhuri
Madhuresh Kumar outlined how to design a short course on the sustainability of socio-economic rights of the marginalized communities in the era of neo-liberal economic processes and in what ways the e-medium could be used in development and implementation of such a course and meeting its broader objectives. During the plenary discussion, the members of the audience agreed that the e-medium was a powerful tool for human rights education and campaign. Some of them cautioned about the danger of control of technology by an elite. The message was, use the e-medium, but do not forget the other media. Disseminating information acquired through the e-medium by traditional means such as print could be an effective practice in a country like India or Nepal.
The valedictory session was held in the evening at the Red Cross Hall in association with the Orissa chapter of the All India Democratic Women’s Association and Agami Odisha, an NGO network. Tapasi Praharaj of AIDWA gave the welcome address. Ranabir Samaddar made the concluding remarks. The workshop participants were presented with certificates by S.N. Mishra, head of the Utkat University journalism department. The valedictory lecture was delivered by Purushottam Agarwal on ‘Why Should We Listen to Her? An Epic Narrative of a Woman in Conflict Situation – Draupadi in Mahabharata’. Sudarshan Das of Agami Odisha gave the vote of thanks.
The workshop was many-sided. Its manifold nature helped the participants understand better the broad frame of creative writing for human rights. The workshop in addressing issues of creativity, objectivity, communicability, and experimenting in forms attained a critical and political nature. On one hand, it sharpened the writings of the six media fellows with comments and suggestions on relevant themes, forms, and style; on the other hand by presenting the broader concerns as the perspective as indicated above it helped the media, gender, and human rights agenda of CRG richer and its network substantive.
Section Two: Five Lectures
Gender And Human Rights Issues In Audio And Visual Communication*
The subject that I have been asked to speak on is ‘Gender and Human Rights Issues in Audio and Visual Communication’. I have been a filmmaker and actress for the past many years. However, I never seem to have made the grade of fitting comfortably with the official media. In the past 26 years I have never been entrusted with a series on Doordarshan, and been contracted with one film for Films Division. I have also fallen foul of the keepers of our morality, the Central Board of Film Certification for producing and directing films and have had to take recourse to the courts in order to get a clean chit for the film, An Indian Story on the Bhagalpur blindings and Bhopal: Beyond Genocide, a film on the Bhopal gas tragedy. My views are therefore of a marginalised filmmaker, who has not got along with the powers that be, in spite of trying to do so.
Let me begin by going into the meaning of the word ‘communication’ as we understand it today. The word communication means to “Share or exchange information or ideas”. Communications are essentially of two kinds; inter personal and mass communications.
Inter personal communication is a system by which two people or parties participate in a dialogue. It is a dialogue where these parties can air their views; debate an issue and either arrive at a conclusion acceptable to both, or agree to disagree. By its very structure, mass communication is a one-way street. It is a system where the message is transferred through an intermediary technology, be it radio, film, television, or any other electronic media and print. There is no space for a ‘dialogue’. In fact, the word ‘mass communication’ has always been an anathema for me. Where is the space for discourse, dialogue or the exchange of ideas? The communicator states his views while the audience is a passive recipient of the message.
It is argued that in certain kinds of programmes, the “people’s views are incorporated” into the structure of the programming itself. I beg to differ. Once we have participated in a discussion group, or given an interview, we are reduced to a ‘sound bite’. It is left into the hands of the editor, the discretion of the TV channel or the filmmaker as to what is used and what is not. Our voice and image then becomes a product, and before being interviewed, we sign a piece of paper or a contract, which states that we no longer have a copyright on our image. We agree to become a product.
It is strange that in this world where we are constantly bombarded by different kinds of communications, the oldest and the most effective form of communication is still the “word of mouth”. When we enter into a dialogue or receive information from a person directly, it seems more trust worthy because it includes the credibility of the person giving the message. While true dialogue in a mass communication is not possible, certain forms mimic this inter personal exchange, which is one of the reasons why “product endorsement” ads are so popular and effective. Whether it is Sachin Tendulkar or Shah Rukh Khan endorsing a car, or Amitabh Bachchan endorsing Cadbury’s chocolate.
If we stop to think about it, we know that it must be years since Shah Rukh Khan would have sat in anything but a Mercedes, and therefore is disqualified to endorse a Santro zip drive car. Sachin Tendulkar’s pleadings with the customs department to allow the Ferrari presented to him, into India duty free are now common knowledge. The face of Amitabh Bachchan endorsing a Cadbury chocolate after being discovered to contain fungal growth has saved the company from incurring huge losses. And yet we listen to them, because we trust them. This trust is manipulated, to fit the agendas of various agencies.
I remember as a child, during the Sino-Indian war, in 1962, we were feverishly made to knit socks and sweaters for “our jawans who faced the enemy in the highest slopes of the Himalayas.” Prime Minister Pandit Nehru and the then defence Minister Krishna Menon gave a call to donate gold, as we had to buy arms and equipment. And people gave.
A year or two after the war, I read a book written by Brigadier Kaul, called The Himalayan Blunder, and I realised that we had been lied to. It was not the great battles that our soldiers had fought, that had made the Chinese withdraw. In fact, the Chinese army had swept across the then NEFA (North East Frontier Agency), a stretch of about 15,000 square kilometres of Indian territory, had almost severed our links with the North-eastern states of our country, and once they had proved their point, had unilaterally withdrawn to the line that they had claimed was Chinese territory. That in fact, had been a complete rout of the Indian forces.
It had taken me a long time to reconcile with the fact that the government had lied, Films Division, the government news agency that showed newsreels had lied, that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had lied, and that my favourite listening station, All India Radio had lied.
Much, much later, I realised that these were normal tools and stock in trade of most governments across the world.
The recent election victory of George Bush bears testimony. The last US election had stirred the passions of the US citizens enough to make this election a kind of a “make or break” election, which would have brought the whole debate on whether the USA had the moral right to interfere in the internal matters of any country like Iraq, and whether President Bush’s whole policy of “War on Terrorism” post 9/11 was valid or not. Many voters had taken sides, but many of them were still not sure whom to vote for. At the height of the presidential campaign, soon after the presidential debate on US television, where it was felt that Senator Kerry had done well, and just before the USA went to the polls, Al Jazeera, the news agency released a televised statement by Osama Bin Laden, where he threatened to bleed the US to its knees, much as they had done with the USSR. Maybe Bush would have won anyway, but that one telecast sealed the fate of the elections. All the undecided voters were effectively stampeded into the Bush camp.
Technology invades our home space to bring images and values, which are in keeping with the interests of the government and business houses. One has lost count of the number of times our children have asked for “this toy” or “that food” because of what they have seen on TV. Through the use of mass communication and by flooding markets with consumer goods, our definition of “a good life” has been changed in the most fundamental way. It is therefore important to recognise the non-democratic nature of this resource. It takes away from us the very “right to communicate”, as there is no method to counter or put an alternative take on the message that comes into our homes.
These messages operate at two levels: the stated and the un-stated, or the subliminal. While watching a film or a TV serial or even an advertisement we tend to accept or reject the content of the message in accordance with our own experiences. My contention is that it is at the “unstated or subliminal” level, that our filters do not operate efficiently.
While watching this ad we are not only told that we have to buy a product, but something more. The house has all the mod cons, a posh sofa, a nice sideboard and a fancy bathroom. Not only is the model wearing good clothes, is good looking and fair, she also has a handsome husband, a darling child, dressed in the latest clothes. After using the soap, she triumphantly says that her family is hygienic and safe. The ad has not only sold the soap, but a way of life, which is out of reach for most of the country.
Films, Television, radio, mobiles, computers and the Internet today provide a plethora of communications. I would like to deal with film, television and radio and their portrayals of gender and human rights in India.
We produce more than 800 feature films a year, or roughly speaking, 17 films per week in about 20 languages. These films therefore have a far-reaching impact on the socio-cultural fabric of the country.
Films can be broadly classified into two categories: fiction and documentaries. Feature films in India fall into two loosely defined terms “mainstream cinema” and “parallel cinema”, though there are many films that fall between the two forms.
In an attempt to reach a larger audience, “mainstream cinema uses the lowest common denominator of a very popular ethos for depicting characters and stories that have little to do with reality. They are formula films with many songs, dances and stunts.”1 Commercial films make no bones about the fact that they are in the business to make money. Whatever sells, goes.
For the mainstream cinema, I limit my analysis to the Bombay-based Hindi films as a case in point. Over the years some of the formulas have changed, and as the country goes through economic crisis, through the criminalisation of politics and the police, these trends are reflected in commercial films as well. However, what has happened consistently over the years is the marginalisation of women in commercial cinema and the steady degeneration in the depiction of human rights.
I will deal with this section at some length, mainly because this is the kind of cinema that most people in the country are exposed to.
In the years immediately after Independence, films seemed to share the Nehruvian dream of India. The body of work of filmmakers like Raj Kapoor, Mehboob, V. Shantaram, Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy were in some form grounded in reality. However romantic the interpretation, Shree 420, Do Bigha Zameen, Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani, Pyaasa and Sujata amongst many others, were films that dealt with poverty, exploitation of the poor and untouchabilty.
These films were essentially love stories with the socio-economic problems as a backdrop. While the hero demolished all the baddies, he was aided and assisted by a group of friends/villagers and or the police. The films had a hero, a heroine, a villain, a vamp, usually a self-sacrificing mother and a worried father. They almost invariably had a comedian who had a parallel story to tell.
The rise of heroes like Shashi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Jitendra and Shammi Kapoor, saw the storyline move towards pure romance. It was the gyrations of these heroes that won the hearts of many heroines and fans (myself included). The influence of the West was seen in the introduction the vamp performing with bare legs, bare arms and a cleavage in the nightclub, a la Helen. The introduction of the vamp in this avatar also introduced the “dancer”, who often would be introduced in the movie only for one song-and-dance number.
The introduction of the multi-starrers undermined the space of the heroines even further. One of the early hits, Waqt, starring three heroes, their parents, two heroines, their parents and one villain took the “lost and found” formula to new heights. But as the film told the tale of how three brothers and their parents were separated, and their final reconciliation 20 years later, there was no time left to tell the story of the heroines. Their role was reduced to a few songs and one or two romantic scenes. The vamp also fell by the wayside. The heroine did the job of titillating the audience, doing hot dance numbers and baring herself.
Clip 2: Sridevi in Chaalbaaz
It was the rise of Amitabh Bachchan as the angry young man, which changed the face of Hindi films. In films like Zanjeer and Amar Akbar Anthony, the heroes now portrayed the “honest cop”, the aggressive but honest ordinary man. The hero went from being a saviour to an aggressive, macho man. Male bonding became a strong theme in films like Anand, Qurbani, Muqaddar ka Sikander and Sholay. The hero can now be funny and aggressive in turns. The comedian disappeared and this mantle fell on the hero. As the story completely focused on the men, the heroines were reduced to becoming the love interest. Violence became a mainstay; policemen took on the mantle of the villains who were ably assisted in their villainy by corrupt politicians. The other favourite villain was the “enemy across the border”, which is routinely used to whip up nationalist fervour and further the male macho image. I show a clip from the film, Deewar as a case in point.
Clip 3: Deewar
The climax of most films even today, centres on a fight between the good guys and bad guys, with helpless and passive heroines, mothers, sisters, etc., chained to pillar, hung over molten vats of wax or dangerous chemicals, waiting to be rescued.
The film Roti, Kapda aur Makaan by Manoj Kumar introduced a new trend – the rape. In the film the heroine is raped on a sack full of atta or flour, to show her helplessness. For the coming four-five years, every film had to have a “hot” dance number, but a rape scene also became mandatory. It culminated with Insaaf ka Taraazu, in which the villain rapes the younger sister, and the older sister then seeks revenge. The avenging woman also became a successful theme. In order to reconcile this avenging woman with the traditional docile heroine, the image of the heroine was split into two. Films like Seeta aur Geeta, Chaalbaaz and Dushman were instant successes.
Clip 4: Sridevi in Chaalbaaz
The mother had fallen by the wayside, and the films became completely male dominated, with the macho, superman image of the hero. He was no longer dependent on the help of friends or villagers to take care of the villain.
Many films used the theme of corruption, as one of the mainstays of the storyline. Films like Satya, Hu Tu Tu, Ardha Satya, Shool, Gangajal and Company showed violence in police custody as a routine matter. Police encounter was also shown as a necessary evil. But the film Ab Taak Chhappan went as far as to glorify police encounter and the “encounter specialist”, sub-inspector Daya Pandey.
Lately a new breed of films has emerged. They are geared for the niche urban, metro market and the overseas market. Bombay Boys, Hyderabad Blues, Kya Kehna, Damini and Lajja are films with budgets within the 4-8 crore range, which made no attempt to cater to the larger Indian audience.
The other breed of films currently popular, are the ones where the clothes have become skimpier. The “hot” film which lived on the edge of the mainstream commercial cinema has now moved to the centre-stage in this budget range. The film Raaz directed by Vikram Bhatt starring Bipasha Basu was a precursor to Paap, Jism and Julie. Hollywood films inspired most of these films. Prominent of this genre is Murder directed by Anurag Basu starring Mallika Sherawat.
The sexual relationship between the two lovers became the excuse to expose Mallika Sherawat’s body. Most of the film does little else. But the interesting part of the film is that the husband accepts that it was his neglect of his wife that drove her to have an extramarital affair. The couple came closer together because of the murder and the affair. At the end of the film, the husband and wife get back together.
Alongside the commercial Indian films, is a whole body of work by filmmakers who have made films on a theme of their interest, without having the market as the primary focus. The larger body of this work has been in regional languages, and therefore rooted in reality, closer to the ethos of their area. While most good films have something to say about women, I choose to identify themes in some films, which have dealt with the issue of gender and human rights.
Women as breadwinners could be the description of two films. Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar and Meghe Dhaka Tara by Ritwick Ghatak.
The ruthless condemnation of a woman who succumbs to her sexual needs could be the description of three notable films. Ghatashraddha by Girish Kasaravalli, Rihayee by Aruna Raje and Astitva by Mahesh Manjrekar.
Bonding between women could be the theme for films like Doghi by Sumitra Bhave, Paramitar Ek Din by Aparna Sen and Dahan by Rituparno Ghosh. These are stories of women trapped by their circumstances, who turn to each other for support.
While all these films have looked at women with sympathy and concern, the women are defined by their relationship in a patriarchal hierarchy. They are wives, daughters, daughters-in-law, sisters and mothers.
The only film that I have found, that looks at a woman who steps out of a traditional role to find an identity and a space for herself, is in the film Umbartha or the Threshold by Jabbar Patel. Smita Patil plays a middle-class housewife, Sudha, who is restless in the role of just being a wife. Her husband is a lawyer, who talks about his strategy to blacken a rape victim’s name in order to free his client. Restless and unhappy, she steps out of her house to work as a superintendent of a woman’s home. She finds this role more satisfying than being a mere housewife, but pays a heavy toll, as her husband turns to another woman for comfort.
Poverty, hunger, feudalism, exploitation and the resultant loss of dignity have been themes of most of the parallel cinema films. The Naxalbari movement in West Bengal and other Marxist interventions spawned a new consciousness and many films dealing with different aspects of human rights abuse. Notewothy are Chorus by Mrinal Sen, 1084 ki Maa by Govind Nihalani based on a novel written by Mahasveta Devi, Peeravi by Shaji Karun, Mukha Mukham by Adoor Gopalakrishnan to name a few.
The Films Division, Doordarshan, All India Radio and the Directorate of Audio Visual Publicity (DAVP) are important bodies with access to a large amount of funding and manpower. The government also exercises control on the exhibition of these materials. Every film, video and play is censored before it can be shown. While the censoring is supposed to ensure that no obscene and offensive content is exhibited, these departments also work as political watchdogs for the government. Many a film has had to resort to the court to be able to get a censor certificate.
Various government departments, television stations and business houses commission filmmakers to produce films and videos for their own use. The coming of the video technology has slashed the cost of filmmaking. Today, there are many more independent filmmakers producing a host of films and videos on a variety of subjects.
The work of S. Sukhdev, Anand Patwardhan, Tapan Bose, Anwar Kamwar, Anwar Jamal, Sumitra Bhave, Sehjo Singh, Madhurhsree Dutta and Anjali Montero among many others is noteworthy. It is in these films that one sees the images of people fighting back, women defining a space for themselves and the beginnings of a new kind of communications.
Women’s fight for justice and equality has been a theme of many a documentary. The work of grass-roots based organisations has given people a new strength to fight the feudal system. I would like to show a clip from the film The Shame Is Not Mine by Arun Chaddha. In the film, Neema is a victim of rape. She fights the feudal lords, the bureaucracy and the police in her fight for justice. Her house is torched, and she has to flee the village. Her husband supports her every inch of the way and chooses to live with her, away from home, rather than abandon her.
The next clip is from a film The Final Solution by Rakesh Sharma, a film on the recent Godhra riots in Gujarat. The film has an interview with a boy describing the riots, and the film also ends with this interview. I have kept the interview in this clip. Women are depicted both as the victims and the perpetrators or supporters of the riots.
Clip 6:The Final Solution
Television in India was initially the monopoly of the government, devoted to public service broadcasting. The official television network, Doordarshan, is one of the largest terrestrial networks in the world. Its network of 1402 terrestrial transmitters covers more than 90.4 per cent of India’s population. An estimated 42.3 per cent of our population have TV sets in their homes. 76.1 per cent of urban households have access to television and cable TV. 28.5 per cent of the rural households have television sets.3 Initially Doordarshan did not allow advertising, but in 1976 it decided to accept ads. As the Doordarshan website says, “revenue earning can only be a by-product of its mission and objectives, but it does not undermine the importance of revenue earning. Revenue earning may not be an end in itself, but it is a powerful means to its ultimate end.”4 (But why blame Doordarshan alone? It is the nature of the beast.) In the 1990s the government gave in to market pressure and many private and foreign television channels like CNN, BBC, Zee, Sony, Asia Television Network, Star TV, Sun TV, etc., became players in the field.
Most television channels have five kinds of programming: entertainment, sports, current affairs, news and ads. Usually every programme has commercial breaks. An approximate 13-17 per cent of the total airtime is devoted to advertisements. The content of the current affairs and news reflect the leanings of the channel, especially the USA-based CNN, BBC and Doordarshan.
The entertainment section contains fictionalised work like soaps, thrillers, murder, etc. The largest following in India has been of two forms, the soap and the mythological stories like Ramayan, Mahabharat, etc. Both these forms tend to show women in the most orthodox and retrogressive roles. The costume and the decors of the mythological tales do not adhere to any known historical period. Watch a television soap, and not only are we confronted with a good bahu perpetually helping others, listening to her mother-in-law, confronting a scheming sister-in-law and weeping at least one bucketful of tears. While empathising or rejecting the story and the character, we tend to forget the fact that this “good bahu” and the serial pass on other messages.
Being a good bahu, she never ever raises her voice, never ever argues with her mother-in-law, never ever goes out to work, never ever wipes the floor, never ever wash the dishes and only cooks a kheer when she observes the fast of Karva Chauth; fasting all day to ensure the long life of her husband. And she manages to do all this without a hair being out of place, wearing about 3 kilos of gold and 2 kilos of sindoor. The serial never questions patriarchy, promotes the most backward image of women, and it is always the working woman who has extramarital affairs. Some of the other serials like Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahi, Dekho Magar Pyar Se and Saans have tried to move away from the saas bahu formula and carve a slightly different niche for themselves. Yet they still fall within the ambit of the “family drama”.
Government monopoly of our radio waves has been jealously guarded since 1930, when the government took over two privately owned transmitters, and began broadcasting under the name of All India Radio. AIR, also known as Akashvani, today covers 91.37 per cent of the area, serving 99.13 per cent of the people in India. AIR broadcasts programmes in 24 Languages and 146 dialects in home services.5 While the AIR covers a whole variety of programmes, it is a department of the Government of India, and is one of its most effective propaganda tools.
Though AIR opened its doors for commercialisation in 1967 with the introduction of Vividh Bharati, and by the introduction of FM services in the mid-1990s, it did not give licences to any independent radio stations.
In 1998 India became a signatory to the Milan Declaration on Communication and Human Rights, which calls for the international recognition of community broadcasting as an extension of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the freedom of expression. It was as late as December 2002 that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India decided to grant licences to “to educational institutions with certain guidelines”.6 Community radio has been used extensively all over the world to ensure that members of the community have access to information that affects their lives, that they get an opportunity to express themselves socially, politically and culturally. In the last two years, five community radio stations have been granted a licence.
Today, information is power. Those who have access to information and means to restrict its dissemination, hold the key to power. A case in point is the recent Tsunami disaster. It is now clear that had India been a member of the Tsunami Early Warning System the death toll would not have been as high as it is. We had no access to this information and have paid a heavy price for it.
A few years ago, genetically modified seeds of cotton were introduced into the market with ads in television, radio spots and publicity in the print media. The corporations selling these seeds did not tell the farmers of the high cost of using these seeds, as the plants needed a lot of pesticides and artificial fertilisers for optimum results. Nor were the farmers aware that these seeds could not be replanted. The farmers borrowed heavily from the banks, and when the crop failed, many farmers committed suicide as they were unable to pay back their loans.
And yet these very mass media have the potential to disseminate a much larger spectrum of programmes by allowing showing us images and sounds from diverse economic and political strata, cultures, histories and ethnicities. They could act as a source of information needed for our daily lives. But this will be achieved if the people have a control on what should be produced, and what should be aired.
Some groups and NGOs have made a beginning in this direction. I would like to site two groups who are using videos as a tool of communication. SEWA, in Gujarat has been working to organise women in different income generating activities. It has trained a team of rural women in the production of videos and audio programmes. These women produce programmes to meet the in-house training requirement of SEWA. They also now undertake productions for other groups on a contractual basis.
The Deccan Development Society based in Hyderabad has handed over video cameras to rural women and trained them in editing and other aspects of video production. These women produce programmes on issues of concern to them. Their film on genetically modified seeds, called Why the Farmers of Andhra Pradesh do not like BT Cotton, is a simple but effective video.
I show you a clip on these filmmakers from a film called Ten Women and a Camera. I also have a very short clip of Video SEWA.
The use of radio as a tool to address the information needs of a community have met with great success. To the best of my knowledge, in the past two years, licences for five community radio stations have been granted.
The Kutchh Mahila Vikas Sangathan, an NGO based in Bhuj, Gujarat, has been producing and broadcasting radio programmes since 1995, through All India Radio. With provision of 33 per cent reservation for women in the panchayat bodies, there was a great demand for training materials. The literacy levels are very low in Kutch and in some places it is nil. Kutchh has a large nomadic population. A survey conducted in 1998-99 indicated that radio was the most used medium as radio transistors were easy to carry.
Kutchh Mahila Vikas Sangathan in collaboration with other organisations produced Kutchh Lokji Vani in 1999. This programme was broadcast by All India Radio in the sponsored category. The broadcast resumed in July 2002. In the rehabilitation drive after the earthquake, corruption took place at all levels. The programme brought these issues to light. It also bolstered the spirit of the Kutchhi people and encouraged them not to wait for handouts but to reassert their Kutchhi spirit and begin to stand on their feet.
The programme has been modified, but it is still being aired with great success. The Kutchhi language has no written form, and the Gujarati language has acquired hegemony over all public discourse. “This highly localised programming in a local language affirms local cultural identities, it generates debate on local concerns, needs and priorities. Above all this programme is participatory in contrast to the alienated spectatorship on the part of the audience in mainstream media.“7
1 ‘Indian Cinema and Women’ by Vijaya Mulay, in Kosmorama, Copenhagen. annual issue 2000
2 Oxford English Dictionary
3 NRS-2001, as displayed on the Doordarshan website
4 Doordarshan website, Commercial Revenue section
5 All India Radio Website: HIstory
6 Consultation Paper No. 15/2004, Telecom Regulatory Authority of
7 ‘Radio Initiative in the District of Kutchh’, paper by Kutchh Mahila
What Is Gender-just Reporting?
“We journalists are simply beachcombers on the shores of other people’s knowledge, other people’s experience, and other people’s wisdom. We tell their stories.” Bill Moyers, host of the weekly public affairs series, NOW with Bill Moyers, on the US-based PBS television network, speaking at the Harvard Medical School after receiving the annual Global Environment Citizen Award presented by the Center for Health and the Global Environment
The question before us today is: who are the people whose stories we tell?
I understand that we are here to deliberate on ways and means to develop gender sensitive media activities, including an alternative approach to media representations of violence that neither sensationalise nor trivialise women’s negotiations in conflict situations, as well as to try and align several forms of work on peace, gender justice and rights.
I don’t think I would be too far off the mark in stating that the violence that has been uppermost in our minds over the past fortnight is that unleashed by the sea in the form of the tsunami that followed the earthquake off the Indonesian coast on 26 December. Since the theme of the workshop encompasses issues such as displacement, relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation, and since the tsunami tragedy involves all these and more, I don’t suppose I would be straying too far off the path laid out for me if I make my points about gender in media coverage using the post-tsunami situation as the main reference point this morning.
I must confess at the outset that I haven’t had the time so far to do a systematic and detailed analysis of the media’s coverage of the recent disaster, which is being described as unprecedented in scale and impact, as well as intercontinental reach and devastation. In that sense, the disaster presents a sobering, alternative view of globalisation and emphasises the fact that we, the inhabitants of planet earth, are inextricably inter-connected and inter-dependent, despite all our differences. And that, I believe, is in itself a lesson relevant to our quest for gender justice, human rights and peace. Let us jointly think about what we have seen and read over the past couple of weeks and, especially, try to recall the images and voices of women in this context.
These are, of course, early days and journalists reporting from the affected areas on the widespread devastation are naturally scrambling to do the best they can to bring to the rest of us some glimpses of what has happened and is happening – so that we can at least try to imagine and understand the enormity of the disaster, and do whatever we can, wherever we are located, to help in the aftermath of such large-scale death and destruction. So any discussion on media coverage of the tsunami tragedy at this point is not meant to criticise as much as to learn.
Critiques of the post-tsunami media coverage so far have focused primarily on the use of extremely graphic images of the dead and injured, especially on television, in contrast to the discretion exercised by the international media in the wake of the 9/11 disaster in the US – which suggests the operation of double standards in the media with regard to the privacy and dignity of human beings in the so-called First and Third Worlds.
There have also been other manifestations of the apparently incorrigible Western bias of international TV channels. A number of questions have also been raised about the domestic media’s coverage of the disaster, too. But let us focus here on the images and/or voices of women in the media in relation to the tsunami tragedy.
The question I would like to raise at this point is: is it relevant to talk about gender justice, awareness, sensitivity, etc., in the context of such a disaster, which has obviously affected all those who happened to be in the path of the tidal waves – men, women and children? Can there possibly be a gender angle to the tsunami story? Is it possible to talk of a gender perspective while covering the post-tsunami situation?
From my own limited experience and, more importantly, what I have learnt through reading, as well as from listening to the experiences and observations of people who have been involved in post-disaster relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts in various parts of the country and the world, the answer to those questions is a very definite “yes.”
I think it is important in this context to take note of what journalist Praful Bidwai wrote recently (The News, Pakistan, 30 December 2004): “…Natural disasters are natural only in their causation. Their effects are socially determined and transmitted through mechanisms and arrangements which are the creation of societies and governments. Natural disasters are not socially neutral in their impact. Rather, they pick on the poor and the weak, rather than the privileged.”
This reality is already evident in the post-tsunami scenario. For example, The New Indian Express today (8 January 2005) has a front-page story about Dalits, Muslims and other disadvantaged communities being further marginalised in the course of relief operations, as well as a page 7 report on the special vulnerability of the elderly in the aftermath of humanitarian crises such as the one triggered by the tsunami, with HelpAge India pointing out that senior citizens face special difficulties in accessing relief.
Since social disparities do play a role in determining the impact of all kinds of catastrophes – and their after-effects – on different sections of the population, gender cannot but be relevant even in the context of natural disasters. In view of the gender-based inequality and inequity that marks our society, women are clearly disadvantaged in multiple ways. It naturally follows that women from the economically and socially deprived communities that usually bear the brunt of both natural and man-made disasters are especially vulnerable in the aftermath of calamities and conflicts – unless special care is taken to ensure that their needs and concerns are taken care of.
I believe the media have a vital role to play in highlighting the impact of events such as the tsunami disaster, as well as their fallout, on diverse sections of the affected people, especially those at most risk, which certainly includes women. In order to do this effectively, media professionals must recognise that gender, along with other socio-economic variables such as class and caste, race or ethnicity, age, physical and mental health status, etc., influence people’s experience of the events themselves, as well as their access to subsequent help in coping with the consequences and rebuilding their lives.
If disasters are not socially neutral in their impact, policies and programmes for relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation cannot afford to be socially neutral either. If the government and other agencies involved in post-disaster or, indeed, post-conflict work have not yet learnt this well-documented lesson, it is up to the media to remind them – and the public – of the special needs, problems and vulnerabilities of various groups, including women, in the aftermath of such events.
Otherwise why cover disaster or conflict at all? To my mind, if the media are not to play a meaningful, constructive role of this kind, there is no justification for the kind of carpet coverage extended to such events, especially by the 24-hour news channels.
There have been a few, scattered glimpses in the media of women’s special vulnerabilities during the first fortnight after the tsunami struck. For example, I remember reading one story about women having been hampered in their bid to escape the waves by their saris. And another one about women being raped, molested and harassed in unprotected refugee camps. The latter was a Reuters report, based on a statement by the Women and Media Collective in Sri Lanka, published in The Times of India on 4 January 2005. And I believe it underlines an important point for gender-sensitive media coverage: the need to expand the range of news sources to be tapped even in crisis situations that appear, on the surface, to have nothing to do with gender.
There has also been a hint of potential gender-related stories in some other recent reports. Take, for example, the tactics employed by some family members in Tamil Nadu to corner the funds expected as compensation for deaths (e.g., the splitting up of siblings by paternal and maternal grandparents in order to claim separate compensation amounts for the deaths of the children’s parents). This does not bode well for women. As we know from countless earlier examples of post-conflict and post-disaster situations, including the post-Kargil scenario, the most vulnerable in society – especially women and children – often tend to lose out in this process. To ensure gender justice in the post-tsunami situation, concerned journalists need to follow up on the process of disbursing compensation.
Similarly, as I watched stories about the children orphaned by the disaster, and heard about the possibility of the Tamil Nadu government relaxing adoption-related rules and regulations to facilitate their adoption, I wondered how the authorities planned to ensure that no predatory adults exploit the vulnerability of these children, especially – though not only – the girls. This is another story that needs to be pursued sensitively with a gender lens.
I suspect that if and when sex-disaggregated data on the dead is made available, there will be some gender-related stories there, too.
I had my first exposure to the importance of being gender conscious while covering conflicts and/or disasters 20 years ago. I was part of a four-member team of the Women and Media Group, Bombay, which went to Ahmedabad in 1985 to look specifically at the role of women in and the impact on women of the caste and communal clashes in the city in the first half of that year. I think some of the insights we gained in the process are still relevant and could be applied to the post-tsunami situation. The key lesson we learnt through that experience was the importance of taking women seriously as sources of news and information.
For example, our report was the first to highlight the severe economic impact of the disturbances on large numbers of ordinary people in the city, especially those involved in the unorganised or informal sector of work. We stumbled upon this story because we spent a lot of our time talking to women, particularly poor women, many of them home-based workers and street vendors. In the 1980s, an estimated 29 to 33 per cent of the women organised by the Ahmedabad-based Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), for example, were the sole supporters of their families; a substantial percentage of the rest earned more than the male members of their families. And, of course, it is widely known that women’s earnings generally go directly towards meeting the basic needs of their families, while a substantial proportion of many men’s earnings is often spent on personal habits such as drinking, smoking and gambling. So women’s loss of income during the five months of trouble proved disastrous for a large number of families.
This grim reality was hardly reflected in the media at the time, partly because of their tendency to rely on the “authorities,” “leaders” of various groups and sundry “experts” for information on and analysis of crisis situations. I think it is important to note that things have not changed much in the intervening years in this respect – the mandatory, usually superficial and ill-informed, “quotes” and “sound bites” from the so-called man/woman-on-the-street that have become media staples these days hardly count.
The media’s neglect of this significant side effect of the disturbances had a serious negative fallout in practical terms. Apparently ignorant about the importance of women’s economic activity, the government’s relief and rehabilitation efforts did not take into account the loss of livelihood suffered by thousands of women working in the informal sector. So they and their families did not receive the kind of assistance they needed to survive in the short term, and rebuild their lives in the long term.
Media coverage of the impact of the tsunami disaster on people’s livelihoods, seems to have focused so far primarily on the fishermen, their boats, nets, and so on. While restoration of fishing is no doubt an obvious and important issue that needs to be urgently tackled, too little attention is apparently being paid to other economic activities in the coastal areas, including those involving women. This gap could have serious repercussions in terms of the reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts, both official and otherwise.
While gender is often seen as a narrow, niche issue, the fact is that gender awareness can actually lead to a better, more holistic understanding of any situation. Taking the time and trouble to talk to women and women’s groups – even in crisis situations – can not only yield insights into the larger picture but also point the way to special stories that are not only interesting but significant.
For instance, perhaps the most significant of our discoveries in Ahmedabad two decades ago was the debilitating impact of curfew on the lives of ordinary citizens, particularly the poor, who cannot afford to stock up on provisions. During the troubles in the city at that time, curfew was imposed round the clock, often for as long as seven to ten days at a stretch, at times even touching the maximum permissible limit of 500 hours. Curfew not only meant a total stoppage of work, since nobody was allowed out of their homes, but it forced large families to survive for days on the meagre provisions they happened to have at home when curfew was announced – often in the dead of night. On women fell the task of managing the difficult situation of feeding hungry families with nothing but onions and gram or wheat flour, of pacifying wailing children with black tea…
The media naturally missed this story because they had not talked to women, especially poor women, in the affected areas. If they had bothered to record and highlight the everyday hardships encountered by innocent citizens as a result of the disturbances, particularly the resultant curfew, perhaps the authorities could have been persuaded to devise practical ways to alleviate their sufferings. But media reports – then and now – tend to dismiss matters such as the imposition or relaxation of curfew in a single, bland sentence, if at all, on the basis of information provided by the authorities, giving no hint of what it means for the people concerned. We uncovered this aspect of the problem mainly because we had spent time talking to women in poor, violence-torn localities for whom, in the words of Ela Bhat of SEWA, “Curfew is a kind of violence.”
What could be the equivalent of this in the post-tsunami situation? The question of what kind of relief measures and/or materials would be most useful – since women are likely to be the ones trying to ensure that their families are fed and clothed? The question of how and how long the temporary relief camps should operate, what assistance people need when they are in a position to return to their villages, what role the affected people themselves – including women – can and should play in rebuilding their homes and lives, what precautions need to be taken to ensure that reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts take the needs of women and other disadvantaged groups into account, how to make sure that the situation of women and other traditionally deprived sections of society is better, not worse, in the post-tsunami scenario?
Lessons learnt in Maharashtra after the major earthquake there in 1993, which have subsequently been put to use in some areas affected by subsequent earthquakes in Turkey as well as Gujarat, may be useful in this context, especially at this time when the reconstruction of houses and villages is about to begin in tsunami-affected areas. A visit to Latur and Osmanabad districts at the time of the 10th anniversary of the Marathwada quake revealed how critical the active involvement of women in reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts can be.
In the most badly affected villages in the area, where post-earthquake reconstruction was undertaken by external agencies, with little or no involvement of local people or institutions, the after-effects of the disaster are still sadly evident. One of the most striking features of villages that received the most attention and aid in the wake of the earthquake is the apathy and dependency of their residents ten years on. Another disturbing trend is the apparently widespread disintegration of social and family ties. Psychological distress and alcoholism are also prevalent. And this is apart from familiar, material issues such as inappropriate housing, ill-conceived public structures, malfunctioning public services, etc.
This is in sharp contrast to the situation in the 1300 “less affected” villages, where the Repair and Strengthening component of the Maharashtra Emergency Earthquake Rehabilitation Programme (MEERP) evolved quite differently. There the conventional, centralised and top-down approach was abandoned for a more community-based and owner-driven initiative, with the assistance of Swayam Shikshan Prayog (literally “self-education for empowerment”), a Mumbai-based non-governmental organisation entrusted with the task of ensuring community participation and monitoring.
SSP, which had until then been working on issues of community development with a special focus on women and economic survival, mobilised and energised women and women’s collectives in the area to become actively involved in the reconstruction and rehabilitation process. Women leaders from affected villages were provided with basic training in earthquake-resistant construction technology and motivated to become Samvad Sahayaks (or communication assistants) charged with disseminating information to and encouraging fellow villagers, especially women, to participate in rebuilding their homes and institutions and, in the process, to take charge of their own lives. Many of them obviously went on to do just that – and then some more, turning disaster into opportunity.
These women’s collectives and self-help groups subsequently formed a Sakhi Federation to strengthen their efforts to improve community life through the empowerment of women. Members of the Federation travelled to Gujarat in 2001 to link up with women affected by the earthquake there, share their experiences with them, and help them, too, to rebuild their lives in a holistic and empowering manner. I have just heard from SSP that Federation members from both Maharashtra and Gujarat will be going to coastal Tamil Nadu to enable women there to learn from their experiences as they begin the process of reconstruction and rehabilitation.
The post-Latur experience highlights the immense value of involving communities, particularly women, in the design and implementation of post-disaster plans and programmes, as well as in more long-term efforts towards appropriate, holistic development. Indeed, according to Prema Gopalan, director of SSP, “The key lesson from Latur is to listen to grass-roots women’s groups and give them a central role in matters that affect their lives.”
This view is echoed in a statement issued by Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of UNIFEM, on 5 January, which called attention to the importance of women’s networks for emotional, social and economic recovery, and stated, “As the international community organises to provide much needed assistance, it must prioritise the mobilisation and support of women’s networks that are crucial for emotional, social, and economic recovering. In short, women must be at the heart of the relief efforts and the re-building of shattered communities…”
Further, said the statement, “The responses to this devastation must simultaneously address the urgency of the present and the inequalities and injustices of the past.
The special protection needs of women and girls require attention, and the voices and perspectives of women and women’s support networks need to be given visibility in national strategies for relief and reconstruction, by aid organisations, and by the media. By responding in this way, we can turn the crisis into an opportunity for laying the foundations of a future where all people can live with dignity, security and justice.”
In all the post-tsunami coverage so far I have detected only a faint glimmer of such a possibility: one among the flurry of reports on actor Vivek Oberoi’s relief efforts did mention that his Foundation would be working through Self Help Groups (SHGs) – which are invariably women’s groups – as they move on to reconstruction and rehabilitation. The question is whether the women involved will be given a central role in planning, decision making and implementation, based on their own assessment of their communities’ needs and priorities. That is a line of inquiry that needs to be pursued in the interest of gender just reporting in the wake of the tsunami disaster.
Let us now move on to man-made disasters (and I use the term advisedly), such as communal violence, terrorism and war.
One aspect of our findings in Ahmedabad in 1985 – the sexual nature of some of the incidents then, the wide publicity given to those allegedly targeting Hindu women, and the scant media attention given to those where Muslim women were at the receiving end – could perhaps have informed subsequent coverage of communal violence in Gujarat in 1993 as well as 2002.
It is an established fact that the mainstream, nationwide media, which must be commended for widely, boldly and critically covering the intense and prolonged communal conflagration in Gujarat in 2002, were surprisingly slow to report the rapes and other forms of sexual violence that characterised the carnage. Media coverage of these crimes against women appear, by and large, to have been catalysed by the two independent reports – by an independent fact-finding team of women (and one man) and by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) – that blew the whistle on what academic Anuradha M. Chenoy refers to as a “gendered pogrom” in her essay, ‘The Politics of Gender in the Politics of Hate’.
One of these reports, titled The Survivors Speak, released in April 2002, included a section on ‘Sexual violence and the media’, which is quite revealing. According to the report, “In many ways women have been the central characters in the Gujarat carnage, and their bodies the battleground. The Gujarati vernacular press has been the agent provocateur… Ironically, while false stories about the rape of Hindu women have done the rounds, there has been virtual silence in the media, including in the English language papers, about the real stories of sexual violence against Muslim women… When members of the fact-finding team spoke to senior journalists in Ahmedabad, their explanation was that rape stories are provocative, and that in the early days of the violence, they had to play a socially responsible role, and not incite more violence. But in the weeks that followed, the press has continued to do self-censorship about rape stories.”
According to the authors, “…yet again, Muslim women are being victimised twice over. They have suffered the most unimaginable forms of sexual abuse during the Gujarat carnage. And yet, there is no one willing to tell their stories to the world. Women’s bodies have been employed as weapons in this war – either through grotesque image-making or as the site through which to dishonour men, and yet women are being asked to bear all this silently. Women do not want more communal violence. But peace cannot be bought at the expense of the truth, or at the expense of women’s right to tell the world what they have suffered in Gujarat.”
Again, these two reports uncovered the unhappy truth about the gender-specific violence that accompanied the general violence because they sought out and spoke to women about their experiences and observations.
As far as I know, not enough introspection has been done by the media about their tardiness in reporting these gender-related crimes even while they were covering other aspects of the communal violence with due promptness and seriousness. I think such introspection is vital if media coverage of conflicts – and disasters – is to promote gender justice.
Turning to gender and media coverage of war, let me quote from the last two paragraphs of an article based on my introductory lecture to students at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai in October 2001 (during the post-9/11 attacks on Afghanistan), titled, ‘Women, War and the Media’.
“The gender angle to war coverage cannot be seen exclusively in terms of reports on violations of women’s right to physical security, including rape, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation – widespread and serious as these tend to be. It needs to also take into account women’s heightened experience of violence and trauma during periods of conflict – both physical and psychological, both within the home and outside it. It needs to spotlight the ways in which “culture” and “tradition” are often used during times of political tension and strife to curtail women’s human rights. It needs to take note of the additional social and economic burdens placed on women’s shoulders at such times, when they often find themselves solely responsible for their families (including the very old, the very young and the sick) under circumstances where even food and shelter are not always available. And it certainly needs to focus attention on women’s political rights, including their right to participate in decision-making and governance.
“If women hold up half the sky during peace time, they hold up even more of it during war time. This is surely a fact that the media has a responsibility to recognise and report. One way to begin is to acknowledge women as legitimate and vital sources of information as well as insight even in the context of war, the ultimate manifestation of machismo.”
I believe there are lessons in both the above examples for media coverage of the post-tsunami situation.
If more proof were needed of the importance and professional wisdom of taking women, their experiences and opinions on board while covering conflicts or disasters, they can be found in the essays included in the book, Terror, Counter-Terror: Women Speak Out (A. Joseph and K. Sharma, Kali for Women/Zed Books, 2003), which highlight women’s perspectives on terrorism, war and peace. In my opinion some of the most sensitive, enlightening, holistic analyses of the global scenario in the lead up to and aftermath of 9/11 were written by women whose understanding of global events and issues, including politics and economics, is informed by a gender perspective. And, as the book tries to show, women in many parts of the world wrecked by conflicts of various kinds have been commenting on them over the years.
In the introduction to the book we argue that women who have been thinking about and working on issues of gender are ideally placed to critique the fallout of 9/11 in terms of challenging the renewed faith in violence; the resurgence of narrow definitions of nationalism, national interest and national security; the “clash of civilisations” theory that divides the world into “us” and “them;” the revival of racial, ethnic and religious prejudice, and the divisive geo-political worldview that follows from these; and the close links between economic globalisation and deprivation, militarism and terrorism — all of which we see as integral to the mindset that we refer to as the 9/11 syndrome.
You only have to read the essays and articles brought together in the book to appreciate what a wealth of knowledge and understanding is available with gender-conscious women across the world and how media coverage of conflicts of various kinds could be greatly enriched by the insights such women, who are present in practically every country, could provide. The writings in the book clearly establish the relevance of gender to media staples like war and terror. They also point towards the advantages that can accrue to journalists who are aware of and therefore able to draw upon the information and ideas generated by women scholars and activists on the many complex political, economic, social and cultural aspects of these unfortunate realities of our times.
The main point I have been attempting to make here is that gender-just or gender-sensitive or gender-conscious media coverage is not just about ensuring gender balance or giving women voice or highlighting women’s special concerns and problems, which are, of course, important in themselves. It is about recognising that women have information, knowledge and opinions about every event and issue covered by the media, and that to not tap that valuable resource is to impoverish media coverage and diminish our understanding of current affairs.
In the end I can only say that I firmly believe that the media – and media professionals – stand to gain by recognising that there is a gender dimension to virtually every event, process, institution and/or individual experience covered by the media. And that gender awareness is currently inspiring some of the most interesting and innovative work emerging from different fields of knowledge, creativity and action. Journalism that takes these established realities on board will undoubtedly lead to better media coverage of the world and its people, in all their variety.
Let me end with another quote, which I think underlines, once again, the tremendous fount of wisdom and knowledge that the media often forgets to draw upon:
Peace is not an event, it’s a process.
Naga Mothers’ Front
Women as sources, resources
A few key pointers towards gender-sensitive reporting
Talk and listen to women: not only to ensure gender balance in media coverage (which is important in itself) but also because they can be vital sources of news, information, analysis, stories; not talking and listening to women may result in missing at least half the picture and many important stories.
Do not see women and report on them solely as victims.
Do not view women and write about them solely in terms of traditional gender roles (mothers, wives, housewives…).
Recognise women as active citizens, as responsible members of their communities and families, who play vital roles in ensuring community/family survival and well-being.
Be aware of and look into the special concerns, problems, vulnerabilities of women and girls (and boys) in crisis situations, especially in the context of gender-based inequality and inequity.
Find out about women’s pre-crisis economic activities and examine the impact of the crisis on those and, thereby, on their lives and those of their families/communities.
Remember that women are not an undifferentiated, homogenous category; ensure that women from socially and economically disadvantaged groups – and their needs, concerns and aspirations – are fairly and adequately represented; caste, class, religion/race/ethnicity, age, marital status, health status, etc., need to be taken into account.
Ask the authorities and others involved in relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction what they are doing to assess and address women’s needs, concerns, vulnerabilities and priorities.
Evaluate relief, reconstruction and relief measures with a gender lens.
Remember that gender is not only about women – and that men, too, are disadvantaged in many ways by patriarchy and rigid gender roles.
How Do Women Victims Communicate With The Media?
Drawing on my experience as a counselor for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and drawing from my research on the representation of sexual assault in the courtroom, particularly the Supreme Court, I would argue that the question in the tile of this essay must be inverted. It is, when one looks closely, not really a question of how women victims communicate with the media, but rather how the media (as part of a larger, hegemonic, patriarchal, misogynist, public domain) communicates women’s experience of violence and violation.
Where women survivors are concerned, the communication, once the decision in favour of disclosure is made, is simple. It is a statement of what happened in the language that they know. That the language itself is coded against plain and direct disclosure, that word conflate honour and sexual experience in ways that make it impossible to disentangle one from the other are problems that cripple women’s access to justice even today. In that sense nothing has changed since Mathura. But even so, women speak. The problem is that they do not speak in capsules. They do not tell all in one sitting at one time. They do not begin with the most painful, most injurious experiences. Neither their pain, nor their experience can be “captured” on camera in a single shot. In the course of the telling they peel off layer after layer and it is all of that that is the story. As a counselor, I find myself living through each story and then coming out beaten into silence by the pain and the courage. It takes a long time to be able to retell the stories – those that can be retold, that is. Most of the stories of violence that have been told to me by those who have survived it have been spread over months, sometimes even a year or more, sometimes “incidentally”, when the stated purpose of seeking help is to prevent eviction or dispossession. In some, women have “made their peace” with extreme abuse, reckoning that the environment outside might be even more hostile to them and perhaps even more violent. After twenty years of daily sexual abuse and marital rape, when Priyamvada decided not to go ahead with the divorce proceedings and stated in writing that “nothing had happened”, telling us even while handing over the letter, that one must not lose faith in the possibility of even the worst criminal turning good, we were pained. At what cost do women find peace, and what kind of peace do they find.
Sometimes, women have died without making their peace, insisting that their bodies should not be handed over to the family that deserted them in their lifetime. When Varalakshmi knew she would die alone and uncared for in some small hospital in the edge of town, having battled destitution and desertion after leading a relatively comfortable life, having coped with children and husband pressing charges of insanity when the demand for livelihood support was persistent and based on real estimates of a reasonable, healthy life, rather than agreeing to the humiliation of a nominal dole, she was categorical in her assertion to the doctor that her body must not be handed over to her husband and children. When they heard this, the husband and children went to court and procured an order in their favour, because the judge felt the woman’s soul must rest in peace and she should not lie unclaimed to be disposed of by the municipality. But she was unclaimed for in life. She had no home, no family, the only support was the counseling center where she would every few weeks spend hours. There are others like Gloria who having been raped and abused by the husband for six years, escape leaving behind a three-month-old child. Eight years later, they decide to revisit the past and press for divorce and custody of the child, on grounds of cruelty. Where is the space in our fields of vision to account for the fact that it might actually take a woman eight long years to be able to revisit the site of violence and decide to act on that experience. When Fatima killed her step father because he attempted to rape her, she was assaulted in police custody and then imprisoned. The accretion of violence and the remedy women have against violence being more violence, negation and denial, is a telling comment on the society we live in. How will these stories be told in the media? How long will the media wait to hear a story? What would be retained and what edited out as inconsequential or irrelevant? A correspondent in a TV channel said to me that there would be no problem interviewing a ten-year-old victim of rape by the father, because they would put a shroud on her. To which I said, I have two daughters and I am asking you this question: How would you react if this was your daughter and I offered to put a shroud on her because I wanted an authentic story? Clearly, in her view I was being offensive and unreasonable.
The argument I made was simple. The media can report the case and then find other ways of focusing on the issue in question, or even investigating it, rather than asking a child who was completely traumatised to speak in front of a camera with a shroud on her head. There is an impatience in the mainstream media. The impatience, I would argue has to do with the structure of the public domain itself. As it is the public domain is structured in ways that actively exclude certain classes of people and it is a space where dominant hegemonies are all pervasive. In that context therefore, all those classes that are not participant/perpetrators are kept out of visibility, the only exceptions being made when the visibility is in terms of the dominant discourse – and the media then renders the experience in the space/time/method that is predetermined. In attempting alternative representations, therefore, what one is actually doing is cutting against the edifice of hegemonic patriarchy, something that is in its very doing unlikely to find favour. And one can explain this using different examples. However, while one remedy is attempting alternative representations, the corollary to it is altering existing patterns of representation in the public domain. In looking at questions of human rights and gender therefore, one also needs to shift between fields of representation because it is skewed patterns in one filed that obstruct the giving of voice in another. It is at this intersection between the two different fields of representation that the second part of this essay is located. How does one address questions of access, diversity and formal representation in the public domain? And I would like to tie up this question with the other critical concern of the media, namely the right to information. It is useful to look at questions of representation in the context of the access to the right to information.
How would women, across class, whose access to the public is severely curtailed by practices of violence and dual exclusion, even begin to access the right to information? In a situation where even women of privileged classes across caste and community are excluded from formal politics and governance through brazen practices of misogyny that are widespread and legitimate (even our Parliament is not an exception), how would we begin to think of the right to information also as a question of physical access to public spaces where information can be obtained and accountability and transparency sought? I will look at two key issues that women across class must have remedy against, one in the private sphere of the family and the other in the public sphere of work.
The delivery of justice for women has been virtually absent. Dealing with cases of domestic violence and sexual assault on a day-to-day basis, it is clear to us that there has not been any abatement in violence against women. Attempting to find life supports for women who suddenly find themselves hurled onto the streets after a decade or more of marriage, bigamy has always figured as a problem that dispossesses women. Yet, when the Andhra Pradesh legislature silently passed the amendments making 498A and bigamy compoundable, the justifications given were that men are suffering untold misery and violence in marriages and the law minister at that time even went on record saying that the bigamy amendment would help rural women enter second marriages unhindered. Where is the record of the debate that led to the passing of these amendments? What were the statistical records that this move was based on? Why was there no public debate prior to the passing of these amendments? It is true that women find it very difficult to sustain charges of domestic assault and often withdraw their cases. But that is not because the charges are false but because they find it easier to cope with a hostile home environment than to cope with a hostile and misogynist public space, of which the criminal justice system and the legal profession is often part. It is that hostility that is responsible for the failure of 498A, not the treachery of women, as people (read men) are quick to assert. What alternative mechanism will we have in place to provide effective remedies to women against the increasing violence in their homes?
In 1997, the Supreme Court in response to the assault on Bhanwari Devi delivered the Visakha judgment to curb sexual harassment in the workplace. As part of this process, all state governments were instructed to set up complaints committees according to specified guidelines, and were asked to report back on action taken. Universities and employers, private or public are also expected to follow this procedure. Seven years later, neither government departments nor centres of learning have cared to put these mechanisms in place according to the specifications. Nominal committees have been set up in some places, but our information shows that none of these committees even in premier universities and centres of higher education in the country conform to the guidelines in any sense. In government departments, there is a complete lack of commitment to addressing this issue in any serious fashion. Yet, sexual harassment remains the single most serious problem faced by women in the workplace, posing a constant threat to security of person and affecting efficiency and work performance adversely, irrespective of position. There are instances of women officers of the prestigious diplomatic services being harassed, assaulted even, but preferring not to report the incidents in the interest of career prospects, bearing the scars of the trauma for years later. Beginning with missions abroad down to the smallest workplace in a corner of the country, Vishakha must apply so as to create a secure environment for women in public spaces. We need also mechanisms in place to provide women of the working classes, in the unorganised sector, for instance or in the free trade zones, which are notorious for routinely violating women’s right to dignity and security in employment. While the setting up of these committees and ensuring their effective functioning might not eliminate the problem, the process is an indispensable part of the basic human right to bodily integrity and security of person, not a question of choice.
These are only two issues, and rather arbitrarily selected. Action Aid, in its cross-country study on the impact of violence on basic education of girls found that entrenched practices of violence severely limited the participation of girls in the schooling system. And this is not the only impact of violence against girls. Our work for over a decade with women writers across the country shows that education and class privilege do not alter the fact that women are hindered in their participation in the public domain, the censorship civil society unleashes on them being far more virulent than the official censorship on grounds of sedition, and the safeguards to their freedom of expression being non-existent, unlike official censorship. And if the right to information is part of the freedom of expression, how will we as women structure it so as to make it accessible to all women?
The second aspect of unhindered access concerns the access to the public domain by persons with disabilities. If, as has been stated earlier in this essay, information assumes access, the progressive curtailment of access abridges the ability to seek and use information at all levels. The most serious problem in dealing with the issue of differently-abled people is the absence of any formal mechanism to record numbers and the unavailability of these numbers in the public domain. What we need at this point is an official National Disability Census that will create the information base necessary to address the issues in this sector effectively. In this context, it is necessary also to evolve a Disability Index that will then become the reference point for all employers and institutions to measure the degree to which they conform to the anti discrimination commitment of the state on disability issues. Providing information on the Disability Index must be made mandatory and communicated across languages, so that in the absence of requisite numbers or transparency it will become possible for persons with disabilities to seek remedial action through the formal justice delivery system.
In the context of universal primary education, how is the network of government schools equipped to make access routinely available to children with disabilities? With the exception of those mentally challenged children who require special education, all other children could with the provision of teaching aids and creation of physical access participate in the normal formal schooling system with ease. This would require in the first instance, a disability census and the creation of infrastructure to fulfil the responsibility of providing access.
Questions of basic survival and adequate protection for persons with disabilities, especially women in rural areas remain largely unaddressed. While this is part of the larger environment in which routine and systematic violence against women is endemic, it is necessary to address the specific needs and interests of women with disabilities within a broad human rights framework. The meaning of equality under the Constitution has been addressed in terms of education, employment opportunities, and creation of access to public transport. While each of these is important, they also limit the scope of the issue in the very articulation. Figures of children with disabilities being able to access normal schooling are inadequate and do not cover the field, the census being a very urgent need. The Persons with Disabilities Act does not touch upon the need for affirmative action to be made mandatory and binding on all employers, but merely ensures the creation of special facilities and protection of promotional avenues once employment has been obtained. Ironically, even while protecting the right to employment in whatever limited fashion, there has been no systematic review of rules of public employment in each sector, nor any attempt to amend or repeal provisions that violate the state’s commitment to end discrimination against persons with disabilities. The AP Judicial Services Rules have a sub clause in clause 12 that persons with bodily defect or infirmity are ineligible. While even the mere use of the terms “bodily defect or infirmity” are objectionable and violate the fundamental right to dignity of persons with disabilities, in terms of procedures for selection, the exact applicability of these terms is not defined and the decision of whether or not to apply the provision is entirely a matter of interpretation. Visually challenged lawyers have been barred from entering the judicial services under this rule.
The ambulift cases have been a significant milestone in mainstreaming disability rights in judicial discourse, by raising the critical question of access to public transportation by persons with disabilities. However, the applicability of the decision has been limited in characteristic fashion to air travel alone, while the majority of persons with disabilities use the cheaper modes of public transport routinely and on an everyday basis. The provision of seats and concessional travel is one small part of the solution. Facilitating easier and more dignified access, which is really the issue the Abidi cases raise, remains unaddressed, thereby curtailing mobility of persons with disabilities in serious ways. Issues of access and mobility undoubtedly are critical elements of the right to information for persons with disabilities.
The Worlds of Resistance and Mass Movements
Questions of democratic governance within communities that have mobilised themselves around issues are addressed systematically and checks and balances put into place to steer clear of any potential for the concentration of power or its unethical use. However, while it is relatively easier to raise questions of accountability and transparency with respect to public resources and their distribution and access to marginalised communities, often, the core issues of equity within communities remain largely unaddressed even within the democratic spaces of movements, various unacknowledged forms of exclusion serving to limit the public domain to a largely homogenous “oppressed class”. It is relatively easy to pose the question of the right to information with respect to governments because there is a tradition of adversarial discourse between the state and citizen, with each end keeping the other in check. The questions are more difficult to pose with respect to oppositional struggles. The field of struggle and mass mobilisation is particularly significant because it is representative of diversity in ways that the state and normative social spaces (the dominant public) are not. Issues of caste, adivasi rights, political and civil rights, questions of identity and the rights that emanate from identity politics, rights related to trade unionism and the freedom of association, rights of GLBT communities, labour rights, issue related to child rights, homelessness and so many more have broken homogenous hegemonies in civil society, rupturing boundaries and writing in processes of inclusion in the public in radically new ways. The space of struggle itself, however has ironically been relatively resistant to the same processes of inclusion internally, so that while representation and accountability are posited as problems without, homogeneity of interest blurs questions of diversity within. This is not of course to say that diversity or the lack of it is not a problem within movements. Dalits, women and minority activists have consistently critiqued the lack of inclusive diverse processes within movements. Whole new movements have grown out of this critique. Yet, problems of hierarchy, of representation, of leadership, and autonomy continue to bind worlds of resistance within unnecessarily narrow confines, and tend to nurture adversarial politics between movements that address each other’s concerns inadequately. Susheela’s question really acquires immediate relevance in this context. Representation and voice are critical elements of the right to information and must reflect democracy within.
The right to information can only be realised through processes of inclusion and representation. If the space of social existence is undercut by exclusion and resistance to formal numerical representation; or if it is undercut by the persistence of little “private” spaces where democracy and autonomy are legitimately suspended; or even where the lack of representation is explained away by substituting the “representation of interests” for actual physical representation by people belonging to excluded groups, an assumption can safely be made that the access to the right to information exists only in very limited partial ways. Women today continue to hear the argument that they are unable to rise to leadership positions within movements in sufficient numbers because they are hampered by “natural constraints” or are so tied down by tradition that it will take them longer to break free than it has taken the men. Peace processes from the north and northeast to the south continue to exclude women and by that token their voices and interests although in most instances, women have in fact been the architects of peace on a day-to-day basis. The rights of persons with disabilities have only now begun to touch human rights movements, as also questions related to the right to sexual orientation. The space of struggle therefore remains fraught with problems on the critical issue of representation.
The normalisation of violence, particularly against girls and women across caste, caste and community, and the entrenchment of patriarchal authority curtails women’s assumption of full blown, autonomous leadership in movements on the one hand, and serves as a powerful instrument of exclusion from the public domain on the other, with impunity being guaranteed to perpetrators of violence against women – Gujarat demonstrating to us the extent of violation women must bear. The right to representation especially in governance is a basic precondition for democracy. Transparency and accountability in governance cannot be effectively achieved simultaneously with practices of exclusion in governance at different levels. To the extent that they are achieved, they will still reflect the same hierarchies and structures of dominance that are sought to be undermined, since the physical location of political power and legitimate power in the public domain still continue to remain unchanged. The expansion of the public domain through the conscious adoption of systematic processes of formal representation is the only way that diversity and difference will gain any legitimacy in civil society. There are several examples that illustrate that even where there have been gains, the absence of a formal reconstitution of decision-making bodies has resulted in the ineffectiveness of remedies bitterly fought for and won. The absence of any commitment to formal representation also results in a distortion and invisibilising of discrimination in the public domain. And both the invisibility and the distortion are manifest in the representation of women and other marginalised sections in the mainstream media.
[Note: Part of this essay was written for the Seminar issue on the Right to Information – January 2005]
No Woman’s Land Mixed Genre Accounts by Women on India’s Partition
[A discussion on the anthology No Woman’s Land: Women from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh written on the Partition of India, edited by Ritu Menon, New Delhi, Kali for Women, 2004]
The 449 km Punjab border is lined with 600,000 landmines, laid in place over 10-15 years by the Indian government, in order to contain the Punjab insurgency of the 1980s. At Hussainiwala, fields and trees stretch away into the horizon, shrouded in thick mist. In the near distance on the Indian side there is electrified fencing, concertina barbed wire in great hoops across the land. Between the international border (IB) separating India and Pakistan and the fence are strips of land cultivated by local farmers. Technically within the Indian border but outside the fencing, farmers are guarded by Border Security Force (BSF) personnel while they till their fields. Cattle, ignorant of the danger of landmines, sometimes stray across and are grievously injured. Women, who usually look after the cattle, are no longer allowed to enter those lands between the fencing and the IB, for “security reasons”. For social and other reasons they can no longer relieve themselves in the fields because they are patrolled by the BSF, nor can they carry food to their menfolk when they farm their land. And whenever the Army and the border villages are on high alert, villagers are told to pack up and leave with hardly any notice.
In many very particular ways, women experience the fallout of conflict swiftly and undeniably, as we know from all available accounts of current conflicts across the world. In our part of the world, especially in the recent past and especially in the light of high levels of ethnic violence in the entire South Asian region, the impact is not only undeniable, it is lingering. The fencing of the Punjab border in the west has been followed by that along the Line of Control (LOC), sometimes called the “line of hatred” by local villagers; those who have been trying to study border populations know how difficult it is to sustain the enquiry because people, particularly women, are constantly on the move. In other words, dislocated.
The Partition of India in 1947 recorded one of the most massive peace-time upheavals ever, and it is generally agreed that its reverberations persisted and are still being felt with varying degrees of intensity in the three countries most affected by it. There have been at least four major outbreaks of war along the eastern and western borders of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; literally scores of skirmishes on a more or less regular basis, some of which have flared up but stopped just short of war; and what is called “low-intensity” warfare is an almost constant feature in all our border areas.
Post-independence, the political history of the subcontinent has been fairly richly and systematically documented and analysed, usually from a nationalist perspective. Subaltern and marginal histories are now being studied more closely, but although they have contributed to decentering the historical narrative to some extent, the historical perspective remains predominantly centrist. If we were to look for a de-nationalised, people’s perspective on that epochal event, we would find it elusive and patchy, mostly fictional, mostly male. Rarely, if ever, has there been an attempt to present cross-border accounts that are experiential or that address shared concerns or histories as a consequence of 1947 and 1971; and, to the best of our knowledge, such an offering has not yet been made from a gendered perspective. In that sense this anthology is a first and modest beginning, made with the hope that non-fiction writing by Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women on Partition, both contemporary and current, will open up new ways of looking not only at what happened then, but at how lives have been lived subsequently within three new nations, along porous borders with overlapping, sometimes conflicting and sometimes complementary, claims on identity. In situations of one’s choosing, or not; with or without agency; with or without fortitude.
The weak, they say, have the purest sense of history, because they know anything can happen. The weak and the powerless, one might add. Women, even if not “weak”, have almost always been powerless in the larger meaning of the word, historically speaking, and the question that interests us here is: how does this situation influence their sense of history? It is not a question that is usually asked of women — they are presumed to be outside history because they are outside the public and the political, where history is made. Consequently they have no part in it. At best, if unusually privileged, they may be witness to it, very rarely they may play a minor role in contributing to it; but generally they are the flotsam and jetsam of historical events — present perhaps, but of no great significance. Afterwards, they are called upon to pick up the pieces, clean up the mess, rebuild and resettle, somehow manage, somehow forgive and forget. Above all, forget. Their “natural” inclination is to preserve, to do good works, engage in charitable and welfare activities, continue to do what they do best: nurturing and mothering. Theirs is the precinct of the personal, and once the calamity is behind them, the chaos ordered again, they withdraw from their brief foray into the public.
So what could they have to say about 1947 that hasn’t already been said or fictionalised? And even if they did, how could they imbue the political with a different meaning? What exactly would their accounts tell us?
By demolishing the opposition between the personal and the political, by demonstrating that in women’s experience, the personal is the political, feminism and feminist historiography have validated the importance of the experiential dimension in any analytical endeavour. Neither exclusive of all other factors, nor excluded because subjective or individual, the personal may query the political, may subvert it, may rephrase it, may even rewrite or reconfigure it.
Dadi, in Sara Suleri’s essay, ‘Excellent Things in Women’, embodies such a challenge. She simply ignored independence and Partition. “She had long since dispensed with any loyalties larger than the pitiless give-and-take of people who are forced to live together in the same place,” we are told, “and she resented independence for the distances it made.” With one imperious decision she dismissed the vanity of nation-making, recognising at once what it had undone in the bargain. In her eloquent, deeply moving and deeply political disquisition on “Papa and Pakistan”, Dadi’s granddaughter further exposes the myth of the nation — but exposes also its intrinsically male, spontaneously gendered accoutrements. The media, the military, the rhetoric, the deluding mirage of victory. Her granddaughter concludes, “That most modern thing, a Muslim nation or a Hindu nation,” has no place for women, no place for her.
This no-woman’s land may or may not have borders but it does have boundaries, and they are uncannily similar across national borders. In her strong desire to resist the stereotype, the crude defining of identity and allegiance, Shehla Shibli in her essay, ‘Either, Neither or Both’, simultaneously repudiates and embraces both Hindu and Muslim. Adopts a nation, but does not barter her self, refuses to renounce one for the other. Across the expanse of India, across the eastern border, a mother and daughter, Sumati and Basanti choose — and then keep choosing as borders are drawn, disappear or are redrawn again and again. Their daughter and granddaughter, Meghna Guha-Thakurta, recalls their history in her biographic essay, ‘Two Women, One Family, Divided Nations’. The long duration of division plays out in three generations of women, all of whom choose differently, inter-leaving gender and nation, country and community, and the compulsions of history.
Between times, however, their narratives describe the dailiness of their lives, that forgotten dimension of history in which differences are forgiven and hostilities buried. That “pitiless give-and-take” of people forced to live together blurs the boundaries between them so that choices, when they have to be made, are forced upon them by a violent disruption of the everyday, the settled co-existence. A riot, a war, ethnic cleansing. Master narratives dwell on the momentous and extraordinary, reiterating them until they are normalised and internalised, thus usurping the importance of the ordinary. But marginal voices restore us to the places — and spaces — where the desultory conversations of the day are resumed and, slowly, the respite of routine restored. It is in these interstices of history that real life is resumed.
Yet it was only because Bengal was spared the long and terrifying violence of Punjab that choosing was at all possible, and changing one’s mind allowed. Sumati and Basanti’s intergenerational narrative unfolds a family’s history, as well as national histories on either side of the border, tracking the changing self-perception of the Bangladeshi state from secular and Bangla, to Islamic and Arabised. In an ironic reversal, what is blurred now is that sharp sense of difference between Pakistan and Bangladesh that spurred the 1971 War of Liberation: the dilution of Bengali nationalism in favour of pan-Islamism has kept the border between West and East Bengal porous as succeeding generations of those who initially stayed back, now cross over.
The relative “peace” — by which one merely means the absence of war — of India’s eastern border is in direct contrast to the turmoil in Kashmir in the west. Despite a huge military deployment along the Line of Control, border crossings by militants, extremists, civilians and others occur regularly. When hostilities between India and Pakistan abate civilian traffic increases, with people crossing over for the day to meet relatives in Azad Kashmir (or POK – Pakistan Occupied Kashmir as the Indian government puts it), to watch cricket matches in Lahore, sometimes just to go shopping. But if, as in the recent past, all comings and goings between India and Pakistan by rail, road and air were suspended, then the only goods allowed to cross the border is dry fruit from Afghanistan.
The border town of Uri in Kashmir is a non-Kashmiri speaking tract made up mostly of Gujjars and Paharis. Luv Puri, a reporter recently in Uri, writes that a villager, Haji Assadullah, now 77 years old, has been separated from his family members, including three brothers and three sisters, since November 1947. His relatives live just 20 km away in Azad Kashmir. In Asida village on the Line of Control, every resident has a family member living on the other side. Bibi Jaan (72), a Gujjar woman, was married in this village before 1947 and her maternal village is two km across the LoC. For the last 50 years, she has not seen her two brothers and their families. With tears in her eyes she says: “We are separated by two km but to reach my maternal village, I have to travel hundreds of miles through the Wagah border. My financial condition did not allow me to take this route. I could not see my ailing parents before they died.” She says the time has come to demolish this “line of hatred” and pass on a legacy of love to the next generation.
Ranjit Kaur (or Jeet Masi’s) story about her six-month sojourn in Muzaffarabad, in the mid-1980s, is significant in this context. Here is an ordinary Hindu couple who decide that they want to spend some time with their erstwhile neighbours and acquaintances in the city they were forced to flee in 1947. To have been able to do so more than forty years later means several things. It means that they had kept in touch; that frequent exchange visits had been taking place; that a goodly number of Hindus had converted and stayed back in Azad Kashmir; that the ties that bind communities, even mixed communities, can survive the worst violence. But they can also be severed, as the last decade of dissent in Kashmir illustrates. Now, bridging the communal divide in the Valley is one of the most urgent of peace-building activities; here, too, women have played a very important, though difficult, role.
So little is known about the Hindus and Sikhs who now call themselves Sheikhs and live in Azad Kashmir. Indeed, writing and reporting on both sides of the Kashmir border has generally been so statist and establishmentarian, so focused on militancy or national security or migration or insurgency or freedom fighting as the case may be, that people and their lives, and the necessary accommodations they make, do not form part of the historical record. Jeet Masi’s starkly unadorned account of the experiences of women who were abducted is almost shocking in its matter-of-factness, deceptive in its brevity; because in her telling is encapsulated the entire gamut of experience. Women who could never be traced, those who resisted then finally succumbed, others whose strategies for survival included honourable compromise — or doing violence to their own children. Women like them challenge the very notion of fixed identities, of birth-bound allegiances to religion and community because their only unchanging identity is that of womanhood. Women, as we know, have no country and so they can make no claims on it, not even the normal, fundamental claims of citizenship. As Kamlabehn Patel’s and many other social workers’ accounts make clear, women were bartered like oranges and apples; apportioned between countries according to official classification — Hindu, Muslim, Sikh; minor; legitimate or illegitimate, abducted or not, forcibly converted vs. voluntarily married —with no choice or rights in the matter. Not only do women have no country, they cannot even call their bodies their own.
A refugee’s right of return, the cardinal principle of seeking refuge and granting asylum, was never available to Partition refugees, even though the thousands who fled at a moment’s notice, with no more than the clothes on their backs, were sure they would return when the fury of violence abated. They travelled by road in bullock-carts, in huge fool caravans by truck and train, they travelled without a destination, not knowing when, or if, they would ever arrive. On the way, they could be relieved of whatever they might have carried — cash, jewellery, gold, food; or their wives, sisters, daughters. But still they believed they would return. Years later in the course of our research when we met widows and destituted women at the Karnal Mahila Ashram in Haryana (India), they still spoke of Mianwali or Montgomery or Abbotabad or Sargodha or Multan or Sialkot as home. “Now there is no country,” said Somavanti to us “This is not ours, that is no longer ours.”
Before the Ashram was set up in 1948 to look after and rehabilitate “unattached” women and children, the almost 750,000 refugees who flowed into East Punjab were housed in a refugee camp at Kurukshetra. This was the largest of about 45 camps in Punjab, a huge tented city, initially run by the army under the control of the central government. Spread over an area of about nine square miles, it was divided into four townships, each with its own staff of rationing officers, storekeepers, inspectors, assistants, clerks, typists and record keepers. Mrs K.N. Sawhney was a camp commandant at Kurukshetra during the first few years of its functioning, an unusual job for a young girl at the time. But calamities can also make for opportunities for women, when the breakdown of normalcy and familial protection require them to step outside the boundaries of home and hearth. There were many like Mrs Sawhney. Miss Makhan Singh, Bhag Mehta, Gulab Pandit, Damyanti Sahgal, Purnima Banerji, Dr Sushila Nayyar, Sucheta Kriplani, Bibi Amtus Salaam, Begum Anis Kidwai, Mrs Handoo, Mrs Shobha Nehru, Vimla Dang…
The real work of rehabilitating women fell to women; not just those whose names can be found in government records and ministry reports; not the score or more with whom we spoke but countless others, volunteers who worked in camps, in homes, in seva sadans and women’s service centres as doctors, teachers, trainers, wardens, camp commandants, counsellors and companions in the painful and protracted business of relocating and rebuilding. There were the women of the YWCA, the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), the Women’s Indian Association, women who belonged to the Indian National Army, the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the CPI and other political parties, to any number of voluntary organisations; and individual women, many themselves widowed by Partition or unmarried as a consequence of it. Some, like Anis Kidwai persevered in the face of personal tragedy — her husband, the prominent nationalist Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, was shot dead in Mussoorie by unknown assailants. Stunned and grief-stricken, Begum Kidwai was advised by Mahatma Gandhi to sublimate her sorrow in the service of those much worse off than her, which she did for many, many years.
The rehabilitation of refugees from the east followed a rather different course to that in the West, as has been well documented by recent studies. There is no doubt that the scale of violence in Punjab and the massive exodus of people from the west was not matched by similar upheaval and population flows in the east. It is also true that the response of the state and central governments in relief work and in the organisation of rehabilitation and the settlement of claims led to complaints of neglect and discrimination by refugees in Bengal. By the end of 1956, roughly three and a half million refugees had come into West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. Renuka Roy, Congress Member of Parliament from West Bengal, has said that “the unwillingness to accept facts and the reluctance of the Central government to rehabilitate the refugees in the east is one of the major reasons why even today the refugee problem in eastern India has not been solved”. The Liaquat-Nehru Pact of 1950 according to her, was based on the assumption that the influx from East Pakistan was a temporary affair, and that both countries would encourage the return of their citizens, see that their homes and belongings were returned to them and ensure that they could resume living without fear.
The West Bengal government, for its part, disagreed with this assumption and many in the opposition, including the Bharatiya Jan Sangh and the Communist Party of India, argued against it. Despite this, the Pact was approved, but the stalemate on the ground persisted. Manikuntala Sen’s is one of the few accounts we have by a woman of the time actively engaged in rehabilitation in the east, but even more importantly, possibly the only really detailed one on the impact of Direct Action Day in Calcutta in August 1946.
In spite of her horror and revulsion at the premeditated violence of that day, she says she could never be reconciled to the two-nation theory. “My birth-place (Barisal) would become another country, and my heart would break. I knew my mother, brothers, sisters and the extended family would never leave their homes and come to Calcutta as refugees… I was even more upset when I learnt that the Party (CPI) had agreed to the Partition.” But she put aside her unhappiness and plunged into relief work up until her election as a member of the legislative assembly from Kalighat in 1952. She confirms observations made by other scholars of the emergence of refugee women as a political force in West Bengal, as well as the opportunity presented to them by adversity, for stepping out. Phulrenu Guha and Hasna Saha, both from erstwhile East Bengal, too, corroborate Manikuntala Sen’s observations; and Phulrenudi makes the interesting point that the Andaman Islands could have emerged as another “East Bengal” if the West Bengal government had seriously considered it an alternative site for refugee resettlement. What strikes the reader today is the fact that, no matter how dissimilar the experiences of East and West might have been, the women who were involved with rebuilding lives used grit and imagination to overcome the odds — both government-induced and otherwise. They negotiated, subverted, manipulated or bullied, as required, to do the right thing by the women in their charge.
The great preoccupations of the human condition — freedom, nation, religion, home, friend and foe, Self and Other — are shot through with those other great themes —loss, exile, death and destruction, displacement and violence — and they compel us to look anew at those age-old borders and boundaries of nation and religion, community and identity; and at those ancient myths about shame and honour, blood and belonging. For these women who have “written” Partition, all these are open to question.
And, indeed, the difficulty of closure plagues people and nations, both. The unsettled histories of division are embodied in the figure of the refugee, the nowhere people who hover at the edges of nations reflecting, in Tayyab Mahmud’s words, “the desires and anxieties of the state”. The refugee/immigrant, in his analysis, remains an outsider, an alien body, to be normalised, homogenised and assimilated. As a non-citizen, she is to be marginalised in the distribution of legal rights and political protections. As a cultural signifier, she is to be erased. As a violator of borders, she provides the rationale to ever strengthen the territorial divides.
But in the Indian subcontinent the “alien body” is often the “outsider” within, resisting assimilation and homogenisation. Post-Partition, Ismat Chughtai astutely observed that, “Those whose bodies were whole had hearts that were splintered… in the end many souls remained behind in Hindustan while their bodies started off for Pakistan.”
These split personalities of nations and peoples disallow reconciliation, make for a pathology of semi-permanent disease. In the end, the image of those farmers on the Punjab border ploughing their fields between barbed-wire fencing returns to haunt: refugees on their own land.
Threw Me Out
First they threw me out of my home
Again and again
I was ousted from the city where I took shelter.
They say I will be thrown out of this city too.
Grew the fruit I had planted,
Haunted by my absence.
They say my spirit
All tied up
To lean my back against.
Is the earth
Spin into view again
And I will open my bundle
Never to tie it up again.
— Kshama Kaul
Why Should We Listen To Her? Draupadi In Mahabharata
Because she is the centre of the central episode of the Mahabharata. She is the voice of ethical enquiry into the nature of Dharma.
This text, which has been described as the veritable encyclopedia of the land called Bharata, is a text of agonising moral dilemmas and ethical enquiries. The questions regarding the nature of the Dharma, its true meaning, and its import in the real life situations, its individual and collective significance haunt the text from beginning to the end. And these are not rhetorical pronouncements but the fractions of the real, felt anguish, literally a matter of life and death. The Sarpa in the Ajgar Parva of the Vana Parva or the Yaksha in the famed Yaksha-Prashna is not going to revive the brothers of Yudhisthira if the later is not able to satisfy the queries of Dharma satisfactorily.
Even the great battle itself is prefaced by a marathon discourse on the nature of Dharma. The conclusion of the war has left the victors in a most distraught mood, forcing the chief amongst them - Yudhisthira – comparing both the victors and losers to a pack of dogs who fought for a piece of flash, and he – Yudhisthira – has no appetite for it now, in his stupendous victory (12/7/10). His remorse knows no bounds, he knows he deserves not the laurels but the curses and tells so much to Gandhari: “I am the brutal killer of your son, I became the cause of the destruction of the whole earth, I deserve nothing but your curse.”(11/15/3)
Mahabharata abounds in graphic descriptions of violence. After all it is a bloody story of fratricidal conflict over the right to rule, and what is left to rule? The poet makes the vanquished antagonist congratulate the protagonist: “bereft of its fertility, of all its gems, all its lords killed, the whole earth is now yours to enjoy!”(8/31/51) The victor is left with the final battle of coming to terms with himself, after all life has to go on, he knows only too well that the essence of Dharma is unfathomable, the ways of the noble souls are the only beacon lights – “Mahajano yena gatah sah panthah”! So, he too has to go on, has to join the final battle. And it is Bhima of all people who reminds him: “Nothing and nobody comes with any help in this battle, you and you alone have to enter into this, and life has a meaning only if you have won this battle.”(12/16/21-22)
Mahabharata is a text not of the glorification, but of interrogation of violence and war. The 9th century Achrya of the poetics Anandawardhan was participating in an ongoing conversation about the intended import of this text, about the nature of its resonance, its third meaning, its chief aesthetic emotion, when he insisted on Shanta and not Vira as the angi Rasa of the Mahabharata.(Dhvanyaloka-4/5).
Anandawardhan’s insight is remarkable, it relates with the intention and resonance of the text, it helps us read Mahabharata for what it actually is - a text agonising about the meaning of Dharma and emphasising the futility of violence as a means of conflict resolution.
Mahabharata has been revered as an encyclopedia of Bharata; the text itself declares, “That which is not found here, is not to be found anywhere”(18/5/38). It also enjoyed the unique distinction of being Kavya as well as Shastra. It is not about laying down the ethical norms in an empty space. The norms, the injunctions, the parameters of good conduct are perforce made by the text to engage with the real life dilemmas of the moral choice faced by all the characters. And the characters are human, all too human. Each one of them is faced with the ethical questions, and the poet (or rather a tradition of the poets, in other words the text) records the dilemmas faithfully, using the narrative to put the individual quests in a general perspective of ethical enquiry. In this sense at least, the text is not being hyperbolic in its assertion: “That which is not found here is not to be found anywhere”! Even the figure of Krishna - who is supposed to be the yardstick of the Dharma (Yato Krishna Tato Dharma!) – is not above the ambiguities and hence cannot escape the curse of Gandhari; His own Vrishni clan has to meet the same fate of a brutal fratricidal war. He is God of course; and hence it is only natural that He is not above history, as Ralph Hochhuth reminds us in his classic play The Deputy (which explores the “papal sin” of collaboration with Nazis) - “God does not stand above history. He suffers the fate of natural order. In him, all man’s anguish is contained.”
No wonder than, that the poetic imagination of the Vyasa made the God of Gita suffer the fate of natural order.
And etymologically speaking, Dharma means precisely that: the nature of things, the Natural Order. The point however is, all natural or supposedly natural things are not necessarily ethical. Hence the Dharma has to be rediscovered constantly, not only the natural nature but also the ethical nature of things has to be explored. Not only in abstract theorisations but also in various contexts of the ethical challenges. Such is the fate of the traditional category of Dharma. The narrative of the Mahabharata is about this fate of Dharma. And everyone has his/her share in coming to terms with this fate. And everyone is asking: what after all, is Dharma?
Most poignantly of all - Draupadi! The poignancy derives partly from her situation, partly from her status, but most importantly from the strength of her character. She is the centre of the central episode of the narrative, and in this case for once, the centre holds fast.
The central episode of the text is the game of dice. After this, the fate of the natural order is in the irreversible gear. We all know the story, but more important are the questions and answers or may be the rationalisations. Vidura has premonition of something terrible even before the invitations to the game are sent out, but Dhritarashtra assures him: “Don’t you worry, in my presence and in that of Bhishma, nothing untoward will take place,” the words used to convey the assurance are very suggestive indeed -“Anayo Daivvihito” nothing that is not in accordance with the divine plan will take place! So there is no question of moral agency, as it were. Whatever happens can be seen as part of the divine plan. The game episode makes the question of moral choice and responsibility the most urgent one, not only in the imagined time of the author and the text, but also in the experienced time of the audiences of all the times. Duryodhana makes the statement that can be termed as an eternal one in its own way: “One and only one governs all the actions, and the script of governance is in place even before the human being is born. It is that one whose commands I am following”(2/57/8). This is a classic strategy to escape the responsibility, but then he was being true in a way to his own code of honor - the Kashtriya code - the Kashtriya Dharma. And it was the same code of honor, which ensured a place in heavens for him. It was the same code, which would have been violated, had Yudhisthira denied the invitation. Both the ruler of the day and his potential challenger are essentially indulging in the rationalisations of their choice. But then, who is not? The vigor of the episode lies precisely in this - all the great souls of the time with honorable exception of Vidura are indulging in the rationalisations, every one has his own escape and his own way of rationalising the same. There is a woman who is just a symbol of ‘honour’, which has to be put in its place, and hence she has to be made to suffer the ultimate humiliation. Her anguish also is understandably coloured by the nature of virtue as seen in that cultural context. Her question is: how the Kauravas dare treat a lady of the royal household in this fashion? How the Pandvas dared put bet her even when they had lost themselves. We ought to be careful, and not read Draupadi’s utterance as pronouncements of the idea of individuality. Her anguish is after all worded in the meta-narrative of Dharma. And in fact, herein lies its significance. Her anguish transcends her time because it has the capacity to construct a new sentence even while remaining within the framework of the given language and its grammar.
In this central episode we encounter a triangle - Draupadi, Karna and Vikarna (one of the 100 sons of Dhritarashtra). It is Karna who actually orders the disrobing of Draupadi (being more loyal than the king!), it is Karna who bluntly tells her that having had five men, she is no better than a whore, who can be treated in any manner, where is the question of treatment befitting a royal lady? Among the Kauravas it is Vikarna alone who shares Draupadi’s question and asks for a satisfactory answer. The question is: is she “vanquished” in accordance with Dharma? Is she indeed dharmajita? He insists constantly that the question be answered - are we indeed acting in accordance with our own code of honor?
And what is the answer? We know Dhritarashtra’s assurance to Vidura depends on the presence of sagacious Bhishma. What Bhishma has to offer? Two things: one the expected reminder about the subtlety of the nature and ways of Dharma, the more pertinent to the crisis at hand - and an astonishingly blunt statement of the might is right: “The conduct of the powerful is seen by the people as epitomising Dharma, and moreover Yudhisthira is such a virtuous man - epitome of Dharma – Dharmaraja - so whatever he has done must have been in accordance with Dharma!”
“She had laughed at me,” told Duryodhana to Dhritarashtra in order to obtain his permission for his scheme of teaching her a lesson. Interestingly, the poet does not make Draupadi laugh at Duryodhana’s fall in his own description of the incident at the magic palace. Instead it is Bhima in this description who laughs and addresses Duryodhana as Dhartarashtra (son of Dhritarashtra!) - reminding him of his father’s blindness! But the poet knew his characters well! He knew the insulting laughter of a woman is certain to adequately enrage the old king to shed his moral inhibitions and give his son a go-ahead! Men can be given liberty to poke fun at each other - not the women! So, in this instance, she was reported to have laughed, did not actually laugh.
But in some versions of the epic, she did laugh, not at the fall of the son of the blind man - but at the fall of the most sagacious man - Bhishma! When the venerable old man was awaiting his death on his arrow-bed and was discoursing on the nature of various aspects of Dharma for the benefit of inconsolably despondent Yudhisthira, Draupadi could not restrain her laughter, or may be an almost invisible smile! She knew and so perhaps did Bhishma that more subtle than the nature of Dharma is the nature of attachment. And the greatest of the attachment is that with the idea of renunciation. Bhishma had forgone his own claim to power for the benefit of the dynasty - and this had become his own undoing - he was so attached with his renunciation that he almost renounced the role of a truly sagacious person as well. He knew all the Dharma but his attachment to his own great sacrifice foreclosed any possibility of speaking it out at the right moment - at the moment of ethical crisis. And Draupadi smiled - a smile that was her secret as well as that of Bhishma!
But let us come back to Rajsabha - where she is just about to be disrobed - where she has been called a woman who had been had by five men (as if it was her choice!) - A whore, unworthy of any respect! Apart from Vidura it is only Vikarna who is still raising the question - are we conducting ourselves in accordance with Dharma? And it is Karna again who snubs the young lad – “Young man, what you think you are doing? All these great men do you think know nothing? Just shut up, she has been vanquished and brought here perfectly in accordance with Dharma. How dare you say she is not Dharmajita?”(2/60/31). As it happens in many tales, it is indeed left to young lads and kids to pronounce the truth about the nakedness of the king! Admonished by Karna, the young Vikarna is one such kid in our story.
She frames her questions in the given language of Dharma as the code of honour - in the language of hierarchy of rights determined by status, not in the language of inalienable human rights irrespective of status and gender, and yet introduces a critical element in precisely the same direction. Maybe because of her unintended exposure to the ideas of what Yudhisthira described as “nastikya” (3/32/1). It is after the ordeal, during their banishment, that she raises the question of anomaly between the supposedly loving nature of God and His strange behaviour which is so much part of our real experience - “No, He does not behave like the parents with people but like an angry other”(3/31/37). Moreover, how can He expect to escape the sins of those evildoers who seem to be his preferred lot? (3/31/41) Chastised by Yudhisthira, she politely confesses that maybe she got such ideas from a Brahmin who was employed by her father to teach ‘Brhaspati Niti’ to her brothers. The Brhaspati Niti - i.e., the heretic ideas of the Charvakas were considered an essential component of the royal training. After all, you cannot ignore the need of facing the real experiences even if you wish to rule strictly in accordance with the set of interpretations, which insist on reality being but an illusion!
In the Rajsabha, she had no help from any quarter; the code of honour going in the name of Dharma foreclosed any intervention from her valiant husbands. She was nothing but a symbol of honour herself. Her body was a blank page on which the scripts of revenge and humiliation, the story of men fighting like a pack of dogs were to be written. She was wondering whether a lady of the royal household deserves this treatment, the irony was: according to Duryodhana, she deserved this treatment precisely because she was a lady from the royal household. She had to be humiliated because she was the woman of enemy. To him and his supporters she did not matter even in her supreme humiliation. She was denied all individuality and agency of her own. She in the imagination of the poet of the Mahabharata could not articulate such a fundamental denial, but in the imagination of a contemporary poet she does precisely that:
“Draupadi, Panchali, Krishna, Yaagyaseni/ all the adjectives/ none of them is a noun/ did it ever strike you/ I have no name/…. I had only raised some questions, I only had some queries/ and you have taken away even my name!”(Suman Kesahri)
And here the Dharma - in the sense of desirable order of things, as distinct from the code of honour of a social class or identity - came to her rescue. It took the form of ‘natural’ happenings beyond any frame of explanation, the miracle! Ill omens containing the warnings of coming disasters were reported from the royal household, Gandhari admonished her husband who in turn finally acted and stopped the shameful act of writing the revenge on her body. Her garment went on increasing by itself, she could not be disrobed. The later versions of the story put the human figure of God – Krishna - as the agent of the miracle that saved her from her ordeal.
Anandawardhan described Mahabharata as a “shastra which has the shadow of a kavya”, to me, however the reverse is truer; it is a kavya which became a shastra because of it courage of interrogating the essential shastra – the shastra of ethics - the Dharma. Because of its integrity of “reporting” the disturbing faithfully, and putting all that in the extremely agonising perspective of persistent moral enquiry. What resonates in the text is not the satisfaction of having made a point, but the desperation of the poet: “With my arms raised I keep on telling them to follow the Dharma, but nobody listens to me!”(18/5/49)
The central episode of the text is the key to his desperation. She knew the secret of such desperations and the factors causing them. She told everyone who bothers to listen, her arms raised - not in exhortation, but in exasperation:
The assembly where there are no sagacious people is not fit to be called an assembly
The sagacious ones who dare not speak out the Dharma are not sagacious
The Dharma, which does not contain the Truth, is no Dharma
And the Truth, which is pierced by deceit, is no truth.
Let us indeed listen to this voice of desperation, this voice of ethical challenge, this voice of Draupadi.
Section Three: Appendices
Venue: Bhubaneswar The New Marrion Hotel, 6 Janpath, Bhubaneswar - 751 001
Phone: (0674) 238-0850/51-57 / Fax: (0674) 238-0860
Inaugural Session: In collaboration with SES and Department of Journalism and Electronic Communication (DJEC)
Venue: Utkal University
President: A.K. Samantray, Vice-chancellor, Utkal University
4 P.M.: Welcome address / Asha Hans
4.05 P.M.: Introducing CRG / Paula Banerjee
4:20 P.M.: Inaugural address by Suhasini Mulay: ‘Gender and Human Rights Issues in Audio and
Visual Communication’ / Discussion
5 P.M.: Address by the Vice-chancellor
5:15 P.M.: Vote of thanks by S.N. Mishra, Co-ordinator, DJEC
Interaction with students, faculty and press
Photo Exhibition by Sabuj Mukhopadhyay
Venue: Orissa Modern Art Gallery
7 P.M.: Inauguration by Pratibha Ray
January 8, Saturday
9:30 A.M: ‘What do we mean by Gender Just Reporting?’ – Ammu Joseph / Discussion
10:30 A.M.: Tea
11 A.M.: Presentation of case studies by three media fellows (reporting)
(20 minutes + 10 minutes discussion for each)
12:30 P.M.: Lunch
2 P.M.: Meetings by working groups on three case studies respectively on
Truth and writing on victims of human rights abuses
Objectivity and creativity in writing on human rights
Legal knowledge in human rights reporting
3:30 P.M.: Tea
4-5 P.M.: Reporting on the three working group meetings / Moderator: Manoranjan Mohanty
7-8:30 P.M.: Film shows
9:30 A.M: “Public radio broadcasting and interactive communication” – Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhuri / Discussion
10:30 A.M: Tea
11 A.M.: Presentations by three media fellows (research)
(20 minutes + 10 minutes discussion for each)
12:30 P.M.: Lunch
2 P.M.: “How women victims communicate to media” – Kalpana Kannabiran / Discussion
3:30 P.M.: Tea
4-6 P.M.: Screening of documentaries
9:30 A.M: “Creative writings, documentation and mixed genres on conflict, conflict zones and the women” – Ritu Menon / Discussion
10:30 A.M.: Tea
11 A.M.: Slide show/Film
12:30 P.M.: Lunch
1 P.M.: Three working group discussions on:
Creative writing and publication
Literary circles and human rights campaign
2:30-3:30 P.M.: Reporting on the three working group meetings / Moderator: Paula Banerjee
3:30 P.M.: Tea
Co-ordinators: Agami Orissa, AIDWA
5 P.M.: Welcome address: Tapasi Praharaj, AIDWA
5:05 P.M.: Address by Ranabir Samaddar
5:15 P.M.: Distribution of certificates
5:30 P.M.: Valedictory lecture by Purushottam Agarwal, “An Epic Narrative of a Woman in Conflict Situation – Draupadi in Mahabharata”
6:00 P.M.: Vote of thanks by Sudarshan Das, Agami Orissa
Date : 23 September 2004
Venue : Hotel Akash Deep, 48, Circus Avenue, Kolkata 700 017
Phone: 2240 5296 / 5004 / 6452 / 7153
Time : 9:30 A.M. to 6 P.M.
9:30 A.M.: Introduction
9:45 A.M.: Media, Gender and Human Rights – Keynote address by Uttam Sengupta
10:15 A.M.: Presentation by Biswajit Roy, Media Fellow, on “The Role of Women from the Minority Community in Polio Eradication Campaign in West Bengal”
10:30 A.M.: Comment by Miratun Nahar and discussion
11 A.M.: Presentation by Dulali Nag, Media Fellow, on “How Calcutta Media Report the Gender Differential Right to Health”
11:15 P.M.: Presentation by Vinati Bhargava, Media Fellow, on “Transition from Female Infanticide to Female Foeticide in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh”
11: 30 P.M.: Comment by Sujit Das and discussion
12 noon: Presentation by Minakshi Sen Bandyopadhyay on the “Treatment of News Related to Women in Conflict Situations in Tripura Newspapers”
12:15 P.M.: Presentation by Guna Raj Luitel, Media Fellow, on “Case Studies of Women from the Families of Persons Disappeared during the Maoist Movement in Nepal”
12:30 P.M.: Comment by Rajashri Dasgupta and discussion
2 P.M.: Presentation by Nilanjan Dutta, Media Fellow, on Media, “Floods and Erosion in West Bengal”
2:15 P.M.: Comments by Kalyan Rudra and Krisnha Bandyopadhyay and discussion
2:45 P.M.: Interaction among the Fellows, Resource Persons and the Audience,
Discussion on the Modalities, Deadline and Evaluation of Research
3:15 P.M.: Closing Remarks by Subir Bhaumik
3:30 P.M.: Tea
4:00 pm onwards
Kalyan Rudra on River Bank Erosion in Bengal with audio-visual presentation.
Consultation in Kathmandu (16-17 July 2004)
CRG Programme on Gender, Media and Human Rights in South Asia
16 July 2004
5:30-6:30 p.m. Session chaired by Paula Banerjee
Design of the programme
6:30-7:00 p.m. Tea
7:00-8:00 p.m. Session chaired by Samir Das
Possible forms of collaboration, information about similar programmes, suggestions and nominations of possible suitable candidates
8:00 p.m. Dinner
17 July 2004
10.30 A.M. Discussions on Follow-up measures
12. 30 Noon Lunch
168-A, Uttarakhand, JNU,
Phone: (011) 2616 4908
GD 273 Salt Lake, Sector III,
Kolkata 700 091
Phone: 98311 50028
35U, Raja Nabakrishna Street,
Kolkata 700 005
Phone: 98304 06870
509 Prasuti Griha Marga,
Nepal, Post Box No. 13470
Phone: 977 1 425 6239
Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhuri
DA 87, Salt Lake,
Kolkata 700 064
Phone: 2337 3732
I.B. Builder’s Colony
Indore 452003, Madhya Pradesh
Phone: (0731) 2530464
PTI Office, Melarmath, Agartala 799001
E/163, Ramgarh, Kolkata 700047
Phone: 2430 7153
Shoma A. Chatterji
109/33, Hazra Road
Kolkata 700 026
Phone: 3094 7151
Samir Kr Das
Flat B3, 6/8, Central Park,
Kolkata 700 032
Phone: 98302 10265
106B, Kankulia Road,
Kolkata 700 029
Phone: 98310 66573
Surodhanidham, P.O. Bhadrapur,
Birbhum 731 203
Phone: 03465 260 201
10 rue Alexandre Dumas, 75011 Paris, France
Phone: (00331) 4367 6493
School of Women’s Studies
Utkal University, Bhubaneswar
Phone: 94370 04647
10 rue Alexandre Dumas
75011 Paris, France
Phone: (00331) 4367 6493
71, S.T. Bed Layout
1st Cross Road, 1st A Main Road
Koramangala, Bangalore 560 034
Phone: (080) 2553 5840
Asmita Resource Centre for Women
Plot 283, Street 6, Teachers’ Colony,
East Marredapally, Secunderabad 500 026
Phone: 040 2773 3251
GD 273 Salt Lake, Sector III,
Kolkata 700 091
Phone: 94331 71669
Kapan VDC- 3, Kapanbekh
Tel: 474807 (R) 480100 (O),
N 84 Panchshila Park,
New Delhi 110 017
Phone: (011)2652 4129/2649 6597
29, Rajpur Road
Delhi 110 054
Phone: (011) 2399 2166
B1, Prarthana Apartment,
38N, New Ballygunge Road,
Kolkata 700 039
Phone: 98312 53694/2344 5255
28A, Mahendra Bose Lane,
Kolkata 700 003
Phone: 98300 61163
15/A, Bediadanga Masjid Bari Lane,
Kolkata 700 039
Phone: 2343 5544
22 Kalanagar C.H.S,
Bandra East, Mumbai 400 051
Phone: (022) 2659 0685/ 98211 63728
748/A, Block P, New Alipore
Kolkata 700 053
C\O Maj. Sundeep Parija
36, Forest Park,
Phone: (0674) 253 2215
11E /Hem Chandra Naskar Road,
C/20, Mahavir Vikas, Sector III, Salt Lake,
Kolkata 700 091
Phone: 2337 1801
Minakshi Sen Bandyopadhyay
M.B.B. College Quarters,
College Tilla, Agartala
Tripura (W) 799001.
Phone: (0381) 251-1318.
15/A, Bediadanga Masjid Bari Lane,
Kolkata 700 039
Phone: 2343 5544
22 Kalanagar C.H.S,
Bandra East, Mumbai 400 051
Phone: (022) 2659 0685/ 98211 63728
748/A, Block P, New Alipore
Kolkata 700 053
C\O Maj. Sundeep Parija
36, Forest Park,
Phone: (0674) 253 2215
11E /Hem Chandra Naskar Road,
C/20, Mahavir Vikas, Sector III, Salt Lake,
Kolkata 700 091
Phone: 2337 1801
Minakshi Sen Bandyopadhyay
M.B.B. College Quarters,
College Tilla, Agartala
Tripura (W) 799001.
Phone: (0381) 251-1318.
Some of the Investigative Reports by CRG Media Fellows published in Newspapers
The Indian Express, October 22, 2004
Little girls dying to be born
Far away from the promise of a new century, hundreds of unborn baby girls are being killed, secretly and in silence in the ravines of Morena and Bhind in Madhya Pradesh
If the ravines of Bhind and Morena have long been associated with tales of female infanticide, today with increasing number of ultrasound clinics which at times provide a safe haven for illegal foetal sex determination, these silent landmarks stand witness to the growing practice of female foeticide.
The region chiefly inhabited by the Gujjars, Yadavs and Rajputs, encompasses the Chambal belt that was once notorious for dacoits. Here, feudal practices dominate and display of guns is a sign of valour. The child sex ratio in this region of Madhya Pradesh, which borders Uttar Pradesh, is abysmally low. Morena and Bhind with a population of over 2.5 lakh each in the 0-6 age group have a child sex ratio of 837 and 832 respectively, according to Census 2001. Ask an illiterate villager living in the remotest of the villages of Bhind and Morena as to why the sex ratio is so dismal, without batting an eyelid he would explain,‘‘God does not bless us with girls.’’ Families often boast of only one sister between several brothers. As the local dai Ram Beti of Ater says, ‘‘ladka to ladka hai, aur bitiya to bitiya hain’’ (A girl is a girl and a boy is a boy). In this male-dominated society, a boy brings dowry, provides social security to his ailing parents, and ensures the family lineage. A girl is a burden. ‘‘The demand for high dowry, coupled with a gun toting culture and pride that we will not bow our heads before anyone, are some of the reasons why families prefer not to have girls,’’ says Devendra Singh Tomar, Convenor of Sanskrati, a Morena based non-governmental organization.
Following promotion of illegal sex determination techniques by unethical medical practitioners, villagers are now increasingly aware of illegal pre natal sex determination techniques and abortion has only made it easier to eliminate the female foetus in the womb. A few decades ago, the mother committed the sin of sitting on a charpoy placed on the newborn babe’s neck or stuffing tobacco into her mouth. But with sex determination techniques, even moral guilt disappears. Though women in villages will not openly admit they have been party to ‘safai’ (sex selective abortion), yet on prodding they might disclose the latest rates on which ‘safai’ can be carried out or name neighbouring villages where the sex ratio is low.
So well entrenched is the network of sex determination facilities that I met a Bhind-based doctor who charged a hefty ‘cut’ for directing families to clinics in Gwalior to carry out sex selective abortions. Ultrasound machines kept in mobile vans even travel weekly on selected days to some far off villages in Bhind.
In 1991, the total child sex ratio in Morena stood at 857, and for urban Morena it stood at 858. Census 2001 records the total child sex ratio in Morena at 837, and urban Morena has plummeted to 830. This widening adverse sex ratio in 0-6 population does not augur well for the region and is bound to increase sex-related crimes. Though a large number of girls are missing, due to lack of evidence ‘‘not one case of female foeticide has been registered in the state till now,’’ says Mukesh Kumar Sinha of Madhya Pradesh Volountary Health Association. In regions like Bhind and Morena, with widespread social acceptance of foetal sex determination and consequent sex selective abortion of the girl, the PNDT Act has not been used as stringently as it should have been to book the guilty.
‘‘The PNDT Act is entirely dependent on the Chief Medical Officer, and the police have no role in it,’’ says Dr K M Ojha, CMO, Bhind. The CMO can lodge a case with the magistrate, he says adding this does not usually happen as people do not come forward; also practitioners do not want to show their records that could enable the CMO to terminate licenses of clinics which do not have proper records. Besides, several kinds of pressures make it difficult for a CMO to work. ‘‘Women who have been forced by family pressures to undergo sex selective abortion don’t report the crime, as they are aware they could be charged under the PNDT Act,’’ says Tomar.
The writer is a Fellow with Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group
The Statesman, December 14, 2004
‘Please don’t kill me...’ VINATI BHARGAVA on female infanticide in two districts of Madhya Pradesh feels that this
A veil partially hides her anxious face. A saree draped around her thin frame, however, does not hide her pregnancy, now in the fourth month. Her troubled eyes search for an answer to the question foremost in her mind: “What if it is another girl? Should I go for a sex determination test, and then an abortion if the foetus is female?”
Gunoo, who already has five daughters, has been driven to near madness by her in-laws for being “unable” to bear a son. While on the one hand, she does not want to commit the sin of killing her unborn baby, on the other she does not know if she would be able to manage dowries for her daughters. Her husband is only a casual labourer. But despite all dilemmas, one thing is clear: I won’t get myself operated upon till I bear a son, she says. Gunoo is not alone in the way she thinks. There are many women like her in Bhind and Morena in Madhya Pradesh, who are only too eager to undertake the illegal sex determination test. And usually, they also decide to abort the child, should it be female. Often the women go through the process without seeking any help from their menfolk. Victims of a patriarchal society, their sensitivities have been so conditioned so as to make them easily adjust to such painful situations, remorse being little or zero. Such is the pressure that women have sometimes even killed their newborn baby girls.
In a crowded district hospital in Morena, a garishly dressed Sunita Rani, in her early 20s, enquires about the sex of her foetus. When the gynecologist does not concede, she says aloud: “I’ll go to a private hospital.”
In another small village in Morena, Maya Bhagale is desperate to have a son. The district boasts of one of the worst child sex ratios in Madhya Pradesh. After six pregnancies and five children, Bhagale looks a tired and feeble woman. She terminated her fifth pregnancy when she learned the foetus was female. On being prodded, she says she does not feel sorry for what she did. Hopeful of bearing a son one day, Bhagale says: “Vansh to chalana hi hai. (The family lineage has to continue).” Pointing to her youngest child, a girl, she says: “Yeh bhi ladkhi ho gayi, kahan se khilayoongi in sab ko? (This one too is a girl… How will I feed so many mouths?)” The birth of girls has traditionally never been celebrated among Gujjars, Rajputs and Yadavs, the dominant communities in Bhind and Morena. The region, still in the clutches of feudal norms and violence, was once notorious for female infanticide. Cases of such infanticide are reported even today. “With the spread of ultrasound facilities, illegal foetal sex determination has increased and the unborn girl is eliminated quietly,” says JP Gupta, BMO, Gohad. The block also boasts of the worst Child Sex Ratio in Bhind district. According to Census 1991, Morena and Bhind had a CSR of 857 and 850 respectively which further plummeted to 837 and 832 in 2001. Gutore, Jatpura, Kathwagujar and Kharua are some villages in Bhind with the lowest CSR, while villages in Ambah block in Morena have also been a cause for concern.
Demand for huge dowries, physical insecurity of women in a violence-prone region, the two-child norm and the socio-economic set up where a male child is seen as the pillar of support or the link that ensures the continuance of family lineage are some reasons why a girl child is undesirable. “If the first child is a girl, most women opt for a foetal sex determination test on becoming pregnant again,” say experts. “Communities that did not practice female infanticide earlier are also going this way,” says Dr Deo Singh, convener of the Bhind-based Brass Sansthan. Field observers in Morena claim that a well-established ring of touts hovers around the district hospital, ferrying clients interested in foetal sex determination to nearby private nursing homes. “Taking advantage of the condition of Contraceptive Failure (MTP Act 1971), a married woman’s case is often reported under this provision,” says Mukesh Kumar Sinha, executive director, Madhya Pradesh Volountary Health Association. With a verbal understanding between medical practitioners and patients and the absence of proper records and a strong will among regulatory authorities to take action, there is little that has been done to check the crime. Dr KM Ojha, CMO, Bhind, and Dr Manorama Mahajan, civil surgeon at Morena District Hospital, cite pressure – political and beauracratic – and lack of security provisions as hurdles that have prevented them from effective action against violators. “I can get several cases caught, but won’t be alive for a day after that,” claims Mahajan.
“In remote villages like Dindoli, that are out of the reach of mobile ultrasound clinics, a new trend of infanticide is emerging,” says Sanjay Safar, who stayed in the village as part of an Action Aid team. The CSR for the 0-6 age group is more or less equitable (930), but an imbalance (878) has crept in in the 6-14 age group, notes Safar. This is so because girl children are deprived of proper medical attention. Acknowledging that the local media has not highlighted the issue the way it should have, Rajneesh Dubey, bureau chief of Dainik Bhaskar observes: “Prostitution is thriving in several areas due to a skewed sex ratio.”
Pre-birth elimination of the female child in these remote villages is but a part of the larger story of the cruel practice being carried out in several cities, towns and villages all over India. And the impact of this is bound to be felt in next three to four decades, says Om Prakash Pandey, Child Development Project officer, Women and Child Welfare Department, Morena. As the next phase of state level advocacy against pre-birth elimination of the female child, Plan India and Population Foundation of India will begin workshops in Madhya Pradesh in April 2005. However, campaigns alone will bring little change. The need of the hour is to streamline and work through the different layers of society, including involving role models and religious leaders into working towards bringing a change in the thinking process of the local populace. Several women do not even realise they are killing a living being. “A woman has to be sensitised on this issue and discouraged from going ahead with the abortion,” says Asha Singh, a Morena-based lawyer. “The campaign to save the unborn girl has to be fought at the national level. The Centre must develop fast-track courts to prosecute doctors violating medical ethics, besides prohibiting government practitioners from private practice,” says Dubey. For the moment however, all that seems to be wishful thinking… Just like the eradication of dowry, the root cause of the plight of the unborn girl.
(The names of victims have been changed.)
The writer is a Fellow with Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group.
The Kathmandu Post, November 23, 2004
Guna Raj Luitel
“Where is Dhakalni Aama?” we asked the neighbor seeing her locked door. “She might be grazing her buffalo down in the jungle.” We went towards the jungle as pointed by her neighbor. We didn’t find her in the jungle and returned to her house again. The same neighbor approached us and said, “I didn’t notice, she is in the field behind her house.” We went to the field. She was grazing her buffalo. She was not surprised to see us because outsiders visit her regularly to talk about her son. “We are journalists from Kathmandu and want to talk with you about your son Bhoj Raj Dhakal.” We were about to ask her some questions but she was already in tears.
“Last year, on September 11, he was busy performing his father’s annual death rites (Shradda) when they took him. He has not returned since then,” she told us. “I have no knowledge as to what happened to him. After that, we have been shedding tears every day and night.” She again remembered the day of the abduction of her beloved son and said, “he was only wearing undergarments. They took him without even giving him time to put on his clothes. I followed them up to Duduwa Khola. There, one person held me tightly. After that, I couldn’t do anything for my son.”
Bishnu Maya Dhakal, 60, lives in Nayabasti of Kohalpur-8, 10 kilometers northeast of Nepalgunj bazaar. The past one-year has been the saddest in her life. “He was about to give Tarpan to his father,” she told us with wet eyes. “They asked him to give Dhup when he was back. He had shaved his head for the annual Shradda. He was only wearing white shorts and vest. I don’t know what they did to him.”
In the middle of the conversation, she questioned us: “Do you know anything about him?” “He had not committed any mistake,” she said. “He was harmless. The CPN-UML declared and elected him the ward chief of the village. He was the chairperson of the local school management committee and also the area committee member of the party.
The day he was abducted, two Maoists had come to Dhakalni Aama’s house. They took him with the assurance of sending him back after awhile, but they never returned him to the family. They allegedly charged him of corruption. On the fifth day of abduction, his small kids pointed at the abductors, who were near their house, and told grandma, “they are the persons who took our daddy.” Dhakalni Aama approached them and asked, “it has already been five days, where is that helpless? You are also like my son. Please tell me the truth, where is he?” One replied rudely, “he is there where he needs to be.” The other added, “can he return without being punished for his misdeeds?”
Sometimes the abductors used to walk through the road just in front of Dhakalni Aama’s house. Sometimes, they even used to call her “Aama” from the road. In the wee hours of a certain day in the last week of November, the abductors were passing through Dhakalni Aama’s house carrying milk. She again asked them, “Oh Babu! What happened to that helpless?” They again replied rudely, “we don’t know. We handed him over to our army. They will decide whether he needs to be killed or set free.”
Until the last week of December, the two Maoist cadres used to be regularly seen near Dhakalni Aama’s house. After that, they stopped passing from near her house. She then began hearing several rumors about her son. Some used to say that he was killed while others used to console her saying he was still alive. “They told the villagers that he tried to escape and was killed,” Bishnu Maya told us with a shivering voice. “But they tell us nothing.” She has been urging the Maoist cadres to at least make it clear whether he is dead or alive.
Just after her son’s abduction, the Maoists imposed curfew in the village. Because of that, nobody could go out of the village without their permission. She is unhappy for not being able to see for her son again after his abduction. Seeing the news on television and radio about abducted persons and appeal for their release, she feels that maybe something positive would have happened if sufficient effort could have been made in that direction.
They performed his last rites only in the month of April this year after a local Maoist leader told journalists that he was killed. However, she has several questions: how, when and why was her son killed? “If you kill a chicken, you are punished, but why isn’t punishment meted out for killing humans?” she questioned. “If he has been killed, then how, when and why has he been killed?”
After Bhoj Raj’s first wife eloped with another person, he had married Menuka Neupane, 25, in April 2003. He already had two daughters and one son from his first wife. Menuka’s married life, however, ended just in the fifth month. Now, she is facing the hardest time of her life. However, she is trying hard to maintain her livelihood. She joined college for further studies and is also looking for a suitable job, which can help her eke out a living. “I was just married, I didn’t even know my husband properly,” she told us. “After his abduction, I couldn’t do anything. To forget the bitter past, I have started reading and learning how to use computers.”
When the Maoist local leader told journalists about his death, the party leader of UML asked the family to perform the last rites. “I still do not think that he is dead,” Menuka said. Now, she is studying in the Bachelor’s level. She has been struggling for a job. She feels it is too difficult to get a job with a salary of even Rs 3,000.
Now, she is temporarily employed with a local NGO called Sewa Sankalpa Pariwar. “I requested for a job at several places,” she told us. “Some say, they recently hired a new person while some others give other reasons. I have lost faith in people.” After the abduction of her husband, she was repeatedly called back by the members of her maternal home. But, she doesn’t want to be a burden to them. “I want to live myself,” she said. “I left the house once and I don’t want to go back there.”
Now, she has a busy schedule. She wakes up early and attends the computer classes. After that, she goes to the NGO. She goes to campus in the afternoon. At the end of this month, her NGO job will end. Then, she will need a new job to maintain her livelihood. In the absence of her husband, there is conflict in her life. From the perspective of her mother-in-law, the young daughter-in-law can flee any time because of her desire for life. From her perspective, she has lost everything and yet nobody in the family trusts her.
She didn’t want to do anything after her husband was abducted. “He will come back,” she used to think. Later, she thought, it’s useless weeping. If he comes back handicapped, then I have to work for him too. That is why she started reading. Initially, she was not familiar with Nepalgunj bazaar. She used to find it difficult even going to the nearby Kohalpur bazaar. It is only now that she is getting used to the locality and knowing the people. “I think if I get a chance to continue my studies, I can look after the family,” she said. “I want to be independent.”
For her mother-in-law, even bright sunny days have become dark. Both of them are the victims of conflict. They are the representatives of the members of families whose nearest and dearest ones have been disappeared by both the state and the Maoists. “My son has gone. We are crying and living,” Dhakalni Aama told us when we were bidding good bye to her.
The writer is a Fellow with Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group.
The Kathmandu Post, 27 September, 2004
Always in my dreams
Guna Raj Luitel
The pathetic tale of Durga KC gives a glimpse of those whose closest ones are disappeared by the state and Maoists. Here is the blow-by-blow account of her ordeals:
It was okay with me though he was underground, in hiding. I didn’t have much difficulty. He used to either call up or appear once in a while. The last time he disappeared, however, he told me he would not call me for some days this time. I asked him where he was going. But he retorted, “Why do you need to know?”
He left on Thursday, and I was least worried. Suddenly around at 11:30 in the morning of September 13, 2003, I received a call from Himal Sharma, who is a Maoist student leader. He said, “How are you?” I felt a bit uneasy at his call because he had never called up before, and I began to wonder what could be the reason. Perhaps it was some party work.
Half an hour later, another student leader, Gyanendra Tripathi, phoned with the same pleasantry, “How are you?” Then he asked me whether my husband had contacted me or not. Even then I did not feel that my husband was already been arrested because he had told me that he would not call me for four days. Perhaps he had gone somewhere for the Party. Immediately after Tripathi’s call, I again received another call from Sharma. He said, “What to do? We haven’t been able to trace your husband.” I replied, “Maybe he has gone somewhere.”
Thereafter, I received several other calls. They were also worried at losing contact with my husband. I also wondered why my husband was not in contact with them. They suggested that I start contacting journalists, Human Rights activists, ICRC, among others. I really felt uneasy at this and started crying over the phone itself. I heard them consoling, “Don’t cry. We’ve already faxed this to the media. You go and file your complaints with the Human Rights offices”.
I was in my shop when I received the calls. Without closing it down, I hurried to the Human Rights Commission, ICRC, and several other media houses. I was under tremendous pressure by then. I felt better when I heard from the Human Rights Commission that one detainee at the Bhairavnath Battalion was released. I was told nothing untoward had happened to him and that he was safe. I had earlier learnt that he was quite tortured. I was relieved to know that he was recovering. Even if arms or legs were broken, it would be nothing compared to losing life. Such were my thoughts.
Expectations and hopes increased when I received my husband’s letters and poems from another released detainee. I even heard that his situation had improved. He could walk around. I felt happy and relieved. One and a half months later, Birendra Jhapali, one of the facilitators at the failed second Government-Maoist talks, also told me that my husband’s condition was good.
I have received much support from journalists and Human Right activists and other such groups. They had assured me that as my husband’s case was already made public, his life would be secured. The Human Rights Commission has also been active for our case. Some friends who were also detained at the Battalion with my husband have also furnished statements before the Court.
But the situation has worsened by now. There is no environment for me to work. Such condition does wear away love and care for friends, family and even children. Now I don’t feel love for anybody. Earlier, I used to care about other’s situations. But now my heart doesn’t show any feelings. When I see police and army personnel, I imagine how it would feel like slapping and kicking them. Feelings of hatred are growing deep inside me.
A person dies once. But I’ve died several times. Even while walking, I don’t know where I am going. People tell my children that they now know the reason why their father is back. I haven’t told my children anything on the issue. One of my son’s friends told him that the army took his father away. I denied. He thinks that the police/army can’t do anything to his father.
After my husband got arrested, the army searched my house thrice. The children don’t know this, as they were already asleep. Some people warned my landlord not to provide rooms to us. Both the landlords at home and my shop asked me to leave. I told them that if they would get into problem then I would leave. After the landlord himself bought my shop, I have rented a space for a hotel nearby. The landlord at home has allowed me to stay. It has become a bit easier when I told them that it was me who was earning even before our marriage.
Frankly, I was never interested in my husband’s politics. He also never tried to influence me into his activities. We met only briefly, and I never inquired about his doings. Our time together was spent in casual matters of house and family. If only he had told me about his politics and what could possibly happen, perhaps I could have understood a few things.
I can’t think that my husband was captured along with journalist Sitaram Baral. I feel difficult to imagine whether he remembered his family when he was arrested. Even if it is true that he has been arrested, I don’t feel it is so. I still feel he is somewhere out there and is not getting any sort of torture.
I got married to him 10 years ago in my village. He was already in politics. I haven’t even passed high school. When the Marxist Leninist (ML) Communist Party broke away in 2054 BS, he joined the ML and eventually left for Kathmandu. Since 2056 BS, we stayed together in Kathmandu. Later, he left the ML faction and joined Maoist politics, a group that can’t operate openly.
I’m mentally disturbed now. Otherwise, I was running the family pretty well. Even in my hometown, Baglung, I was into small-scale poultry farming. I also used to send my husband Rs 5,000-7,000 every month. I came to Kathmandu thinking that family would be together and that our children could go to good schools. There was no financial hardship in my life even when my husband was totally involved in politics. But my life is really very hard now.
The government made public its first list of people it had disappeared. But my husband’s name was not there. I was told that his name would be in the second list. But that too did not happen despite the assurances of Human Rights people had made to me. What’s the use keeping my husband incarcerated? Perhaps he’s mentally prepared and strong. But it’s us who’ve been inflicted with the most mental torture. One good thing during these times is that I came to know a lot of people. And most people treat me well. Earlier, I even didn’t know that Kathmandu was like this. After arriving here, he had taken me to some temples and the adjoining hills. I could go to the Kantipur Daily office only by asking where is “Tinkune”, the place where this daily is located. I only knew my shop in Bag Bazaar; and I didn’t know about any other places.
Just staying in the house won’t do. One becomes dull only staying in the house. Even if my husband is away from house now, I’m not going to keep quiet. We had very good relationship. He used stay for four or five days and then was away for about a week. Even in Kathmandu, he moved around for his political works.
I am a complete housewife. Now I’ve realized that I should have studied. My brother had always advised that I should study, which I did not bother then. Now I realize the importance of “study” and getting a “degree”. Now I have nothing else in my mind except to find the means to bring my husband home from custody. I always see him in my dreams, but I don’t hear him speak. Recently, when 12 Nepalis were killed in Iraq, there were such protests and massive vandalism. Why don’t the people take to the streets for the sake of restoring peace while so many people are dying within the country?
Now my mother-in-law looks after the shop. And we have one employee. I don’t go there often. For self-satisfaction, I keep going to several places in the hope that something will happen that will help me bring my husband out from the custody. Last time I went to the Human Rights Commission and shouted at them. “If you can’t do anything, what’s the use of your existence,” I told them. I even told them that they should use their authority.
I fasted on our Hindu festival Teej for the welfare of my husband. I had never fasted on this occasion before. After he went underground and disappeared, I’ve been continuously fasting on another Hindu occasion of Swasthani. Last year, when I was fasting on this occasion, I got some good information about him, and my faith in God has increased. I’m amazed how people would still be alive even if they don’t eat for such a long time. I rarely ate food for six months. Even now I feel that I’m ready to do anything for my husband. I’m even ready to sacrifice my own life for him.
The writer is a Fellow with Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group.