Friday, December 28, 2012

India's 'Arab Spring': Youth call for sweeping changes

It is an unspeakable tragedy. The victim of the gang rape in India which has sparked protests across the country died in the early hours of December 29th Singapore time. She will undoubtedly become a martyr for women's rights in India.

The 23-year-old woman was viciously gang-raped on a bus in South Delhi on December 16 and left with serious internal injuries. She died of severe organ failure at a hospital in Singapore today after the Indian Government paid to fly her there in a desperate attempt to save her.

India erupted in daily protests following the rape but you might not know it, if you relied on watching British TV news channels, which have barely given the protests any coverage, focusing instead on what is happening in Syria and Egypt. However, they are being reported on on the web of British news sites and in British newspapers and, of course, dominating Indian TV news channels.

The woman had been to see a film at the cinema with a male companion, a software engineer. At about 9pm the pair boarded a private chartered bus, the kind that is often used to supplement public transport in Delhi, to get home, not realising it was not in service and the man driving bus and his five accomplices, who had been heavily drinking, were killer rapists.


Using iron rods the men knocked the man unconscious before raping and beating the girl at the back of the bus with the rods, as the vehicle, which had tinted windows, drove around the city for an hour, the driver being an accomplice in the sexual violence. The couple were eventually thrown off the bus, stripped of their belongings and dumped naked on a flyover. A passerby spotted them and called the police who took the pair to hospital. The woman, a physiotherapy student, was left in a critical condition on ventilators in a Delhi hospital battling for her life and on Wednesday this week was flown in an air ambulance to Singapore for emergency medical treatment. Despite attempts to save her, she sadly died there a few hours ago at 4.45am local time from severe organ failure.

Rape statistics

There were 24,206 rapes reported in India in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, of which only 26.4 per cent led to a conviction. In the UK 15,934 rapes were reported in 2010-2011, of which 58 per cent led to a conviction.

Sex objects

The ingrained cultural reasons why women are sometimes disrespected and treated as sex objects in India has been discussed passionately in the Indian media ever since protests erupted on the streets a week ago triggered by the gang rape. It is because of deep rooted chauvinism in the Indian male psyche, according to Anand Soondas, of The Times of India. He writes, in his blog, entitled Why Indian Men Rape, that many Indian men simply cannot stomach women being equals. He talks about "a mindset that since the time of that deviant philosopher called Manu has refused to see 'the weaker sex' as anything but property and the receptacle of male sperms." He adds that while new rules and regulations to guarantee women safety in India are a good idea, nothing will really change until the polarised attitudes towards men and women inside the Indian home metamorphose. Currently the former can be given all the respect, all the freedom and all the money for education, while the latter can be treated as second-class citizens, not allowed out of the house, denied an education and seen as only good for wearing an apron and bearing children. 

Second-class citizens

There has also been a misguided belief  among some sections of Indian society that women who are raped deserve it, either because they were out late, or drinking alcohol, or consorting with men, or dressed inappropriately whilst Indian men can party, drink and flirt as much as they please. "Boys, as they grow up, will have to be taught that their sisters are not there to get the leftovers – the one piece of chocolate that couldn’t be eaten, the tricycle with a broken wheel that couldn’t be driven, the school with expensive fees that couldn’t be afforded," Soondas writes.

However there is even more to the fury than a desire to get greater security for women, punish rapists more stringently, wipe out misogyny towards women and crush inequality of the sexes, which seems inappropriate and outdated in a country set to be the world's fourth largest economy by 2022, which is the world's largest democracy and which has embraced 21st century technology, having the second highest number of mobile phone subscribers in the world, after China. 

'Corrupt police'

In his column, Delhi gang rape case -- is our democracy collapsing? V Mahalingam blames the lack of security for women in India and the high number of sexual attacks on and harassment of women, on corruption within the Indian Police and the sluggish judiciary, which sees trials go on for years on ends, both of which, he says, put women off reporting violent sex crimes and allow rapists to roam the country freely with no fear of ever being caught.

"The credibility of the police in the country today is so low that people hesitate to go to the law enforcers when they are faced with criminal intimidation, threat or violence, " he writes. "Lodging an FIR is a herculean task as the force is hardly responsive or people friendly...The harassment and the pressure from the police to dissuade the victims from lodging a complaint is nothing but autocracy in the so-called democratic government. Bribe is then demanded from both the criminal and the victim. If crimes are not recognised and acted upon, how can law and order worthy of a civilized country prevail in the state?"

"The way an individual is spoken to.... is indicative of the contemptuous attitude of the guardians of law without any consideration for the agony of the individual. The men are untrained for handling a victim of crime or for collecting any worthwhile information to facilitate any investigation if at all," he adds.

Mahalingam claims that obtaining security and justice in India today "is contingent on ones’ financial status and connections." He says that police will manipulate the evidence and witnesses based on who levies the most pressure or has the most cash. He also speaks about a lack of leadership and training in the police force, which he feels leaves it incompetent to provide security to the common man. He slams the condition of police stations too, describing them as "not conducive for any self-respecting man or woman to even enter leave alone complaining." 

He concludes that "moral degradation in Indian society" has touched "an all-time low" and puts the blame  on  "the Governments in power together with the political class, the bureaucracy and the police", pointing out it is the political parties who are giving " party tickets to individuals with criminal background including those relating to crimes against women."

Protesters want sweeping changes

The protesters, made up predominantly of women and college students, have been calling for various actions by the Congress-led Indian Government. They have been saying they want to see swift and tough punishment meted out to the culprits in this case, with many wishing the death penalty upon them, which could happen now the victim has died of her injuries; they want stronger punishments for rapists to be enshrined in Indian law so that they do face the death penalty in future (currently rape is not a capital offence in India); they want rape cases to be fast tracked from now on, so they do not drag on for decades; they want a a better handling of rape cases and sensitisation of the police force to such crimes, so that more get rapes get reported; they want a greater percentage of rape cases to end up with convictions and for rape victims to not fear they will get harassed by the police or ignored if they report such crimes; they want greater security for women across India, but especially on the streets of Delhi, which is renowned for being unsafe for women at night; they also want equal rights -- that means women should be allowed to live with the same freedoms as men.

Heavy-handed response

The demonstrators also remain furious with the Government over the heavy-handed response by the Indian Police, who used water canons, tear gas and batons to quell the largely peaceful protests last Saturday (it was not until Sunday that violence broke out among some sections of the crowds).

However, similar to the riots that ensued in Tunisia after a street vendor set himself on fire, the  fury that has till now been burning across Raisina Hill, India Gate and beyond appears to have also been about issues beyond even these.

In December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in protest at the confiscation of his wages. The riots that followed were about high unemployment, food inflation and corruption. They brought down the Tunisian Government.

Arab Spring 

Reading all the comments on Facebook, Twitter and comments on Indian news websites, it seems to me that this incident  too appears to have opened the floodgates for general outrage at the incumbent Indian Government, a fury which till now has been smouldering beneath the surface.

Rape is a catalyst for anger at Government over many issues

Anger has been simmering for a while in India at the Congress-led Government, which has been mired in many high-profile scams in recent years. The rape has also acted as a catalyst for this anger to suddenly explode.

As India grows, it is getting  filled with millions of of bright, educated middle-class people. This modern young shiny educated India is fed up with being ruled over by a more ignorant, uneducated
 India. With access to Facebook, the Internet and smartphones, the educated middle-classes want the same as the rest of the world - to live in a society governed by law and order, in which public services are provided, the citizen is protected, women have equal rights and corruption is rooted out.

But therein lies the problem. Generally-speaking people from good educated backgrounds in India do not enter the police or the Government -- they enter the private sector. Hence why many Indian MPS have criminal records, why the India is witnessing such terrible governance and why the Government is reeling from alleged involvement in so many scams.

As for the police, they are paid a pittance and command little respect from the Indian public. The people attracted to jobs in the police in India tend not to be those from wealthy educated backgrounds but rather less educated and less affluent backgrounds. Those from decent backgrounds would not dream of becoming police officers -- they would rather become surgeons, software engineers, lawyers or businessmen. So police officer offers tend to live in worlds vastly different from the world of the educated middle-classes, as the dilapidated state of the police stations themselves reveal.  Such police officers, being from a different class and background, do not understand or appreciate the concept of women going out at night, frequenting nightclubs, socialising with men, or dressing in certain ways, which is why a policeman called Vasant Dhoble tried to close down Mumbai's nightlife, and why many rapes go unreported as women don't feel able to confide in the police and there is a fear their complaints will be ignored, or they will be harassed.

This social divide is ubiquitous across India and is part of the problem.

However there are various solutions. One is to make India more sexually liberal so Indian men are not sexually repressed. I remember walking on the beach with an Indian man in Mumbai one evening and a dozen policemen came up to  us and asked us what we were doing. It took a very lengthy explanation by my Indian male companion to prevent himself being arrested. Having an Indian man to your apartment in Mumbai, if you live as a single woman, is looked down upon and has to be done in secret. Why? Men and woman visiting each others at home is often just friends dropping round and does not mean they are romantically involved. And even if they are what is wrong with a fully-grown adult indulging in a consensual physical relationship with a member of the opposite sex? Kissing in public is heavily frowned upon in  India. In fact the only human-to-human contact that is allowed is man to man. I often saw Indian men walking around arm in arm or hand in hand. Should India not become a society where it is as acceptable for a woman to put her arm around a man as it is for a man to put his around a man?  You will find motorbikes dotted along a  certain road leading into Bandra with couples embracing on them. Other than that the only place many couples in India can get privacy or cosy up is in the back of rickshaws and in the cinema. This lack of social acceptance of mingling between men and women is possibly fuelling the misogyny apparent in certain sections of society.


Another solution  is to narrow the wealth inequalities in India and educate the uneducated. As long as India is made up of the haves and the have nots, of the educated and uneducated, outdated views of women will persist.

India has perhaps the greatest inequality of living standards and wealth of any country in the world.

The 'haves' enjoy coffess in air-condtioned cafes, live in brick built apartment blocks, drive in cars, have maids and work in offices.

The 'have-nots' sleep on the pavement or road, work in factories, mines or construction, have no money, little food, no access to healthcare and poor education. How long can this social divide continue?

The alleged perpetrators of the gang rape and murder include a fruit seller, an assistant gym instructor and a bus driver - they were men not from affluent educated urban backgrounds but had come from rural deeply conservative patriarchal India that is a world apart from life enjoyed by the middle-classes in the modern cities.  They lived in slums in Delhi.

None of this excuses the heinous crime these men committed. They need to be dealt with swiftly and harshly, the committees set up by the Government  to look at speeding up trials of rape cases and any errors that led to the incident, need to report their findings sharpish, the banning of buses with tinted windows and more visible policing at night, and all the other measures announced by the Indian Government need to be carried out fast.

But looking to the future, India will need much better governance and much better policing. For that to happen more Indians need to take part in the shaping of their country. There needs to be a sense of civic duty to improve India. The government of India at all levels and the police force should not be left vacant for criminals to take positions up in. Instead well educated middle-class honest Indians must start to enter Government and enter the police force. Salaries for positions in both should be made to be as lucrative as salaries in the private sector so the staff are not tempted to and do not need to accept bribes.

The Government needs to start spending on social welfare and on state education especially in rural areas to  start to lift rural India out of poverty and to wipe out illiteracy. Public transport in Delhi needs to be improved so that people can move around the city safely at night, without having to rely on private drivers. Taxi drivers, bus drivers and auto rickshaw owners should be subjected to strict regulations. They must have to undertake tests to obtain licences, which should be regularly inspected and these should be confiscated when they breach the rules.

New political  parties need to be formed that represent the interests and thinking of the flourishing passionate educated middle-class modern Indian youth so they have a party that represents their views.

The female victim in this case, like Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, deserves the highest civic awards for her bravery. She is India's Malala.

India also needs to remember that it will get through this turbulent period and come out the other side hopefully as a safer country with governance of greater integrity. If that happens, this innocent woman will not have died in vain.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

How the magic was nearly lost at the Jaipur Literature Festival

The Jaipur Literature Festival this year exhibited true Indian ethos – it had the melodrama of a masala Bollywood movie, the chaos of a Big Fat Indian Wedding and the cliffhangers and dramatic tension of the Mahabharata. And that wasn’t the literature being discussed, but the event itself.
Last year the controversy was over the public spat between Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of the magazine Open and British author William Dalrymple, co-founder of the event, with Bal accusing Dalrymple of deliberately tying the event to the British literary establishment.

This year it was Salman Rushdie’s proposed visit which cast a shadow over the event from the start, with many speakers expressing their outrage during their sessions at the attempts by certain Muslim groups to prevent Rushdie’s trip and the same issue dominating questions from members of the audience in such sessions, which had no connection to him or his works.
This culminated in the front lawns of Diggi Palace being crammed with people and police on the final day and a media scrum anticipating a video link with the author of The Satanic Verses. Even at 3.45pm that day, the time when he was due to appear, the audience were told a decision had not yet been reached as to whether he would appear, leaving everyone, myself included, on tenterhooks.

Most of the time people had to stand outside the Durbar Hall to listen to the speakers.
Shortly before 4pm, the owner of the Palace, Ram Pratap Singh, announced that people were inside the property intent on committing violence if the video link went ahead. Organiser Sanjoy Roy promptly burst into tears and we were told that people were “marching on Diggi Palace” conjuring up scenes of Birnam Wood marching on Dunsinane.  All the emotions, drama and tension of Indian fiction were on show.

There were similar scenes of chaos too when Oprah Winfrey arrived on the third day of the event. Queues stretched for miles down the road outside the venue and crowds trying to enter surged against a police barricade, but the authorities had closed all the entrance points because the venue was overcrowded inside.
The festival was far less relaxing this year with crowds everywhere.
These knife-edge dramas were bad enough but poor crowd control throughout the five days meant the festival almost lost its special vibe this year.

Even on the four days when Oprah Winfrey was not there, it was overcrowded, you could not get into see many speakers and there were tiring long queues for toilets and the coffee stands. 

The festival was, seemingly for the first time, packed with school children and gangs of college students and a variety of other people, many of whom could not speak English, when the sessions were held in English. 

Coca-Cola umbrellas added to the "commercial" atmosphere. 

Even the central area in front of the Durbar Hall was packed.

Overcrowding was a common complaint among the educated Delhi and Mumbai intellectual types who frequent the likes of the India Habitat Centre in Delhi and Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai and who descend on Jaipur every January.

A typical scene inside Mughal Tent. You were very lucky to get a  seat. Many people sat outside and listened through the tent.
One university lecturer from Delhi turned to me in the queue for the toilets and said: “I asked the guy on the seat next to me whether the seat was vacated and he couldn’t understand that simple question. If he couldn’t understand that, how can he understand what is being discussed? There are people here who have come just because they have seen it on the news with all the publicity it has generated and they haven’t read anything and don’t have a clue what is going on. This festival is meant for a more mature crowd.” Since the tickets are free and there are no entry requirements, indeed anyone can attend - something the organisers have till date been proud of. 

As I stood outside the Ben Okri session, straining my ears to hear, a man who looked like a software geek asked me: “What topic is it?” “Ben Okri,” I replied. “But what topic is that?” he asked. “Ben Okri,” I responded. “But what does that mean?” He said. “He is the Booker Prize winner,” I said. “Oh I better take his picture,” he said and got out his digital camera.
It was impossible to get anywhere near the Ben Okri speech.
Scenes outside the Durbar Hall.

People pushed and shoved outside the Durbar Hall.

So, having Oprah Winfrey on the programme was, in my view, not the best idea. The venue is very small and cannot handle the crowds she attracts. I first went to the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2010 and the beauty of it then was the informal intimate atmosphere, the fact the authors were accessible and freely mingled in the central yard with the public and indeed the free steaming chai served in earthen cups from huge bronze pots by men dressed in brightly-coloured Rajasthani turbans. I remember chatting to William Dalrymple and Mark Tully while waiting for a cup. This year conversely the authors were in a segregated area and not accessible. The one time that Gulzar ventured into the public area, he was mobbed. Besides, the tea cost Rs10 and every time the vendor turned up with it he too was mobbed. 
Even the Rajasthani tea vendor was mobbed whenever he appeared.

People pushed and shoved just to get a cup of tea. The vendor was visibly stressed out by the crowds.

There was an array of shops run by fairly aggressive sales people, Coca Cola and Café Coffee Day stalls dotted around too. It was becoming commercial.

The Coca-Cola stand

Cafe Coffee Day stalls were everywhere

The  shopping parade

The festival was flooded with police as well for its five day duration. This was to prevent a terrorist attack following the threats against Rushdie and the organisers. These police spent most of the time in groups, taking up the limited chairs around, drinking chai. Occasionally they even sat in on the literature speeches and fell asleep.

Police are caught on my camera snoozing during a speech

Police were everywhere reading newspapers and drinking chai 

But not all the magic was lost. There were still plenty of opportunities to bump into friends you were not expecting to see from Delhi and Mumbai, to strike up new friendships with other literature lovers, to chat to anyone you like without appearing odd and even to lobby literary agents and publishers in the festival cafes with your book ideas. Apart from that, all the speakers, such as playwright Tom Stoppard, author and speaker Deepak Chopra, author Mohammed Hanif and Outlook editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta, were, unsurprisingly intensely engaging and stimulating.

However, now great thought needs to be given to the future direction of this prized festival, which is listed in the Debrett’s social calendar. Should it return to being an informal gathering of intellectual arty types at Diggi Palace or should it move to a larger venue and attract the masses but at the cost of losing that special magical vibe? 

The tragedy of the Bengal tiger in India

A renowned TV cameraman came to the Brympton Literature Festival in Somerset recently to speak about the plight of tigers in India.
Michael Richards is the cameraman behind "Tiger: Spy in The Jungle" ( a BBC TV documentary narrated by David Attenborough) as well as the book "Tigers", which he wrote with Hashim Taybji.
The festival, the first ever to be held, took place inside the majestic and quirky Brympton House, a privately-owned 13th Century grade I-listed manor house in Somerset. It is occasionally hired out for weddings or films but otherwise remains a private residence.  It originally belonged to various aristocratic families but it was sold in 1992 to the present owner, who is a judge and his wife. 
Richards, one of the speakers at the literary event, is one of the world's leading experts on wildlife who works for an independent production house in Bristol which makes programmes for, among others, the BBC.
He spent three years inside Pench National Park in India filming the tigers and his talk was about how he made the famous documentary film, "Spy in the Jungle."

The three series of the film were first broadcast on the BBC in 2008. They  followed the lives of four baby cubs, two male and two female, growing up to be adults in the Park.

The production team used motion sensitive cameras, hidden in logs and rocks, triggered by moving wildlife as well as remotely-controlled cameras carried by elephants on their trunks and tusks, known as trunk-cams and tusk-cams, so they could catch the lives of tigers, not usually caught on film. The tigers were oblivious to the elephant as they do not perceive them as a threat so they went about their daily business as usual, so it all got caught on film - something that would never had happened had humans done the filming. The human crew instead watched the images and controlled the cameras from the tops of other elephants nearby.

The spy cameras happened to catch four 10-day-old baby cubs playing with their mother and the crew decided to follow them as the core thread of the documentary.  It showed them suckling their mother, playing together, relaxing in water, learning to hunt and having to face the dangers of the jungle. One of the elephants they used to film the tigers with also gave birth in the middle of the film!

Apart from capturing on film a range of other extraordinary wildlife such as sloth bears and langur monkeys, the cameras also happened to capture illegal activities such as rural people and cattle illegally bathing in waters in the national park, Richards said.  Did the Park staff turn a blind eye? It is very concerning.
The truth is that humans and tigers cannot coexist as the unsustainable habits of of humans further degrades the tiger habitats.

Richards also spoke about how hotels were being constructed just outside the Park too, which were also destroying the tiger corridors. Fences were being put up around areas that tigers had previously used to migrate through. Tigers need corridors to move freely between different tiger habitats in search of mates to spread their genes. These corridors are especially crucial for male tigers who need to establish their own territory to avoid being killed by another male. These corridors can play a crucial part in preventing tigers from going extinct, which could easily happen if more is not done to protect the tiger in India. Why is planning permission being given?

Poaching is another massive problem that tigers in India face as their body parts are used in traditional Chinese medicine, even though doing so is illegal and there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that tiger skin and bones can cure anything. Ninety-five tigers are said to have been killed across India in 1994, 89 tigers were killed in 1997, 36 tigers were killed in 1998, 72 tigers were killed in 2001 and 35 tigers were killed in 2003. Are Park staff turning a blind eye?
The number of tigers in India has halved in the past 10 years. 

But Richards explains that the brutal slaughter of tigers began not with the Indians, but with the British - during the British Raj - something for the Brits to be ashamed of. 

Apparently there were more than 100,000 Bengal tigers in India during the British Raj but hunting them became a prized sport of off-duty British Army Generals, who would go hunting with the Maharjahs. Jim Corbett, a British Indian army colonel, is one of the most famous tiger hunters, who killed the Champawat Tigress which had killed nearly 500 humans. 
Between 1997 and 2006, Bengal tigers in India are thought to have lost more than 50 per cent of their habitat. Now there are believed to be less than 1,800 tigers in India and less than 3,500 in the world. This is a far cry from 100,000 a century ago. Indeed mining, dams and road building are seriously interfering with their natural habitat as trees get felled and the dense forest they require to live in shrinks.

Richards also  spoke about the challenge of getting the millions of Indians who scrape a meagre living at the bottom of the social ladder the slightest bit bothered about saving the tiger, when they have so much to worry about in their own lives. 

When I was in Mumbai recently, I visited the apartment block I had stayed at in Bandra. There was not a cat in sight. That was mainly because I had brought my two domestic short-haired Indian cats back to England. The other Indian strays, who I had tried to look after, who lived outside, had disappeared. The building, by the way, was suddenly eerie and soulless.

One wonders what an India without its national symbol of the tiger would be like? The word soulless comes to mind. Will India allow this to happen?  It would be ironic if India, one of the world's fastest-growing economies, manages to destroy the tiger, its unique national symbol, through a rapid and  programme of deforestation and industrialisation, in a ruthless attempt to be come a global economic power.

Wildlife expert George Schaller once wrote: "India has to decide whether it wants to keep the tiger or not. It has to decide if it is worthwhile to keep its National Symbol, its icon, representing wildlife. It has to decide if it wants to keep its natural heritage for future generations, a heritage more important than the cultural one, whether we speak of its temples, the Taj Mahal, or others, because once destroyed it cannot be replaced."