Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A trip down memory lane

It was December 1994 and my first trip to Bombay (was yet to be rechristened as Mumbai). I was there for two whole months on an official training. Coming from Nagpur, a regional town that seemed like a big village back then, Mumbai was radically different.  Every moment was a source of amazement and revelation. Armed with only a pocket-calendar-sized card giving all three train routes/ lines as my guide, I explored the city by travelling on local trains. Never before had I see such stark class differences co-existing side by side. Neither had I witnessed before such a strong will to live and survive, whatever the circumstances. It was an exciting time and I had several memorable experiences. It was like a big canvas portraying different expressions like ........ poverty, grit, obscene wealth, beauty, art, pain, joy, greed, contentment, will to liberation, struggle, re-creation ..... all at the same time.  Mumbai was like getting a crash course on Life and Living.  I was moved by these experiences and tried to capture some of them by writing it down. These two pieces were written one evening after I returned from another such exploration.

(written on 23/12/1994) 

Dadar Overbridge


I pushed my way through the crowded station over-bridge. It was lined with people on both sides.  Standing by the smoking dark iron parapet, they were craning their necks for a glimpse of the train that was still at a considerable distance. In the middle were the milling hordes trying to rush down the stairway to the platform below.

The concrete staircase was chipped at the edges revealing the black wrought iron framework inside. It had become shiny smooth due to the countless pairs of feet walking upon it. The walls of the over bridge were plastered with handbills and posters selling every conceivable thing from New Year Parties to new improved sex life; in between was a small poster announcing a reward for information about a teenage boy missing from home. The gaps between the posters showed the background wall that looked lustreless and patchy with reddish brown blotches of kharra and paan spit showered by the unconcerned masses.

I was relentlessly pushed forward by the surging crowd behind me. I looked down to catch sight of a ‘fast’ local thundering past with hooters blaring and people hurriedly jumping across the tracks, shortcutting to the platform on the other side. There was a shout and I turned to see a man in a striped tie and spectacles jump on to the platform in the nick of time. If he had been just a second late, the train would have hit him. I got perturbed. The people on the platform were unruffled. They gave the scene a mere glance and went their way calmly. He too walked away without a backward glance. 

I marvelled at the casual manner in which these people took such risks and banged into somebody or rather something. It was a basketful of chikoos that the fruit vendor was hawking. She looked up from her customer to glare at me angrily. I hastily apologised and without giving a chance to utter a word, pushed my way swiftly through the milling horde that jostled, pushed and rushed past, all wrapped up in worlds of their own.

I passed on lost in thought, both admiring and despairing the lives of the people in this city, who seemed to have no time or thought for anyone, not even their own self. How do they become so uncaring and aloof, I wondered?


Railway Platform


Through the milling crowd
I passed on
Lost in thought.
All at once, I felt a tug
Looking down, I saw
A little girl, with matted hair,
In tattered rags and no footwear;
With wistful eyes and outstretched arms
She implored every passerby.
I pressed a coin into her hands
And walked on ….
Unseeing, uncaring, ignoring;
But her eyes held me,
Vacant and reproachful,
Frightened yet defiant.
They seemed to say
Perceive me, tell me
Am I not human?

****

Friday, July 12, 2013

Merit and what it really stands for in the Indian context

At the beginning of each academic year viz., May - July, students trying to get into colleges after completing their 12th examinations, get embroiled into heated debates about the system of giving caste based reservations. Those coming from the traditional 'upper' castes in Hindu hierarchical religious system shout hoarse about how 'merit' is endangered due to the policy of reservations. But, of course, their concept of merit is narrowly defined as securing just a few marks higher than their SC / ST / OBC class-mates. They are in complete denial of the privileges enjoyed by them due to the mere accident of their births. This issue of Reservations becomes an emotional one and all sense of reasoning and logic is lost when one is discussing it. Here is an excellent article in Nirmukta (an Freethought Blog @ FTB) that raises very important questions and concerns. The article is reproduced from the link given below. Please visit Nirmukta blog to see the original article.


http://freethoughtblogs.com/nirmukta/2013/07/11/the-merit-delusion/

The Merit Delusion


Reservations (affirmative action) are a highly contentious issue in India but mostly for all the wrong reasons. One of those is an argument that reservations dilute merit. Consider this “joke” that was email forward fodder years ago and is now doing the rounds in social networks. It is good example of how badly caste issues are understood even amongst atheists who consider themselves as better informed than the average Indian:
I think we should have job reservations in all the fields. I completely support the PM and all the politicians for promoting this. Let’s start the reservation with our cricket team. We should have 10 percent reservation for Muslims. 30 percent for OBC, SC /ST like that. Cricket rules should be modified accordingly. The boundary circle should be reduced for an SC/ST player. The four hit by an OBC player should be considered as a six and a six hit by an OBC player should be counted as 8 runs. An OBC player scoring 60 runs should be declared as a century. We should influence ICC and make rules so that the pace bowlers like Shoaib Akhtar should not bowl fast balls to our OBC player. Bowlers should bowl maximum speed of 80 kilometer per hour to an OBC player. Any delivery above this speed should be made illegal.
Also we should have reservation in Olympics. In the 100 meters race, an OBC player should be given a gold medal if he runs 80 meters.
There can be reservation in Government jobs also. Let’s recruit SC/ST and OBC pilots for aircrafts which are carrying the ministers and politicians (that can really help the country.. )
Ensure that only SC/ST and OBC doctors do the operations for the ministers and other politicians. (Another way of saving the country..)
Let’s be creative and think of ways and means to guide INDIA forward…
Let’s show the world that INDIA is a GREAT country. Let’s be proud of being an INDIAN..
May the good breed of politicians like ARJUN SINGH long live…

That is just one amongst the myriad jokes about the lower castes that are popular among the upper castes.

There is an implied assertion in the “joke” – that a person who avails reservation, which means a lower bar of entry, lacks merit. Whereas a person who doesn’t avail it has merit. So what is this merit that the upper castes are so hung up on? It is the idea that traits like intelligence and assiduousness are what that determine how successful one should be in their life. It is the central dogma that people like me grew up with. So if you lack merit, you are a hack; a parasite on society. Profusion of such unmerited people is the reason why India is backward.

On its own, the idea of merit isn’t bad. But what gives rise to absurd “jokes”, like the one above, and what leads to the delusional beliefs about reservations are two things – (a) What is the source of merit, and (b) Which practices in society are labeled as merit based and which aren’t.

The Source of Merit

 

Where does merit come from? Is it inborn?
On an average humans are capable of the same things even when you account for factors like race or gender. There are always exceptional individuals, but there is nothing to suggest that such individuals can only come from one particular group. Also history shows that some particular groups at different times have dominated others in terms of intellectual achievements. In light of that, it can be concluded that merit is largely a function of the environment rather than of one group’s inherent superiority.

So no, it is inaccurate to say that merit is inborn. Given the right opportunities, any group of people can go on to achieve remarkable things.

Then why is it that we see such bigoted jokes on the lower castes? Surely educated India has given up such archaic notions of inborn merit, and atheists even more so? I think the answer to that lies in how social prejudices linger in people’s minds. So what could be the source of the prejudice here? I think it is the caste system.

The way the caste system started out is that a person’s gunas and karma determine their caste. But in the absence of a system which constantly adjudicates gunas and karma and reassigns a person’s caste, caste took the only course left – it became birth based. (Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste touches upon this). But people still believed that it is a person’s gunas and karma that determined caste. How that can be reconciled with the ground reality that caste is determined by birth? Part of the solution was to make karma count over multiple lives. Bad karma in the previous lives would make you born into a lower caste. The other part is the belief that upper caste people tend to have an inborn inclination for certain gunas and the lower castes towards a lack of those gunas. The intellectual achievements of the upper castes are due to their knack for it. The lack of such among lower castes is due to the lack of such knack. Unless one convinces themselves of that, there’s no way they can sleep at night believing that the caste system is the best way to organize society and also believing that the lower castes are justified in being low.

The idea of merit in the “joke” parallels the idea of gunas. Take how SC/ST/OBC doctors are made fun of. Though they have reserved seats in medical college, once they get in, they have to pass the same exams that everyone else has to. Only then will they get an M.B.B.S. certificate. And yet the “joke” believes that those doctors lack merit and hence are bad in practicing medicine. Hence the the dig at politicians in the “joke”. Politicians are responsible for the existence of reservations, so they should get a taste of their policies by dying in the hands doctors who lack merit. Here the assumption is that SC/ST/OBCs don’t have the gunas that are necessary for being a good doctor. Once a lower caste, always a person lacking certain gunas. The possibility that people learn given the opportunity doesn’t even enter the picture. So such assumptions about merit are good old fashioned casteism couched in a different form. Of course, such ideas about merit aren’t unique to the caste system. At a lower level, they can be seen as arising from fundamental attribution error, and also from a belief in a just world.

Merit in practice

 

Now lets come to the how merit fares in the real world. Most of the time merit has little to do with how successful one is in their life. Consider these cases:

Buying your way through college. Since independence it was mostly the upper castes who were able to do this – either buy seats in private colleges in India or send their kids to other countries like the US (when to compared to Indian standards of living, that costs a lot of money. Even with scholarships). So given that there are plenty of doctors who bought their way in, why no jokes about their competency? More importantly why didn’t buying your way through college result in utter lack of quality of services provided in various professions? The answer lies in getting rid of the delusion that merit is always inborn. People learn given the opportunity.

Hiring practices in the private sector, the gold standard of meritocracy as opposed to ingrained incompetency of the public sector (As an aside, the word “meritocracy” was originally meant to be sarcastic). If merit were paramount, companies would publicly advertise for a position and vet as many candidates as they can to get the best merit. But companies do such things as a last resort. Their preferred method of hiring is by referrals where they restrict themselves to a smaller pool of talent. Sure even after a referral the candidate has to go through an interview. But the interview process itself is subjective and anyone who has conducted them knows that candidates who aren’t the best fit do get through. Then there are the cases of nepotism in the private sector. And then the cases of fake experience on resumes.
So how come despite all that the private sector manages to produce goods with reasonable efficiency? Again, the answer lies in the fact that people learn. A person might not have sufficient merit at hiring time but given the opportunity, they can learn and become better at their jobs.

Businesses. They are typically inherited. There are no entrance examinations to determine who has the best merit to run a business. Anil and Mukesh Ambani didn’t become owners of their business because of merit, but became owners because they are the sons of Dhirubhai Ambani. Business deals, partnerships too mostly happen on who knows who basis and not on some merit based tests.
-
So, on one hand we know that merit can be acquired given the right opportunities and on the other we also know that merit in the real world doesn’t work in the ideal way. Despite that there is a lot vitriol directed towards reservations as if the very existence of them is an affront to merit. People feel the need to make jokes about lower caste people make bad doctors or ask rhetorical questions like “Would you fly in a plane piloted by a reserved category person”? I would say that a good part of the scorn originates from caste prejudices in the Indian society and a serious lack of effort to prevent acquisition of such prejudices from early on, like being taught about them in schools. All that has led to a very lopsided discourse on the topic of reservations. Despite there being evidence that they work, they’re portrayed as one of the evils plaguing India without leaving any room for a nuanced discussion. Among atheists who advertise themselves as “good without god”, such prejudices show that a mere disbelief in god isn’t enough and getting rid of social prejudices is every bit hard as letting go of the god delusion if not harder.
****

Please see these links for deeper understanding of issues involved. 
Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital http://edf.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/social_capital.pdf

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A selection of interesting articles

Here's a selection of recent interesting articles that appeared in some of the websites and blogs which are linked to this blogs.


The Struggle Against Rape and Sexual Assault: A View From The Left by Soma Marik on Radical Socialist website presents interesting insights to this contemporary issue.




Woman Bites Dog by Kuffir in the blog Kufr is a satirical commentary on how caste concerns are reported in the media.

The Supposed Virtue of Not Being Offended by Miriam in her blog Brute Reason (in the Freethought Blogs) on bigotry and microaggressions and how these impact us.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Why Rape? - 2

Here are some more links which talk about the issue of social acceptance, victim-blaming, silence and several other important issues.

Urvashi Butalia in this Op-Ed in The Hindu ..... 
"First, more than 90 per cent of rapes are committed by people known to the victim/survivor, a staggering number of rapists are family members. When we demand the death penalty, do we mean therefore that we should kill large numbers of uncles, fathers, brothers, husbands, neighbours? How many of us would even report cases of rape then? What we’re seeing now — the slow, painful increase in even reports being filed — will all disappear. Second, the death penalty has never been a deterrent against anything — where, for example, is the evidence that death penalties have reduced the incidence of murders?"


Blind to what, Your Honour?
Indira Jaising in The Times of India ....
"Of all the promises made in the Constitution, the most important are the promises of the 'right to life', the 'right to dignity', the 'right to personal liberty' and the 'right to bodily integrity and health'. However these promises are yet to be redeemed for women. Rape and other forms of sexual assault,domestic violence,dowry death and honour killings — the most brazen violation of these rights — are a real and daily danger for most women."


Why is rape our collective culture?
Annie Zaidi in The Hindu ....
"Once a man in a car followed me in Saket. He asked for directions to PVR, then asked me to come with him, and ended up calling me a bitch. I remember wondering what “provoked” him. I was wearing an off-white sari. When I wore it in Benaras, people mistook me for a grieving widow."

Jason Burke in The Guardian ....
Latest violent sexual attack on a woman convulses India, sparking fierce criticism of police and rows in parliament.

Vandana Shiva in Aljazeera ....
"And while we intensify our struggle for justice for women, we need to also ask why rape cases have increased 240 percent since 1990s when the new economic policies were introduced. We need to examine the roots of the growing violence against women.
Could there be a connection between the growth of violent, undemocratically imposed, unjust and unfair economic policies and the growth of crimes against women?"

Delhi Protests and the Caste Hindu Paradigm: Of Sacred and Paraded Bodies
Madhuri Xalxo in Savari ....
I am a bit shaken by what outrages the mainstream media on rape. The incident is horrifying and yet so very familiar to us dalit, bahujan and adivasi women.
In the same Delhi, hundreds of adivasi girls are taken as domestic slaves and get raped, and go missing…Why doesn’t the mainstream media even consider that newsworthy? Why is there no uproar for the death penalty for these upper caste men from elite backgrounds raping us? Is it because we are born to get justly raped by the others?

Monday, December 31, 2012

Why Rape?



There has been so much in the media about the Delhi bus rape and subsequent death of the 23 year old medical student. The explosive expressions of public anger against it have been covered live 24X7. Rape has never made so much news before. There have been many points of view about rape, sexual violence, safety of women in public spaces, dress codes, western influence, women's demand for freedom etc. Some of it has been shrill, strident and sensational. Some others have been persuasive, reasoned and balanced. Yet others seek to analyse the reasons for the 'culture of rape' that India seems to have inherited. Some have called for democratic solutions, while others have demanded more stringent laws and punishments for rape. 

The whole gamut of institutions, right from legislature, executive and judiciary has to be involved. This whole machinery needs to function efficiently and effectively to prevent such violent crimes against women. The whole process of justice for a raped woman is an ordeal in itself. Trial drags on for years, police are unsympathetic and insensitive, doctors are ignorant, victim-blaming exists at all levels, conviction rates are very low. The concept of 'bodily integrity' of women and violation of this integrity is generally not heard in public discourse. If it is a dalit or tribal woman who has been raped, then this is not taken into consideration at all. It is as if they can be compensated with a few hundred rupees. 

We need a whole paradigm shift in understanding patriarchy, caste, women's rights, the socio-cultural, socio-religious, socio-political history of our country which is based on domination, heirarchy and control. 


Here are links to some of the better reasoned and well articulated concerns by women themselves on the issue of rape and other sexual violence against women. 



Arundhati Roy calls it India's rape culture. The writer tells Channel 4 News she believes rape is used as a weapon in India and that women in the country are "paying the price".
Arundhati-roy-speaks-out-against-indian-rape-culture


Meena Kandasamy says 'This cultural sanction of rape must stop, the state has to speak.  The endless discourses of the elite point fingers everywhere: except at the real cause, which is the cultural sanction of rape in India.'
How Do We Break The Indian Penile Code?


Pubali Ray Chaudhuri asks, 'We can make it happen. But will we? She, her entrails torn from her, had yet the courage to fight till her last breath; do we, our bodies intact and whole, have the stomach for our own fight? For it is a fight that we are facing; make no mistake about it; it is a fight. A battle, a war. Against, as I have said here before, India's hatred of women.'
She is Dead, But Can We Be Said to Live?

Akanksha Mehta says 'We participate when we repeatedly use the words alleged and reported before the word rape and sexual assault. We participate when we mourn and remember one victim of rape but forget and ignore thousands of others. We participate when we ‘other' the perpetrators of sexual violence- when we blame the migrant, the laborer, the uncivilized rural outsider, the constructed rapist from the lower religion/caste/class while we absolve ourselves from the hatred we breed.'
We Are All Responsible, We Are All Guilty

 R.B Sreekumar says 'Lofty ideals of gender equality guaranteed by the Indian Constitution is cleverly nullified by socio-religious conventions in our society, by largely adhering to retrogressive customs glorified in the Smritis, particularly of Manu, Vyasa, Parasara and Vasista. Manu Smriti denigrated women, in chapter IX sloka 2 and 3, to slavish depth as part of divine order (Varnalingadharma).'
Recast Traditions For Gender Justice

Cynthia Stephen says 'The justice delivery to women is most neglected. This has to change. As far as possible, judges and prosecutors should be women to enable victims to speak with comfort, especially in the case of rape and sexual violence.'
Why Rapes Against Women And Girls?



There are several other articles and links which will be covered in the next post. Most of these have raised very pertinent questions that need to be focussed and answered. These also emphasise the areas that we need to cover if we honestly hope to find effective solutions to counter rape and violence on women.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Back after the Break

Apologies for being away for so long. Had a heavy work load and couldn't keep up with posting as usual. But I missed it a lot. There have been lots to share and talk about. So much has been happening all round the world and country. New political developments in Tamil Nadu, caste violence rearing its ugly head again, the public anger against the Delhi bus rape and so much more. Hopefully, will keep this blog updated regularly now.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Women's Lives


Women living in our society have to bear the patriarchal pressure of being good and virtuous women who live within the boxes earmarked for them. The stereotypes to which Indian women have to conform are clearly spelt out from an early age. Mothers, Grandmothers and other adult female relatives have the job of teaching young girls to live according to roles mapped out by their caste and religious backgrounds.

But women have not always conformed to these codes or led their lives in strict accordance to such social laws. They have broken and challenged patriarchy in myriad ways. Some have paid a bitter price for such  resistance. Others have emerged victorious in defining their lives and living it according to a feminist value system.

We have had innumerable foremothers who forged brave new paths for us to walk on. 

Most of the things that we women take for granted today were not accessible to women just some decades back. Education, jobs, right to vote, political participation and so many things were just impossible to even dream about. Marriage before she reached a double-digit age was the norm for the majority of women. She had to bear children and do the housework from a very young age. Widows were ill-treated by family members themselves but had to live with and depend on them for survival. It was unthinkable for them to re-marry or go out and earn. Concepts like chastity, sati defined a good woman. Prostitution, Devadasi, Dayan etc were concepts created for women who defied the patriarchal order of endogamous marriage that was meant to propogate the caste system.

Women could not study according to Manu Shastras of Sanatan Dharma. Neither could people belonging to non-brahmin castes and those outside the chatur-varna system. Just imagine, Savitribai Phule started the first school for women in India on 1st May 1847 i.e., just about 160 years back. Her life was one of struggle, hope and courage. She was physically attacked by orthodox brahmin men with brickbats, rotten tomatoes, eggs and cowdung on her way to school many times, as they felt that she had broken the religious codes!

Now we take education for granted. It is as if this has been the tradition all along. Let us remember that this was not so! Many of the rights that we have today are the results of struggles of a life-time by many generations of women. Let's salute these women and look back on their lives. We need to know more about their lives, dreams, hopes and struggles, so that we can understand how precious these rights and benefits that we casually take for granted are.

****

Two books that I read recently are about such inspiring and courageous women who tried to change the world and make it a better place. 


'The Prisons We Broke' by Baby Kamble (Publisher - Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd) is the English translation of her Marathi autobiography 'Jina Amucha'.  Writing about the lives of Mahars of Maharashtra, Baby Kamble remembers how the Mahar society was before Babasaheb Ambedkar arrived on the Dalit horizon. Beautifully written, full of liveliness and verve, sans self-pity, it tells the tale of not just her own life, but that of her community. Please read this excellent review at 




*****


Breaking Barriers by Parvati Menon  (Publisher - Leftword) is another stimulating read about twelve politically conscious women who challenged the exploitative social order and broke many barriers in building up a women's organization viz., AIDWA. 

This book contains short biographies of these twelve women leaders who have been long associated with CPM like Ahilya Rangnekar, Ila Bhattacharya, Kanak Mukherjee, Lakshmi Sahgal, Mallu Swarajyam, Mangaleswari Deb Burma, Manjari Gupta, Moturu Udayam, Pankaj Acharya, Pappa Umanath, Suseela Gopalan and Vimal Ranadive. 

These biographies could have become more meaningful and realistic if these women could have had the space to talk about the political line taken by the CPM from 1990s onwards viz., the age of globalization and struggles like Singur and Nandigram and their identification or discomfort with it. 

But still, the early history of the undivided Communist Party of India is worth reading and learning from. Most of these women were part of the freedom movement and hence their experiences are rich. They give us a glimpse of the social milieu prevailing in 1940s and 50s.