31.8.14

Sunday ka Funda




Symbols are not ritualistic. They often have deeper connotations. Ganesh Chaturthi is being celebrated now, but not many would ponder over what the elephant god means. One need not even be a believer to comprehend these symbols that seem more like a manual for ethical living. Rituals and deification, and marketing, alter the very nature of spiritualism and faith.

Spiritualism does not need the crutch of blind belief.

Somebody has filed a FIR against film director Ram Gopal Verma for these tweets:

• “The guy who couldn't save his own head from being cut , how he will save others heads is my question? But Happy Ganpathi day to morons!” • “Can someone explain how someone can cut off a child's head who was just trying to protect his mother's modesty? Am sure devotees know better”.
• “Can someone tell me if today is the day Ganesha was originally born or is it the day his dad cut his head off?”
• “Does Lord Ganesha eat with his hands or his trunk?”
• “I would really love to know from Lord Ganesha's devotees a list of what obstacles he removed in all the years they prayed to him.”
• “Happy Ganesh chaturdhi. .may this day 29th aug bring prosperity and happiness to everybody so that there will be no problems from 30th aug.”
• “I think my films are flopping only becos of my attitude towards Gods. ..I wish I can become a devotee.”

Although some might seem insulting, the general tone is childlike. Children often pose valid, if uncomfortable, queries. All religious fables have one given meaning, and the rest are open to interpretation.

For that, one needs to have an open mind that can read between the lines.

28.8.14

Of human bondage and Times of India



This appears to be censorship of the worst kind. The Times of India Group now plans to own the social media presence of its employees.

But BCCL, as the company is known, is telling journalists that they must start a company-authorised account on various social media platforms. They also have the option of converting existing personal social media accounts to company accounts. On these, they are free to discuss news and related material. The company will possess log-in credentials to such accounts and will be free to post any material to the account without journalists’ knowledge. It is now also mandatory to disclose all personal social-media accounts held by the journalist to the company.


Earlier, The Hindu had asked its staffers not to share news links from rival publications. But the TOI move is vastly different.

Many companies will not permit employees to promote other products, and this is borne out by the fact that people often state that their views are personal and not a reflection of their professional roles. There is a reasonable argument to this: Would someone working for the Tatas promote an Ambani product of the same kind? Fidelity is an unstated requirement of employment.

Should the same standards apply to abstract products like news, especially when the media itself uses breaking news stories from other outlets to follow up on? The issue here is not merely the open source nature of news, but who disseminates it. A senior employee of a media house (MH) linking to a story from a rival sends out the message that her/his own MH has not managed to get ahead. This is a competitive field, like any other. The stakes, including the commercial, are high. In an ideal world this ought not to be a consideration, but this is not an ideal world.

Journalists are today on the market and will not sell their skills to less than the highest bidder. How many of them are willing to forego the benefits derived from the Response Department? How many senior hacks will give up their cushy jobs to fight against what is obviously a form of bondage? This would be the true test for many of those who have ridden on the wave of freedom of expression to join another form of oppressive media.

Why has the Times decided on owning its staff in the public sphere? There are a few reasons, besides the obvious one of wanting to be a control freak:

• TOI wants to ensure uniformity of ideas, because allowing different streams of thought dissipates its brand value.
• It cannot be seen as promoting others who its ads announce are way behind in readership, viewership and whatever other ship there is. (TOI notoriously, and unethically, does not give credit to rivals even when it uses their reports, choosing instead the vague "said to a TV channel/newspaper".)
• It knows that the social media presence of its stars gets a lot of mileage due to their association with the brand, whatever be its quality. TOI hates giving freebies.
• Some journalists tend to believe that having a social media account makes them into ideological troupers who need to be covered in glory or martyrdom. Both are win-win positions. TOI is quick on giving the latter by getting them to relinquish the former in its name!



The Quartz report further states:

According to two journalists at the group’s English-language newspapers, protests about the clauses in the contract have not yielded much result. Reporters who have raised concerns with their editors say they have mostly been told that those will be addressed in due course.


While this story might not be comprehensive, it is striking that reporters are protesting. As always, the scapegoats come from the ground. Where are the veterans, the inhouse columnists, or even the assistant editors — TOI has a slew of them, because in the pecking order of things this is already a fairly common practice to keep people quiet. Give them an AE post; it looks good and means precious little.

What will the columnists who speak about freedom of speech do now that their adoptive home is shackling its children? Will they speak out against it elsewhere?

The Times has a big presence on television, too. Its News Hour and hyperventilating anchor-editor have made it their business to represent the nation without the nation's permission. Every evening at 9 pm they also convey in no uncertain terms that they believe in free speech by muting, outshouting panelists. Will they discuss the importance of owning Facebook and Twitter accounts of staff to fight censorship or some such vacuous idea they are perfectly capable of?

More importantly, will those ensconced as experts on their panels, who had left their previous jobs because their employers had a problem with their exposés/views raise their voices against this move by TOI?

We are not going to see much action on this score.

There is something a bit more sinister, though smart. The BJP government had issued a diktat that all ministers should have social media accounts. There is a well-oiled machinery that keeps them up-to-date and makes it appear that they are reaching out. They keep tabs on media persons.

The Times of India could well want to control that because its commercial and political interests are tied up with this. Should it wish to support the BJP it wouldn't want any dissenting posts/tweets from its employees. And if it opposes the ruling party, it would certainly not want 'friends' there. Besides, not many want another Arun Shourie even though it is unlikely there can be one without a Ramnath Goenka (the two creating a controlled rebellion — controlled by the Indian Express boss, that is — rather successfully).

The Times of India can afford such arrogance because it is relying on the amnesia on social media. After a few tut-tuts, no one will care about who is saying what on whose behalf. It is this attitude that makes it possible for most news trends to be forgotten. If we cannot remember what happened, would we recall who told us about it?

© Farzana Versey

23.8.14

On Four Legs

It is tempting to say that isolation is almost complete when one starts ordering furniture online. It began with a casual click, and soon I was adding stuff to my wish list that I had never wished for. This was perturbing because I have not done any shopping online. It was almost like I was building a virtual home; I even found sheets and curtains to go with what I had selected.

Within minutes I realised I had no space to set up a home in what is already a home. All this would have to wait till I was ready to discard the old. There was, however, one item I did need. A table. A work table. I barely use the one I have because the chair is broken. The normal response would be to buy a chair to go with what is already there. But, the chair was always with that table, so I cannot use one without the other. I had dragged the dining chair a few times, and it did not go well with the table.

What I required was something that wouldn't claim too much space. There were several that claimed to be happy in little nooks and would not bother me. A whole lot of self-effacing tables were jostling for my attention. I chose a black beauty about whom it was said that it could be moved anywhere and could fold. Such humility was rather becoming. I immediately placed an order.



To digress a bit, I like a work table to swell voluptuously, its girth overwhelming in its protectiveness. If it is quirky, so much the better. I really like this one above because there seems to be nothing else. It is like a whole world in the space to roll arms, run fingers, pat, lay down head, dream, awaken.




Then, I also like a table to have clean lines and leg space. Being a bit of a collector of junk, there should be no place for me to stuff things or I'll have to elbow my way in to type or doodle. This one is nice except for the motherboard and printer.

But, my moveable feast did not look like even a facsimile copy of either. I awaited it as one does glad tidings. You know it is good news, but there is still some trepidation. The trepidation was not unfounded. A heavy package arrived where I expected a quiet visitor swaying on legs that were meant to move.

After cutting through paper and bubble wrap, what I found were several screws, a flat board and stilts. There was a manual with images of how to get this thing to be of any use. I thought I was making life easy for myself — ordering this to reach home, to be able to use as soon as it arrived. As it turned out, I had to 'make' it.

Placing all the parts before me, I tried to figure out what went where. The screwdriver wouldn't fit into the screws, my hand kept slipping, one leg that I managed to position ended up looking like a barrel of a gun facing me. My back and hands were aching. And to think the table was to help me get rid of these aches.

After an hour or so, I decided that I did not have a way with the screwdriver. The manual too was quite half-hearted. Instruction manuals usually are. I put all the parts away in a bag, telling myself that I'd go online to check how to fix self-effacing tables that move. What I found instead were other tables, lovelier than mine, more reasonably priced, easier to fix, if at all.

What had made me select the first one I set my eyes on? It is an old habit. And having made a choice, I begin to believe that the object's and my destiny are intertwined. The object ceases to be just an object.

As I look at the desultory bag with the table, I wonder whether I am giving it short shrift by not creating it. Whose fault is it that some things are not meant to come whole and it is up to us to give them the shape they were ordained to be? And I think about that wrongly-positioned leg that pointed at me — that was not ordained, it would have been my recreation of it.

It is better that I wait awhile. One day, soon, I might find the light or a screwdriver that does not slip from my hand. One day, I will put the pieces together because they are now mine.

© Farzana Versey

21.8.14

Are you Dabholkar?


This art installation is all wrong. ‘I am Dabholkar’ by the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti was unveiled in Pune on August 20 to commemorate rationalist Narendra Dabholkar. The mirror in place of his face is supposed to mirror those who look at it and implies that there is a Dabholar in everyone.

There isn’t. That is the reason the cops have not been able to trace his killers a year later. He was on his morning walk when he was attacked by people who opposed his views. He had several enemies because he fought what to many is a faith superior to any faith – superstition.

I can understand the sentiments behind such an artwork, but it only serves to preach to the choir. The mirror image should ideally have been distorted to show us how skewed perceptions can be and how others might view us. The process of identification is often a temporary placebo. Take the Shiv Sena president Udhhav Thackeray. He expressed anger that Dabholkar’s killers have not been traced and in the next breath he was endorsing the view that India is a Hindu nation.

One might not find any contradiction in the two statements, and I do believe that a person of religion might be rational in non faith-induced stupor moments. But those who kill a rationalist obviously believe he is a threat to a faith as it is marketed today. In almost every part of the world, superstitions come as a package deal with religion and they are sold as rituals.

There is also the ‘religion’ of the wannabe makers of destiny. The “I am X” is reminiscent of the not too distant street tamasha of ‘I am Anna’ and later of ‘I am the aam aadmi’, where the common man had to carry the burden of the hubris of his saviours.

The tragedy of the other common man, and Narendra Dabholkar typified him in many ways, is that few will find their reflection in a mirror that questions.

~Farzana Versey

20.8.14

James Foley, the ISIS and Vultures



How many of us, whether in the media or human rights organisations or as aware citizens, had bothered to highlight the case of James Foley? He had disappeared on November 22, 2012 in northwest Syria, where he was reporting from. Now, that the ISIS has posted a video of a beheading, purportedly of Foley, and confirmed by intelligence sources, some are expressing their concern by circulating links to the brutal killing.


I read that this was not the first time he had disappeared. He was in captivity in Libya for 44 days. It is a measure of his tenacity to bring the news out. It is this that is reflected in the statement of his mother barely hours after news of his killing was out. What gave her the strength to say, “We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people”?


Contrast this with those who have been saying that Foley was on ‘our side’, that is the side that did not follow the western template on the Middle East. Such comments, instead of crushing the ISIS narrative only build the organisation up as a bunch of misguided guys who don’t seem to understand who is with whom. Would these people stand by and not be as moved if somebody who was hostage to western thought were killed?

It is not only vagrant hotheads on public platforms who have gone on a ‘killing spree’, but also people we might know. For them it is only an occasion to express their bigotry: “Did I hear you say peace be upon you?” was one such. I am not interested in what anybody’s views on Islam and the Prophet are, but does this in any manner express even a tinge of genuine concern for the dead person, or anger towards the monsters that killed him?

There can be no two opinions about the barbarity of the ISIS, but there can be several views to analyse it. What has made the west forego their distaste for al Qaeda and pronounce this group “worse”? Is the west only looking for another demon to replace an old enemy?

I read that the Pope has also spoken about dealing with the ISIS firmly, which there is no dispute over. But the last thing the world needs is a delusional Caliphate versus the Pontiff situation because it will only give the religious dimension a legitimacy it does not deserve, and could set a very bad precedent. These attempts at ‘soothing balm’ can come later, not in an ongoing strife.

But we live in times where salves are as quick as salvos. The social media is empowering those who have nothing to say, but want to be heard. The ISIS has chosen these forms of communication knowing well that their message will be dutifully reported and go viral, something they would not be able to do if they were, say, in a cave. These are guys who were discussing Robin Williams, and their words became the end notes in many a report on the actor’s death.

The tendency to create a myth overtakes its reality for the simple reason that reality is not the business of those watching from the sidelines.


Take this photograph of a 14-year-old Yazidi girl, purportedly holding a gun to protect her family. She might be doing so, but is there a need to glorify it when the fact is that her people are killed not for being without protection but for who they are? Besides, this image exploits the idea of the young and the woman as war ‘booty’ in the eyes of the viewer.

A most unnerving campaign is now trending: #ISISmediaBlackout. What ought to be normal is put on a pedestal because people crave halos. They cannot just go about the business of being decent and sensible without a comfortable herd where each will pat the other’s back for not letting the ISIS get any more mileage.

The point here is also about them getting mileage – either for their stand now or when they post those videos, sometimes adding ‘Graphic’ to warn-lure others to partake of their newfound cause.

Will they apply the same standards by not posting any and everything they come across on Gaza? Killed Gazans also need to be given dignity.

© Farzana Versey


17.8.14

Sunday ka Funda

What could the camel be thinking — that he is protected or that he is a threat? And do camels come in the way of camels?



16.8.14

In Conversation: India and Pakistan



Often, the most meaningful things are said in the simplest manner. One must, therefore, appreciate this effort to get Indians and Pakistanis to talk. The premise is basic – we have phones, they have phones, so telephone. I warmed to it immediately.

But, will this bring people on both sides (we are not even speaking about the two nations) closer together? This was a ‘controlled’ atmosphere, and even if comments were not censored it was understood that the conversation was to be light. What we see is one reality – the coffee shop or corner store one. The young even on campuses are politically aware and most certainly come with a bagful of stereotypes about the other. It does not negate the awareness about Bollywood, cricket, or food. Yet, all of these can be politicised on the day there is a clash of films, a match or a culinary competition.

Take that delightful moment when the Indian girl asks her ‘friend’ in Pakistan, “Do you like Salman Khan?” and the latter replies, “No. Why?”, the Indian says, “Then we can talk!” It is humorous, but in the subtlety is embedded conditionality. Or, the fact that the Pakistani is portrayed as thinking he holds on to a deep, dark secret for being a fan of Sharukh Khan.

The makers have also matched the profiles of the people they partnered, dude with dude, accent with accent; in a way it helps to bring out the commonalities but it also conveys that communication is limited to ‘people like us’.

It was cute when the Indian girl speaking to a Pakistani who wants to visit Jaipur tells her, “Main bol deti hoon inse (I’ll tell them to do something)”. Or, when the Pakistani young man asks the Indian when he will visit Pakistan and he says, “Sir, aap mereko visa bhejo tau main nikal jaoon abhi kal ka kal (if you send me a visa I am ready to leave rightaway).”

This is all tongue-in-cheek swagger, which makes it an astonishing little outing. In fact, after having written these couple of paras, I am feeling guilty for nitpicking. This is what charm offensives do!

Love it…just don’t take it as the whole truth:


15.8.14

Another August 15

"To all Indians celebrating our Independence Day, greetings from the Pradhan Sewak. I stand before you not as Pradhan Mantri (Prime Minister) but Pradhan Sevak (prime servant)."

— Narendra Modi


Today's Independence Day speech by the Prime Minister was all about playing to the gallery. It was like an election rally. From the word go he was marketing himself — whether it was to talk about how a poor man had made it to the Red Fort (quite fittingly a Mughal monument that makes his supporters froth at the mouth at other times), or how an outsider made it to Delhi, in a way negating the idea of a cohesive India especially when there is increasing resentment against immigrants from other villages, towns and cities.

Even the quote above is wrong on so many counts. The whole concept of a sevak is feudalistic, and to be a prime servant does not upset the status quo but works as a taunt to its own to suggest he is not one among them too.

"We have seen instances of communal violence for too long. Till when will this go on? Be it caste or communal violence, they stall the growth of the nation."


He went to the extent of calling for a ten-year moratorium on violence. And what exactly does he mean by "we have seen"? Is everything to be brushed under the carpet? The growth of the nation also means inclusiveness of all communities and castes, and ensuring that political lightweights do not incite them or, worse, ignite the situation by lighting the matchstick. The state and the police have a huge role.

It is convenient when you are the 'supreme leader' to want peace, but do little to check those who whip up such frenzy, including right inside Parliament.

"We have to stress on cleanliness, sanitation. By 2019 we must ensure a Swacch Bharat...Dignity of women is our responsibility. We have to ensure that we provide toilets for all."


He recalled Mahatma Gandhi for this. At that time, toilets also had to do with caste, as they continue to do now. Why did he not talk about how that should stop? What we are likely to have is the urban elite 'doing' cleanliness with much fanfare. Interestingly, there were pictures of ragpickers cleaning up after the speech. This is the real issue, of the poor will have to continue to clean up the mess the not-poor make.

Tying up the "dignity of women" with lack of toilets (after the case of the rape and public hanging of the teenage girls in Kanpur) is a sop. We need toilets, but rape happens even where there a toilets. It happens inside toilets. This will only make society complacent.

Besides, by saying that people might wonder how a PM is discussing such things on an occasion like this he conveyed that he was doing a favour.

I'll leave it at that and quote his own words after last year's August 15 speech by Dr. Manmohan Singh:

"Media channels said this is PM Manmohan Singh's last speech from Red Fort but he said he has miles to go, which rocket will he take?"


Somehow, I am thinking..."mujhe khauf aatish-e-gul se hai ke kaheen chaman ko jalaa na de..."

For now, some pictures:

Painting on the Freedom Struggle by V.N.O"key

The first August 15

Precarious windows




Despite it all





--

This I wrote last year

14.8.14

Woman in Read: Lauren Bacall

The real reason I know Lauren Bacall is because of her pictures. Not films, but stills. The four-odd films I did watch gave a glimpse, but a moving frame. I've been reading about her "call for jungle mating" voice and 'The Look', which she said was perfected due to nervousness that made her choose a stance where she tilted her chin low and gazed upwards.

These have been captured wonderfully in photographs.

“You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” (From 'To have and have not')


The small technical detail of lips together being unable to blow is inconsequential.

The pictures I liked the most are not about all the adjectives used for her. There is something about a woman reading that grabs my attention, not because I don't think women read but because it has a special allure. I immediately begin thinking about what is being read, the way the lips might move or the fingers trace the sentences, the manner in which a teardrop might fall on a page or the words reflect in a smile. There is always a something-might-happen sense when I see such pictures, because a woman reading is also about a woman being read.

This is what Bacall wrote when she was asked to maintain a low tone even in emotional scenes for a film:

“Who sat on mountaintops in cars reading books aloud to the canyons? I did.”




In the image above the domesticity, some almost artificial (the dog looks unreal), is sharpened by the newspaper, that link to the outside world. That she is wearing dark lipstick and her jaw is taut captures a certain restlessness.



This is the one I was drawn to right at the beginning. It is obviously not a book. Is it a diary or just a notebook? There is a reason for my interest. I've always had such diaries that I use to make notes — the notes may range from stuff to buy or order to ideas to execute to thoughts regurgitated. One rarely reads them.

I wonder what Bacall is reading. Has she written the notes, and is she reading them to remember or to recount. And where has the pen gone from that pen-hold on the book?

These are film stills, so obviously they have a story. As I am seeing them in isolation, they offer a variety of possibilities.

And possibilities, especially of buttoned-up collars and reined-in feelings, are always tantalising.

--

Lauren Bacall died at 89

10.8.14

Sunday ka Funda


"There are things known and things unknown and in between are the doors."


This quote is attributed to Jim Morrison, but Aldous Huxley had also said the same, adding "of perception" to doors.

My interest is in the unknown. There are many fears and misgivings that so prevent us from exploring outside our comfort zone that we miss out on what could become a part of us. Sometimes, for me, just posting on my 'Sunday ka Funda' helps me step out of the closed doors, of the world of familiarity, and just soak in the alien. It often does not feel as strange as what I've known does.

This song has been with me for a while now. I do not understand the words. They have ceased to be Arabic; the singers are not Egyptian anymore. It is now only about sounds that produce an ache and a smile, and I don't even know if that is what they are meant to do.

9.8.14

The Naked. And the Damning.



Can all 'aesthetic' nudity qualify as art? That would end up as exploitative, for well-toned people at the beaches might be seen as human installations.

The tendency to see aestheticism and vulgarity as the only options often forces the choices to a limited way of seeing. Assuming this poster for the upcoming film 'PK' is aesthetic, how is it art?

The actor Aamir Khan refers to it as "key art" and adds:

"When you (audience) will watch the film then only you will be able to understand the idea behind (the poster). But I would just like to say that the kind of filmmaker, the kind of writer Rajkumar is, he always tries to present the things, his thinking, in a unique way and that's why I am his huge fan."


Key art is that which unlocks the message or the story. It is another matter that the bared will do the baring. What we see in this example is the petty hierarchy where a superstar can get away with intent, even as he might — inadvertently or as natural instinct — appeal to the senses. Similar bare-bodied actors possessing less fame are dismissed as catering to the lascivious. There is also the issue of male nudity taking the story forward as opposed to female nudity, which is often seen as the story or the stopgap.

Predictably, somebody has filed a case against the actor and filmmakers for promoting nudity and vulgarity. One might be tempted to point out that with the actor standing at the railway tracks an immediate connection can be drawn with slum dwellers relieving themselves, a sight that many of us have witnessed while travelling in Mumbai's local trains. That too is a 'key' to the story of lives rendered less by poverty and lack of basic facilities.

The reason I bring this up is because the actor and the director do lean towards what is termed meaningful cinema. It usually means films that have some message.

If one is to deconstruct it, then let us split the image. The top half looks like a man on a mission, ready to fight evil, his eyes firmly on the target, the expression reminiscent of the actor's own 'Ghajini'. In the lower half we see the rail track curving into nowhere, a barren landscape stretching into nowhere, and the old stereo held strategically. They all convey a sense of loss, loneliness and fear of, dare I say, impotency? One might surmise then that it is about a disturbed man or a split personality conquering demons by becoming somebody else. We will know, and the fact that there is such a buzz around the film now proves that the gimmick has worked. Khan said it is not a publicity stunt. Of course, it is. You might call it marketing strategy, but it will still be the same.

Now think about how we'd see it without the prompt about it being key art. I do not find it aesthetic. It does not mean it is vulgar, it only means that it is unappealing. My issue is not with the poster, but how it is read. Leave the memes aside — hilarious though some are (the boombox replaced with a crate of tomatoes whose prices have touched a new high; Shahrukh Khan a rival superstar from the film 'My name is Khan' holding his toolbox that says, "Can fix anything"; a skirt/saree added) — and see this reaction to the protests, "As though women will lose their senses and cause havoc."

This can be flipped and used against women. The negative in the sentence is an assertion of possibility. So, were a woman to be unclothed it is possible for men to lose their senses etc.? Such subliminal messages can be dangerous.

On a different note, the insistence on nakedness taking a story forward denudes the bare body, painted or sculpted, of being art for itself.

---

A digression here:

During a debate on atrocities on women and children the TDP member M Murli Mohan made the remark. "...to uphold the tradition of our Indian culture, I would earnestly appeal to all my sisters, daughters and girls to dress dignifiedly."


The media/social media has gone berserk, repeating what several women MPs wanted expunged. The operative word became "decency" and straw liberals came out in droves without once thinking about the fact that decency is not something wrong. Parents and teachers expect it.

The minister, obviously, is misogynistic. He equated it with exploitation of women on a public platform. But what about the response from Shobha Oza that such comments encourage culprits of rape, and that rather than advising women they should advise men?

Are culprits reading such comments or seeking out advice for the criminal acts they wish to indulge in? Indeed, ministers should advise men on conduct and attitude at an early stage. This might include asking them to dress decently, which many in fact are told to.

The level of superficial discourse ignores reality in order to appear brave and gutsy, and ends up giving undue importance to those who ought to be ignored, for there is an increasing tendency to string together such quotes without any attempt to address the issues.

It is quite likely that some of those who object to the minister's statement are also likely to protest against posters such as the 'PK' one on grounds of, you guessed it, decency.

© Farzana Versey

5.8.14

Communalising a Rape: Meerut



Rape should be treated as a crime not only against women but society, only then will it be seen as more than a ‘zenana’ issue cloistered in a female-restricted enclave.

However, can we trust society if it uses such a crime to further create fissures? Take the example of what happened in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, on Sunday:

A 20-year-old BA student, a former part-time teacher at a madrasa in Meerut’s Sarawa village, has alleged that she was abducted from her residence, forcibly converted to Islam, and gangraped in another madrasa in Hapur. She has also alleged that she was held captive in a madrasa in Mustafa colony, Muzaffarnagar, for over three days, where she was again reportedly raped, abused and forced to eat fish. The woman claimed she managed to escape on August 3 and reached Meerut, after which she reported the matter to the police. The woman also claimed that she met other women at the madrasa in Muzaffarnagar, who were being held captive before being sent to Dubai.

What ought to be the most condemnable crime here? Rape. Is this how society will see it? Unlikely. It is a delicate matter not because of who the criminal is, but how the main crime is sidelined. The police registered a case of kidnapping, gangrape, outraging religious feelings of any class and criminal intimidation against the accused.

The Indian Express has referred to her as an “alleged victim”. Their reporter has met her father. Following the Muzaffarnagar riots where it was established that both the Samajwadi Party and the BJP were not beyond using any means to gain political mileage, any news coming from UP is seen as at least partly a political ploy. This is worrying because a victim would be doubted when it is the leadership that must be.

Also of concern is the demand that mainstream media has given it little attention. A crime is not rendered important enough unless it is on TV, it would seem. The media will have to shoulder the blame, for it has laid the foundation for prime-time bombast and letting demons hover over studios. Therefore, if it chooses to ignore a story of this nature it does draw attention. Unfortunately, while blaming the ‘secular media’, the accused targets are those the media is seen to protect. In this case, it would be deemed as kid-glove treatment for Muslims. That a community is berated for what some criminals do and is expected to speak out is itself an example of how rape and assault will be viewed. Muslim groups have not asked the media to go slow on the criminals who follow their faith; the media uses and abuses them just when it suits their agenda at a given time.

To return to the case, why is Hindustan Times that was the first to break the news using terms like “alleged forced conversion” and “as claimed” even in its follow-up report? Because some details have not been confirmed – she did not record her statement, she says she was wearing a veil so could not name the hospital where she was taken for surgery following bleeding, her medical tests are incomplete, she could not identify the rapists, and in a raid on a madrasa where she said others were confined the police did not find any girls.

It is impossible to jump the gun only to satiate the blood lust of a few, and I do believe that such issues get sensationalised, whoever is at the firing line.

What should be done in rape cases is for the victim to be provided with trauma care, and not be pushed into a communal cauldron. The cops were given the name of the madrasa, the cleric, and a few important details. It is their job to follow up. They have arrested three of the four persons.

Meanwhile, the Rapid Action Force has been called in. Would this have happened were it a rape case? It is to deal with the situation about the conversion angle. There was stone pelting. Some BJP leaders have issued threats. Is this not unusual? When it is a police case, who are they threatening and why? I would understand if they use pugnacious language against clerics, but the general threatening tone seems to suggest that they can thrive only in an atmosphere of strife. And what makes the party assume it is the spokesperson for Hindus? Is this its only plank to topple the state government and govern?

If there were a human trafficking racket, then would it escape the eyes of the authorities? Some clerics trying to convert people is very much possible, though. Let there be an inquiry and arrest them. Chances are this will be used as a ruse to shut down madrasas. If anything, the fact that this young woman taught Hindi and English at one at least proves that these are also general schools.

I would like to add that there are a few secularists who capitalise on religion as much as the fundamentalists. There is no need to state after every crime a Muslim commits things like, “This is against Islam.” It serves to feed those who wish to communalise crimes. They get away with the halo that comes with being seen to be non-partisan, but it is other kinds of partisanship that gets them this far.

With everybody trying to be better, the victim is the loser. In order of priority, her rapists should be first tried. The conversion and trafficking angle probe should continue, for according to the complaint it is not confined to her.

It would help if onlookers did not fall for every communal bait politicians throw their way.

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Update:

Reports continue to bring in other aspects to the case. I would rather not comment because a young woman is involved. Read for yourself here.

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© Farzana Versey

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Image: The house of the girl's relatives in Meerut, Indian Express

3.8.14

Sunday ka Funda


"Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down."

— Mahmoud Darwish



2.8.14

Bitter vs. Insecure: The Natwar Singh-Sonia Gandhi Saga



Natwar Singh is right about one thing: Sonia Gandhi should have kept quiet. The one-time Congress loyalist and senior minister has written his memoirs in which there are some unsavoury references to the Congress party chief. Irrespective of whether he wrote it out of bitterness (he was made to leave after the oil scam), it would be quite a natural thing for him to talk about his tenure in the government, and it might include his perspective on the people he was interacting with.

Sonia Gandhi told reporters in Parliament:

"I will write my own book and then everyone will come to know everything... the only way truth will come out is if I write. I am serious about it and I will be writing."


This is disturbing. It assumes that her truth is truer. Just as there are people who will not buy all of Natwar Singh's 'truth', there will be others who would question her version. The one incident that seems to have had an impact is that she refused the prime ministerial position not because of the "inner voice", the touted reason, but because Rahul Gandhi gave her 24 hours to refuse because he thought she too might be killed like his father Rajiv Gandhi was.

To any observer, both seem relevant. A son wanting to protect his mother is a most natural emotion, and a woman cast as an outsider might realise that this space has its own niche and abjure overt power. A good sixth sense, or inner voice, has saved many.

She is a politically pragmatic person. As I wrote in The Accidental Prima Donna:

While her slain husband and two children were hesitant to enter the fray, Sonia Gandhi was never a reluctant politician. Her refusal to be the prime minister was also a political act that stood her in good stead. Indians connect emotionally with detachment. She came across as one not ambitious for herself.


Therefore, the Natwar natter would have just fallen by the wayside had she not responded. Now, people with some sense will expect a sanitised book from her. They will read it, but might doubt its veracity even more. For, if he is a "bitter man", then she is a defensive woman. Such statements make it only worse:

"I can't be hurt (by revelations), I have seen my mother-in-law riddled with bullets, my husband dead...I am far from getting hurt with these things. Let them continue to do this, it will not affect me... They can continue to do this if they so please."


By saying this she has exposed her hurt more sharply. Which secure person would in a flash decide to write a book to clarify their own position? And why is former PM Manmohan Singh saying, "Private conversations should not be made public for capital gains"? An expensive book in English reaches a limited number of people.

Dr. Singh probably does not like the fact that he is portrayed as someone who had no real power, and all files went to Ms. Gandhi. In retirement he would want to salvage his reputation. Circumspection is a good thing, but responding to the rash isn't particularly circumspect.

The Congress Party members will all huddle together anyway, and certainly not protest against their leader only because she listened to her son. If anything, they will see him as someone who has real influence on her and is therefore the leader they believed he ought to be.

Natwar Singh quit the party only in 2008; he was forced to resign in 2005 for the Iraqi food-for-oil scam. This itself is revealing. If he was bitter, why did he not leave the party immediately or prove his innocence then, as he claims now?

It would take naïveté of some kind to blindly fall for his interpretation, especially if he comes up with statements like these:

"No Indian would treat a man who was loyal to family for 45 years who had been very close to her and 30 years older. .... It is just not done in India. There is a part (of Sonia) which is ruthless."


And further:

Asked if that was her Italian part, he shot back, asking what else can it be adding, "some part of it is not India. Jawarlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi would not be like that".


He is sounding like a political rookie, treating this as some sort of soap opera. By emphasising his loyalty he is inadvertently justifying her arrogance that he seems to have issues with. The India of his imagination is certainly not real. Age is not respected even in everyday social situations; in this case it was professional. His insistence on making it unprofessional is grating and obsequious, for ultimately he is holding a candle for most of the Nehru-Gandhi family even if it means ignoring their ruthlessness.

Natwar Singh also needs a quick visit to Italy to discover how they uphold family values. Or he can just get DVDs of 'The Godfather' series. The Italian mafia too respected the unit. In Don Corleone's words: "A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man."


© Farzana Versey