Hope lies here, in the roots of this our land

Hope lies here, in the roots of this our land. 

Last night two activists spent the night with me. They have been beaten by police, fabricated cases filed on them, jailed, their colleagues killed by so called Maoist ultras funded by Coal companies, police fired on their people killing three etc etc

They asked me:
“Brother What is happening in England regarding democracy?”. “Whats happened in our Amazon with our Adivasi relatives” 

The conversation then went to the Indian economy.
They already knew about the loot of RBI reserve funds and unemployment surge.
-The other WhatsUp University guys.

Then one of them said
“What ever is to happen, it cannot be worse than what we and our people have gone through ever since our birth.”
“We are ready/prepared, we will fight, jail is a better place, at least we get food and will not be hungry” 
“We are not Chintabarams or Vijay Malayas” they said.

Both were off to a workshop on the Indian Constitution, both had copies of it! (funny I do not)
Both are Dalit farmers fathers of school going children.

Hearing them I can say there is hope for India!

Where is the global outrage at the destruction of Kashmir and the assault on Kashmiri women?

August 14, 2019: Women in Kashmir protest

“There is a long row of women, who have given birth in the midst of destruction, their babies, a new generation, are tied securely to their bodies with a duppatta. I see them as they walk, slowly, cautiously, confidently, across the broken embankment, past seething waters, to the safety of their community and their people. Once more, they shine.”

Freny Manecksha. Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children

In early August, the Indian state suspended Article 370 of India’s Constitution. Article 370 gave special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This special status included a separate constitution and administrative autonomy. In suspending the Article, and effectively India’s Constitution, Narendra Modi offered economic development and his version of a War on (Islamic) Terror as justification. The lynchpin of this claim was the protection of Kashmiri Muslim women. In this scenario, Modi is the great liberator savior of Indian Muslim women. Kashmiri women know better: “Who will liberate us? The BJP leaders who are saying men in UP or Haryana (where the sex ratio is low) can now source fair brides from Kashmir? Are we apples or peaches of Kashmir — goods to be looted by our conquerors?” The women of Kashmir are accustomed to these claims of liberation, empowerment, freedom, and have consistently rejected them as false and empty. For decades, and centuries, women of Kashmir have organized to dispel the night and fog of various modes of patriarchal sexual violence against women and girls. 

Since the declaration, India’s Prime Minister has continued to claim that the erasure of semi-autonomous Kashmir  is part of the program of women’s liberation, which begins with `protecting’ Indian Muslim women … from themselves. Since the declaration, Indian social media has recorded public officials and just plain menfolk boastingthat now they can go to Kashmir and pick up “fair Kashmiri women” as wives. 

Kashmiri women know better. They know that “protection” means intensified occupationunparalleled communications and information blackoutsramped up harassment of women and girls. They know that protection means the most vulnerable, such as women in childbirth, will be the most exposed to violence and danger. They know that armies that march under the banner, “Save Muslim Women!”, are never to be trusted. They know this, and their knowledge of such has been well documented again and again and again.

Despite the documentation of Kashmiri women’s decades and centuries long histories of self-organizing, the world more or less stands by and watches the new phase of protective torture of women and girls with a muffled cough of disapproval. Where is the global outrage at the intensified assault on Kashmir, and particularly on Kashmiri women? Where are the mass demonstrations in support, the teach-ins, the calls to action, other than polite invocations of solidarity? Where are the comrades, the militants, the feminists? Where is Kashmir? Nowhere. Who are the women of Kashmir? As far as the world at large is concerned, no one. Less than no one. Poor blighted beings in need of salvation. “But, hell, let’s just ‘Save Muslim Women’!”

(Photo Credit: Al Jazeera / Reuters / Danish Ismail)

Saturday’s factory fire in New Delhi was a planned massacre of women workers

The fire that killed three workers

A factory fire broke out Saturday, July 13, in a hardware factory in the Jhilmil industrial area, in New Delhi. Three workers were killed: Manju Devi, 50 years old, mother of five; Sangeeta Devi, 46 years old, mother of three; Shoaib Ali, 19 years old, one of two children. The Jhilmil industrial area is 20 some miles from the Bawana Industrial Area, where a fire broke out January 2018 in a firecracker factory. An hour by car, more or less, separates the two factory zones. A year and a half separate the two fires. In that year and a half, absolutely nothing has been done to ameliorate the conditions of factory workers in New Delhi. As was the case in Bawana, Saturday’s factory fine in New Delhi was a planned massacre of workers, the majority of whom were women.

For a couple days there was news coverage. The two brothers who owned the factory have been arrested. The factory license had expired and so the factory had no license. The factory had no “firefighting measures.” The fire was massive, the brothers were negligent. The stories of each of the three murdered workers are plaintive and heart rending. In other words, this “tragedy” is precisely like the earlier “tragedies”. Add the Jhilmil industrial area to the list of factory fire “tragedies”: Bawana Industrial Area,India: Tangerang, Indonesia;  Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, United States; Kader Toy Factory, Thailand; Zhili Handicraft Factory, China; Tazreen Fashions Factory, Bangladesh; Kentex Manufacturing Corporation, Philippines; House Technologies Industries, Philippines. The sacrificial pyre built of women’s bodies continues to grow and light up the night sky of global economic development. 

The Jhilmil factory had no license because it didn’t have to have a license: “The factory was operating in the area of 110 sq metres and a fire NoC [No objection Certificate] is not required for the area below 250 sq metre as per norms.” According to some estimates, “around 90% of units in industrial areas of Delhi lack fire safety norms.” Some of those factories are in violation of the law, but the vast majority aren’t. They are “per norms”. That is, respectively, they comprise individual areas of less than 250 square meters, and so don’t need any license. The majority of factories in New Delhi’s industrial zones are less than 250 square meters in area. Per norms. That’s the law. That’s how it is. Saturday’s factory fire in New Delhi was a planned massacre of workers, the majority of whom were women, and the planners of that massacre are factory owners, the State, and all who looked the other way, or better, see and construct a world “per norms” in which people who work in larger factories have some value, are collectively worth the cost of a fire extinguisher and an alarm, and those, the majority, who work in the smaller factories, the `informal’ factories, they are less than dirt, less than the ash that fills the air and covers the earth after a massive fire. Saturday’s factory fire in New Delhi was a planned massacre of workers, the majority of whom were women. It won’t be the last such massacre.

(Photo Credit: The Hindu / R. V. Moorthy)

How do heartless leaders win elections? Part 2: India and beyond

In India, although Modi failed to deliver on election promises of economic growth, he drew public through hypocritical arguments about the importance of protecting the Hindu nation against Pakistan. The elections came at a crucial time when two Indian Army pilots captured by the Pakistani military were released back into India. The fanfare around their release gave the BJP and Modi enough momentum to stoke nationalist fires. Parties associated with the BJP had already done plenty to fan communalism through social media, and so Pakistan’s capture of the pilots created the means to continue nationalist messaging in public spaces to keep the fervor at fever pitch. The supremacy of the far-right Hindu nationalists is becoming widespread and overt in its reach under the Modi government. Modi openly articulates his allegiance with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS, and its divisive nationalism and Hindu militancy.

Besides masking economic growth with nationalism, Modi and the BJP have used the figure of the woman as a symbol of nationalism. This ploy has been enacted since before India’s struggle for independence from British rule. In the last election, Modi promised that he would make sure women had rights but did nothing to curb violence against women. While the BJP under Modi talks about Hindu womanhood and protecting women, drawing upon the religious trope of worshiping goddesses, we see the government’s hypocrisy in turning a blind eye to the rape of young women and children, particularly in Muslim, Adivasi and Dalit communities. Witness the rape and murder of an 8-year-old Muslim girl by 9 Hindu youth, four of them police officers; the crime was politicized and although the rapists were charged, Hindu right-wing protesters, Modi silently lending them support, wanted the rapists exonerated: “Some of the staunchest defenders of the suspects in the girl’s killing have been high-level officials in Mr. Modi’s party. Analysts said this was consistent with how the party has operated for years.”Throughout the country it has become an increasingly onerous task for any sexual abuse victim to get justice. 

While the government won re-election based on national security, the country has become unsafe for women, Muslims and Dalits. Dissenting voices are in danger of being assassinated, as we have already seen in the murder of prominent journalists and writers for their critique of the government: Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and M.M. Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh and many more.

While abortion is legal up to 20 weeks, many women around the country do not have access to safe abortions. Maternal deaths from pregnancy and abortion continue to plague the country. A recent report from Mumbai showed a sudden dip in the numbers of abortion among girls 13-15. While this may sound like a good thing, a senior gynecologist from one of the BMC hospitals thinks that the dip could mean that young girls may be getting unsafe abortions. No statistics are available on the number of abortions as a result of the abortion pill. In short, unsafe abortions are prevalent, including self-selective abortion, which is unlawful.

What does all this mean? Within a neoliberal philosophy we see an increase in right-wing political parties in Europe and in India. Many scholars have made connections between this current political climate with the 1930s as the EU has gone through various turbulences that have exposed the fragility of the principle of democracy in society. In his book “Recidive,”(Recurrence), Michaël Fœssel uses press and journal articles to analyze the dynamics that prevailed in the year 1938, noting, “I didn’t research 1938 with 1940 in mind, but rather with 2018 and the years before.” He remarks that French women in 1938 were mostly invisible; one would have thought that France was inhabited only by men “whose only ambition was to become chief.” Men forbade women to vote until 1944, which is a significant difference compared to 2019. In addition, Fœssel observes that in 1938 many principles were challenged. France had passed new labor protection laws and progressive social laws 2 years earlier. In 1938, with a new government elected on negative campaigns to restore order, the goal was to weaken social protection and the new rights of middle and lower classes. Although women were not allowed to vote, two women held ministry positions in the previous government, and still progress stopped there. With the more conservative government of 1938, women were sent back to the private home and family duty. 

In a time of crisis, we observe the reoccurrence of these discourses of rights and protections reductions, making the vulnerable more precarious and supporting right-wing messages of nationalism and dominant powers. Besides the obvious differences between both electoral situations (in India and in the EU), the commonalities are important to identify. 

For the time being, patriarchy as a system of control and accumulation has reinforced its power. The heartless leaders are patriarchal leaders. Their networks of influence have, through social media, disseminated their discourses using the mythology of virility to legitimize inequality between genders and unleash intolerance toward everyone outside of their normative view of human society. They have successfully eliminated the ethics of reciprocity and care from the political discourse. The destruction wrought by climate change that affects the most vulnerable in society is a casualty in this patriarchal power grab in the elections in Hungary, Poland, Italy and India. Ending the power of the heartless demand constant criticism of the patriarchal order that outrageously begets inequality and suffering. 

(Photo Credit: Reuters / Mukesh Gupta / The Guardian)

India votes and `suffers’ women prisoners and their children. And we call it democracy.

Elections matter. Australia voted, catastrophically, and immediately after suicide attempts and other forms of self-harm spiked among refugee and asylum seeker prisoners on Manus Island and Nauru. Elections matter. India voted, catastrophically, and the news for women inmates in prisons and jails across India is grim. The last five years of the Modi regime have meant ongoing and increasing violation of women prisoners’ rights, autonomy and well-being, on one hand, and a policy of increased opacity, on the other. In both instance, Australia and India, the State blames the women and children for the violence and torture the State visits upon their bodies and souls … and they call it democracy.

India went to the polls from April 11 to May 23. While it had little or no impact, the same week the elections began, the National Crimes Record Bureau, NCRB, finally released its Prison Statistics India 2016 Report. That report came in after an unexplained years’ long delay. The Prison Statistics India 2015 Report was issued in a timely manner in September 2016. The 2015 Report opens: “I am privileged to release the 21stedition of `Prison Statistics India’ for the year 2015, an annual publication of National Crime Records Bureau since the year 1995.” In 1996, the National Crime Records Bureau was tasked with publishing an annual report on the conditions in India’s prisons and jails. For 21 years, it did so, dutifully and faithfully. And then … it stopped. This silence concerning the conditions of prisons, jails and, most importantly, prisoners was matched by an equivalent “failure” by the NCRB to publish its annual Crime In India report for 2017. This was the first “failure” of this annual report since 1953. Taken together, the lack of reporting begins to look more like refusal than failure: “All this has happened on the watch of a government that is known for being less than forthright about official data.”

This refusal to provide detailed data continues throughout the Prison Statistics India 2016 Report. Most glaringly, the new report says nothing about caste or religion. Whereas earlier reports described, in detail, the situation and conditions in prisons and jails for Dalits, members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, members of religious minorities, especially Muslim, this last `report’, the methodology of which is ostensibly the same as previous reports, says nothing. According to the most recent census, 16.6% of India is Dalit, while Dalits made up 21.4% of India’s prison and jail population. Likewise, Scheduled Tribes make up 8.6% of the Indian population and 12.8% of the prison and jail population. Many noted these discrepancies and strove to address them. The Modi regime has addressed them by erasing not only categories but whole sectors of the population. This is not failure to represent, this is refusal to represent, and it’s part and parcel of the caste and religion-based politics of the Modi regime and of his political party.

Where are the women in this picture? Everywhere and nowhere. Before the latest report came out, it was already known that prisons and jails in India are particularly damaging to women. First, they’re designed for men. Second, they have less access to facilities and resources within prisons and jails. Third, they have less access to resources outside of prisons and jails. For example, “a woman, nearly 70 years old, has been in jail for the past 18 months on kidnapping and rape charges … While five others, including two male co-accused, have been released on bail, she continues to be behind bars. Having lost her husband during her incarceration, she has no one to reach out to. What purpose is being served by keeping her inside?”

Further, over the preceding fifteen years, the rate of men’s incarceration has increased by 33%, while that of women has grown by 61%. Despite this growth of women’s incarceration, neither budgets nor infrastructure has increased. Thus, the women’s prisons are severely overcrowded and filthy; the food and hygiene are deplorable; and there is virtually no physical and mental health care. For Dalit and Adivasi women, the conditions are predictably worse. According to a recent study, “76% (279 prisoners) of prisoners sentenced to death in India belong to backward classes and religious minorities, with all 12 female prisoners belonging to backward classes and religious minorities.” None of this is in the most recent NCRB report.

The NCRB report does provide some data, and the most salient fact is that 67% of India’s prisoners are “undertrial”, meaning awaiting trial … meaning officially innocent. From 2014 to 2016, the number of undertrial, or remand, prisoners rose 3.6%, from 282,879 to 293,058 in 2016. Close to 71% of undertrial prisoners are deemed illiterate or low literate. While among convicted prisoners, prisoners 30 – 50 years old predominate, among undertrials the majority are 18 to 30 years old. 72% of women prisoners are awaiting trial. Much more than with male prisoners, women prisoners are overwhelming young, minimally educated, poor … and formally innocent. Additionally, there are 1,809 children in prisons and jails across India, and they all are cared for by their mothers, women prisoners. Of the 1809 children living behind bars, 78% of their mothers are awaiting trial, minimally educated, poor … and formally innocent. 

Elections matter. Information matters. Transparency matters. Democracy matters. The United States “discovered” this week that a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador died in custody, last September, and that the State lied and hid that girl-child’s death. We are dismayed but not shocked or surprised. Refugee and asylum prisoners in Australia engage in increased self-harm and suicide attempts following the Australian national elections. Some are finally, in some cases after five-year delays, sent to the mainland for `care’. India cages more and more Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim young women and children, all formally innocent, and covers it in the civil equivalent of the fog of war. And we call it democracy.

(Photo Credit: The Tribune India)

Women’s Studies: A Threat to The Political Right-Wing?

On March 12th, the University Grants Commission (UGC), the statutory body in charge of determining and maintaining the standards of higher education in India, released new guidelines that drastically cut funds up to 40% for Women Studies Centers across the nation. Why is Women’s Studies (WS) the target of the current government? How does the budget cut affect the discipline of WS? How is feminism a political threat?

Women’s Studies emerged in India as a discipline in the 1970s from the women’s movement which attempted to make women visible in history through the interdisciplinary frameworks of gender, race, and class. It extended feminist ideas in the university and explored issues such as violence, caste and religious discriminations, female feticide, dowry deaths, and pay disparity. It questioned the production and distribution of patriarchal knowledge and refuted the gender binary reinforcing the idea of gender performativity. Centers for WS were set up across India and funded by the UGC under the 12thYear Plan (2012-2017); WS was recognized as an important discipline that needed to be institutionalized and supported for changing the perception of women and highlighting their contribution in socio-economic development.

Despite the UGC recognizing WS as an important discipline, there has been a recurring disapproval of the discipline by critics from right-wing politics. Critics of WS believe that the discipline is an indulgence for women. In 2003, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a party led by the Bharatiya Janat Party (BJP), a right-wing political party heading the current Indian government, sought to rename Women Studies Centers across the nation as Women and Family Studies Centers as part of the 10th Year Plan, hoping that a change in name would deter feminist agendas. A few years later, a survey in the state of Tamilnadu in 2006, under the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIDMK) government, an ally to the NDA, examined WS in many universities across the state and concluded that WS courses were often regarded as “soft options”. It stated that WS ended up getting students who did not get admissions into core disciplines while questioning the discipline’s significance and impact in the real world. 

It is indeed distressing to see how the right-wing questions the significance of WS in a culture where sexual harassment is normalized and trivialized. When Indian women broke their silence on social media with the #MeTooMovement in 2018, the government remained silent and refused to take action on sexual harassers, endorsing male supremacy. With thousands of women, like the journalist Priya Ramani and the actress Tanushree Dutta, shaking the skeletons out of their closets, the #MeToo movement drew attention to patriarchal oppression at home and at the workplace. However, the fundamentalist non-secular right-wing dismissed the cases focusing instead on the “saffronization” of the nation and the glorification of Hinduism.

In the present political scenario, it is not surprising that WS suffers a drastic budget cut. Women and minority studies are a threat to the political right-wing as they question patriarchy and casteism, which are the fundamental tenets of the party. With a cut in funds in higher education, admissions will be limited, and tuition will increase; education will become unaffordable for students from underprivileged backgrounds and higher education will become elitist. The temporariness accorded to Women’s Studies and Dalit Studies, among other social science disciplines, through UGC funds, is a way of institutional marginalization. By withholding funds, the government controls the circulation of feminist thought and reinforces patriarchal oppression. 

The government’s nationalistic vision of “New India” as a superpower with global hegemony is an extension of upper-class Hindu patriarchal ideology; it is imperative therefore that WS is recognized as an important discipline, and women are viewed as equal, in times that celebrate inequality as power. Let’s hope that the upcoming election in May 2019 will bring about an equal and diverse India.

(Photo Credit: She the People)

On the funding cuts looming over Women’s Studies Centers across India

I love India; it is my home, a very old home that has seen and endured so much. Like most old homes there are many cracks signaling structural and foundational damage, the kind of damage which takes more than a trip to Home Depot on a Sunday afternoon. As someone who doesn’t live at home anymore, I have seen it from outside and have seen its beauty from afar. I am a transnational Indian woman whose sense of belonging is shared by the United States and India. With that in mind, I want to share my views on the funding cuts looming over Women’s Studies Centers across India.

Research and the women of India have a long history; she has been the subject of civilizing missions and she has been the subject of “white men saving brown women from brown men” campaigns. She is included in a group of sisters who inspired Linda Tuhiwai Smith to say that research is a dirty word. These are different ways of emphasizing why Women’s Studies in India is important. We need to acknowledge the vital role Indian researchers play in bringing to light the issues that are faced by girls, young women and women who have been invisible for far too long. Their stories need to be told; their issues need to be addressed. 

We are all familiar with funding cuts, and we know every such decision sends a message about priorities. What is the message with this current proposed decision? It says: “Yes, of course, we care about Women’s Empowerment, we have snazzy catchy slogans about the importance of the girl child. However, we are also afraid of the kind of research you conduct, the questions you ask of us, the government, and also the changes you wish to see through your research. You take aim at patriarchy, capitalism, and fundamentalism. We aren’t sure if we want that.”

The proposed decision to cut funding is signaling to the educated Indian woman and to the world that women are not a priority. At the end of the day, we belong to the world’s largest democracy, a political system in which votes count more than research initiatives. This is especially true if the research focuses on shedding light on the systemic problems that sustain and maintain attitudes that place different values on lives based on gender. If implemented, these cuts propose to paint over the problem and create an illusion that women and women’s issues matter because women vote and their votes matter.Votes are generated though the messages of empowerment and government sponsored  women’s empowerment campaigns. For example, the most recent such campaign is called ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” which translated means “Save the daughter, Educate the daughter”. The irony of the slogan is not lost on me, nor is it lost on researchers and future scholars who want to make a difference. According to news outlets, the decision is not final, a final decision will made after April 5th regarding this issue. However, they are also taking suggestions about how to resolve this issue. If the women of India had the ability to speak as a collective, I wonder what her message would say?

(Photo Credit: She the People)

In India, women forest dwellers saved the trees, lost the woods, saved the woods, lost the forest

In 2006, India passed The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, known as the Recognition of Forest Rights Act. While not perfect, the Act was a step in the right direction. It was “a weapon for democracy in the forest”, because, for the first time, the State recognized and secured community and individual rights over common property resources; rights in and over disputed land rights concerning land use; right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage the forest; right to intellectual property and traditional knowledge related to biodiversity and cultural diversity; rights of displaced communities; and, finally, rights over developmental activities. That act came after decades of struggle by forest dependent communities. Women were at the core of those struggles. This week, with one court decisionmillions of forest dependent communities, often called the most vulnerable of thevulnerable, were informed that they were to be evicted by July 24. It is estimated that as many as 2,300,000 families will ultimately be affected by this decision. Who are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable? Women and children.

From the moment its inception, the Act was challenged by mining, agricultural and so-called development interests. More recently, some conservationists argued that the forests were dwindling and that the forest dependent populations had to be moved to save the forests. In the case decided this week, the key was the provision of the act by which forest dependent families had to formally lay claim to land. This proved difficult given low levels of formal literacy and often impossible bureaucratic processes. For women, the issue of land titles was complicated by even lower levels of literacy and local traditions that precluded women having title to land. The State colluded with those local traditions. For example, many, if not most, forest households are women-led, because male partners have left, for work or just because, or have died. The State never addressed the particularities of women-headed forest households.

While the conditions for women forest dwellers have been particularly harsh, with increased industrial and State violence against forest-dependent women, women have consistently engaged in individual and collective direct action and mobilization for tribal rights and for tribal women’s rights. From Odisha to Chhattisgarhto Rajasthanand beyond, women self-organized to defend their commons. They carry the legacy of the women’s Chipko movement, from the 1970s in Uttarakhand. On March 25, 1974, Gaura Devi, the leader of the Chipko movement, led local women to confront logging companies about to chop down the trees. Calling the forest her mother’s home, Devi wrapped her body around the trees. The women persisted, and the loggers left. That was the early 1970s. In 2013, a reporter returned to the site and saw that the women had saved the trees … but lost the woods. Now only elders, women, and children live there, since the men have gone, either to find work or just because. Six years later … 

Forty five years, almost to the day, after Gaura Devi and the women of Reni village stood up for the dignity of Niluribhur forest, those women, their daughters and granddaughters have been informed they have five months to vacate. While the world press is paying some attention to this crisis, thus far almost none have noted, or wondered, “Where are the women?” 

Feminist activist scholar Swarna Rajagopalan has asked and answered: “What does it really mean to be an internally displaced person—or a refugee, for those who cross borders in flight? … As a woman, you did not get to go to school for long and you studied another language. How are you to navigate this state’s administrative offices and claim the paperwork, the food and medical assistance and other entitlements that are your due? You fled to survive, but now you have to fight to survive each day … As a woman, maybe stepping out of the house for the first to find employment, you can do domestic or care work. Sometimes you beg; sometimes you trade sexual favours to feed your family. Living on the margins, crowded by strangers, you are visible and vulnerable in so many ways—on the way to a communal toilet; to fetch water; to earn a living; and in your interactions with officials and house-owners. But disadvantaged as you are as a woman, you are not weak. You and your sisters asked questions, protested and stood your ground until the ground itself shifted. Now, after one… two… three displacements, the fight is going out of you …. Some women will miscarry en route; some will give birth in camps. Those children may grow up as ‘IDPs’ or ‘refugees,’ living in camps or IDP settlements all their lives. Small gardens will be planted, rangolis drawn, makeshift temples and churches set up. But they will always remember home. They were once from somewhere else—a lost forest home where they belonged and which truly belonged to them.”

Where are the forest dependent women in the Indian Supreme Court’s decision, in national and regional policies, in press accounts? Everywhere and nowhere. The Forest Dwellers Act recognized the rights of over 200 million individuals living in more than 170,000 villages. This week’s decision is a step in the removal of all 200 million. At every step of that plan and at every instance of resistance, ask, and demand to be answered, “Where are the women?” Everywhere and nowhere is not good enough.

(Infograph Credit: Business Standard) (Photo Credit: Guardian / Anupam Nath / AP)

In Assam, India, Safiya Khatun spent two years in detention for the crime of being … a citizen?

In July, the Indian state of Assam dropped four million people from its registers, identifying them as “foreigners.” Women comprise the overwhelming majority of the four million. Call it witch hunt? Call it femicide? Yes to both. Call it as well part of an ongoing nationalist campaign against the “foreigners in our midst”, a campaign that targets poor women. One such woman, Safiya Khatun, spent the last two years in the “Kokrajhar detention camp”, a jail designed to hold women “foreigners” in the Kokrajhar district of Assam. Assam boasts six detention camps. The detention camps were established in 2010, “to shelter women declared foreigners.” If this is shelter, give us the storm, please.

What is Safiya Khatun’s crime? A “mismatch” appeared with her father’s name on different voters’ lists. That misspelling brought Safiya Khatun before a “Foreigner’s Tribunal”, or FT, where she was found to be foreign. Assam has 100 FTs, and, by all appearances, they are models of poor process. Safiya Khatun’s FT hearing occurred in October 2016. She’s been “sheltered” by the State since.

Safiya Khatun is a poor, 50-year-old woman from an area declared, by the Indian government, one of the “most backward districts” in the country. Safiya Khatun’s father is a citizen; Safiya Khatun’s mother is a citizen; Safiya Khatun’s five brothers are citizens; Safiya Khatun’s husband is a citizen. Nevertheless, the FT found Safiya Khatun to be an immigrant foreigner. So did the Guwahati High Court. The Court argued that there were omissions in Safiya Khatun’s application, and so she is a foreigner. Finally, on September 12, the Supreme Court of India demanded that Safiya Khatun be released on bail. The Supreme Court decided that the State had not conducted a full inquiry and so had imprisoned wrongfully. Safiya Khatun’s attorney said, “You claim to trace and oust every ‘infiltrator’, but we will ensure that every Indian citizen gets the right guaranteed by the Constitution.”

The real crime is revealed in the language, where prison becomes camp becomes shelter; where foreigner becomes infiltrator; where omission and misspelling become crimes. Safiya Khatun spent two years in the Kokrajhar detention camp, the same prison where, in August, more than 150 women prisoners went on indefinite hunger strike to protest the inhumane conditions. Kokrajhar detention camp houses elder women, many of whom have stories identical with that of Safiya Khatun, and young pregnant women. In most cases, the women’s extended families are all Indian citizens, but the women somehow are dangerously foreign non-citizens, and so packed off to prison … for shelter.

What is going on in Assam is a campaign, a war, against women, and Assam is a testing ground, and not only for India. Around the world, in so-called liberal democracies, citizenship is under assault, and the first line of that assault is women. Women are identified as dangerously foreign non-citizens, despite layers of evidence testifying to their citizenship. Citizenship is the criterion for the new global witch hunt, from the United States to the United Kingdom to Australia and beyond. Meanwhile, two months ago, 19-year-old Somiron Nessa, of Goroimari, in Assam, was informed, out of the blue, that she is a “foreigner”. The struggle continues.

 

(Photo Credit: DailyO)

India strips millions of women in Assam of their citizenship. Call it femicide

The documents these women presented were deemed invalid.

What’s it called when, with one sweep of a pen or publication of a report, millions of people `lose’ their citizenship. Today, India dropped over four million people living in the resource-rich state of Assam, in northeast India, from the citizenship lists. Poof. Gone. Four million. In one state. And, to no one’s surprise, the majority of the four million are women. Even if women weren’t overrepresented in the rollcall of the suddenly disappeared, the impact on women, individually and collectively, is particularly deep and vicious, and is particular to policy formation in patriarchal states and societies.

Today, the Indian government published the final draft of the National Register of Citizens, NRC, for Assam. Assam has been experiencing a considerable population growth over the last decade. About two-thirds of the state is Hindu, and one third is Muslim. For over seventy years, Indigenous Assamese, in particular the Bodo, and Bengali Muslims have opposed each other, often violently.

Those dropped from today’s citizenship lists are largely, almost exclusively, Bengali Muslims. Many view this as part of the national government’s saffron policies, turning secular multicultural India into Hindu India. Whatever the reasons, the NRC predictably targets, and eliminates, Bengali Muslim women. Shorbhanu Nessa’s story is typical of many Bengali Muslim women in Assam … and typical of many women across India and beyond.

Shorbhanu Nessa married before she was 18. She is surrounded by nevers that result in her elimination from the NRC: never went to school, never owned property, never had a bank account, never thought she needed to. She is the mother of five adult children. As far as Shorbhanu Nessa knew, being married to her husband was sufficient. Not any longer.

Shorbhanu Nessa’s son, Hussain Ahmad Madani, explains, “Because she never voted in her maiden home, she had no way to prove now that she was her father’s daughter. Her father’s legacy data is there, but she has no document to establish her linkage to him. There is no school certificate which would have mentioned his name. Her family settled in this char (a sand bar by a river in Assamese) when she was one-and-a-half years old after their char (Majarlega Char) was swallowed by the Brahmaputra. She was married off to my father in this same char. Though her father passed away, everyone in the neighbourhood knew whose daughter she was; trouble began when documentary evidence was sought by the NRC authorities to prove who her father was.”

Everyone knew, but this particular category of everyone doesn’t count.

Many of those who were dropped from the rolls are women. Almost all of them are Muslim. Most, if not all, are married. As of yet, there’s not an exact gender breakdown of the disappeared, but the stories are everywhere, repeating one another.

No matter how one cuts it, the design for the data collection for the NCR predictably attacked Muslim individuals and communities, who, for various reasons, would not have the documentary evidence to prove what everyone in the neighborhood knew and had known for years, decades and generations. What is it called when millions of people are stripped of their citizenship? Genocide.

But there’s something else here. The NRC structures specifically targeted Bengali Muslim women of Shorbhanu Nessa’s generation. In 1988, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Bengali Muslim women, like Shorbhanu Nessa, were `encouraged’ to marry before they turned 18. Thus, they never voted using their birth, or maiden, names, and so now they can’t prove they are, and were, who they are, and were, precisely because they were dutiful daughters. None of this is surprising. It’s part of publicly and widely known culture in Assam, and it’s equally part of the NRC plan. The way the data was collected meant Bengali Muslim women would be disappeared, in large numbers, and that was perfectly fine with both Assamese officials and those in the national government. What’s it called when millions of women are disappeared in a single day? Femicide. In this world, citizenship is life. In one fell swoop, India created the single largest stateless population ever, and at the heart of that effort is the nation-State assault on women.

 

 

(Photo Credit: The Wire / Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty)