What happened to Manjula Shette? The routine torture of women in India’s prisons

Manjula Shette

Manjula Shette spent about ten years in prison, in India. By all accounts, she was a model prisoner. Most of her time, Manjula Shette spent at the notorious Yerwada Prison, located in Pune, in the state of Maharashtra. There, she worked as a jail warden, which meant advocating for fellow prisoners and keeping the peace. This year, she volunteered to be moved to the notorious Byculla Jail, in Mumbai, where, among other issues, she found she was forced to work round the clock. According to family members and inmates at Byculla, Manjula Shette was very popular with the other inmates. On the morning of June 23, Manjula Shette complained that two eggs and five pieces of bread were missing from the morning rations. She was taken to an office, beaten up, deposited back in her cell, there further beaten and tortured in the presence of other prisoners, taken to hospital, and died. Later reports suggest she was already dead before she was taken to hospital. Byculla Jail prisoners erupted and occupied the jail, taking control of the rooftop and calling for justice. All 291 women have been charged with rioting and assaulting officers. Six officers are under investigation. While some are shocked, many say that what happened to Manjula Shette is an average day in India’s women’s prisons and jails. In other words, nothing really happened. No one, in this instance named Manjula Shette, was murdered by the State.

In March 2017, the Mumbai High Court formally declared that Yerwada, Byculla, and Arthur Road Jails were hellholes, and that they had to be cleaned up … by May. This decision came as part of a three-year inquiry into the conditions in these three notorious Maharashtra jails. No positive changes emerged from the High Court pronouncement. Further, those prisoners who were prominent advocates were targeted for retribution.

And Manjula Shette is dead.

According to Raja Bagga, of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, or CHRI, “Every three days, there is a death in a Maharashtra jail.” Death stalks Maharashtra’s women’s jails and prisons, as does custodial rape, extreme overcrowding, lack of adequate food, and a generally toxic environment and living, and dying, conditions. Byculla is supposed to have maximum 165 women. Currently 291 women are housed there, and that offsets the overcrowding at the Arthur Road Jail. Discrimination against women is common, and for women of various minority groups, the treatment is worse. The vast majority of women in jails are awaiting trial, and many have been for a long time.

Sanjoy Hazarika, the director of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, added that Shetye’s death reflected the “internal rot and impunity” that characterizes India’s prisons and jails. The CHRI is calling for immediate measures to open the prisons to monitoring, as a first step. While that first step would be welcome, it does not address the calculus of rot and impunity. In India, prisoners are treated viciously because they are viewed as rot. That’s why a popular prisoner, a prisoner advocate, must be eliminated, and the elimination must be visible and spectacular. What happened to Manjula Shette? Absolutely nothing. What will happen to the prison system, as distinct from the individual prison guards? Absolutely nothing. Why is India’s women prison and jail population growing at astronomical rates? To grow the national economy. The increased and intensified torture of women in India’s prisons and jails is a key element of national development. Who will remember Manjula Shette a year from now? Her family and the women prisoners who, for a brief moment, took control of the Byculla Jail. That’s it. What is the market value of a woman prisoner’s life? Two eggs, five pieces of bread.

And Manjula Shette is dead.

Byculla Jail women prisoners occupy the roof, demand justice

 

(Photo Credits: The Hindu)

In India, school girls go on strike for education and respect … and win!

On May 10, 86 school girls decided to upset the sleep of the “sleepy hamlet” of Gothra Tappa Dahina in the Rewari district of the Haryana state, in India. Fed up with administrators and parents who thought less than nothing of the sexual harassment the girls endured every day on their way to and from school, the girls decided to go on strike, with 13 of them going on hunger strike. A week later, the administration gave in to the girls’ principal demands. Since then, other school girls have started similar strikes. As with the school girls in Malawi, the school girls of Rewari know that they deserve a decent education, and that that includes the trip to and from school. With that knowledge, they may have started a school girls’ movement that will do more than disrupt the sleep of many. It may be an awakening.

The story is straightforward. The local school stops at 10th grade. That means for 11th and 12th grades, the girls must walk about 3 kilometers to the next village. According to the girls, they complained about the abuse they received on their walk to and from school. They petitioned the administration to upgrade their local school to include 11th and 12th grades. They received no response. They urged their parents to push for upgrading the local school. Some told the girls it’s better to be quiet; sexual harassment of girls and women has been going on forever. Others were more supportive but couldn’t offer much else. And so, the girls took action. As Sheetal, one of the hunger strikes, explained, “Almost every day, we face eve teasing. Should we stop studying? Should we stop dreaming? Are only rich people and their children allowed to dream? The government should protect us or open a higher-secondary school in our village.” Parents joined the strike, laying down their work tools and protesting outside the school. On May 17, 10 of the hunger strikers were sent to hospital, as the Haryana state government agreed to upgrade the school.

In the subsequent days, this big win for the Rewari girls has been followed by similar strikes by school girls in Gurugram and Palwal districts, both in Haryana state. Sapna Kumari, one of striking students in Gurugram, explained, “Some girls have to drop out after Class 10th because their parents do not want to send them to school afar, fearing their safety. Those who manage to convince them face problems of eve-teasing everyday. Be it buses, autos, the problem does not end.” Her school is 4 kilometers away. Anjali, one of the striking students in Palwal district, asked, “How can daughters study when there was no government school up to senior secondary level in their village?”

These school girls know the meaning of education, and they know they deserve it. Period. They know that a state that creates unsafe conditions for girls on their way to and from school has no commitment to girls’ education. They also know that they have the power to move the State and change the world, and now the school girls of Haryana are teaching that lesson to the rest of the world.

 

(Photo Credit 1: Hindustan Times) (Photo Credit 2: Times of India)

Bondita Acharya and Micaela Garcia refuse to let women be crushed

In case we needed any reminder, this week has already demonstrated that rape culture is expanding, intensifying and globalizing. Yesterday, across Argentina, thousands marched and protested violence against women, femicide, and rape. They marched under the banner of Ni Una Menos and Justicia Para Micaela. Micaela Garcia was a 21-year-old feminist activist who dedicated her life to the struggle to end femicide and violence against women. Last week, she was raped and murdered. In India, human rights activist Bondita Acharya criticized the arrests of three people for the crime of possessing beef. Very quickly after Bondita Acharya expressed her views, she was threatened with acid attacks, rape, and death. According to Bondita Acharya, “They threatened me with death, rape, acid attacks, and also hurled sexually explicit abuse to defame me … I also feel the anger was directed at me because I am a Brahmin and a woman.”  And in South Africa, yesterday, a prominent cartoonist decided to make his point by graphically describing the gang “rape” of South Africa. The nation was drawn as a Black South African woman, held down by three men.

Women have responded forcibly and directly to each and all of these atrocities. In Argentina, women mobilized by the thousands. As Marta Dillon, of Ni Una Menos, explained, “It is a day of mourning, but we know how to turn pain into power.” Nina Brugo added, “We are going to take revenge for Micaela by getting organized.” In India, Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression strongly condemned the persecution and harassment of Bondita Acharya, and are pushing the State to take action. Others have joined in the cause. In South Africa, women have led the charge against the abuse of their bodies and lives. Kathleen Dey, Director of Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, capturing the feelings of many, wrote, “The impact of rape on survivors is severe, many will lie awake at night and are not be able to sleep or eat properly for days because of the powerful emotions they feel. Feelings of fear, anxiety and vulnerability in particular provide the kind of undermining emotional preoccupation that often prevents women from working, studying or parenting effectively. Reliving rape is easily triggered. It disturbs and disrupts everything rape survivors do and distresses the people close to them who feel helpless to do anything to mitigate these powerful feelings. The fact that these same women often face the stigma of being socially disgraced when they speak out about being raped is another example of rape culture. Challenging rape culture in South Africa and asking ourselves what a culture of consent might look like and how we would build that culture instead would be a worthy subject for the media.”

It would be a worthy subject indeed. In 1986, feminist political economist Maria Mies wrote, “It is a peculiar experience of many women that they are engaged in various struggles and actions, the deeper historical significance of which they themselves are often not able to grasp. Thus, they do in fact bring about certain changes, but they do not ‘understand’ that the changes they are aiming at are much more far-reaching and radical than they dare to dream. Take the example of the worldwide anti-rape campaign. By focussing on the male violence against women, coming to the surface in rape, and by trying to make this a public issue, feminists have unwittingly touched one of the taboos of civilized society, namely that this is a ‘peaceful society’. Although most women were mainly concerned with helping the victims or with bringing about legal reforms, the very fact that rape has now become a public issue has helped to tear the veil from the facade of so-called civilized society and has laid bare its hidden, brutal, violent foundations. Many women when they begin to understand the depth and breadth of the feminist revolution, are afraid of their own courage and close their eyes to what they have seen because they feel powerless vis-à-vis [the] task of overthrowing several thousand years of patriarchy. Yet the issues remain. Whether we – women and men – are ready or not to respond to the historic questions raised, they will remain on the agenda of history. And we have to find answers to them which make sense and which will help us to restructure social relations in such a way that our ‘human nature’ is furthered and not crushed.”

Thirty-one years later, rape remains on the agenda of history but too often not on the agendas of nation-States nor organizations nor the media. We still await that revolution.

 

(Photo Credit: José Granata / EFE / El Pais)

What happened at Life Esidimeni and Asha Kiran? The routine torture of the mentally ill

In the past week, two examples of systematic torture of adults living with mental illness have been revealed. In South Africa, a report revealed that at least 94 residents of Life Esidimeni facility died when they were dumped into various “dodgy NGOs”. This week, the Delhi Commission for Women, DCW, conducted a surprise inspection of the government-run Asha Kiran “home” for persons with mental disabilities. Along with disgusting and deplorable conditions and violations of human and women’s rights, they found that, in the past two months, eleven residents, more like prisoners, had died. Asha Kiran never reported the deaths. We live, and die, in an age of global abandonment, and the zone of abandonment is growing as it intensifies.

The stories of Life Esidimeni and Asha Kiran are heartbreaking, first, and then howl-inducing bay-at-the-moon outrageous. The story of Life Esidimeni, or this latest chapter, began in 2015 when the Gauteng government decided to cut costs by cancelling its contract with Life Esidimeni and move close to 1400 residential patients into community care and ngos. According to report and to family members, the move was chaotic, at best, and the residents were treated “like you don’t treat a dog”. Most of the ngos had no certificates, but no matter. The State had decided on its priorities, and the most vulnerable were dumped into hellholes with pretty names, like Precious Angel. Within a matter of months, almost a third of the patients tossed into Precious Angel died. Their last days were slow and agonizing.

The story of Asha Kiran, or its latest chapter, is one of in-house cruelty. Overcrowded and filthy, the place is covered in urine, feces and menstrual blood. Women are forced to line up naked in order to bathe, and of course the corridor is monitored by CCTV. Children are forced to sleep on the cold floors, without sheet or mattress, for the offense of having wet the bed. Asha Kiran is designed for a maximum of 350. In 2015, it housed 900. Since 2001, over 600 deaths have been reported at Asha Kiran, but, as the last two months demonstrate, how many more go unreported remains unknown.

The unreported loss of almost 100 people in Johannesburg or 11 in Delhi is part of the expanding State policy and practice of abandonment: “Zones of abandonment … accelerate the death of the unwanted. In this bureaucratically and relationally sanctioned register of social death, the human, the mental and the chemical are complicit: their entanglement expresses a common sense that authorized the lives of some while disallowing the lives of others.”

As the events surrounding Life Esidimeni and Asha Kiran demonstrate, the abandonment is neither neglect nor forgetting. Rather the abandonment is a full on, brutal, vicious, totalizing assault on body and soul, in which our brothers and sisters, friends and strangers each and all, are slowly and swiftly tortured, and then tortured again.

Life Esidimeni means “place of dignity”. Asha Kiran means “ray of hope.” They are what happens to dignity and hope in the age of abandonment. We are at “the end-station on the road of poverty … the place where living beings go when they are no longer considered people.” Now, as the mortuaries fill up, there is outrage: this must NEVER happen again. Where was the outrage before, as the end-station was being built in plain sight?

 

(Image Credit: The Daily Vox)

In India, domestic workers demand more than “protection”

Domestic workers stage a demonstration in Jharkhand.

For the last decade, domestic workers in India have organized to assert their dignity and rights as women, workers, and women workers. They have forced unwilling legislators to pass various laws. Numerous commissions have produced reports. At the same time, the conditions of domestic workers in India has stayed the same or worsened, because the State has refused to recognize them as workers, citizens or humans, and because that refusal is understood as `failure’. It’s not failure. It’s a consistent and persistent State policy to write low-income women workers under erasure. The State holds them on a string over an abyss, and then charges them for the gift of ever-intensified precariousness. Domestic workers as citizenship and humanity denied are not so much the face as the body of urban development in the new world disorder.

In the last days of 2009, Mumbai’s bais, or domestic workers, received a modicum of recognition when the state of Maharastra passed the Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board Bill. Maharastra was the seventh state to pass a domestic workers’ bill. At that time there were an estimated 500,000 domestic workers, mainly women, in Mumbai alone, and over a million across the state. Domestic worker unions and associations had been lobbying for such a bill for twenty years. Meanwhile, “State labour minister Nawab Malik, though, has termed this a `welfare measure’, adding that enforcement (punishment for violation) would not be considered at this stage.”  The rule of law has always translated domestic workers into recipient-clients of welfare. In the intervening years, in terms of enforcement, nothing has changed for domestic workers.

Indian domestic workers figure prominently in the news as surrogate mothers or as trafficked workers but seldom as simply workers. Domestic workers are the bricks of the construction of global cities, in India as elsewhere, and the epicenter is Delhi: “Women from tribal regions are considered to be hard working, honest, simple, docile, and unaware of market demands and are in great demand. A higher wage in the metropolitan than what they would otherwise get in their state attracts a large number to migrate to Delhi, Calcutta or Mumbai. The Delhi metropolitan is their most preferred destination. In Mumbai and Calcutta the locals from the surrounding areas take up domestic work but the Delhi locals are generally well-to-do and have opportunity to take up other work thus leaving the domestic work on the migrants. Another reason for high demand for domestic workers in Delhi is because of high concentration of business head offices, IT businesses, banking firms employing men and women in highly paid, skilled, professional work. The upkeep of these professionals working long hours is only possible because of the support of host of low paid workers. Amongst many such workers are the domestic workers – the house cleaners, care takers of children and elderly relatives of the high paid professionals. Urban professionals transfer a growing share of ‘domestic’ work to the market place by hiring labour themselves. Today many middle class women are doing higher skilled waged work and employing migrant poor women `maids’ to do the domestic work. In some cases it is seen that keeping a house helper has become a status symbol and women from affluent background have withdrawn themselves from household duties. Thus in the shadow of these growth sectors there is growth of low-paid low-status workers, who are often migrant and to sustain its urban population Delhi needs to import domestic workers from impoverished tribal hinterland.”

That hinterland is Jharkhand. A recent ILO report examined two of the most frequented migration routes for female domestic workers: Kerala to the Arab countries and Jharkhand to New Delhi. The report found that, along with the typical push factors, the Jharkhand-to-Delhi pipeline was increasingly dominated by unscrupulous labor agents, who charge employers high placement fees, charge workers with dubious travel costs, and trap workers in eleven-month contracts.

Two aspects stand out in the ILO report. First, there is no law regulating the recruitment of domestic workers in India. Second, there is little or no data on the conditions of labor, employment or anything concerning the largely tribal and adivasi women who travel from Jharkhand to Delhi and back. Why? Because the State actively does not care about women caregivers.

While organizing and advocating, women workers are also refusing: “When an employer repeatedly pressed Lata to take up domestic work at his house in place of an older worker, she refused to take up that job, although it would have added to her income. She questions why older workers are not hired. It’s not as if domestic workers get pension.” Lata refused, and in so doing bound herself to the older woman she was meant to displace.

The story of domestic labor is one of migration, and as much of that migration occurs within borders as across. The violence of invisibility visited upon domestic workers is a function of their gender, of being-women, of women doing `women’s work’ which is considered no work at all. In India, women domestic workers are saying NO! As workers and as women, they want the protections they deserve, but that’s only the beginning. Each refusal is an articulation of power. In India today, women domestic workers are organizing for power beyond protection. Delhi needs Lata, and Lata knows that.

For the silicosis widows of India, the struggle continues

On May 4, India’s Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to compensate the families of 238 workers who died of silicosis while working in unregulated quartz crushing factories. Within the month Gujarat is supposed to pay each family 300,000 rupees, or around $4,500. The Court also directed the Madhya Pradesh government to take care of an additional 304 workers currently suffering from silicosis. As in South Africa, the story of industrial silicosis is a widows’ tale, from horrible start through brutal inner chapters to whatever the end will be.

According to a 1999 Indian Council of Medical Research report, in India about 3 million are at risk of silica exposure. Since that report, the numbers of workers in the various fields – mining and quarries, manufacture of non-metallic products, manufacture of basic metals and alloys, and construction – has only increased, and since that time pretty much nothing has improved in the conditions of labor, and so one assumes that the 3 million mark has been exceeded by quite a bit.

Across Madhya Pradesh, this “occupational trend” has produced an archipelago of widow villages, and that’s the point. The villages are not new and are not unknown. Women’s organizations have long lobbied for compensation. For ten years, the National Human Rights Commission has documented and organized to improve the situation of the workers and their families. At every step of the way, the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh governments have refused any sort of assistance.

It’s a common enough story. Small hold farmers from tribal communities were forced off their lands by market forces, weather, and the poverty of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which, in Madhya Pradesh, guarantees stay-at-home-and-die. And so populations of mostly male workers went off to work in the factories of Gujarat. When they returned home, usually earlier than expected, they were frail, coughing, bleeding versions of the men who had left. And women were left to tend to the dying, the dead, and the debts. Then the women started going to Gujarat to work crushing stones.

Madhavi comes from a village in Madhya Pradesh. She joined four family members who went to work in Gujarat. Six months later, sick, they all returned home. To pay for medical treatment, they sold off their livestock and mortgaged their land. Then Madhavi’s mother, two brothers and sister-in-law died of silicosis. Now, sick with silicosis, Madhavi cares for her father and struggles with debt: “With my brothers gone, I am not sure when I‘ll be able to pay off all the loans. I have received no support from the government. My father does not receive any pension. It is very difficult to get by as I am always tired and run out of breath while working.”

Meanwhile, across Rajasthan, mineworkers’ widows tell the same story of death, debt, and desperation. Prembai explains, “[My husband] could not work for the last six years of his life, so I would work to keep things going. Women earn just Rs100 a day in the mines, while men are paid about Rs250.” The bodies and debts pile up; the State looks away. In Rajasthan as elsewhere, entire villages are called “the land of widows”.

The story of silicosis in India is the same as that in South Africa. For those who work the mines and factories, there is no dignity in labor. For the widows, there is no dignity in death. The bodies come home, the debts and demands mount, the extraction continues.

 

(Photo Credit: The Hindu / Rohit Jain Paras)

Living in Fear: The Plight of African Nationals in India

Late at night on 30 January 2016, a Tanzanian woman was dragged out of her car, stripped, and beaten in the south Indian city of Bengaluru. A local vigilante mob decided to punish her in this way because half an hour earlier a 35-year old Sudanese male driver, Micah S. Pundugu, had run over a local female resident and sped away. The Tanzanian student had no clue about the accident. Nor did she have any connection with Pundugu. Yet the crowd allegedly paraded her naked, and torched her car presuming that since both were African nationals there had to be a connection. When a local bystander tried to help her by handing her a t-shirt, he was thrashed too. The 21-year old woman – a second-year BBA student at Acharya College, Bengaluru – then tried to escape by climbing onto a passing bus that had slowed down to watch the ‘spectacle’. But the passengers immediately hurled her back into the arms of the mob. According to media reports, all of this happened as the local police stood by watching the events. When the woman finally managed to escape, she remained in hiding at a friend’s place for two days – with good reason given that there were reports of angry mobs scouting the area for African residents. In her conversations with the media, the Home Minister and the police chief, the Tanzanian student later noted that when she sought to file a police report soon after Saturday’s incident, the policemen told her she could file the report only after she brought to them the Sudanese national responsible for the accident.

As public figures like External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, social activist and actress Nandita Das, and journalist Vir Sanghvi publicly condemned the incident, others like Karnataka Home Minister G Parmeshwara denied both its racial and sexual overtones. Union Law and Justice Minister DV Sadananda attempted to explain away the mob violence by emphasizing that Africans in India were involved in “illegal activities”, and outstayed their welcome in India on “expired visas”. Soon enough the issue devolved into political mudslinging between the BJP and the Congress parties over the issue of Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi’s silence on this occasion vs. his prompt response in the Rohith Vemula suicide.

The latter kinds of response swiftly obfuscated the very real issues of everyday racist and sexual violence faced by African nationals in India. However, outraged by Sunday’s incident, several African students spoke out about their everyday encounters with racism. “People call us names. The ‘N’ word, blacky, blackberry, even ‘monkey’. It happens on the road while driving, at public places and even at the locality we live in”, said BSc student Axell Mouassoumy from the Republic of Congo. Abigail noted how her beloved Bollywood films are definitive in shaping prospective students’ expectations of India, i.e. they expect the same kind of warmth and color as portrayed in those films. But they are often sadly disappointed by the reality of racist attitudes in the country. Ironically, Bollywood films also perpetrate denigrating stereotypes about blacks and Africans. As Sai Hussain has noted, black characters in Indian cinema continue to be “written one-dimensionally, and often negatively”.

The Bengaluru incident is only one of the many recent cases of extreme violence against Africans in India. Other cases reported in the media include:

  • The stoning of Burundi national Yannick Nihangaza in April 2012. Yannick was heading to a party when nine young men repeatedly assaulted him with stones. Yannick’s injuries put him in a coma for 2 years ultimately leading to his death in July 2014.
  • The New Delhi Rajiv Chowk metro station case where three African male students were mercilessly beaten with fists, and sticks in September 2014. They “were allegedly “misbehaving with women.” The crowd looked like “a lynch mob beating the black men with sticks while yelling, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’” i.e. “Victory to Mother India”.
  • The robbing and gang rape of a 24 year old Rwandese woman returning to her home near Delhi University, in December 2012.

In a critique of violence against Black people in India, journalist Palash Krishna Mehrotra wrote, “Indians may scream ‘racism’ abroad (U.S.A. and Australia) but they see no problem in mistreating the black community or anyone who looks different, at home”.

It is high time we realized the gravity of the situation, and took action to stop such minority discrimination and targeted violence in India. How can we continue to proudly claim the legacies of Gandhi and Gautam Buddha when we cannot follow their basic lessons in non-violence and respect for individuals of all classes, castes, and colors? No matter how developed a nation we become in terms of smart cities and world-class physical infrastructures, if we cannot show basic human respect and consideration towards gendered and ethnic minorities and immigrants; if we cannot respect trust in the law and order mechanisms of our country, the “Incredible India” we know and love will soon implode from within.

 

(Photo Credit: NDTV.com)

Rohith Vemula: The rot of caste privilege and the price of a Dalit scholar’s life

Rohith Vemula

Rohith Vemula was the leader of a Dalit student organization, Ambedkar Student Association at the University of Hyderabad. He was a bright student on a scholarship in a prestigious PhD program, interested in science studies. His coursework complete, he had just received approval for his research proposal. His dream was to become a science writer like Carl Sagan.

Because of a complaint by the rival, right-wing student association ABVP’s leader N. Susheel Kumar, that he had been assaulted by Rohith and his friends, Rohith had become the target of three different investigations by local neighborhood police and the university. Starting in September 2015, the Union Minister for Human Resources Office had written three letters to the university pressuring them to take action against Rohith and four other ASA members. One faculty member asked, why these investigations about a minor student-student altercation were so drawn out: why was it not settled swiftly? After all, the doctor who examined the claim to assault by the ABVP student said he had one small bruise on his body and did not show any signs of assault.

The altercation was politicized from the start. The ABVP is allied to the RSS, an extremist Hindu nationalist organization popular with upper-caste Hindu communities, whose political arm is the BJP (the political party currently in power in India). India’s largest student union, the ABVP has in recent years been known for disrupting campus dialogue on Kashmir (Pune), secularism, and, at Rohith’s campus, the ASA’s screening of a film on Hindu-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar in north India. The scuffle involved both ABVP and ASA students when the latter had demanded an apology for the disruption. Only five ASA students were singled out and suspended in August 2015 by the university.

Subject to three institutional investigations, suspended from the university for seven months while these were ongoing, Rohith’s situation kept worsening. His scholarship was withheld for these seven months, a terrible financial hardship for him and his poor family, which earlier subsided largely on his mother’s daily wage labor of sewing and tailoring. Following three letters from the Ministry of Human Resource Development urging action against these five students, on 16 December 2015, these student-activists were expelled from their dorm, and barred from entering administrative buildings and shared spaces on campus, such as the library. This institutionalized discriminatory treatment in the very educational institution that is supposed to enshrine equal and democratic rights, was part of his long experience of discrimination, “in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” As he wrote in his suicide note, “Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made of star dust.”

Denied dignity and human rights, Rohith and the four other expelled students launched a 14-day sleep-in strike to protest their treatment. On the fourth day of this strike, Rohith died, gently asserting, in what Manash Bhattacharjee notes is the clarity of a suicide note, “Do not shed tears for me. I am happy dead than alive.”

Following the suicide and related media protests across India, the suspension of the other four Dalit students was reversed. Only proving Rohith’s suggestion, that his birth as a Dalit drove the harassment he faced; though not just that, but also the fact that he spoke up as a Dalit subject, as an activist, and he exercised his constitutional rights of free speech, because he thought he lived in a democracy. But he spoke up in a political climate that has become increasingly inhospitable to dissident voices, be they Muslim, Dalit, secularist, or feminist. His treatment violated the equality promised in our constitution, and his young life was lost needlessly, as Ananya Vajpeyi writes, “to our eternal shame.”

Rohith’s mother has rejected the state’s offered payment of INR 8,00,000 (US$ 11,838) as compensation for Rohith’s death. Given the withholding of the stipends that would have paid for food and living expenses, and driving him to suicide, this seems like a cruel joke. She demands that the politicians and officials involved be held accountable and responsible for driving him to this.

Rohit Venkatramakrishnan has written that Rohith’s death indicts us all. When death or the risk of death seems happier than life to a young student in Hyderabad, or Syria, or a young Buddhist monk in Tibet, we are looking at a deeply traumatic, and multi-layered historical experience of persistent cruelty, violence, dispossession, and dehumanization. Rohith’s death is an indictment not only of the society, but also of the state and its Delhi ministries, that failed to protect the dignity and human rights of some of India’s most vulnerable citizens. In 2016, this points to a crisis in caste relations, minority experience, and inequality in India that needs to be addressed now, by all of us.

 

(Photo Credit: The Indian Express)

Freedom of Expression versus Intolerance in India: Writers, Artists, and the Sahitya Akademi

Sahitya Akademi, the highest literary body in India, finally announced that it supports the writers and artists and condemns attempts to curb their freedom of expression. This announcement comes after months of protest by 100 prominent Indian writers and the relinquishing of their awards to Sahitya Akademi. There has been international support of the writers. From the United States, the South Asian feminist caucus of the National Women Studies Association lent its voice in support of the writers marching against the growing intolerance in the country toward minorities, and the murder of writers, such as the famous Kannada writer, Malleshappa M. Kalburgi and the threats against Tamil writer Perumal Murugan.

What is particularly distressing is the opposition to freedom of expression, an effort staged by groups within BJP, such as the student wing of the BJP. A recent report states, “Activists of the BJP’s student wing, the ABVP, also joined the protest led by the Joint Action group of Nationalist Minded Artists and Thinkers, JANMAT, which also submitted a memorandum to the Akademi, questioning the motive of the writers. `We want to appeal to the Sahitya Akademi to maintain its autonomous nature and not come under pressure from the very same writers who had earlier appealed to the people of the country to not give their mandate to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These writers are engaged in undemocratic actions, JANMAT said.” There is a growing tendency within the BJP that all institutions should support the ruling party, an autocratic demand in a democracy.

The opposition claims that the writers have a vested interest. Of course they do—they want to protect their freedom of speech and not support nationalist ideals! As today’s New York Times article points out, communal or sectarian violence is being fueled by nationalists within the BJP and is a major obstacle to any of the goals of development Prime Minister Modi had promised when he got elected a year ago. The outcome of this statement is because Modi and the BJP party have suffered a setback by losing their election in Bihar.

It is indeed useful to ponder if the Modi government’s aims to achieve its development goals by squashing freedom of speech as well as the rights of minorities and women will or will not favor it. Arundhati Roy’s books, like Walking with the Comrades, predict the downward slide of democracy in the government’s effort to offer up land and resources to corporations. What is interesting is that a country that is so plural may prove to be strongly allied against nationalist forces simply based on its plurality. This is my slim hope. The success of the writers to make Sahitya Akademi speak out in their support attests to some possibility of freedom of speech.

Bengali poet Mandakranta Sen returns Sahitya Akademi award

 

(Photo Credit 1: The Economic Times of India) (Photo Credit 2: Newsx.com)

Can Violence Against Women be “Cultural”?

Recently, I was discussing with a colleague some of the current rape cases in India and in the U.S., when she said that rape and other violence against women in countries like India is a cultural problem, whereas rape in the U.S. is not. What did she mean by “culture?” Culture, as most anthropologists define it, is a set of mores and customs that human beings follow within institutions, such as family, religion, and so on. So, the U.S. would not be exempt from “culture,” as it is glue that holds humans together socially. Perhaps my colleague meant that outside the U.S., cultural norms find violence against women to be acceptable, even normal, whereas, in the U.S. there are definite proscriptions against it, both in our laws and in the social system. She is not alone in thinking that women are easy prey elsewhere; whereas, in the U.S. violence against women, especially rape, is an aberration, as a result of inebriation or drug abuse.

This kind of binary drawn between the U.S. and not-U.S. is problematic, for it sets up the former as an exemplar of superior humans who have somehow conquered “culture”! Since this conversation rose out of talking about the rape cases in two different countries, how is a gang rape in New Delhi different from one in New York? According to Uma Narayan, sensationalism surrounds violence against women outside the U.S. She cites examples, such as “honor killing” and “dowry death,” both of which, according to her, are domestic violence cases. In the U.S. we call death at the hands of a lover / husband domestic violence, whereas the same kind of murder when it pertains to Indian women is called “sati” or “wife burning” or “dowry death.” Such nomenclature immediately makes the same kind of violence in two countries “seem” very different. To call a homicide “honor killing” exoticizes it, and explains it away as something expected out of the religious tradition, when in fact the phenomenon may have nothing to do with the religion. Narayan questions the “cultural explanation” that alludes to Sita or sati or the Laws of Manu, none of which add any illumination to the violence under examination. Narayan calls these shorthand explanations “death by culture.” She remarks that when we see huge statistics on American women dying as a result of gun violence, we don’t tar this with the cultural brush.

I wonder why my colleague did not see the obvious: the role played by patriarchal culture that sees the woman as inferior in society. Any rape in any geographical area shows power and control that the victimizer has over the victim.

Even if we allow that some societies condone violence against women, and further victimize women through ostracism, there are forces at play that demand justice and make communities and the government recognize the violence. No society uniformly accepts oppression.

 

(Photo Credit: STR / AFP / Getty Image / Slate)