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)

India’s film students are on strike and fasting. Is the Indian government listening?

 

While the Indian Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming visit to Silicon Valley is being much discussed in the media, less visible seems to be his government’s disturbing treatment of India’s film students over the last three months. Just hours ago, The Hindu and The Indian Express both reported that in India, the FTII students’ strike has reached 100 days, with no solution in sight. The Film and Television Institute of India in Pune (est. 1960) is arguably the most prestigious film school in India. For the past 10 days, many of these striking students have been fasting to protest the political appointment of a BJP party worker Gajendra Chauhan to lead this illustrious institution; five students were hospitalized in the last two days.

India’s Information and Broadcasting Minister who controls the institute and its appointments seems to show no interest in visiting the campus, or resolving the issue. Having called the students thrice to Delhi for talks, with no results, the government seems unable to hear the legitimate perspective of India’s students and indeed, the art and film community—which has resoundingly spoken up, tweeted, and marched, in support of the students’ demands. From Bollywood celebrities like Pallavi Joshi, Anupam Kher, Rishi Kapoor, Ranbir Kapoor, Kiran Rao, and others, to social activists and writers, many have concurred that FTII’s newest Chairman Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment is politically tainted, and students have a right to an education that is free from indoctrination in the dominant political party’s ideological agenda

The Indian film industry has a history of being strikingly diverse in terms of the politics, and the religious and ethnic affiliations of its various members. Indeed, India’s film, literary, and artistic community has historically been largely secular in its orientation. FTII is an educational institution that has produced some of the greatest artists and filmmakers of Indian cinema-experimental or ‘art’ cinema as well as popular films. No wonder then that the students of FTII have been upset at what looks like a political appointment of Chauhan as Chairman. Chauhan acted as Yudhisthira in the popular television series “Mahabharata” which aired on nation-wide state television from 1988-1990. That is his claim to fame in the world of film and television production; since 2004, he has worked for the Hindu nationalist BJP party. He hardly resembles the renowned and illustrious chairpersons who preceded him like the internationally acclaimed filmmakers Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan; the legendary cartoonist R. K. Laxman; the actor, filmmaker and playwright Girish Karnad; and the writer and Padma Bhushan winner U. R. Anathamurthy, among others.

In comparison, students say, Gajendra’s appointment looks more like a reward to a good BJP party worker with a powerful position, than the appointment of a leader who has a track record of a genuinely creative body of work with national and international impact. Thus, FTII students have been on strike to protest his appointment: they want his resignation. One protesting student’s placard said: “We are against saffronisation of education;” in the meantime, the right-wing Hindu organization RSS has called the protest “anti-Hindu,” lending credence to the charge that the recent influx of BJP and RSS members in the institute’s ranks is politically motivated.

Some news reports note that the government seems to be intent on both privatizing and saffronizing the premier film school. However, if it wants to project a positive image in America with its claims of being an efficient and clean organization which will usher in “better days,” the Indian government must treat India’s students and schools better than it has thus far—and heed the legitimate demands of the striking young women and men for better, more qualified, institutional leadership. In support of the FTII strike, students on campuses across India’s cities have organized protests and will continue to do so: witness Delhi, Bangalore, Patna, Bhopal, Chandigarh, Thrissur and Lucknow.

So, where are the women? What remains unremarked is also the gender bias of these government appointments: overwhelmingly, it is men who have been appointed to the position of chairperson. In the past 20 years, FTII has only had 3 women full-time faculty; all 21 of its current faculty are men.

 

(Image Credit: ink361.com) (Photo Credit: Rediff)

Women in Tihar Jail say NO! to the State’s criminal neglect and abuse

612 women refused to accept death in life in Tihar Jail, New Delhi’s Central Jail. 612 women prisoners in Tihar Jail, South Asia’s largest prison, informed the State that they had been in prison awaiting trial for more than half of the maximum sentence for their various crimes. On Thursday, July 8, responding to a letter by Supreme Court Justice Kurian Joseph, the Delhi High Court decided to take over. Justice Joseph had written directly to the Delhi High Court Chief Justice G. Rohini, the High Court’s first woman Chief Justice, “earnestly” requesting her “to take up the matter appropriately so that the cry for justice is answered in accordance with law with the promptitude with which a mother responds to the cry of her child”.

In a plea to Justice Joseph, the 612 women in Tihar Jail described the cruel separation from their children six years and older; the severe overcrowding of the women’s jail; the insufferable delay in disposal of their cases; the unjust bail bonds conditions; the “lack of sympathy” from the jailhouse courts and doctors; and the inadequacy of legal aid made available to women prisoners.

The women asked to be released immediately on personal bond.

On Friday, July 9, testifying before the High Court, the Delhi government agreed: “Out of 622 inmates, 463 are undertrial prisoners, and there are only 159 convicts.” The Delhi government advocate noted that Jail No. 6, the women’s jail, was designed to hold a maximum of 400 women, and currently holds 622. Effectively, one State agency told another State agency it was time to let my non-people go.

From 1993 to 1995, Tihar Jail, under the direction of Kiran Bedi, was, as its current website still claims, a “harbinger of human rights of prisoners.” Kiran Bedi was dumped in 1995, and, twenty years later, here’s Tihar Jail today, or at least in 2013, the most recent accounting. Tihar Central Jail No. 6, the women’s jail, had a capacity of 400, and a population of 615. Of the 615, 471 were awaiting trial. 77 percent of the women in Tihar were remand prisoners, and in the following year it only worsened. 75 percent of the men in Tihar were also awaiting trial. Last year, The Indian Police Journal noted, “Overcrowding in jails has become a normal feature now. For instance, the latest report on India’s largest jail (Tihar Jail) reveals that it has at present anywhere between 9,000-10,000 inmates as against its total capacity to accommodate around 3,300 prisoners. Consequently, no correctional activities can be carried on successfully under such circumstances.”

Overcrowding and paralysis are the new norm for Tihar. The Ministry of Home Affairs 2013 data confirms this. It reports that, at the end of 2013, 45 remand women prisoners were in Tihar with 47 children: “1,252 women undertrials with their 1,518 children were lodged in various prisons in the country at the end of 2013 … A large number of women undertrials … were lodged in women jails.”

None of this is new. That prison is a special hell for women across India is common knowledge, as is the particular hell designed for “released women prisoners”. Why is Tihar Jail criminally overcrowded? The courts are to blame, along with the police and the general public who care for a second and then move on to more dramatic issues. 612 women in Tihar Jail said NO to all of that: the criminal and universal neglect, the violation of their human rights and dignity, the assault on them as women. In the largest prison comlex in the largest democracy in the world, women said YES to justice and women’s power.

 

(Photo Credit: http://indiatoday.intoday.in)

Teesta Setalvad and the miracle of women’s justice

In India, Narendra Modi’s governet is going to extraordinary lengths to silence and crush social justice activist Teesta Setalvad. While the Indian press has taken up the story, the world press, with the exception of Reuters, has chosen to look the other way. Teesta Setalvad has refused to look the other way, and that’s why she’s in trouble.

In February 2002 “intercommunal” violence erupted in the Indian state of Gujarat. Within a week, over 1000 Muslims had been killed. From the outset, Teesta Setalvad fixed everyone’s eyes on the violence and then on the State’s role in the intensity and expanse of that violence. Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time.

While the Modi administration was trying to “explain” the violence as communal, Teesta Setalvad wrote, in 2002, “Despite the fact that the minority community was being attacked by huge and well-armed mobs, Muslims seemed to have been the main target of police firing. Of the 40 people killed in police firing at Morarji Chowk and Charodia Chowk in Ahmedabad on 28 February all were Muslim.”

Women and children were targeted with extreme sexual violence and other forms of torture. Again, Teesta Setalvad immediately made sure everyone understood the police participation in this, “Women bore the brunt of police repression. They were subjected to verbal abuse of a highly sexualized nature and often mercilessly beaten. Even pregnant women were brutally beaten; indeed they seemed to have attracted special attention from the police, and in many cases, the beating was accompanied by statements such as `Let it die before it is born’.”

Teesta Setalvad insisted that the facts must first be determined and then adjudicated. She headed the Concerned Citizens Tribunal, which investigated the entire situation, including the initial incidents, and found rampant and systematic violence against women and girls. The Tribunal worked assiduously and at the end of 2002 released its three volume findings, Crime Against Humanity.

Teesta Setalvad then founded the magazine Communalism Combat; the ngo Citizens for Justice and Peace; and the human rights organization Sabrang, and kept the focus on the State’s guilt in the Gujarat pogroms. In 2012, 32 people, including a former state minister, of involvement in the violence. Teesta Setalvad responded, “For the first time, this judgment actually goes beyond neighborhood perpetrators and goes up to the political conspiracy. The fact that convictions have gone that high means the conspiracy charge has been accepted and the political influencing of the mobs has been accepted by the judge. This is a huge victory for justice.”

In April 2015, the Modi national government placed the Ford Foundation on a national security watch list, because of its funding the Sabrang Trust. The State accused Teesta Setalvad of “disturbing the communal harmony here and carrying out anti-national propaganda against India in foreign countries.”

On July 15, the police raided Teesta Setalvad’s home and offices. Many view this shameful hounding as a concerted campaign of intimidation and suppression. Teesta Setalvad’s response to the most recent assaults shows the power of the pursuit of justice: “Despite being agnostic, we do sometimes believe in miracles. Through the work we have committed our lives to … I have believed in the purity of motive and the sincerity of faith …The struggle for justice for the victims of the Gujarat riots has validated this belief. It has been awe-inspiring to watch the raw courage of witness survivors – firm in the belief that truth is on their side – testifying before the courts. It is their audacity that has led to the life imprisonment of 120 people. The fact that they stood with us, and we with them, has made them unflinchingly loyal to us. Even in these hours when state vendetta has been unleashed upon us, they are praying for us.”

Teesta Setalvad has steadfastly refused to look the other way. She argues for the miracle of solidarity and the necessity for justice. Do not let the world look the other way. Stand with Teesta Setalvad, firm in the belief in the audacity and miracle of women’s justice.

(Photo Credit: twocircles.net) (Image Credit: The Indian Express)

Domestic Violence in Urban India: A Middle-Class Story


While international attention to recent incidents of rape in India has generated urgent attention to the issue of sexual violence there, another type of gender violence has received less attention in these media representations: domestic violence. Domestic violence is a global epidemic–less spectacular but equally deadly, in India and around the world. According to BBC reports, every five minutes, 1 incident of domestic violence is reported in India—a fraction of how much actually occurs. How do we counter domestic violence? Who can and should help victims of domestic violence, who often suffer quietly for years before they are so battered that they muster the courage to leave (as the Hindi film star Rati Agnihotri recently did) or they die (as my cousin and namesake Kavita did)? What NGO or state institutional resources exist, in urban and rural areas? How effective are they? How do we change so many men’s and women’s attitudes and behavior, so that they stop the abuse, and so that they speak up when they see another man or woman being abusive?

The Bell Bajao (Ring the Bell) campaign began in India in 2008, broadcasting 30 second ads on TV depicting men stopping domestic violence in their neighborhood or apartment building: they went to the home where they could hear a woman being beaten and abused, rang the doorbell and asked for some milk, or water, or to borrow a phone. The idea was to let the abuser know they were heard, and to interrupt the violence. The ads have stopped running, but the violence goes on.

Nobody rang the bell for my cousin Kavita. Six years ago, Kavita was living with emotional and verbal abuse throughout her four-year marriage in Mumbai. She was cursed and starved by her mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and husband; he even hit on several occasions. They were not poor-they hid bars of gold in bank lockers-just abusive. She kept hoping that things would change, if her sister-in-law got married, or at least when her beautiful daughter was born. It just got worse. In March 2009, emaciated at 34 years, a frail 5’4” Kavita died under suspicious circumstances, of “kidney and respiratory failure” (with no history of the same). She weighed barely 90 lbs. The doctors did not ask her husband any questions. Everyone knows that many married Indian women die of poisoning by a tasteless colorless chemical often used as a farmer’s pesticide, which causes kidney failure; detection is almost impossible.

I write this today, six years after, so that we don’t forget Kavita and millions of women like her. It is everybody’s responsibility—the parents, the siblings, the neighbors, the friends, the community, each one of us—to speak up, to intervene, to help, and stop the violence when we see it, for women’s human right to live with dignity in a violence-free world. Because when I reached out for help to an NGO serving as a resource in Mumbai for domestic violence victims, I was told “We can’t do anything if the victim is dead. If she was alive, we could have helped her, we could give her a lawyer, we could place her in a shelter. Since victim has died, we cannot do anything.” And the two year-old daughter she left behind will always miss the beautiful, loving mother she never got to know.

 

 

(Photo Credit: Centre for Development and Human Rights)

 

Women Writers Speak and Write Despite Calls for their Death or Exile

Last month, Sabeen Mahmud was shot dead in Karachi after she gave a talk for the second part of a conference on Human Rights in Balochistan that she had organized at her T2F, a bookstore and café. Sharmila Seyyid is living in a safehouse in South India, far away from her home in Sri Lanka, hounded by fundamentalist mullahs in both countries for some of her innocuous statements in a BBC interview. These are women who are speaking openly about the rights of people around them so that men and women might treat each other with respect and dignity. Both created safe places where the imagination could reign freely without fear. Sabeen created T2F (The Second Floor) as “an inclusive space where different kinds of people can be comfortable,” a place where arts, culture and dialogue could live freely.

In the last two decades the South Asian women writers who have received vituperative harassment have included Arundhati Roy, Kutti Revathi, Bama, Sukirtharani, and others we know little about. An Indian woman writer and journalist, married to an Afghan citizen was murdered a couple of years back. Despite threats, many women writers have bravely persisted. Kutti Revathi received hate mail, but has continued to write poetry. Bama and Sukirtharani in Tamil Nadu have persisted despite protests about their feminism. Women before them have been exiled for their seemingly rational views on religion and women’s right to be free of violence: Taslima Nasrin still remains exiled from Bangladesh and lives in Germany.

We continue to hear of women’s writing that is questioned, hated, banned, and sometimes, the authors harassed and exiled.

Why do fundamentalists fear women’s writing? Why is there increasing violence against women writers? What are they speaking about that so threatens religious fundamentalists? Fundamentalists believe in the need to keep society’s patriarchal structure intact, and so women are kept in their place within expected traditional roles, without rights to their minds or bodies. If they thought or spoke independently, it would disrupt the status quo and bring uncertainty to the roles of men and women in society and disrupt men’s dominant place in all branches of society—politics, law, religion, and family. Sabeen and her organization T2F supported the cause of an independent Balochistan. She invited Mama Qadeer, the separatist activist, and other panelists for her last series of two conferences entitled “ Unsilencing Balochistan.”

The Pakistani secret services have been accused of being responsible for the disappearance and execution of many activists in Balochistan who were working on restoring justice. Sabeen Mahmud was one of the rare women who had the courage to stand up against this injustice.

Sharmila questioned the system of purdah and freely wrote about rights of sex workers. Kutti Revathi writes uninhibitedly about woman’s bodies. Nasrin is openly atheist and argues for women’s freedom from male oppression within Islam. Bama questions caste and male oppression. Roy argues openly for Adivasi people’s right to live without being murdered by the Indian government. Soni Sori, an Adivasi teacher and organizer, has been tortured under police custody. Why? Because she advocates for minimum wages and for Adivasi women’s rights. Why do the police want her in jail? “[Because] she has taken on powerful companies that want the Adivasis’ land, and the Chhattisgarh government that supports these companies. She has taken on the police for their illegal activities”.

Fundamentalists deliberately refuse to acknowledge the tradition of female outspokenness that is part of literary, artistic, and faith traditions. If they are not literate or educated in history and the arts, perhaps their ignorance plays a role in this blind acceptance of a conventional gender division. Worse yet, government support of neoliberal agendas makes officials the henchmen of corporations, colluding with fundamentalist ideology. Sabeen Mahmud was assassinated at the time China put $46 billion on the table to sign a strategic agreement with Pakistan, creating an energy corridor through Balochistan to the Arabian Sea at the deepwater Port Gwadar, Pakistan.

Neoliberalism and fundamentalism see women’s silence as important to the sovereignty of corporations and organized/structural religion. The woman who talks, questions, imagines, writes, wonders is a nightmare for fundamentalism and neoliberalism. So the only thing that can be done to stop this thinking humanistic female machine is to kill or exile her. But as we see in so many examples around us, women writers, artists, filmmakers continue to do what they think they have to do, because there is no other way they know how to live meaningfully. Death threats cannot stop them from saying what they need to say. They must be heard and read beyond borders!

 

(Photo Credits: tribune.com.pk)

The World Bank is (still) bad for women, children, men, and all living creatures

The World Bank is still bad for women, children, men, and all living creatures. While not surprising news, it is the result of a mammoth research project carried on by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and their partners. Journalists pored through more than 6000 World Bank documents and interviewed past and current World Bank employees and government officials involved in World Bank funded projects. They found that, in the past decade, an investment of over 60 billion dollars directly fueled the loss of land and livelihood for 3.4 million slum dwellers, farmers, and villagers. That’s a pretty impressive rate of non-return, all in the name of modernization, villagization, electrification, and, of course, empowerment. Along with sowing displacement and devastation, the World Bank has also invested heavily in fossil-based fuels. All of this is in violation of its own rules.

Women are at the core of this narrative, and at every stage. There’s Gladys Chepkemoi and Paulina Sanyaga, indigenous Sengwer who lost their homes and houses, livestock and livelihoods, and almost lost their lives to a World Bank-financed forest conservation program in western Kenya’s Cherangani Hills. In 2013, Bimbo Omowole Osobe, a resident of Badia East, a slum in Lagos, lost nearly everything to a World Bank funded urban renewal zone. Osobe was one of thousands who suffered “involuntary resettlement” when Badia East was razed in no time flat. Today, she’s an organizes with Justice and Empowerment Initiatives, a group of slum dwellers fighting mass evictions. Aduma Omot lost everything in the villagization program in Ethiopia, a World Bank funded campaign that has displaced and demeaned untold Anuak women in the state of Gambella. In the highlands of Peru, Elvira Flores watched as her entire herd of sheep suddenly died, thanks to the cyanide that pours out of the World Bank funded Yanachocha Gold mine, the same mine that Maxima Acuña de Chaupe and her family have battled.

The people at ICIJ promise further reports from India, Honduras, and Kosovo. While the vast majority of the 3.4 million people physically or economically displaced by World Bank-backed projects live in Africa or Asia, no continent goes untouched. Here’s the tally of the evicted, in a mere decade: Asia: 2,897,872 people; Africa: 417,363 people; South America: 26,262 people; Europe: 5,524 people; Oceania: 2,483 people; North America: 855 people; and Island States: 90 people. The national leaders of the pack are, in descending order: Vietnam, China, India, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh. It’s one giant global round of hunger games, brought to you by the World Bank.

None of this is new. In 2011, Gender Action and Friends of the Earth reported on the gendered broken promises of the World Bank financed Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline and West African Gas Pipelines: “The pipelines increased women’s poverty and dependence on men; caused ecological degradation that destroyed women’s livelihoods; discriminated against women in employment and compensation; excluded women in consultation processes; and led to increased prostitution … Women in developing countries have paid too high a price.” The bill is too damn high.

In 2006, Gender Action and the CEE Bankwatch Network found that women suffered directly from World Bank funded oil pipeline projects in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Sakhalin: “Increased poverty, hindered access to subsistence resources, increased occurrence of still births, prostitution, HIV/AIDS and other diseases in local communities.”

There’s the impact on women of ignoring, or refusing to consider, unpaid care work in Malawi, Mali, Niger, and Rwanda, and the catastrophic impacts on women of World Bank funded austerity programs in Greece. And the list goes on.

So, what is to be done? Past experience suggests that the World Bank is too big to jail. How about beginning by challenging and changing the development paradigms and projects on the ground? No development that begins from outside. Absolutely no development that isn’t run by local women and other vulnerable sectors. While the World Bank refuses to forgive debts, globally women are forced to forgive the World Bank’s extraordinary debt each and every second of each and every day. This must end. Stop all mass evictions. Start listening to the women, all over the world, who say, “We need our voices heard.”

 

(Photo credit: El Pais / SERAC)

Indian rural women say NO! to the theft and devastation of their lands and lives

 

In India, last month, rural women shouted, “Enough is enough!” They marched, organized, and raised a ruckus about proposals to make corporate and State land “acquisition” easier and more “efficient.” They marched by the thousands to Delhi to express more than opposition. They went to articulate the value of their presence. And they promised that if no one in authority listened, they would return by the tens and hundreds of thousands.

In 2013, the Indian government passed a Land Acquisition Act that addressed consent, public purpose and urgency, and social impact. While the 2013 law had issues, it began a process of democratizing land acquisition. Local populations had to be consulted. The State was under stricter guidelines and controls concerning its capacity to declare a public need or urgency and thereby seize land. Social impact, such as mass dislocation, would have to be factored in. These provisions have complicated large scale land purchase, and so the new government has decided to prove its corporate creds by erasing over 65% of the national population. After all, farming communities are surely the source of India’s poverty, not “big capital [which] could get away with unconscionable waste, choke off all credit in the economy, externalise their costs on to society and flout regulation” and certainly not “the state [which] could fritter away vast land resources without any accountability.”

The new bill has been called anti-farmer, anti-Dalit, anti-poor, anti-women, and so Dalit women, tribal women, poor women, and women farmers united and went to Delhi. Kallan, from Uttar Pradesh, explained the women’s mobilization, “You see, men are scared of police. They flee at the first sign of trouble. We do not. Take us anywhere — to the police station, to the court anywhere, we will go… We will only go home when we get out patta (land documents).”

Sabubai, a tribal woman from Madhya Pradesh, agrees, “The farmers near our village sold off their land to the government, they wanted money and the land was to be used for a sugar factory. We are sharecroppers, we never owned the land. But we wrested it back from them. We have it now, but not the patta… we want the patta too.”

Baldiya Rana, an Adivasi from Assam, asked why the State is “so desperate to cease tribal cultivation close to forests, however encourage tree felling for firms”. Adivasis make up 8.6 percent of the Indian population, and 40 percent of those displaced by “improvement tasks.” Of those Adivasis who have been displaced, only 21 percent have been resettled.

Dalit farm laborer Hiranya Devi, from Uttar Pradesh, noted, “If solely the landowner will get a job and rehabilitation in trade, then the lots of like me will come and fill your cities. Anyway, that’s the place all of the street, electrical energy and water goes.”

Konsa Bai, a tribal woman from Madhya Pradesh, put it succinctly, “We have no land. Only big people have land in the village.”

Life for rural women has never been easy, anywhere in South Asia, and the everyday struggle for survival has always been hard. Where the food has been grown, hunger has always stalked women and children first. But recent years have been catastrophic. From 2001 to 2011, the number of women agricultural laborers increased 24 percent, while the total number of women farmers dropped 14 percent. Of nearly 98 million Indian women who have agricultural jobs, around 63% are agricultural laborers, dependent on the farms of others. Force women off their own land and then force them to return as laborers, in order to barely survive. It’s an old story and a very new one, and it’s part of the reason women marched to Delhi. They have seen the cost of `shining development’, and they know it targets women, viciously and violently.

Last month, thousands of women went to Delhi to say NO to the theft and devastation of their lands and lives. They went to say YES to their own dignity, to affirm the value of their presence and lives. That was last month. And next month … ?

 

(Photo Credit: BBC / AFP)