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Gurmehar Kaur forced to retract protest by rape threat

Gurmehar Kaur’s retraction of campaign shows how women who voice dissent are gagged in India

From Kaur to Zaira Wasim, those who’ve challenged authority or seemed to have ‘displeased’ it, have received hate threats and been forced into submission
Written by Radhika Iyengar | Updated: February 28, 2017 7:16 pm

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Let’s cut through the chase and not call ourselves a “democracy” anymore. Let’s put a lid on the debate regarding this so-called “freedom of expression” we proudly claim to have – for when it comes voicing dissent, we are the first to jump to quell it. Particularly when the dissent comes from a woman. Past incidents hold evidence that whenever women in India have tried to voice an opinion, which have contradicted or clashed with the opinion held by right-wing political authorities, women have been held by the collar and verbally beaten down into silence.

WATCH | Gurmehar Kaur Withdraws Save DU Campaign: Here’s What Happened

When Gurmehar Kaur raised her voice against the appalling violence spawned, stirred and inflicted allegedly by the ABVP (RSS’ political student arm) in Delhi University last week, she did it in the simplest, hard-hitting manner. Her activism – of a mug shot with a placard stating: “I am a student from Delhi University. I am not afraid of ABVP. I am not alone. Every student of India is with me. #StudentsAgainstABVP” – did not defame ABVP. The language in the message was not anchored in ridicule or abuse. All it did was challenge ABVP’s authority.

Kaur’s message – the vortex of her political activism – spiraled into a viral storm. It fulminated a backlash from right-wing conservatives, of colossal proportions, against her. Troll messages grounded in disturbing, unfounded misogyny, ricocheted off her Twitter page.

Kaur went on record to say that she received rape threats.

Rape has been used as the universal instrument to subjugate, silence and conquer women. In patriarchal societies, women asserting themselves has been viewed as toppling the ‘norm.’ The only way to maintain the norm, is to rein in their tongues. Instilling a paralyzing sense of fear through rape, or rape threats, is the most convenient and preferred modus operandi for those who wish to uphold the patriarchal order. Violating a woman’s body violates her identity and her sense of being. You trample over that and she’s conquered, quietened down. The only way to control her – is to sexually humiliate her.

WATCH | Virender Sehwag Tweets Following Kargil Martyr’s Daughter’s Anti-ABVP Post

What is disappointing is that it works. Kaur retracted from her #SaveDU campaign today on Twitter saying, “I’m withdrawing… Congratulations everyone. I request to be left alone. I said what I had to say.. I have been through a lot and this is all my 20 year self could take :)”.

Kaur is not alone. A little over a month ago, sixteen-year-old Zaira Wasim, who performed the role of wrestler Geeta Phogat in Dangal, was publicly berated on Twitter for meeting Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. Wasim received countless death threats from Islamic conservatives, which bullied her into publishing an apology on a social platform. “I know that many people have been offended and displeased by my recent actions or by the people I have recently met,” she wrote in January. “I want to apologise to all those people who I’ve unintentionally hurt and want them to know that I understand their sentiments, especially considering what has happened (in Kashmir) over the past six months.”

Then of course, there was the all-girl’s rock band called Praagaash (From Darkness to Light) from Jammu and Kashmir, which disbanded in 2013 after a Muslim cleric issued a fatwa against them saying it was “un-Islamic” for teenage girls to sing in front of unknown men in public spaces. The girls were diabolically trolled on social media, receiving multiple rape threats.

WATCH VIDEO | Olympian Wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt Tweets Against Gurmehar Kaur

Kaur’s withdrawal, Wasim’s apology, Praagaash’s disbanding are indicators of forced submission; a push to align to the norm maintained a male-reigned world. Disconcertingly, their submission perpetuates the age-old narrative, that through threats steeped in violence, particularly rape, women can be gagged.

Last year, JNU student and activist Shela Rashid received rape threats when she participated in a protest opposing a seminar by Yoga guru Ramdev in JNU on Vedanta. The protest led the seminar to be cancelled but Rashid got a letter addressed directly to her. ‘The letter, written anonymously, called me everything under the sun…. I have been trolled and abused by people on Twitter, and I have learnt to ignore them. But this letter tried to create a fear psychosis,” Rashid had told The Telegraph in 2016. She too, had noted that such threats were used to control women: “This is a threat of physical abuse. This is not just about one letter, it is about broader women’s issues. The kind of language used in the letter or the rape threats on social networking sites against women deter them from entering public spaces. It also forces women who oppose to shut up.”

In the midst of bellicosity launched against Kaur – primarily by men – her older messages have been excavated. Daughter of a soldier who died fighting in Kashmir, Kaur back in April 2016, had released another string of placard messages that described her stance against war. However, one particular message from her campaign – “Pakistan did not kill my dad. War did” – has been strategically pulled out of context and is being looked at in isolation.

Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju asked who had been “polluting” Kaur’s mind. Actor Randeep Hooda too, went ahead and ridiculed Kaur, saying that she was a “poor girl” being used as a “political pawn” by political leftists.

WATCH |Randeep Hooda Writes An Open Letter After Being Accused Of Trolling Kargil Martyr’s Daughter

Two important, troubling things emerge in this context: One, that a woman cannot build or have her own political opinion – if she does, she has been “taught”. It trivializes not only a woman’s right to voice her opinion, but also her ability to build one. Disappointingly, Kaur has been man-interrupted for her views, because no one saw the context of her older campaign relating to her comment on war. At that time, the intent of her campaign was not one that supported Pakistan, but one that supported peace. It was a message aimed at both Indian and Pakistani governments, requesting them to not embroil in wars, because countless fathers were lost in such ordeals.

Here’s the larger point to think about though: If we, as Indians, threaten to rape our own women under the garb of nationalism, then we carry an alarmingly warped sense of nationalism. Our definition of nationalism is being disintegrated into a despicable charade and no one is doing anything about it.

While there have been the likes of many, like Javed Akhtar, who have voiced solidarity with Kaur, the unfortunate reality of things persists: women who voice dissent will be gagged or pushed into a corner to retract. And that’s what happened with Gurmehar Kaur today.

The Roots of Savagery

ACCORDING to the high priests of public morality, many normal Pakistanis have become so heartless that they rape and kill little girls or sell deadly poison under the label of essential drugs, or foodstuffs — because the moral order has collapsed. But they are unlikely to offer this explanation for the recent carnage in Sehwan.

Such simplistic answers prevent identification of the material factors contributing to the wave of savagery in the country and make remedial action difficult, if not impossible.

The foremost cause of the rise of beastliness in society is that the law has ceased to be a deterrent to crime. The state’s effort to meet this situation by making penalties for offences harsher misses the point that the majesty of the law rests not so much on punishments as it does on the public belief that nobody can escape paying for his misdeeds. In today’s Pakistan, most wrongdoers believe they can get away with anything.

One major cause for this is a sharp fall in the conviction rate, generally believed to be less than 10pc. The main contributing factors are known to be: primitive and flawed investigation, inefficient and corrupt prosecution, and the privilege of the rich and the influential to beat the law.

For example, in a recent case of illegal trade in human organs the defence team comprised about 60 advocates, headed by one of the country’s most talked about lawyers. The ability to engage the topmost lawyers is considered conclusive proof of a party’s being in the right. A glance at the legal armada assembled for the defence of Lahore’s Orange Line train project is enough to confirm this.

In murder cases, however, the conviction rate is much higher than the average. But resourceful offenders are able to secure reprieve by buying out key witnesses and often the complainants too. The recent instances of complainants’ dropping the charges against rich young men should have surprised only the less informed citizens. The use of money and social/political power to defeat justice has been going on since ancient times.

The foremost cause of the rise of beastliness in society is that the law has ceased to be a deterrent.

The capacity of the legal system to punish for murder has been grossly undermined by making the offence compoundable and a private affair between the killer and the victim’s family. Anybody who has resources to pay blood money to the victim’s family or who is capable of causing the latter further harm can get off scot-free at any stage, from within days of the occurrence of murder to minutes before the time of hanging. Stories of corruption in judicial ranks, often confirmed by the superior courts, have done not a little to rob the law of its grandeur.

Pakistan is also paying for the disconnect between its legal code and socially accepted practices. The law says the giving away of minor girls to compound a crime is an offence, but the state has done little to undercut the social sanction for such transactions in large parts of the country. Women’s vulnerability to offences against them has been aggravated by ignoring the social and psychological fallout of discriminatory laws, such as Zia’s evidence law. By prescribing capital punishment for rape, gang rape and abduction, the state has given the offenders an incentive to kill their victims and thus dispose of the most essential prosecution witnesses.

Besides, the law has suffered considerable decline after the emergence of pressure groups in support of its violators. The public clamour against houbara hunting has no effect because influential waderas and sardars have hitched their economic fortunes to this game. They ensure that the stock of houbaras on their lands is not depleted by indigenous poachers; they also provide the foreign princes with local guides and trackers who like to stay in five-star hotels, ride in luxurious vehicles and get expensive gifts.

Further, Pakistan always had a tendency to follow the theory of the ends justifying the means. The use of tribals in missions that could be disowned became an excuse for keeping them out of the mainstream. Gen Zia did a great deal to sanctify this theory. Charlie Wilson’s role in the Afghan war justified his being draped in the field marshal’s uniform and the grant of a licence in Zia’s own handwriting to hunt any endangered species. The general saw no harm in socialising with thieves and smugglers who did his bidding. One doubts if such blatant circumvention of the law has ceased.

We must also realise that many of those who excel in callousness began with petty crime when they were denied fair opportunities to make a living, or their merits were rejected, or they simply wanted to emulate the ways of privileged sections, including the rulers themselves. While lamenting the progress of a criminal from petty larceny to direct or indirect homicide, it is perhaps equally necessary to question the non-criminal sections of society about their guilt in passively tolerating much that must never be tolerated. The principle that society must accept a part of the responsibility for each crime an individual commits is inviolable.

As if all this were not enough to wreck the system of retributive justice firmly embraced by Pakistan , we are now challenged by a new breed of zealots who justify their utterly brutal acts as a duty enjoined by their faith. They have turned the principles of jihad upside down and given everybody a licence to slit the throat of anyone suspected of nonconformism.

Mausoleums and shrines have been targets of these extremists for years. The massacre in Sehwan, which the orthodoxy will not attribute to a collapse of moral values, was the inevitable follow-up of the bloodshed at the Noorani shrine in Balochistan, and the latter was the inevitable follow-up of the attacks on the Rahman Baba shrine and others. Mischief tolerated at its birth grows exponentially.

How long will it take for the custodians of power to realise where the roots of organised savagery lie?

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2017

JANUARY 18, 2017

Should we criticise the organisers of the Jaipur Literature Festival for inviting two functionaries of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to this year’s edition of the annual festival? Murmurs in the literary circles seem to suggest that the organisers of JLF succumbed to pressure from the right wing. A mere look at the list of speakers and programmes makes it clear that there are a fair number of liberal and left-leaning individuals among the speakers. Why, even the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Sita Ram Yechuri, is in that list. So a balance appears to have been struck.

Senior journalist Shekhar Gupta was right when he lambasted those opposing space for the right wingers. When you do so, he argued, it is the liberal space that gets shrunk. It was none other than the much-hated, anti-right-wing Prime Minister Nehru who rejected a suggestion by the editor of the weekly Blitz, RK Karanjia, to proscribe the RSS as it was opposed to the constitutional values of India. Banning ideological groups would only drove them underground where they could assume a dangerously subversive power, Nehru felt. Even a majoritarian ideology like that of the RSS needs to be fought out in the open.

Moreover, now it is not the prerogative of the liberal or the left to have a dialogue with the right. It is in fact the right-wing, which now has the authority to decide whether the obsolete beings known as liberals or leftists would be allowed in public spaces or not. Even those who earlier championed liberal democratic values seem to have started to examine what they say, keeping in view the sensitivity of the right-wing masters of the day.

We see it being done in the universities where your position should depend upon the recognition of your work by your peers in academia. But increasingly we find heads of academic institutions performing a balancing act by constantly creating occasions to give platform to the so-called “intellectuals” of the RSS. So, one should not be surprised or upset that the JLF is inviting such intellectuals belonging to the RSS.

Of course, the right wing voices should not be shunned. They need to be made part of a civil dialogue or conversation. One is only struck by the timing of this realisation by the organisers of the JLF. The RSS was always there but for the last 10 years of its existence, it didn’t qualify as a potential participant of the JLF. But a little reflection should show that the real problem is not the presence of the RSS ideologues at the event but the main sponsor of the JLF, whose name is prefixed to that of the festival. Perhaps some of the finest minds from India and abroad who are attending the event should be reminded that they would be hosted by those very people who were instrumental in vehemently mobilising and instigating lynch mobs against some of their peers.

Murderous campaigns

Let us not forget the murderous campaign last January against young student activists of Jawaharlal Nehru University. So effective was the vilification that the then president of the university students union, Kanahaiya Kumar, was almost killed in an attack on him by a group of lawyers in Delhi. In fact, so pervasive were the hate-campaigns, led by the very television news channel whose name is prefixed to the JLF, that they have made Kanhaiya Kumar and other student leaders permanently vulnerable to attack by people who have been persuaded by the propaganda that these young students are “anti-national”.

It didn’t stop there. Nivedita Menon, a respected professor and feminist writer, was targeted by the same news channel, inciting violence against her. Gauhar Raza, an Urdu poet and scientist at the government-funded Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, was declared a member of “Afzal-lover gang”, a reference to Afzal Guru, the convict hanged for his role in the 2001 Parliament attacks. These were not isolated attacks, as the tirade against these writers and scholars continued on the channel for many days .

People who have not thus been targeted would perhaps say that such attacks need not be taken seriously. They fail to realise that for those whose faces have been displayed on television prominently for days, and described as friends of terrorists or anti-nationals, it is matter of life and death. They are under mortal threat.

That we should leave our peers and young out in the cold and enjoy the company of hate-mongers is heartbreaking. It is nobody’s argument that merely by attending the event, those doing so become advocates of hate-ideology. But they do turn into their legitimisers.

Besides, it is not only about the insecurity of our own, those we meet in seminars and book readings. There is another section of our society, made friendless in India by the RSS. The channel, which would be hosting our writers and intellectuals in Jaipur, has been at the forefront of a propaganda war against Muslims. Its blatantly false reporting about Kairana in Western Utter Pradesh is only one such example. It has portrayed Muslims as a threatening presence for Hindus in Kairana and in Dhulagargh in West Bengal.

Or consider how this channel handled the 2015 case in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, when 50-year-old Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched by a mob because it was rumoured that his family had been eating beef. Writers, artists and scientists protested the killing and the rise of intolerance, which embarrassed the government and the party in power. But these very writers were attacked as being anti-national by the channel which is the patron of the celebration of creativity in Jaipur.

Unfreedom and fear

The organisers of the JLF were urged to come out of the patronage of the Muslim haters and propagandists of hate. It has been reported that they did try to look for alternative sponsors but failed to find them. It is being argued that the JLF, having evolved into a unique institution, could not have afforded discontinuity. It is important to continue and sustain it and therefore one should understand the compulsion of the organisers who, it is claimed, want to build a literary culture in this country where literature is not celebrated publicly.

We are asked to be considerate to the organisers who have dedicated to the task of building a literary culture in India and abroad. If you want to do things on this scale, you need to make some compromises.But do we need such a massive celebration? It is the gigantic scale that necessitates the participation of corporations, the head of one of India’s top management institutions told this writer. The ethical universe of these corporations, he said, is defined by a very old and simple word: profit. They cannot be expected to be proponents of freedom and democracy. The Indian corporate lords have not an exemplary record in this regard.

The last two and half years have been torturous for the minorities for whom this country has turned into an open prison. We, in universities and elsewhere, too have lived with a feeling of unfreedom and fear. This feeling has brought us closer to understanding what the minorities face. Our normal existence has been interrupted. It is a zombie-culture we are made part of. Therefore, it is not surprising to see – in fact, it is difficult to miss – the strategic mind behind the theme of the JLF, which is Bhakti.

The selection of the theme brings to mind something Bertolt Brecht wrote: “Times of extreme oppression are usually times when there is much talk about high and lofty matters. At such times it takes courage to write of low and ignoble matters.”

In India 2017, we need this courage as badly as oxygen.

(First published in Scroll on 18.01.2017)

Complicit in genocidal and communal violence or father of neoliberal India

The Hindu
Updated: October 22, 2016 02:41 IST

Questions about Narasimha Rao

  • The HThe Hindu
    C. Rammanohar Reddy File photo: P.V. Sivakumar

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the economic liberalisation programme, many of the accounts looking back have tended to work at placing the Prime Minister at the time, P.V. Narasimha Rao, at the centre of the rewriting of economic policy. Is this historically valid?

Narasimha Rao was a complex political personality whose career spanned half a century. Any historical reckoning of his personality must first take cognisance of the fact that he was at the centre of two of the three most violent events of India after 1947: the anti-Sikh violence of November 1984 and the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. Vinay Sitapati’s meticulously prepared biography of Narasimha Rao, Half Lion, is a sympathetic account (the second heading is “How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India”), which nevertheless recounts important events of 1984 and 1992.

From 1984 to 1992

Narasimha Rao was Home Minister when Indira Gandhi was assassinated in New Delhi on October 31, 1984. He was therefore in charge of the police in the Capital and had the responsibility of maintaining the peace. Sitapati reports senior lawyers Ram Jethmalani and Shanti Bhushan meeting Narasimha Rao after the widespread murders of Sikhs began and pleading for his intervention. The Home Minister did nothing. The biographer also reports an interview with an unnamed bureaucrat who recalls a phone call the Home Minister received from an unnamed personality in the Prime Minister’s Office. The instruction: the Home Minister should do nothing. The master survivor did just that as Sikhs were being killed around him in the city: nothing. Sitapati calls it Narasimha Rao’s “vilest hour”.

There was another vile hour to strike in the years ahead.

The role — or rather inaction again — of the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, in the events leading to the destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 remains a mystery. The Prime Minister was later accused of silently agreeing to the destruction of the mosque. There is no evidence of such diabolical inaction. But there is evidence, according to Sitapati’s account, of Narasimha Rao asking, of all people, an assortment of babas, sants and gurus to persuade the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to rein in its storm troopers during the kar seva planned in Ayodhya. The national leaders of the BJP also separately promised Narasimha Rao a peaceful assembly in Ayodhya. So despite there being many signals of a likely catastrophe during the kar seva, Narasimha Rao chose to rely on babas, believe the BJP and did nothing. He had once again abdicated his responsibilities in a matter of critical national importance.

If in 1984 the Home Minister deferred to his political bosses, in 1992 the Prime Minister of India, no less, who had immense powers in his hands, chose to do nothing. December 6, 1992, we now know, changed the face of India for the worse and the wound festers.

The role/inaction of Narasimha Rao in these two events should be enough to damn him in History. Yet we forget all that and now want to honour him as an architect of India’s economic liberalisation programme. But while Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister was the final decision-making authority, did he make an imprint on the liberalisation programme?

Here is a conjecture and an alternative understanding. Whichever the government and whoever was going to be the Prime Minister after the May-June 1991 elections, there was, given the existing framework of economic policy, only one package on the table awaiting implementation.

Everything points in that direction.

Making the shift

In the second half of the 1980s, Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister had begun the slow and hesitant shift towards the market. In the background was the global shift towards the market, the gradual collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the changes in China’s economic policies. All this built up to a set of intellectual, political and economic arguments for India to change course.

 What was missing was a catalyst that would persuade the government to make the shift. This was provided in the early 1990s.

In the closing years (1988 and 1989) of the Rajiv Gandhi government it was known that a balance of payments (BoP) crisis was building up. This gained momentum through the V.P. Singh government (December 1989-November 1990) and, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, developed into a full-fledged crisis during the apology of the Chandra Shekhar government (November 1990-June 1991). India had obtained loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in late 1990 and early 1991, and was possibly in negotiations for a larger structural adjustment loan which did not go far because of the collapse of the Chandra Shekhar government.

Even as fire-fighting by unstable governments was going on, plans for a larger restructuring were being prepared within the government. For instance, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Special Secretary, had, at V.P. Singh’s behest, prepared a major set of proposals to completely overhaul the existing economic policy regime. This package was discussed internally and came to be reported in the press. Later in April 1991, the future Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh, in a public speech laid out a framework of change which was remarkably similar to what was finally put in place. (This has also been recounted by Mr. Ahluwalia in Economic and Political Weekly, July 16, 2016)

So the broad features of the liberalisation programme had already been drawn up. All that was needed was a stable government to fill in the details and implement it. That was provided by the new government of Narasimha Rao. Or to put it more strongly, unless the Left had formed the government in 1991 (an impossible eventuality), whichever shape and colour of the new Central government, it is more likely than not that the same set of measures would have been implemented. (We do not know and may never know if the package had also been formally or informally discussed with the IMF and the World Bank.)

When a series of measures were finally announced — dismantling of industrial licensing, devaluation, relaxation of FDI norms, reduction of import tariffs, changes to the export-import policy, etc — they were all found to have closely followed the proposals that had earlier been discussed within the government.

There was a “TINA” mood in the government. The severe BoP crisis that had engulfed India at the time was therefore used as an opportunity to introduce sweeping structural changes. As an accidental prime minister, Narasimha Rao had only endorsed a set of proposals that any other Prime Minister would have found placed before him at the time.

The inevitability of 1991

The larger point is that an understanding of the major changes that took place in 1991 cannot be framed in terms of the decisions taken by a handful of personalities.

The many accounts of liberalisation written on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the economic liberalisation programme have been more of “I-did-that” accounts of some of the participants and less about the processes at work, which is what is more important from the perspective of history. We therefore remain without a comprehensive account of what led to the decisions of July 1991, the economic and political forces at play, and why some decisions were taken and others were not.

Let us wait for government records of the time to be opened up so that historians can tell us the complete story of July 1991. And let us wait for more scholarly work so that History can pass judgment on the political persona of Narasimha Rao.

C. Rammanohar Reddy is Readers’ Editor at