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Herald, 8 January 2008

Freedom of expression is frequently coming under threat from self-proclaimed defenders of religion, says VIDYADHAR GADGIL

Some months ago, in the wake of the controversy over the artworks of Ganesha by artist Subodh Kerkar, the Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts had organized a panel discussion on the subject of ‘artistic freedom’. The panelists, as well as the audience which participated in the discussion, provided many important insights on a whole range of issues related to art and freedom of expression. One of the views expressed was that artists need to exercise self-restraint when dealing with social and political issues and particularly with religious matters. While many of the participants broadly agreed with this viewpoint, it was also pointed out that if we say that artists should exercise ‘self-restraint’, the next step is to define boundaries for them, which is not self-restraint but censorship. Artists must be free to reflect society in whatever terms they deem fit, and it is for them to decide for themselves what boundaries they should accept.
This is a hoary debate in which there are no easy answers. The maximalist position of complete freedom of expression is probably the one that makes the most sense, but nowhere in the world is the right to freedom of expression absolute. There are usually restrictions of public order and morality which are imposed by law.
While reasonable legal restrictions are acceptable, in India we are now seeing a situation where the mob decides what is acceptable and then imposes its views on a compliant administration. While this was avoided in the Subodh Kerkar case, we see this with regard to the controversial CD produced by Calvert Gonsalves. The CD allegedly contains objectionable references to a priest and a politician, neither of whom have been named. If particular priests and politicians feel that the contents of the CD apply to them and are defamatory, they are free to take legal recourse under the law.
But that is not what happened. By some feat of legerdemain, criticism of a priest was projected as being criticism of a particular religion. As a result, there was a law and order problem in Colva, and there was considerable pressure on the administration to ban the CD under Section 153 of the IPC, which deals with creating communal disharmony. To their discredit, the police and the government succumbed to the pressure and engaged in ham-handed efforts to ban the CD and even muzzle the press from reporting on the matter.
The observations of Justice P V Kamat of the Additional Sessions Court, while granting anticipatory bail to Calvert Gonsalves and Osvy Viegas, are instructive. He refused to accept the contention that there would be further law and order problems as a result of granting bail, and ruled, “The courts cannot be swayed by public sentiments, emotions or pressure tactics and of threats to agitate and to take the law in their hands. While dealing with the matter, the court of law has to look into the facts presented before it and to see whether ingredients of particular sections are attracted or not.”
In this case, the judge has laid down clear principles, which, while not directly related to the freedom of expression, lay down important principles to preserve it. If action has to be taken against a particular artistic work, this has to be on the merits of the case in law, and not as a result of public pressure. This is particularly important where ‘sentiments’, particularly religious ones, have become so fragile that people are ready to take offence very easily and resort to agitation in an attempt to suppress freedom of expression. Be it Hindutva forces or other political forces who want to pursue their own agendas under the guise of ‘religious sentiment’, the problem is ubiquitous.
Apart from religion, ‘defending the community’ has been another common refrain. Offence has been taken over the most innocuous references to communities and religions. To take some recent examples related to Bollywood, there was an agitation over a song in Madhuri Dixit’s comeback vehicle Aaja Nachle, which contained the line ‘Mochi chala banne sonar’ (cobbler sets out to become a goldsmith), interpreted by some as derogatory to Dalits. Over this issue, the UP and Punjab governments actually ended up banning the film. Then, in the case of the film Billoo Barber, the barber community agitated, forcing the film-makers to delete the ‘Barber’ bit from the title. With respect to Vishal Bharadwaj’s Kaminey, there was a furore over the line ‘Apna hath Jagannath’, which appears in a shot in the film written on the door of a toilet, and the line ‘Kahan Raja Bhoj, Kahan Gangu Teli’. Over the former, there were objections that the line denigrated Lord Jagannath, and the latter line was seen as insulting the Teli community. In the most recent such incident, the use of the word ‘Bombay’ in the film ‘Wake Up Sid’ attracted the ire of the Thackerays, as being insulting to the Marathi manoos.
Bollywood’s response has been uniformly craven in almost all these cases, with the offending songs and lines being removed from the concerned films, and the film-makers offering abject apologies to the self-appointed defenders of community and religious pride. While big bucks ride on Bollywood products, film-makers should take a lesson from Aamir Khan’s Fanaa, which, despite attracting the anger of Narendra Modi’s storm troopers and being prevented from being screened in Gujarat, went on to become a super-hit. Audiences are intelligent and discerning and can make up their own minds, and by folding up so easily Bollywood film-makers do themselves and other artists a grave disservice.
Another ludicrous instance has been the campaign mounted against Mumbai-based author Murzban Shroff, author of the short-story collection Breathless in Bombay, which has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the highest award for short stories in the United States. A criminal case was filed against the author for the use of the word ‘ghaati’ in the book. Similarly a complaint has been filed against the author for obscenity, stemming from the use of the phrases ‘moan and groan’ and ‘their tenderness gave way to a torrid lovemaking in the dark’.
Fortunately, two days ago the Mumbai High Court struck a blow for artistic freedom. A three-judge bench of the Court held that criticism of any religion is permissible under the fundamental right to freedom of speech and that a book cannot be banned on those grounds alone. Though it banned the book involved in the case since it had a “malicious intention”, it further held that “everything is open to criticism and religion is no exception. Freedom of expression covers criticism of religion and no person can be sensitive about it.” This judgement has laid down important guidelines which address many of the issues raised with regard to art and freedom of expression. It has upheld freedom of expression, while recognizing certain boundaries.
As for self-restraint being exercised by artists, in India the shoe is very much on the other foot – it is the self-proclaimed defenders of religion and community feelings, rather than artists, who need to exercise self-restraint.

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Citadels of Incompetence

Herald, 28 Dec 2009

Most universities across the country have degenerated into useless, expensive white elephants, says VIDYADHAR GADGIL

THE BIGGER PICTURE

For the past six months or so, ever since the UPA was returned to power in the general elections, new Union Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal has been scurrying around like a man with a mission – even if he appears unsure of just what this mission is, apart from the broad objective of improving the quality of education. Inevitably, when talking of higher education, attention has been focused on elite institutions like the IITs and IIMs and central universities. This has left the issue of the dismal state of our second- and third-rung universities completely neglected.
There has been no success in improving things in Indian universities that fall outside the elite bracket (which means most of them). Accreditation schemes proposed by the UGC as well as minimum objective qualifying criteria for teaching posts have been given the go-by or short-circuited by the universities. In a moribund condition, these institutions perform no useful function beyond acting as administrative bodies for undergraduate examinations in affiliated colleges. The quality of education they dish out, particularly at the post-graduate level, is pathetic. The result can be seen in the alumni of these universities – having studied, say, English literature, to the BA level or even the MA level, many of them cannot write a logical, grammatical, correctly spelt English essay. The malaise extends to the PhD level as well, with these degrees being distributed fairly indiscriminately, without proper objective evaluation.
For too long, we have seen higher education – irrespective of quality – as a desirable end in itself, irrespective of whether the demands of particular jobs require higher education or not. This fallacy, combined with regional chauvinism, has led to numerous universities being set up across the country since independence, and these now number well over a hundred (not counting the proliferating ‘deemed’ universities, which is another scandal in its own right). These provide neither quality education to students at the post-graduate level nor any meaningful research. They cost a huge amount of money, diverting sorely needed funds away from other far more important educational requirements. Surviving on inertia, trapped in a long-drawn process of entropy, what is to be done about these white elephants?
Universities have been set up all over the country largely to cater to regional sentiment. From hopeful starts, as these institutions descended into academic limbo, large numbers of the better faculty members left for more academically stimulating pastures, like the IITs, IIMs, Central Universities, and the universities in metros. The problem of student intake due to small catchment area has bedevilled many such institutions, and post-graduate degrees from these universities do not make any significant difference to the students’ abilities or their employment prospects. Students have now voted with their feet, and there are university departments where the student strength is less than the strength of the faculty – nevertheless, these departments continue year after year, and even appoint new faculty members. The lack of good faculty and the absence of a supportive atmosphere for research means that very little useful research takes place either, as can be seen from the fact that hardly any research articles written by university faculty members are published in respectable peer-reviewed journals. With few students and little research output, what function are these institutions serving, and at what cost?
Second- and third-rung universities seem to serve largely as overpaid sinecures for unproductive staff. There is a culture of lack of accountability, in which performance appraisal is an alien concept. Even turning up at the office and putting in a certain amount of hours of work every day – a basic value in a capitalist society – is not considered necessary. Corridors and classrooms of universities are deserted due to lack of students, and faculty cabins are by and large empty, many faculty members turning up only to sign the muster roll. Little wonder then that university teachers across the country reacted with outrage to the recent suggestion by the UGC that they at least keep their chairs warm during working hours. Absenteeism and short working hours, from being a guiltily sneaked irregular perk of the job, gradually became a privilege and is now considered a right!
To make things worse, there is the issue of the completely unrealistic salaries that university faculty receive, increasing the burden on the exchequer. They are not alone in this – starting from the IV Pay Commission, government employees in general have been getting paid more and more, with some extremely specious reasoning guiding the process. At the top of the list of stated reasons is the need to pay salaries comparable to the private sector. But there is a consistent refusal to look at the other side – namely, factoring in the risks of private sector employment, where, unlike in the government, you can and will be sacked or demoted for non-performance.
Job security, which is almost total in government employment, has a high market value, but this was not factored in during pay revisions. Fifth Pay Commission member Suresh Tendulkar’s dissent note on this topic was ignored. The result is bloated government salaries, from which academic staff have also benefited. Thus, today university faculty get paid huge salaries for doing little or no work, and it is practically impossible to sack them, even in cases of gross misconduct, as we have seen in a recent case in Goa. The salaries may not look so extraordinary in the metros, but in smaller towns (where most universities are located), where the private sector pays considerably less for similar job functions, these pay packets are totally disproportionate. The creation of such sinecures has meant that politicians have more avenues for patronage. The result is a vitiated atmosphere that, in an academic version of Gresham’s law, rapidly demotivates and drives away those who want to do some useful work.
The lack of credibility of universities among the people is palpable. For example, in Goa when Manohar Parrikar, during his reign as Chief Minister, tried to tighten up things at Goa University, this led to howls of protest from university faculty, but they got no sympathy from the public at large. Inertia, of course, triumphed, and after Parrikar’s reformist flush had died down, it was business as usual.
What is to be done about the situation? Various reforms have been suggested, including systems to club together institutions of excellence into universities. But this leaves untouched the difficult issue of what to do with the over 90 per cent of our universities that are quite simply worthless. Reversing the inertia, doing objective performance appraisals, and closing down unproductive departments and institutions is vital. Upgrading them to central universities, as has been suggested in the case of Goa University, is little more than a nomenclatural change, which will achieve nothing, since pumping in more money and resources without making fundamental changes in the way these institutions function is only to send good money after bad.
But no serious reform is ever likely to happen, given the variety of vested interests and the inability to take hard decisions at the cost of government employees. If past history is anything to go by, the university system in the country is likely to continue to be an expensive white elephant into the foreseeable future.

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The Lessons of Bhopal

Herald, 11 Dec 2009

Our ruling elites consider the lives and livelihoods of the poor expendable in the pursuit of development, says VIDYADHAR GADGIL

Eight days ago, India marked a sombre remembrance – the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster. On the night of 2/3 December 1984, a leakage of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal resulted in the immediate death of over 3000 people, and lasting injury, often resulting in disability, to thousands of others. It was, and remains till date, the worst chemical industry disaster in the world, with only Chernobyl ranking above it in the list of all industrial disasters.
The least one could have expected after the tragedy was a firm response from the government – first, to provide all possible succour and relief to the victims and, second, to ensure that those guilty of this act of negligence were brought to book. On both these counts, we have abjectly failed.
The leakage of a poisonous chemical used in the manufacture of pesticides decimated the population living in the slums around the Union Carbide plant, and the gas also affected some middle-class localities in Bhopal, though nowhere to the same extent as the slums. And in the socio-economic background of the victims lies the reason for the continued indifference of the powers that be, as well as the middle classes in general, to the tragedy of Bhopal.
The sorry saga of denial of relief, and the sellout to the multinational corporation whose negligence led to the disaster are too well documented to bear repeating here, except for the lowlights. When Warren Anderson, then the chairman of Union Carbide, visited Bhopal four days after the disaster, he was escorted out of Bhopal under tight security the same day. No meaningful action was ever forthcoming against him or the corporation he headed – the government’s stock response to why he was allowed to go free was that taking action him would ‘spoil the investment climate’ in India – meaning that the lives and health of thousands of poor people could be, and would be, sacrificed at the altar of foreign investment.
Worse was to come. After lengthy delays, during which the victims were first pursued by ambulance-chasing lawyers from the West, the government took upon itself the sole right to pursue the civil liability claims of the victims. Union Carbide was then let off with a paltry compensation of US $470 million – scaled down from the initial demand of US $3 billion, under unknown compulsions, probably to make the investment climate in India even ‘friendlier’. This has translated in most cases to about Rs25,000 for a lifetime of suffering due to permanent damage to vital organs and the immune system; and the price of an Indian life was put at about Rs1 lakh. Victims have been denied access to vital medical data about their condition and no treatment protocol to treat them has ever been devised.
Today, Union Carbide has been acquired by Dow Corporation, and the government is bending over backwards to help it escape owning up to any responsibility for the disaster, including cleaning up the site of the plant in Bhopal of the many toxic chemicals that continue to contaminate the site and have polluted the water. Finance Minister P Chidambaram saw fit to jeer at the victims and make dark hints that the disaster was due to factors other than Union Carbide’s negligence.
Over the years, Bhopal has receded to the back of public consciousness in India, only to be resurrected when the calendar turns up a convenient anniversary. Thus, now that we have ‘celebrated’ the 25th anniversary of this event, we will now feel justified in forgetting all about it for the next 25 years.
If not for the brave efforts of activists like Satinath Sarangi, who have been working in Bhopal for the past quarter century, Bhopal would have disappeared almost entirely from public memory. But the struggle on the ground has continued, with the Sambhavana Clinic making all possible efforts to provide medical assistance to the victims and victims’ organizations like the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan working to secure the victims their rights as also provide employment generation avenues. Hundreds of activists and ordinary citizens have worked with the victims, to allay their suffering and help them secure their rights. These were all tasks that should have been done by the government. Occasionally, vociferous protests and hunger strikes are organized by the victims, and Bhopal comes into public consciousness again, but before things get out of hand the government defuses the situation by handing out meaningless assurances that it has no intention of honouring.
The primary lesson of Bhopal is that for our ruling classes, the lives of the poor have negligible value. Development, or the version of it that the ruling elites favour, has to be pushed at any cost, and the lives and livelihoods of India’s poorest are expendable commodities in fulfilling this vision. Bhopal is not the only such lesson we have had in sixty-odd years of independence, but it was certainly one of the starkest, due to the sheer magnitude of the disaster and the suffering it caused. But right now, with ‘Operation Green Hunt’ set to be launched, a lesson on a similar scale is due to be delivered to us – not by a multinational company, in collusion with the government, but by the government on its very own. In its quest to please the mining companies and make India the global Eden for investment, our ruling classes are pulling out all the stops to ensure that the mining companies can acquire the land they want in some of India’s most backward regions, unhindered and without any questions asked.
For years now, India’s tribal populations in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and other states have been pushed to the wall. Left with nobody but the Naxalites to speak for them, they are caught between the security forces and their would-be saviours. They have been herded into the Salwa Judum, leaving their ancestral villages and land vacant and ripe for takeover. Now the plan is to finish all protest once and for all, so that ‘development’ can march ever onwards and the industrial barons may grow richer. A few thousand dead and many thousands more disabled in Bhopal was not too high a price to pay for this dream – and neither, if our ruling elites have their way, will be the lives and livelihoods of a few hundred thousand tribals.
If we can but learn this lesson from Bhopal, maybe the lives lost will not have been in vain. But there is little hope of that – both those who write and read such articles are complicit to some extent in this travesty called development. It is only when the victims understand, and act upon, these lessons that there will finally be some hope of putting an end to the charade we honour with the name of development.

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IFFI 2009

Herald 2day, 25 Nov 2009
Goan cinema comes of age
By Vidyadhar Gadgil
With only a small audience, the number of Konkani films produced over the years can comfortably be counted on the fingers of both hands. The first Konkani film was Mogacho Anvddo (1950), followed by Amchem Noxib (1963) and Nirmon (1966), both produced by Frank Fernand. Though Nirmon went on to win a national award, both it and Amchem Noxib were noted more for their musical score by Frank Fernand than for any cinematic excellence. Recent films, including Aleesha (2006) and Sawariya.com (2008), both produced by Rajendra Talak, have similarly had little appeal beyond the core audience in Goa and the Goan diaspora. In this situation, Konkani cinema has remained by and large a backwater.
All this is set to change with Laxmikant Shetgaonkar’s Poltodcho Monis (The Man Beyond the Bridge), which was screened in the Indian Panorama section at IFFI on 24 June. The film has already evoked considerable attention, having won the FIPRESCI award at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.
Poltodcho Monis is the story of Vinayak, a forest guard who has spent 15 years working in a remote forest area. A widower, his existence is a lonely one, and he is, as the title indicates, a man living at the margins of civilization. Into his lonely life comes an insane woman whom he encounters one night scrabbling around outside his hut. His repeated efforts to drive her away are to no avail, and he finally succumbs to pity and begins to give her food. Over time, he begins to take more effort over her, forcing her to bathe and even giving her his dead wife’s clothes to wear. Gradually, their relationship grows, and Vinayak’s feelings for her become stronger, until the relationship also acquires a sexual dimension.
Vinayak begins to cherish his relationship with the woman, who now shares his house with him. He is beset by doubt as to whether he is doing something wrong, but realizes that it is only the human being in him responding to the plight of the woman and seeking companionship and love. But this is not the perspective in which the rest of the nearby village sees this relationship, which condemns him for taking advantage of an insane and helpless woman. Vinayak faces a social boycott from the village, compounded by the opposition evoked by his efforts to bring villagers involved in felling trees to book. Vinayak is advised to let the woman go, and even his requests for them to be married are dismissed, as society is not willing to accept a relationship with an insane woman.
When she gives birth to a child, the prejudices of the villagers come to the fore, and she and the child are driven out of Vinayak’s house. He searches for her frantically all over, neglecting his work and becoming more and more uncommunicative. When he finally finds her and their child, he takes her back home, and in a symbolic act demolishes the bridge which is the only link between them and civilization.
Poltodcho Monis is a simple tale, told without any frills. The triumph of the film is in the human drama, which is told in an understated fashion, with minimal dialogue. Shetgaonkar effectively explores the themes of loneliness, insanity and the social stigma attached to this condition. The performances are good, with Chitranjan Giri in the role of Vinayak being outstanding. Technically too, the film excels, with effective editing and photography. It focuses on a Goa that is rarely seen – the forest areas of the hinterland.
The film is an absolute must-see, not only for lovers of Konkani but for all lovers of cinema.
Given that his earlier films received a positive response, with his short film Eka Sagar Kinari (A Seaside Story) having won the Golden Conch at the Mumbai International Film Festival in 2004, it is surprising that Shetgaonkar did not receive support from the powers-that-be for Poltodcho Monis and that he had to surmount numerous difficulties to make the film at all. With this film we can welcome a fresh talent, deeply rooted in the Goan reality, who has the ability to take Goan cinema to greater heights.
Poltodcho Monis has received only one screening at IFFI. It is hoped that the film is released in Goa, so that Goans in general get an opportunity to view this excellent human document.

Herald 2day, 26 Nov 2009
A quest to bridge our separations
By Vidyadhar Gadgil
Nandita Das’s Firaaq (Separation) was originally meant to premiere at IFFI 2008, but due to delays with the censors, the film could not qualify for participation, and was only released in March 2009. Apart from receiving a general release, it travelled to over 40 film festivals all over the world. Speaking before the screening of the film at IFFI 2009 on 25 November, director Nandita Das said that with this screening the film had in a sense completed its journey.
Better known for her power-packed performances in films like Bawandar, Fire and 1947 Earth, Nandita said that she more or less strayed into script-writing and direction. Actually, she was working on another script but ended up directing Firaaq. Gujarat was a story waiting to be told, and the story found Nandita rather than vice-versa.
And that’s a stroke of luck for us. The horrors of the Gujarat 2002 communal violence are a difficult subject to tackle, and the only other notable effort in this direction has been Parzania, directed by Rajat Dholakia. While Parzania had graphic scenes of violence, Firaaq is a quiet tale, which chronicles the events over a period of 24 hours in the lives of people on different sides of the communal divide, with their lives ripped apart by the violence in one way or another.
The only scene in the film which directly focuses on the violence is the opening sequence in which piles of corpses are being buried in a common grave. Moving on a month forward in time from this totally unnecessary scene – which does not fit in with the mood of the rest of the film, and should have been dropped – we follow the lives of several ordinary people affected by the riots, some as victims, some as perpetrators, and some as silent if horrified observers.
The film has an ensemble cast, which includes a bigoted Hindu (Paresh Raval) and his abused wife (Deepti Naval); a rich mixed-religion couple (Sanjay Suri and Tisca Chopra); an elderly Muslim musician (Naseeruddin Shah) and his faithful attendant (Raghuvir Yadav); Muneera (Shahana Goswami), who has had her home burnt during the riots and suspects her Hindu friend (Amruta Subhash) of having a hand in the deed; and Mohsin, a Muslim boy who has been orphaned during the violence. There are also Muneera’s husband and his friends, who are seeking an outlet for their rage, and whose quest for revenge only ends in his tragic death. These stories briefly interconnect and overlap, drawing you into their lives and inner conflicts. Without any overt scenes of violence, Firaaq convincingly draws the picture of a society torn apart by the horror of communal violence and hatred.
The performances by the lead actors are good, but the stand-out performance is that by Deepti Naval, who is torn by guilt over having failed to save people who came to her for succour during the riots, and whose husband has been an active participant in the looting. She befriends Mohsin, hoping for expiation of her guilt, but he runs away when Paresh Raval beats her for having questioned his friend over his participation in gang rapes during the riots. In a final act of defiance, she defies convention and walks out of her house.
Firaaq is by no means an easy film to watch, but it must be seen to understand what the horrors of communalism do to each of us, including those who only observe. As Nandita Das told the audience at IFFI, the two meanings of Firaaq (separation and quest) are both appropriate, as what her film is in a sense a quest to find a way to bridge the separations between human that have engulfed our society.


Herald 2day, 28 Nov 2009
The futility of war
By Vidyadhar Gadgil
One of the most fascinating special sections at IFFI 2009 is the special section on ‘War and Peace’ consisting of six films: No Man’s Land (Danis Tanovic), Capitaine Conan (Bertrand Tavernier), Haqeeqat (Chetan Anand), Turtles Can Fly (Bahman Gobhadi), Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg) and The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin). While Schindler’s List and Great Dictator, and of course Haqeeqat, will have been seen by many in India, the other three films come as a particular treat for audiences at IFFI.
Most of these films showcase the futility of war and the way it dehumanizes combatants and civilians alike. The Great Dictator focuses on the megalomaniac dictator (based on Hitler, and played by Charlie Chaplin) who wants to rule the world, while Schindler’s List deals with the plight of Jews during the Holocaust and the efforts by German Oskar Schindler to save at least some of them by turning his factory into a refuge for Jews.
Capitaine Conan is set in the First World War and its aftermath. While often seen as anti-war film, it defies such easy categorization. Turtles Can Fly deals with the American invasion of Iraq as seen from the Kurdish side, and while having a moving story line, has attracted much criticism for going soft on the American invasion of Iraq – understandable when one is telling the story from the Kurdish point of view. Haqeeqat, unfortunately, does not fit very well into this section. Produced immediately after the 1962 war, it takes a strongly nationalist and even jingoistic line.
But the standout film of this section is clearly No Man’s Land, familiar to us in India as the film which beat Lagaan to Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2001. Set within the span of a few hours in a trench in no man’s land during the Serb-Bosnian conflict, it focuses on two soldiers from either camp, Chiki and Nino, trapped together in the trench, unsure whether to cooperate with each other or treat each other as enemies. They cooperate reluctantly, and even find some common ground, but war has riven an unbridgeable chasm between them. Complicating the situation is another wounded soldier, Cera, who has had a land mine placed under him as a booby trap and cannot move lest he set it off.
The film highlights the horror of the situation not by drawing a stark picture but by taking the line of black comedy. The ridiculous aspects of the situation and the laughter that it evokes from the viewer only serve to hammer home the point of how war dehumanizes and brutalizes us all. The film spares neither the combatants nor the UN peacekeepers, and also casts a scathing eye on the media, for whom war is only one more commodity and which measures human misery in TRPs.


Herald 2day, 30 Nov 2009
Gabhricha Paus – A farmer’s anguish
By Vidyadhar Gadgil
The lot of the farmer has always been a hard one, with tremendous toil having to be put in for very poor return. Dependent on the vagaries of the weather, agriculture has historically been a neglected sector, with unremunerative prices and high cost of inputs, and little government support, as we have seen in Goa too. The situation has been exacerbated in recent years by the forces of economic globalization, which have led to increased farmer indebtedness. Farmer suicides have become commonplace, with areas like Andhra Pradesh and Vidarbha in Maharashtra particularly badly affected. But this problem does not come into public consciousness much, as our urban celebrity-obsessed media is just not bothered about such issues.
‘Gabhricha Paus’ (The Damned Rain), a searing film by debutant director Satish Manwar which is being screened in the competition section of IFFI 2009, takes an unflinching look at the whole issue. Revolving around the issues of rain, debt and death, the film begins with the suicide of a poor farmer. The family of Kisna (Girish Kulkarni), another farmer, is worried that Kisna will take the same way out, and mounts a close watch over him. Kisna’s wife Alka (Sonali Kulkarni) wife deputes his aged mother and six-year-old son Dinu (Aman Attar) to be with him all the time. Kisna struggles hard to manage, but the rain plays truant again, finally turning over-generous and ruining the crop. Kisna tries to rebuild his life, but events move onwards to their inevitable conclusion, the fate of thousands of farmers all over India.
Speaking to Herald 2day, director Satish Manwar, who himself hails from Yavatmal district in Maharashtra says, “This issue has always been on his mind, and I wanted to express my pain and anger. We had a lot of difficulty with finance and it took me four years to make the film, but it was well worth it. The film has been to more than 20 film festivals all over the world.”
But what has been the response of mainstream audiences? “Frankly, a little disappointing,” shrugs Manwar, “it ran fairly well in Mumbai and Pune, but elsewhere it didn’t attract many viewers, not even in Vidarbha. But I am glad that I succeeded in making a point, and the film has attracted tremendous critical acclaim, bringing the issue of farmer suicides to the forefront.”
What about Manwar’s next project? “I am working on a script on the subject of conversions to Christianity in tribal areas. Yes, that is a sensitive, controversial topic, but I am not exploiting the subject for its controversial nature. The point I want to make is that we are now past the days of nature worship, and people have started following one established religion or another. But religion is merely a distraction from pressing socio-economic and lifestyle issues, and my film will be in a sense an anti-religion film.”
‘Gabhricha Paus’ is a good film, on an important social issue. The direction is understated, and the performances are good, with Girish Kulkarni as Kisna being outstanding. Sonali Kulkarni puts in a brave effort, but she is miscast and does not make for an entirely convincing Alka. The cinematography is one of the strongest points of the film, and the images remain in your mind. The film is in the competition section of IFFI 2009, which is a little surprising, because it is not quite up to that standard. But IFFI moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform, and ‘Gabhricha Paus’ is certainly a more deserving candidate for honours than the other Indian film in competition – the undistinguished ‘Angshumaner Chhobi’. Here’s wishing Satish Manwar luck in the competition and in his future projects.


Herald 2day, 1 Dec 2009
As British as chicken tikka!
By Vidyadhar Gadgil
Currently in Goa to attend the retrospective of her films being shown at IFFI 2009, Gurinder Chadha is one of the most respected directors in British cinema. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, the family moved to the UK when she was just two years old. Naturally enough, she has a very British sensibility – with a distinct Indian flavour! This works well in the multicultural mosaic of British society – after all, it’s not for nothing that chicken tikka is called Britain’s national dish. Gurinder Chadha, though herself a Punjabi like chicken tikka, may soon be abandoning this dish in favour of Goan prawn curry, which she claims to have fallen in love with, and even learnt how to cook!
The Gurinder Chadha retrospective at IFFI showcases all her important films, led, of course, by ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ (2002), which is the highest grossing British-financed, British-distributed film ever at the UK box office, a remarkable achievement considering that the protagonist of the film is a British-Indian girl Jess (short for Jaswinder), who pursues her dream of becoming a soccer sensation. Parminder Nagra excels in the role of a young woman who defies the conventions of her family and pursues her talent to its logical end along with her friend Jules, played by Keira Knightley, whose first major success this was. Knightley, of course, went on to become one of the most popular actresses in cinema today, starring in box office smashes like ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean series’.
‘Bhaji on the Beach’ (1992) was the film which first brought Gurinder Chadha into the spotlight. Written by Meera Syal, the film is about a day trip to Blackpool by a group of women from the Asian Women’s Centre. A harmless outing, a bit of fun – but as events unfold, a variety of problems become apparent, including domestic violence and a teenage unwed pregnancy. The characters have to confront their prejudices and work out solutions, and by the end of the day a good deal more has been illuminated than a seaside romp.
While ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ and ‘Bhaji on the Beach’ deal with British-Indian themes, Chadha’s ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008) is a breezy teen comedy, with just one British-Indian character in a supporting role. Based on the best-selling series of books by Louise Rennison, the film takes a light-hearted look at the life of the eccentric and irresistible teenager Georgia Nicholson (Georgia Groome) and her two major goals – to get a gorgeous sex-god as her boyfriend and to throw the greatest 15th birthday party ever.
‘What’s Cooking?’ (2001) is set in multicultural Los Angeles and tracks four households – the Nguyens, the Avilas, the Williams and the Seeligs. As they each celebrate Thanksgiving, matters within each household come to a head, forcing them to confront the issues which they have been trying to sweep under the carpet. The experimental ‘Paris Je T’Aime’ (2006) – set, obviously, in Paris – is composed of 20 five-minute narratives which the audience must weave together.
Finally, there are the two Aishwarya Rai starrers, ‘Mistress of Spices’ (2005) and ‘Bride and Prejudice’. The former, based on Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s eponymous novel, is only scripted by Gurinder Chadha. In ‘Bride and Prejudice’, Jane Austen is subjected to the Bollywood treatment – and ends a wreck! Aishwarya Rai, despite her ethereal beauty, is a wooden actress and has proved to be the kiss of death to many talented film-makers, and she makes a mess of both these movies as well. The fusion of East and West doesn’t come off in either, and what you get is a patchy pastiche, pandering a little too obviously to commercial considerations and trying too desperately to leverage Aishwarya Rai’s box office status. Better avoided by the wise.
Let’s hope that Gurinder Chadha’s newfound love for Goa extends to making a film on Goa or with a British-Goan theme. It will be one more feather in her rich multicultural cap, and it will be interesting to see how she converts Goan prawn curry, vindaloo and khatkhatem into British dishes.

Miracle Workers of Malegaon
By Vidyadhar Gadgil
Malegaon is associated in the public mind with the weaving industry, communal violence and bomb blasts rather than with the film industry. But that is changing, with the products of Malegaon’s fledgling film industry like ‘Malegaon ka Superman’ and ‘Gabbarbhai MBBS’ being screened at IFFI 2009 to rapturous applause. Also screened and highly appreciated was the documentary ‘Superman of Malegaon’ – on the evolution of the Malegaon film industry – by debutante director Faiza Ahmed Khan, which had earlier been a big draw at the Osians-Cinefan Film Festival 2009, and bagged the Audience Prize at the Prague Film Festival.
Bollywood is a passion in Malegaon, serving as an escape from the harsh reality of poverty and the recurrent communal tension. Rising above all this, and making spoof of Bollywood films are ordinary people from Malegaon, led by the young Shaikh Nasir, whose family runs a readymade garments business. And Faiza’s film tells us how this ragtag bunch has performed a miracle of sorts.
Faiza explains how she came to make the film. “I had always heard of Malegaon in the context of bomb blasts or communal violence. When I heard about the hour-long feature films being made in Malegaon, with very limited resources, I decided to visit Malegaon and see things for myself. Once I met the people behind these films, I was overwhelmed by their passion and I just had to make a film on them. They specialize in spoofs of Bollywood films, but when they told me they were planning a spoof of a Hollywood product like ‘Superman’, this was a story I just had to tell. I was fortunate that the ideal theme for my first film, one I fell in love with, came my way in this fashion.”
Faiza has taken on a tricky film-within-a-film format and executed it with panache. Thus her film follows the crew as they shoot ‘Malegaon ka Superman’. It is fascinating to see how they use the most basic, everyday equipment and props to execute their stunts. And the whole package works! As Nasir Shaikh explains, they give a comic twist to the original scene, and certain neat touches – Superman not being able to perform his rescues on certain days because he suffers from asthma – add a liberal dose of satire. And ‘Supermen of Malegaon’ too succeeds in gripping and entertaining as it tracks all this. Faiza agrees, “We had people who would run away at the thought of viewing a documentary enjoying my film tremendously.”
Faiza reminisces, “What prompted me to make this film was the courage of these people. Prima facie, they have nothing going for them. Poverty, industrial sickness, communal tension – you name the problem, and Malegaon has it. But instead of letting adversity triumph over their spirit, they have risen about it all, and succeeded in making films that have drawn international attention. And then I also wanted to help bring the story of the Muslims of Malegaon to wider attention. In this communally divided town, there is lack of knowledge and hence mistrust. This is a humble attempt to bridge that gap.”
One comment made by Faiza sticks in one’s mind: “It is difficult to understand the magnitude of what these humble folk have accomplished.” And this brings to mind another fascinating film that was shown at IFFI 2009, and became a popular favourite: ‘Harischandrachi Factory’. In this film on the life of Dadasaheb Phalke and how he dared to chase his dream despite all the odds and laid the foundations of India’s film industry (the biggest in the world today), there are echoes of what the Malegaon supermen of Faiza’s film are doing today. Told in an engaging, light-hearted style, ‘Harischandrachi Factory’ shows the visionary Phalke and family risking their all to achieve what everybody says is impossible – make films in India. ‘Supermen of Malegaon’ shows the Phalkes of today doing something similar, facing somewhat different but no less daunting problems.

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Going Soft On Terrorism

Herald, 30 Nov 2009

That the Chief Minister isn’t taking firm action against the Sanatan Sanstha is an ominous sign, says VIDYADHAR GADGIL

It is now a month and a half since the bomb blast in Margao on Diwali eve, which killed two Sanatan Sanstha activists who were allegedly carrying a bomb in their scooter. One would have expected that after this incident at least there would have been appropriate action against the Sanstha, which has long been linked to hate speech, communal propaganda and terrorist violence. But that has hardly happened.
Immediately after the incident, there was a knee-jerk reaction of sorts, with Home Minister Ravi Naik making statements about “strong action” needing to be taken against the Sanstha. But his target was clearly his bete noire Transport Minister Sudin Dhavalikar, who has close links with the Sanstha, rather than the organisation itself.
A Special Investigation Team (SIT) was set up and the Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) came in to assist in the investigations. The investigations have been making slow but steady headway, and a number of activists of the Sanstha have been arrested for being involved in the bomb plot. Recent reports in Herald reveal that the police have unearthed a well-planned conspiracy, where trial runs of the bombs were carried out at the Talaulim-Ponda hillock and SIM cards had been obtained on the basis of bogus election photo identity cards (EPIC). It is to be hoped that these investigations will be carried to their logical conclusion and all those involved in the bomb plot will be brought to book.
So far, so good – but what of the Sanstha itself?
After the bomb incidents, the Sanstha launched a disinformation campaign, in an attempt to wash its hands off the whole incident. The line was initially that its activists had been framed and that the activists who died in the bomb blast were actually the victims of a bomb planted in their scooter by others.
Since such an obvious cover-up carries little conviction, the Sanstha simultaneously took the line that these activists were ‘misguided’ persons who had taken the wrong path. The same argument had been made by the Sanstha when some of its activists were arrested for violence against Christians in Ratnagiri and after the Gadkari Rangayatan bomb blasts in Thane.
As noted rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar asked in a public meeting in Panjim, how is it that the Sanstha’s activists so often take the same kind of ‘wrong path’ – and more pertinently, how is it that this unconvincing argument is accepted at face value and the Sanstha gets away without any action being taken against it as an institution? It also defies belief that a few rogue activists of the Sanatan Sanstha, a tight-knit, secretive organisation, independently carried out the blasts without the knowledge or involvement of any of the senior persons in the organisation.
It is not as if there were not enough indications, even before the incidents in Thane and Goa, that the Sanstha’s propaganda was of the type that justified violence in the ‘defence of religion’. Much has been written about the nature of the literature that the Sanstha produces and distributes, the kind of hate speech and communal propaganda that takes place in its Dharma Jagruti Sabhas, and the ‘defence training’ that it provides to selected cadre.
And then we had the logical culmination of all this in the blasts in Thane and Goa. Despite all this, the state governments, both in Maharashtra and Goa, continue to take a soft stance towards the Sanstha. The Maharashtra government has long been delaying banning the Sanstha, and a recommendation last year by then ATS chief Hemant Karkare to ban the organisation was rejected.
In Goa, there have been repeated demands to ban the Sanstha, the most recent one coming from the Congress Legislature Party (CLP). Yet nothing has been done. Masterly inaction is the USP of Chief Minister Digambar Kamat and his government in Goa. A ban may not necessarily be the best way to tackle the problem, but the soft attitude displayed by the government defies understanding.
The BJP has, of course, been trying to soft-pedal the issue, given that it is a direct electoral beneficiary of the kind of propaganda carried out by the Sanatan Sanstha and its offshoots like the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti.
Manohar Parrikar made distinctly double-faced statements immediately after the bomb blasts, demanding foolproof evidence of the involvement of the Sanstha in the Margao bomb blasts – this coming from a man who, without any evidence whatsoever, blamed SIMI for the temple desecrations in Goa. Other BJP politicians, like BJP spokesperson Laxmikant Parsekar, have been making similar statements and trying to defuse the whole issue.
And then we have the Congress. While the CLP has demanded a ban, Chief Minister Digambar Kamat still takes a soft stance, despite the fact that had the plot succeeded, it would have set off a huge communal conflagration in his constituency of Margao, given that the intention of the Sanstha’s activists was clearly to direct suspicion towards the Muslim community.
Does Digambar Kamat have sympathies for the Sanatan Sanstha? His actions (and lack of them) seem to suggest that. He had had no qualms about tacitly supporting the rabidly communal and provocative exhibition of photographs of Kashmir by Francois Gautier, organised by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. The Sanstha and its offshoots have only had to say “boo” for him to get terrified and bow to their unreasonable demands, whether it is to order an M F Husain film to be withdrawn from IFFI 2008 or to curtail the exhibition of Ganesha paintings by Subodh Kerkar from 11 days to 2 days!
Apart from the indecisiveness and saffron-friendliness of our Chief Minister, the Congress has always taken a soft stance towards Hindutva, under the misguided impression that stern action may alienate the Hindu community. While firm action may sometimes lead to temporary electoral damage, in the long term it can only strengthen the secular base of Indian politics, on which the Congress depends to survive. Allowing politics to become communalised is bound to hurt the party very badly in the long run.
The situation in the Congress is complicated by the fact that it has always been a hold-all party, and has always accommodated communal elements within its fold. This was seen in the 2007 elections, when it admitted hardcore RSS activist Mohan Amshekar into its fold. Digambar Kamat himself has an RSS background, and joined the Congress after defecting from the BJP, having been the Deputy Chief Minister in the Manohar Parrikar government. Is that why he is going soft on the communal forces? If not, what is the explanation?
Going soft on religious extremism is not a problem limited to Goa. In Maharashtra too, the Congress has shown little inclination to come down hard on Abhinav Bharat, the Bajrang Dal, the Sanatan Sanstha and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, all of which have been implicated in setting off bombs in the state. Of all holy cows, religion is the holiest.
But if Chief Minister Digambar Kamat and his cabinet colleagues do not realise the danger in not taking action against the Sanatan Sanstha, someone in the Congress High Command should understand that their state governments are sending out the wrong signals; and strengthening the ground for communal forces that have terrorists in their ranks.

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Herald, 16 November 2009

Respect for our pluralist traditions means that we not impose religious views or patriotic symbols upon others, says VIDYADHAR GADGIL

The song ‘Vande Mataram’ (‘Bow to Mother’) has tremendous historical and emotional significance in India on account of its association with the Indian freedom struggle. It was used very successfully for political mobilisation against the British, and gradually came to acquire the status of the national song. According to historian R C Majumdar, “During the long and arduous struggle for freedom from 1905 to 1947 ‘Bande Mataram’ was the rallying cry of the patriotic sons of India, and thousands of them succumbed to the lathi blow of the British police or mounted the scaffold with ‘Bande Mataram’ on their lips.”
Yet, the song has had a troubled history in India, with objections having been raised over the years by Muslims, and occasionally by other minorities, to singing this song. The objections to the song from Muslims and others were mainly over the last two stanzas that had clear references to Goddess Durga. These objections were deemed valid and the stanzas removed, with the official version containing only the first two stanzas. Despite this, every once in a while there has been an objection to the song over the words ‘Vande Mataram’, on the grounds that Muslims bow to none but the Almighty.
Vande Mataram was reputedly composed in 1876, but first appeared in print in 1882 in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Anandamath. It was essentially a nationalist hymn and was written partly as a response to the British making it mandatory to sing ‘God Save the Queen’. But it also had strong anti-Muslim associations. Nirad C Chaudhari described the atmosphere of the times: “The historical romances of Bankim Chatterjee … glorified Hindu rebellion against Muslim rule and showed the Muslims in a correspondingly poor light.”
Rabindranath Tagore, who sang the song at the 1896 session of the Indian National Congress, described it as “the magic words which will open the door of his iron safe”. But admirer of the song though he was, Tagore had strong reservations, as he did not consider the song to be one which could unite all the communities of India: “The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate.”
It was for this reason that Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Jana Gana Mana’ was given the status of India’s national anthem. But given that ‘Vande Mataram’ had a vital role to play in the freedom struggle, it was given the status of ‘national song’, and ‘equal status’ with the national anthem. This compromise by and large satisfied everybody, though demands for the singing of ‘Vande Mataram’ to be made compulsory were repeatedly raised by Hindu right-wing organisations, to be opposed as vehemently by Muslim right-wing organisations.
This status quo with the song has essentially lasted since Independence. It has been accorded ‘equal’ status with Jana Gana Mana, but there are hardly any occasions when the average Indian would be required to sing it. This was the compromise favoured by Mahatma Gandhi: respect but no imposition or compulsion. The Sangh Parivar, though, has been vociferous in its demands that Vande Mataram be made obligatory, as seen in its slogan, “Desh mein rehna hai to Vande Mataram kehna hoga”. This has had its effect, as seen in 1999 when the Uttar Pradesh government tried to make the singing of the song obligatory. Later, in 2006, Arjun Singh, HRD minister in the UPA government, fished in troubled waters when he recommended that that the song be obligatorily sung in all schools on its centenary.
It is in this context that we need to understand the resolution passed by the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind asking Muslims not to sing ‘Vande Mataram’. As happens every few years, this has resurrected the controversy once again and battle lines have been drawn, on communal lines. But what is the problem, if there is no proposal for making it compulsory to sing the song? What is the Jamiat hoping to achieve by raking up this dead issue at this time?
The controversy has split the Muslim community itself down the middle. While the Jamiat justifies its stance, people like Maulana Arshad Madani, head of a rival Jamiat faction, claim that this resolution is a conspiracy to create communal tension. Asghar Ali Engineer, a well-known secular activist, says that there is no reason to object to it: “Vande Mataram means ‘I pay my respects to the motherland’. Even if you translate it as ‘I bow to my motherland’, what objection can there be to doing so?’’
Engineer focuses on the attempts to make the song compulsory when he says, “Under compulsion, I won’t sing it to prove my patriotism … and if ordered not to by any fatwa, I will sing it to assert my freedom of choice.’’ In fact, this question of choice is at the crux of the matter. In 1985, hearing an appeal filed by a parent of children expelled from a Kerala school for refusing to sing ‘Jana Gana Mana’, the Supreme Court directed that the children be re-admitted in the school, stating “Our tradition teaches tolerance, our philosophy teaches tolerance, our Constitution practices tolerance, let us not dilute it.” Jyoti Punwani mentions in a recent article that Justice Shrikrishna pointed out during the hearings of the Shrikrishna Commission that laying down conditions of residence on any citizen, let alone a community, by another group was not just communal but also fascist.
All the cases relating to this ‘obligation’ to sing Vande Mataram (and even the above-mentioned ‘Jana Gana Mana’ case) relate to children in schools. While adults can easily avoid singing ‘Vande Mataram’, children, in the coercive atmosphere of our schools, have little such choice if the authorities so dictate. The Sangh Parivar has always given importance to capturing young minds, and hence the attempts by BJP governments to enforce the singing of ‘Vande Mataram’ in schools.
Nor are they the only offenders in the matter of such imposition. In Goa, in schools coming under the Diocesean Board of Education, particularly in rural areas, children are sometimes required to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Schools arrange functions at which a mass is said by a priest, and all children, irrespective of religion, are required to attend. While some may argue that this is not made ‘compulsory’, no consent of the guardians is ever sought. This, like making it obligatory to sing ‘Vande Mataram’, violates Article 28 (1) and (3) of the Constitution: ‘(1) No religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of state funds’ and ‘(3) No person attending any educational institution recognised by the State or receiving aid out of State funds shall be required to take part in any religious instruction…’
In a multi-religious, pluralistic society like India, we need to be particularly sensitive to this kind of imposition of religious beliefs or patriotic symbols, especially so in schools, where children are in no position to resist. Respect for pluralism means respect for people’s cultural sensitivities – one should not mock this concept by imposing particular religious practices or symbols, or by defining patriotism in narrow cultural terms.

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Herald, 30 October 2009

When it comes to love and sex, communal politics acquires a particularly vicious and misogynistic edge, says VIDYADHAR GADGIL

Love conquers all – or so Bollywood would have us believe. Bollywood is adept at resolving complex social issues through simplistic solutions, deploying the alleged power of love to break social barriers. Class contradictions are resolved in one stroke in film after film when the poor boy marries the rich girl, or vice-versa. Not satisfied with solving the problem of class conflict through these means, Bollywood scriptwriters have been busy tackling issues like regionalism and, occasionally, caste, with the tried and trusted deus ex machina of love. The romantic couple may not always live happily ever after, but love itself does triumph, with its chastened opponents realising the folly of their ways as they sombrely contemplate the corpses of the lovers in the closing scene.
But even Bollywood is chary of storming certain bastions with the battering ram of love, and there are hardly any films which portray cross-religion love. Probably the only mainstream film of recent times which did this was Mani Ratnam’s ‘Bombay’, though even here one wonders whether the film-maker would have dared to do a gender switch, with a Muslim hero and a Hindu heroine. Of course, Bollywood does recognise that there is a problem here, but the means to bridge the religious divide are scenes with Amar, Akbar and Anthony lying side by side donating blood, with images of a temple, mosque and church floating in the background. Rather tamely, if wisely, Amar, Akbar and Anthony all romance and marry heroines from their own religions, leaving this final Laxman Rekha intact.
By recognising this boundary for love, Bollywood is only reflecting the prejudices of the society that consumes its products. A cursory glance at the newspapers will show case after case where there is strong opposition, often escalating into violence, to marriage across religious barriers. Honour killings of women who have violated this norm are reported all too frequently. During the Gujarat communal violence of 2002, cross-community couples were especial targets. Recently, from Kashmir there were reports about protests over cross-community marriages. With all Kashmir’s problems between its religious communities, Sikh community leader Jagmohan Singh Raina zeroes in on this issue as the one that has “adversely affected the long-cherished brotherhood between the Valley’s communities,” a sentiment echoed by his counterparts on the other side of the religious divide.
What are the factors behind this kind of antediluvian prejudice? One common explanation is the feudal nature of Indian society, which puts notions of family and community purity above all else, and punishes transgressors viciously. But this is at best a partial explanation. What about Rizwanur Rehman and Priyanka Todi, a couple that lived in the midst of a capitalist society in Kolkata, in a state run by a party that flaunts its secular credentials? If Rizwanur Rehman had been a poor Hindu computer engineer, his super-rich prospective father-in-law may not have been particularly thrilled, but it is unlikely that Rizwanur would have ended up dead.
The prejudice on this issue is essentially rooted in the fact that women are treated in Indian society as chattels – of their parents and families first, then of their husbands, and ultimately of the community. When a woman marries outside her religious community, she is viewed as property that has been expropriated by a competing group, and the inevitable backlash follows. When a man marries outside his community, this may not meet with approval, but there is tacit support because he is at one level seen as a conquering hero, who has dared to grab property belonging to rivals. It is the woman who is killed by members of her own community; the man may have to face the wrath of the woman’s community, but his own will protect him.
Communal battles have long been fought over the bodies of women, as we see in episode after episode of communal violence. The communal violence of Partition, when thousands of women on both sides of the border were abducted and subjected to sexual violence, was a stark reminder of the status of women as property, chillingly documented in the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto.
The latest case of this kind of thinking is probably the most ludicrous, but also particularly worrisome, because it combines deep-rooted intolerance with politically organised communalism, resulting in a potent mix in which even the weirdest claims acquire a reality of their own. In February 2009, a Malayalam daily, Kerala Kaumudi, carried a report claiming the existence of a jihadi organisation which uses young Muslim men to get Hindu girls to fall in love with them and convince them to convert to Islam. The report did not excite much interest, except among fundamentalist organisations like the VHP and Bajrang Dal, which launched a shrill campaign against the ‘love jihad’ (alternatively described as ‘Romeo Jihad’). The campaign was particularly vociferous in Kerala and Karnataka.
One could be forgiven for dismissing the whole brouhaha as an interesting example of the sociopathology of the sexual insecurities of Indian males, and its linkages with the sexual politics of religious fundamentalism – a theme that has been explored in Anand Patwardhan’s film ‘In the Name of God’. But in September 2009, the situation acquired a surreal aspect, when the Indian judicial system got involved. On 30 November, the Kerala High Court directed the Kerala Police and Union Home Ministry to probe the alleged ‘love jihad’. This was in response to the claims by the families of a Hindu and a Christian woman, who married their Muslim classmates in a Pathanamthitta college and converted to Islam. On 22 October the Kerala DGP submitted a report to the court which stated that there was no evidence for any organisation called ‘love jihad’ functioning in Kerala so far. But the High Court termed the report as “contradictory” and has now asked for submissions from each of the state’s 14 district police superintendents on the matter!
In this theatre of the absurd, the latest players are the judges of the Karnataka High Court. On 21 October, during hearing of a habeas corpus petition by C Selvaraj – who claimed that his daughter Siljaraj had eloped with a Muslim youth to Kerala – the judges ordered that the CID conduct a probe into ‘love jihad’. Siljaraj, who was produced before the court by police, told the judges that she had married Aksar of Kannur in Kerala of her own free will, and was undergoing religious training after getting converted to Islam.
But the free will of an adult woman appears to be of less importance, the Constitution of India notwithstanding, than bogeys about holy wars being waged using the weapon of love. The judges directed her to stay with her parents till the police complete the investigations. Magnanimously, the court also said that since she was an adult, if it was found to be a ‘bonafide’ love marriage, she could go back to Aksar. One wonders if the police will now be devising and conducting tests for the genuineness of love.
The whole ‘love jihad’ episode shows once again how the first victims of communalism are women. It also demonstrates the extent to which communal mindsets have infiltrated the system, with alleged fundamentalist conspiracies, however bizarre, being given more value than the Constitutional rights of an adult woman. This is clearly a divide which even an accomplished matchmaker like Bollywood is going to find tough to bridge.

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