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Who is Afraid of the Truth

I guess it’s each of us, every man and woman, walking the face of the planet.

“You can’t handle the truth.” We all remember that famous line uttered by Col. Jessep (Jack Nicholson) in the film ‘A Few Good Men’. Those words were hallowedIndias_Daughter as I watched Indian parliamentarians debating the fate of a BBC documentary in Rajya Sabha. The film, India’s Daughter, was scheduled to be aired on Sunday, March 8, coinciding with International Women’s Day. It would be simultaneously shown in seven other countries including India, Switzerland, Norway and Canada.

Each country has its own appalling record of violence against its daughters. India has a population of 1.2 billion. A rape occurs every 20 minutes. In England and Wales, 85,000 women are raped every year. One in five Danish women has experienced a sexual assault. What is writ conspicuously in India’s Daughter, but camouflaged in other countries where gender equality is more strongly embedded in law, is the low value placed on females and the determination of some men, educated as well as the impoverished, to keep women oppressed.

The documentary, made by Israel-born British filmmaker Leslee Udwin, centers around the barbaric gang rape of a 23-year old student, dubbed ‘Nirbhaya’ (the fearless), on the streets of New Delhi, India’s capital, on a cold December evening in 2012. It charts Nirbhaya’s journey on that fateful evening as she was brutally violated by five men and a 17-year-old (“the juvenile”) in a moving bus, eviscerated, then thrown on to the street. It shows how, for the next 30 days across India, women and men demonstrated on the streets of various cities as Nirbhaya battled for her life and eventually succumbed to her grave injuries. These citizens were calling for the gender equality recognized in India’s constitution but never delivered, marking what a former solicitor general, Gopal Subramaniam, calls in the film “a momentous expression of hope for society.”

“It was an Arab spring for gender equality,” Udwin says. “What impelled me to leave my husband and two children for two years while I made the film in India was not so much the horror of the rape as the inspiring and extraordinary eruption on the streets. A cry of ‘enough is enough’. Unprecedented numbers of ordinary men and women, day after day, faced a ferocious government crackdown that included teargas, baton charges and water cannon. They were protesting for my rights and the rights of all women. That gives me optimism. I can’t recall another country having done that in my lifetime.” Leslee Udwin can espouse such sentiments – she is a survivor of rape.

The Government of India, thus far, has not shared Udwin’s views. It has got a court injunction on the airing of the documentary after outrage by a section of the media, a few activists and some Parliamentarians over what they saw as glorification of the rapists. The dissenters have made up their mind that the film is insulting to Nirbhaya without even waiting to watch it. Well it’s a familiar story with every ban in India. The most outraged are by far the most ignorant.

Because of India Government’s move and the heightened public interest, BBC decided to air the documentary on Wednesday, March 4. I was intrigued by the controversy surrounding the film; luckily I found a copy on YouTube. (It was subsequently removed due to BBC’s copyright issue.)

The powerful, brave and heart-wrenching documentary provokes grief and anger but also evokes pity for the ignorance.

In the film, Mukesh Singh, who is among four men convicted and sentenced to death for the 2012 rape and murder (the fifth accused, Mukesh’s elder brother Ram, had committed suicide in jail) says “a girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.” He adds: “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. … Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes.”

These comments have brought a firestorm in the media, being seen as insensitive and denigrating to women, and apparently caused “huge embarrassment” to the Indian Government. What sensitivity one might expect of a school dropout, living a rough-and-tumble life on the fringe of the society? These individuals are brought up in an environment where women are treated as items of consumption and men get free reign to exercise their control.

The more unsettling remarks are made by the defense lawyer AP Singh when he says: “If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.”

Asked at a later point in the film if he stands by those comments, he replies in the affirmative.

To me, the remarks by both defense lawyers (ML Sharma being the other), reflect a larger disrespect for women in Indian society. These individuals come across as strong proponents of the ‘honor system’, a hallmark of the patriarchal society that they represent. However, these professionals are afraid to acknowledge the truth that their misogynistic views are what causing their championed institution to fail in ‘protecting’ their women.

To me, the Supreme Court that is yet to pass judgment on the original verdict and sentencing and, therefore, withholding ‘justice’ from Nirbhaya’s family, is afraid of facing the truth of its inefficiency.

Political machinery propped up by elected rapists in the Parliament (250 according to the defense lawyer AP Singh) is afraid of facing the truth of its moral bankruptcy.

A death-row inmate, who appeared to be repeating his lawyer-prepared statements, is less likely to show remorse for his actions by seeking the truth (until his final moment arrives).

Rather, I feel sorry when Mukesh Singh acknowledges that he became aware of the background of his victim and of her life’s dream only during the course of the trial. Till then, his ‘victim’ was a nameless stranger, who had no identity. The humanity in him never took root.

I feel sorry when I read that 44 per cent of college students “agree that women have no choice but to accept a certain degree of violence.” What kind of future are we offering our future generations? Is it going to be any different from the current society that refuses to put any value in women?

On Wednesday, Delhi police said it feared that the film’s screening could “create a situation of tension and fear amongst women in the society” and that a ban on the documentary was required “in the interest of justice and maintenance of public order.”

“The real ‘embarrassment’ India needs to confront is its own horrific reality… and the shame that goes with it. Not a bold documentary,” columnist Shobhaa De wrote in a recent article published on the NDTV news station website.

As the film alternates between interviews, mostly of the bereaved parents, and recreation of the events, I grow sympathetic to the quandary of the Indian society. I feel our refusal to seek out truth in any situation has done our society more harm than good. Nowhere this is more starkly evident than on the issues of gender equality.

Yet, we must, we have to.

Or, as Nirbhaya would have said, “I have to do, and I can.”

– Subhodev Das

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PENCIL IN THE CROSS HAIRS

As the curtain comes down on yet another year, I sit back and reminisce about the passage of time like many of my fellow earth dwellers. The year has been extraordinary in many ways. However, nothing compares to the dramatic highs and lows that the human civilization has reached in rapid succession.

In November, a group of determined scientists and engineers pulled off the impossible. They landed a small spacecraft on a comet hurtling through the space between Mars and Jupiter at 34,000 mph, effectively hitting a bull’s eye from 310 million miles afar! A month later, another band of desperadoes found their mark at a point-blank range among the children of Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan.

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I try to draw up a list of “most significant” events from the topics that garnered wide attention (i.e., trended for a while) on social media. Among these are two sharing a common theme: #BringBackOurGirls (the popular Twitter handle) and the Peshawar massacre.

Both incidents took place on school grounds when large groups of students were busy with exams. The perpetrators exploited the intimate relationship between educational institutions and children to further their agendas. In each case, these “motivated” adults have provided similar justifications for their actions.

On November 20, 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which, among other things, calls on every country to enact legislation that will reduce both social and financial barriers to staying in school. Today, the CRC is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history, with 194 signatories (the United States, Somalia, and South Sudan are the lone holdouts).

In the 25 years after committing to protect every child’s right to education, an overwhelming majority of these 194 governments have followed through on their promise at the primary school level. In 90 percent of the countries that have ratified the CRC, primary education is both free and compulsory. Even those nations who do not adhere to the guidelines of “human rights” have taken measures to guarantee the fundamental right of children.

However, to these desecrators of sanctity of educational institutions, a child’s right is a far-fetched thought. Their actions are nothing but attacks on children’s right to education. The United Nations defines an attack as any intentional threat or use of force directed against students, teachers, education personnel and/or education institutions, carried out for political, religious or criminal reasons.

Educational institutions are particularly vulnerable to attacks because of their curriculum content, or because they are seen to support new or old government structures or political ideologies. In other situations, education is attacked as a means of stopping educational, social and economic progress for particular groups of children, particularly girls, or to cause widespread destruction in communities that are not supportive of an armed group.

A 2013 report by the UK-based organization Save the Children estimated that nearly 50 million children and young people in conflict zones face the unnerving barriers to education every day, keeping them out of school and preventing them from reaching their true potential. As such, fewer children worldwide are now feted with their fundamental right than in the previous years due to war and other acts of violence.

A study published in 2014 by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), which includes the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Save the Children among others, finds that during 2009-2012 armed non-state groups, state military and security forces, and armed criminal groups have attacked thousands of schoolchildren, university students, teachers, academics and education establishments in at least 70 countries worldwide.

It concludes that targeted attacks on education and incidents of military use of schools and universities are occurring in far more countries and far more extensively than previously documented. It is not known whether this reflects growing awareness of the problem and more and better reporting of such attacks since the earlier studies were published or an actual increase in the number of attacks.

The Nigerian militant Islamic group Boko Haram (means ‘Western education is a sin’ in local Hausa language) has been waging a war against the Government seeking to impose a strict form of Sharia, or Islamic law, in northern Nigeria. The group’s leadership has endorsed school attacks and purportedly threatened to burn down non-Islamic schools and to kill the teachers.

On April 14, Boko Haram militants abducted 276 mostly-Christian girls from the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria. Houses in Chibok were also burned down in the incident. The school had been closed for four weeks prior to the attack due to the deteriorating security situation, but students from multiple schools had been called in to take final exams in physics.

Parents and others took to social media to complain about the government’s perceived slow and inadequate response. The news caused international outrage against Boko Haram and the Nigerian government. The hash tag #BringBackOurGirls began to trend globally on Twitter as the story continued to spread. Except for the 53 girls who had managed to escape, the abductees still remain unaccounted for. Boko Haram subsequently claimed that the students were converted to Islam and married off to members of the group, with a reputed “bride price” of ₦2,000 each ($12.50/£7.50).

According to the GCPEA study, there were 838 or more reported attacks on schools in Pakistan during 2009-2012, more than in any other country, leaving hundreds of schools destroyed. Militants allegedly belonging to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP or Pakistani Taliban) recruited children from schools and madrassas, some to be suicide bombers. They also carried out targeted killings of teachers and academics.

The face of TTP’s assault on education is the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzi, who was shot on October 9, 2012, along with two other students on their school bus. Apparently, the then 15-year-old was singled out for promoting values that were secular and anti-Taliban. Malala had written an anonymous blog for the BBC about life as a schoolgirl under the Taliban.

The Peshawar school massacre of December 16 was allegedly carried by TTP too. The attack, which claimed the lives of 141 people, mostly children, was the worst terrorist atrocity Pakistan has suffered. As in previous attacks, the Army school was identified as a symbol of government authority. Accused of “promoting western decadence and un-Islamic teachings,” schools have proved a soft target for TTP in their northwestern strongholds. When TTP briefly took control of Swat Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2012, they “banned girls’ schooling outright, forcing 900 schools to close or stop enrolment for female pupils.” While the rule was later relaxed to allow girls to attend school up to age 10, in Swat district alone, about 120,000 girls and 8,000 women teachers stopped going to school.

The TTP campaign against education has been “alarmingly efficient,” the GCPEA report concludes: hundreds of thousands of children have been bombed or terrorized out of school, while violence against teachers has had a devastating effect on recruitment. According to the International Crisis Group, more than nine million Pakistani children are not currently receiving a primary or secondary education. The country’s own Human Rights Commission concedes it has the second-largest proportion of children not attending school in the world after Nigeria.

Although the Chibok and Peshawar incidents were marquee-grabbing news in 2014, they are hardly the only ones. In early December, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) declared 2014 as being “devastating” for some 15 million children caught up in violent conflicts around the world. Most of these children are from the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and in the Occupied Palestinian territories – including those displaced in their own countries or living as refugees outside their homeland, according to UNICEF. And an estimated 230 million children live in countries and areas affected by armed conflicts, it said.

In 2014, UNICEF said children have been kidnapped from their schools or on their way to school, recruited or used by armed forces and groups:

  • In the Central African Republic, 2.3 million children are affected by the conflict, up to 10,000 children are believed to have been recruited by armed groups, and more than 430 children have been killed and maimed – three times as many as in 2013;
  • In Gaza, 54,000 children were left homeless as a result of the 50-day conflict during the summer that also saw 538 children killed, and more than 3,370 injured;
  • In Syria, with more than 7.3 million children affected by the conflict including 1.7 million child refugees, the United Nations verified at least 35 attacks on schools in the first nine months of the year, which killed 105 children and injured nearly 300 others;
  • In Iraq, where an estimated 2.7 million children are affected by conflict, at least 700 children are believed to have been maimed, killed or even executed this year;
  • And in South Sudan, an estimated 235,000 children under five are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Almost 750,000 children have been displaced and more than 320,000 are living as refugees.

The children’s agency went on to say that 2014 has also posed significant new threats to children’s health and well-being, most notably the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has left thousands of children orphaned and an estimated 5 million out of school.

The armed conflicts around the world are having a devastating impact on the lives of children from those regions. Youngsters are dying in growing numbers and childhood itself is being destroyed. At the height of Israel’s Gaza offensive in July, the United Nations noted with alarm that a child was dying every hour. In a punishing war now in its fourth year, even the youngest of Syrians are in the snipers’ sights. Instead of learning to read and write, children are learning about all types of weapons. Most know the names of bullets, tracers and rubber bullets; many spend days on empty stomach. Such is the new and troubling “normal” for children living in war zones.

In the words of a nine year-old refugee in a camp in southern Turkey, a world steeped in the Free Syrian Army, “I’m only a child in age and appearance, but in terms of morals and humanity, I’m not. In the past, a 12-year-old was considered young, but not now. Now, at 12 years, you must go for jihad.” He has a teenage brother who’s already joined the fight across the border.

The physical damage of attacks against schools is quantifiable – destruction of educational infrastructure represents a financial cost for a government. But it is the human cost that is greatest.

A single attack on a school can keep hundreds of children out of the classroom, potentially destroying a community’s only place of learning and a principal hub. In the worst scenarios, a combination of attacks on education and wider conflicts can potentially deprive an entire generation of children of a good-quality education. Moreover, attacks on teachers deprive children and schools of teachers – essential actors in children’s learning, and role models.

Girls and female teachers can be at higher risk of sexual violence, including rape, committed by armed actors. In several conflict-affected countries, this risk has proved a deterrent to female participation in education, both by teachers and pupils. Furthermore, girls and female teachers subjected to sexual violence, including those who become pregnant as a result of rape, are often prevented from attending school because of stigma.

In Syrian refugee camps of Jordan, there is an alarming rise in the number of girls being forced into early marriages, according to the United Nations. Almost one third (32%) of registered marriages involve a girl under 18, while the same group constituted only 13% of marriages in pre-war Syria. Although some families marry off their daughters because of tradition, but the UN says most are driven by poverty.

Organized trade in young girls, driven by clientele from the Gulf States, is sprouting up outside the refugee camps. They prey on refugee families, living in rented accommodation, who are struggling to get by. Local sources say the going rate for a bride is between 2,000 and 10,000 Jordanian dinars ($2,800/£1,635 to $14,000/£8,180) with another 1,000 ($1,400/£818) going to the broker. The 14- and 15-year old girls appear to be in highest demand, though 12- and 13-year old are also being sought. Most clients are 30-50 year male. Many of these girls are being abandoned as soon as they become pregnant.

According to psychiatrists, children exposed to traumatic events like war, often have distorted views of incidents. For example, they might blame themselves or their neighbors and the consequences are very detrimental to their mental health. Every child of age six years and above living in Gaza has experienced at least three wars.

In 2000, as part of the Millennium Development Goals, the world set itself the ambitious target of ensuring that every primary-age child in the world would be in school by 2015. Well, the world is on the doorstep of that chosen date. In spite of the significant progress made in the new millennium, it appears that the international community will fall short of this goal. In 2011, 57 million primary-age children worldwide were reported to be out of school.

With pencil in the cross hairs, the millennium goal now appears far-fetched.

Newsletter April-September 2014

Here’s the April-September Newsletter. We look forward to your feedback and comments.Newsletter_Apr-Sep2014
Read it here

Newsletter March 2014

Newsletter_Mar2014
Here’s the March Newsletter. We look forward to your feedback and comments.
Read it here

Newsletter February 2014

Here is our Newsletter for February 2014. We look forward to your feedbacks and comments.
Read it here

HERESY

Geoffroy Thérage took one last look at the nineteen-year old girl tied high up on the stake. Joan (Jeanne d’Arc, as she was known in France) appeared to be resigned to her fate. Her eyes were on the crucifix that Father Martin Ladvenu and Father Ysambard de la Pierre were holding up for her to see.

Thérage, a god-fearing man, drew the cross and closed his eyes in fear of being damned for putting a saint to death. He begged forgiveness of the girl and proceeded to light the pyre under her. As flames shot up, Joan screamed in a loud voice the holy name of Jesus and invoked the Saints of Paradise without ceasing. The crowd gasped and many began to sob. Then her head drooped and her body became motionless.

Jyothi closed the textbook and skimmed through her notes. She had a paper due for her Women’s Studies class. Joan of Arc, the “Virgin Warrior” of France who was a saint to many, fascinated her. She reminisced about the life of the illiterate peasant girl from Domremy in medieval France. Apparently, the “Holy Maid” could electrify those around her and struck terror into the hearts of her enemies. Joan’s self-confident, charismatic and supremely determined persona resonated well with her.

It had been two years since Jyothi Ramani arrived on the campus of the University of Delhi for her post-graduate studies, the first member of her extended family to do so. She hailed from Janwada village in the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh. Her family owned agricultural lands in Janwada for two generations, since the Telangana uprisings of ‘40s-‘50s. Jyothi aspired for an academic career in one of Telangana’s leading colleges. She had full support of the family in her endeavor. The social pressures to conform to the ‘norms’ did not encumber the clan. Her generation grew up in a different era, free of the crushing feudal exploitations that had ravaged her ancestors prior to the rebellion.

Jyothi cuddled the mobile phone in her pensive mood. The device’s screen indicated that the hour was nearing midnight. Looking at her notes, Jyothi found the word she wrote down in uppercase and encircled: HERESY. Of all the descriptions she could find in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the one she felt was most appropriate in Joan’s context was the following: an opinion, doctrine, or practice contrary to the truth or to generally accepted beliefs or standards.  Joan had to pay with her life on charges of ‘heresy.’ The word had stirred Jyothi’s emotions. Did she find a parallel in her own life?

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Last summer Jyothi was chronicling the life stories of the women involved in the Telangana uprising for a Women’s Studies project. She had heard so much about the peasant movement while growing up. Her grandmother, Rukmini, used to talk excitedly about one Chityala Ailamma.

Chakali Ilamma, as she was popularly known, was a mother of four. When the zamindar (landlord) Visnur Ramachandra Reddy tried to take her four acres of land in Palakurti village of Jangaon taluk, she revolted. Her rebellion inspired many to join the vetti chakiri udyamam (forced labor movement). Later she worked actively against the Nizam government and her house was the center for activities against the feudal landlords.

Jyothi felt that Rukmini had more stories to share than she had recounted thus far. One evening, she found her grandmother alone in her bedroom sorting through a stack of papers. She stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. Rukmini peered at her from underneath the thick glasses. Jyothi sat quietly on the bed next to the old lady and smiled at her.

Jyothi was Rukmini’s eldest grandchild. Growing up, she was attached to her grandmother more than any other children in their large joint family. On many hot afternoons, she would seek refuge in her grandmother’s bed, listening to stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. At other times, Rukmini would be braiding Jyothi’s hair in ponytail while humming Bonalu (a festival honoring Goddess Mahakali) hymns and revolutionary songs.

Jyothi laid down a notebook and a small cassette tape recorder that she was carrying in her hand. “I’m writing about the women of Telangana struggle,” she explained to Rukmini, “It is important for our generation and beyond to know the sacrifices you had made.” The literature did mention about women’s active participation in the land movement, in agricultural labor wage struggles, in seizure of landlord’s grain, and against forced evacuation of tribal people from their lands. However, Jyothi wanted to learn about women’s battlefield experiences when fighting alongside their fathers, brothers and husbands.

Rukmini paused from stacking the papers and looked at Jyothi. She removed her glasses and wiped them with the end of her saree. She then put them back and picked up the tape recorder. Her eyes wandered as if scanning the room and eventually fixated on the recording device. Jyothi reached out and turned on the gadget. Rukmini took a deep breath and spoke firmly into the device.

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Rukmini was born as Nagamma into the Koya tribe from the Godavari forest region of Khammam district. Her family had Telanganafarmed on a few acres of land under the vetti (forced labor) system in Potuvarigudem village in the Palvancha forest area. She was the eldest child of her parents. During her childhood, the social conditions were oppressive in all the districts of Telangana. The Nizam and his cronies behaved as arbitrarily as medieval potentates. Poor peasants were subjected to innumerable illegal exactions like paying nazaranas (presents in kind or cash) whenever there was a birth, marriage, or death in the family. The worst of all these feudal oppressions was the prevalence of keeping girls as ‘slaves’ in landlords’ houses and using them as adi bapas (concubines).

When Nagamma reached puberty, her family married her off to a peasant boy from her gotram (one of five sub-divisions of a Koya clan). As she attained womanhood, her husband began to treat her very badly. She was fed up with him and fell in love with an agricultural labor hand of the village landlord; the two developed an intimacy. Nagamma’s case was brought before the village committee. After hearing her plight, the council decided that she was free to exercise her will and granted her a divorce.

The year was 1948 and the Telangana Peasant Movement was in upswing. The Andhra Mahasabha and the Communist Party had established footholds in the region, particularly among the youth. Nagamma would find these organizations in her village holding meetings to denounce usury of the landlords and distributing chittis (receipts) authorizing people to refuse vetti. To counter influence of the resistance, the Razakars (Nizam’s militia) and the police set up camps outside her village and began terrorizing people. Women and girls were particularly vulnerable – often targets of abduction and rape.

One evening, Nagamma was visiting her friend in a neighboring village when the Razakars, backed by the police, raided the hamlet. Nagamma ran desperately away from the crowd. As she neared the edge of the Palvancha forest, a resistance squad emerged and opened fire on her pursuers. She thanked her saviors and instead of returning to family she decided to join the dalam (squad). The group was led by one Jagannatham.

In her new life, she assumed the name of ‘Rukmini’, after Lord Krishna’s principal wife who was also considered to be an avatar of Laxmi (the goddess of fortune). Rukmini became an active member of the squad helping it with all its chores. She learned to handle firearms and participated in a number of actions against the Razakars, the police and even the Indian Army. She was soon promoted as the second-in-command.

Gradually, Rukmini and Jagannatham developed mutual affection. They discussed at length about possible matrimonial alliance – she was a Koya woman who had divorced her husband and he belonged to the Gowda community of the plains – overcoming the age-old suspicions of the tribal people towards the domineering plainsmen. Finally, they decided to tie the knot and sought Party permission. The Party approved and solemnized the marriage.

Over the next couple of years, Rukmini and her squad moved through Telangana in support of the uprising. During the period of guerrilla life, she learnt to read and write and developed her political consciousness. Those formative years gave her the opportunity to witness some of the most astounding expressions of human endurance in face of adversities.

In one incident that she could recall, the police raided a Koya hamlet in the Godavari forest area of Gundala and tried to take away several men. Women from the neighboring hamlets rushed forth and surrounded the police. When the police opened fire, the women pelted them with stones from behind the trees and refused to disperse till their menfolk were released. The police had to yield ultimately. In another incident, the police subjected seventy women from Nereda village to beating with tamarind birches on suspicion of being rebel sympathizers. They were forced to wear pajamas and chameleons were placed in their private parts. The pajamas were tied up at the bottom to prevent the critters from escaping. The entrapped reptiles started biting; the agony of the women was indescribable. Red chili powder was sprinkled into the wounds. The women were ill for five months. Rukmini visited the victims regularly and cared for them till they were able to resume normal activities. Some of these women eventually joined her squad.

On a pleasant autumn evening in 1950, news reached the squad that Lachamma, a washer-woman of Nadigadda village, was caught in a raid by the Indian Army. She used to wash the clothes of Rukmini’s squad and of other guerillas and had helped them to ferry supplies across the river. She was tied to a tree branch, upside down, naked, and was beaten with lathis and birches to force her tell the whereabouts of the local guerillas. After the coercion attempt failed, the Army left warning the villagers not to remove Lachamma. Jagannatham set off for Nadigadda with a few men to intervene. As the group was crossing the river, they came under attack. The Army had laid a trap; the messenger had betrayed them. The entrenched rebels fought valiantly but were outgunned. Their bodies were recovered from downstream a few days later.

Rukmini was devastated. She was pregnant with her first child. After deliberation with her comrades, she decided to leave her squad and return to civilian life under the protection of the rebels. Her family had already been forced out of their native village by the authorities when it became known that their daughter had joined the resistance. Rukmini traced one of her siblings to the Akkampeta village in West Godavari district. Her parents were already dead. She decided to move in with her sister who was married to a primary school teacher of the village.

A few months after joining her sister, Rukmini gave birth to a healthy baby boy. She named her Jagannatham. In October 1951, the Telangana movement was called off. The following year saw the rise of the Communists into power. Rukmini contacted the Party leaders of Khammam district to help her with rehabilitation of partisan resistance women like her. In Akkampeta, she began organizing classes for village women with the help of her sister.

One morning, a man in his late twenties arrived in Akkampeta. He was Ranga Rao, an underground fighter who had recently come out of hiding. The Party leaders had dispatched him to assist Rukmini. He would be bringing women cadres after the initial assessment of her needs was completed. He stayed for a week and befriended the three year-old Jagannatham. When departing, he invited Rukmini to visit the Party headquarters in Khammam town. Over the next several years, they took several trips together in support of Party activities. In early 1956, the two returned to Akkampeta as a married couple. They had decided to move west, to Janwada village in Rangareddy district, where Ranga Rao’s family owned lands.

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Rukmini took a pause from her narration and put the tape recorder on the bed. Jyothi knew the rest of her life story. Jagannatham was Jyothi’s father. Rukmini went on to have two more sons and a daughter with Ranga Rao. Grandpa had passed away a few years ago.

She kept the tape recorder running as she watched Rukmini slowly breaking into reciting the bardic tale of ‘Telangana Veerayodhulu’ (Telangana Heroic Warriors):

“They raped even the newly delivered ladies; they cut the new born babies into pieces;

They stripped the pregnant women; and stabbed them in their stomachs;

They tied the ladies in hay-stacks; and burnt them to death.”

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Jyothi began writing her term paper. She had about two hours to work on it. This word, heresy, was so intriguing.

Throughout human history, the heretics or the proponents of heresy had been hounded down and often put to death. All the major religions of the world had the dubious distinction of persecuting the heretics among their ranks – Jyothi found through her internet search.

Even before Joan’s tenure, the Catholic Church was enforcing pre-existing episcopal powers to inquire about and suppress heresy. Joan’s trial for heresy was politically motivated in the midst of the Hundred Years War between England and France. England resented Joan’s support of the French crown. Her reputation as a French prophetess and saint needed to be destroyed if England were to have a “divine claim” on northern France.

Jyothi’s mind was getting foggy. Rukmini’s life story was an embodiment of heresy too. Her peasantry roots, her marginal existence on the fringe of the society while shepherding her younger siblings, and of course her life as a rebel fighter among the ranks of males – all bore striking resemblance to Joan. There were too many similarities in these two lives, centuries and continents apart, to be purely coincidental. The subjugation of Telangana and her inhabitants was no different than the conquest of Joan’s land and her people. The social and political forces had prompted both girls – not surprisingly, they were nearly of the same age – to seek retribution by rejecting their ‘traditional’ roles and following their conscience.

Jyoti needed a break from typing. It was almost two o’clock. She wrapped herself in a shawl and stepped outside in the December chill. From her balcony, she could see lights aglow in many of the dorm rooms. Those were the late night crusaders like her. There was a group of girls hanging out in the courtyard. Some were milling around the canteen. The road outside the hostel was eerily quiet, except for occasional barking of stray dogs. Students, particularly girls, stopped venturing at night. Security on and around campus was on everyone’s mind for quite some time.

Just a year ago, the whole campus erupted in rallies and protest marches following the rape and brutalization of a young woman, who was about Jyothi’s age. She too had gone to India Gate with her classmates demanding justice for the victim, which in a way was to ask the society to respect her gender. That unfortunate girl, Jyoti Singh Pandey, shared her name and also her dream of a career. How odd a coincidence could that be? Then there were Kiran Negi of Dwarka in south-west Delhi and Shipra Ghosh of Kamduni in West Bengal – the nineteen year olds had aspired for self-sufficiency through work and education – who were brutally raped and murdered. All three girls, like Jyothi, were the eldest of their respective siblings, but that would be the least similarity they would share with Joan and Rukmini. Certainly, each of these women decided to live ‘a life of her choice’, which could make her a heretic to an appropriate authority.

A well thought-out conclusion was what remained of the term paper. Jyothi paced a few times between the room and the balcony, still unsure of the concluding remarks. The more she tried to put ‘heresy’ into perspective, the more her thoughts became convoluted. Who had the ‘moral’ authority to prosecute a heretic? In Joan’s case, the Church used the charges of heresy to silence dissent. Did the modern society or certain sections thereof assume that authority? Why then these girls would ‘burn at stake’ for not conforming to social ‘norms’? It appeared that humans had made little progress at the existential level since Joan’s time in spite of the relentless march of civilization at esoteric levels.

Perhaps, her confusion would not be resolved by the time her writing was done. She was all ready to retreat on this chilly night. Clutching the textbook she slipped into her bed, hoping to skim through it one more time before hitting the lights. It wasn’t long before she fell into a deep sleep.

That night Jyothi dreamt of three maids in pure white dresses crossing the blue waters of Gandipet (aka Osman Sagar), the lake near her village. These apparitions were like Joan’s visions of St. Michael, St. Margaret and St. Catherine. They entered her room through the open window and congregated around her bed. She saw Kiran, Jyoti and Shipra smiling at her. In sweet but firm voices, they urged her to don a shining armor and step into men’s battlefield just as the French maid did some six centuries ago. The armor would prevent her from getting molested or raped and she could preserve her virginity like Joan. This wasn’t a call of duty for god; rather it was a higher calling – for humanity.

Jyothi was jolted off the bed by the alarm of her mobile. It was seven o’clock in the morning. She had another hour before heading for college. Should she be writing about her dreams in that remaining section of her assignment? An SMS from her father confirmed that Janwada was very soon to be the talk of the nation. An NGO would be implementing social programs to promote safe water awareness and hygiene practices, especially among women and children. They would invite celebrities from Bollywood and Hollywood to come to the village to raise funds in the New Year. That was indeed great news! There could be an opportunity to discuss women’s health and wellbeing in and around her village too, thought Jyothi.

She was looking forward to going home.

–        Subhodev Das

They Are “Rising for Justice”

OBR4J
If you aren’t rousing from your Rip-Van-Winkle slumber or living under a rock, you probably witnessed (or at least heard about) the largest ‘uprising’ by the inhabitants of this planet a year ago. ONE BILLION individuals in 207 countries were on hand (and feet) to lead this ‘rebellion’. They rose, sang and danced to demand an end to violence against women and girls.

Before ‘One Billion Rising’ (OBR) became a global phenomenon, the calendar day of February 14 used to be enveloped in a rose-scented, chocolate-infused fog. The appreciation for loved ones would arrive in wrapped truffle boxes or romantic rose bouquets. Eve Ensler, playwright of The Vagina Monologues, launched the idea of a very different kind of appreciation – ONE BILLION voices raised in a synchronized and honest manner to seek a definitive end to violence against women.

The movement’s “ONE BILLION” refers to the atrocious UN statistics of the number of women on this earth who will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. With OBR’s adage “Strike/Rise/Dance”, Ensler declared “…we express our outrage and joy and our firm global call for a world where women are free and safe and cherished and equal. Dance with your body, for your body, for the bodies of women and the earth.” Borrowing from the Congolese women, she concluded that dancing “is a formidable, liberating and transformative energy.”

Yet feminists are divided over the message that OBR is conveying. Some feel that movements like OBR facilitate women’s empowerment by attacking the notion that women are mere sexual objects. Many survivors of sexual violence have embraced OBR as an effective form of cathartic release through the medium of coordinated dance. While Ensler has been able to garner support of celebrities for her cause, throngs of activists, writers, social workers, students and ordinary people, mostly women but also some men, have flocked around the movement.

In many countries, OBR allowed for the public promotion of women’s rights where it was unthinkable before. In Somalia, the awareness raised by the campaign has focused on the women and journalists jailed for daring to report rapes to authorities. In Guatemala, OBR helped in the creation of a law for the criminalization of perpetrators who impregnate girls under 14 years old. The law also includes penalties for forced marriage of girls under 18. In the US, the campaign is credited with the support for and passage of the Violence against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which expanded protections for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. “OBR wasn’t just a 24-hour period where busy people stopped for a few minutes to rise and dance,” was the view of a campaigner in the US.

However, the media hype over OBR and Ensler’s own celebrity status have caused some resentment among grassroots activists. These feminists, many of whom have been working on women’s issues for quite some time, feel that OBR has hijacked the movement. In their opinion, OBR is patronizing and it completely diverts the world’s attention away from the real issue of gender-based violence and rape with a pleasing-to-the-eye coordinated dance on one day.

Perhaps the biggest grievance that these activists harbor towards OBR is its refusal to name the root cause of women’s inequality – its outright refusal to point the finger at a patriarchal system which cultivates masculinity and which uses the control and subjugation of women’s bodies as an outlet for that machoism. They single out OBR’s inclusion of men in the campaign and of such statements as “violence is not a gender issue; this affects our societies as a whole.”

A few have even referred to OBR as a form of “neocolonialism.” The movement’s white, American leaders often lecture the survivors in conflict zones of Africa to “rise” above the violence they have experienced by dancing. The consensus from those on the ground, providing services to women survivors, is that women of privilege should not preach feminist ideals, particularly where gender and race intersect – and essentially where ‘developed’/’developing’ world’s intersect. Instead, the best form of action would be to lobby their own governments to stop their patriarchal, neocolonial influence in so-called ‘developing countries’.

Against the backdrop of such controversies, OBR is celebrating its third anniversary. This year the campaign is focused on “Rising for Justice” (OBR4J) with the adage “Rise/Release/Dance.” Here, “justice” is about restoring the primacy of connection so that we understand that violence against women is not a personal problem, but connected to other systemic injustices whether they be patriarchal, economic, racial, gender, or environmental. Impunity lives at the heart of these interlocking forces. The path to justice begins with acknowledging how violence is enabled and perpetuated – calling out where endemic patriarchy and institutionalized misogyny creates a barrier to real justice for survivors.

The organizers expect OBR4J to enjoy a similar level of participation as in the previous years. It is a call to survivors to break silence and “release” their stories, dancing and speaking out at the places where they need justice – courthouses, police stations, government offices, school administration buildings, work places, sites of environmental injustice, military courts, embassies, places of worship, homes, or simply public gathering places where women deserve to feel safe but too often do not. OBR4J intends to focus the world’s attention on the issue of justice for all survivors of gender violence, and on ending the rampant impunity that prevails globally.

In the run up to this year’s event, a number of “rising” activities have already been staged. On January 8, 2014, many cities, including New York, Santa Fe, Miami, Mumbai, Manila and London, organized forums called the State of Female Justice. At these events, leaders of activist groups, lawyers, thinkers and survivors talked about a more inclusive, multilayered story. On February 9, the first “Rising for Justice” march took place in Hong Kong in support of ‘Erwianna and All Migrant and Domestic Workers’. Erwiana is a domestic worker from Indonesia working in Hong Kong who was tortured and beaten by her employer. She is now hospitalized and still in critical condition. Hong Kong has among the largest numbers of domestic workers from Southeast and South Asia.

OBR4J has been resonating well with Indians, particularly in the light of a number of very high-profile sexual attacks on women and girls since last year’s gathering. With violence on women at record level and the enforcement of laws sloppy at best, even after the passage of the Criminal Law Act in March 2013, it is expected that Indians will throng to the streets in large numbers. Already, Bollywood has lent its support to the campaign through superstar Aamir Khan and former Miss India Gul Panag. Last week, the noted Parvathy Baul – I attended her lecture-demonstration in Toronto last July – performed in solidarity with OBR campaign, spreading the message of love, devotion and peace through her baul music.

People from all walks of life are getting involved too. Several NGO’s are highlighting the need to make public spaces and the transit infrastructure more accessible and safer for women and girls. Organizations working on Section 377 of Indian Penal Code plan to raise voice against homophobia, racism and discrimination against people from the northeast and Africa. On January 12, the “Talk to Me” initiative launched by Apne Aap Women Worldwide encouraged passing by men to chat with women from the red light districts of Munshigunge and Park Street in Kolkata. The only condition was that the men could talk about anything except sex, like questions about the women and their lives. Till February 14, women from various red light areas are holding an event every day to rise for justice.

Throughout India, every state is planning an event with flash mobs, dances, speeches and other public displays. India continues to be at the epicenter of Ensler’s movement, which is now ready to “harness the energy that has been created over the last one year and launch the Rise for Justice”. Kamala Bhasin, India’s leading feminist activist and coordinator for OBR campaign in South Asia explained, “We are happy that women are now coming forward to file reports against even the most powerful elements. Until last year, who would have imagined an Asaram Bapu to be behind bars. We are here to say that no Tarun Tejpal or Justice Ganguly will henceforth be allowed to slip away scot-free.”

As worldwide momentum for February 14 gathers, communities are coming together, building coalitions through media outreach and grassroots organizing. However, OBR still remains an awareness campaign. Eve Ensler’s other charitable organization, V-Day, has raised money for some effective work on the ground, such as running educational projects, re-opening refuges and safe houses. These are the activities which have actual effect. It is imperative that NGOs utilize the media spotlight on ORB to raise funds to sustain their own activities.

As separation between nations becomes more transparent, we can share a lot of common interests and experiences. The stories of women and girls that will be exchanged at various OBR4J events throughout the world will not only broaden the images of women/girl-friendly justice, but will also create understanding and communication between the government and NGOs. We can achieve a lot more by working together than toiling in isolation.

On February 14, 2014, let us all come together in recognition that we cannot end violence against women without looking at the intersection of poverty, racism, war, plunder of the environment, capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy. Let ONE BILLION voices rise to “Break the Chain.”

Subhodev Das