Friday, June 19, 2015

Why we should support Raif Badawi

On 17 June 2012, a Saudi Arabian Blogger Raif Badawi was arrested under the charge of “insulting Islam”. Raif Badawi had created “Free Saudi Liberals”, a website which encouraged debates on religious and political issues in 2008. The website promoted the idea of secularism and criticized religious extremism. He was charged of insulting Islam through this website. 

The Saudi Supreme Court held him guilty and pronounced a sentence of 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes (50 lashes on every Friday) and a fine of 1 million riyals. After he serves a decade in jail, he is also forbidden to travel for the following decade and from participating in the media.
He had been previously charged for “apostasy” in 2008 as well but was released after questioning. “Apostasy” which means renunciation of one’s religion is chargeable with death sentence in Saudi Arabia. In 2012, the prosecutors wanted to charge him under apostasy as well but in 2013, he was cleared for it. According to sources, he may face the charge of apostasy again. 

Raif Badawi is undergoing the punishment for the charge of “insulting Islam”. He is imprisoned. He had received the first 50 lashes in January. But since his wounds remain unhealed, the punishment has not been repeated. 

Badawi has support from the international community. He receives support from the United Nations, United States, the European Union, Canada and several other countries. Human Rights Activists and Organisations around the globe have expressed their support with him. In January 2015, the United Nations had issued a last-minute appeal to Saudi Arabia to stop the scheduled second round of flogging for the activist. They had also appealed the Saudi Government to review this type of penalty. However, the Government remains unmoved. While the punishment is being delayed, there is no news of any relief. Infact, the Saudi officials have asked the international community not to “interfere” in the ‘internal’ matters of the country.

Badawi’s case is or should be for everyone who speaks and respects “Freedom of Speech”, “Secularism” and “Justice”. Here’s why we all should support him and demand his immediate release:

Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression

Freedom of Speech and Expression is one of the most important rights given to an individual. It is one of the important rights given in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the article 19 of which states, 

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

It applies to all member countries of United Nations. Since Saudi Arabia is a member country, it is applicable for it as well. Going by this, Raif did nothing wrong. He has the right to freely express himself and to have an opinion. As the right mentions, he also had the right to seek information, learn from other sources regardless of the frontiers and this is what he had done. No Government should try to define the boundaries of knowledge. 

Badawi has the right to think and decide for himself. He has the right to form his own opinion, choose what he may believe in. His website conducted debates on different issues. It cannot be regarded to be illegal and unacceptable. What is unacceptable is the behavior of the Saudi Government to restrict knowledge. Controlling freedom of speech, dissent is a mark of autocratic and barbaric states, not modern nation-states. 

There is a difference between “Insult” and being “Critical”
Badawi has been accused of “insulting Islam” but how has he done so? There are no concrete evidences available to prove that he had “insulted” Islam. There is a difference between insulting and being critical and the latter cannot be regarded to be illegal or objectionable. Everyone has the right to be critical. It is important to understand and know what exactly had Badawi said that is considered to be against Islam. What was objectionable? Was his way of holding a debate over religious practices objectionable? If yes, then this very thinking is against Islam. Islam was born out of questionings, as a response to the contemporary sociopolitical situation. Islam is rational in its essence. Every practice that Prophet Mohammad had ascribed was given with reasons which were clearly specified. This method meant that he wanted that people should know why a certain practice has been prescribed. The underlying motive seems to be to challenge blind acceptance and to promote thinking and rationality. Thus, debates cannot be considered to be un-Islamic. Debates to think about the religious practice, to explore the true essence of islam cannot become unacceptable. A true Muslim who knows about the life and teachings of Prophet Mohammad will know it. 

Prophet Mohammad laid down several practices and they all responded to the specific conditions at that time. The overarching ideology was to promote peace and justice. Even if Badawi may have challenged some of the practices, he did so by being under the ideological paradigms of Islam. So he could not have “insulted” Islam. He may have been critical which is allowed not only by the Universal Right to Freedom of Opinion but by Islam itself. 

His writings targeted extremism, not Islam

As about the claims, it is again important to re-iterate the fact that no concrete evidences are available to show how he had “insulted Islam”. His website was shut down. What remains are some of his writings that have appeared in other websites. What emerges from his writings are his rejection of extremism of all sorts. He had not insulted islam, he had insulted extremism, blind following which as stated earlier, is antithesis to the spirit of Islam. Here are some extracts from his writings:

On the Israel-Palestine issue, Badawi wrote, “I’m not in support of the Israeli occupation of any Arab country, but at the same time I do not want to replace Israel by a religious state ... whose main concern would be spreading the culture of death and ignorance among its people when we need modernisation and hope. States based on religious ideology ... have nothing except the fear of God and an inability to face up to life. Look at what had happened after the European peoples succeeded in removing the clergy from public life and restricting them to their churches. They built up human beings and (promoted) enlightenment, creativity and rebellion. States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear” (Source:

In another account, Badawi wrote on an incident in which an astronomer was punished on the grounds of being critical of sharia beliefs, 

“I advise NASA to abandon its telescopes and, instead, turn to our Sharia astronomers, whose keen vision and insight surpass the agency’s obsolete telescopes. Indeed, I advise all other scholars the world over, of whatever discipline, to abandon their studies, laboratories, research centres, places of experimentation, universities, institutes etc. and head at once to the study groups of our magnificent preachers to learn from them all about modern medicine, engineering, chemistry, microbiology, geology, nuclear physics, the science of the atom, marine sciences, the science of explosives, pharmacology, anthropology etc. – alongside astronomy, of course. God bless them! They have shown themselves to be the final authority with the decisive word in everything, which all mankind must accept, submit to and obey without hesitation or discussion.” (Source:

Through his writings, Badawi had criticized persecution of other religions in Saudi Arabia and the conservatism of Saudi Clerics, their attitude towards secularism. 

This is not to argue that all his writings were unproblematic but what is true is that his larger ideas were right. There were no false claims. A glance at the Saudi Arab’s human rights record can testify it. 

More importantly even if his ideas were problematic, his writings were one-sided or biased, the fact is that they were only articles. They were also not provocative. He also did not have the same authority as Saudi clerics did. Unlike them, he could not issue any fatwas to impose his view. 

Death sentence for ‘Apostasy’ is barbaric
The Saudi authorities are trying to charge Badawi for apostasy for which he can be granted death sentence. Badawi would not be the first to be the victim for apostasy. Saudi Arabia has a terrible record of executing people. As reported by Amnesty, Saudi Arabia ranks among the top five executioners in the world. In 2014, 90 people were executed. So far in this year, 54 people have been reportedly executed in the first three months of 2015. (Source: ) Apostasy is one of the top charges for execution. Apostasy means the renunciation of one’s faith and conversion to another. 

Simply put, it is a barbaric practice. Everyone has the right to think and decide for oneself. Secondly, it again cannot be a rule that may have been given by Prophet Mohammad. The rationalist that he was, he would not have forced people to follow his teachings. He wanted people to follow his teachings by understanding them, their importance. Prophet Mohammad was also not opposed to people of other religions. His teachings did mark a deviation from them but he had not permitted the use of violence against them. 

Killing people over their religious beliefs is un-Islamic and inhuman. More importantly, if one is truly religious, one will know that religion is a sacred thing. All religions teach the same thing. They teach love, justice and humanity. Only a person who is not familiar with his/her religion will fight over it. Religion is not an identity, it is a belief. If someone does not believe in or follow the religious practices, how does it matter if he/she is a follower or not? 

A last point is that by giving death sentence or lashes as punishment, will the glory of Islam be established? Will people who do not believe or respect Islam start respecting it? There are better and more civil ways to tell people that what they are thinking is wrong. Violence is never the solution. 

Badawi punished for opposing Saudi Arab authority, not Islam

Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human rights’ record. The Saudi Arab authorities severely restrict freedom of expression, impose censorship, have discriminating laws against women and non-muslims, have detained and sentenced without trial, many Government critics and political activists. Badawi had written about this at length. He had particularly criticized the government for suppressing dissent. There is a possibility that Saudi Arabian authorities have suppressed Badawi not for his views held to be against Islam but against itself. The lack of concrete evidence as well as the writings of Badawi hint at it. 

Badawi’s case, thus, needs to be seen in a more complex way and should be supported by anyone who supports Freedom of Speech, Secularism and understands Islam. While Badawi’s case is not the first case, there is a chance to make it the last one or move towards a better tomorrow. 


Amnesty International’s Annual Report: Saudi Arabia 2013
“A look at the writings of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi – sentenced to 1,000 lashes” by Ian Black published in The Guardian
“What Blogger Raif Badawi’s new book reveals about Saudi Arabia” published in Deutsche Welle (DW)
“Why Saudi Arabia is so afraid of Raif Badawi” by Sara Yasin published in Los Angeles Daily News

Monday, June 15, 2015

What About India’s Daughters In The Conflict Zones?

With the Government’s ban on “India’s documentary”, made around the 16 December gang rape case known as the Nirbhaya case, the case is once again in the public sphere. The BBC documentary was scheduled for release on the International Women’s day. The documentary led to a controversy pertaining to the statement of one of the rapists who still blamed the victim. Another controversy attached with it has been the permission issue, the Government denies having given the permission to interview the rapists. In the light of these controversies, the Government decided to ban it. However, the people have resisted the ban. Since its release online, the documentary claims a viewership of about a million.

The documentary has also been a point of talk because of the controversial statements. Since its release, people have shared their views, debated on the statement, on how the statement may not be an unusual mentality. The mentality is embedded in the patriarchal society. It is recognized that this mentality is also shared by people’s ‘representatives’, the politicians and those who are supposed to defend us or impart justice. People have also been suggesting that the system needs to be improved, needs to be empowered to curb these incidents. While this is true, what is still required to recognize and highlight is that not just the mentality to justify rape, the inefficiency of the system but how the very system has also used rape as a weapon to control dissent or voice against the oppression of the State.

This is to point at the cases of rape and sexual violence in the conflict zones of India – the North-East states (except Sikkim), Jammu & Kashmir and Naxalite zones. To tackle the challenges in the conflict zones, the Indian State has adopted draconian laws which in the garb of restoring law and order have led to gross violation of human rights’. One such law is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Enforced in the North-East states (except Sikkim) and the state of Jammu & Kashmir, AFSPA gives the right to the armed forces to shoot at sight, torture, raid houses, arrest without warrant AFSPA also protects the army persons with legal impunity. These extra-ordinary and unrestrained powers to the armed forces have led to extra-judicial killings, fake encounters, extra-judicial disappearances, tortures and rapes.

This has been corroborated by the reports of the national and international human-rights’ commissions and organisations, Government’s own appointed committees and the Judiciary. The Justice J.S. Verma Committee that was set up to suggest amendments to laws relating to crimes against women, has recommended review of the continuance of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in the context of extending legal protection to women in conflict areas. It also recommended that the security forces should not be able to take cover under the AFSPA in cases of rape and sexual assault and that cases of sexual violence against women by members of the armed forces or uniformed personnel should be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law.

Similarly, the laws used to control naxalism have also led to the violation of human rights. Innocent tribals are falsely implicated in cases, tortured, raped and killed. While there are thousands of cases of sexual violence, known and unknown, reported and unreported, here are some of the known cases that still await justice:

Thangjam Manorama from AFSPA-affected Manipur – On 10 July 2004, Thangjam Manorama, a Manipuri woman, was picked up from her home by the Indian paramilitary unit, 17th Assam Rifles on allegations of being associated with a militant group. The next morning, her bullet-ridden corpse was found in a field. There were bullet marks even in her private parts. An autopsy revealed semen marks on her skirt suggesting rape and murder. It has been 10 years now but justice is yet to be done.
Rape and Killing of Asiya and Nilofar Jan - On 29th May 2009, in Shopian (J&K), two women named Asiya (age 17) and Neelofar (age 22) went missing. Their dead bodies were found next morning. The people alleged it to be a case of rape and murder by security forces who were camped nearby.

Initially, no FIR was lodged and police told that postmortem report cleared injuries over private parts. However, the people believed that police report about postmortem is fake and so they continued protests and forced J&K Government to form a judicial panel. Under judicial inquiry, the Forensic lab report established that they had been gang-raped. Apart from few suspension and transfers from police department, nothing has happened in this case. 

Victims of the mass-rape of Kunan Posphora Village - During the intervening night of February 23 and 24 in 1991, the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district witnessed mass rape of over 40 women by the soldiers of the Army’s 4 Rajputana Rifles of 68 Brigade. The victims included young female children, pregnant women and even aged women. This incident has been acknowledged even by the Former Union External Minister, Salman Khurshid’s who said, “I am ashamed that it happened in my country. I am apologetic and appalled that it has happened in my country.” However, justice continues to evade them.

Sexual Harrasment of Soni Sori, an Adivasi Civil Rights’ Activist - Soni Sori, a 35-year-old Adivasi school teacher in Chhattisgarh, was alleged to be a Naxalite. While evidence shows that she was against them, she was framed by the Chhattisgarh police. She was sexually harassed by the police and was also given electric shocks. In the medical examination, small stones were found in her vagina and rectum. The main person who had supervised the torture was Ankit Garg, the Superintendent of Police. What did the state do? He was honored with the President's Award on Republic Day.

As stated previously, sexual violence in the conflict zones are not an aberration. They are widespread. Yet, they do not evoke the same outrage that this particular incident in a non-conflict zone has received. The Government, the judiciary and even those people who are aware of this reality remain silent. Aren’t these the daughters of India too? Aren’t they women as well? This hypocrisy needs to be addressed. Respect and rights cannot be exclusive or the entitlement of only a particular section of women.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

She is my mother my hero

This article has been written as part of Indiblogger and Godrej Expert's #MyFirstExpert contest.

While I do not believe in celebrating days by just giving a card or doing something nice on just one day to prove one's love or respect, I appreciate the essence, the motive behind the day which is to reflect on the person, the relation we share with him/her. Today, on Mother's Day, I would reflect on the bond that I share with my mother. 

We tend to take our mother's care and love for granted.. we think that mothers are supposed to be loving, caring, responsible and sacrificing. It is not true. They are not born like that. It is something that they acquire. Love definitely comes natural to people but the qualities that we often attribute are imposed, they are not something inherent. This is a fact and when I learnt this, my respect for my mother grew much more.

While I have not been a perfect daughter, I think my mother has been more than being just perfect. There are not few but several wonderful and inspiring memories that I share with my mother. My mother was a working woman and she had many struggles in her life. Due to some reasons, she was solely responsible for caring for her three daughters and which she did without ever telling us about how difficult it was for. She always did the best for us. She ensured that we studied in good schools, colleges, study as much as we can and always motivated us to follow our dreams. However, what I feel is best about my mother is her attitude. She has been a very strong and determined person and this is what she has also tried to inculcate in us. She always taught us to speak against wrong, against any kind of injustice. While there have been several such instances, I would like to share one such instance:

I was in 10th class and during our pre-boards, we were expected to go back ourselves because the bus timings were fixed. On my bus route, there was a private mini bus which was ready to accomodate students who would go in school bus for pre-board time. It was charging higher for us than for the regular passengers. We thought it was fine as atleast it was convenient. However, during the second pre-board time, they asked for a price which was more than double the previous amount. My mother raised an objection about it and she was the only one to do. As a result, the bus person told me to not board the bus. I felt a bit sad and embarassed though I knew it was their fault. I was sitting in my class and my teacher came and asked me why was i still there and where are my friends. I told her the entire story and that my friends had left. She said that you are here because you mother dared to raise her voice, and stood for what is right and just. I thank my teacher because she made me realise what a gem my mother is. I felt proud of what my mother did.

My mother has not only always stood for what is right but has always been just. She has always believed in helping people, trusting them and has always thought good of everyone. I feel proud of my mother. We differ sometimes in our opinions but it is a fact that I respect her a lot and derive great inspiration from her. Now when i reflect back, I feel it was my mother who is actually #myfirstexpert.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Need to recognise different narratives of partition - The way forward

As I think of writing about partition, I pause to think if it is still a relevant issue? Partition of India and Pakistan happened 67 years ago and was succeeded by many other major clashes so should I instead talk about the wars? Is partition an outdated issue or does it still hold any relevance?
Talking of relevance, another debate that came to my mind was whether it is fine to keep talking about it? Should we not just move on?
I will begin by answering the second question first. Prof. Krishna Kumar in his book “Battle for Peace” (2007) has argued and I agree with him that while a lot has been written on partition, we have not been encouraged to engage with it. We have, especially on the Indian side, continued to see and develop it further without challenging the basic proposition. There is now an emphasis on oral history. There is also the angle of class that has been used to explore partition. It is argued that it was the Hindu dominating class v/s the Muslims dominated. While the Indian scholars have debated upon the inevitability of the partition, there hasn’t been any significant attempt to imagine India if partition had not happened. This should not be surprising because the narrative of partition is tied up with the foundation of two countries. While partition is a moment of “crisis” for one, it is a moment of “liberation” for another. This discourages attempts to see partition from the side of the “other”. This discourages any critical dialogue on the narrative of the partition. But it is relevant a discussion? Should we not just forget and move on?
The fact is we can’t. Before forgetting about the partition, we need to engage in a dialogue with it. We need to understand the complexities of the past because it shapes our present perspectives. 67 years after, India and Pakistan still seems to live in the past. 67 years after, we still compare ourselves. On both sides, there are still people who debate if the decision to part ways was right or not. On the Pakistan side, the vision of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah is constantly reminded. As Prof. Krishna Kumar in his book “Pride and Prejudice” (2001) had shown that the idea of Pakistan shared by Quaid-e-Azam during the formative period of Pakistan is still invoked. This is not true for the Indian side. But on the Indian side, many people still remember partition and the existence of Pakistan but in a more negative light. Many people have the misconception that Pakistan came out of India whereas on partition, undivided colonial India had been partition into two nations – India and Pakistan and imagine a “father-son” relationship which is used in a derogatory sense. There are still many people who would point at any negative news from Pakistan and would say that Pakistan has failed and it will soon “merge” with India.
67 years after, we still carry a stagnant picture of each other. Because the partition happened on communal lines, on both sides, people imagine a conservative or hypocrite other. So the talk of partition is still not irrelevant. It is very much alive. The narrative of partition continues to shape our perceptions about each other.
When I say narrative, I mean the “official” narrative. As stated above, both sides have constructed an opposing narrative. The Indian side “officially” sees partition as a sad event. It views it as a significant break in the ‘secular’ fabric of the country. It views it largely as the conspiracy of the British. This is the dominant and official view on partition in India. On the “Pakistan” side, the partition is far from being a moment of “crisis”. It was the partition that led to the birth of Pakistan as a separate country. It is seen as “liberation”. Liberation from whom? As the official narrative of partition says, liberation from both British and Hindu dominance. The book “Pride and Prejudice” (2001) gives the content of history textbooks in both India and Pakistan. Both countries have given different interpretations for same historical events. Both have chosen to emphasise or neglect certain events. Both have used history for their project of nation-building. While India used it to save itself from fragmenting any further, Pakistan used it for legitimizing its decision of separation and for sovereignty. All countries use history for its own national ends and India and Pakistan are no exception.
It is important at this stage to clear that my intention is not to challenge any narrative. It is infact to state that different perspectives exist and we must recognize that. It is to say that none of the narratives can be entirely refuted. One cannot really argue that whose interpretation of history was correct. It cannot be argued that there was no Hindu dominance. It cannot be argued that before the British, there were no problems between Hindus and Muslims. The British may have encouraged the division but they cannot be alone blamed for it. Similarly, the complete difference and opposition theory cannot be accepted either. There cannot be such a simplistic division of population, lived experiences into Hindu and Muslim. The religious identity cannot be assumed to be primary. We need to view these interpretations more critically. History as a discipline has many schools of thought. It accommodates several interpretations and we must respect that.
Besides these two official narratives, we have the narrative of partition that many people on both sides did not and still do not accept the decision of partition. Many did not want to migrate and wanted to live in the place that they had been living for since years. There are many who did not want to migrate but had to or were forced to. We must also respect this. This narrative seems to be more dominant and “accepted” in India. The reason was stated above.
The reason why we need to recognize the different perspectives on partition is because it seems to be the way forward for peace. We need to engage with the narrative of partition, understand it, view it critically and accept that the past was very complex. We need to engage with the past before moving on because the past shapes our present perceptions. We cannot see partition simply as either a sad and disruptive moment in the secular fabric of Indian society or as a moment of liberation accepted by all. On the Indian side, we find it is fine to refute partition without thinking that refuting partition refutes the very existence of a country. This pertains more to ignorance on the Indian side because of the existing official narrative. Similarly, on the Pakistan side, there is a need to realize that while partition is a reality, it was not accepted by all at that time for different reasons. This does not refute the existence of Pakistan. We need to accept that different perspectives exist. We need to engage more critically with our past. We cannot see partition from one view and talk of peace. The past was complex and we need to recognize that for a simpler future.
Kumar, Krishna. 2001. Prejudice and Pride. India: Penguin Books.
Kumar, Krishna. 2007. Battle for Peace. New Delhi: Penguin Books.
This article was published on Countercurrents, South Asia Monitor and Eurasia Review 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sexual violence by army is a reality and cannot be justified

In 2004, Thangjam Manorama, was brutally raped and murdered by Assam Rifles. She was arrested from her house at around 3 am on the allegation of being a “militant”. Her body was found a day later. There were bullet shots in her vagina and semen all over her skirt. To protest against this brutual rape and killing, a group of about 50 women had staged a nude protest in front of the Kangla fort. They had raised slogans like “The Indian Army rape us”. This protest had forced the Manipur Government to act. The Manipur Government had ordered an inquiry and submitted a report but the Guwahati High Court had rejected it saying that the Manipur Government does not have the authority. After continuous pressure, there were some developments in the case but they have not led to any result. Till now, justice has not been granted. This case was not an exception. Such incidents have happened before and continue to happen in areas where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act(AFSPA) has been imposed. Many believe this is because AFSPA provides the armed forces with legal impunity.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) rules over eight states in India – North East India (except Sikkim) and the state of Jammu & Kashmir. In the name of “upholding law and order”, the law gives the right to armed forces to arrest without a warrant, shoot to kill any person on mere suspicion. The law protects the army persons with legal impunity. The officers found guilty can be punished only after the central government issues a sanction. This is one of the main reasons why today AFSPA has become a symbol of army arbitrariness and cruelty in AFSPA areas. AFSPA has resulted in fake encounters, rapes, torture, extra-judicial killings and disappearances.
Much has been written about how the army is misusing its power not only to disregard the civilians but also the government and judiciary. We have had instances where the armed forces have refused to co-operate even when the judiciary has taken up such cases and have been accused of destroying or manipulating evidence. Even in the case of Manorama, it is alleged that the guilty officers had shot her several times in the vagina to destroy evidence. The state government too has acknowledged cruelty of the army in some instances. State government officials have in some cases in Manipur paid compensation to the victims of AFSPA. Former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram had acknowledged that he felt “ashamed” of the Kunan Poshpora incident of Kashmir wherein atleast 50 women were raped by the soldiers of Rajputana Rifles in a single night. But the army alone cannot be blamed. In many cases, the central government has also refused to sanction the right to punish the guilty officers.
There is a sense of hypocrisy, when India talks about human rights, and criticizes China for the atrocities committed in Tibet, and gives shelter to political refugees. While we are proud to call ourselves a democracy, the truth is that the army is very powerful. Also, while AFSPA, an anti-human law, does permit killing, the law does not permit sexual violence. How can the sexual violence be justified at all? This should not come under legal impunity. This was also one of the recommendations of the Justice Verma committee that was appointed in December 2012 to review laws for sexual crimes. The committee had recognized sexual violence by armed forces in AFSPA areas and had recommended that the cases of sexual violence be brought under ordinary criminal law.
The army being held responsible in cases of sexual violence will, in no way, “degrade” or “disrespect” the army as the army officials would like us to believe. We must respect our army. They do sacrifice their lives for us, whatever the motivation may be. It does not mean all their acts are right or should be justified. These incidents are real, they are not fabrications and the guilty army personnel should be punished. The cases of sexual violence have not only been reported from AFSPA states. There have been several reported cases of army men raping civilians in non-AFSPA states. While this does not mean that all army persons misuse their power, some definitely do. The glorification of army and army persons serves like impunity even in non-AFSPA states. Army personnel should never feel insulted or degraded because of measures to ensure transparency and accountability under certain circumstances. But the army cannot and should not have criminals in uniform, they cannot be above the law. This is a democracy and the army being a part of the state must respect it. 
This article was published in The News Minute

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Contributing To A Culture Of Mutual Peace And Understanding : Zindagi Channel

The Zee network has recently launched a new channel by the name of Zindagi. With the theme of “Vasudeva Kutumbkam” or “The whole world is my family”, Zindagi channel promises to bring in stories from around the world. The channel theme and the tag line “Jodey Dilon ko” or “to connect hearts” clearly indicates that this channel has a clear mission. It is trying to use the medium of television to create a culture of peace. The channel was launched on 23rd June and is initially bringing in Pakistani content. The channel has selected some famous serials from Pakistan and is now broadcasting them in India. In this article, I will attempt to analyse the mission of this channel in the context of Indo-Pak relations.
The Indo-Pak relations doesn’t need an introduction. Even those who may not belong to either of the countries may know about the fluctuating relations that the two countries have. The Indo-Pak relations is characterized by love and hatred, peace and war. An important element of the Indo-Pak relations is that of “curiosity”. Both sides are ever curious about each other. Even if one may hate Pakistan, one will still be curious about it and any mention of Pakistan will definitely evoke an interest. This is another interesting bond that India and Pakistan shares and this is because both countries have very limited means of communication or knowing each other. There are severe visa issues. Other means of communication are also bound with several restrictions. Because of this, people in both countries do not know each other and have painted an opposing picture of the other. Both have constructed stereotypes for each other. But as I had previously said, even with hatred and suspicion, they remain ever curious and interested to know about the other.
Now what happened when Zindagi channel was launched? Indian channels and serials have been broadcasted both legally and illegally in Pakistan. The Pakistan Electric Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has from time to time tried to enforce strict restrictions on the telecast of Indian serials because of several reasons including the petitions by local channel producers but they have met with little success. According to a Times of India report dated 19 November 2013, a no. of channels in Pakistan were fined for airing too much of “Indian content”. The people of Pakistan have also resisted these restrictions by shifting to DTH cable system or by watching them online. In contrast to this, India has had few such opportunities to access Pakistani channels and serials.
So while people in Pakistan had a sense of what India was like, what Indians think, people in India were largely clueless. And so with this initiative of Zee, with this opportunity to know the “other”, their enthusiasm seems to have crossed the boundaries. There was a huge enthusiasm from people of India for this new channel. This can be inferred from the response that can be seen on social networking sites and ofcourse, the TRPs. A Times of India report dated 1 July 2014 had argued that not only the channel has received good response from the public but even bollywood and television celebrities are welcoming the new channel.
Saying so, the first step towards the mission of the channel seems to have been completed. It has established itself to become the platform through which people will know about the other side of the border. Now comes the second and more important step. What is the content?
Zindagi channel is currently running 4 shows – Zindagi Gulzar Hain, Aunn Zara, Kitni Girhain Baaki Hain and Kaash Main Teri Beti Na Hoti. All the four serials given an insight into the everyday life and struggles that people in Pakistan go through. It presents the problems existing there. It is presenting the extreme rich and poor divide, the problem of polygamy and the problems faced by women. Why did the channel pick on these shows? What is the relevance?
By picking up these shows, the channel is doing something more important. By presenting the everyday struggles, the everyday stories of pain, the Zindagi channel is able to show that we, Indians and Pakistanis, are not only similar in our language, culture, values but also in our problems. These problems are relatable. We are also struggling with them here. There is an extreme level of rich and poor divide in our country as well. The problems of marriage are also as relevant here. There is a serial by the name of “Kitni Girhain Baaki Hai”. The stories in this serial are as relevant to Indian audience. The stories presented in this serial pertain to the struggle of women, the changing society and human nature.
This representation of struggle has another element to it. It breaks the image of Pakistan that has been painted by our biased media. Pakistan has been painted as a Muslim conservative country. It is being seen as riddled with severe problems which people in Pakistan have accepted and glorified. This image of Pakistan is quite problematic. While Pakistan has its problems, the people of Pakistan have not accepted it and are struggling to change it. There does exist a counter culture in Pakistan that is trying to oppose the forces of religious fundamentalism and intolerance. These serials are also representing this counter culture. It is breaking several myths about Pakistan. While polygamy is prevalent in Pakistan, there are voices against it. People are struggling against it. It is being popularly rejected. Same goes for women’s rights. In all the four serials, women are not being shown as passive and submissive.
Thus, this representation of women in sarees will also have another important connect. It will break the stereotype that muslims are “conservative”. One of the most common stereotypes about muslims is that muslim women would always wear a burqa or atleast a hijab. It must be noted that while considering burqa and hijab as a sign of “conservatism” is a debatable issue but popularly it is seen as “conservative”. This stereotype is also very apparent in the representation of muslims in Indian electronic media. The representation of women in sarees breaks this popularly-held stereotype. It also again shows that how Indians and Pakistanis share a similar culture even in terms of their dress.
The representation of the counter voices and elements of cultural similarities like the saree are extremely important details that are breaking the popularly held views about Pakistan and Pakistanis. In one of our aman chaupal sessions in which we tell Indian students about Pakistan, when asked about the official language of Pakistan, several students were confident that it is Arabic. With this and some other views expressed, it was clear that how they had stereotyped Pakistan to be a “conservative” country with one religion and one language (Arabic). They had a completely opposing picture of Pakistan. For them, Pakistan was completely different from India and there were no similarities. This was also not just an experience of one school but in all the other schools that we have done sessions, students had more or less the same views. Their views reflect the popular conceptions.
Thus, I feel that Zindagi Channel is a great and an important initiative that has been taken by the Zee network. By breaking these stereotypes and emphasizing on similarities in terms of language, culture and challenges that people of India and Pakistan share, it will become an important contribution to creating a culture of mutual peace and understanding among the people of India and Pakistan.
This article was published at Countercurrents