Thursday, February 21, 2013

Afzal Guru or our democracy...who was hanged?

This is not a direct appeal for abolishment of capital punishment though it does raise questions on it. Afzal Guru was one of the accused in the 2001 parliament attack. After 12 years, today early in the morning, he was hanged till death.
As justice was buried, there was an outpour of reactions, carefully sorted and handpicked by the news channels across the nation. The ruling party pated its own backs and talked about the need to take this “crucial” step. The largest opposition party, BJP, expressed its “relief” even though it meant that another point on their agenda has been dismissed but nevertheless they criticized Congress for the delay. People rejoicing or expressing relief that finally, “justice” has been done.
Afzal Guru was given the death penalty way back in 2002. It was upheld in 2006 by the Supreme court and then after a series of approval, on the republic day, this year, the President passed the recommendation to depart justice in the country.
Yes, today, justice was buried, it departed. And this does not involve just a questioning of whether this would mean the end of terrorism or insurgency. It has re-iterated questions on the world’s largest democracy to have denied the right to free trial, the right to present his case and the right to prove his innocence.
Afzal Guru was presented as the biggest terrorist in the country, even “bigger” than Ajmal Kasab. And this charge suppressed any voice to counter or question it. There have been several debates on his case on major news channels. However, the debates were mostly on the death sentence and not on the hard facts that render him innocent and another victim of dirty and communal politics.
When in 2006, Afzal Guru’s execution date, time and place was announced, there were widespread protests in Kashmir. The protests involved thousands of men, women and children taking to streets. The protests continued for several days and had also involved several political parties and leaders of the Kashmiri movement for self-determination. There is also a SaveAfzal Guru Campaign that primarily demanded for his right to be heard, to present his story and for justice.
More importantly, let’s focus on the innumerable petitions that were filed by Afzal Guru himself. These petitions were not petitions of mercy. Here are some excerpts from a petition submitted in 2006 to the then President of India, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam:
“It is true that I did not file any petition before you but it was not out of any arrogance or ill will. I had no hope of getting justice. Besides, I was told that my lawyers would be filing a curative petition and I was hoping that I may still get justice from the Supreme Court. But my lawyers did not file any such petition and instead my death warrant was issued.”
“I am aware that there is one other argument being given for hanging me. They say I have not shown remorse or begged for forgiveness. Your Excellency, I cannot ask for forgiveness for something that I have not done.”
I take this opportunity to write to you, the President of India as a Kashmiri because very few kashmiris get an opportunity to be heard.”
In his petition, he narrated the daily experiences of a kashmiri. He had joined the secessionist movement to demand freedom and the right to basic human rights for his people but he himself had surrendered to the Border Security force, only to face a life of torture and indignity. In his petition, he exposed the corrupt and inhuman treatment by the Security Task Force.
One of the allegations that he was charged with was that he knew the people who were involved in the attack. To this, he said:
“It was these officers of the STF who used me and introduced me to one Mohammad who was one of the persons who attacked the Indian Parliament. I do not know who this Tariq was and I did not know what the plot was. I became involved in the conspiracy to attack Parliament without my knowledge, intention or willingness. Your Excellency, I was made a scapegoat by the investigating agencies because they could not catch the real masterminds behind the attack”, petitioned a MBA-degree holder.
In the petition, he exposed the truth of the investigating agencies, the torture and how he was falsely implicated in cases to “crack” the case. He provided his side of the story, the evidence and the loopholes in all the charges that he was accused of. According to him, he was never given a proper lawyer. According to him, out of 80 prosecution witnesses, only 22 were cross-examined by the advocate appointed to “represent” him.
Besides his petition for a fair trial, there is a need to look at the findings and the verdict of the Supreme Court of India. Quoting from several newspaper clippings and the publication “The Afzal Petition – A quest for justice”:
“The Supreme Court did not award Afzal the death penalty because he was the mastermind or because he was involved in killing any of the security personnel or even of actually planting any bombs. The charge sheet did not have his name. The five accused who had carried out the attack were all Pakistanis, though no proof of their identity was produced. Therefore, it is clear than even the prosecution did not accuse Afzal of being involved in the actual attack, killing or planting. Infact, there was no evidence at all that Afzal belonged to any banned or illegal organization. He was acquitted of charges of belonging to any terrorist organization.”
But he was hanged till death with the logic given by the Supreme Court that:
“The incident, which has resulted in heavy causalities, has shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender”.
He was hanged, said the Supreme Court, to “satisfy” the collective conscience of the society. What conscience is this? Re-iterating the inhuman practices of the past to impart “justice”?
We need strict laws but not the barbaric and inhuman ones. There is also a need to ensure that the innocent do not get targeted. There is a need to check on the corruption and the biases in the legal and judicial proceedings. 
Most importantly, we need to strike the roots. Even if Afzal Guru was really a terrorist, we must remember that terrorists are not out of this society, they are a creation of this very society. There is a need to reform the society, a need to attack these forces of inequalities, hatred and religious fundamentalism.  
With remorse, I have written this piece. We have “granted” death to a man who may have been completely innocent. But Afzal Guru was not the first person who has met this fate. He was one of the many who has died as a victim of communal and corrupt politics, as a victim of extreme and blinding nationalism and another blot on the ‘secular’, ‘democratic’ republic of India.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sexuality and the chains of society: Questioning "their" right to exist

"Tu zeher kha ke mar ja, tujhe jeene ka koi haq nai hai"
(Have poison, you have no right to live.) 

These lines were said to someone who is a transgender female. I was stunned when i heard this line today during my fieldwork. I was attending a meeting of people with diverse sexualities. Today, they discussed about their experiences, the usual behavior that is meted out to them by their own family, at workplace or when they are walking down the streets.

This statement and the other things that I heard today disturbed me a lot. They keep coming back to me and even as I write to me, the discussion is being re-played/re-telecasted in my mind and I remember the tone and the expressions as they shared the horrific truth of this society.

The person who had faced this suggestion to take her own life was very disturbed and kept demanding for a solution. She narrated how once someone at her workplace got to know that she is not a male, the teasing, the verbal abuse and harassment had started. I noticed the way she was trying to give out the details, she felt uncomfortable, with a sense of humiliation and disgust and it reminded me of my own self when I would try to confide details of any eve-teasing or harassment that i would face.

There was another person who talked about the problems that she was facing in her family. It would involve verbal abuse, words or expressions of disgust and physical harassment. There was again a sense of humiliation that she was undergoing, yet I also felt that it was something that was very usual for her.

This discussion was mainly centered around the problems of these two people and other people were trying to give suggestions based on their own experiences. Some of them asked them to compromise with their identity and behave like "men". To which one person lashed back, "Agar mujhe female ki tarah dress karna hai, toh kisi ko kya problem hai?" (If I want to dress up as a female, what is anyone's problem?) As she said it, I was reminded of the innumerable times that I say it myself. There was the same pride in her voice that I have, as I say it.

They all discussed their own stories, day-to-day experiences and I was surprised that as they narrated, they would never  glance at me. They were not conscious at all. And it was because it was nothing "extra-ordinary" for them.

Even as they would sometimes mock at each other, I did not try to join them in their laughs as I was too conscious that maybe my laugh would be taken in a negative sense. I was too conscious and perhaps also guilty.

I watched them as they sang and danced and I saw that as they danced, they did not care about anyone. They did not look at anyone but just danced. The  movements were very free, there were no boundaries. And i felt the power of dance. How symbolic it can be...

Friday, February 1, 2013

Women empowerment in India: bouquets and beautiful women in saree

One of the most typical topics for research on media and advertisement has emerged to be the commercialisation or objectification of women. Women being the eye candy, with the main task of smiling, dancing or being caught by the villain, the axe revolution or the “oomph” factor to sell a mango drink has filled pages after pages. Women are being depicted mainly as a show piece, they are in a subservient position, the ‘liberated’ men and women would argue. It is true and should be condemned. However, is this objectification restricted only to advertisements or the auto expo?

Way back in my all-girls’ school, any programme would involve selection of some tall, long-haired and beautiful girls to be dressed in sarees for the guest of honour ceremony and to present the bouquets. Here, I must admit that it was definitely an honour for someone to be even considered for it. In my all-girls’ college, girls in sarees still dazzled but the length of the hair and the looks varied. Here, I must mention that saree is seen as formal attire for women in India, the politics of it would be discussed later in the piece. Girls, more specifically beautiful girls, in sarees to receive the guests, present bouquets or to move around are a widespread phenomenon in North India. But to a student trained to be sceptical and question everything, it disturbs me a lot.

Saree is formal attire for women in India. However, is there a politics with it? Saree is a dominant attire but there are many different traditional attires in India and it includes salwar suit. But an attire that draws a thin line between being graceful and sensuous has been chosen. It is not to condemn the attire. I personally like it a lot. But the way it is generally donned, especially by young girls, it is more sensuous, a more moderate word is attractive. It is to note that a programme, if it has enough content, should not require people to look attractive, in order to draw attention. Formal or smart attire should be enough. And when I say formal, I would also ask that who decides what is formal and what is not. Any dress can be formal if it is not too attractive but graceful enough. A saree can be that but we must ask, why only saree?

Such programmes also have men in the formal Indian wear, again with the same politics of cultural dominance involved, a sherwani or kurta is selected. However, while men are also expected to dress in a formal way, it is still the women dazzling in sarees to handover the bouquets and make short but more appearances on the stage to say a line or two. It will be women in sarees who would be asked to accompany the guests. Why can’t a man handover the bouquet instead? Why can’t he handle the not-so-important tasks on the stage?

Men and women in their traditional attires do represent the tradition. But why are women, more than men, expected to represent this culture and in an often sensuous attire? Why are women dressed in the traditional attire given more visible but often subservient tasks?

Yes, women do get “empowered” as they are making appearances, they are getting noticed but at what cost? Beauty is a gem, it is not a crime. But do you want people to look at you only because of your looks? Do you want people to look at you, rather than hear what you have to say?

I would like to conclude with what Prof. Pankaj K. Jha, my teacher in my graduation college had remarked, “When it comes to representing culture, we often push our women in front. But when it comes to challenging it, men come forward. We(women) need to make the choice.