Start another Caravan

Start another Caravan

Fifty-five women from 12 states left home for 20 days to hit the streets through 20,000km in this scorching heat across 60 towns to push the  Women’s Reservation Bill
Shaweta Anand Aligarh

Twelve Innovas were transformed into railway coaches of ‘Reservation Express’ that whistled through three routes by road, covering a gigantic distance of over 20,000km through the north-west, north-east and southern parts of India. The campaign was flagged off by, among others, 84-year-old Qamar Azad Hashmi, one of the oldest activists supporting the cause, on May 20 from Jhansi – land of the legendary queen of Jhansi, Jhansi ki rani.

The campaign culminated on June 6 at Delhi’s Constitution Club where the karwans (caravans) converged with women activists from across the country celebrating a massive spectacle of dance, music and spirited slogans. They communicated their experiences to a happy Congress president Sonia Gandhi the next day, who backed this protracted struggle. Activists handed over 10,000 signed postcards to her backing the Women’s Reservation Bill.

“Each karwan had several Muslim and Dalit women who campaigned tirelessly for promoting 33 per cent reservation for all women, irrespective of their caste, class, religion and ethnicity,” Shabnam Hashmi of Anhad told Hardnews. Hashmi is the brain behind this national-level campaign. The campaign generated support from 200 rights-based organisations, feminists, intellectuals, activists and students across the Indian landscape.

Said Sultana Sheikh, stoic survivor of the Gujarat carnage of 2002, “Drunk Hindu fanatics put a sword through my raped body to see if I was dead or alive before leaving me at the river bank. My infant child kept howling while I was tortured. What could he do? What could I do? There was no one to stop them. This happened when we were trying to escape after hundreds of armed men smashed, maimed and burnt members of our families in front of our eyes.”

“That is why I am a part of this campaign so that I can talk to women about their rights, especially their political rights. By getting the Women’s Reservation Bill passed, we will be able to activate women power in this country and protect our rights in a violent, male-dominated world,” she said.

Sheikh was part of the karwan that covered ‘route number two’. They traveled to Jabalpur, Raipur, Balangir, Bhubaneshwar, Vishakhapatnam, Vijaywada, Chennai, Kanchipuram, Madurai, Cochin, Calicut, Bangalore, Anantapur and Hyderabad before converging with other karwan members in Delhi two weeks later. It was led by Sania Hashmi, a documentary filmmaker, and activist Manisha Trivedi.

Also on the same route was Mohini Jatav, a Dalit activist from Jaipur, Rajasthan. Her husband’s legs were mutilated by Gujjar panchayat members as punishment because he refused to work for them. His legs had to be amputated to save his life. “I am here so that I can travel far and wide while connecting with more women like me; so that we can heal our wounds together and fight for our right for representation in politics,” said Jatav.

“I appeal to every women of every village to join us in demanding passage of this law. Why is it that I still haven’t got justice even though I have been running around in courts for 15 years? If more women were in power, they would have ensured women like me got timely justice,” roared Bhanwari Devi.

Bhanwari was a sathin (companion) working for the Women’s Development Programme of the government of Rajasthan in Bhateri in 1992 when she was gang-raped. She was punished for trying to stop the marriage of a nine-month-old girl who belonged to an influential upper-caste family. Shockingly, the court ruled in 1995 that upper-caste men can’t rape a dalit woman. The rapists were publicly felicitated in this feudal, male-dominated state.

A Jaipur-based NGO called Vishakha took up her case that led to the historic Vishakha judgement by the Supreme Court. The court, for the first time, set guidelines of behaviour with women in public spaces, acknowledging that women can be sexually harassed in workplaces and outside.

Haseena Bano, Rubina Bano and Jawahira Rashid, all of 15 years, were the youngest campaigners. They traveled from a remote place called Tangdar in Kashmir to north-east India on ‘route three’. “It has given us so much confidence,” they echoed in chorus. “Every karwan had women from Kashmir. This was a chance of a lifetime for them as they mingled with people they can relate with all over India. It worked wonders for their self-esteem and it shows – some girls went without the traditional veil,” said Seema Duhan, leader of this karwan.

At Aligarh, eminent historians Irfan Habib, Shireen Moosvi and Dr Namita Singh from Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS), endorsed the demand. “Although we got good response from most people, but a Muslim man mocked me in Aligarh. He said I can’t be a genuine Muslim woman since I had stepped out of the four walls of home and was talking to ordinary women about their political rights,” said Rashida Ansari, a survivor of the Gujarat carnage, 2002. “I asked him, which aayat (verse) of Quran says that women can’t get out of home, do politics and run the country? He stared back, speechless,” she told Hardnews.

“I want to see the killers of my sister punished,” said Musarrat Jahan, sister of Ishrat Jahan, killed by Narendra Modi’s top cops in Gujarat. “I am traveling with this karwan  to tell more and more women about how they can change the face of this country. Had there been more women in power today, my sister’s death would have been avenged and many more such deaths – prevented.”

Ishrat Jahan was kidnapped from Mumbai in 2004 and reportedly killed in a fake encounter, charged with plotting to kill Modi. “When we got the news of Ishrat’s death, we didn’t even understand what an encounter meant or who Modi was,” said Shamima Kauser, Musarrat’s mother. “If there were more women in positions of power, there would be less assaults on women in society,” she said.
Activists on ‘route number three’ travelled to Rewa, Daltonganj, Ranchi, Kolkata, Behrampur, Balurghat, Shillong, Guwahati, Siliguri, Katikar, Patna, Varanasi, Allahabad, Lucknow, Aligarh and back to Delhi.

Social workers Anandi and Eashwari from Tamil Nadu traveled on ‘route number one’ that covered north-west India. “As for Dalit women, they will get 33 per cent reservation out of the existing 22.5 per cent SC/ST quota. For Muslims, men and women need the quota since both are grossly under-represented in legislatures; but that is a separate fight which cannot be fought within the ambit of the bill,” explained Anandi.

‘Route number one’ destinations included Bhopal, Indore, Aurangabad, Mumbai, Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Udaipur, Chittorgarh, Bhilwara, Ajmer, Jaipur, Hissar, Jalandhar, Chandigarh, Dharamshala, Mandi, Bilaspur, Shimla, Solan, Dehradun, Meerut and, finally, Delhi. It was led by dogged activist Mansi Sharma of Anhad. “Out of the 543 seats in Parliament, why do we still have only 59 women representatives?” asked Philomena John of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW).

At Lucknow, the old, patriarchal city of nawabs, a huge solidarity gathering of social activists, writers, educationists and journalists welcomed the ‘Reservation Express’ on June 4. Shabnam Hashmi said she was provoked to start the campaign by the acidic comments of Shia cleric Kalbe Jawad of Lucknow that Muslim women should ‘produce’ good leaders instead of becoming leaders themselves. She said Muslim women don’t want a broker like Kalbe Jawad between them and God.

Roop Rekha Verma, former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University, was sure that hurdles created by religious lobbies will only strengthen the movement. She was sharply critical of Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav who said modern women MPs will face the whistles of young politicians. “Such leaders happily admit the corrupt and criminals in their party, but would still oppose women’s rights,” she said, in a voice loaded with sarcasm. Progressive writer Shakil Siddiqui  said reservation was not a solution, and yet, this campaign would raise awareness about women’s rights. So why are they creating obstacles, asked Urdu writer Sabiha Anwar and theatre personality Mridula Bharadwaj.

For many women in the yatra, India came as revelation. Most tribal women had no information about the bill, or their fundamental rights, pointed out Kummo Devi from Himachal Pradesh. Sukhbir Kaur from Punjab discovered that most women had no job cards.  “I was shocked to see so much poverty in our villages,” she said.

It was a synthesis of human solidarity, aesthetics and politics. Poems of great progressive legends like Jan Nisar Akhtar and Kaifi Azmi were recited, songs were sung, songs and slogans of beauty, humanity, change and revolution; women and girls hugged and laughed, all prepared to reaffirm life, and fight till the last. This body language spoke of emancipation.

After a strong public response at Guwahati, the 20-member ‘Reservation Express’ made a brief sojourn at Shillong, capital of ‘matrilineal” Meghalaya, to garner support. The programme held at Asom Kristi Kendra in early June was organised by the North East Network (NEN) along with Lympung Ki Seng Kynthei and YWCA. Said Meghalaya’s education minister and lone woman legislator Ampareen Lyngdoh, “Women must be empowered, educated and enlightened on the nuances of parliamentary democracy and electoral politics.”

“There is tremendous response. It is a misnomer that people are opposing the bill,” said Seema Duhan. So will they meet politicians who are opposing the bill? “There is no point in reacting to chauvinistic statements which do not have content,” she shot back.

A panel discussion on ‘Women’s Reservation: Are we ready for it?’ was held at Shillong College. Activist Angela Rangad asked if there would be “real emancipation” of women if the bill is passed. There is no guarantee that if a woman is elected she won’t be as corrupt as her male counterparts. “This is the narrative of repression, from Catherine the Great to Margaret Thatcher who dismantled the ‘welfare state’. Indira Gandhi was responsible for the infamous Emergency,” she said.  “Women should be more concerned with what programmes the elected women would take up for their benefit. Besides, what are the 53 women MPs doing to push women’s issues?”

Dr Pascal Malngiang of the department of political science, North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), narrated the historical struggle for reservation. The Nairobi Conference in 1985 proposed 35 per cent reservation for women in all elections across the world. Scandinavian countries like Norway, Finland and Sweden have the maximum number of women representatives. “Two-thirds of the world’s work force is women. They earn only 10 per cent of the world’s income,” he said. Indeed, the matrilineal system in Meghalaya does not ensure space for women in the political system.

Prof V Pakyntein of the department of anthropology, NEHU, said she was wary of the money and muscle power used by male candidates to win elections. “Hence, women must come out of the closet and fight elections,” she said.

Come out of the closet. That is the key. Open the windows of emancipation. Seek power, forever denied. Seek equality and justice, forever shut out. Change the gender equations. Fly with the wings of aspirations. Make this world humane, better, worthwhile – for all. Eliminate poverty, exploitation and hunger. Said Mansi Sharma, “Women want to reserve their historic place in  our fragmented, unequal democracy. They want to find their collective identity and power. This world must change. The Women’s Reservation Bill must be passed. This is just another starting point.”

With Pradeep Kapoor in Lucknow and Andrew Lyngdoh in Shillong

Caste and Politics

Caste and Politics


By Ajay K Mehra
The Statesman/ANN

Rajni Kothari had advanced a significant formulation in 1970: “The alleged casteism in politics is no more and no less than politicisation of castes.” He explained that “by drawing the caste system into its organisational web, politics finds material for its articulation and moulds it into its own design. In making politics their sphere of activity, caste and kin groups on the other hand, get a chance to assert their identity and strive for positions.”

This binary process of caste and politics interacting within the democratic template has created its own dynamics. Politics uses the social organisation of castes. And castes use the political opportunity for influence, power and economic benefits. This construct was conceptualised by M.N. Srinivas in his presidential address at the Calcutta Science Congress in January 1957. He noted that during the past century, caste had found new spheres of activity, politics being one of the prominent ones.

The marginalised castes and communities have successfully vied for power. They have gained a noticeable and effective presence in the corridors of power within the three decades of the electoral process. They have made their way despite the initial advantage of the upper and dominant castes. This confirms the theory of these two doyens of social science ~ Kothari and Srinivas.

Volatile mix

After six decades, 15 general elections and several state assembly elections, caste is now increasingly assertive in political terms. Over the past two decades, the country has witnessed a volatile mix of caste and quota politics. In rural and urban India, caste has acquired a social space. This has complicated a range of social issues.

Since 1952, India’s electoral politics has been based on a jigsaw of social coalitions, which started fragmenting during the Seventies and the Eighties and fell apart by the Nineties. The flux created local or state-based coalitions around several leaders or parties, each seeking a winning and electorally sustainable caste arithmetic. The need for expanding such coalitions for creating larger vote-banks led to populism. The outcome was a tangled skein of caste politics and quota politics.

Obviously society and politics never abondoned caste. Obviously again, Kothari’s nuanced distinction has lost relevance since the 1990s. The country has been in the fast lane of caste politics since V.P. Singh’s ‘Mandal’ counterpoise ~ with an assertion of social justice ~ to the Sangh Parivar’s ‘Kamandal’ politics, seeking to create a social coalition of upper and middle caste Hindus.

The continuing violence against the Dalits and Adivasis is a dark chapter of Indian democracy. The quota politics was a reassertion of castes in the last decade of the 20th century. To seek a caste-based census is only an extension of the trend.

Of late, couples have been killed for sagotra marriages. On occasion, the families have had a hand in the murders, committed under pressure and virtual licence from the khap panchayats. The latter’s ability to convince an MP to highlight their stand in Parliament and the Haryana chief minister lending support to the khap point of view are signs of resurgence and reassertion of caste as a social formation.

Noticeable also is the emergence of a political pressure group beyond quota politics. This has affected the tenets of the Constitution and the rule of law. In a sense, lending support to the khap perception is an endorsement of the ‘death sentence’ against same gotra marriages.

Caste is obviously asserting and reinforcing its societal influence through politics. And, the political leadership is rapidly losing its legitimacy and confidence to foster change towards a socially less stratified India. Electoral considerations come in the way; political expediency allows the social ills to persist.

The reassertion of the khap is not an isolated development despite the impression that the influence of caste is weakening in the urban areas. There is a move to legalise a ban on sagotra marriages through the political process. The government’s inability to adopt a Uniform Civil Code despite Article 44 of the Constitution, the existence of personal laws such as the shariah and the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 that proscribes certain marital alliances are cited as the reasons why the community rights of the khaps should be respected and sagotra marriage banned under the Hindu Marriage Act. The rights of couples opting for such marriages could be taken care of by the Special Marriages Act. It ignores the fact that the khap’s killer-diktat respects neither individual rights nor the SPA. Should the khap’s demand be fulfilled, it will lend a legal stamp to a regressive casteist trend.

Affirmative action

THE only aspect of caste that is recognised constitutionally is that the historical wrongs against the lowest castes and the Adivasis merit affirmative action to ensure their uplift and end prejudices. Such action has not been sufficiently effective to ensure a secure existence against upper caste tyranny in rural India. In fact, the rising intermediate castes have either replaced or joined them in this oppression. This is testified by the data on atrocities against the lower castes.

Second, the demand for affirmative action for the Dalit converts to Islam and Christianity and the opposition to it indicate that the deeply entrenched prejudices and socio-economic disabilities still persist. Obviously, the purported policies of inclusion have had limited impact on the process of exclusion.

Third, the transformation of discrimination politics from classes to castes between the Kaka Kalelkar Commission in 1952 and the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in 1990, is a striking example of the reassertion of caste in society and politics. Since then it has been an important instrument to garner votes of this large segment. The Supreme Court’s 50 per cent ceiling against the reservation rush and its acceptance of caste as the defining parameter of the OBC (1992), the debate on reservation in private sector jobs (2004), the implementation of the OBC quota in education (2006), have combined to bring caste to the forefront of political mobilisation. Caste forms the backdrop of both society and politics.

The writer is Honorary Director, Centre for Public Affairs, Noida

Seeking justice? Mind your language

New Delhi, July 4:


For those seeking justice in India, writing in an Indian language can prove a bar. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes has refused to probe allegations of forcible land acquisition in Orissa on the ground that it does not understand Oriya, the language in which the complaints have been made. The commission’s Calcutta office, which covers cases relating to Orissa, has written back to its headquarters in Delhi saying it is “not in a position to take any action” on the complaints from Dalit villagers. The complaints say the Orissa government, in collusion with contractors, has been “forcibly displacing” thousands of poor Dalits since 2008 to make way for the Salandi Sanskar irrigation project in Bhadrak district. The commission’s Delhi office had in May last year forwarded the complaints to its Calcutta branch for a probe. But the deputy director of the Calcutta office, S.K. Naskar, said in his reply: “There is nobody in this office who has even a little bit of knowledge of reading or writing in (the) Oriya language.” A senior police officer in Calcutta said official complaints can be lodged in any Indian language, and it is up to the government agency to get it translated. “There’s no pool of translators with the government; it’s the agency’s responsibility to look for translators,” he said. The commission’s Calcutta office has returned the complaints to the Bhadrak collector for action. This amounts to asking the accused to deal with a complaint against them, Orissa lawyer Radhakant Tripathy said. Tripathy had filed the first complaint — in English — on May 4 last year. After that, many villagers from the area sent their own petitions in Oriya.

New panel to study Vedanta mine impact on tribals

New panel to study Vedanta mine impact on tribals

The Dongria Kondhs of Lanjigarh in Orissa may have got some respite with the Ministry of Environment and Forests setting up another committee to reconsider how the proposed Vedanta mine in the area could affect the tribe

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office has written to the Ministry of Environment and Forests urging it to clear Vedanta’s proposed Niyamgiri mine in Orissa. The project cannot go ahead without final clearance from the ministry, which, on June 30, 2010, appointed yet another expert committee to carry out further investigations.

Media reports indicate that the experts will be submitting their findings within a month and that the environment ministry is likely to announce its decision around the time of Vedanta’s AGM in London on July 28. Till then, Vedanta Alumina’s plans to source bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa’s Kalahandi district will have to wait.

An earlier team of experts commissioned by the environment ministry to investigate Vedanta’s plans warned that the mine was likely to have a devastating effect on Dongria Kondh tribals living in the area. In fact, the latest committee was set up as a follow-up to concerns raised by a three-member committee that submitted its report after site inspections in January and February 2010.

The report on violations of the Forest Conservation Act was prepared by the Chief Conservator of Forests (central) J K Tewari. Former Additional Director General (wildlife) at the Wildlife Institute of India, Vinod Rishi, made out the report on the project’s impact on local wildlife. The study on the impact on local populations was carried out by Usha Ramanathan, an independent legal researcher.

Tewari and Rishi’s reports gave the project a clean chit; Ramanathan was the only member of the team who argued against the project. She questioned the Orissa state government’s claim that the Forest Rights Act had been fully implemented. The report gave clear warning that the project would destroy the local Dongria Kondh tribe. According to Ramanathan, the 7,000-odd strong tribal group would not be able to make the transition from a forest-based lifestyle to one that would be necessary should the mining project take off.

The new expert committee, headed by National Advisory Council member N C Saxena, will now examine, apart from the diversion of land which comes under the Forest Conservation Act 1980, issues of settlement of rights under the Forest Rights Act 2006. Of particular importance will be the “specific impact on the livelihood, culture and material welfare of the Dongria Kondhs, a notified primitive tribal group,” a ministry release says.

The committee will also consider the project’s impact on wildlife and biodiversity in the surrounding areas.

The decision to withhold final clearance is in line with the environment ministry’s July 2009 circular, stating: ‘State/UT governments, where process of settlement of rights under the Forest Rights Act is yet to begin, are required to enclose evidences supporting that settlement of rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 will be initiated and completed before the final approval for the proposals.’

This stance came under attack from the prime minister’s office and the company’s spokespersons, who argued that the environment ministry’s jurisdiction was limited to forest and wildlife matters. The project was given ‘in-principle’ clearance in 2008 by Jairam Ramesh’s predecessor.

Ramesh, who has been objecting to the concept of in-principle clearance, has told Parliament that “had the Tribal Act been in place, the chances are that this project (Vedanta) would not have been cleared in the first place”. In the past, he has repeatedly stressed that the project would be given forest clearance only after the issue of tribal rights had been settled.

A number of international NGOs have taken up the cause of the tribe, which claims that the mine will desecrate its holy mountain and cause disruptions to its way of life in the Niyamgiri hills.

Survival International’s director Stephen Corry, said: “The prime minister ought to be protecting the rights of India’s most vulnerable citizens, not helping to railroad through a project that government experts have warned could destroy them.” A Dongria Kondh man told Survival: “Mining only makes profit for the rich. We will become beggars if the company destroys our mountain and our forest so that they can make money.”

Last year the UK government condemned Vedanta, declaring that it “did not respect the rights of the Dongria Kondh” and that a “change in the company’s behaviour (is) essential”. The Church of England, the Norwegian government and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust are among the high-profile investors that have sold their Vedanta shares over serious human rights concerns.

We will live with RJD and die with RJD: Paswan

New Delhi:


Ram Vilas Paswan minus RJD and vice versa is unthinkable, says LJP chief.

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Discount Shopping

Putting at rest the speculation about the possibility of his joining the Union Cabinet, former Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan on Wednesday said he would play the role of an opposition leader.

“It (joining cabinet) is completely wrong. We will play the role of the Opposition and I will try to raise the issues concerning Dalits and the poor, which could not find a voice in the Upper House after the Rajya Sabha term of most of Dalit leaders got over,” Paswan told reporters here.

He was responding to speculations that he may find a place in the Union Cabinet likely to be shuffled by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in near future.

While thanking Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her political advisor Ahmed Patel for personally wishing him on his 64th birthday yesterday, Paswan said, “it is my political decision not to become a Minister and instead give a voice to the Dalit issues in Parliament.” Paswan, whose party has announced to contest the upcoming Bihar Assembly elections in alliance with Lalu Prasad-led RJD, said, “We will live with RJD and die with RJD. Ram Vilas Paswan minus RJD and vice versa is unthinkable. Our alliance is rock solid and unbreakable.” When asked if there is any possibility of his joining hands with Congress for Bihar polls, he said, “There is no question of going hither or thither. We have very little left for the elections.” The Congress had already on July 5 said that there was “little possibility” of the party forging any alliance with LJP for the Bihar polls.

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