August 8, 2003, Chandigarh, India
Supreme Court strikes a blow
Learn from Himachal
God save America!
Panchayats going haywire
The bygone mango days
Disturbing dimensions of civil society
Churning in the
Supreme Court strikes a blow
WEDNESDAY’S Supreme Court ruling in the Tamil Nadu case that government employees have no fundamental right to go on strike is bound to have far-reaching implications for the trade union movement’s handling of relations between the largest employer and the staff. Irresponsible trade unionism has been the cause of indiscipline in government offices — whether at the Centre or in the states. Doctors, engineers, pilots, teachers, bank staff, almost everyone have struck work, oblivious of the hardship that it causes to the people. The Supreme Court has sought to demolish the view that the right to strike is a fundamental right of the trade unions. Article 19 (c) of the Constitution, no doubt, guarantees them the right to form unions or associations. But the apex court does not want the unions to hold an entire state or country to ransom. The same argument holds good even for the Industrial Disputes Act (IDA) which enables the employees to go on strike after submitting a 14-day notice to the authorities. The IDA may have also now come under strain following the Supreme Court’s reiteration of its earlier ruling in 1962 that trade unions had no “guaranteed right” to an effective collective bargaining or to strike.
The court’s judgement, however, raises serious questions. First, to what extent the Supreme Court’s observations are enforceable? And second, will it really be possible for the aggrieved employees to expect prompt response from the tribunals given the way they function? The Supreme Court has said, for instance, that if an employee approached the State Administrative Tribunal (SAT), either challenging the FIR or against imposition of any penalty, it should pass orders within two weeks from the date of filing of such application. However, the problem with these tribunals is that while many of them are either headless or non-functional, governments hardly take interest in them. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the SAT is almost defunct. It has only the Vice-Chairman to run the show!
Considering the fact that a strike in any office, industry or undertaking will do more harm than good to both employees and employer, there is need for a reverse mechanism which enjoins a special responsibility on the authorities
themselves to take prompt and effective steps to avoid a strike. Generally, most of the time, it is the government’s adamant attitude and refusal to listen to the grievances of the employees that lead to a strike. In its own interest, the government should try to avoid such a situation. On their part, the employees should see whether the huge funds spent on them are commensurate with the quality of services being rendered by them and behave in a manner by which the people have greater confidence in them than that they have now.
Learn from Himachal
JEAN DREZE does not need any introduction as he has co-authored several books with Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. Both of them argue that the keys to the country’s development are universalisation of education and better healthcare. Unlike armchair academicians, Dr Dreze has been moving up and down the country organising people on their “Right to Food”. His “public hearings” are considered a pioneering experiment to conscientise the citizen about one of his basic rights. His Public Report On Basic Education, which is known by its acronym PROBE, helped to establish benchmarks in the assessment of educational achievements. He is a passionate advocate of the mid-day meal scheme, which does wonders in improving enrolment and retention of students in schools. Few people are in a position to comment on the state of education in the country better than Dr Dreze. Thus when he praises the dramatic transformation in the literacy profile of Himachal Pradesh, it means something.
Today 98 per cent of children in the 6-17 age-group are in schools in Himachal Pradesh. It is such a commendable achievement that Dr Dreze calls the state the Kerala of the North. In many ways, the accomplishment of Himachal Pradesh is more significant than that of Kerala. While the southern state had the benefit of centuries of missionary work for the dissemination of knowledge and the spread of education and the benevolence of an enlightened maharaja who encouraged women’s education, Himachal Pradesh had nothing of the kind to bank upon. Yet, in less than a decade, enrolment in schools has increased several fold. There has been a qualitative and quantitative improvement in girls education too. Sooner than later, the spin-offs from this progress will be felt in all fields of life in the state. In a nutshell, the hilly state has stolen a march over several others like Punjab, which are comparatively richer and better endowed.
At the other end of the spectrum is a state like Bihar where, according to Dr Dreze, “there is nothing, not even classrooms, in the name of education to its credit”. A majority of the children never see the inside of a school and a majority of those who are sent to the roofless schools where teachers remain absent most of the time drop out after a year or two. This, in turn, discourages parents from sending their children to schools. This vicious circle needs to be broken with imaginative programmes like the mid-day meal scheme. Wherever the scheme has been introduced, teachers have found to their surprise that more and more students have enrolled and fewer and fewer students have dropped out. If laggard states emulate the example set by Himachal Pradesh, it will not be difficult for India to emerge as one of the most literate countries.
God save America!
BACK in the late 1980s and early 1990s, under Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the federal government went on the offensive against pornography. Then came a Clinton administration that had different priorities. And now a porn star has thrown her hat in the ring for election as governor of California. Even if Mary Carey does not rustle up enough votes, she will have the satisfaction of having taken on Arnold Schwarzenegger, the eternal hunk of Hollywood, and Larry Flint, the Hustler magazine publisher. It can turn into a colourful campaign with the dare-all Mary appearing sandwiched between Republican Arnold and Democratic Larry at joint election rallies. The whistle stop tours too may get a new meaning with Mary pledging to make tap dances tax deductible and swap guns for smut if elected.
Of course, porn and politics are not exactly strange bed-fellows. The nearest India has come to publicly embracing this form of politics is the election of several eunuchs to local bodies and assemblies in some states. That enterprising politicians learn to turn walk-in closets into sleep-in closets is not the same thing as porn stars openly throwing whatever they can in the electoral ring in more liberal democracies. In January Chilean voters had a gala time seeing, more than hearing, Reichel at her porn-best. She showed them how she would stop other politicians from speaking in parliament.
The record books are silent on who was the first porn lady lawmaker. But no one has contested Cicciolina’s claim. The Italian press had played a key role in helping her receive the mandate to represent her fellow travellers in the country’s legislature between 1987 and 1992. The Speaker never had a problem with the quorum because the presence of the queen of softcore made male members remain glued to their seats. Had Saddam Hussein accepted her generous offer of favours in exchange for the release of the foreign hostages after Gulf War I, he may not be on the run today. It was a monumental error of judgment that deprived him of pleasure then and power now.
Thought for the day
Where there is officialism every human relationship suffers.
Panchayats going haywire
THEY burnt witches at the stake, didn’t they? Well, that was in the Middle Ages. In this new millennium, “witches” are burnt, bludgeoned and made to die a thousand deaths in our country which boasted of an ancient civilisation! The latest punishment inflicted on a “witch” was forcing her to eat pig excreta to drive away the evil spirits which possessed her. What a nice way to enter the 21st century!
This shocker came from Naialpur village in Guna district of Madhya Pradesh. The gram panchayat decided that a 35-year-old tribal woman was a witch and held her responsible for the death of a 13-year-old girl upholding the charge levelled by her father. The village priest while hearing the case offered the woman sheets of black and white papers and when she picked up a black paper decided she was a witch and was guilty of the death of the girl. He also decided on the punishment, swallowing pig excreta diluted with water. The gram panchayat agreed with the verdict and the woman had to undergo the humiliation. Whether she was rid of the “evil spirits” which possessed her, we do not know.
What is this nation coming to? While ignorance and superstition are part of our rural life, what was particularly shocking in this affair was the role of the gram panchayat. We hailed the introduction of the panchayati raj, it was supposed to represent democracy at the grassroot level. It also stood for decentralisation of power. Why bother higher institutions and delay decisions when issues could be settled by the gram panchayats?
The motives were no doubt noble. Obviously something had gone wrong somewhere. What was happening in such gram panchayats in the northern states and West Bengal were often shocking. Quite often we heard reports of panchayats deciding horrendous punishments for people who had dared to do something different. As for instance, marrying outside the caste and eloping. The gram panchayats ordered the erring couples to be brought back, “tried” them and punished them by having them hanged from the nearest tree. Reminds one of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the American South during the early years of the 20th century.
One did not know how these panchayats functioned. Were the members elected in a democratic manner with everyone in the village voting? Did they enjoy powers to “try” cases as the ones mentioned above and act as the prosecutor, jury, judge and executioner? How was it that time and again, such panchayat members escaped punishment by law enforcement agencies?
If gram panchayats decided to take the law into their own hands, did that mean that the law of the land did not prevail in these regions? In most cases errant panchayat members belonged to the upper castes and the victims from the lower. Any kind of social interaction was forbidden. If the latter dared to draw water from the village well, they were brutalised and their women folk raped. If members of the lower castes dared to look their superiors in the eye, the punishment could be the gouging out of the eyes. Mind you, such punishments were pronounced in open sessions of the gram panchayats and carried out in full view of the public.
What a way for democracy to function at the lower levels? The Founding Fathers of our democracy, the law makers, the Constitution makers, had not bargained for this kind of savagery. The criminals escaped punishment because by the time the police arrived on the scenes all signs of the crimes were erased, witnesses warned not to open their mouths. The investigation was often cursory because the criminals were powerful people in the village, belonging to the upper castes. The token police force went back to the bigger villages, only to return when the next atrocity was perpetrated.
The combination of the higher caste panchayat members and the local priest who symbolised all sorts of superstition was often a deadly one. It was this combination which decided how to deal with the “witches” in the region. Many of these poor women were innocent victims of ancient feuds or owned property which was coveted by others. What better way to deprive them of their livelihood and property than by proclaiming them as “possessed” and by devising gruesome punishments either to kill them or get rid of the evil spirits.
The level of illiteracy, ignorance and influence of superstition among the people in these regions ( tribal areas of MP, UP, Bihar, Bengal) was so high that the villagers enthusiastically participated in such gruesome ordeals, which sometimes, included stoning the poor “witch” to death. This was made possible by providing plenty of powerful local brew to the villagers, promising them a good meal as well as a little fun. These brought out the worst among the villagers who failed to realise that one day, such persecutors may well become the victims.
Is there a solution to such savagery? Education is the best solution to overcome public apathy and superstition, but that is a long-range process. The state governments concerned should identify such trouble spots and post additional police posts, explaining to the police men the nature of the crimes they had to deal with. Policemen who failed to take proper preventive measures or took no action against known culprits should be dealt with severely.
The functioning of the gram panchayats should be scrutinised carefully periodically. The upper caste villagers who were guilty of crimes against the tribals and lower castes should be kept away from the panchayat membership. Periodic visits by social service agencies and human rights activists would also help. The villagers should be made to understand that witches did not exist today, and any attempts to label innocent women, should be dealt with severely.
Ultimately, most of the “witch hunts” boiled down to caste conflicts and avarice. Women living alone in isolated surroundings do tend to behave strangely at times, but that did not mean they were possessed by evil spirits. The concept of the village priest wielding enormous powers and practising all types of quackery had to be demolished. In the Guna district case, it was the priest who was the root cause of all the mischief. He should be prosecuted and punished along with guilty members of the village panchayat.
The bygone mango days
DURING the summer vacations, we — brothers, sister and I along with mother — would gravitate towards Bahraich, as moths would towards a flame of fire, leaving behind father at Lucknow, for Bahraich was the place, not far from Lucknow, where lay the mango orchards, left by our grandfather. The trees bore fruits, all of the “chuswa” variety — juicy, delicious, big and small, ripened and yellowing or of the hue of the golden sunset. The lure of the mangoes would beckon us, year after year, more than 40 years ago.
During the days I write of, mangoes were sold and purchased, not by weight but the count of a hundred. The man who would take out the contract for the year’s yield would leave out a tenth of the crop to the share of the owners, and out of the latter quota, would have delivered to us at our residence a couple of sacks full of mangoes, everyday, each containing about a thousand fruits.
And then would follow an elaborate drill. First, the mangoes would be sorted out variety wise — Sindoori, Angoori, Kuppi and others — then washed, and put, overnight, in buckets full of water to take the “heat” (garmi) — so it was said — out of them.
Next day, an hour before the appointed time, usually in the forenoon, grains of “lal dawa” (Potassium Permanganate) would be sprinkled in the buckets to disinfect the fruits. And then, we with our cousins and “mohalla” pals would sit around the buckets on matted “chatais”. The fun would be twofold — to win by sucking on the maximum number in a given time, the quantity being determined by the number of fruit-stones piled in front, which normally would count a hundred or more each pile, a clear tribute to the gastrointestinal power in those days. And secondly, to look, in the bucket, for a piece with a blackened spot, for the saying went that the spotting was caused by the breaking of wind by a “koel” or a crow over the fruit, while perched on the boughs of the fruit-laden tree. The former, being sweet-throated, would make the pulp beneath the blackened skin, sweet, while the latter, being croaky, would make it stale!
Sucking on a hundred mangoes or more may appear to be a feat in today’s time, but my uncles impressed us by informing that in their time, the game used to be won by one who had the pile of stones touching the chin in the quickest time. The endeavour required some 500 mangoes to be devoured.
And then, to top it all, would arrive sweetened hot milk in steel tumblers. The milk, fresh from the cowshed in the backyard, had earlier been simmered in a cauldron over the coalfire. It was believed that mangoes and milk gelled well in the stomach, the latter helping in the digestion of the former.
One evening, we went visiting the city market. As we came on the approach road, we saw heaps of mangoes on both sides, with hawkers yelling, to attract the customers.
“Eight annas a hundred,” yelled one.
“Six, for a hundred,” shouted a competitor.
“Four annas a hundred,” offered another.
As we walked through, and the competition built up, the price hit the rock bottom — one paisa a hundred.
Disturbing dimensions of civil society
MORE than eight out of 10 men report violence against wives; four out of 10 report using physical violence against their wives; and one out of every two men report sexual violence against their wives.
What else do we know? One out of three men engage in violence while their wives are pregnant. One out of three men indulge in physical violence that causes injury to their wives.
As we begin preparations to celebrate India's 56th Independence Day this month, I wish to focus on two issues that are restricting social opportunities for people in India. Domestic violence and communal violence are acquiring disturbing dimensions — one within the private sphere of the household and the other in the public domain of civil society.
What is even more shocking is that alarmingly high proportions of husbands justify the use of force. Some 80 per cent of husbands feel that force is justified if the wife is disrespectful towards them or their families. Some 60 per cent justify force if the wife does not follow their instructions.
Who are these men? They are all Indians. For some two years now, Indian researchers and activists, supported by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), have been exploring the much-neglected issue of domestic violence and masculinity in India. The data pertains to studies in Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Punjab.
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen sees development as an expansion of freedoms — from want, hunger, exploitation, political suppression, speech and so on. But then, the assessment of progress must include freedom from fear as well. In fact, all other freedoms lose their shine and become meaningless unless all individuals are ensured a life without fear.
Marital and domestic violence may be a private affair but its public consequences are too serious. Violent behaviour spreads quickly from the home to the community, and finally to society. Children who witness domestic violence are more prone to repeat such action when they grow up. Now, let us move to communal violence.
I grew up in a commune like situation in Mumbai since my father was a member of the Communist Party. All festivals — Holi, Diwali, Eid, Christmas and Ganesh Chaturthi — were celebrated with great fervour. On August 15 and January 26, we would be put in an open truck to view the festive lights that lit up the city.
Having grown up in a cosmopolitan atmosphere, I took for granted the pluralism of Indian culture. So in the post-Babri Masjid days, when the word ‘Muslim’ was hurled at me as an accusation, I was shocked.
For me being Muslim was Urdu, Biryani, Eid and Gharara-Kurta — it was a cultural identity just as much as Holi, Diwali, diyas and phooljharis were. But suddenly the fact that I was born into a particular religion was being forced on me as my only identity. (However, this is not the truth in entire India. India's greatest strength is her pluralism and her composite culture).
If you ask me who I am, I will say I am a woman, an Indian, an actor, a Member of Parliament, a Muslim, a daughter, a wife, etc. My being Muslim is only one part of my identity. Unfortunately, an attempt is being made to compress identity into the narrow confines of a particular religion one was born in.
Communalism must be understood as a political ideology that whips up grievances related to the past, some real and some imaginary, that need to be redressed in present times, and thus a means for contemporary political mobilisation. It has practically nothing to do with religion except to use it in a manner that is divisive and destructive.
The violence thus unleashed continues to fester because justice never seems to be done. In riot after riot nobody gets punished. The brutalised community thus feels marginalised and loses faith in the state's ability to provide redress, giving rise to insecurity and suspicion.
The first casualty of violence is social opportunity to live a dignified life, finding employment or even basic healthcare. Distrust is among the root causes of such violence, be it domestic or communal violence.
How does one address such problems in society where the victims are poor and often women and children? How do we address these issues when many of the problems are not even recognised or acknowledged?
The first step is to talk about them. Public dialogue is a powerful instrument for expanding social opportunities. It is vital for sustaining a healthy democracy. Loud protests and public debates are essential for a collective social response in policy-making and legislation.
Unfortunately, many people, and women in particular, have barely gained the strength and confidence to talk about it. Even with legal and police protection, we find that women are reluctant to speak. Along with public dialogue, we also need active lobbying, strategic coalition building and public education that can effectively change mindsets.
Churning in the BJP camp
FROM all accounts and even before a public debate on Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani’s proposal for having the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections simultaneously, the Election Commission has expressed its strong reservations. Never mind that the idea was first mooted by Vice President and Rajya Sabha Chairman Bhairon Singh Shekhawat some months back. Though the Election Commission is yet to receive a formal proposal from the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government on holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies, Chief Election Commissioner J. M. Lyngdoh has categorically said such a step will be unconstitutional and dismissed the argument that frequent elections hindered governance. This has caused much churning in the higher echelons of the BJP holding the portends of a subterranean strife between the Vajpayee government and the Election Commission.
This has caused much churning in the higher echelons of the BJP holding the portends of a subterranean strife between the Vajpayee government and the Election Commission.
Ministry? Centre for Science and Environment Director Sunita Narain wants soft drink manufacturers to be brought under stringent health standards as their products like Pepsi and Coke contained hazardous pesticides and insecticides. Though she stressed that that the Centre should not review food standards for the industry’s convenience, it was invariably the case. She, therefore, felt it might be advisable to rechristen the Ministry of Health as the Ministry of Industrial Health. Ms Narain contented that the soft drink and bottled water industry was using an enormous amount of groundwater which was rarely paid for or regulated. Under pressure from industry, the Government dropped the crucial reference to regulate groundwater, she said.
Centre for Science and Environment Director Sunita Narain wants soft drink manufacturers to be brought under stringent health standards as their products like Pepsi and Coke contained hazardous pesticides and insecticides. Though she stressed that that the Centre should not review food standards for the industry’s convenience, it was invariably the case. She, therefore, felt it might be advisable to rechristen the Ministry of Health as the Ministry of Industrial Health. Ms Narain contented that the soft drink and bottled water industry was using an enormous amount of groundwater which was rarely paid for or regulated. Under pressure from industry, the Government dropped the crucial reference to regulate groundwater, she said.
for safe seat Firebrand Sanyasin Uma Bharti, in her new avtar as the BJP chief of the Madhya Pradesh unit, is scanning for a safe Assembly constituency. Uma, a Lok Sabha MP from Bhopal, had changed her constituency of Khajuraho in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Now, she does not want to contest either from any Assembly segment in Bhopal or Khajuraho. On the search, a friend of Uma remarked that it only reveals the state of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. This assumes importance in the light of Uma being a chief ministerial candidate.
Firebrand Sanyasin Uma Bharti, in her new avtar as the BJP chief of the Madhya Pradesh unit, is scanning for a safe Assembly constituency. Uma, a Lok Sabha MP from Bhopal, had changed her constituency of Khajuraho in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Now, she does not want to contest either from any Assembly segment in Bhopal or Khajuraho. On the search, a friend of Uma remarked that it only reveals the state of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. This assumes importance in the light of Uma being a chief ministerial candidate.
game plan Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa’s new-found love for the cause of the Ram temple in Ayodhya embarrasses her friends and foes alike. This is particularly so as she often vociferoulsy supports the BJP’s stand and drums the viewpoint of the Sangh Parivar. A friend of the AIADMK supremo offered a clue to her changed line of thinking. He said that Amma’s
political instinct is that the next Lok Sabha elections like the previous one is not going to give a clear majority to any single party. That would be her moment of opportunity providing her a decent chance of becoming atleast the Deputy Prime Minister if not the first Tamil Prime Minister of the country. This is subject to her party managing 30 out of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu. To make herself acceptable to the parties in the Hindi heartland and especially the Sangh Parivar, she is convinced that she would have to champion the temple cause. Contributed by TRR, Satish Misra, Gaurav Choudhury and R. Suryamurthy
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa’s new-found love for the cause of the Ram temple in Ayodhya embarrasses her friends and foes alike. This is particularly so as she often vociferoulsy supports the BJP’s stand and drums the viewpoint of the Sangh Parivar. A friend of the AIADMK supremo offered a clue to her changed line of thinking. He said that Amma’s political instinct is that the next Lok Sabha elections like the previous one is not going to give a clear majority to any single party. That would be her moment of opportunity providing her a decent chance of becoming atleast the Deputy Prime Minister if not the first Tamil Prime Minister of the country. This is subject to her party managing 30 out of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu.
To make herself acceptable to the parties in the Hindi heartland and especially the Sangh Parivar, she is convinced that she would have to champion the temple cause.
Contributed by TRR, Satish Misra, Gaurav Choudhury and R. Suryamurthy
Arjuna: Of those steadfast devotees who love you and those who seek you as the eternal formless Reality, who are the more established in yoga?
Krishna: Those who set their hearts on me and worship me with unfailing devotion and faith are more established in yoga.
— The Bhagawad Gita
The unbelievers’ works are like a mirage in a desert. The thirsty traveller thinks it is water, but when he comes near he finds that it is nothing. He finds Allah there, who pays him back in full. Swift is Allah's reckoning.
— The Koran
An aspirant possessed of bhakti puts a tilak on his forehead and a necklace of holy rudraksha beads, interspersed with gold ones, around his neck. At worship he wears a silk cloth.
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