Right to review
Missing daughters of the land
Human Rights Diary
TAMIL NADU Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa has bitten off more than she could chew in her anger against The Hindu. The 15 days’ imprisonment the Tamil Nadu Assembly has “awarded” to its Editor and four senior journalists is the most flagrant misuse of the powers of privilege the legislature enjoys. That it has been done at the behest of a piqued leader, who keeps the House in thraldom by virtue of the brute majority she enjoys, and without giving the journalists an opportunity to defend themselves, is what makes it all the more condemnable. If anything, the punishment is a clear example of the autocratic streak in her. By no stretch of the imagination can either the impugned editorial or the report that earned the wrath of the Chief Minister be described as causing a “breach of privilege” of the House. Rather, the action against The Hindu is a misuse of the powers of the House to teach the Press a lesson.
It is not the first time that political leaders have sought to gag the Press. Former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and former Tamil Nadu and Bihar Chief Ministers M.G. Ramachandran and Jagannath Mishra tried to curb the freedom of the Press through draconian Bills but ended up eating humble pie. In the instant case, Ms Jayalalithaa, who is too clever by half, has used the sword of legislative privilege to cut journalistic freedom down to size. The Press in India does not enjoy any special rights save what flows from Article 19 of the Constitution, which every citizen of this country enjoys. Hence Ms Jayalalithaa’s attack is as much on the Press as it is on the citizen’s right to free expression. Small wonder that public opinion has instantly rallied behind the beleaguered newspaper and its editors. There is realisation that if the freedom of the Press is curtailed, it would lead to the rule of strong, rather than the rule of law.
Nobody questions the privileges of the legislature, which are ultimately meant to protect the interests of the people on whose behalf it legislates. But under no circumstances should such privileges be used as weapons to stifle fair criticism, which is what the Press does routinely as the watchdog of society. Equally important, a situation whereby the judiciary is compelled to review the legislature’s decision as is bound to happen if Ms Jayalalithaa persists with her vendetta venture is not in the best interest of the separation of powers. Ideally, the Chief Minister should take the initiative to have the Assembly’s decision revoked. In any case, the freedom of the Press is too precious to be sacrificed at the altar of a despotic leader.
Right to review
THE Supreme Court decision to have a fresh look at its August 7, 2003, judgement banning strikes by government employees deserves appreciation. The verdict had evoked adverse reaction from various sections of society besides the affected working class. Labour leaders had campaigned to ensure that under no circumstances should workers be deprived of their weapon of last resort to protect their interests as guaranteed under the Constitution. The right to adopt the agitationist path with strikes being the ultimate course had placed the employees in a position of strength in a collective bargaining exercise. Any change in this could not be acceptable to the working class. Their displeasure would have had its impact on the coming elections too.
The government could not afford to ignore the resentment caused by the apex court judgement. Hence the Prime Minister’s recent statement that the government was ready to hold talks with labour representatives to find a workable solution to the problem. The government could find a remedy through legislation which could have got support from all across the political divide. This nullification of the opinion of the highest court of the land could have, however, led to an ugly situation, not a healthy development in a democracy. Thus, the court’s decision to reconsider its controversial judgement should cool the tempers.
Certain legal luminaries consulted by the court have rightly asserted that under the Constitution workers have a right to protest and their right to strike cannot be taken away. This further convinced the court to review its verdict. It should, however, be clarified that nobody has the right to take society to ransom. Employees should do everything possible to avoid a strike, which makes public opinion go against them, irrespective of the genuineness of their grievances. Employers on their part, whether government organisations or others, should see to it that employees are not forced to take to the ultimate course of action. After all, if the Constitution guarantees us certain rights it underlines some responsibilities also.
ONE may be opposed to capital punishment per se but there are instances where the crime is so extraordinary that one feels even death is not punishment enough. The Naina Sahni “tandoor” murder case falls in that category. Here the deed was too macabre to be committed by a human being. The way Sushil Sharma killed her and tried to dispose of the body by burning it in an oven was the stuff horror films are made of. Nobody had imagined that this could happen in real life. As the court says, Naina Sahni lived with the accused, without a formal recognition of their marriage. In such circumstances, she was a helpless woman. This was indeed one of those rarest of rare cases of a pre-meditated murder and the sessions court has done well to order that he should be hanged by the neck till he is dead.
The incident shook the conscience of the nation. If some of the outsiders today think that India is still living in dark ages, Sushil Sharma has contributed greatly to their impression. To cap it all, he has shown no trace of remorse. That makes the crime all the more abominable.
The way people came to his rescue when he was hiding from the law showed that the rich and the powerful like him —- he was a prominent leader of the Youth Congress – think that they can get away with anything. The death penalty will, hopefully, make them think again. Sushil Sharma has said that he will not go in appeal against the capital punishment. Even if he sticks to his word, the case will be argued in the High Court before confirmation. He committed the most ghastly crime imaginable; he fully deserves the most severe punishment for it.
Thought for the day
Missing daughters of the land
CONDUCTING a sex determination test and ending the life of a daughter even before she is born, abandoning a female child on birth or killing her are the most gruesome and heinous crimes imaginable. And yet, these continue to take place day in and day out, more often than anyone cares to admit. In the words of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, India, with its present population of one billion, has to account for some 25 million “missing women”. Some of them are never born, and the rest die because they do not have the opportunity to survive. Worse than the crime is the indifference of society.
On payment of a fee ranging between Rs 100 and Rs 500, dais who assist the birth of a child kill the female babies as a matter of routine the moment they are born. The heartless way in which this is done will make the devil faint. Some are fed the milk of poisonous plants or covered with a wet towel so that they die later of complications from cold. Others are fed dry, unhulled rice that punctures their tender windpipes. In Bihar, holding the baby from the waist and shaking it back and forth snaps the spinal chord.
Babies are fed with salt to increase their blood pressure. Death follows in a few minutes. Sometimes, a child is stuffed in a clay pot. Some are made to swallow poisonous powdered fertiliser.
This revolting murder of babies takes place in hundreds of thousands of households year after year because of the all-consuming passion for a male issue. The sole purpose of a married woman’s existence seems to be to bear a male heir. Begetting a female child is considered worse than not having a child.
This blatant bias cannot be attributed to poverty, illiteracy or superstition alone. The practice is as much prevalent in urban areas and among the affluent as it is in the poor, rural neighbourhoods. The only difference is that while there is infanticide in rural areas, there is foeticide in cities due to sophisticated technology available.
The real tragedy is that women themselves become a collaborator in the ghastly crime, perhaps because they know from personal experience that the life ahead for the unwanted newborn girl will be a sub-human existence during which she will die bit by bit every day.
Stiff legal punishment can only curb the appalling practice somewhat, not stop it. For that, the whole society will have to own up responsibility and make a concerted effort to atone for its sins. The man who rapes even a six-year old, the grandmother who celebrates the birth of a male child and “observes” the birth of a girl, the Pandit who lets only a son to perform a man’s last rites, the father-in-law who threatens to cancel a marriage if enough wedding expenses are not incurred, the sister-in-law who pours kerosene over a bride and sets her on fire because she cannot bring in the promised car as dowry… they all are responsible for the numerous cases of female infanticide and foeticide.
While we hold forth on the supposed glory of our country, we conveniently forget that we have reduced nearly 45 per cent of our population to a status of beasts of burden. Members of the so-called fair sex are sold and purchased as cattle. And yet, senior administration officials have the cheek to say that the practice is so prevalent and has such acceptability that it is very difficult to stop it!
Societal acceptance is such an abused term that every evil can be attributed to it. Just because a few avaricious relatives forced hapless widows to commit “sati” or live a life of penury in Vrindavan a century or two ago has been reason enough for hundreds of others to follow suit today. Those who lament the polluting of our culture by foreign influences never shed a tear about the humiliation of women in this way.
Even the most educated and liberated women have broken their head against the glass ceiling that does not allow them to rise above a certain level. Leave alone the day-to-day life, the hypocrisy is visible even in Parliament. Just look at the way the women’s reservation Bill has been circumvented for donkey’s years. Nobody even has the courage to say that he is opposed to it. They all swear by it in public but hold exactly the opposite view in private.
This kind of gender bias is many times more pronounced among the poor and the lower-middle classes, whether in the matter of inheritance, health care, education or even food consumption. The entire womanhood has been suppressed so badly that almost all of them are resigned to their fate. Some are not even aware that their life is sheer hell. The women of Haryana who toil the whole day in farms while their menfolk drink or idle away merrily are quiet contented in their subjugation. Most of the girls from Bihar and the Northeast who were sold like cattle in Punjab were not even willing to complain, because they thought that at least they were getting two square meals.
The female foeticide and infanticide are the silent cry of anguish of those who are sick and tired of this gender injustice. They have lived this hell themselves and do not want their offspring to face the same fate. The mother who abandons her child on a dirt-heap is only too distraught to witness her abject degradation. She knows that life is going to be no bed of roses for the abandoned child but at least she won’t have to see her daughter’s misery with her own eyes.
The declining ratio of the girl child in India should be a matter of shame for all of us individually and collectively. Punjab and Haryana are said to be progressive states but in this matter they have proved to be worse than others. If there has been a national decline from 945 to 927 in the number of girls per thousand boys aged 0-6 between 1991 and 2001, Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat have less than 800 girls for 1,000 boys.
The 10 districts in the country showing the sharpest decline in the number of girls are all in Punjab and Haryana. The ratio stands at a mere 770 for every 1,000 boys in Kurukshetra and Patiala districts. Many villages have come to be known as “kudimaar” (killers of the girl) and yet the practice goes on without evoking the kind of revulsion that it should.
With such a scarcity, the women’s lot should have improved. Exactly the opposite has actually happened. The shortage has given rise to the widespread practice of sale and purchase of poor women brought from Bihar, Assam and Bangladesh. Bizarre customs like several brothers sharing a wife have also come into existence. We are willing to do everything to cope with the “shortage” except allowing women to lead a life of dignity.
The government’s inclination as well as the capacity to intervene effectively is suspect. Social organisations and community leaders will have to bear the onerous responsibility. They have to re-enact what Raja Rammohun Roy and his Brahmo Samaj did in ending practices like “sati” Fear of legal punishment will have to be linked with the possibility of social
I belong to the sun sign that belongs to the crab. You know, the creature that crawls. I don’t know whether I’m fortunate in being a cancerian or not but I have often taken refuge in my crabby shell whenever it rains coconuts.
As I let my third eye travel back to childhood, I remember the day it was my friend’s birthday. Blindfolded, each of us had to touch a flower pot placed at a little distance with a bat. When my turn came, with a flourish I brought the bat down like a butcher’s knife on the pot! It split into two. As my friend’s mother’s sweet expression altered to one of annoyance, I quietly hid behind my friends for the rest of the party.
Another time, on Teacher’s Day, egged on by my classmates, I announced “good marks” and “bad marks” to our teachers in front of the whole school. I thought I was being smart when I gave one of our teachers, a South Indian, “bad marks” for pronouncing “m” as “yum”. What I didn’t know was that she was Mother Superior. For once, I didn’t know where to hide!
Crabs are best at crawling in a world that belongs more to sprightly hares. I recall, during college days, whenever our bus didn’t come, we’d commute in a local one. There was always a mad scramble for a seat. Once, when I landed on one ahead of the others, it was nothing short of a triumph for the slow and steady me. My elation, however, changed to consternation as I realised that I had landed not on a seat but a fellow’s lap! Speed obviously doesn’t suit a crab.
Astrologers may attribute these tendencies to an unusual starry configuration. But the fact of the matter is that crabs are misfits on earth. They’re more comfortable in water. It takes them time to get a hang of earthly (read worldly) moorings. For my wedding day, I had ordered two five-foot-long garlands for the jaimala. When my turn came, I thrust my hands out from inside the garland which my husband had put around my neck. Thud! My garland crashed down. Rooted to reality I may not have been, but rooted to the ground I certainly stood.
As for sense of direction, the less said the better. Once, I had to go to a local hospital and as usual forgot the way. I took a wrong turn and saw a man waving at me. Thinking him to be the guard of the hospital, I parked my car and went up to him to ensure that my car wouldn’t get blocked. He snarled at me for not stopping when he had waved. To my horror I realised he was a policeman. “Licence dikhaiye,” he bellowed. I fumbled in my purse. “What are you doing”, he muttered angrily as I continued to rummage through my purse. Afraid that passersby would think that he was taking bribe, that too from a woman, he finally let me go.
Crabs do have an uncanny knack to waddle into awkward situations. But the best thing is that the awkwardness of a situation hits them only after they’ve got out of it. Blessed are the crabs. At least they can retreat into their shells when on sticky
Human Rights Diary
“I DON’T know if I will be able to write again.” This is how Mallika Sarabhai ends a letter to her friends seeking understanding for the battle she is fighting against communalism. The Narendra Modi government in Gujarat is doing all in its power to harass her. A false case relating to illegal immigration has been slapped against her and a whispering campaign has been initiated to malign her and her organisation, Darpan, a center for performing arts. Her troubles began when she took a stand against the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat some 20 months ago.
What surprises me is that the BJP state government has picked on Mallika when she was one of the 20 artists and writers whom Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee selected to accompany him to Lahore. He wanted to convey to Islamabad that in his bid to improve relations with Pakistan, he had the support of not only politicians but also those who had excelled themselves in their own field. In his team were Hindus and Muslims to underline the pluralistic character of India. This is, however, lost on the BJP establishment.
I am disappointed that Vajpayee has not uttered a word on the subject, much less in support of Mallika. But then I have noticed that when it comes to Chief Minister Modi, Vajpayee prefers to keep quiet. Modi is a favourite of the RSS. The Parivar considers him an icon, a big pull with the voters. Otherwise, the BJP would not have asked him to campaign in the states which go to the polls in early December. He will try to create more hiatus between Hindus and Muslims and contaminate the society further.
Mallika is a courageous woman. She went to the court to get an anticipatory bail and did not flinch. She and her family have fought against communalism all their lives. The Modi government is mistaken if it believes it can cow them down. All these years, they have stood like a rock in support of India’s composite culture. Human rights activists in India and abroad are beginning to marshal their support behind Mallika. Theirs is not a feeble voice. The disconcerting part is that if the state government can go to the extent of harassing Mallika, a known figure in the country, what about thousands of ordinary people in Gujarat?
Parochialism has taken over the state, with no individual’s rights, with no secular sentiments. Strange, how one person can change people? Mallika is correct to chide the Gujaratis. She says in the letter, “the many idealistic friends, well-wishers and intellectual seekers of truth in Gujarat have deafened me by their silence.” Martin Luther King said once: “The day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die.”
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Powers to POTA
IF the embellishment could cover up ugliness, very little disagreeable would be visible in the world. The Government of India has promulgated an ordinance to amend the POTA to give more powers to the Review Committee so as to correct whimsical orders by the states. That they would misuse the law was expected. The DMK is rightly indignant over the detention of the Lok Sabha member Vaiko in Tamil Nadu. But the misuse was inherent in the law. It was bound to happen when the states were given sweeping powers. Personal rivalries were bound to come into play and politicians were bound to settle their personal scores. Such dangers were brought to the notice of the government during the discussion in the Rajya Sabha on POTO, then an Ordinance. I recall how even the BJP MPs warned the government against the misuse of the measure. The conviction rate of detenue was only two to three per cent. So appalled was the public over illegal detentions in the early nineties that the Narsimha Rao’s Congress government allowed the preventive detention law to lapse. Still, the BJP-led government was so determined to arm itself with dictatorial powers that even after the defeat in the Rajya Sabha, it convened a joint session of the two houses to have the bill passed. Nobody differs with the government that terrorism must be fought tooth and nail. But when the government’s armoury is already full of repressive laws, should it have passed an act like POTA which gives arbitrary powers to police officers? The amendment that the government has promulgated cannot stop the misuse because the police have become an instrument in the hands of rulers. Whether the amendment will give more elbow room to the Review Committee or not is difficult to say because the chairman himself is not certain. The government may have to amend the amendment itself. I am not sure if the ordinance would get a majority in the Rajya Sabha, although six of the seven nominees to the house are from the saffron crowd. Another joint session may become inevitable to get the amendment approved. It is apparent that when it comes to authoritarianism, the BJP is not far behind any other political party. *
IF the embellishment could cover up ugliness, very little disagreeable would be visible in the world. The Government of India has promulgated an ordinance to amend the POTA to give more powers to the Review Committee so as to correct whimsical orders by the states. That they would misuse the law was expected.
The DMK is rightly indignant over the detention of the Lok Sabha member Vaiko in Tamil Nadu. But the misuse was inherent in the law. It was bound to happen when the states were given sweeping powers. Personal rivalries were bound to come into play and politicians were bound to settle their personal scores.
Such dangers were brought to the notice of the government during the discussion in the Rajya Sabha on POTO, then an Ordinance. I recall how even the BJP MPs warned the government against the misuse of the measure. The conviction rate of detenue was only two to three per cent. So appalled was the public over illegal detentions in the early nineties that the Narsimha Rao’s Congress government allowed the preventive detention law to lapse.
Still, the BJP-led government was so determined to arm itself with dictatorial powers that even after the defeat in the Rajya Sabha, it convened a joint session of the two houses to have the bill passed. Nobody differs with the government that terrorism must be fought tooth and nail. But when the government’s armoury is already full of repressive laws, should it have passed an act like POTA which gives arbitrary powers to police officers?
The amendment that the government has promulgated cannot stop the misuse because the police have become an instrument in the hands of rulers. Whether the amendment will give more elbow room to the Review Committee or not is difficult to say because the chairman himself is not certain. The government may have to amend the amendment itself. I am not sure if the ordinance would get a majority in the Rajya Sabha, although six of the seven nominees to the house are from the saffron crowd. Another joint session may become inevitable to get the amendment approved. It is apparent that when it comes to authoritarianism, the BJP is not far behind any other political party.
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Excesses on Chakmas
HUMAN rights activists of South Asia have an organisation, SAHR. It looks into violations of human rights in any one of the five countries — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The Bangladesh chapter has brought out a candid report about the excesses committed against the Chakma and Marma tribes in the Chittgong Hills Tracts. The report says that many tribals had taken shelter elsewhere because of apprehension of further reprisals.The worst news is the increase in fundamentalism in Bangladesh. This is the country which India helped to liberate itself from Pakistan. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is too dependent on the Jamiat-e-Islami, an ally of its government to resist the process of Islamisation. She has undone whatever her predecessor Sheikh Hasina had done to foster secular thoughts in society. Amnesty International and human rights watchers have condemned the abuses in Bangladesh. The State Department’s latest human rights report has criticised the government’s “poor human rights records.” It has cited the cases “of harassment of Hindus, including killings, rape, looting and torture and has put the blame on local gang leaders.” The State Department has, however, noted that the government “generally respected” religious freedom. Thanks for small mercies.
HUMAN rights activists of South Asia have an organisation, SAHR. It looks into violations of human rights in any one of the five countries — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The Bangladesh chapter has brought out a candid report about the excesses committed against the Chakma and Marma tribes in the Chittgong Hills Tracts. The report says that many tribals had taken shelter elsewhere because of apprehension of further reprisals.The worst news is the increase in fundamentalism in Bangladesh.
This is the country which India helped to liberate itself from Pakistan. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is too dependent on the Jamiat-e-Islami, an ally of its government to resist the process of Islamisation. She has undone whatever her predecessor Sheikh Hasina had done to foster secular thoughts in society.
Amnesty International and human rights watchers have condemned the abuses in Bangladesh. The State Department’s latest human rights report has criticised the government’s “poor human rights records.” It has cited the cases “of harassment of Hindus, including killings, rape, looting and torture and has put the blame on local gang leaders.” The State Department has, however, noted that the government “generally respected” religious freedom. Thanks for small mercies.
BY holding an electricity board liable for the huge loss caused to a consumer on account of a sharp fluctuation in power supply, the apex consumer court has made sure that power supply undertakings do not get away with shoddy service. The National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission’s order has its origin in the complaint filed by a chemist against the Haryana State Electricity Board. His case was that a steep surge in voltage caused a short circuit and the resultant fire destroyed the medical supplies in his shop, besides a refrigerator and a television set. Saying that a surveyor who was called in, had estimated the loss at Rs 2,19,316, the complainant sought a compensation of Rs 3.5 lakh from the electricity board (this included compensation for loss of business and mental agony).
The District consumer Disputes Redressal Forum dismissed the case and asked the chemist to file a case before a civil court. The State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, however, held a detailed hearing and concluded that the electricity board was guilty of negligent service. The Commission therefore directed the Board to make good the loss suffered by the consumer by paying Rs 2,19,316 along with 12 per cent interest. The National Commission, before which the electricity board challenged the order, agreed with the decision of the State commission that the power supply undertaking should be held responsible for the loss caused to the consumer. However, while the State Commission had awarded interest on the amount from the date of the fire (January 1, 1996) itself, the National Commission said it should be calculated from July 1, 1996 till the date of payment. (Haryana State Electricity Board Vs Anand Medicos :RP No 563 of 2002).
Given the steep fluctuations in power supply and its deleterious effect on electric and electronic goods, several consumers have in the past tried to get the electricity boards to pay for the consequent losses. One of the first cases on the issue was filed by the Bellary Citizens’ Forum, Bellary, Karnataka, on behalf of nine consumers, whose household electrical and electronic gadgets had gone out of order on account of a sudden surge of high voltage on the evening of January 9, 1990. Calculating the total cost incurred in repairing the gadgets, the consumers had asked for Rs 3,880 as compensation. The District Forum in Bellary, however, awarded Rs 1,515 plus Rs 500 as costs. The State Commission before which the Karnataka Electricity Board filed an appeal, concluded that the complainants had not given evidence of negligence on the part of the Board. It therefore remanded the case to the District Forum for fresh hearing.
Subsequently in another case, a District Forum in Gujarat held that the supply of electricity at excessive voltage constituted a deficiency in service and the electricity board was liable to pay damages to the consumer who suffered on account of such deficiency. This view was upheld by the Gujarat State Commission. In this case, the consumer, Ms Sharda Madhusudan Desai, was awarded Rs 663, spent on repairing certain electrical goods. Similarly, the District Forum, Kasargod, awarded a consumer Rs 100 towards the suffering undergone on account of a heavy drop in voltage. This was upheld by the Kerala State Commission.
In 1993, Travancore Oxygen filed a case against the Kerala Electricity Board, seeking compensation for the loss in production caused on account of low voltage in power supply. The National Commission, however, did not award damages on the ground that there was no “willful action” on the part of the board resulting in such low voltage. Besides, the petitioner could not establish that the loss in production was solely due to low voltage supplied by the electricity board, the Commission said. (OP NO 115 of 1993, decided on January 8,1997).
Viewed against this backdrop, the recent order of the National Commission in the case of Anand Medicos is a major development and ensures that consumers get compensation for the loss suffered on account of steep fluctuations in power supply. Interestingly, another order of the National Commission issued also lays emphasis on the compensation package being adequate. The National Commission here pulled up the lower consumer courts for awarding the consumer, whose power supply was cut off arbitrarily for 65 days, a measly sum of Rs 5,000.
Living creatures are nourished by food, and food is nourished by rain; rain itself is the water of life, which comes from selfless worship and service.
— Sri Krishna
He who acts blindly is truly blind. His heart does neither see nor realise the folly of what he does.
— Guru Nanak
O Son of the Wondrous Vision!
I have breathed within thee a breath of My own Spirit, that thou mayest be My lover. Why hast thou forsaken Me and sought a beloved other than Me?
We reveal it as plain revelations, and verily Allah guideth whom He will.
— The Koran
Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process.