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Archive for December 2013

Ajay Jain has lost many of his men friends. He knew it would happen. After hiding the fact he was gay for 15 years, the Delhi resident finally broke the news to his pals. They reacted — as he’d expected — with fear, scepticism and hostility. “Some told me to force myself to have sex with women so that I could prove I was not gay. Others avoided my company,” the 30-year-old public relations manager says.

A Supreme Court ruling that maintains that gay sex is criminal — announced earlier this week — is not the only problem the gay community is faced with. Despite the fact that the gay movement is vibrantly out on the streets today, a section of people still finds it difficult to accept homosexuality. As more and more men come out of the closet, they find that people they earlier considered friends are turning their backs on them.

“I always fear that I will be dropped by my heterosexual male friends or ridiculed if I tell them I am gay. I have seen and heard my heterosexual male friends ridicule gay men as hijras,” Mumbai-based software engineer Prithvi Patel stresses. “I haven’t told them I am gay because I don’t want to be subjected to that kind of humiliation,” he says.

Sociologists believe that homophobia — the fear or dislike of homosexuality — is common among many heterosexual men. Humiliating gay men, ridiculing them and avoiding them are all traits of homophobia, says Sanjay Srivastava, professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.

There are many reasons for this, including fears that experts shrug off as baseless. Some heterosexual men, for instance, live in the fear that gay men will make passes at them. “Lack of knowledge about the behaviour of homosexual men has led to this wrong impression,” says Anjali Gopalan, founder of Naz Foundation, an NGO working for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Some believe that being seen in the presence of homosexual men may lead people to think that they too are gay. Take the case of Rishav Banerjee, a Delhi-based banker, who no longer spends time with a friend ever since he found out that he was gay. “If I am seen with him, many will think I am a part of the club. And I don’t want to be labelled gay,” Banerjee says.

But the larger issue, experts hold, is that in a society where patriarchy holds sway, gayness is seen in most quarters as a sign of femininity in men, and therefore to be shunned or made fun of. Some argue that heterosexual men fear losing their conventional masculine identity.

“Since we have a patriarchal society, heterosexual men look down upon gay men because they are believed to be woman-like or effeminate,” says Srivastava, author of Sexuality Studies. “If he is not able to take charge, he is called a woman.”

Many of these doubts are aired when heterosexual men contact the Mumbai-based Humsafar Trust, an NGO that works on transgender rights. “‘Will I be considered gay if I hobnob with gays’ or ‘how do I reject an advance made by a gay friend’ are common queries from heterosexual males,” founder-chairman Ashok Row Kavi says.

On the other hand, women, gay men maintain, do not show such homophobic traits — though again there are exceptions. “They understand the feelings of gays and lesbians because they empathise with the ones who are oppressed and are being discriminated against,” says writer and poet Kunal Mukherjee, the author of My Magical Palace.

Homophobia, gay activists point out, takes various forms in the country. Ridiculing homosexuality is just one aspect of this. At another level, there is severe harassment, often by the police. Politicians also often make homophobic remarks. In 2011, Union health and family welfare minister Ghulam Nabi Azad described homosexuality as “completely unnatural”. Earlier this week, when BJP’s Prakash Javadekar was asked for his views on the Supreme Court ruling by a TV journalist, he turned his face away and said, “Shiva, Shiva” — a phrase that roughly translates into “Don’t even ask”.

Homophobia can also be generated out of insecurity about one’s own sexuality, say activists. A 1996 study conducted in the US claimed that 80 per cent men who were homophobic had secret homosexual feelings. “Four out of five men became sexually aroused by homoerotic imagery when they were shown gay sex videos,” it said.

Srivastava believes that some heterosexual men become homophobic out of a conflict over “what they must not become” and “what they actually are.”

But activists point out that it wasn’t always so. Homophobia — historian, author and gay studies scholar Saleem Kidwai argues — is a colonial import.

“Traditionally, Indian men were open about gay love and sex. But the official incorporation of India in the British Empire signalled the violent end of medieval India. For same sex love, that end was signalled by the 1861 law that criminalised homosexuality,” Kidwai says.

In Same-Sex Love in India, jointly authored with Ruth Vanita, he writes about Abru, an Urdu poet of the 17th century. Abru’s poem Advice to a Beloved revolves around ways a young boy can look attractive before other men. In mystic poet Siraj Aurangabadi’s work, Bustani-i-Khaya, the narrator is heartbroken over the loss of his male beloved and seeks solace in the company of women courtesans who understand his plight and try to cheer him up.

“Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi addresses ghazal singer Saghar Nizami as ‘my bride’. Painter Amrita Sher-Gil’s letters reveal her lesbian involvements,” Kidwai adds.

Some initiatives are being taken by queer rights activists to dispel homophobia. For example, lawyer Rajesh Talwar’s satirical play Inside Gayland revolves around the visit of a married Indian to a planet where homosexuality is the only natural form of intercourse while heterosexuality is outlawed. And an intense campaign led the Delhi High Court to decriminalise gay sex in 2009 — which was struck down by the apex court on Wednesday.

Activists stress that while laws indeed will empower gay men, social acceptance will come when mindsets change.

“Heterosexual men have to understand that homosexual men are as normal as they are and are very much a part of society. It is abnormal to think that homosexuality is an aberration,” Gopalan stresses.

Going by gay men’s experiences, though, it will be a while before the closets of the minds open. Including those in the highest of echelons.

(Some names have been changed to protect their identities)

A life not so gay

“How can I join the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP),” the Facebook user asks on her page. The answers come in droves. “Here’s a list of offices in the cities,” someone replies. Another user sends a link to an academic for membership forms. “I have made my first member,” he exults when the academic duly fills it in.

When it comes to volunteers and members, AAP should have no complaints. After winning 28 seats in the just concluded Delhi Assembly elections, Magsaysay winner Arvind Kejriwal’s outfit, started only over a year ago, is raring to go. But where will it go, and how?

“We have to go beyond television interviews. We have to go places,” senior AAP member Yogendra Yadav tells visitors pouring in from all parts of India to congratulate party leaders. “We have to find out if we can spell this magic in the rest of the country.”

The 2014 general elections are round the corner. Voters tired of the existing political parties are pinning their hopes on AAP. But its leaders stress that it’s too early for them to take a decision on how many seats they will contest out of the 543 parliamentary constituencies.

“We don’t intend to form a government (at the Centre) but we are sure that we can win 50 seats or more,” senior advocate and AAP national executive member Prashant Bhushan says.

The party has already started taking baby steps to that effect. Its youth leader Kumar Vishwas may fight against Congress’s Rahul Gandhi from Amethi. “I don’t claim I’ll win. But I want to challenge dynastic politics,” says Vishwas, who teaches Hindi literature in Ghaziabad’s Lala Lajpat Rai College.

The party leaders realise that they have to strike while the mood is in their favour. “We have to be quick. If we don’t respond to the wave now, it might go up in thin air,” Bhushan warns.

Growth is already being mapped. Since it was formed in the aftermath of Anna Hazare’s 2011 anti-corruption movement, the party now has a presence in 309 districts across 22 states, with active units in Haryana, Maharashtra, Odisha, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, besides Delhi. New units are being opened in Bangalore and Kochi.

Mumbai’s offices have expanded in recent times with donors giving the party space in Kandivali, Borivali, Mulun, Ghatkopar, Andheri (W) and Santacruz. Mumbai secretary Preeti Menon says 3,000 volunteers are active in Mumbai. “There is a momentum building up across Maharashtra,” Mumbai-based national executive member Mayank Gandhi says, adding that he received around 1,000 text messages from people wanting to join AAP after the Delhi results were out.

The leaders, however, admit that AAP’s magic worked in Delhi because it was the centre of Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. Its name — which means common people — and its symbol, the broom, also touch a chord in the masses.

But what worked in Delhi may not bear fruit at the national level. For one, the party does not have the numbers needed for general elections. “Though we don’t lack leadership qualities, we have a dearth of recognised leaders at the national level,” Yadav says. “The problem is many in the party are reluctant politicians,” a senior AAP leader adds.

Decisions on candidates will be taken in the next few months, but the focus will be on those with a clean image. AAP will also assess the candidate’s strength in a particular constitution and his or her leadership qualities.

“The real challenge is the screening,” says Gandhi. “Recently, a BJP leader came to me and asked what post he would get if he joined us. I told him that if he was joining the party for a post, this was not the place for him.”

AAP members claim that their party is inclusive — and that will continue to be its focus. Of the 12 newly elected Scheduled Caste MLAs in Delhi, nine are from AAP. The three women MLAs in the Delhi Assembly are all from AAP which, however, fielded only six women for the 70-seat Assembly.

“We need more women participation,” agrees party spokesperson Shazia Ilmi, who was fielded from R.K. Puram and lost by a small margin.

But almost all the 28 candidates who won in Delhi were novices, Patparganj MLA Manish Sisodia stresses. “That clearly proves that people vote for the party, and not for an individual.”

The main problem that AAP is now going to face is the lack of an organisational structure. While the list of volunteers is never ending, it doesn’t have the manpower that parties such as the BJP and Congress have.

“We have researched and found that for a Lok Sabha election, there are 15-18 lakh voters in each constituency and an average of 14,000 polling booths. We need three volunteers to man each booth,” a Mumbai volunteer says.

The party also feels that it has to expand in the east. “In Bengal, people were disappointed with the Left and pinned their hopes on chief minister Mamata Banerjee. But they are now disillusioned by her, and are looking for an alternative. That’s our constituency, and we have to tap it,” Yadav says.

The mood in Odisha is upbeat. There is talk of the party joining hands with the Maoist frontal organisation Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh. “We want people to see AAP as a grievance redressing party,” AAP Odisha convener Nishikant Mahaptra says.

But to expand, the party needs resources. The offices have mostly all been donated, the furniture and computers have come free and the workers are all volunteers. The Delhi election is believed to have cost the party Rs 20 crore, which came from donations. “But we would need Rs 200 crore to fight the general elections,” Bhushan says.

They may need more. A source close to a former MLA in Maharashtra says that every day one has to spend nothing less than Rs 1.5 lakh when it comes to the Lok Sabha polls. There’s the cost of paying and feeding supporters; besides, in slum areas, women are given sarees and the men liquor as incentives to come out and vote. On election day itself some candidates end up spending over Rs 1 crore, and that’s a conservative estimate, says the source on condition of anonymity. Indeed, Maharashtra BJP leader Gopinath Munde admitted that he spent Rs 8 crore in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, though he backtracked when the Election Commission quizzed him on this.

But even money is not enough to script the success of a political party — it needs political acumen, strong leaders and a mission. AAP’s advantage is that it has emerged at a time when the image of national parties is at an all-time low. “With the decline of the Left, the space for AAP is getting wider as the party talks about real issues,” feels Manisha Priyam, ICSSR fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

Delhi was one step for AAP. It now hopes for a giant leap.

Lanka regrets Singh cancellation

Sri Lanka has described as “unfortunate” Manmohan Singh’s absence from last month’s Commonwealth meeting in Colombo and denied information about a visit by the Prime Minister announced by finance minister P. Chidambaram last week.

“It was unfortunate that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo,” Sri Lanka’s high commissioner in India Prasad Kariyawasam told The Telegraph over a fortnight after the November 15-17 conclave.

The envoy’s comments come days after Chidambaram told a Chennai conference that the Prime Minister would visit Sri Lanka’s war-scarred northern province of Jaffna.

Chidambaram had mentioned no dates for Singh’s visit at the conference, whose theme was “Sri Lankan Tamils’ right to livelihood and India’s stand”. The finance minister had, however, justified as “wise” the Prime Minister’s decision to skip the Commonwealth (CHOGM) meeting and send foreign minister Salman Khurshid instead.

But high commissioner Kariyawasam termed Singh’s decision an “opportunity lost”. He said not only would have Singh’s presence at the CHOGM been widely applauded, he would have also had the chance to see the “enormous progress” in the work done with Indian help in the northern province of Jaffna that is home to Tamils.

“The progress we have made in the northern province with Indian help is enormous. Had the PM visited Jaffna for CHOGM, he would have been able to see it himself. It would have helped the India-Sri Lanka partnership and the reconciliation process further. It was an opportunity lost,” Kariyawasam said. The envoy said the Lankan government had no information about any forthcoming visit by Singh.

Sources said Colombo had got an impression that it was Chidambaram and defence minister A.K. Antony who persuaded the Prime Minister not to attend the meeting to protest alleged rights violations of Tamils in the civil war with the LTTE and its aftermath.

Pressure had also come from Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa, who repeatedly urged Singh to stay away, and an Assembly resolution calling on the Centre to boycott the CHOGM meet.

But Colombo voiced dismay. “It is sad that Manmohan Singh succumbed to internal pressures without thinking about the long-standing relationship between the two countries,” a senior official in the Sri Lankan high commission here said.

A diplomat in Delhi said President Mahinda Rajapaksa was “highly disappointed”. “When heads of all states were arriving at CHOGM, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif got the biggest applause. This applause would have gone to Singh if he had attended the meeting because he would have appeared as the tallest leader of the region who did not succumb to any internal pressure,” the diplomat said.

Speaking at the Chennai conference, Chidambaram said Singh would during the forthcoming trip meet the newly elected chief minister of the northern province, C.V. Wigneswaran, who had invited Singh earlier to visit Jaffna.

But some parties in Sri Lanka are not happy about Singh’s proposed visit. John Amaratunga, a senior leader of the main Opposition United National Party, is opposed to it because Singh did not attend the Commonwealth meet.

Other Sri Lankan officials said India’s leverage on the island nation had been reduced. “Now, we will not feel obliged to do things India tells us to do. For example, we conducted the northern province elections because Congress leaders here (in India) persuaded us to do so. We are afraid we will not have such negotiations with this (UPA II) government in the future,” a Sri Lankan official said.

Sri Lanka conducted the provincial polls in north in September after 25 years according to the 13th Amendment, which was a byproduct of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord in 1987 and focused on the devolution of powers to provinces. Since the conflict in Jaffna ended in 2009 after LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran was killed by the Sri Lankan Army, there have been allegations that the Rajapaksa government has engaged in toruture and killings of the Tamil minority.

Widespread protest by human right actvists worldwide also provoked British Prime Minister David Cameron to demand that the Sri Lankan government order an independent inquiry on war crimes by March next year.  But Colombo is defiant about not accepting deadlines from Cameron.

“We do not accept deadlines from other countries. Deadlines in democracies are determined only by their own people,” Kariyawasam said.

“We require time and space to solve issues. External interference is counter productive. It can vitiate the carefully nurtured reconciliation process. The current excessive international attention by some parties in the West and in Tamil Nadu is a product of a campaign by Tamil separatist elements who are determined to bring disrepute to Sri Lanka and to get even with Sri Lanka for defeating the separatist LTTE,” he added.

 

But Sri Lanka has started counting the number of people dead, wounded or missing in the civil war.  “We are doing it primarily because it was a recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the Government in 2010,” Kariyawasam clarified.

( A shorter version of the story appeared in The Telegraph, December 5,2013)

Lanka regrets Singh cancellation

Though the Supreme Court had issued guidelines to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace 16 years ago, it did not implement them in its own precincts until last week.

Let’s hear it for Bhanwari Devi. Not many would remember the village-level social worker of Rajasthan. Over 20 years ago, she sought to stop the marriage of an infant. The village strongmen resented the move, and she was raped by a group of men in 2002 in front of her husband when they were working in the fields. Bhanwari Devi dragged the men to court — and it was this case, fought under a women’s group called Vishaka, which led to the formulation of guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment.

Last week, 16 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Vishaka judgment, the apex court announced the setting up of a 10-member committee headed by Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai to deal with complaints of sexual harassment within its precincts. The move may be late, but is still an important step for gender justice in the legal world.

That courts and chambers are not safe for women became apparent a few weeks ago when a young woman — a former student of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) — blogged that she had been sexually harassed by a retired Supreme Court judge when she was interning in his office last year. Subsequently, a three-member committee was formed to look into her charges, but the graduate is clearly not happy. She said in an interview earlier this week that she felt “humiliated” and had to constantly justify that she was not lying. Last week, Justice A.K. Ganguly was named as the person who had allegedly harassed the intern.

The case certainly underlines the need for reform in legal circles. “There is a dominant culture of sexism in the profession, and about certain peculiarities in its structure that make speaking out very difficult,” says Mihira Sood, a graduate from Hyderabad’s Nalsar University of Law. Sood, who is now studying in Columbia, had recently blogged that she had also been harassed by a lawyer. “It is a conservative profession, where people are inherently reluctant to rock the boat,” she says.

The NUJS alumna wrote in her blog that she had heard of three other cases [of sexual harassment]. “And I know of at least four other girls who’ve faced harassment from other judges…” Her claim was corroborated when another law student from NUJS wrote on Facebook that she too had been at the receiving end of “unsolicited sexual advance more than once” by the same judge.

Senior Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover stresses that it’s not just lawyers who are harassed, but interns, litigants and clerks as well.

But among the most vulnerable are young women lawyers who practise in courts. “Many have quit their jobs because of this, or moved away from litigation to corporate counsel jobs in large firms where there is more regulation and accountability,” Sood says in an email interview to The Telegraph. “Many women I know who want to litigate are discouraged by their parents from doing so for this reason. Very often the parents are themselves part of the profession so they have seen it for themselves.”

Everybody in legal circles has an incident to relate on sexual harassment. In March this year, a woman advocate was secretly filmed while she was in a toilet in the old lawyers’ chamber building inside the Delhi High Court premises. And a lawyer cites the case of a 27-year-old woman lawyer who was stalked by her male colleague. He sent her obscene text messages and once even dropped in at her house.

In the corridors of courts, tales of harassment by lawyers and judges of juniors are whispered — but seldom aired.

“There is a strong network which is very hierarchical. Juniors and interns have absolutely no voice. Seniors tend to be very powerful, connected not just with other lawyers but also with judges and politicians, which makes it more intimidating to speak out,” Sood stresses.

Legal insiders point out that the profession — unlike say fields such as medicine and engineering — needs individual mentoring. A junior often has to intern with a senior. “Assisting a judge or a senior advocate is always good for the career of budding lawyers because the same judge or advocate can recommend them to others,” says the former dean of Delhi University’s law faculty, Rajiv Khanna.

Justice A.K. Ganguly

Often, in such circumstances, it is difficult for a young lawyer to speak out because her career is at stake. “How many girls can afford to take that risk in a competitive world like this,” Khanna asks.

A few changes are taking place now — mainly because scores of young graduates from prestigious new law schools are entering the field. They are articulate, aware and assertive, and not willing to take harassment without a fight. “She (the NUJS alumna) has shown immense courage to talk about the incident,” NUJS registrar Surojit C. Mukhopadhyay says.

Mumbai-based advocate Anand Grover, too, points out that women lawyers are putting up a fight. “It is not easy for women to stand out bravely in this male-chauvinistic profession but they are doing so,” he says.

It is expected that the new 10-member SC committee will work towards battling sexual harassment. The Gender Sensitisation and Internal Complaints Committee (GSICC) will hear complaints against all kinds of sexual harassment. A complaint has to be inquired into and the inquiry report acted upon by GSICC within 45 days of completion of inquiry. If found guilty, an advocate would be barred from entering the Supreme Court’s premises for a period that can extend up to a year and face other forms of punishment.

“These cases are so common that only a strong mechanism like this can help address the issue,” says advocate Binu Tamta, who filed the petition to implement the Vishaka judgment in the judiciary.

Meanwhile, law schools are doing their bit too. “We plan to give a written advisory to our students on guidelines to be followed when they go out for internships,” Mukhopadhyay says. “We also plan to set up a panel of faculty members who can be contacted anytime by students if anything unpleasant happens to them during the internship. It will be our job to help them.”