Archive for October 2016

It’s not just Kangana and Anushka; this story has gone from reel to real. Across Haryana, young women are breaking stereotypes and claiming their place in the world. On the eve of its birthday, Sonia Sarkar travelled across the state to get a feel of their feisty rebellion. Photographs by Rajesh Kumar and Prem Singh

  • MIRROR MIRROR: Students of Bhagat Phool Singh Mahila Vishwavidyalaya see the change in themselves and like it too

Veil over her face, Babli Moudgil kickstarts her scooter parked in a muddy by-lane of Bibipur village in Haryana’s Jind. The day’s work is done, and she is on her way back home.

Moudgil is a busy woman. She owns the sole Montessori school in her village and wants to open a tuition centre there. The once shy bahu is fast becoming an entrepreneur.

“I always wanted to do something on my own. This school has given me my identity,” Moudgil, 28, says. The school was once the family cowshed.

In Panipat, some 70 kilometres away, Renu Pawar, 23, is home from Mumbai, where she worked for six months with Bollywood fashion designer Anjali Jani. Her land-owning family, she recounts, wasn’t happy with her career option.

“There was opposition at home for two years. But I followed my heart,” she says.

A quiet revolution is unfolding in Haryana. Its women, at the wrong end of most things for the longest time, have determined to right them, and though they still lag behind and the battle will be long, they are breaking old moulds and crafting new roles for themselves.

It isn’t as if Haryanvi women haven’t made a name for themselves – take mountaineer Santosh Yadav, model Pamela Singh, actress Mallika Sherawat and politician Kumari Selja, to name just a few. But they came far and few between. Haryana – with a 2001 sex ratio of 861 to 1,000 men, way below the national average of 933 – was seen as the one of the worst states where a woman could be. Domestic violence was rampant, female foeticide a serious problem and honour killings rife.

But in January this year, chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar told the media that in 2015, 12 districts had recorded a 900+ sex ratio. Sirsa – where the ratio was 882 in 2001 and 897 in 2011 – topped the list with 999 to 1,000 boys.

Journeys into the heart of Haryana underline the emergence of women in different ways. Single and married women – from families of landlords, farmers or landless labourers – are studying in colleges, riding scooters, walking the ramp, setting up businesses and choosing careers that they and their families would once have baulked at. In June this year, 47 female sarpanches and anganwadi workers vowed to say no to the ghunghat; they are meant to effect the pledge starting November.

The change didn’t happen overnight. One of the earliest measures that has today borne fruit is the reservation of seats for women in panchayats. The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in 1993 had initially led to men ruling on behalf of women. But now, more and more women are in control over decisions such as roads, health centres and schools.

Successive state governments have done their bit, too. Over the years, 35 colleges and a university with hostel facilities exclusively for women have come up. The cost of land and property registration for women has been lowered, all-woman police stations have been opened and roads and highways developed, helping women travel with greater ease for education or work.

And the men, for long seen as die-hard patriarchs who did not want their daughters or wives to work outside their homes, are happy because there is money coming in.

“The role of women in Haryana has changed from that of a receiver to a provider,” says social scientist Prem Chowdhury, whose research work has focused on Haryana women.

Villagers point out that men now want their women to study. “Even fathers-in-law come to us and say that they want to invest a few lakhs of rupees in the education of their bahus. And they hope that their degrees will get them good jobs,” says Kavita Chakravarty, registrar of Sonipat’s Bhagat Phool Singh (BPS) Mahila Vishwavidyalaya.

Economic reasons, clearly, have prompted families to embrace change. As in many states, land holdings have decreased with the growth of families. But Haryana witnessed another development – the sale of land to developers because of its proximity to Delhi and the National Capital Region. Old timers point out that a great many people made money, but frittered it away over the years. And women stepped in to help families survive and picked up the reins.

“I tell my parents what is right and what is wrong. They listen to me,” says Jhajjar’s Poonam Rajput, an MPhil student at Maharshi Dayanand University (MDU).

Education, the young women stress, has elevated their social status. MDU’s Aruna Sangwan, who is doing her Masters in defence and strategic studies, points out that she was asked by their pradhan to hoist the Indian flag on Independence Day at a local school, because she was the most educated woman in the village. “That was truly the proudest moment of my life,” Sangwan, 24, says.

Haryana’s new generation of women believe that education gives them careers – and helps them leave stifling homes. “They would never get at home the kind of freedom they get on a campus. Education helps them step out,” says Sunit Mukherjee, MDU’s public relations officer.

Chowdhury points out that a 2011 UN survey shows that women in Haryana want property, education and jobs. That seems to be the mantra in BPS. Computer science student Roshni Saini talks about working abroad. “I have told my parents that my aim is not to get married but to go abroad and work,” she says.

The students narrate their own little stories of triumphs. BPS student Shweta Bura recalls how, at a recent wedding, a young man touched her arm and said, “Soft hai (it’s soft).” It’s also tight, she said, and slapped him. “After that, he didn’t dare to come near me,” Bura laughs.

Changes in law – and media focus on law breakers – may have made a difference to the way men perceive women. Nihal Singh, a former pradhan of Mundhal village, admits that there was a time when men hit their daughters-in-law if they were late carrying lunch to the fields. “Now we don’t even talk to them rudely because they might just complain to the police,” he says.

More and more women are approaching the police. The rise in reporting of domestic violence – up from 3,504 cases in 2008 to 7,393 in 2015 – is attributed to rising awareness. “Women now report cases of marital and domestic violence,” says Renu S. Phulia, women and child development director .

Bollywood is mirroring some of these changes. Kangana Ranaut’s bawdy-butch act in Tanu Weds Manu Returns and Anushka Sharma’s bellicose wrestler in Sultan portray the new Haryanvi woman – self-willed, unafraid. The forthcoming Aamir Khan release Dangalcaptures the real life story of a father in Haryana and his wrestler daughters.

But Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik, who is from Rohtak, stresses that it’s not an easy path for women to take.

“I have asked so many parents to send their daughters for training. But they ask me how long it will take. I tell them that it took me 12 years to prove myself, that one cannot be a champion overnight. But they don’t understand that,” Malik says.

For every success story, there are numerous tales of women who can’t step out of their homes or who face censure. “I cannot wear jeans or use a mobile phone after 9pm because my brother objects,” says Sweety Bharadwaj, a graduate in German language .

In many rural areas, women still wear a ghunghat in front of men and elders. Old conventions – that they cannot sit on the edge of a cot if a man’s head rests on it – are followed in most homes. Women who go out to study or work have to first finish house work – including taking care of cattle.

Moudgil recalls that 10 years ago, when she told her mother-in-law that she wanted to study further, she’d replied: Who will then make cow dung cakes at home? “I told her, I’ll do that, and I will study.” Moudgil, who went on to complete a teachers’ training course and an MA in Hindi, today earns Rs 60,000 a month.

The entrance to her village – which grabbed the attention of the media with its “Selfie with daughter” contest last year – is called Lado Marg, lado being the local word for girl. But the village sarpanch, Deepika Sahu, cannot say a word in front of her mother-in-law.

Sahu looks silently at her four-year-old son, dressed in a T-shirt that says “Boys will be boys”, when asked about her plans for women in the village. He will do what has to be done, the mother-in-law says from the kitchen, referring to her husband, a former sarpanch.

The gender imbalance is most evident in the Muslim dominated areas of Mewat and Pataudi, where few women go for higher studies. In H.L.G. Government College in Tauru, Mewat, of the 103 women students, only four are Muslim.

But there are a few good news stories coming in from Mewat, too. Village Nimkheda elected India’s first all-woman panchayat in 2005. And the people of Dulawat speak highly of Ruby Khan, the first woman in the village to have studied in a college. She is now a nurse in a top hospital in Delhi.

Perhaps the time has come for Sahu’s small son to sport a slogan that says: Boys would rather be girls.

  • Haryana has 35 colleges and a university just for women. Students of Maharshi Dayanand University

  • Babli Moudgil of Bibipur, Jind, has turned a family cowshed into a Montessori school

  • Roshni Saini (front) is studying computer science. She wants to work abroad

  • Not all Haryanvi women continue to bear the traditional burden of the family

The 11-year-old newspaper delivery boy followed a gruelling schedule. Before dropping the papers at every doorstep in his Boston neighbourhood, he would sit under a street lamp and read them. So, years later, when Walter V. Robinson, that newspaper boy, joined the Boston Globe as an intern — and then worked his way up from a political reporter and metro editor to foreign correspondent reporting from 30 countries — he already knew what news was all about. Robinson won global fame in 2001-2002, when, as the head of the paper’s investigation team, Spotlight, he and his team exposed a rampant child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. In 2003, he won the Pulitzer for the expose, which became the theme for Tom McCarthy’s 2015 Oscar-winning film Spotlight.
At 70, Robinson, played by Michael Keaton in the film, isn’t done with investigative reporting. ‘Like you, I am still eager 

to be the first to find out what’s happening,’ Robinson told Sonia Sarkar on the sidelines of Uncovering Asia, a conference on investigative journalism in Kathmandu that both attended last month. Excerpts from their conversation:
Q. How accurately did the film capture the investigation done by your team?
A. There were fears that a Hollywood film would sensationalise the work we’d done. But it didn’t. The director’s team did extensive research. They spoke to us several times. We gave them papers supporting our investigation, which they too investigated. And then they made the film. Tom McCarthy is a wonderful filmmaker. Next time you plan to do any investigation, call me and I will put you in touch with him. He will do the investigation for you in two hours. (Laughs)
Q. Do you think the film will encourage victims of sexual abuse in other parts of the world to speak up?
A. Spotlight opened in the United States last November. In January, it had a staggering opening around the world. With each opening, our email inboxes were flooded with messages of victims from across the world — France, Italy, South Korea, Australia and India. They were victims of sexual abuse by heads of other religious institutions too, not just the Church.
Q. What message does the film have for journalists?
A. Spotlight speaks to us all, as journalists. And it speaks for us all. It is about what we all do — journalism that makes a difference. Spotlight is for editors to revisit their decisions, to start doing investigative 

reporting because we cannot do without it.
Q. How did your investigation start?
A. In July 2001, the Boston Globe editor, Martin Baron (portrayed by Liev Schreiber in the film), was pursuing a column on lawsuits pertaining to a priest who was allegedly involved in sexual abuse. When he learnt that the judge had sealed the court records to prevent the personal records of the priest from going public, he asked the paper’s Spotlight team to investigate. That was it: investigate one priest. We called everyone who knew anything about him and sexual harassment of children. And we realised that it was just the tip of a large iceberg. We got to know about sexual harassment by a dozen priests. That changed the course of the story. A dozen priests turned out to be 87 and then 135 and then 175… and finally, just in Boston, 249 priests.
Q. What was the impact of your investigation?
A. Our phones rang constantly. There were calls from victims. It forced Cardinal Bernard Law, who covered up years of sexual abuse by paedophile priests, to resign as the archbishop of Boston in 2002. But we also got calls from conservative Catholics who were angry at the church. They thanked us as they were empowered by the truth that a powerful institution which survived on secrecy, deception and corruption had lost all that they had because of our report.
Q. Do you think many religious institutions worldwide are up to something that needs to be probed?
A. Yes, that’s likely. Any large rock that’s not been turned over and looked at is likely to have something underneath. We forget that religious institutions are run by ordinary mortals who make horrible decisions. The Church in America was the most iconic institution for everyone. And for too many years, reporters never asked them any tough question.
Q. Reporters in this age of digital and mobile journalism — where quantity overrides quality — do not get enough time to investigate stories…
A. I think editors need to pay attention to the fact that readers want investigative reporting. 

In many newspapers, reporters who want to do investigative reporting do it in their own time. That’s a shame.

A still from Spotlight

Q. Do you think the Internet and social media have made reporters lazy?
A. They are not lazy but they forget. Since they are flooded with so much information, they forget to pursue good stories. They forget to meet people face to face. People won’t tell reporters stories unless they look into their eyes and they feel that they can trust them. That’s one component of reporting that has suffered with the proliferation of the Internet and social media.
Q. Does serious investigative journalism have a future in the US?
A. In the US, we have a free press. Yet someday we may be free but we may not have the press. We may have freedom to do investigative reporting but we may not have reporters to do that. Often, editors think investigative reporting is a luxury. Newspapers are in perpetual financial trouble and therefore investigative reporting is not encouraged. It’s a fundamental mistake made by the newspapers because readers rank investigative reporting high in all surveys. Even if there is information about corruption, there is barely anybody probing it. That’s really a serious problem for our democracy right now.
Q. Some fear that if the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, is elected President, freedom of the press will be compromised. What do you think?
A. He would like to do that. But he doesn’t know that we have a Constitution. He hasn’t read it. He doesn’t know that the Supreme Court has spoken a lot on libel to protect freedom of speech and freedom of the press, so he cannot do a thing.
Q. What are your tips for investigative journalists?
A. Never take “NO” for an answer. If somebody says, they don’t want to tell you something, go ask their friends, their resources. Exhaust all possible resources. Basically don’t give up on any story. Never take NO from your editors either. But you have to be a little subversive with them. Also, reporters must pursue stories of national significance. Look for the big picture.
Q. After so many years, are you satisfied with your work as a journalist?
A. No, I am always trying to find out what others cannot. I always like to know what’s there behind official explanations. I am always chasing those stories that people do not want us to know. I am never satisfied with the official version.