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Archive for the ‘Human interest’ Category

I am not writing it because I want a battery of followers on Twitter as #Metoo is trending on social media. It is important to start with this disclaimer because I have heard comments such as, “now, every woman will share her ‘story’ to become famous on social media.”

I am writing it because I feel empowered today as a woman journalist when I see my colleagues in the media have come out to narrate their horrific experiences in their professional life.  I feel, there is a need to share these experiences in public to make more women aware of the urban predators around us.

As women journalists, we do come across some “embarrassing” or “weird” or “awkward” or “unpleasant” moments in our professional life.  One such moment still lives with me. It was August 2010, I was doing a story on the Commonwealth Games, desperately trying to interview the CWG Organising Committee (OC) chairman Suresh Kalmadi. Despite sending him a questionnaire on mail followed by multiple reminders, he didn’t answer. Then one day, (most probably, it was August 6, 2010) a press conference was called at the New Delhi Centre at Jai Singh Road, the office of the CWGOC. Suresh Kalmadi made a surprise appearance to deal with allegations of his involvement in financial irregularities related to the Games.  After the conference was over, I ran towards him as he was waiting for the elevator. Near the elevator, in the presence of his officials, I told him, “Sir, I am from The Telegraph, I have mailed you some questions related to a story on Commonwealth Games but you haven’t replied.” He looked at me, extended his arms towards me, patted on my right cheek twice and said, “Come, come to my office upstairs.”

As a woman, I felt invaded, I felt miserable. I felt like washing my cheek again and again. But suddenly as a reporter, I thought, finally, I could get his interview. After the interview, I called up my senior colleague, I told her about how he behaved. She said, “Don’t think too much about it. He must be treating you as a kid.” I believed her only to forget this incident. I was 29 then but because of my short stature, I looked younger, perhaps, I thought.

I have not been able to forget this incident. As I shared this experience with a few female journalists, I realised, a lot of us want to forget these unpleasant moments because the ultimate aim is to get the story, and we move from one story to the other. But the reality is, we feel miserable for not doing enough at the right time. And often, while moving from one story to the other, we encounter more such unpleasant experiences.

In 2011, I was trying to interview a Congress MP (And let me clarify, I am no BJP stooge who is blaming a Congress man), who claims to understand the plight of Kashmiris like none other. One afternoon, dressed in his trademark white kurta and pyajama, this politician came to attend a programme at the Constitutional Club. I approached him for an interview.  It was my first meeting with him. He gave a smile and suddenly put his right arm around my shoulder, wanting to know, what this interview is all about. I was taken aback by his gesture. But after about two minutes, I expressed my discomfort by shrugging off his hand a bit but I didn’t say anything to him directly. He sensed my discomfort and removed it.

When I narrated this incident to my senior colleagues in the media, I learnt, he is known for being “flirtatious.” The other day, an ex-colleague while commenting over the #Metoo moment, wrote on WhatsApp —“There’s a thin line between sexual harassment and harmless flirting.” What this politician did was harmless flirting or sexual harassment? So he has been “flirting” with women journalists for years, and no one felt the need to speak up?

As my Twitter timeline is getting filled with the horror stories of women journalists being sexually harassed by their male colleagues, I thank my stars that I have never been hugged or groped or kissed by my male colleagues at any workplace or in their cars in my 15 years of journalism career. But I won’t say, there were no attempts by male colleagues to pull me down by making obnoxious sexist remarks.

I remember, back in 2004-06, when I was working in a newspaper owned till recently by a BJP MP, I was often taunted by a senior male colleague with initials RRR after I was asked by my boss to cover beats he covered. In a way, he was punished for not doing justice to his work; clearly, he couldn’t say much to the boss, so his ire was directed at me. I remember him telling me — “Ladki ho, kaam achha karogi…” What a sexist remark! As a newcomer in the profession and a new migrant to the city, I thought it was better to keep quiet; I kept my focus on work, nothing else. I did commit a mistake. I should have confronted him right there. I should have asked him –what exactly did he mean by “ladki ho…kaam achha karogi!”

Another male colleague in the same department who claimed to have great access to Delhi Police but mostly behaved as its spokesperson used to address me as  “eh ladki…” I did respond to it once or twice before telling him firmly, “I have a name.” “Toh, tum ladki nahin ho kya?” — pat came his reply.

He or anyone else never tried to take any chance on me for sure though, perhaps, because our boss was too protective of his younger women colleagues. But then why do we need these protective father figures to guard us in our offices where all of us are adults?

I never look for a father figure to protect me when I travel to the back of the beyond on Manipur-Burma border to interview a militant or to report on the plight of tribals in Abujmarh or to document the lives of Kashmiris in curfew. I wonder, if I can be the voice of the deprived through my stories, why can’t I speak up for myself, every time, someone is trying to make me uncomfortable? I have realised, I often get perplexed when such “awkward” moments come. I have heard, many women get confused about how to react.

But now with so many of us speaking up, I believe, we must help each other to spot the #Urbanpredator and we must also share a tip or two on how to deal with them right then!

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Kashmir’s nomadic Bakarwals are looking beyond their traditional wandering lives, reports Sonia Sarkar

UNEVEN GROUND: Bakarwals leave for higher altitudes with the onset of summer  

As a child Shahnawaz Chaudhary had no money to buy notebooks. He memorised lessons by writing them down on rocks with pebbles for chalk. In fact, when he got the news that he had passed his Class X examinations, he was busy grazing sheep in Mandhar of Poonch district in the Pir Panjal range, a good six-hour drive from Srinagar.

“It was the turning point of my life. I realised that even we can have a better life,” says Chaudhary, who is now editor-cum-culture officer at the government of Jammu and Kashmir’s Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.

Chaudhary is one of those rare Bakarwals who dared to dream.

 

The term ” bakarwal” is a derivative of the word “bakri” or ” bakar” meaning goat or sheep. Bakarwals are nomadic Muslim tribes. In the summers, the Bakarwals travel from Jammu to Kashmir and sometimes all the way up to Ladakh. In October, they give a slip to the impending harsh winter and return to the plains of Jammu in search of green meadows and favourable climate for their livestock.

The eight-year-old girl who was raped and murdered earlier this year, in the state’s Kathua district also belonged to this community. According to activist Talib Hussain, who belongs to the community and has been fighting for justice for the girl, Bakarwals are now looking for a life beyond shuttling between the hills and the plains. Hussain [he has since been accused of rape and arrested] says, “Living the life of nomads should not remain a compulsion for us. We should be able to look for opportunities to study and be successful professionally.”

In 1991, Bakarwals were recognised as Scheduled Tribes by the state. But, as Hussain points out, they have never enjoyed the benefits or concessions in education or jobs that ought to have come with this. But now, the young of the community are increasingly deciding to take charge of their own destiny.

Hussain has been walking barefoot for over seven months as part of his campaign for implementation of the 2006 Forest Rights Act in Jammu and neighbouring areas to ensure that his own community has a better life.

He says, “Since the Act is not implemented in Jammu, we have no dwelling rights on forest lands which have been our traditional habitat for generations. What’s more, we are barely left with any forest land to travel through; we are facing eviction.”

Bakarwals are often clubbed with Gujjars, another nomadic tribe. Together, the two constitute around 11.9 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir’s population, according to the 2011 census.

The Bakarwals, however, feel that this clubbing together has been detrimental to their case. Says Chaudhary, “A sizeable number of Bakarwals is still landless and without proper shelter. They have no idea of what is happening in the larger world. On the contrary, most Gujjars are studying in schools and also have a secure livelihood.”

Talib Hussain was desperate to study but had little opportunity in his home state. He fled to Delhi, worked at a property dealer’s office and joined a government school. But he had to go back, as he couldn’t sustain himself for long. Later, he got into a state-run hostel for Bakarwals and Gujjars. “But very few Bakarwal students succeed in getting into these,” he claims.

Humera Chowdhary, a 26-year-old dentist, shares her experience. She says, “As children, some of us have had to live away from our parents for the sake of getting an education. Our parents travelled for six months. I could see my parents because they survived the harsh weather conditions and the dangerous hilly terrain, but there were many who didn’t see their parents the next season as they failed to make it. Had there been functional mobile schools in every district, Bakarwal children could at least be with their parents.”

Humera and others who have had enjoyed better fortune are now thinking in terms of payback. Rafaqat Hussain Khatana is studying to be a doctor at Srinagar’s Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences. He says, “I would like to run mobile clinics for Bakarwals. They sleep and eat wherever they get space, it is important to see how to make them more aware of hygiene and sanitation. Plus, providing them mobile medical facilities would improve the quality of life.”

No one wants to sacrifice one good thing for another, but sometimes to have both is difficult, if not near impossible. Chaudhary tells us he misses his old wanderer’s life. Occasionally he even takes off from work to spend some days roaming the Pir Panjal range with the people of his kafila.

He says in hushed tones, “I miss the charm of the old life.”

Meat of the matter

– To keep fatigue and forgetfulness away, include enough Vitamin B12 in your diet. Sonia Sarkar tells you why

Do you feel tired even after eight solid hours of sleep? It’s not just because of the long hours you are putting in at work, it could be the sign of a deficiency too. If you also feel depressed without a reason, have a tingling sensation in your hands or feet and have noticed a recent tendency to forget things, you may be lacking in Vitamin B12.

Also known as cobalamin, Vitamin B12 is one of the eight B vitamins and its role in cellular metabolism is closely intertwined with that of folate, another B vitamin.

“Over 50 per cent of Indians have B12 deficiency,” says Sadanand S. Naik, head of the department of clinical biochemistry at Pune’s KEM Hospital.

It can affect anyone and at any age. “The figure is higher among vegetarians, pregnant women (as its requirement goes up during pregnancy) and the elderly (as they do not take adequate nutrition),” says Seema Gulati, head of the nutrition research group at the National Diabetes Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation (NDOC), a Delhi-based NGO.

In all age groups, Vitamin B12 should be in the range of 200 pg/ml to 900 pg/ml of blood, where one pg or picogram is one trillionth of a gram. The early signals of a deficiency are anaemia, lethargy, joint pain, loss of memory and laziness. So if you are being plagued by more than one of these symptoms, see your doctor and get yourself tested.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is becoming a growing health concern across the world. An article published this year in the journal Nature Reviews – co-authored by Dr Ralph Green of the US, and a group of 14 international experts – states, “Deficiency of B12 is emerging as a public health concern in many low-income countries. A World Health Organization consultation identified infants, preschool children and pregnant and lactating women as the most vulnerable groups.”

The lack of Vitamin B12 for a sufficiently long period of time can lead to sensory and motor disturbances, ataxia leading to lack of voluntary coordination of muscle movements, and cognitive decline leading to dementia and psychiatric disorders. “Advanced Vitamin B12 deficiency could also lead to delirium and paranoia,” says Bangalore-based biological scientist Sujata Kelkar Shetty.

Low B12 levels could even spark off coronary artery disease, suggests a 2009 report of the US-based National Center for Biotechnology Information. It states that the incidence of coronary artery disease is increasing at an alarming rate, especially in developing countries such as India. “This may be due to deficiency of vitamin B12, a micronutrient, sourced only from animal products,” it adds.

There also seems to be a connection between lack of Vitamin B12 and the health of the thyroid gland. “Vitamin B12 deficiency and hypothyroidism are inter-related among young females,” says KEM’s Naik. “This is partly due to vegetarianism, a sedentary lifestyle and not enough exposure to sunlight.”

Incidentally, sunlight helps us make Vitamin D. So there is always a possibility that you may be deficient in both vitamins B12 and D3. “Prolonged D and B12 deficiency leads to impaired bone mineralisation, anaemia and neuro-cognitive disorders. Notable D and B12 deficiency prevails in epidemic proportions all over the Indian subcontinent,” reveals Naik.

Unlike Vitamin D, our body cannot make Vitamin B12. “So we have to get it from animal-based foods (dairy or meat) or from supplements [for vegetarians]. And we should do that on a regular basis, because our body cannot store vitamin B12 for a long time,” Gulati says. Since this vitamin is water soluble, any excess amount flows out of the body.

Ensuring you take in enough Vitamin B12 is sometimes not enough, especially if your stomach lining has been compromised as that impairs its absorption of the vitamin. This can happen in certain gastric ailments as well as in certain autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s. Consuming too much alcohol can also increase your risk of Vitamin B12 deficiency as it may lead to severe depletion of bodily stores of the vitamin. Chronic alcoholism also damages the lining of the stomach and intestines, which impairs absorption.

If you are found to have very low levels of B12 then the immediate relief is injectables. After taking a shot every day for five days, you will then be prescribed pills. There are, however, exceptions. “In pernicious anaemia, Vitamin B12 deficiency is persistent, and long-term injectable B12 is warranted,” says Gulati.

Why wait for a shot when a mouthful of deliciousness can give you the same results?

Sources of Vitamin B12

Vegetarian:

  • Milk and milk products (yogurt,buttermilk, cheese)
  • Fortified cereals
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Shitake mushrooms

Non-vegetarian:

  • Eggs  n Meat  n  Fish
  • Shellfish

In closed communities, social boycott is akin to living death. Activists and citizens in different states are rallying for the passage of laws that could change this primeval practice. Sonia Sarkar reports

  • LEGALLY BLIND: A khap panchayat in progress in Hissar, Haryana. Khaps are notorious for their regressive diktats; Pic: Getty images

Umesh Rudrap was boycotted by members of the Telugu Modelvar Parit community, which he belongs to, for marrying a Buddhist woman. That was in 1991. Umesh, who is from Pune and drives a taxi for a living, had to wait for almost three decades before he could give a fitting rebuttal.

This year in July, armed with the newly introduced law against social boycott – the Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention Prohibition and Redressal) Act – Umesh lodged cases against 17 committee members of the Telugu Modelvar Parit Samaj. The 2016 Act, which got presidential assent this July, forbids social boycott in the name of caste, community, religion, rituals or customs.

The Samaj, which is really a caste panchayat, had for all these years barred Umesh from participating in any social function organised by the community and had even issued a diktat forbidding community members from interacting with him.

“He was treated like a criminal,” says Kutpelli Chandra Ram, secretary of the Public Concern for Governance Trust, a Pune-based organisation that is helping Umesh and 24 others fight for their rights. If proven guilty, the accused will face a three-year jail term and could also be fined Rs 1 lakh.

Social boycott is a tool used by “influential” members within communities to punish anyone who does not conform to their rules. It is a rampant practice, not just in Maharashtra but also in states such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Assam, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan.

In Chhattisgarh, social activists say, at least 250 such cases have been listed with the Caste Annihilation Movement, a Delhi-based people’s group, over the last three years. The reasons could be anything from marrying outside one’s caste or community, as in Umesh’s case, to not following the diktats of community elders or for raising one’s voice against orthodox beliefs.

Tejram Sahu is an electrician from Beltukri, a village in east Chhattisgarh. In 2010, when his uncle died, he did not shave his head. He also refused to invite the community for the mrityu bhoj or funeral meal. Consequently, Tejram’s entire family was boycotted. Even the local barbers and grocers were told to withhold their services. Says Tejram, “We had approached the state human rights commission, but the officials didn’t do anything.”

In another instance, a woman from Magarlod village of Chhattisgarh’s Dhamtari district committed suicide after her family was socially boycotted for her illness.

Sanjeev Khudshah, national convener of the Caste Annihilation Movement, which fights against caste discrimination in Chhattisgarh too, says, “They [the boycotted] are not allowed to use hand pumps or ponds in villages, they cannot procure rations from local grocery shops, their children cannot go to school, and sometimes, a hefty fine is imposed and when they fail to pay, more punishment awaits them…”

The Chhattisgarh government is in the process of drafting a law to deal with these social evils, but nothing has been finalised so far.

Activists associated with the campaign against social boycott have been garnering support for a similar law in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where khap panchayats reign supreme and are known to give orders to rape and kill for not following norms laid down by the community. In 2010, a khap leader of Karoda village in Haryana was awarded life sentence for killing a young couple, Manoj and Babli. The panchayat had opposed their marriage in 2007 because they belonged to the same ” gotra” or clan and therefore the match was considered incestuous and non-permissible.

But rules vary depending on geography and community. In Uttar Pradesh, there have been many cases where khap panchayats have socially boycotted families whose children married into different communities. In 2015, two Dalit women from Baghpat approached the Supreme Court alleging that the khap panchayat had ordered that they be raped and paraded naked in their villages because their brother reportedly eloped with a woman from a higher Jat caste.

In states such as Odisha, Jharkhand and Assam, social boycott assumes another terrible shape in the form of witch-hunting. “Villagers label a woman a witch, blame her for natural calamities, even health hazards, and throw her out of the village or stone her to death. Her family members, especially her children, are targeted too,” says Bhubaneswar-based advocate Sashiprava Bindhani, who co-drafted the Odisha Prevention of Witch-Hunting Act, passed in 2013.

Assam, which has witnessed more than 400 cases of witch-hunting in the last five years, enacted the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act in 2015. Both Acts provide for more effective measures to prevent and protect persons from witch-hunts, but witness protection is something both states are still grappling with.

The Maharashtra Act, too, has no provision for witness protection. Neither does it deal with issues related to compensation and rehabilitation of victims. Activists feel even the quantum of punishment is not enough of a deterrent. “We had proposed a jail term of up to seven years and a minimum fine of Rs 5 lakh. On many occasions, caste panchayats impose a fine of Rs 2-3 lakh on victims of social boycott,” says Nashik-based Krishna Chandgude, state secretary of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti. In fact, it was the Samiti that spearheaded the campaign to declare social boycott a crime.

There is not much awareness about the law among police officials either, says Krishna. When Umesh and others wanted to lodge a complaint, allegedly, there were efforts by police to discourage them from filing it. Instead, police asked them to prove that they had been ostracised.

In Chhattisgarh, activists have been trying shake things up, strong opposition notwithstanding. Yuvraj Sinha, president of the Raipur chapter of Jaiswal Samaj, an OBC community, says, “A law to deal with social boycott will end the age-old traditions. Nobody will follow the rules, nobody will marry within the community or follow the customs of the community related to births and deaths. The younger generation will lose respect for the elders of the community if criminal cases are filed so easily.”

The argument over what is tradition and what’s effete about it goes on.

The young trinket sellers of Cox’s Bazar have learnt to better negotiate life’s troughs and crests; it’s surf-boarding, they tell Sonia Sarkar

  • Pics: Allison Joyce

  • TERRA FIRMA: Rashed Alam (top) teaches these girls to become professional surfers and lifeguards

The waves are choppy as they usually are during the rains, but Rifa Akhtar knows how to ride them. She walks into the water wearing a swimsuit, her surfing board in hand, paddles out into the water for a bit and then slowly clambers onto the board. Within a few seconds, she is surfing atop the waters with élan.

“I love the rhythm of the waves,” says the 13-year-old, a surfer at Cox’s Bazar, a coastal town in Bangladesh. The fishing port is famed for its sandy stretch of over 100 kilometres, said to be the longest natural beach in world.

Until a few years ago, Rifa and her sister, Aisha, used to sell artificial jewellery and crisps on the beach. They made around 800 BDT (Rs 650) a day, while their father worked as a cook at a local shack. Life took a dramatic turn in 2013 when Rashed Alam – a surfer and lifeguard at Bangladesh Surf Girls and Boys, the sole surfing club for girls at Cox’s Bazar – offered to teach them the sport.

“Rifa would look at us in awe,” says Alam. “So one day, I asked her if she would like to learn to surf. Initially, she was shy, also intimidated by the waves. And she refused.”

But Alam persisted, fanning the fire in her and helping build her confidence. In due time, their journey took off.

“A lot of time was spent paddling around and falling into the water. We were also asked to watch other surfers. There were days when I simply wanted to give up and leave,” says Rifa, who won two surfing competitions at Cox’s Bazar, in 2015 and 2016.

Rifa was among eight girls who joined Alam’s club in 2013; now the number has risen to 14. Most of them hail from families of daily wage earners and hawkers in nearby villages, and were contributors to the family income.

Naturally, their path hasn’t been an easy one. When they began surfing, Alam stopped them from working. Moreover, they did not tell their parents about their new activity, and when they came to know about it, all hell broke loose.

“The day Rifa’s mother discovered her daughter had taken to surfing instead of selling trinkets, she beat her up with an umbrella in front of us all and dragged her away,” Alam recalls. “Later, I went to her parents and explained that surfing is a popular sport and that there’s no harm doing it.”

Their question was – who will pay for the household expenses if she doesn’t work?

Alam had no answer. For over a year, he paid a small amount of money to Rifa and the other girls for tea and snacks out of his own pocket. A year later, he started crowd-funding for them on the club’s website. In this he was helped by his American wife, Venessa Rude, and a photojournalist friend, Allison Joyce. From the money that comes in, the club spends 5,000 BDT (Rs 3,950) on each girl.

“We provide the monthly grocery to each one’s family. We’ve also enrolled them in school, while we help them with their English and communication skills privately. The girls are trained in rescue operations and first aid too. We hope this will help them become professional surfers and lifeguards,” Alam says.

There were problems of another kind also. Many of Alam’s close friends turned against him as they felt that by teaching the girls to surf, he was going against Islam. Also, when the male surfers in Cox’s Bazar saw that the girls were doing very well, they began to threaten them and make their day difficult. Rifa and her friends were called “indecent” for moving around in swimsuits and taking up a sport which was hitherto an all-male domain.

“Initially, we took to the water in a salwar-kameez and orna (scarf). Later, Rashed bhai brought us swimsuits. The local people, however, objected to it,” says Mayesha, 13, the daughter of a fish seller. Neighbours also taunted her parents for allowing her to surf along with the men. This forced them to start looking for a groom for her. “But I told them that I don’t want to get married,” says the determined girl.

Surfing has, in fact, helped Mayesha deal with difficult life situations. “Waves come in clusters or sets. Sometimes, the sea is still for a while and then suddenly a series of waves appears, rolling out one after the other. This has taught me to negotiate uncertainties,” she smiles.

Mayesha’s friend, Nargis Akhtar, too, refuses to be tied down with marriage right now. For this 14-year-old, the sea is her escape from all woes. “All my worries seem to get absorbed by this vast expanse. It also made me strong enough to take the tide in my stride; I can now fight against all odds,” Nargis says happily.

Rifa, Mayesha, Nargis and the others have been taming the waves for about four years. Now they want to participate in an international surfing competition. A few months ago, they were ready to take on the Indian Open of Surfing at Sasihithlu Beach in Mangalore, but couldn’t as their passports hadn’t come in.

The chorus is clear – the girls want to see the world and surf the oceans. “I want to go to ‘Caliponia’ [California],” says Rifa, who now trains kid surfers at Cox’s Bazar.

And Mayesha, who once dreamt that she was surfing in Indonesia, says, “I want to win global surfing competitions and make my country famous. And then everyone who created hurdles for us would shout out in cheer.”

 

https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170820/jsp/7days/story_168126.jsp


A marriage bureau in Gujarat is facilitating gay marriages. What does this trend say about the future lives of homosexuals in India? Sonia Sarkar reports

  •  PIC: THINKSTOCK

  • AN EQUAL MUSIC: (Top)The Ahmedabad bureau has gay prince Manvendra Singh Gohil (below) as a counsellor

After years of dilly-dallying, Vishal, a marketing manager with a pharmaceutical company, decided to get married. The news far from pleased his parents. First, they threw a fit, then dragged him to a tantric. Next, his father brought home a female prostitute – for him.

“All this because I said I wanted to get married to a man,” says Vishal, who is from Mumbai but is currently settled in Ahmedabad.

When he couldn’t convince his parents, Vishal approached Arranged Gay Marriage (AGM), India’s first gay marriage bureau. A couple of interactions later the matchmakers there managed to get through to his parents. “They saw several videos on gay relationships on the Internet; they read about gay marriage on various websites; they sat through several counselling sessions to know how gay relationships work,” says Vishal. Once they were convinced, they started looking for a partner for him.

The search ended with Kartikey, a professor in a Mumbai college. “We are getting married in December,” says Vishal. Maitree Basu, who works for an IT firm in Bangalore, also met her partner Tanushree through the bureau. The two tied the knot last year.

Like Vishal and Maitree, over 23 other homosexuals – gays and lesbians – have found their partners through this Ahmedabad-based marriage bureau since it was founded a little over a year ago. To date, the bureau has facilitated four such marriages in India and 20 abroad. And its Facebook page is perennially flooded with queries.

Unlike Australia, Belgium, Norway, Spain, Canada, South Africa, the Netherlands and some states in the US, gay marriage is not legally recognised in India. In fact, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code prohibits it.

But legalities don’t seem to deter Urvi Shah, the 23-year-old owner of the bureau. “Gays and lesbians also have the right to live a normal life just as any heterosexual,” she says. “Everyone needs a life partner. Moreover, marriage reflects traditional Indian values.” Having said that, she is well aware that in India “coming out” is no easy task, forget deciding to get married. She feels strongly about the social exclusion and psychological distress homosexuals are subjected to and through the bureau offers counselling support to those who want to come out of the closet.

For homosexuals opting or wanting to get married, the idea is to publicly claim their societal space as a married person just as any married heterosexual person. Only last month, Manjit Kaur, a 30-year-old Punjab Police woman sub-inspector married another woman at Pucca Baugh, in Jalandhar, complete with Hindu rituals. Mumbai-based Gaurav Salve, a chartered accountant, married Jake, an American, last year. He says, “I am a religious person and I wanted to get married. For a man in India, getting married to a man was impossible.”

Manvendra Singh Gohil, the celebrity gay prince of Rajpipla in Gujarat, often counsels the clients of AGM. He asks, “When heterosexuals have the liberty to marry, why should gays be deprived of the same right?”

No reason, except that among other things it isn’t easy for homosexuals to find partners keen on a long-term relationship and commitment.

“Homosexual men do have a tendency to have multi-partner sex as their stable relationships are not recognised by society,” says gay rights activist Ashok Row Kavi. “Our first baseline survey in Mumbai in 2000 showed that gay men had an average of 11 casual partners in a month. This figure has now come down to four and even this is reducing,” says Ashok who is chairman of the gay rights organisation, Humsafar Trust. He stresses that as society is getting used to same-sex couples, the chances of stable gay relationships are increasing.

In the meantime, however, the going continues to be tough for Urvi who runs the bureau out of Gujarat, the BJP-run state that supports criminalisation of gay sex. She will tell you it is considered “unethical for a Hindu girl to support homosexuals” and she is used to receiving random threats. Recently, an anonymous caller threatened her with acid attack.

On the home front, too, niggling worries abound. Her parents seem to have got past the initial worry about what people will make of such an initiative. But they cannot stop worrying about how it will impact Urvi’s own marital prospects. Perhaps they worry that no one will believe that she is herself of heterosexual orientation.

Urvi, however, is unbudging. Her steadfastness holds out hope to the homosexual community. Gaurav is thinking of adopting a child.

From counselling and facilitating same-sex marriages will AGM diversify into helping homosexual couples raise a family? It well might, once the trend they’ve floated settles in.

 

 

 

https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170604/jsp/7days/story_154978.jsp

Delhi University professor Nandini Sundar has been taken by controversy again. This time a surrendered Bastar “Maoist”, Podiyami Panda, has alleged that he facilitated meetings between her, rights activist Bela Bhatia and top Maoists, a claim she denies. Last year, Sundar, author of The Burning Forest – India’s War in Bastar, was charged with murder of a tribal in Sukma district. Far away from the Maoist hinterland, sitting at her office in Delhi School of Economics, Sundar faults both the government and the Maoists and pleads for peace talks. Where she herself is concerned, she sees a “witch-hunt” by state agencies. Sundar, 49, an awarded academic – recipient of the Ester Boserup Prize (2016) and Infosys Prize ( 2010) – also tells SONIA SARKAR that she suspects directives against her are coming from the very top in the political establishment – the Prime Minister’s Office and national security advisor Ajit Doval.

Excerpts:

Q. What’s your response to Podiyami Panda’s statement that he was the link between you and Maoist leaders in Bastar?

A. I have never met any Maoist leader through Panda. It’s a false statement.

It seems that he has been tortured in police custody. His family members have filed a habeas corpus plea in the Chhattisgarh High Court. In the affidavit, his brother has stated that he met Panda in the presence of police; he was not able to walk properly, and seemed to have injuries on his feet. It is clear that he has been saying whatever the police want him to say. The police have been trying to frame us for a long time; they make us the target whenever they get an opportunity.

Q. Have you ever met Panda?

A. I know him for the past 15 years. He was a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and sarpanch of Chintagufa in Sukma. I met him because he was strongly opposing the Salwa Judum (civil militia) movement in 2005. It was in April 2015 that I met him for the last time.

Q. Did you ever meet any Maoist leader?

A. In May 2006, as part of the Independent Citizens’ Initiative, I met Gudsa Usendi – the name taken on by a succession of Maoist spokespersons. I object to this question on principle because it is insulting to researchers. If journalists feel entitled not to reveal their sources and meet all sides, why shouldn’t researchers? For the record, I have written on my chance meeting with lower cadres in my book. I criticised their violence, so they accused me of equating their violence with state violence. For my research, I would have wanted to meet more Maoist leaders but they never offered any guided tour or any interview because I asked them too many difficult questions.

Q. Why do you think Bela Bhatia and you are often drawn into controversies? Why is there so much questioning of your role in Bastar?

A. It is because Bela and I have been consistently insisting on peace talks. The state wants to discredit us. It doesn’t want any middle ground – it wants a black-and-white situation where there is nothing but the presence of military force.

Q. You have been working in Bastar since the 1990s. Is this sort of harassment new to you?

A. The state started harassing me ever since I filed a petition in the Supreme Court opposing Salwa Judum. In 2007, the police photo-shopped my image. I was shown with my arms around Maoist women cadres. They wanted to say that I filed the case on behalf of the Maoists. When I protested, the police replied saying it was one “Ms Jeet”. Nothing has ever been heard of this Ms Jeet before or after. In 2010, when I visited Bastar along with a friend, after being asked by the additional solicitor-general, we were picked up by 50 armed special police officers. They even followed us to the airport to make sure we left. Then last year, there was a murder charge against me but I have got a reprieve from the Supreme Court. But now, there is harassment by the Centre, which is putting pressure on Delhi University. If I apply for leave, I am asked, “What’s happening to your murder case?”

Q. Do you think the former IG (Bastar range) S.R.P. Kalluri made things worse for you? He filed murder charges against you.

A. I don’t think Kalluri was the sole issue. Yes, his language was defamatory. But I was harassed even when Vishwaranjan was the director-general of police (from 2007 to 2011). The main issue is that chief minister Raman Singh is condoning all of this.

Q. Do you think the Centre, too, has a role in all of this?

A. Yes. Either the Prime Minister’s Office or the national security advisor, Ajit Doval – it’s the political establishment that should be held accountable, not just the police.

Q. What changes have you noticed with BJP coming to power?

A. I think, Salwa Judum has spread all over the country in the form of gau rakshaks and vigilante mobs. The atmosphere now has become vitiated and violent.

Q. Are you a tribal rights activist or has your role changed into that of a mediator between the Maoist and the mainstream?

A. I don’t call myself a rights activist or a mediator. I am a sociologist whose work is to research and teach. In the course of that, I have been drawn into this because it’s an area I have done research on.

Q. What’s your understanding of the Maoists issue? Where are they going wrong?

A. The surrendered Maoists I interviewed have revealed that there is corruption in the ranks. Also, they carry out horrible punishments – like they kill people if they are suspected of being police informers. This is a perversion of their policy. The top leadership should realise that this strategy is going nowhere.

Q. What should be the approach of the government towards Maoists?

A. There should be peace talks. There should be a set of independent people who could be trusted by both sides such as former Supreme Court judges, retired administrators, policemen and others to mediate.


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