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On Topic: The March Review

Having just crossed the threshold into April, let’s look back at what March had to offer this year.

 

Since the month marks international women’s day on the 8th of March, why not start this blog with some stories on the social achievements for women’s lives that we have seen of late – and yes, there are a few worth mentioning.

On March 9th, the Lok Sabha passed the Maternity Benefits Bill. An amendment of the 1961 Maternity Benefit Act, this has now extended the period of paid maternity leave for mothers after the birth of their first two children from 12 to 26 weeks. On top of that, work environments with more than fifty employees, must now provide work-site crèche facilities for working mothers. Of course, as articles by The Ladies Finger and Hindustan Times rightfully point out, shortcomings are found to remain among this amended bill. Thus, while the ILO-recommended maternity leave time suggests a minimum of 14 weeks, the Maternity Benefits Bill sticks to its previous 12-week maternity leave for mothers after the birth of their third child. And while maternity leave for commissioning mothers is addressed by the bill, mother surrogates remain excluded. Most significant of all, perhaps, is the structural premise of the bill, whose parameters exclude women from the unorganized work sector. This means that the majority of working mothers currently will not benefit from this bill at all. Nonetheless, its gender-neutral language to include fathers for some of the principles laid out does indicate a tentatively changing perception for the significance of creating structural support for parents in the first few months after their children’s births.

Further on the note of births and motherhood, Telenaga’s new budget, announced on March 13th, now includes money-provision schemes for new mothers of Rs. 12,000 for the birth of a baby boy and Rs. 13,000 for the birth of a baby girl, provided that mothers give birth in government hospitals. In addition, so-called ‘KCR Kits’ have now been implemented, named after Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao. Drawing inspiration from other such incentives across Europe and India, including Tamil Nadu’s ‘Amma Kit’, the KCR Kit will provide sixteen vital items to new mothers and their new-born babies, including a cradle, diapers, mosquito nets and hygiene products for mother and child. Both can be seen as a structural incentive to increase birth-rates in institutional settings, in an attempt to further reduce the maternal mortality ratio (MMR) and infant mortality ratio (IMR).

Finally! The tax on sanitary pads has been removed in Delhi – at least for those sanitary napkins that cost below Rs. 20. All those priced higher will see a tax cut from 12.5 to 5 per cent. So although there has been an ongoing and important debate in India surrounding the hygienic and environmental consequences of using sanitary pads, this at least, demonstrates that women’s health and sanitation is regarded a necessity rather than a luxury in Delhi.

Some might argue that this can be seen also in the recent ‘toilet for all’ order, called for by the South Delhi Municipal Council (SDMC). Implemented on April 1st of this year, the policy has called upon all restaurants and hotels in South Delhi to open their washrooms to the public, in the hope that this will facilitate circumstances particularly for women. That the latter are indeed among the most vulnerable when it comes to lack of toiletry access is hardly surprising and was recently demonstrated by the Rohini rape case in Delhi. Two children girls were raped, while urinating in an open space, given that the washrooms in their area – even after continuous complaints by the community – were out of order.

However, the question remains whether this target group is indeed best served by the new sanitary policy; even beyond its obvious geographically isolated response. Thus, while the policy was met with much positive feedback from the South Delhi community, social exclusion does not surpass its implementation. In theory, of course, the toiletry facilities are open ‘for all’, where a maximum charge of Rs. 5 has been imposed in the assumption that people from all economic backgrounds can afford to make use of them. In reality, however, it is feared that many will be denied entry due to hotel and restaurant dress code policies and social-class shaming. This is not unwarranted, given that many restaurant owners are unhappy about these changes, citing increased security problems and chaos as a main reason for their stance against the policy. We are yet to see, therefore, how effective the ‘toilet for all’ order will play out in practice.

Gender and toiletry policies appear to be a popular topic among politicians at the start of this year. Embedded in these, we find Donald Trump’s attempted move in late February, to exclude transgender students from schools’ locker-rooms and bathrooms on the basis of their gender identification. Although this was met with vehement rejection by several courts, on the premise of being unconstitutional, this policy marked only the beginning in a series of discriminatory stances  towards LGBTQ people and their rights in the current US administration this month. One was the US Department of Health and Human Services’ elimination of questions about LGBT people on two recent health surveys. Another was Trump’s revocation of the Fair Pay and Safe Workplace Order, introduced by the Obama administration, and concerned with a series of anti-discrimination policies in workplaces. Now this has been trumped by the administration’s announcement that the 2020 Census would no longer include options of sexual orientation, thus numerically excluding transgender Americans from public spaces and policy evaluations. At least hope sweeps over from Pakistan, where the country is currently preparing for its 6th census, the first to take count of transgender people, albeit as a separate category.

Less hope comes from the current discussion and implementation of so-called ‘anti-Romeo squads’ in Uttar Pradesh. A central part of the BJP’s campaign in the lead-up to recent state elections, Yogi Adiyanath’s stepping into CM office, was soon followed by his dedication to actualize his campaign promises. Particularly prominent in Ghaziabad, these police-formed ‘anti-Romeo squads’ have taken to rounding up young men, particularly outside school and college campuses, under the guise of protecting women from unwanted harassment. In actuality, it is argued, the targeted youngsters are ordinarily partners of these very women, and ‘anti-Romeo squads’, as their name suggests, are more concerned with the moral policing of public spaces, than the protection of women. At a time, when young women living in PG’s are required to stay indoors during the festival of Holi, and are continuously faced with curfews, often exposing them to more rather than less dangers, one cannot help but sigh in frustration at the age-old narrative that women’s ‘beautiful souls’ must be protected at any cost, even, or rather especially, when this serves to infantilize them.

Indeed, this appears particularly curious, given the opposing narrative currently found in legislative politics, where women, sometimes feminazis are dedicated the role of schemers who are seeking revenge from men and former partners, by falsely accusing them of rape. At least this seems to be the metanarrative which underpins the ‘Challenge to Unconstitutional Provisions of Anti-Rape Law’, recently issued as a petition to the Delhi High Court by women’s activist Madhu Kishwar. It’s purpose: to challenge the rape law amendments of 2013, including the persecution of non-penal-vaginal offences and victim testimony as sufficient evidence under the premise that this lends itself to mis- and abuses. Co-signed by a man and a woman currently convicted under these very rape law amendments and argued for by Kapil Sibal – defence lawyer in the Mahmood Farooqi rape case, currently waiting for its appeal – it is difficult not to see the petition as political back-door scheming. One can only hope that the Delhi High Court recognizes this and leaves the case to rest – an outspoken stance against it might be too much to ask…?!

 

Indian-Pakistani, and other, conflicts

March has been marked by an increasing sense of instability with regards to Indian-Pakistani conflicts in several spheres. One of the most obvious spaces where this is played out remains, of course, Kashmir. Following on from previous months, March too has seen a number of deaths among civilians, where notably those among children and minors, continue to cause most protesting response. Two such cases, supposedly caused by stray bullets though this remains contested, have made the headlines this month: that of fifteen-year-old Amir Nazir, killed during a protest in southern Padgampora; and six- or seven-year-old Kaneeza, who was shot in her home in northern Kupwara.

Analysts argue that such incidents continue to be linked to what they regard to have been the ‘tipping point’ in the contemporary conflict between militant rebels and civilian protestors, and army officers in Indian-administered Kashmir: the killing of Burhan Wani, former leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen, in July 2016. Indeed a recent video  released by Wani’s successor, Zakir Rashid Bhat, which calls upon Kashmiri youth to fight for Islam can be seen as a rollover from Wani’s previous recruitment policies. Thus, known for his skilled use of social media, Wani – sometimes referred to as the ‘poster-boy’ of militancy in Kashmir – gained reputation for his ability to recruit youngsters. That this will only fuel fire in ongoing tensions between militants and the Indian army officials can be seen in the latest killing of two militants  and the arrest of twelve youths for their alleged involvement in stone-throwing protests, both occurring in Pulwama district last week.

Another sphere in which Indian-Pakistani relations have been tense, has been with regards to the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. Following a series of terrorist attacks on India in the summer of 2016, in which the latter accused Pakistan of providing support to ‘infiltrators’, PM Modi had declared that ‘blood and water cannot flow together’ and suspended Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) talks, mandatorily held once in a fiscal, as laid out by the treaty. Together with India’s disputed building of hydroelectric power plants among Pakistani administered Western rivers, including the Kishanganga and Ratle hydroelectric plants, which Pakistan claims violate provisions of the treaty, water relations among the neighbouring states began to deteriorate. The PIC meeting last week, the first since 2015, can therefore be seen as a vital step in reopening dialogue on these issues and a symbolic attempt to smoothen grievances. Nonetheless, India’s pre-emptive declaration that there would be “no compromise” with regards to its full exploitation of treaty terms, and Pakistan’s continuous insistence that India’s planned projects deprive Pakistan of its due water rights under the treaty, may prove to make this difficult in practice. Given that it was World Water day on March 22nd, one can only hope that the two parties of the world’s most successful water treaty translate symbolic gestures into practice swiftly, as ‘water insecurity’ remains to be a dire reality for the daily lives of about 800 million people across the globe, including many of their respective citizens.

However, it should not go unacknowledged that there have been a number of voices, who have called for peaceful resolutions. Not only was it Pakistan, who initiated the current PIC talks earlier this month; Maulana Syed Athar Hussain Dehlavi, chairman of the Islamic body Anjumana Minhaj-e-Rasool, has also urged the Centre in Pakistan to reiterate the latter’s recognition that Jammu and Kashmir are integral parts of India, by passing a resolution and thereby reaffirming the government’s 1994 declaration. So far this has seen little reaction from the latter. However, on a cultural-legislative note, the Hindu Marriage Bill passed in Pakistan on March 11th can be seen as a tentative step towards a reconciliatory gesture.

Meanwhile, such incentives have, unfortunately, not seen much reciprocated attempts by India. Indeed, the recent appointment of Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, for example, is feared to ignite Muslim-Hindu political and cultural conflict within the region. A Hindutva hardliner, Adityanath had previously declared that he was in favour of Trump’s highly controversial Musilm immigration ban, a stance he believes India should also take in its fight against terrorism. In the context of such exclusionary narratives, it is perhaps rather unsurprising that March 27th, for example, was marked by the killing of a suspected Pakistani ‘intruder’ who was shot dead by the BSF after crossing the Indian-Pakistani border at Punjab’s Gurdaspur. The identity of the deceased remains unknown, as eventual finding of his body revealed that the 21-year-old male, dressed in a pathani suit, carried no belongings, including an ID card or weapons. While it is not useful to conflate this incident with Adityanath’s earlier remarks or, of course, Trump’s policies in the US, it does illustrate that Indian, like other contemporary politics, appears to find itself amidst a sentiment of national(ist) nervousness, both embedded in, and fostering of, a perceived threat of ‘otherness’.

 

This was clearly illustrated also in Greater Noida last week. Following the incident of a missing 17-year-old boy, who was later found in a drug haze near his house, and who died due to a drug overdose on Monday, racial violence broke out in Greater Noida and continued well into the week. Accused of cannibalism and drug trafficking, Nigerian inhabitants in Greater Noida, most of them students at Sharad University, were attacked last Sunday and Monday night, as large mobs – as many as 1200 other Noida residents on Monday night – blamed them for the death of young Manish. Currently, six FIRs have been filed against suspected persecuters. However, the communal sphere remains tense, as Nigerian students are cautioned not to leave their house, unless escorted by police and the Office of the Dean of the African Group Head of Missions continues to stress that not enough was done by the New Delhi municipality and police to prevent and deter these xenophobic and racial attacks. In particular, the lack of response by PM Modi and UP’s CM Adityanath have caused much disappointment. That the current situation is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of racialized and nationalist profiling and prejudice in the area, was also demonstrated by mass protests that broke out in Noida last Tuesday, following the tearing and binning of the Indian flag by a Chinese national, employed by the Oppo mobile phone company. Police registered a case against a Chinese employee, Kevin Suhahu, under Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, while the company reacted by firing one of its employees, though name and nationality have not been made public.

 

March at Zubaan

March has also been a busy month at Zubaan, much of which was dedicated to internship applications and interviews, and we are excited to welcome eight new interns to the team throughout the year, starting this week! Further, Zubaan’s current e-pub project, which is to release individual essays from some of Zubaan’s published books online, is now well under way. Thank you to all those taking the time to answer our survey! Your responses have now been analysed and the first online releases are set to appear during the summer later this year. Big thanks also go to the anonymous donator in support of our translations project! Last but certainly not least, March at Zubaan was filled with a series of new releases. And here they are: For academics, we have New Intimacies, Old Desires: Law, Culture and Queer Politics in Neoliberal Times (eds. Oishik Sircar and Dipika Jain), as well as A Passionate Life: Writings By and On Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (eds. Ellen Carol Dubois and Vinay Lal), coming fresh off the printing press. For non-fiction, the new edition of From Cork to Calcutta: My Mother’s Story (by Milty Bose) and Watercolours: A Story from Auschwitz (by Lidia Ostałowska), were both released at the beginning of the month. Enjoy!

Presenting "Zubaan Talkies", Produced by Zubaan Books in collaboration with The Attic, Delhi
Review: Swarnalata

http://www.livemint.com/2011/12/30194653/The-marriage-plot.html

At one point in Tilottoma Misra’s Swarnalata, the parents of the eponymous heroine attempt to make a match for her with Rabindranath Tagore. The youthful poet, who has seen the attractive young girl from Assam—now in Calcutta to study—after a performance of his musical Balmiki Protibha, seems willing. But his father, the formidable Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, nixes the alliance.

Of course, history would have changed had Tagore Senior not taken this step. But Misra cleverly weaves the central skein of her novel into this one attention-grabbing incident. Swarnalata’s Brahmo parents, Gunabhiram and Bishnupriya Barua, are almost heartbroken at the rejection, which is explained to them in the novel by another real-life Brahmo elder, Sivanath Sastri, with these words:

 

Wonder years: Misra examines childhood and youth in 19th century Assam. Subhamoy Bhattacharjee

Wonder years: Misra examines childhood and youth in 19th century Assam. Subhamoy Bhattacharjee

 

“There could be only one reason for this. Devendranath Tagore has never been able to fully accept the idea of widow re-marriage. You must be aware that though he appears to be a liberal in his outlook, his attachment to some of the rites and beliefs of Hindu society seems to be growing with every passing day. It is quite possible, however, that the younger generation of Tagores may not be with him in this. But no one at Jorasanko would really dare to go against Devendranath’s wishes.”

 

The rejection, surmise the Baruas of Nagaon, a small town in Assam, stems from Gunabhiram’s decision to flout the conventions of Hindu Assamese society and marry Bishnupriya, a widow with two children. Gunabhiram’s act is congruent with the values of the Brahmo Samaj, which broke away from Hinduism to speak up and act for liberal thinking, for equality between the genders, and for Western-style education. But it still does not earn him the right to metaphorically sup at the table of the orthodoxy. In this contradiction are sublimated all the other conflicts that Misra depicts in her unhurried, sprawling and socially realistic novel named after the young woman whose life it traces from childhood to motherhood and beyond against the backdrop of change in late 19th century Assam.

Change is indeed palpable in the placid, hill-encircled land of Assam as nationalist sentiments emerge among a handful of revolutionary young men willing to defy the deep-rooted Brahmin servility to authority in general and to the British in particular. Meanwhile, Christian missionaries spread the gospel and offer the opportunity of education to people systematically deprived of it, in the process gaining converts. Then there are the Brahmos like Barua, intent on asserting equal rights for women and widows.

Misra brings each of these narratives of tension to a boil on a slow fire, charting the stories of representative characters. Here’s Swarnalata—daughter of privileged, enlightened parents, but still subject to the same biases as other women, which she must overcome in her own way. And here are her friends—Lakhi, a child-widow and daughter of a conflicted father caught between tradition and progress, and Tora, converted to Christianity and with a mind of her own.

 

Swarnalata: Zubaan, 293 pages, Rs 295.

 

 

Of these, Lakhi’s journey is the hardest. She gets a taste of new ideas from her childhood friendship with Swarna, but is soon wedged into the marriage-at-nine ritual. Her husband dies before she can join him after puberty, and she faces the prospect of several decades of widowhood and all its attendant shackles. Her defiant progress in the face of these obstacles makes for the most absorbing of the three women’s stories.

 

Circling these women—each pushed by personal circumstances that are symbols of the larger societal truth—are a handful of enlightened men who are eager to break laws that they identify as stultifying and demeaning. Chief among them is Dharmakanta, fiery of mind and spirit and contemptuous of convention. His determination to change the status quo is both inspiring and heartbreaking in its intensity.

Misra does not peer deeply within the minds of her characters. Instead, her concerns are with the battles waged between the individual spirit and societal suppression, where every person is powered by dreams and desires that constitute a reaction to the world they inhabit. Like the Brahmaputra flooding its banks, curving around obstacles and pushing on slowly but relentlessly, this novel too meanders, but always with the intent of reaching its end.

Although old-fashioned in its technique and lacking dramatic highs and punctuated cadences, the story shines out through a translation ranging between the competent and the ill-at-ease. In capturing the collective aspiration of a people from a part of India whose literature is unjustly under-circulated, Swarnalata becomes a rich panel in the patchwork quilt that is contemporary Indian fiction.

IN SIX WORDS

Three women in search of freedom

Arunava Sinha is the translator of Rabindranath Tagore’s Three Women andBankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s The Chieftain’s Daughter.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

Click to buy the book

Swarnalata: Zubaan, 293 pages, Rs. 295.

 

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