10.11.17

Reductionism and the Sexual Abuse Debate:
Beyond #MeToo, #HimToo


Every woman has faced some kind of sexual exploitation. It starts when we are young. We have barely had an opportunity to watch our bodies grow and find that somebody else is noticing and making a claim over it. Often, for just a moment, for that brush against us. He does not see anything else except that bit. We begin to hide the part that now seems like an appendage to only cause us trouble.

Sadly, what we see in the course of various articles on male predatory behaviour is a similar lingering-over-bodies objectification. The Harvey Weinstein story should have been about him flashing and spraying a potted plant upon being rebuffed; instead it has become anecdotal about parts of women, their person stamped with the victim tag.

Another problem with the exploitation discussion is that it gets reduced to a parade of names with a pecking order. So, while Bafta and the Oscar honchos throw Harvey Weinstein out, Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby continue to hold their place. Are their abusive actions any less damaging? Their victims too did not inspire the kind of solidarity we see with the Hollywood A-listers. The crime seems to matter only when the criminal and victim are mainstream.


Forty years after he was charged with and served a sentence for raping a minor, women took out a topless protest against Polanski in Paris as a result of the ‘Weinstein effect’. He has his supporters, from French philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy to George Clooney, who finds the behaviour of Weinstein “indefensible” but had expressed sympathy for Polanski: “When you think about all that this 83 year old man has been through, it's awful to imagine that they're still after him.”

More prominent men are being outed, Kevin Spacey being the latest. Worryingly, the reportage has transformed the victims into numbers. 30 women, 50 women, 80 women. More women and counting. Men, too. Recall that New York magazine had done a lead story, its cover picture a montage of all the women who had accused Cosby. It was like a “wanted” list. The women were on parade. And given that he got away due to a “mistrial” and that he had plans to teach young people how to escape sexual assault charges, we need to examine whether, aside from celebrity gawking, these ‘outings’ have any real effect on the social mindset.

Me Too


While it is understandable that women would speak out as a group to feel safe and bolster their chances of being heard, this is not how it happened. They did not speak in one voice; it was a snowballing effect. Why does it have to be a sorority of victims? Isn't one victim enough for us to pay heed? Had the victim names not been famous would we have been interested?

Another aspect of the Weinstein episode is that women recognised for having broken the glass ceiling and fighting for equal pay have been relegated in public perception as people who struggle with silence when faced with physical humiliation. Most of them have a backdated encounter with Weinstein and they held their own despite him, yet there aren’t any paeans to them being survivors.

In trying to reclaim space, such attempts ghettoise women. Mass and social media are building up a cult of victims they can feed on. We may say “me too”, but how will hashtag comradeship make men answerable for specific crimes? The tendency to generalise and transform every issue into a jumpable bandwagon is detrimental to dealing with misogyny and the different kinds of extreme behaviour it manifests as.

Him Too



A UK actress says she lost out on roles because she refused Weinstein’s crass offer to “touch your tits. Kiss you a little”. This is a desperate man begging, it is not about power.

Weinstein had taken a woman out for lunch because he said she had looked at him. Cosby said, “I think that I’m a pretty decent reader of people and their emotions in these romantic sexual things.”

If it is not about imagining signals, it is about how a woman looks. And now even some feminists have begun mansplaining. From ‘me too’ to ‘why not me too’. Actor, and neuroscientist, Mayim Bialik writing on ‘Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World’ chalked it up as an achievement that she was not “a perfect 10” and therefore safe. There were angry reactions for this regressive, ignorant and horribly standoffish statement: “As a proud feminist with little desire to diet, get plastic surgery or hire a personal trainer, I have almost no personal experience with men asking me to meetings in their hotel rooms…I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.”

Such a moral prism is what dictates much of the debate. The question should not be, why is she assuming the abused women were flirting, but why should any man assault a woman even if she is flirting or dressed in a certain way?

Many women dread facing the jury, to answer the question about what they were wearing when they were abused. But the legal system only follows the socially-sanctioned approach. A journalist who was a teenager in the 60s was quoted in a Hugh Hefner obit piece as saying, “When the sexual revolution happened, none of those women looked like playboy bunnies. They looked like hippy chicks.”

Using a woman’s looks to measure her liberation is backward and to posit Woodstock and the hippie culture to the bunnies reflects slavery to archetypes. Besides, the “summer of love” wasn’t all about liberation. It often meant waking up with strangers in bed and not out of choice. As author and agony aunt of that time Virginia Ironside wrote: “But now, armed with the pill, and with every man knowing you were armed with the pill, pregnancy was no longer a reason to say ‘no’ to sex. And men exploited this mercilessly. Now, for them, ‘no’ always meant ‘yes’.”

It still does. And we are talking about situations where assumptions are made. There are many more situations where nobody asks. There is no time for a No.

Last year in the United States of America there were around 96,000 rape cases, an average of 263 every day. Everywhere in the world toddlers and grandmothers get raped. What power is being asserted and what pulchritude and seduction are at play here?

What women have to face in the street, in offices, sometimes even in the privacy of their homes is not always about those in powerful positions. 


Let us also not build up sexual power politics as a gilded space. Men from the lower strata can be exploiters too. Their victims ought to matter as much even though they might not be able to tweet or join a movement for solidarity. Their lives have hardly ever counted, and news of them being forced upon by men never results in any spontaneous empathy. 

The words of Rose McGowan, among the first to accuse Weinstein, are a simple testimony: “I told the head of your studio that HW raped me. Over & over I said it. He said it hadn't been proven. I said I was the proof.”

A woman alone is proof of what she has gone through. She isn’t a mere link in a callout chain.

***
Published in CounterPunch

9.11.17

Revisiting Akbar-Salim-Anarkali



Last weekend I watched the stage version of Mughal-e-Azam. I like new perspectives, even if they do not hold the old charm.

Feroz Abbas Khan’s take on the Anarkali-Prince Salim love story under the not benevolent eye of Emperor Akbar is an ambitious project. How could K.Asif’s landmark movie translate in the confined space of a stage, especially since there weren’t any claims at ‘reinventing’ the classic and the intent was to almost repeat the scenes and the dialogues verbatim?

As a tribute it succeeds; it has the  head-bowed quality about it, aware all the time of looking up to an icon. And it has improvised marvellously. That battle scene is breath-taking because it relies on lights, sound and choreography. The same applies to the kathak interludes – these are professional dancers and, to be honest, it was they who elevated the Pyar kiya to darna kya song sequence by adding heft to Anarkali’s challenge, and pathos; in the film the song was about Madhubala. There was also an innovative use of ‘mirrors’ and light to create the sheesh mahal, although the light hitting the audience made me squint and miss out on some ‘chakkars’ by the dancers.

There was also live singing. Neha Sargam as Anarkali did a marvellous job, but was it necessary, considering it was the same music? It was also rather disappointing when at curtains down, the announcer mentioned how people weren’t convinced that it was live singing and asked her to sing a few lines right there. To my mind, this was insulting to the artiste. The makers do not have to justify anything and ask their own actors to give proof.


If the original was about performances, this was not. For a supposedly more intimate medium, the acting was alienating. Probably it is the stage where expressions rely on voice and body language. Nissar Khan as Akbar was powerful at moments and desultory at others. Sunil Palwal as Salim has presence, but where was the angst? And where was the passion with Anarkali, the understated caresses, that choke in the voice? As for Jodha, there is no real pining for a son nor the conflict between suhaag and motherhood. Bahar’s - the daasi hoping to become a princess - character too does not have enough oomph and guile that the original possessed.

For me that was sad because on the film I felt Nigar Sultana had overtaken Madhubala in the qawaali not due to the lines but gumption (aidedhugely by Shamshad Begum’s voice).

Naushad’s music was the stuff of legend and it was good to revisit it ‘pictorially’, even if not entirely satisfactorily. Theatre, unlike cinema, is not really a director’s medium. But here the director rules, followed by stage design, lighting, choreography. It was treated like an occasion. People were taking selfies before the posters in the lobby…after all they had paid good money for the tickets.


-->
I’d say it was worth the few thousand bucks. For the million bucks’ worth, buy a DVD for a couple of hundred rupees.

14.10.17

Of Murder and Innocence: the Aarushi Case


I would have been tempted to title this piece, ‘Nobody Killed Aarushi’, which has become the standard headline for media prominent stories where the murderer is not found or let off because of lack of evidence. This sort of headline acts like a salve for the media that feeds off a death, a murder, and sensationalises it to the most cringing level, and then when the verdict goes against all their salacious intent, they find relief in throwing irony in our face: ‘Nobody killed X,Y,Z.’

They blame the police, the CBI, false witnesses, everybody but themselves. In fact, after Thursday’s verdict pronouncing Aarushi’s parents Nupur and Rajesh Talwar not guilty, one finds media persons blaming the media. As though they had no part to play in it, as though their sudden concern for other victims of child marriage and rape makes any frikkin difference now, except to flaunt their throbbing consciences. They ask selfconsciously: do we bother about the poor? My question is: Did you? Did anybody even mourn for or raise questions about the murder of Hemraj, the domestic help of the Talwars who was killed on the same day of May 16, 2008?

There have been other court verdicts before this. It points to the fallibility of the judiciary, not to speak of its judgements not being watertight ever. This is the latest:

Ordering the release of Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, sentenced to life imprisonment four years ago by a special CBI court for the murder of their teenaged daughter Aarushi and domestic help Hemraj in May 2008, the Allahabad High Court has meticulously detailed instances of falsification of evidence by investigating agencies — ranging from “subjective findings” by medical and forensic experts to tutoring of a witness and planting of another, evidence tampering to “deliberate concealment” of evidence.

The Supreme Court had earlier restrained the media from scandalous reporting of what was then seen as the rape and murder of Aarushi. The judges were perturbed that the information the media had was either leaked by the investigating body, the CBI, or was made up of “imaginary reports”.

I am surprised that none of the judges questioned Avirook Sen’s book Aarushi and Meghna Gulzar’s film Talvar that had pretty much the same insider look. Since there is such a noise about the media reportage (some are saying this should be taught in journalism school on how not to report a murder, something you’d never hear these elite do over the murders of the dispossessed), one wonders how these efforts were not questioned since the case was still sub judice.

Most important cases have been leaked out to the media. If there are to be guidelines on reporting, will it prevent opinions? It was Aarushi’s mother who was on the TV channels a day after her daughter was killed. Was she dragged into it? Does anyone recall how Aarushi’s friends were giving out certificates to her? Does anyone even know that many of the ordinary people are trained before they go ‘live’ with their spontaneity?

The problem is when reportage turns into an agenda. It is not the business of the media to pronounce a verdict. Unfortunately, news channels need stories that are not about an occurrence. They rely increasingly on the ability to play messiah. The cult of the exposé is flawed for it starts with a premise and tries to prove it.

It is titillating to watch blurred faces or little black highlighters over body parts to convey that the newspaper or channel are protecting the identity of the victims. These are victims created by the media, just as they are transformed into heroes for no reason other than having once been victims before those cameras.

***

Now that the CBI has become the bad guy, a gentle reminder that it was the CBI that had earlier washed its hands off the case:

“The agency has filed a final report for the closure of the case on grounds of insufficient evidence in the competent court.”

The CBI came into the picture only after the Noida police made no headway.

They had found a weapon, they had a reasonable motive – “immediate provocation”, they knew of missing files and a swapped vaginal swab, they knew that someone was tampering with evidence. Then, why was it so difficult to find out who and why?

It is impossible that the findings revealed absolutely nothing - the DNA sample? The brain-mapping? Who cleared the room before the police came in? It need not have been one person. These were people in different places doing different things. Who was calling the shots? And why?

The judgment speaks of falsification of evidence. What, then, is the truth? Who will try the falsifiers? Who will find the killers? What will Nupur and Rajesh Talwar do next? It must be tough to have a reputation sullied and so many years lost in prison and it must have been even more tough on them to have a daughter murdered in the next room and the place cleaned up while they were around just a few metres away. They should file a case against the Noida police, the CBI and the hospital authorities for shirking their duty and making a mockery of justice. And the media for making a mockery of everything.

They have the power, being educated and relatively better-off than many who do not have the means. Let this be a fight for the silent Aarushis and the silenced ones.

***


Much of the material here has been collated from my previous posts.

4.9.17

Dear Hindu Liberal, have you learnt to live with insulting and prejudicing?


Every other day, Muslims in India have to face some sort of social and online discrimination, if not get targeted physically. 
And every other day, there will be a bunch of non-Muslim liberal vultures (LV) talking down at them. They get on the pulpit with huge doses of demagogic platitudes in a 7th grade-level address to a whole group. Let me take some bits from a new one. The headline asks: 
"Dear Muslim, have you learnt to live with insults and prejudice?"

From the peephole, I suppose all Muslims would look the same to him. But, irrespective of who answers with what nobody has the right to pose this question. It's like pointing out to a wound on a person's face and asking, "Have you learnt to live with it?" If the LV really wants to know, and if he has the courage of his convictions, then he should be asking those who inflict the wound. 
"How are you doing? Wait! Don’t tell me. I’ll guess."
Yeah, it's a game. So, right at the very beginning, the LV shows he has no intention of waiting for a response, but will indulge in guesswork because he watches TV and reads the newspapers. And he knows everything there is to know about Indian Muslims, including the ridiculous assertion:
"First, I’m sure you’re surprised at the use of just the word Muslim. More specifically at the absence of the word ‘Indian’ before it. I know. We reserve that only for you: ‘Indian Muslim’. We don’t say ‘Indian Gujarati’ or ‘Indian Christian’ or ‘Indian Parsi’."




Nobody calls out to a Muslim person with a "hey you, Indian Muslim, howdaya like my shiny liberalism" or some such. And while in certain formats the term Indian Muslim is used, IMs would be happy with it. Not because it confirms their patriotism but it makes them unique. There is a psychological reason to stand apart from Pakistanis (and trust me, Pakistanis do not get a kick being identified as Indian too). Then there is the behemoth of Arab Muslims which IMs do not identify with. 
Those who insist, and rightly so, that Muslims are not a monolith, would agree. They gloat when mullahs take out rallies against ISIS, don't they?
However, these caste-class supremacist LVs will flash their "look, how much I care about you" concern while portraying the majority as fearsome: 
"Do you fear us all? I would, if I were you...Even though it seems like there’s not many of us around, I should say that not all of us loathe you."
This is so much passive-aggressive nonsense. It relies on making Muslims feel victimised because of others so that it can rush to play knight. It needs to bulk up the fear. Advertising copy relies on it to sell its products; Op-ed writers to sell themselves. 
"Did you once feel like punching people in the mouth (I would have) and have you stopped feeling it now? How?"
Notice the clever, sly usage of "I would". By employing violent imagery, it is no different from online Sanghi perception of Muslim reaction. Very smartly, though, institutional prejudice only makes him uneasy while urging to get IMs to feel something "stronger"...no full-on empathy this time:
"Do you feel protected when the Supreme Court fondles love jihad? Or when the high court belts out Vande Mataram? These things make me uneasy; do you feel something stronger, because they are aimed at you?" 
Or this:
"It has become unbearable, the thought of what we are doing to you. What must it be like to actually be you?"
How soon the "I would too" has changed to the mock-innocent, "What must it be like to be you?" So typically convenient. 
One has got accustomed to this sort of superficial and supercilious attitude. What surprises me is that there are masochistic Indian Muslims who depend on outsiders for their self-esteem and respect. And to know what Muslims 'really' go through! 
They will chant, "Mere Aaka..." whether it is a Modi or a LV. Traders and social opportunists don't want to burn their bridges even when they are nowhere near the river. The vultures thrive because from their safe cocoons the Muslims throw their compatriots at them.

--

Also related my earlier piece The Murder of Muslims

30.8.17

India’s Tryst with Godmen Criminals



Charlatan godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, head of the Dera Sacha Sauda, has been sentenced to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment for the rape of two of his devotees. To prepare for this court pronouncement, the army had to conduct a flag march, the police was on high alert, some areas were placed under curfew. One might have imagined that a terrorist was on the loose. 

In India when a godman is arrested on rape or murder charges, his followers can and will take to the streets to avenge a court order. This happened on Friday, August 26 as a Central Bureau of Investigation court convicted Singh. The country was shocked that 200,000 of his band of followers had congregated well before the verdict precisely as a strategy to create mayhem — they stoned building windows, torched buses and cars, including television broadcast vans; 30 people were killed and over 250 injured. What the country does not get shocked over is the existence of such fake gurus and the respect they command among those who matter and their constant presence in the media. 

Gurmeet Singh has been sentenced for a crime he committed 15 years ago; the sexual assault on the two young women continued over three years. It was Ram Chander Chhatrapati, a journalist from a small local Hindi newspaper called Poora Sach (the full truth), who had exposed the sins of the saint. A few months after he carried the letter of a victim, he was shot dead outside his house. The murder case is still pending. 

The letter was addressed to the then prime minister, BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The young woman had given a detailed account of her trauma. She was not the only one. Her turn to be used came once every month. When she was sent for the first time, Singh was sprawled in his bed watching porn, a remote in his hand, a revolver by his side. Her parents who were followers had insisted that she join the sect. She was stunned by what she saw. She is educated and asked questions. He silenced her protests with threat, flashing her parents’ devotion as well as his clout.

And then he used his spiritual hold over her: “He told me that at the time of becoming his disciple, I had dedicated my wealth, body and soul to him and he had accepted my offering. By this logic, your body is mine now.”

In fact, many female disciples were asked to go into his private chambers for ‘maafi’, forgiveness. He sold sexual assault as penitence although there was nothing they had to repent for. “We appear like devis (pious women), but our situation is that of prostitutes.”

If women were sexually exploited, men were rendered sexually incapable. There are reports of castration of at least 400 men. They were drugged and their testes were surgically removed.

Singh seems to have wanted to play the role of an ancient king with a harem and a retinue of eunuchs. Clearly, it appears his masculinity felt threatened.
***

Singh’s Dera Sacha Sauda empire is spread across 700 acres in Sirsa, Haryana. It is a fort-like establishment that ran along the lines of a philanthropic corporation even as the guru produced kitschy films on social consciousness where he essentially promoted his ego. Not only was he cocking a snook at the famed Indian austerity and belief in abjuring, he was also challenging the white and saffron robed hypocrisy of the prevalent uniform of godmen.





His seeming lack of hypocrisy should have been a red rag. Instead, he was feted as a guru reaching out to the new masses with chutzpah. Where other gurus had bhajans (religious hymns) playing in the background, he brandished a guitar and belted out off-key pop music. News channels that began trending him as “RapistRamRahim” and inviting responses to increase their viewership were promoting him a few months ago as a movie messiah, a multi-talented maverick. The mainstream media that is today taking a moral high ground did not bother about following up on the cases against him or even boycotting him until the verdict had been pronounced. He added to the entertainment quotient as “bling baba”. Were they not alerted by his lifestyle to question his credentials?

When they now flash the photograph of Chhatrapati with the “lest we forget” hashtag it is ironical, for they had forgotten. They were woken up with a jolt only because their vans and their reporters became the targets. And much of their ire was against the followers.

Singh has around 60 million followers, and most would not be aware of what happened inside the gufaa, his cavelike residence. The Dera Sacha Sauda, like other deras, isn't a cult started on the whims of a guru. It is a group of sects that believes in the scriptures but does not owe sole allegiance to it. Their tagline is “confluence of religions”. The guru’s name itself reflects that confluence. Everybody uses ‘Insan’ (human being) as their last name.

***

Following Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan’s sentencing, there has been discussion on what drew so many people to him. One of the reasons put forth was that he catered to the lower castes that were left out of the upper caste hold on the faith and the economy. It is a plausible argument. However, this assumes that the poor kept his image alive, which is not true. Indeed, those who are denied comfort and luxury do look up to pomp and pageantry, as can be witnessed in loud and garish celebration of festivals in the streets. But that cannot be sustained over such a long period. Besides, how would they identify with his “love charger” blatancy, that too in English? 

Like most gurus, he offered welfare. The Dera ran a hospital, had medical camps. It is unlikely that this is what the devotees came for and stayed back with, although it might have helped them at some point. The operative term is slavish obeisance. Whether through drugs, hypnosis, guilt, threat or fear, followers can be held hostage. 




Political leaders genuflect before these godmen in full public view, often consulting them on matters of state and law, making a mockery of the Constitution. Singh had helped the BJP win seats in the Punjab and Haryana regions. The Congress Party too had earlier enjoyed his goodies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised his efforts for his government’s cleanliness drive. Two days after the godman’s men went on a rampage, the PM in his radio address to the nation said, “No one has the right to take the law into one’s own hands in the name of one’s beliefs.” It is easy to pick on a mass of unknown faces and names with pop pleas. He made no reference to the charlatan or his crime or to the verdict. Because there are many such gurus who owe their existence and provide patronage to politicians. 

And one reason Indians even on the right are celebrating this conviction is because Gurmeet Singh is a Sikh who took potshots at Sikhism and Hinduism. He was grudgingly accepted for facilitating new money and votes, unlike the glowing accolades reserved for the levitating elevated gurus of mainstream godliness.

***

Rather shockingly, a day after the protests in support of Gurmeet Singh The Indian Express carried a piece by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev (who is often invited by media think tanks for their seminars) in which he wrote: “All the embodiments of the divine you worship — Rama, Krishna, Shiva — cannot call be called morally correct figures. They are not. Because it never occurred to them to be that way. But they are the peak of human consciousness.”

This echoes Singh’s stance. When he boasted that he was god to the sadhvi he planned to rape, she had asked him whether god did such things. He replied: “Sri Krishna too was God and he had 360 gopis (milkmaids) with whom he staged Prem Lila (love drama). Even then people regarded him as God. This is not a new thing.” Asaram Bapu, another godman and rape convict, had said: "Lord Buddha, too, had faced such kind of allegations and I am also facing the same. But the truth will come out…I am willing to go to jail with a smiling face. And I think I want to spend some time in Tihar jail. I consider jail as my Vaikunth (heaven)."

But Indians live in denial. Each time a person who owes allegiance to a god comes under the scanner, the knee-jerk reaction in the 140-character and 4-minute read op-ed world is, “Stop calling him a godman.” The fact is that they become the powerhouses they are because they project themselves as men of god and are accepted as such not only by the masses, but by the elite too. India is a country of gods and in this crowded environment there are bound to be middlemen who make devotion accessible and human, even if not humane.

In 2005, the Communist Party of India had exposed Baba Ramdev for using human and animal bones and flesh in his ayurvedic concoctions; he runs a thriving empire today. Yogi Adityanath is the chief minister of the largest state in India. MPs attend Parliament wearing saffron robes. A monk even addressed the Haryana assembly naked.

Indians love to idolise, whether it is godmen or judges. The judge who sentenced Gurmeet Singh is being lauded for his bravery. It does not strike anybody that this is what the law says and the judge was doing his job. 

The CBI took 15 years. This, when the victim had stated categorically in her letter: “If a probe is conducted by the press or some government agency, 40 to 45 girls — living in utmost fear at the Dera — if they are convinced, are willing to tell the truth.

There are many more victims of many more such godmen who represent neither religion nor culture. Their ashrams are dens of vice preying upon gullible minds to further their spiritual corporate empires.

--
Published in CounterPunch