All posts by Lakshmi Sarah

5 Things You Should Know About India’s New Prime Minister Narendra Modi

This article originally appeared in Global Voices.

Narendra Modi expressing his happiness to voters and the media. Photo by Aviral Mediratta. Copyright Demotix (17/5/2014)

Indians have chosen Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a historic landslide victory that unseated the ruling Indian National Congress party and signifies the return of a single-party majority.

Modi will soon be at the helm of the world’s largest democracy and an economic powerhouse. He has received criticism from many people, including writer Salman Rushdie and Harvard University professor Homi Bhabha, among others, in a joint statement against his candidacy.

But who is this charismatic but polemic leader? What does he stand for? There are things that are important to know, and not all of them bad.

1. He is controversial for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots

Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002 when riots broke out in the city of Godhra after a train carrying Hindus was burnt down as it was coming from the holy city of Ayodhya in North India. In the ensuring Hindi-Muslim violence, between 900 and 2,000 people were killed, predominantly Muslim.

Modi, a Hindu nationalist, reportedly expressed satisfaction after the dismal events of 2002. His only regret was that he did not handle the news media better, according to the New York Times.

Though he has been cleared by the courts of India, some still believe he allowed the Gujarat riots to rage on. Senior police officer in the Gujarat intelligence bureau Sanjiv Bhatt alleges that Modi told officials that the Muslim community needed to be taught a lesson.

2. He may prove to have a positive impact on the economy

Modi’s win is expected to improve trade with the United States and boost the Indian economy. After interviewing 68,500 voters before and after the elections, a group of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Endowment and India’s Lok Foundation reported that 57 percent of interviewees mentioned economic issues as “most important.”

As chief minister of Gujarat, he oversaw the rapid industrialization of once sleepy areas, a feat he says he wants to replicate elsewhere in India. Modi has used his successes in Gujarat as election leverage, holding up the “Gujarat model” to differentiate himself, as news site Live Mint reported.

If the 2002 riots hurt his campaign, the economic angle helped boost him back up. As Rajeev Malik, a Singapore-based economist, said in a Financial Times column:

It is not as if the 2002 [Gujarat riots] blot has been wiped out; it is just that the broader current urgency of economic well-being has overtaken a dated tragedy.

3. His track record on women’s issues may be lacking

Will the role of women improve under a Modi lead government? In an article for the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Hardeep Dhillon criticized both candidates for seeing women through the lens of safety, security and education. She argued Modi specifically sees women as passive:

women are imagined to behave, think, and perform in uniformity and their politics are established prior to their emergence on the political landscape. As a result, Indian women are stripped of the very political agency Mr. Modi claims to advocate for, rendering them as passive – rather than active – political actors.

The author also raised concerns about the contrast between Modi’s vocal condemnations of the “rape culture” that led to the 2012 Delhi gang rape and his silence on the treatment of Muslim and minority women in his state. His “secret wife” – Modi had presented himself as a bachelor until this election cycle – has also caused some to question his treatment of women.

4. He maintains an anti-immigrant stance

significant number of Bangladeshis have migrated to India in the past decade to reunite with family members, for job opportunities, and to escape environmental crises, among other reasons. The wave of people has prompted India to step up security along its border with Bangladesh, including installing barbed-wire fences.

If Modi has his way, he would send all the undocumented Bangaldeshi immigrants back. In a speech on April 28, 2014, Modi threatened:

I want to warn from here, brothers and sisters write down, that after May 16, will send these Bangladeshis beyond the border with their bags and baggages.

The reaction to Modi’s speech on social media showed people are listening. Posts under the #deportbangladeshis hashtag made it to at the top of Twitter’s trend list in India.

5. His past religious fervor sets a questionable example for a secular India 

Modi was a youth member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing, volunteer Hindu nationalist group, and describes himself as a Hindu nationalist. In contrast to his youth as an RSS member, Modi has recently said he does not believe in dividing voters along religious lines.

Yet some still worry his election doesn’t bode well for religious tolerance. AsSunny Hundal wrote in an opinion piece for CNN:

The broader context is that India is seeing a rising tide of intolerance whipped up by Hindu nationalist groups that have forced books to be bannedintimidated journalists and threatened people for criticizing their leaders.

French Political Scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, in an interview with Scroll.in, alleged:

Plan A for Modi is to succeed on the economic front, and if that does not work then emphasising on Hindutva politics may be an important Plan B.

Indian author Pankaj Mishra painted a particularly dark picture in The Guardian, saying Modi’s election means “a new turbulent phase for the country – arguably, the most sinister since its independence from British rule in 1947.

For his part, Modi has maintained he speaks to all of India, regardless of religion:

For the nation my mantra is 125 crore Indians. Hindu, Muslim, Christians… The country had enough of all these terminologies. The new terminologies will be youth, poor, farmer, village, city, education.

Time will tell if he means that.

India: Mapping Street Harassment and Promoting Safe Cities

It may be a challenge to find an Indian girl who has managed to avoid being harassed on the street. Elsa Marie D’Silva is one of the founding members of Safecity, a crowdbased mapping service to “pin the creeps.” When asked if she’d ever experienced street harassment, D’Silva responded, “I haven’t met a single Indian girl who hasn’t faced street harassment.” Most women are trained to walk off quietly without creating a scene.

Safecity strongly believes all women We strongly believes that 'all women have the right to live safely"

Street harassment is pervasive in India and around the world, prompting many organizations to take action in order to combat this problem. In India, some of these include Freeze the Tease, andHollaback India. Safecity takes a different approach, the focus is not just to ask for people to respond to the harasser, but to “pin” the location of the incident on a map.

Part of a Safecity Bystander Campaign, courtesy of Safecity's Facebook page

Safecity (also on Twitter and Facebook), inspired by a similar project in Egypt calledHarassmap, began as a response to the massive protests after the now infamous Delhi gangrape in December 2012. The creators aimed to establish a platform and forum to address harassment on a long term basis. Safecity is an information aggregation platform to help identify hotspots in a city where abuse has been reported. To create a safe space for all people, Safecity asks users to “Pin the creeps!” sharing stories, photographs and/or videos and, most importantly, the location of where the event happened.

Thus far, there have been over 2700 reported incidents. While the focus is on larger trends, rather than individual cases, Safecity has been working with police in two states to see how this information might be used in coordination with law enforcement.

A poster for schools available on the Safecity website

Safecity may also be a prevention tool. In one case, referred to as the “Shakti Mills Case” the accused confessed that they had raped four women at the same spot. According to the organizers this means other attempts could have been made, as D’Silva and Saloni said, “If a few people had reported the spot as a harassment prone area, different action could have been taken.”

The founders of Safecity are a small group of like-minded citizens who believe in the right to live in a safe society. “We also believe that a woman should be able to move around without fear or distress; without having to calculate which road she has to travel on so that she will be safe; without having to worry about the clothes she wears or the people she is with.”

As D’Silva and fellow founder Saloni Malhotra wrote via email, “People who harass do so in their own comfort zones. Silence on the part of victims and bystanders makes them more confident and the harassment only grows.” Instead of feeling hopeless, the organizers ask, “What can we do as ordinary citizens to change the situation? Isn’t it the society that created this problem in the first place? What can we do to make change?”

Screenshot of the Safecity map

With this in mind, Safecity is working on a series of videos discussing the importance of women knowing how to keep themselves safe. Some of the suggestions Safecity has compiled include: avoid traveling alone, never accept food or drinks from a person you don’t know, and always get your own drink at a party, among others. Let’s hope it won’t be long before these lists are no longer needed.

Becoming a Community Photographer: A Window Into the “Real India”

This article originally appeared in Global Voices

 

“Until I came to Ranchi in 2012 for the first workshop, I had never held a camera in my life. My hand shook, and I really wasn’t sure I could do it.”

Deena Ganwer, from Chhattisgarh (quoted online at the workshop’s blog), was one of the participants in a recent series of photography workshops organised by Video Volunteers in partnership with Magnum Foundation.

Video Volunteers – based in Goa, India – aims to train and empower grassroots media producers to express their own stories about their local communities. Video Volunteers helps people to advocate for concerns which might otherwise never make it into the media. Magnum Foundation focuses on production and distribution of in-depth documentary projects; it is the charity arm of the acclaimed photography cooperative Magnum Photos founded by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier Bresson in 1947.

 

Usha Patel photographs milk cooperatives run by women in Uttar Pradesh.

Usha Patel photographs milk cooperatives run by women in Uttar Pradesh.

 

The “Storytelling Through Photography” workshops were comprised of a selected group of 20 community correspondents, all of whom had participated in earlier training with Video Volunteers, and who have been consistently producing videos about their communities. This network of community reporters is a Video Volunteers program called IndiaUnheard, training community correspondents to explore unreported stories – and in turn feeding this community-produced content to national and international outlets, whether mainstream television channels or social networking sites.

From the Video Volunteers website:

These Community Correspondents represent India’s most marginalized perspectives, including Dalits and tribal people, as well as religious, lingual and sexual minorities… Through IndiaUnheard, Video Volunteers offers the global audience a clear window into the real India. Every day, video reports on key issues such as caste, conflict, identity and education are gathered from across the country.

 

Sunita Kasera photographs a family in Gadiyanwal who lives out of a cart.

Sunita Kasera photographs a family of the Gadiyanwal tribe who lives out of a cart.

 

Building on the IndiaUnheard project participants, the workshops were taught by trainers from Magnum, photographers Olivia Arthur and Sohrab Hura.

Attendees were primarily female, said Kayonaaz Kalyanwala, Program Coordinator for Video Volunteers:

We wanted mostly women candidates and selected those who we felt would have the most potential to take up photography and also those for whom this would be an incentive to make more videos… Our CCs [Community Correspondents] are strong at activism but sometimes less skilled at visuals, and we knew photography was a great way for them to develop a better eye.

From these workshops, each participant created a mini-series, documenting their community. The photo stories feature a range of topics, including alcohol abuse, local superstition, disability, and environmental concerns.

 

Babita Maurya photographs local schools.

Babita Maurya photographs local schools.

 

The community correspondents attending the class worked with subjects in their communities, documenting local stories and lives. For some reporters, their subjects were merely acquaintances, while others knew their subjects well – allowing for a close insight into their daily lives. One photographer, Saroj Paraste, chose a disabled girl as her subject, getting to know her by staying with her family for a week, earning trust before even taking out her camera. Saroj was quoted on the Video Volunteers websiteas saying, “Since the girl was at first not keen to be photographed, I spent a lot of time making her feel comfortable. In the end she grew very fond of me and was happy to be a part of the project.”

 

Xavier Hamsay photographs a blind girl in his community.

Xavier Hamsay photographs a blind girl in his community.

 

Kayonaaz noted that the workshops are a way to introduce the correspondents to another medium through which they can tell their stories. Equipped with simple cameras, they are required to send a set of photographs back to Video Volunteers every few months. As she said in an email interview,

We want to make sure that once trained, they continue to use photography as a tool. At the same time VV is trying to get their work out there through exhibitions and other media platforms.

You can see more photographs are available on the projects’ blog, and Video Volunteers will present on the work of the Community Correspondents during theDelhi Photo Festival in October of 2013.

 

Nirmala Ekka photographs waste collectors' daily lives.

Nirmala Ekka photographs waste collectors’ daily lives.

 

All photographs are used with permission from the Magnum Foundation.

Emerging powers and the Indian elephant

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera opinion

India is in the red colour zone with a ranking of 105 in the international ranking on the gender gap [AFP]
As Superman once said, and it has since been quoted by President Obama, “With great power, comes great responsibility”. Looking at the emerging power of the BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India and China – what are the responsibilities?

In the wake of the Delhi gang rape and news of the Swiss woman’s rape, I propose the BRICs – with India as a leader – take steps to act responsibly when it comes to women’s rights and violence against women.

The BRICs have gained attention since 2001, when the term was initially coined. From 2000 to 2008, the BRICs’ share of GDP rose from 16 to 22 percent. The Times (London) has quoted a financial adviser predicting that by 2050, the BRICs nations will “dominate the globe”. Each BRIC country has its own view of power and responsibility. Each BRIC country also has its own record when it comes to human rights and women’s issues.

International Ranking on the gender gap ranks Brazil 62nd out of 135. Russia comes in at 59 and India is in the red colour zone with a ranking of 105 and China still makes it into the orange zone at number 69.

Gender violence is a global human rights concern and should be considered an even greater concern for the BRIC countries to continue to be competitively responsible economic leaders. According to Nicholas D Kristof:

“Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence then because of cancer, malaria, war, and traffic accidents combined.”

In addition, the World Health Organization estimates that domestic and sexual violence impacts 30 to 60 percent of women in most countries. A new film, Girl Rising, highlights some of the issues that young women face, arguing that the key is to invest in girls and women.

As co-author of the Gender Gap study, Laura D Tyson, SK, and Angela Chan, Professor of Global Management, Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley, say:

“Gender gaps can be closed with the right policies. As countries experiment with policy choices in this area, they should share the lessons from their experience to accelerate progress.”

Of the 635 rape cases reported in the first 11 months of 2012 in New Delhi, there was only one conviction. There is something seriously wrong with this. A wide range of policies and actions should be put in place to ensure that rape and violence against women do not continue to be accepted in society.

 Swiss tourist ‘gang-raped’ in India

Are the BRIC countries responsible stakeholders? Looking at the case of India, we see it is both an awkward elephant in its own desire for a stable region and a responsible partner in creating world order.

In contrast to Pakistan, India sides with the West and has cooperated in the “war on terror”, especially after 2008 Mumbai attacks.

India is set to be the fourth largest economy in 2025. The high-tech industry is booming along with its growing population. It is already a nuclear power, in addition to being a force for soft power through its Bollywood movies and music.

While it would like a place on the UN Security Council, India still struggles with human rights abuses, as evidenced by reports from the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. India has not signed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, but of course, it has not been ratified by the US either.

In addition, India serves as home to the Tibetan government in exile – which along with domestic disputes, regarding Naxalites and Maoists in the Northeastern provinces, threaten its ability to work in conjunction with China.

Still, India is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, nor does it receive a plethora of preferential treatment through any global institutions. Despite Bollywood, the tech industry and a diaspora that covers much of the globe, for India to be a power player, it must be given greater responsibility and it must take action to eradicate violence against women.

Here there is a challenge. If India has to take on a greater role, it needs to be given greater responsibilities. But, if the global community has to give it greater power, India has to demonstrate that it can use the power responsibly.

Given India’s history, these greater roles and responsibilities will not be able to come from the West or the rest of the world. It must come from an Indian desire, in an Indian way and perhaps at an Indian time to speak up and speak out.

If the BRICs want to continue collaborating in a way that makes a difference beyond economic policy, they should start with acting to stop global violence against women.

The Best Conference You’ve Never Heard of: Empowering Women of Color Conference

This post is part of a guest blog series on women in academia for Bitch Magazine.

I don’t exactly remember  how I discovered the Empowering Women of Color Conference (EWOCC) in Berkeley, California but I first attended the event last year. Far from the stuffy conference rooms of a fancy-dancy hotel, EWOCC is a grassroots conference geared toward women of color, and open to all. This is a place that offers childcare, access for all people regarless of ability and offers low-to no cost registration. Last year’s conference was complete with spoken-word performances, a workshop on agriculture food justice, actually interesting panels, and a creative writing exercises.

This year, the 28th Annual Empowering Women of Color Conference was titled, “Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Bodies and Souls Building Life,” and seeks to honor a multiplicity of women’s experiences around labor: “As women of color, our journeys are marked by stretches of struggle and moments of victory. We seek to honor labor across generations: our mothers, grandmothers, and caregivers whose souls and bodies gave us life.“

EWOCC’s intention is to “build with ancestral ways of working that are attentive to the politics of liberation, decolonization, and healing.“

This year’s conference just happened last week. I asked the organizers to answer a few questions on the history and evolution of their event.

How did the Empowering Women of Color Conference start? 

EWOCC was founded in 1984 by a group of undergraduate students at the University of California, Berkeley. The initial project, was entitled “Women of Color in the United States,” and received an overwhelmingly positive response. Students decided to organize another event. In 1986, with the formation of the GA’s Graduate Women’s Project (GWP), it was decided to institutionalize this event and make the conference an annual project under the auspices of the GWP. EWOCC was one of the first conferences to present women of color with an opportunity to address the racial, class, and gender issues facing American Indian, African American, Asian American, and Chicana/Latina women.

How is it organized?

EWOCC is completely volunteer-run. Every year, the planning committee selects new members, based on their background, interest in planning, and their passion for continuing our conference. Our keynote speakers are chosen by the entire committee over several months of discussion regarding specific issues we want to address in our conference and who would be the best representative of these issues. In the past, notable women of color have given keynotes including Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Elaine Brown, Dolores Huerta, among many other extraordinary women.

How do you manage to stay true to feminist principles?

We stay true to feminist principles as the foundation of our existence. Specifically, the principles of community, education, holistic healing and overall empowerment are principles at the core of our conference, and why the planning committee remains dedicated to ensuring that this conference continues. This conference fills a gap in many traditional feminist spaces and discussions in that we address issues specifically facing women of color in the United States. We provide a safe space to facilitate dialogue and to share experiences in an empowering way unlike any other conference of its kind.

EWOCC is not the typical scholarly conference in that we expand the invitation participate to community members as both conference planners and presenters, rather than restrict our conference to the academy. We also strive to incorporate the arts, spiritual practices, and other means of knowing, more so than a typical academic conference provides.

How Can Harvard Help End Rape in India?

This post is part of a guest blog series on women in academia for Bitch Magazine.

Today, six men accused of gang rape in India head to court. If that sounds eerily familiar, it’s because just two months ago, six other men also went to trial for gang rape in India in a high-profile case involving a woman fatally assaulted on the bus in New Dehli.

After these terrible crimes come to light, we all want to see major change. In reaction to the New Delhi rape, Harvard University decided to sponsor a policy task force “to offer recommendations to India and other South Asian countries.” But the group received a critique from Delhi blogger Nivedita Menon, who wrote in a post called “Harvard to the Rescue!” that Harvard would be better able to discuss rapein South Asia not from the ivory tower, but by consulting with feminists on the ground in India. “It’s been a long hard haul, so it’s a great relief that the Harvard Law School has stepped in to take this burden off our shoulders,” writes Menon sarcastically.

Harvard’s plan is to produce a working paper to advise on the implementation of the recommendations from India’s Verma Committee, a report pulled together by three members of India’s judicial system that spells out crucial ways to make rape cases come to trial more quickly in India and to create harsher punshiments for people convicted of sexual assault. Feminists in the Global South may have overreacted to the plan for a working paper—it’s possible that Harvard has every intention of consult women across India on what should be done. However, the general sentiment seems to be indignation that Harvard would be able to “save” the poor women of India. This is illustrated in a letter in The People’s Record that charges Harvard with ignoring “the long history of Indian activists themselves fighting to end rape and sexual violence.”

There is clearly a need for collaboration internationally on rape issues, in addition to study.

In Harsha Walia’s piece on the Feminist Wire, she says, “While navigating my own relationship to Delhi and home, it has been infuriating to read Orientalist renditions of South Asian women needing saving from barbaric South Asian men.” Walla sees the myth of Western superiority as a part of a facade of gender equality “‘at home’ that invisibilizes, for example, the gruesome gang rape in Steubenville, Ohio, and US representative Todd Akin’s comments about ‘legitimate rape,’ and the ritualized colonial violence against Indigenous women murdered at alarming rates, and Black women in prisons and migrant women in detention centers, and women of color, poor women, transfolks, and sex workers.”

Let’s continue to create task forces, and study these issues. But let us also work on our transnational feminist collaboration and coalition building, so as not to continually repeat history and create different groups trying to achieve the same thing. I look forward to seeing greater coalition building between Harvard feminists and those on the ground in India.