Category Archives: India

Feminism Sans Borders – the Transnational Feminism Conference

When I first read that the South Asia forum in Madison, Wisconsin is organizing a conference on Transnational Feminism (thanks temporal) I was not sure what to make of it (and honestly it sounded like a phrase straight out of an Arundhati Roy polemic) – but I immediately knew that I wanted to attend because I have for long been an admirer of the work done by some of the participants.

Jean Feraca is of course the irrepressible host of a uniquely Madison program on Wisconsin Public Radio called Here On Earth and has introduced me to important players in a flat world rapidly unfolding in front of our very own eyes.

It is through her program that I was introduced to Amna Buttar – the person primarily responsible, along with Nicholas Kristoff for bringing Mukhtaran Mai to the US. Mukhtaran Mai was also interviewed live on Jean’s program along with Amna where Jean called Mukhtaran Mai, the Rosa Parks of Pakistan. I called in and asked Amna if she thought Mukhtaran would succeed in a deeply feudalistic and chauvinistic Pakistani (characteristics shared by North India in general) society. I pointed out that Rosa Parks would not have been successful without the support of a charismatic religious leader like Martin Luther King Jr. and that I do not see any such figure in Pakistan right now. She pointed out to me that Mukhtaran Mai has been getting some support amongst the religious classes but I was unconvinced.

That was then however and this is now. Helped by her courage and righteousness and some support by people like Amna Buttar and the relentless Nicholas Kristoff (hats off to him as well) – Mukhtaran Mai has made progress in awakening the soul of Pakistan and has also managed to put President Musharraf on the defensive.

I am not so familiar with the works of other speakers at the forum, but I am excited to hear them speak and learn more about them. I will post a report on the conference early next week.

The conference is on FRIDAY, APRIL 7 5:30pm and according to information on their website will be primarily about “BETWEEN “HERE” AND “THERE”: SPEAKING FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS IN VARYING CULTURAL CONTEXTS.”

Soniaji – I was wrong

After the last elections, when it appeared that Sonia Gandhi might be the next Prime Minister of India, I went ballistic with anger. An immigrant in a foreign country who felt proud whenever a person of Indian origin was elected to an official position in countries like the US, Canada or UK, it was an obviously bigoted reaction. Part of it was because I was extremely fond of the grand old man of Indian politics, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and I felt that Sonia had dethroned him in a coup; part of it was a visceral reaction to the shenanigans of the Congress party in the past, but the rest of it was bigotry due to the sole reason of Sonia being born in a foreign country.

A couple of years down the line, I think I owe an apology to the lady. Much bandwidth, ink and paper has been consumed in the past few days over the recent events surrounding Mrs. Gandhi and overwhelmingly, the response of the Indian middle class and Indian intelligentsia has been cynical and negative. I know that the middle class and the upwardly mobile consider Congress party and specially the Nehru family to be the main reason for India’s economic stagnation (and so do I) but that is really no reason for them to not to see through their own demagoguery and ideological position in ignoring the facts staring in their face regarding Mrs Gandhi.

You could attribute any number of motives to Mrs. Gandhi’s actions. That she is playing a political game, that she is preparing the stage for her children but the only charge that sticks is that she inspires Congressmen to burst into wild bouts of sycophancy, which is a disgusting sight, but even that is not her fault – blame the Congress, nay Indian, political mindset for it. It is ironic that the biggest albatross that she seems to be carrying is her connection to the Nehru family, obviously ironic, because had it not been for that connection, she’d be somewhere in Europe, worried about the Muslim immigration issue.

During the past two years, Mrs. Gandhi has shown that all said and done, she really is different from the current breed of Indian politicians. Her willingness to be a fast learner, her aptitude in mastering foreign policy, her political intuition and just plain decency, everything sets her apart from the Mulayam Singhs, the Sitaram Yechuris, the Amar Singhs, the Rajnath Singhs of Indian politics. And yet, despite considering all these alternatives, people are not able to see anything good about her insisting that everything she does is attributable to her planning to further the Nehru raj. Well, I used to be terribly worried about the continuation of the Nehru raj as well, but honestly, the more I see of her, the less I am worried because if her actions are any indication, then she surely must have given a much better upbringing to her children than Indira ever did to her two brats.

In today’s political climate, where every party and politician seems to have put country’s interest aside, how can you not admire a leader who has the guts and understanding to write something like this?

To the person who gave India one of the best Prime Ministers, to the person who by the sheer decency of her behavior has highlighted the depravity of the rest of Indian politicians and to the person who has proved that I was utterly wrong in my analysis of hers, I owe an apology – I was wrong about you and I stand corrected!

Desicritics

State of The Union-India

Listening to President Bush’s state of the union address on Tuesday, I felt a surge of pride when I heard India (along with China) mentioned as a potential competitor to the US. I was curious to find out the number of times and the contexts in which India figured in previous State of the Union addresses so I went to an online searchable index of all them from 1797 until 2006 and found out that India has been mentioned only four times in the state of the union speeches over the years (you can have a look at it right here); two times by President Eisenhower (1953 and 1961), and two times by the current President Bush (2002 and 2006). Surprisingly, President Clinton, who often wears his fondness for India on his sleeve, never mentioned India.

President Bush mentioned India, not because he has any special relationship or fondness for the country, but because of India’s growing strategic and economic importance. Consider this, right until Mr. Narsimha Rao’s government in the 90s for 45 years after freedom, under one socialist regime after another, India tried to portray itself as a leader of the third world with fads of its leaders like the middle path, the Non-Aligned movement but it was never recognized as a power player on the world stage.

The first time Eisenhower mentioned India, it was in the context of China and Soviet Russia, the second time it was to boast that American wheat was filling empty Indian stomachs. But within a decade and a half of the economic reforms launched by Mr. Manmohan Singh, India is being mentioned as a competitor and an ally by the President of the most powerful nation in the world. When you consider that the communists and other socialist parties have tried their best to hamper these economic reforms and that these reforms have only progressed in fits and starts, one can only imagine how much more India could have grown without all the obstacles to its economy and its enterprising people.

Recently there has been a renewed effort in India by the very people who lost this battle of ideology between communism/socialism and free-market capitalism fair and square to re-ignite this debate. After digging a hole for India for four long decades, these people are now asking that after a decade and a half of fitful reforms why India ostensibly in a hole? Well you had four decades to dig it, give free-markets at least a reasonable chance to help India get out of it or do you want to start digging again already?

Corrections: There are some other instances where India is indeed mentioned (including by President Clinton) during State of the Union speeches but my main argument (Sepia Mutiny has a good list) – that only recently has India been mentioned as a strong player on the world stage and as a possible competitor to the US, still holds true.

Paritrana-getting to know them a little bit more!

My interview with Paritrana’s national treasurer – Chandrashekhar.

Ever since this news item was published in the Times of India about Paritrana, I have been excited by the story. Of course, like everyone else I was curious to know more about the people behind this effort and about their ideologies. The TOI article was rather cryptic. The article in Indian Express today is more elaborate but not enough to satisfy the political junkie in me. Paritrana’s website right now is a work in progress and while the blog world has been buzzing with this news the details were scant.

So I decided to call up the number listed on their website to get someone from the leadership to answer a few questions that I had. I was not very hopeful because I was sure that their phone lines and emails must be ablaze with messages from all over and an amateur blogger like me would not get the time of the day. To my surprise, every time I called I was greeted with a very modest and down to earth Chandrashekhar who is the national treasurer of the party.

After a few phone calls from me, he agreed to field some questions on the condition that I make it clear that when he spoke to me, no one else from the leadership was available to answer my questions and that this post on the blog be only treated as a rough draft and if he has anything to add/modify then I’d allow that. I readily agreed and here is Chandrashekhar answering the few questions that I could muster up at a short notice. I spoke with him on the phone with no recording device and I was transcribing his answers in real-time so there might be some small things missing or incorrect. Please do not take these answers as something set in stone or as a formal policy of Paritrana. This was a very informal chatting session. However, the crux of this entire conversation was that these guys have taken a formidable step and now it is upto people to come forward and support them. Even if you do not want to joint the party and help at ground level, go ahead and help in whatever way you can. From technical help in maintaining their website to donating money to providing moral support, every bit will help.

Question: First of all, congratulations at the formal start of your party and the amount of excitement it has created in the media. Indian Express reported today that you plan to contest assembly and parliamentary elections. Are all five of you in the core leadership committee planning to contest for elections simultaneously or would you concentrate on one person at a time?
C’shekhar: We have been working through our personal resources and help from friends. But in the end, the amount of work we are able to do depends upon the amount of resources that we have. In assembly elections whether a person can contest an election depends upon the domicile of the person willing to run in the election. So each one of us will contest as and when the assembly election in his region are held. As for the parliamentary elections, simple policy is to do whatever can be done. If we have more resources then we will do more, it could be 5 people, 50 people or 500 people depending upon our funds.

Question: Right now, is this party your full time profession or are you also working in a regular job? If the party is your full time profession then how are you supporting yourself and the party financially?
C’shekhar:
It is full time for us. We have been working on the social aspect of some of these issues for quite some time now. But eventually we have realized that without participation in the mainstream politics there can be no change. This party is a result of a long effort – it is not something that was conceived overnight but ultimately someone has to bell the cat. Efforts at a personal level in social field can only take you so far. If you want to help make structural changes to how things function then you have to contest and win elections. As for the finances, we have been supporting ourselves through personal resources and help from our personal friends.

Question: How can other Indians help you? I know that you have a website and a form for becoming a member but one of the most immediate needs for you if you plan to contest elections would be having adequate funds. Do you have any setup through which people can contribute financially to you?
C’shekhar:
Election Commission has archaic rules that require a form to be physically signed by the member on paper and pen. They don’t acknowledge electronic registration. You can use the form on our website to let us know that you are interested in becoming a member. Eventually, we will have a membership drive in your city and we will be able to contact you based on the information that you provide to us on that form. Right now we have no formal setup through which people can financially contribute to us. We have been working on the formal setup of this party since November but we were taken by surprise at the amount of support we have been receiving. We are in the process of having a formal setup through which we can accept financial contributions from supporters.

Question: Have you been contacted by any regular politicians? Any invitations to join their party? Any notes of congratulations?
C’shekhar:
No. Nothing from any active politicians.

Question: In the US, a guy called Howard Dean tried running for the post of US President but was defeated fairly early in the process. His big chunk of supporters were young and technologically savvy people who were tired of politics as usual. When Mr. Dean lost his own bid for election, he started a movement where he asked for his supporters to continue donating money for the cause he was fighting for and he supported people at grassroots to run for local elections. It seems that you are pretty much addressing the same constituency. Would you sometime in the future consider a similar move where you encourage responsible students to start running for elections in schools and colleges to not only lessen the hold of criminal elements in grassroots level politics but to also encourage middle class, educated people who usually do not consider politics as a career choice?
C’shekhar:
We don’t have a structure right now for those kind of things. As I said earlier, we have limited resources and whatever we get we will throw it in the field. People are giving a lot more support than we expected. I don’t make promises that we can change the system but it all depends upon the support of the people.

Question: Are you in general a supporter of globalization or your ideology more in tune with the “Swadeshi” line of thinking?
C’shekhar:
I’ve been writing about it, for instance the theory of justice. This is a topic that requires a more nuanced explanation and I have been working on preparing some formal documents on this topic which will eventually be available through our website. But in short you don’t have to stick to a theme. On any issue you do what is good for the people regardless of being an ideological demagogue. For example Indian industry will need some protection but we also need foreign companies for the latest technology and to encourage competition.

Question: What do you think about people who oppose any sort of relocation of people for industrial growth (for example Arundhati Roy)? Are you against any kind of industrialization that leads to people being removed from the land that they have occupied for years?
C’shekhar:
Relocation of people for supporting growth is a fact and cannot be wished away. What is important is that there be justice and transparency in the manner in which government interacts with the people who are getting displaced. Growth will lead to conflicts in the society but they need to be dealt in a fair manner. Some people will never agree to change but we cannot stop progress for them. For example, the road that leads from my village to town is U shaped because the farmer refused to release the land. But interest of a few people cannot be used to obstruct a dam or an industrial development that will help the society as a whole. Bottom line is that you cannot set a fix policy without taking into considerations local parameters.

Question: People in India usually hold politicians responsible for holding India back. But it is also true that people get the leaders that they deserve and that decisions are made by people who show up. Middle class Indians are notorious for not showing up. Not only do middle class Indians don’t consider politics as a profession, they also as a demographic, vote less in percentage terms. Is your step a wake up call to the educated in India to take up the task of cleaning up politics on their own rather than playing the blame game?
C’shekhar:
Of course people should be responsible. But people are less interested because they have lost hope. We have been observing this pattern that people don’t come forward because they have lost faith. It is not a question of class. If you’ve not been on the ground it is hard to understand the level of hopelessness. You don’t get the information from media. The facts are distorted and missing in media. Popular voting is constantly going down, people are losing faith in democracy but media does not always report it.

Question: You say that people are losing hope but then what about the rapid economic growth? With 7-8% economic growth, all the multinational companies in a mad rush to set up centers in India, it seems to me that an average college graduate has a much better chances of getting a job compared to five years ago. Why should they be hopeless?
C’shekhar:
On the ground there are still people who need to be taken care of. People who can speak English are the ones getting most of these new jobs but are they representative of India? That is a miniscule percentage of the population of India. My classmates from the school village school are still hardly earning anything. Call center and outsourcing opportunities are limited to people who can speak English. Media tries to highlight just this success story and not talk about people who don’t speak English in villages. For the media, the story is people getting jobs in call centers or outsourcing industry, going to new malls etc., but is that population a good representation of Indian ground reality?

Question: Politics in India can get violent and Tanmay himself was roughed up sometime ago in Udaipur by local police. If your party starts winning elections, you can certainly expect some kind of violent reaction from the entrenched political class. Are you mentally prepared for that?
C’shekhar:
We are aware of that kind of activity and inspite of that we have entered this arena so we are psychologically prepared for this. We are prepared for such outcomes. I do understand that there are risks involved but something has to be done by somebody.

Question: Finally, with all the media attention focused on your new effort, you must be overwhelmed by the emails and telephone calls. I am sure many of us would only be too glad to help you out as much as we can. If people want to help you with things like maintaining your website or creating a donation channel through an online service like Pay Pal I am sure that you just have to say the word. If anyone wants to help you out, should they just send you an email at the address listed at your website?
C’shekhar:
We are preparing the structure on how we can receive all the help. People should keep visiting the website. We of course welcome any kind of help that we can get. Right now I am taking care of maintaining our website but if we can get a professional website developer to take the responsibility of maintaining our website and/or setting up an online donation system as a way to help us then I would certainly welcome that.

Walmart critics – all fart and no shit!

Anti Wal-Mart crusaders are all fart and no shit. Consider exhibit A – a guy from down under, a place which apparently does not even have a Wal-Mart, claiming to be an expert on the effects of the imminent arrival of Wal-Mart to India. He ends up writing a purported satire on Desicritics that screams, “Hey I am just trying to be funny and don’t try to tell me the facts because my mind is already made up”.

There are a lot of atrocities in his piece but this one takes the cake (or shit if you will):

We eliminate all competition, which leaves us as the local consumers’ sole alternative.

Really? How do you eliminate competition in a purely market based economy like the US? Did they do it through government favors like Reliance did in India? Did they try to do it through an anti-market national alliance like the European nations tried with Airbus against Boeing? Did they hold the consumers at gun-point forcing them to come to them rather than say a Winn-Dixie, or Target Stores or even the much romanticized mom and pop stores?

Nah! If you care to go through the facts then you’d realized that they did it the old fashioned way – by squeezing every single penny worth of overheads from production to the point of consumption. You think that they squeeze their employees? Too bad if you think that high school graduates are worth more but if the market has determined that they are worth 5 dollars an hour then that is what the market will pay them! You are worried that students are dropping out of schools and colleges to work at Wal-Mart? Well if this is happening at 5 dollars an hour wait and see how many more drop out to join their stores if you had your way and inflate their wages to say 20 dollars an hour. An average high school graduate will have no motivation to go through college if he sees other high school graduates earning good money standing at the checkout counter of Wal-Marts. You set artificial valuations at talent and the market correction comes right back to bite you.

I just came back from Wal-Mart and if it were not for Wal-Mart I’d be paying at least twice as much shopping at mom and pop stores on the main street. My parents in India would go to shop at Wal-Mart in the blink of an eye because I know they are tired of the neighborhood “kirana” store who sells everything at MRP(Maximum Retail Price) keeping a fat profit for himself and his inefficiencies. And the last time I saw the “kirana” guy donating money was in a temple asking god for forgiveness for he had not paid his income tax again that year.

Of course it is easy to satirize, criticize and demonize a behemoth like Wal-Mart without considering the alternatives. The well-off want their exclusive shopping malls while letting the others fend for themselves. If the day laborer earning 100 rupees a day can get 2 extra kgs of flour for the same amount of money from Wal-Mart compared to the “kirana” store then I’d say more power to Wal-Mart and everything else is a fart.