Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The BJP and Religious Pluralism

While one may have many differences with the ideological and policy approaches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including on the issue of handling the question of communalism (and I do, especially given that I found rather distasteful, among other things, his remark snubbing taweez during the Bihar elections, something he would never do for say, rudraksh, and his long period of silence in the wake of very problematic statements concerning the Dadri episode not only from MPs but even ministers like Mahesh Sharma, which is not to say that I support appeasing communal and regressive Muslims or handing out religion-specific doles, that parties like the Congress, SP, RJD and Trinamool Congress have indeed engaged in), I believe that everyone ought to appreciate efforts made to integrate the minorities by encouraging them to adopt ancient Indic cultural facets without compromising on their religious beliefs, such as outreach attempts to practising Muslims to participate in the International Yoga Day celebrations in 2015, telling them that chanting what they may see as religious words or verses was not compulsory and that yogic exercises are very similar to namaz, being beneficial for physical fitness.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, time and again, stressed the need for religious tolerance, most emphatically at a church congregation in Kerala, and has condemned illegal vigilantism, while asserting that Indian Muslims ought to be neither appeased nor be subjected to hatred, but the need of the hour ought to be to reform them to enable them to be a part of the national mainstream, while having acknowledged that there are Indian Muslims who live and die for India, and that there is no need for any Indian citizen to prove his/her loyalty to the country day in and day out. He has praised in public the positive dimensions and contributions of Islam and good, public-spirited Indian citizens like Noor Jahan from Kanpur who formed a group of women engaged in making and renting solar lanterns and Imran Khan, a school teacher in Rajasthan’s Alwar district who created 40 Android apps and distributed them to students free of cost, other than the government awarding a Padma Shri to Jalpaiguri’s Karimul Haque transporting the poor to hospital on his motorbike as also a Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award to tennis player Sania Mirza, and there having been substantial budgetary allocations for modernisisng madrasas in tune with the present times. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh made efforts to allay fears of Kashmiri Muslim students in different parts of India, as you can see here and here.

Also, while many people (including me) were deeply disturbed by the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of India’s most populous state, given his history of rabble-rousing (that had drawn criticism even from BJP-supporters like Anupam Kher) with no administrative experience and absolutely no other proven unique track record until then, and many have even been critical of some of his subsequent policies, as you can see here and here, it is noteworthy that the police, under him, has taken action against Hindu extremists on several occasions, as you can see here, here, here and here.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

What I Think of Chetan Bhagat

Chetan Bhagat is a commercial fiction writer who supported Narendra Modi for PM, but should that make him an object of ridicule? Those supporting Modi included several acclaimed public intellectuals like Andre Beteile, Lord Meghnad Desai (soaked in the Marxist tradition), Dilip Chakrabarti, K. Gopinath, Kapil Kapoor and the likes.

However much one may despise Modi, should their scholarship be written off on account of their believing that Modi was a reasonably good administrator, and was the best option for India at the time (as compared to a then thoroughly discredited Congress, an inexperienced AAP and a potentially unstable Third Front), with one not possibly being completely sure of his involvement in the riots in Gujarat in 2002 and given Modi’s many efforts at demonstrating his commitment to religious pluralism? (I may clarify that I, for one, I did not wish to see Modi as PM, and I voted for the AAP in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.)

Moving on, has Chetan Bhagat just blindly supported Modi or the BJP on every occasion and has he ever exhibited bigotry towards the minorities? His views on the religious minorities can be seen in these articles of his, which don’t exhibit the faintest trace of bigotry. Nor, as these articles make clear, is he a blind fan of Modi or the BJP, nor was he even before Modi became PM.

Finally, coming to Chetan Bhagat’s credentials as a fiction writer. He is not a very literary writer and writes commercial fiction in a sincere, though not serious, manner that appeals to large sections of the youth, telling their stories, and he raises legitimate issues like sexism, regionalism, communalism, income divides and drawbacks of the education system in our country, with fairly interesting and gripping plots, which have even done well in cinematic adaptations. While one may not like his genre, to ridicule him as a writer is just symptomatic of an intellectually elitist superiority complex, which doesn’t suit left-leaning folks. This article exposing Bhagat's snobbish critics would make a good read in this regard, as would this one on Chetan by Aakar Patel, who is interestingly also a known Modi-basher.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Women Combatants in India and the World

Feminism as a consolidated movement against the discrimination of women is a powerful social movement against patriarchal values and self-fashioning of cultures that implicate themselves on certain markers of identity. The body, as Judith Butler theorizes, always takes on a form that is obviously an effect of ideological repetition. The forms and performative gestures of gender do not attend to a human being ‘naturally’, but constitute a vast body of pre-existing potentialities that are quickly acquired as a person grows up. The body then, does not remain merely a site for the application of external power, but is simultaneously formed by power. In this light, it is interesting to see the leakage of power in the vast continuum of human history in the form of women emerging as ‘a’ great fighter against ‘a’ powerful force. But these are profane, nonetheless. The sacred is always Virgin Mary, or some other figure of humility or motherliness, and a Rani of Jhansi thus ‘emerges’ from the depths of consciousness to reclaim a structural freedom from discursive formations that was denied originally (all pun intended to the original sin).

But now the profane seems to have become the sacred. One of the most aesthetic expressions of this reclamation is the not the emergence but the consolidation of the position of the women combatants, who have fought alongside men in battles. The sprouting of these individuals in history is also very important and this article will deal with both the aspects of writing about the emergence of woman combatants- the individuals in history who enjoy legendary status in the imagination, and the ones who are changing the apparatuses of imagination by making the acts of valour ‘natural’.

Throughout history, we see many individual women who have been valiant fighters and have become legendary figures and sources of inspiration for other women. Rani Abbakka of Ullal near Mangalore is one such woman who fended off the Portuguese on several occasions. The Portuguese by the 16th century had most ports of the Indian Ocean in their firm control. Another similar figure, Queen Mangammal of Madurai fought many kings ranging from the Mughals to the Marathas to several other small kings who refused to pay the annual tribute and declared rebellion against her. She was able to suppress most of these rebellions against her kingdom and ultimately proved to be a much greater ruler than her husband. Mai Bhago was also a great fighter against the Mughals and saved her Sikh community from the hands of the Mughals. In this way she resisted conversion to Islam. Examples of such brave fighters from other cultures are also present and should be hailed as great. The Celtic queen Boudicca fought against the Romans in Britain. It was customary for the Celtic kingdoms to train their daughters in sword-fighting and other similar activities. The other examples from ancient history are Chilonis who was a princess of Sparta and had married Cleonymus who was not allowed to accede to the throne and was sent away from Sparta. He attacked his homeland, but the queen Chilonis along with her lover Acrotatus, was able to defend her land. There are more examples of such brave women fighters which can be found here. Joan of Arc is also known for her bravery when she fought for France in the Hundred Years’ War. Recently, S.P. Harish and Oendrilla Dube have shown that there was 27% increase in wars when a woman was in power in Europe between 1480 and 1913. The explanation is that there was a greater division of labour when the queen was in power. This means that the queens were keener to place their spouses in official positions and be free to think about wars and aggressive foreign policy in general. On the other hand, when the king was in power, he would be less inclined to place their wives in official positions and so would have to manage both the state affairs and foreign policy, which would have been a very difficult task. This theory is open to debate, but nonetheless is the illustration of instances where women have tried to break free from existing paradigms of identity formation.   

If we look at more recent history, we can find more and more women becoming combatants and active participants in wars, revolutions and uprisings. Constance Markeivicz was an active participant in the Easter rising against the British Empire. She was also able to hurt a British sniper and put into solitary confinement and the only one out of the 70 women to have met this fate. Blaanca Canales, the Puerto Rican nationalist was involved in an armed uprising against the United States in the year 1950, when the United States passed a bill that made printing and publishing a crime by law. Celia Sanchez, the life-long partner of Fidel Castro, was a great revolutionary, who led many combat forces and was the main orchestrator of the 1952 coup of the Batista government when more than 80 fighters were brought to Cuba in order to make the coup possible. During World War II, Lydia Lydvayak became the first woman in history to score an aerial kill. This was made possible by the fact that the Russian army decided to recruit women aviators.  

Carrying on the tradition of women engaging in armed struggles, the most important turn has been in the last five years. With the Arab Spring and the subsequent rise of the ISIS, a large number of women have come out to defend themselves and their countries. The ISIS is a death cult and has transformed the very notion of the nation-state by showing that the nation-states cannot protect their citizens. Against this vicious idea, women have stood up from Yemen to Syria to Iraq and many other middle-eastern states. The Yazidis are a people that have been hated by the ISIS and have been the victims of the most brutal of human crimes possible. A big salute is due to the women fighters of the Yazidis who have named themselves the “Sun Ladies”. They were the rape victims of the ISIS and were witness to the devilish nature of the Islamic State, where mothers even threw their babies off the cliffs and then jumped themselves in order to die in a better way. Alfred Yaghobzadeh has masterfully captured the plight of the Yazidi women fighters, most of who even deny that they were raped by the ISIS militants because of the culture of shame. The photographs taken by him have delved into the resilient mentality of these women and also others like the Kurdish women fighters, who had saved the Yazidi women from the ISIS. This solidarity between the Yazidis and Kurds was an effect, in a sense of the formation of Rojava, or the small sub-states in Syria by the Kurdish minority and that have been targeted constantly the Syrian government. Many men had fled, but around 16000 fighters had stayed back in Rojava to fight the ISIS. A basic principle of the Kurdish struggle was gender equality. The YPJ or the women’s wing of the army, was born out of this principle. Rehana became an online celebrity when she killed 100 ISIS militants in Kobane, one of the worst sufferers of ISIS attacks. The Iraqi Kurdish women’s army, known as the Peshmerga (those who face death) had also been active in parts of Iraq that were controlled by the ISIS. The Christian minority in Syria has also produced female fighters in north-east Syria who fight alongside the Arab and Kurdish fighters against ISIS. Umayyah Naji Jabara, an Iraqi politician was killed in a combat with the ISIS. She was personally leading the combat when she was hit by a sniper. A Canadian woman, one of the very few from the western states to have joined the fight against ISIS, is an example of voluntary participation in the war against terror. She is of the view that the Kurds have displayed extreme gender equality in this struggle and women have been treated very well.

In the Indian context, apart from Rani Abbakka and Rani of Jhansi, there are several other women in Indian history who have been great fighters. In the ballads of north Malabar, for example, we have the legend of Unniyarcha, who saved her village from the Moplahs in the 16th century. Even before the formal rebellion against the British had started at a large scale, Kittur Rani Chennamma was involved in a fierce struggle against the British when they did not accept his son as the heir to the throne but instead wanted to annex the kingdom. In Awadh, for example, the wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, Begum Hazrat, with the help of a number of associates provided the longest and the toughest resistance to the British after the sepoy mutiny took place. The begum ruled for 10 months as a regent in Lucknow and died in Nepal in 1879. Rani Laxmibai, or better known as Jhansi ki Rani does not need much elaboration here. She fought against the British after the repeated appeals against annexation were rejected. But she fought her fiercest fight in 1858 when she had to flee from her fort to Gwalior, before she was finally overpowered by the British. Another great example from this period of Indian history would be Jhalkari Bai, who was a part of the army of Jhansi and was trained in swordfight. Azizun Bai and Uda Devi are also remembered as legendary fighters in the 19th century. Moving forward from the 19th century, new forms of rule and power demanded new forms of resistance. The provisional Azad Hind government during the Indian Independence Movement was formed in Singapore. During the world war, when the army of the Azad Hind was aiming to overthrow the government, Laxmibai, or Captain Laxmi was leading the Rani of Jhansi regiment.

Recently, the Secretary-General of the United Nations praised the peace-keeping unit of the Indian police force that works for the UN. Their work in Liberia, especially during the Ebola breakout has been praised. This police unit of the UN entirely composed of Indian women police officers is the first of its kind. To give such other examples, Yamin Hazarika made it to Indira Gandhi’s security team from Assam. She had cleared the police service examinations but was appointed in DANIPS (Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar Islands Police Service) Sanjukta Parashar is regarded as the first IPS officer from Assam, because it is not clear whether Yamin Hazarika was ever promoted to the police forces. She has been fighting the Bodo militants and has killed 16 of them and has arrested over 64 militants. But this is not the only reason why people respect her so much. She is known to be a very humble person. She holds a PhD in US Foreign Policy from JNU. Every six months, around 5000 women graduates take various examinations for the posts in the Indian army. They have achieved various laudable feats and are ever-growing, showing how the Indian society is changing and more women are coming to the forefront. The army is generally, however, reluctant in appointing women officers, but the ITBP is a glaring exception. It has employed female veterinarians in their ranks. They have also expressed the desire to employ 30% women in the general duty cadre. Valour has also been exhibited by women like Vinaya Patil, who is the wife of Flight Lieutenant Shashikant Damgude. She joined the IAF after her husband died. The first woman to be awarded the sword of honour is Divya, who made great contribution to the Indian army and is a source of inspiration for other women. Lieutenant Kiran Shekhawat became the first woman to die on duty. She was on a Dornier aircraft which went down. Apart from these individual feats, some structural changes are also taking place. Indian Navy has expressed the desire to recruit more female flyers. Sapper Shanti Tigga is also an inspiration for other women. She is in fact the first lady jawan among the 1.3 million-strong defence forces. She has time and again outperformed her fellows, all of whom are male. She is a widowed mother. The most positive development this year, however, has been the recruitment of three female flying officers. As mentioned above, too, the IAF had been asking for more female recruits and this was made true by this latest recruitment.

Despite such positive developments, both in the Indian and global context, the debate whether women can be good combatants and a force to reckon with, is far from over. The main concerns of the army officers, in India too, among others are the issues of psychological complexity, which might prove to be an obstacle in the way of the women participating in combats and also the fact that they would, for example, not be able to carry other male officers when they are injured, and hence seriously hindering the relief measures. While these concerns may be true, the women are also hopeful that they would be able to bring about a change in the dimensions of the relationship with male officers. Concerted efforts can be taken up for the purpose of training the women well. But that needs a lot of will power from the society.  

(Co-authored with Suvankur Sukul)

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Articles on Muslim Extremism in India

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Nationalism vs. Jingoistic Nationalism in the Indian Context

I’m not those who outright completely reject the ideas of nationalism and national security, for I believe that centrally governing the planet to everyone’s satisfaction is impossible (except if ever faced by a threat from aliens!), when there are disputes even between provinces within countries, and to imagine the world as a completely, perfectly peaceful place with no problems is utopian, for humans are imperfect creatures, and what we perceive as good and evil actually exist with respect to each other as to light and darkness. Nationalist cohesion is necessary for progress and security, but it shouldn’t override humanism as Nazism did. Especially in the Indian context, when it comes to Pakistan, there are those who have made what I call “peace-mongering” a mindless industry that is different from genuine peace activism based on attempting at real conflict resolution, and it is more of an intellectually elitist exercise at distortions to create false equivalences, as I have discussed in some detail here.

However, in general, as a principle, long-term peace and stability, which will only be in our interest, and jingoism perpetuating conflict is not, and blindly believing in the version of events presented by the government of the country you happen to be born in is silly (though blindly rejecting it to be biased to the other side is equally silly and that’s another story), and peaceful resolution may involve understanding the other side and making even territorial compromises if the other side has its own valid standpoint too, as India did in the context of border disputes with Bhutan in the 1970s and 1980s, the recent Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh and even the Rann of Kutch Arbitration with Pakistan in 1968. 

One occasion when India did blunder on this front was the Nehru government’s handling of the Sino-Indian border dispute.  Nehru was not overly trusting of or generous to the Chinese as many imagine, but in fact, a little too aggressive and tried to unilaterally impose the Indian position on the Sino-Indian borders, on the Chinese (his infamous “Forward Policy” among those who know of it), ignoring the advice of military officers like Thimayya asking him to not provoke the Chinese, and rejecting the very fair and pragmatic Chinese offer of a swap of Indian and Chinese claims over Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh respectively (do kindly study the history of the Sino-Indian border dispute carefully and with an open mind before calling me anti-national).

Herman Goering is believed to have said during the Nuremberg trials – “Of course the people don't want war. But after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.” Likewise, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks has stated in an interview in 2011 – “I’ve discovered that nearly every war that has started in the past 50 years has been a result of media lies. The media could've stopped it if they had searched deep enough; if they hadn't reprinted government propaganda they could've stopped it.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Challenges Posed by Muslim Orthodoxy in the West in the Domain of Women's Sports

The interference of regressive theology in sports has also seeped its way into many developed secular countries as well. Omar Hallak, principal of the Al-Taqwa college in Australia recently disallowed female students from taking part in running for fear that excessive running might lead them to “losing their virginity”. Though he denied the allegations made against him, he could not explain why exactly some girls were not allowed to participate in a running event. The principal’s views and his conviction in them is a sign of worry for the future of the game for it indicates that despite the continuing struggle to emancipate women from falsified gender barriers, there are certain schools of thought which can be detrimental if not checked. Another case on similar grounds can be cited from may 2015, when the students of an Islamic high school refused to play against a Catholic school team because it included two girls and ‘mixing’ with the other gender is supposedly against the norms of their faith, forcing the other team to bench the two girls despite getting the clearing from the governing body for fielding them. The decision to bench the girls received flak from many liberal thinkers in Canada, who criticized the Catholic school team for ‘tolerating intolerance’ and for not standing up for the two girls, who were completely eligible to take part in that game.

Challenges Posed by Muslim Orthodoxy in Muslim-Majority Countries in the Domain of Women's Sports

Indeed, it’s not as though women’s teams of Muslim-majority countries don’t compete in regular tournaments or that they always follow the dress codes prescribed by the orthodox maulvis. The Pakistani women’s teams in different sports are a good case in point in this regard, since their attires are no different from those of the female sports teams of countries where Muslims are not in majority (though a petition had been made to the High Court of the Pakistani province of Sindh to the effect that women’s cricket and hockey matches were repugnant to Islam, but it was dismissed). Also, the 2012 Women’s Squash World Cup was won by Egypt, another Muslim-majority country, and Malaysia, yet another Muslim-majority country, secured the third place. Also in this list of accomplished Muslim women is ten-year-old Alzain Tareq from Bahrain, who in 2015 became the youngest ever competitor at the world swimming championship in Kazan, Russia. Nor is sport for women something new to Islamic history per se, as is clear from the references to Razia Sultan and Nur Jahan in the Indian context in this book, for example.

There are also Muslim women like Behnaz Shafiei, who has been defying all laws of state and religion by riding her motorcycle on the streets of Iran, a country that prohibits women riders altogether (though it allows women to drive cars, unlike Saudi Arabia). But she is not the only one fighting for the rights of women to ride two-wheelers, groups of females in Dubai and Egypt, called Women of Harley Dubai Chapter and Girls Go Wheels have also taken this fight to the streets by getting together and asserting their freedom for riding. Their attempts are aimed not only at their own liberation, but that of many future generations so that women are encouraged to follow their paths without any worries about societal constraints.

An interesting development that can be examined in the context of clothing is that of the Iranian women’s football team being disallowed by FIFA to play an Olympic qualifier against in 2011 because of the dress code not conforming to FIFA regulations. It is noteworthy that Jordan too is an Islamic state which happens to be located in the Middle East but their players’ dress code wasn’t found objectionable, reiterating that making sweeping generalizations about women’s sports in the very diverse Islamic world would also not be appropriate.

The Kazakh player Zarina Diyas is another example. In 2015, she held Sharapova for a long while before giving away eventually. But the most important aspect of this is the way in which her mother encouraged her to play tennis. She accompanies her to the grounds and cheers for her too. Kazakhstan is a Muslim-majority country and there has been no resistance to Zarina playing her game the way she wants to.

Having said that, we may turn our attention to Saudi Arabia, a country the regime of which is the most conservative and oppressive towards women, other than Taliban/ISIS-like militias. Here, the issue is not only one of clothing. It is a country where girls are banned from sports in state schools (though it’s not so in private schools) and powerful clerics castigate women for exercising and female gyms must adhere to strict regulations, parading as health centres than as venues of sports.

The stance of the official Supreme Council of Religious Scholars is represented by Sheikh Abdullah al-Maneea, who said in 2009 that the excessive “movement and jumping” needed in football and basketball might cause girls to tear their hymens and lose their virginity. Newspaper articles refer to such women as “shameless” when they play sports and are a cause of great embarrassment for the women and their families. Some women have even received text messages advising them to stay at home and tend to their household duties as mothers and wives. In 2010, Sheikh Abdulkareem al-Khudair, who also sits on the Supreme Council for Religious Scholars, renewed a religious edict banning sports for women, which he said “will lead to following in the footsteps of the devil”!

However, it would be unfair to not give the other side of the picture in the very same country. Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a nephew of the late King Abdullah, who is known to be a supporter of women's rights, has included women in his Kingdom Equestrian Team, part of his company Kingdom Holding, which has allowed Saudi women to compete in international competitions since 2007. There are liberal Saudi men who consider the women participating in sports to be pioneers and encourage the women to play regardless of the obstacles.  Saudi women have formed teams, like the basketball team Jeddah United, and a group of Saudi women led by Princess Reema al-Saud also organized a hiking expedition to Everest base camp this summer as part of a charity fundraising exercise to promote a healthy lifestyle for breast cancer patients. While Human Rights Watch had slammed Saudi Arabia for not sending a single female athlete in the Olympics, the National Olympic Committee of Saudi Arabia has indicated to Human Rights Watch that it may send female sportspersons from hereafter, and in 2012, the International Olympic Committee made it compulsory for every participating country to send a women’s contingent, leading Saudi Arabia to send two girls in its contingent to compete in judo and the 800 m. run, fulfilling the indication it had made to Human Rights Watch.

If we look at other countries in the Arab region, there have been some very positive examples which give hope to future generations of women sportspersons. One of them is Kuwaiti Line umpire, Aseel Shaheen, who in July 2015 became the first From Palestine, a woman is making history in the sporting world. Noor Daoud, who was the first Palestinian woman in history to compete in an international motorsport event in 2013, taking part in drift racing, one of the most dangerous disciplines in motorsports. Daood is not alone in this gender defying movement in Palestine; she is in fact part of a group of Palestinian women racers, coming from different cities and socio-economic backgrounds, who have become role models for speed enthusiasts of West Bank under their collective identity of Speed Sisters, which is also the title of a feature length documentary made on them by Canadian filmmaker Amber Fares. With a lot of creativity and makeshift logistics, these women maintain their passion for racing amidst shortage of funds, societal and religious naysayers and border tensions in Ramallah.

As for the Taliban (be it the Afghan one or the Pakistani one) and its attitude towards women, the less said the better. Though it no longer holds its sway over most of Afghanistan, a new Taliban (different from its Afghan counterpart but ideologically similar) has emerged in Pakistan. Maria Toor, an ace female squash player from Pakistan who has made a mark on the international stage doing her country proud, actually chopped her hair to disguise her female identity while playing with boys in a Taliban-infested region, and her father actually shifted the family from there to Peshawar for the sake of his daughter’s sports career, a testimony to his gender-sensitized outlook.

The Islami Jamaat-e-Talba (IJT) and the Punjab Students’ Association (PSA) clashed in Karachi in October, 2015 clashed over what seems to be the issue of boys and girls playing cricket together. The IJT and PSA students engaged in a fight that injured both male and female members of the PSA. The IJT claimed that the fight was part of propaganda of the PSA to malign the IJT. The claim of the PSA is, however that the IJT had warned the female players to not play cricket in the Karachi University campus.

In the capital city of Kabul, a group of Afghan women are pioneering a revival of sports for women in a country that is still reeling from the after effects of being ruled by Taliban for years. From being virtually banned from public life and denied many basic human rights under the Taliban regime, the members of Afghanistan’s National Cycling team is trying to peddle forward in the right direction while tackling many roadblocks like family pressure and patchy public support.

Thus, despite the challenges, sporty Muslim girls are racing along, fighting the obstacles. More power to them!