Darul Hijrat: A sanctuary for the Rohingya


Outside her cramped tin-roofed shanty, 15 kilometres from the Indian national capital, Noor Fathima, 30, prepares lunch for her children who wait expectantly. She stirs the khichdi with one hand, battling a swarm of flies and mosquitoes with the other. “Life back home was not so filthy,” she says, pointing to the squalor around.

Home for her is in the Arakan province in central Myanmar — one that Fathima, a Rohingya, fled in 2012 after her village was attacked by local Buddhists.

Victims of a long-standing ethnic conflict, the Rohingyas have been denied citizenship by the Myanmar government on the grounds that they are Bengali Muslims, who were brought in illegally by the British from India and Bangladesh. They are allegedly subjected to forced labour and denied land rights by the Buddhist majority. Some human rights groups describe them as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

For decades, Rohingyas have been fleeing Myanmar, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. In recent years, with these countries cracking down on illegal migrants, there are reports of Rohingya refugees being abandoned mid-sea by smugglers.

The most recent humanitarian crisis, centred on the Rohingyas, to hit international headlines was in May this year, when a boat carrying 130 refugees sank off the border between Malaysia and Bangladesh.

Fathima’s husband Mohammed Haroon says they were lucky to escape when they did. Once a prosperous farmer, he says his family was routinely harassed by local Buddhists and the military.

“My grandfather was a supporter of General Suu Kyi, so when the military came to power, they kept an eye on our family,” says Haroon. “They would tell us that we had no business living there. Local Buddhists would walk into our farm and take away chicken and livestock.”

Haroon made his peace with the harassment coming their way, until the military took over his land and occupied his home. “I had 37 bighas of land. I lost it overnight.” He approached higher officials for justice but faced with threats, he decided to leave with his family.

After a few months in Bangladesh, they eventually found their way to Saharanpur in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. A year later, they were resettled in Kalindi Kunj, near New Delhi, by the Zakat Foundation of India. Called Darul Hijrat, there are 50 families living here in a makeshift colony of tin-and-plastic shanties.

“We had reserved the land to build a school for poor children,” says Imtiaz Siddique, a project director with ZFI, an NGO that collects zakat or alms for relief purposes. “But when we heard about the plight of the Rohingyas, we decided to house them there.”

According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates, there are over 25,000 Rohingyas settled in colonies like these in different parts of India, mainly Telengana in the south, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

Surrounded by dense forests, the colony is in a low-lying area and gets flooded in the monsoon. With the assistance of UN funds, the ZFI has made some structural improvements, and yet, their protection against heavy rain and biting winters is inadequate. There are just two hand pumps supplying water to a colony of 250 people. There is electricity, but it is illegally tapped.

“The water quality is poor and children are always falling sick,” says Fathima. There are no toilets, so families use the surrounding fields. Death due to snakebite is common. Again, the most vulnerable are the children — three infants have died in the last eight months. The lack of a doctor or a health centre close at hand leaves families even more vulnerable in the event of a medical emergency. The nearest hospital is about 10km away.

Despite the hardships, there is much hope that they can look forward to a better future. The ZFI has enrolled the children in a local school and is sponsoring their education. The men have found employment in construction sites.

“Our children are finally going to school, we get three meals a day and sleep without having to worry about the military taking away our sons and daughters,” says Fathima. “It’s more than what we can ask for.”

This sentiment is reinforced every time they speak to family and friends back home.

“Friends in Myanmar tell me they are scared to step out of their homes,” says Abdul Karim, who works with the UNHCR’s liaison staff. “We hear that Muslims are not allowed to pray and mosques have been shut down. Now with the world closing its doors, they are well and truly stuck. Myanmar does not want the Rohingyas and the world too, it seems, is shutting its doors on us.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 14th, 2015

From the Police Station Back to the Hellhole: System Failing India’s Domestic Violence Survivors

One time my husband started slapping me hard on the face because I had not cooked the rice to his satisfaction,” Suruchi* told IPS. “He hit me so hard that my infant daughter fell from my arms to the ground.”

For 20 years 47-year-old Suruchi, a resident of India’s coastal megacity Mumbai, faced physical and verbal abuse within the walls of her home. Her husband would often lock her out of their apartment through the night and one day even tried to strangle her.

“I never knew what would set him off – it could be talking to a neighbour or looking out of the window. I would get ready for work in the morning and he would suddenly announce that I had to stay home all day.”

Suruchi had no access to her earnings as she was expected to hand her salary over to her in-laws. “On the rare occasion that I spoke out, I would get beaten up.” Her parents sensed that she was unhappy but Suruchi never told them the full story.

She was just 20 when she got married, she told IPS, and the constant abuse has left a profound impact on her and her children, especially her son who is anxious and largely uncommunicative.

It was only after she suffered a nervous breakdown following an especially violent assault that she finally acted.

“I had hoped all along that by obeying him things would eventually get better. While recovering in hospital I understood that my attitude had fuelled the abuse and that I owed it to myself and my children to walk out.”

Today Suruchi has put the past behind her. She lives independently and is pursuing a degree in law. However, her story is all too common in millions of homes across India.

A 2006 government survey, the last time the state collected comprehensive household data, stated that 40 percent of Indian women faced domestic violence.
Considering that women comprise over 48 percent of India’s population of 1.2 billion people, this means that hundreds of millions of people are living a nightmare in what is considered the world’s largest democracy.

However many experts believe that a 2003 survey conducted by a non-profit and supported by the Planning Commission of India that threw up a figure of 84 percent paints a more accurate picture.

“It tells us that many cases are going unreported,” says Rashmi Anand, a domestic violence survivor who runs a free legal aid and counseling service for victims in the capital, New Delhi, in collaboration with the police.
Interestingly, figures for domestic violence reported in crime statistics in many states are significantly higher than those that find their way into national-level databases.

In a 2013 study by the New Delhi-based think tank National Council for Applied Economic Research, over half of the married women surveyed said that they would be beaten up for going out of the house without permission (54 percent); not cooking properly (35 percent) and inadequate dowry payments (36 percent).
Indian law bans dowry, but the practice remains widespread.

Studies also indicate that economic and social gains have put women at far greater risk in a deeply patriarchal country like India.

A 2014 report in Population and Development Review, a peer reviewed journal, shows that women who are more educated than their husbands are at higher risk of domestic violence as men see in it a way to re-assert their power and control over their wives.

In 1983 domestic violence was recognised as a criminal offence under Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code. However only in 2005 was a separate civil law to deal with the specifics of domestic violence introduced.

Among other things, the law defines domestic violence and widens the scope to verbal, economic and emotional violence. It also takes into account a woman’s need for financial support and protects her from being thrown out of her home and provides for monetary relief and temporary custody of children.

Since it came into force, activists say there has been a gradual rise in the number of women seeking help.

“Earlier women would seek legal help only when they were thrown out of their marital homes”, says New Delhi-based lawyer C.P Nautiyal, who counsels victims of domestic violence.

“Most women believe that suffering verbal abuse or being slapped by their husbands is expected behaviour. Since the law came into being there is greater awareness regarding domestic violence.”

However, there is still considerable stigma attached to being divorced and this prevents many women from reaching out.

“Economically women in India have made great progress but not so much when it comes to personal growth,” says Anand. “The attitude remains skewed when it comes to relationships. A woman continues to be defined by marriage and this cuts across all classes.”

Veteran lawyer and women’s rights activist Flavia Agnes agrees.

“There is a lot of pressure to stay married,” she tells IPS. “I have found that even highly placed women don’t like to reveal that they are divorced or separated. It’s like being raped, they will hide it as much as possible.”

Experts say that it is women from under-educated or underprivileged backgrounds who are reaching out for help in greater numbers. “Those who come from the upper classes are generally more reluctant to walk out as they stand to lose social status or a certain lifestyle,” Agnes says.

However it is precisely those women who are reaching out in greater numbers that the system is failing the most.

Most keenly felt is the lack of adequate government-run shelters. Barring the southern state of Kerala where shelter homes for domestic violence victims have been set up across 12 districts, authorities in other states have been neglectful.

“I am constantly looking for places where I can send impoverished, battered women to stay,” says Anand. Of the five shelters for women in crisis in the capital New Delhi, only two are functional. Even these can accommodate just 30 women each, and not for more than a month.

“Women are kept like prisoners there,” Agnes tells IPS about the shelters. “They can’t leave, not even to go to their places of work. Children above seven cannot stay with their mothers. Only those who are utterly destitute and desperate consider staying there.”

Another critical need is for fast-track courts to ensure cases get heard rapidly. The Indian legal system is notoriously slow and cases drag on for years, even decades.

However tougher laws alone cannot stem the tide of domestic violence as long as attitudes stay rooted in patriarchy.

The last government study done in 2006, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), revealed that over 51 percent of Indian men didn’t think it wrong to assault their wives. More shockingly, 54 percent of the women themselves felt such violence was justified on certain grounds.

Activists say such biases are reflected every time a victim of domestic violence comes seeking help.

“We see it on the part of the police, NGOs, stakeholders and religious authorities,” points out Agnes. “The protection officer is supposed to collect evidence, file an order and take the victim to court. Instead the tactic is to tell her, ‘He slapped you a few times that’s all. Don’t make a big deal and sort it out’, and she is sent back to the hellhole.

“We have to stop this current approach of putting a Band-Aid on a gaping, bleeding wound [if we want] change to come about,” she stressed.

*Name changed upon request

This article appeared on IPS. To read click here

All-female transport: Ladies, fasten your seatbelts!

Growing up in Mumbai, Havovi Wadia moved with ease through the city, never thinking twice about travelling alone at any hour of the day or night. Over the last few years, however, her movements have changed. “I travel every month and usually leave home at 4:00 am for early flights,” says Wadia, who works with a non-governmental organisation. “I invariably return to Mumbai on a late flight and I worry every time about getting home safely at night.” Wadia’s family insists on staying on the phone with her until she reaches home.

After the infamous Nirbhaya (‘the fearless one’) case of December 16, 2012, when a 23-year-old medical student was gang raped and murdered on a moving bus on the streets of Delhi, female commuters like Wadia are hesitant to take public transport. Many have turned to taxi services that can be booked online. But in December last year, news broke of a 27-year-old woman who was raped by a taxi driver for Uber, an online startup transportation company. “Now, I have become uncomfortable with using these fleet services,” says Wadia. “I worry constantly.”

Given that India’s public transport system is rated the world’s fourth most dangerous for women and laws have largely proven ineffective in combating sexual violence against women, it seems there is one solution for female commuters fearing for their safety: transportation by and for women.

Transport services catering only to women popped up nearly four years ago in India. Lately, the number of services has mushroomed, with several states announcing plans for women-only transportation.

Officials in Gurgaon, near Delhi, say they will help women interested in buying taxis and running a women-only service and in January this year, a company called Meru Eve launched a fleet of 20 cabs in Delhi, all equipped with panic buttons and pepper spray. Delhi police also trained the drivers in self-defense in order to protect themselves and their passengers.

Mumbai-based Priyadarshini Cabs boasts of being among the first such services in the market. The company was launched in 2010 and business is booming, with five new customers every day over the last three months. “We started with just two or three taxis and a meager 10 calls a day,” recalls CEO Susiieben Shah. “Today we have 25 taxis and receive a minimum of 75 calls in a 24-hour shift.”

Kerala’s SheTaxis was launched in 2013 and CEO Dr PTM Sunish says the Nirbhaya rape case “brought home the need to ensure maximum safety for women” on the streets. “In Kerala, women are moving everywhere for work and we wanted to find a way to guarantee their security,” he says. SheTaxis started out with just five taxis in one city but today, 50 of the company’s vehicles ply the roads in four cities in Kerala. All SheTaxis are equipped with wireless tracking gear and panic buttons linked to call centres as well as police control rooms, ambulance and fire services.

For 42-year-old marketing executive Priya Nair the service is a blessing. “I live far from my office and work in shifts, with very late work hours,” she explains. “Thanks to She Taxis, I don’t have to worry about how I’ll get home from work. I feel so safe in these taxis that I’ll often take a nap on the ride home,” she says, laughing. A school counselor Aarathi Nair adds, “In a country like ours where there are so many incidents of violence against women in public, this is the only way to feel safe while travelling in the city.”

SheTaxis’s entrepreneurship model sets it apart from other such ventures as taxi drivers are also owners of their vehicles, thus truly making it a service by and for women. Razia, 36, says that getting behind the wheel in her SheTaxi has been life-changing. “I make INR25,000 a month now,” she says. “It gives me great pride to be successful at something that most people see as a ‘man’s job’.”

However, the road to success has not been as smooth for some companies. Female drivers in Kerala have the advantage of a higher literacy rate and efficient government in their state, leading to greater acceptance, while drivers in Mumbai and Delhi routinely face criticism or ridicule.

COO of New Delhi-based Sakha Cabs Deepali Bharadwaj says the company’s female drivers are routinely harassed. Launched in 2009, the company is linked to Azad Foundation, a non-profit organisation which empowers underprivileged women who are victims of domestic violence, training them to enter professions traditionally closed off to women. “Road transport officials keep our drivers waiting for months for a license, while licenses are granted to male drivers at the earliest,” she says.

“Men say, ‘women cannot drive’ or ‘what will we do if women start driving?’” says Shanti, a 33-year-old Sakha driver. “I tell them that maybe it is time for men to start doing women’s jobs.” And if a verbal put-down doesn’t work, any Sakha driver can utilise the martial arts training given to each employee. Bharadwaj adds proudly, “Our drivers have learned to expect biases and handle them.”

“The most common employment option for women is a job as domestic help,” says Bharadwaj. “With Sakha, we wanted to break the mould of a male bastion. For women from marginalised backgrounds, driving a car is very empowering, and they are charting unknown territory.” Shanti says she took a job with Sakha after her husband refused to support her and their three daughters. “The self-defense techniques they taught us gave me confidence and after I began earning an income, I found the courage to walk out of my abusive 13-year marriage.”

In order to slowly maneuver their way into this male-dominated profession, these transport companies have sought legitimisation on official levels. Shah says the Bombay High Court was moved in order to have women-only taxis included in the pre-paid category and after three years of campaigning, the government agreed to reserve permits for female drivers.

There’s still much ground to cover, however. “The government must ensure the same process is followed when it comes to issuing licenses to men and women,” says Bharadwaj.

For initiatives such as Sakha or SheTaxi to succeed, it is crucial that the companies operate as business ventures and not social enterprises or not-for-profit organisations. It is only then that the companies may begin to campaign effectively against a lack of infrastructure holding back growth.
For instance, one critical issue that faces female drivers is the lack of public toilets in cities. “Where are these women supposed to go while they’re on duty?” asks Bharadwaj. “If the government wants this transportation service to be organised and effective, it needs to address shortcomings such as this. Otherwise the companies will not be able to meet the rising demand for female-only transportation.”

While India has made significant headway despite the challenges, Pakistan does not seem to be too far behind. The recently amended anti-rape laws in the country, which promise to punish even those who hinder prosecution, shame the survivor and trivialise the crime, is perhaps the first step towards securing a safe passage for women hesitant to report a sexual assault.

This article appeared in the Express Tribune on March 8, 2015

Dumped, Abandoned, Abused: Women in India’s Mental Health Institutions

Following the birth of her third child, Delhi-based entrepreneur Smita* found herself feeling “disconnected and depressed”, often for days at a stretch. “Much later I was told it was severe post-partum depression but at the time it wasn’t properly diagnosed,” she told IPS.

“My marriage was in trouble and after my symptoms showed no signs of going away, my husband was keen on a divorce, which I was resisting.”

After a therapy session, Smita was diagnosed as bi-polar, a mental disorder characterised by periods of elevated highs and lows. “No one suggested seeking a second opinion and my parents and husband stuck to that label.”

One day after she suffered a particularly severe panic attack, Smita found 10 policemen outside her door. “I was taken to a prominent mental hospital in Delhi where doctors sedated me without examination. When I surfaced after a week I found that my wallet and phone had been taken away.”

All pleas to speak to her husband and parents went unheeded.

It was the beginning of a nightmare that lasted nearly two months, much of it spent in solitary confinement. “The nurses were unkind and cruel. I remember one time when my entire body was hurting the nurse jabbed me with an injection without even checking what the problem was.”

On one occasion, when she stopped eating in protest after she was refused a phone call, she was dragged around the ward. “There were women there who told me they had been abused and molested by the staff.”

Not all the women languishing in these institutions even qualified as having mental health problems; some had simply been put there because they were having affairs, or were embroiled in property disputes with their families.

Days after she was discharged her husband filed for a divorce on the grounds that Smita was mentally unstable.

“I realised then that my husband was building up his case so he would get custody of the kids.”

Isolated and afraid, Smita did not find the strength or support to fight back. Her husband won full custody and left India with the children soon after. “My doctor says I am fine and I am not on any medication but I still carry the stigma. I have no access to my kids and I no longer trust my parents,” she told IPS.

Smita’s story points to the extent of violence women face inside mental health institutions in India. The scale was highlighted in a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, ‘Treated Worse than Animals’, which said women often face systematic abuse that includes detention, neglect and violence.

Ratnaboli Ray, who has been active in the field of mental health rights in the state of West Bengal for nearly 20 years, says on average one in three women are admitted into such institutions for no reason at all. Ray is the founder of Anjali, a group that is active in three mental institutions in the state.

“Under the law all you need is a psychiatrist who is willing to certify someone as mentally ill for the person to be institutionalised,” Ray told IPS. “Many families use this as a ploy to deprive women of money, property or family life. Once they are inside those walls they become citizen-less, they lose their rights.“

Ray points to the story of Neeti who was in her early 20s when she was admitted because she said she heard voices. “When we met her she was close to 40 and fully recovered, but her family did not want her back because there were property interests involved.”

With the help of the NGO Anjali, Neeti fought for and won access to her share of family property and was able to leave the institution.

Those on the inside endure conditions that are inhumane.

“There is hardly any air or light. Unlike the male patients who are allowed some mobility within the premises, women are herded together like cattle,” says Ray. In many hospitals women are not given underclothes or sanitary pads.

Sexual abuse is rampant. “Because it is away from public space and there is an assumed lack of legitimacy in what they say, such complaints are nullified as they are ‘mad’,” adds Ray.

Unwanted pregnancies and forced abortions impact their mental or physical health. They languish for years, uncared for and unattended.

“One can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the male and female wards,” points out Vaishnavi Jaikumar, founder of The Banyan, an NGO that offers support services to the mentally ill in Chennai, capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

“You will find wives and mothers coming to visit male patients with food and fresh sets of clothes, while the women’s wards are empty.” Experts also say discharge rates are much lower when it comes to women.

The indifference towards patients is evident not just in institutions, but also at the policy level, with mental health occupying a low rung on the ladder of India’s public health system.

According to a WHO report the government spends just 0.06 percent of its health budget on mental health. Health ministry figures claim that six to seven percent of Indians suffer from psychosocial disabilities, but there is just one psychiatrist for every 343,000 people.

That ratio falls even further for psychologists, with just one trained professional for every million people in India.

Furthermore, the country has just 43 state-run mental hospitals, representing a massive deficit for a population of 1.2 billion people. With the District Mental Health Programme (DMHP) present in just 123 of India’s 650 districts, according to HRW, the forecast for those living with mental conditions is bleak.

“Behind that lack of priority is the story of how policymakers themselves stigmatise,” contends Ray. “The government itself thinks [the cause] is not worthy enough to invest money in. Unless mental health is mainstreamed with the public health system it will remain in a ghetto.”

Depression is twice as common in woman as compared to men and experts say that factors like poverty, gender discrimination and sexual violence make women far more vulnerable to mental health issues and subsequent ill-treatment in poorly run institutions.

Gopikumar of The Banyan advocates for creative solutions that are scientific and humane like Housing First in Canada, which reaches out to both the homeless and mentally ill. The Banyan is presently experimenting with community-based care models funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Canadian government.

“Our model looks at housing and inclusivity as a tool for community integration,” says Gopikumar. “The poorest in the world are people with disabilities and most of them are women. They are victims of poverty on account of both caste and gender discrimination and its time we open our eyes to the problem.”

*Name changed upon request

This article was published in the Inter Press Service news agency here

India’s ‘Manual Scavengers’ Rise Up Against Caste Discrimination

This article was published by the Inter Press Service news agency. You can read it here

Watching Bittal Devi deftly weave threads of different colours into a vibrant patchwork quilt, it’s hard to imagine that this 46-year-old’s hands have spent the better part of their life cleaning toilets.

Born in Sava, a village in the state of Rajasthan in northwestern India, Devi is from a community that, down the centuries, has worked as ‘manual scavengers’ . A caste-based profession, it condemns mostly women, but also men to clean human excreta in dry latrines with their hands, and carry it on their heads to disposal dumps. Many men also clean sewers, septic tanks and open drains with no protective gear.

They are derogatorily referred to as bhangis, which translates into ‘broken identity’. Most of those employed are Dalits, who occupy the lowest rung in the caste hierarchy and are condemned to tasks that are regarded as beneath the dignity of the upper castes.

“I started doing this job when I was 12 years old”, she recalls. “I would accompany my mother when she went to the homes of the thakurs (upper castes) in our village everyday to clean their toilets.

“We would go to every home to pick up their feces. We would gather it with a broom and plate that we would collect in a cane basket. Later we would take the basket to the outskirts of the village and dispose [of] it.”

They cleaned 15 toilets each day, which earned them 375 rupees (a little over six dollars) per month, plus a set of old clothes from the homes they worked in, gifted once a year during the Diwali festival.

She remembers that she was unable to eat the first week. “I would throw up every time my mother placed food in front of me”. Harder still to bear, were the taunts of her upper caste classmates.

“They would cover their noses and tell me that I smelled. I, along with the other children from my caste, was made to sit away from the rest of the students.” She eventually dropped out of school.

There was no question of refusing to do the work. “From birth I, like the other children from my community, was told that this was our history and our destiny”, says Devi. “This was the custom followed by our forefathers which we had to continue with.”

Caste-based discrimination or untouchability was banned in India in 1955 and several legislative and policy measures have been announced over the decades to end the cruel and inhumane custom of manual scavenging.

As recently as September 2013, the government outlawed employing anyone to clean human feces.

On the ground, however, these measures have proved ineffective – the main reasons being that policies are not properly implemented, people are unaware that they can refuse to work as manual scavengers, and those who do resist face violence and the threat of eviction.

According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network, which works towards the elimination of caste-based discrimination, there are an estimated 1.3 million ‘manual scavengers’ in India, most of them women.

Civil rights groups say that often women are victims twice over. Not only are they are looked down upon by the upper castes, they are also forced to do the work by their husbands who find it degrading, but expect the wives to continue with the custom.

Bittal Devi’s neighbour, Rani Devi Dhela, also started working as a manual scavenger at the age of 12, an occupation she continued with in her marital home, as her husband was unemployed.

She enrolled her four children in the village school, hopeful that education would change their future. Reality dawned when her 11- year-old daughter came back home in the middle of the day, sobbing.

“She had worn a new set of clothes to school and the upper caste children and teachers taunted her for showing off,” Rani Devi tells IPS.

Her daughter was told to clean up another child’s vomit and the school toilets. “When she refused they told her that this was her future as she was a bhangi’s daughter and that by attending school she should not entertain any illusions about herself.

“A teacher even threatened to pour acid into her mouth. That was the day I realised nothing would change unless I challenged these people. I put the cane basket down for good and decided that I would rather starve to death,” she adds.

It was a battle that Rani Devi found herself all alone in. The upper castes ganged up on her and her community failed to extend support. Worse still was the reaction from her husband and in-laws, who beat her up.

“The thakurs burned down our hut and told my husband they would throw us out. But my children supported me,” says Rani Devi.

Eventually so did a few other women, including Bittal Devi. Together, they travelled to a nearby town, to the office of the NGO Jan Sahas, which has been campaigning against manual scavenging for over 17 years.

“We had been trying to get the community in this village to stop manual scavenging but they were too scared to resist,” Sanjay Dumane, associate convenor of Jan Sahas tells IPS. “After what happened to Rani Devi, some of them decided to fight back.”

But there was fierce resistance from the village police who not only refused to register a complaint, but also advised the women to accept their place in society.

It was only after they approached police authorities at the district level that action was taken.

“A platoon of police vans came into the village with senior officers who warned the upper castes that they would be jailed if they were found violating the law on manual scavengers,” says Dumane.

As of early February 2014, manual scavenging is no longer practiced in Sava village. “Some of the upper castes have chosen to boycott us,” says Rani Devi. “They don’t invite us to their weddings or for festivals. But my children and husband are proud of me and that makes me happy.”

“A lot of people tell me you had no right to leave the profession,” adds Archana Balnik, 28, who campaigned to put an end to manual scavenging in her village of Digambar in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. “But I want to change my future and that of the children in my village.”

Most of the women who have quit have found work in road and bridge construction projects. A few have enrolled in Dignity and Design, a low-cost, community based initiative launched by Jan Sahas in the states of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh for the rehabilitation of women liberated from manual scavenging.

“We provide training in basic skills like tailoring and embroidery and have set up units for manufacturing bags, purses and other products,” Aashif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas, tells IPS.

“We hope to set this up across India with the support of the government and private sector.”

Women like Bittal Devi and Rani Devi Dhela are the ambassadors of Jan Sahas, which claims to have liberated over 17,000 women from manual scavenging across different parts of India.

Changing attitudes across the country, however, is an uphill battle. The recent India Human Development Survey report highlighted how deeply entrenched notions of untouchability and caste purity are in contemporary Indian society, with a fourth of Indians practicing untouchability.

“There are signs of change especially in the younger generation, which is more educated,” says Shaikh, whose NGO conducts awareness campaigns in colleges and schools. “One human being carrying the shit of another on their head is not the problem of that woman or that community alone. It’s the struggle of the people of this country and together we can abolish this.”

Decline in population of Zoroastrian descent

This article was published in the Express Tribune here

“Isn’t it time you broke up with your mom?” goes the tagline on an ad featuring a man with his aged mother. Another says, “Be responsible. Don’t use a condom tonight’’. A third, featuring a woman in a ballerina pose, asks: “Who will be snooty about being superior if you don’t have kids?”

The target of this campaign is the Indian Parsi community, whose population is flatlining but it doesn’t seem to do much about it. The media blitz is expected to shake the Parsis out of procreative somnolence. The last census data makes a compelling case for such an intervention – from 114,000 Parsis in 1941, their headcount dropped to 69,000 in 2001, a fall of 39% on an already-small base.

Provocative and cheeky, these ads, all of them published in Parsi publications, are part of the Indian government’s Jiyo Parsi programme, an attempt to shore up the shrinking numbers. The idea was born when, after seven years of research in collaboration with leading Indian institutes, the National Commission of Minorities identified late or no marriage, decline in fertility, and marriage outside the community as the main drivers behind this dwindling demographic. One out of every five men, and one out of 10 women over 50 are unmarried.

“The community has become, sad to say, demographically abnormal, and Jiyo Parsi is trying to address that”, says Dr Shernaz Cama, honorary director of the UNESCO-funded Parzor Project, which is implementing the scheme.

“Parsis have a Total Fertility Rate of 0.88, while a community needs a TFR of 2.1 to survive. Only one in nine families have a child below the age of 10’’. (TFR is the average number of children that would be born to a woman if she were to live to the end of her childbearing years and bear children according to age-specific fertility rates)

The five-year-programme is backed by a Rs. 10 crore government grant, and has a two-pronged strategy – advocacy and medical assistance.

The first includes promoting early marriage and multiple children. Under the second, free fertility treatments are offered to couples whose annual income is below Rs 10 lakhs. The campaign has found eager takers, with over 20 couples availing of treatments like In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF)and Intra-Uterine Insemination (IUI) over the last year.

Equally, the ad campaign has angered many Parsis, who find the ads regressive and sexist. Parizad Mehta, a Mumbai-based bank employee, who has two daughters, says the campaign places the entire onus of procreation on women.

“I welcome the initiative because something needs to be done about our numbers. But why should women carry the burden? At 22-23 years, girls are still finding themselves. How can you expect them to have the maturity to find the right partner? They still have their dreams and ambitions. Why should they have to set those aside because the community needs numbers?”

“They are putting out the message that a women’s life is not complete without marriage and motherhood, and that is appalling”, adds Simin Merchant, a doctoral student from the University of Oxford, whose research is focused on the Parsis of colonial India.

“The message it is sending out about women and couples who marry late – words like `you don’t want parents who look like grandparents’ – breed paranoia. Parsis are known for pioneering ideals of progressiveness and modernity, and this campaign is anything but’’.

Those behind the program say rapid decline is a hard fact and it is time to get aggressive about addressing it. “The fact is that there is a thing called biology and the world over there is growing realization of the need to impart a more traditional feminism”, says Dr Cama.

“It’s a fact that at 25, women have biologically aged – your eggs are not in the condition they were at 22. There is a need to get back a healthy work-life balance. What is the harm in a girl getting married and later continuing her career? Learn from the mistakes we have made in the past’’.

The campaign aside, many within the community are questioning the very approach of the programme as it discriminates against Parsi women with non-Parsi spouses. For example, they cannot avail of the medical benefits offered by the community, while Parsi men who have married outside the faith can.

“How can the purpose of stemming the decline be achieved when Parsi women who have married outside the community – and their children – are not considered Parsi (whereas the same measure is not applied to Parsi men)”, questions Jehangir Patel, editor of Parsiana, a monthly community newsmagazine and a respected liberal voice. “If women are to be a part of any campaign to benefit the community, how can we treat them as second-class citizens? Why are you denying them the right to marry who they want? Parsis were pioneers of women’s education and industry, and today we have regressed.”

Even conservatives like Mehta agree that this is discriminatory. “On the one hand you say men and women are equal. And then you say that women cannot choose their partners and be accepted within the community’’.

Patel goes on to add, ”All genetic studies show that Parsi migration was male-dominated. The mitochondrial (maternal line) DNA carried in Parsi women here in India is different from that found among those in Iran. Clearly there is a large mixture of Gujarati genes, so its not as if the racial purity this program is trying to hold on to still exists. It’s morally and ethically wrong to ban women’’.

Dr Cama defends the decision saying that she is bound by the parameters set under the government’s Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, which is patriarchal and do not grant rights to children born of a union between a Parsi woman and a non-Parsi man.

“Why don’t Parsi women take up the issue?” she asks. “It is not for Jiyo Parsi to do so. The fact is that our surveys have shown that none of the girls born to a Parsi mother and non-Parsi father who had the Navjote (formal induction into Zoroastrianism), married a Parsi. That threatens Zoroastrian culture’’.

Merchant argues the program would be better off adopting a more inclusive approach; the current one according to her smacks of ‘xenophobia’. She says it is time the community accepts that the demographic decline is terminal, and points to various studies that establish this.

“What they are trying to create is the pure Parsi, which will no longer exist”, says Merchant. “You cannot have programs in this day and age to breed race. It is fundamentally wrong. It is also isolates those from the community who have married outside. All it needed was a gesture to welcome thousands of children born of Parsi & non-Parsi unions to add to the community. There are thousands of ways to make Parsis jiyo and this is not one of them

Blood, Brothers

The Partition was much like a horror film: when Sir Cyril Radcliff hacked India and Pakistan into existence, blood hung in a mist over the countryside. And life was elsewhere.

“I was least affected by the Partition,” recalls film-maker MS Sathyu. “I was a student in Mysore in South India, living far away from the bloodshed that followed. Only years later, while living in Mumbai, after I met people who were forced to leave their homes, did I become aware that it was nothing short of a holocaust.”

That consciousness inspired Sathyu’s directorial debut, Garam Hawa (Scorching Winds), widely regarded as among the best films on the Partition. Based on an unpublished short story by Ismat Chughtai, and adapted for the screen by late poet Kaifi Azmi and scriptwriter Shama Zaidi, it was the first Hindi film to be made on the subject, nearly three decades after the division.

“A lot of film-makers and film financiers came from Punjab and the Sindh, and they had experienced the trauma firsthand. They just did not want to remind themselves of what they had suffered,” says Sathyu.

Now, over four decades after it was released in 1973, a digitally enhanced version is set to make a comeback in theatres across India. Although the Partition as a topic is now largely confined to school textbooks, Sathyu, 83, believes it continues to “hold historical and emotional value, especially for audiences born after India’s independence.”

Set in Agra in the months following the formation of India and Pakistan, Garam Hawa tells the story of a shoe manufacturer Salim Mirza and his family. Despite prejudice and economic pressure, Mirza chooses to stay on in India, even though close friends and relatives shift to Pakistan. It’s a decision that gradually tears his family apart. His daughter Amina’s childhood sweetheart migrates to Pakistan.

Mirza’s business suffers because lenders are hesitant to advance money to Muslim traders who may leave without repaying debts. The family loses its ancestral home. Amina commits suicide after another suitor too goes away to Pakistan. A heartbroken Mirza, left behind with his wife and son, is filled with doubt and contemplates migration.

Mirza’s optimist son Sikander, however, refuses to leave his homeland, preferring to soldier on. The film ends on a heart-wrenching note of hope, as Mirza follows his son into a morcha, with narrator Kaifi Azmi’s words ringing deep in the background, “Jo door se toofan ka karte hain nazaara, unke liye toofan vahaan bhi hai, yahan bhi. Dhaare mein jo mil jaaoge, ban jaaoge dhara, Ye vaqt ka elaan vahan bhi hai, yahan bhi.” (Who sees the storm coming from afar knows that what is there will soon be here …Who mingles with the streams knows this is the cry of the time, both there and here …)

In Sikander’s persona, the scriptwriters represented the voice of the young Indian Muslim. “What the film is trying to show is how people become victims of events they cannot control,” says Farooque Shakh, who was 23 when he played the part of Sikander. “The main character is completely apolitical. He is a decent, upright man trying to live a regular life, but that does not stop circumstances from pulling him down.”

Few films have had the enduring impact of Garam Hawa, which focuses not on the bloodshed, but the violence the Muslim community experienced from within. The sense of alienation and despair felt by a people desperate to hold on to a disappearing world is communicated through real-life experiences which the scriptwriters added to the original story. The scene where Mirza’s old mother hides in the kitchen and refuses to leave their ancestral home is based on an incident from the life of Shaukat Azmi, who plays Salim Mirza’s wife.

Garam Hawa is a standout film not only for daring to take up a sensitive period in Indian history. It was also the first Hindi film to look at the Muslim community in a nuanced manner. Prior to this were the so-called ‘classic’ Muslim socials of the ’50s and ’60s; popular, but their elaborate shayari and courtly sets had little connect with the lives led by ordinary Indian Muslims. The myopic portrayals continued into the ’70s and ’80s, where stock characters like the tawaif with the heart of gold, and the hero’s best friend were almost always Muslims.

“Invariably in Indian cinema, minority communities are depicted as caricatures and typeset. They are used as comic relief. This is not just for Muslims, but even for Christians, Parsis or Marwaris. They are shown as underworld dons or bootleggers and the portrayals are often crude,” says Sathyu.

“It’s not just about minorities,” adds veteran scriptwriter Javed Akhtar. “In recent years Hindi cinema has shied away from any social issue. We have created a new middle class which just wants to party. With the affluence that came in the ’90s, the urban middle class in India has become inward-looking and insular. They are not interested in seeing things that are not their problem, so middle-class or working-class issues have gone out of the frame.”

So will Garam Hawa touch a chord with this contemporary audience, the post-Partition generation, many of whom have little connection with or interest in events long past?

“When there is a film with human emotions, it will always have a resonance,” believes Shaikh. These problems exist throughout the world. So stories of this kind are pertinent wherever and whenever they are shown.”

The themes Garam Hawa touches on — alienation, exclusion, feeling isolated in one’s own home — have perhaps never been more relevant in India than today, where Muslims have complained of facing discrimination when it comes to renting or buying houses.

And it’s not just Muslims who are targeted. Housing segregation is now an open practice with advertisements freely proclaiming properties open for purchase only to Brahmins, non-Muslims or vegetarians. The practice, while legal, has contributed to a growing ghettoisation and alienation.

“Growing up I never faced any discrimination, even though my father was a Pathan and my mother a Hindu,” says Mumbai-based Anusha Khan. Khan, who is married to a Hindu, says things are different today. “My daughter keeps my last name as her middle name and she is questioned about it all the time by her friends. When I was growing up, my father wrote ‘Humanist’ in the religion column in school forms, and it was accepted. I do that as well, but I am always asked what that means and why. I feel the world was a more accepting place then. There are many more walls today.”

“Today we are vocal about our intolerance,” adds her husband, film director Victor Acharya. “Bigotry existed earlier too, but it was voiced behind closed doors. We cannot deny that it is intimidating to live in India today and be part of a faith that is globally perceived as not being safe. I am not sure things have changed much since Garam Hawa.”

“I have a Muslim colleague who goes to the mosque every Friday and observes roza; much like some Hindus fasting every Tuesday. But he is perceived differently. Today Garam Hawa would probably be about people like him. They are as well-entrenched as anyone else but come up against a few barriers,” says Acharya.

Adds Akhtar, “The film is still relevant and I don’t say this happily, because the whole problem should have been a part of history by now.”

Religion and geography gang up to ensure history still hits the headlines. But perhaps one day, thanks to films like Garam Hawa, we will let bygones be bygones.

This article appeared in the newspaper Dawn. The link to the piece is here