The sexual harassment of Mallika Sherawat

Mallika at Cannes and with Obama. PR?

It is unbelievable that a woman who is independent becomes an object of derision for saying what we do almost on a daily basis.  I’ve already made a reference to her earlier and elsewhere. What I’d like to understand is that at a time when we are applauding some women for “having balls” (sexist terminology, anyway), an anonymous female on a social networking site, whose own picture is a pair of legs taken lying down, dismisses a woman as being “all boobs and no brain”. There are many such ‘brave’ people whose vapidity hides their stupidity.

Mallika Sherawat, who we are talking about, is successful partly because we are what she says we are: a regressive society, enjoying a spectacle. Initially, no one was even bothered about the content of her comments; it was the accent that they found weird. Yes, she is speaking with a twang, in this interview to Variety, as much as Aishwariya Bachchan does. It is as fake as that of some urban Indians. Was she dishonest for saying she was the first woman to kiss on screen and wear a bikini? I agree she is not quite on the dot here, but I am amazed that those very people who have problems with exposure on screen are now dusting memory files or running a search to find out who really sucked face first or wore a two-piece. Then there is this business about her wearing too little, especially at major events. Who does not? If you talk about a woman having control over her body, then she is well within her rights to dress as she wishes. If she stated that following such attempts, “instantly, I became a fallen women and a superstar at the same time”, then this is true. In fact, the reactions to her only prove her point.

I first watched her many years ago. She had already become known for her bold statements – yes, she does that too. It was a debate on just such a subject and in that panel that comprised a well-known media person and a feminist, she held her own without shouting down anyone. She made a whole lot of sense, and even as I write this it does seem so patronising. Why do we have to certify others? Who has given us the right?

Oh, but she was running down our country, they say. Ah! An India they remembered after they ran out of jokes about her accent and her body.

If she is of no consequence, why did Aseem Chhabra, the New York-based analyst of all things Indian, especially culture, write an editorial piece in Mumbai Mirror? “How is Mallika Sherawat walking red carpets all the time?” he asked, aghast. And answered it himself: “By splurging on a PR team.”

And then he does what any good man would do – pit her against other women.

“She is not a former beauty queen turned actress like Aishwariya Rai, with a major contract with a cosmetic giant, who has actually worked in a few non-Indian productions that do qualify as Hollywood credentials. She is not a former beauty queen turned actress like Priyanka Chopra, who is legitimately trying to establish a signing career in the west.”

What does legitimately mean? Since when have beauty queens, who are recreated in ‘labs’ and taught how to speak, become superior beings? Does Ms. Chopra not have agents? Heck, she needed one to handle the dead body of one of her team because she was too busy being legitimate. And what she sang is essentially mimicking the west, using their fantastic music studios to sound like anyone but herself. And, yeah, heard that accent? Aishwariya has a PR team that her brand arranges for her. Besides, for someone living in the US, it is surprising that the writer does not know that all Hollywood stars have their lobbyists. It is part of the business. But he is doing his business:

“So what or who is Mallika Sherawat and how does she get invited to parties and get pictures with genuine celebrities that she tweets all the time? That question baffles me sometimes, although usually I do not care much about it. The only answer, if any, is that she has spent a lot of money on a public relations team, which ensures she dresses sexy, is spotted on red carpets and paparazzi take her pictures.”

Are the others dressed like nuns? She wore such clothes before she got anywhere near the red carpet; they are probably now designer labels.  If it is a PR team that is managing it so well, then many more people ought to hire its members. At least they do not stage wardrobe malfunctions and make their real celebrities look like rag dolls. Are the big film festivals taking money from PR agents to let anybody walk the red carpet? What does it reveal about them? The same goes for the paparazzi that the stars love to hate.

“It is less clear what she gets out of all the partying and being spotted on red carpets. I know she made Los Angeles her temporary home. Even her Twitter handle - @MallikaLA says so. I suppose she believes that handle gives her certain respectability, an edge over other Indian stars who insist on living in Mumbai.”

He obviously has not seen our Page 3 and the fact that people do party. They do not have to give explanations and there might be none. Is it so difficult to understand? And if she is just doing it without any purpose, does it not mean that she is getting nothing out of it, and is not on the make, so to speak? What exactly does “certain respectability” mean? Is he implying that she lacks respectability? What is his yardstick for measuring it? I’d really like to know, for it was difficult to find any substance in the verbiage of inanities.

He mentioned her being photographed with “genuine celebrities” (I suppose Paris Hilton would figure prominently in the list, although he has missed out on President Barack Obama), forgetting that celebrity is itself a term that has to do with popularity and little to do with genuineness because all possible means are employed to get it.

He dismisses her acting, which is fair enough. It is also true that she does not have big films, although a part in a Jackie Chan movie would be considered an achievement by some, especially when our own biggies do walk-on parts in Hollywood films.  But to take a statement she made and then snigger is no different from groupie behaviour at a dorm:

“So I wonder what kind of ‘a lot of love’ Hollywood was showing Sherawat? Hollywood does do inexplicable things like inviting people with unknown celebrity quotient to parties. But Hollywood producers rarely take the risk of casting unknown faces that do not have much promise.”

If Smarty-pants has the answer, why does he go on and on? Has her PR agent hired him?! (You know what they say about bad publicity, although this is not even bad – it’s a lot of slosh.)

He too manages to get hot and bothered about the “peculiar accent”, but quickly covers it up with the patriot card:

“Sherawat managed to make a few jibes at India – ‘a hypocritical society where women are really at the bottom’. She said she made a conscious decision to divide her time between Los Angeles and India. ‘So now when I experience the social freedom in America and I go back to India which is so regressive for women, it's depressing,’ she said…The interviewer failed to ask her how India was regressive for a woman like her, who presumably is financially successful and a well-known Bollywood personality.”

Does he recall how Indian women and celebs were the toast of news channels after the Delhi gangrape? How every misogynistic statement was paraded so that people could hit out at it? This was Indians discussing our hypocrisy, our patriarchy. Even our prominent film stars discuss inequality when it comes to roles and pay. The writer probably lives in a cocoon where he believes money and celebrity save you from regressive behaviour. The Hollywood he is so in awe of has several such examples of chauvinism.  

But to expect depth to understand pop culture is asking too much from someone who says, “In fact, what has stayed with me about her is that she is Haryanavi and I smile when I think about it, a slight Delhi arrogance I have over people from Haryana.”

Priyanka Chopra poses with Gerard Butler. PR?

Think about how a woman from Haryana, without the ubiquitous godfather, made it. It is pathetic that Priyanka Chopra has decided to oppose her by stating:

"I think we are a progressive nation. I disagree that we are a regressive nation. We are all sitting here and talking about educating the girl child, taking our country forward. I think it`s a misrepresentation of what our great nation is on the world platform…When it comes to Mallika`s statements, I think they were very callous and I don`t agree with her. It was upsetting for me as a woman. It was upsetting for me as a girl who comes from India. I think it was extreme misrepresentation of our nation. I don`t think it`s fair."

As regards the world platform, even Satyajit Ray was accused of marketing our poverty overseas by actress and Rajya Sabha member, the late Nargis.

Unlike our cantonment beauty queens, who live in a protected environment, Mallika Sherawat comes from a conservative family in a region where khaps issue diktats. Mainstream films in which Priyanka acts also misinterpret India. As do Miss Worlds who talk about changing the world. Why, the fact that they want to do something for the disadvantaged means that there are a whole lot of them. And we talk about it because it exists. She said it and so do you. What makes you superior?

© Farzana Versey


Sunday ka Funda

“All our final decisions are made in a state of mind that is not going to last.”

- Marcel Proust


The last accusation?

Now a dying declaration can be recorded by anyone, according to a judgement passed by the Supreme Court in its reversal of a high court verdict.

The case: A dowry death where the woman's in-laws set her ablaze. She suffered 100% burns. Her statement was dismissed because the Madhya Pradesh High Court doubted its veracity.

The counter-argument was that she had suffered abuse in her matrimonial home and there was every reason to believe her. The SC agreed and according to a report, “You need not be a police officer, doctor or a magistrate to record the dying declaration, a statement accusing those responsible for the death of the person making his last possible statement".

The bench further added, "The person who records a dying declaration must be satisfied that the maker is in a fair state of mind and is capable of making such a statement...Moreover, the requirement of a certificate provided by a doctor in respect of such state of the deceased, is not essential in every case."

Besides the ability to gauge the state of mind, what cases will be exempt?

The court has specified that such an allowance will be certainly applicable in burns cases. It is true that it might help a lot of women who continue to go though this torture. But what if the burns are not as severe and she dies due to other complications?

The possibility of such declarations being questioned increases simply because the person recording them is likely to be close to the victim. The law relies on evidence, and it would be more sensible if the case was dealt with by the police.

On the face of it, this appears to be a move to ease the bureaucratic method of having a doctor or cop at hand. However, it could end up in further legal wrangles.

A person dying is not in a stable mental condition, so the very crux of the provision could be argued. What happens if the woman had a history of depression, quite possibly as a result of the incessant abuse? Would her dying declaration hold? Unlikely.

It may be used against her, whereas an 'authority' figure recording it could have helped. Some things do appear progressive and easy on paper, but their execution is not only never foolproof, it leads to even more problems.

I do not see why a declaration is needed at all. No woman will douse herself with kerosene and light a matchstick.

Imagine the complications where other means are used to kill. Suppose the woman has been strangled to death, or poisoned? The same queries might be posed in other cases, too, irrespective of gender.

It might sound like something from a bad film, but what if together with the dying declaration a helpful relative or friend manages to get other declarations, including property papers or even establishes a relationship closer than the one that exists? And since the 'recorder' is an expert at judging mental balance, and the victim is deemed to be in a state of sound mind, how will the court manage this side-effect?

© Farzana Versey


Was the Woolwich murder a terror attack?

They hacked a soldier to death. What was as bad as the spectacle of TV anchors giving tantalising sound bites about the possible images of the beheading was the surprise over Prime Minister David Cameron cutting short his visit in France and calling for a special meeting. Is this not what a leader would do, especially since he has preempted it as a terror attack?

I watched a bit of the news, and it is inhuman that anyone would want to kill in this manner. Machetes and knives were used, although the two assailants had guns.

What is surprising and unfortunate is that not only did the men kill the soldier who was returning to the barracks in Woolwich, they had an audience. They asked them to film them. They gave statements about their motives.

What did the people do? They shot the video. Some called the police. The cops took 20 minutes to reach. Whatever the problems, could they not have alerted the barracks that were just round the corner and would not the colleagues of the victim arrive to help?

CNN kept showing one of the murdererers. Worse, it said, "They're black." We could see that. Do they ever specify white?

Surprisingly, they stayed around and so did the people. What did that one guy say?

•“We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you."

•"I apologize that woman had to witness this today but in our lands woman see this every day." [Apparently, a reference to an eyewitness.]

•"Remove your government - they don't care about you."

The obvious assumption would be that he is a jihadi, a religious fanatic. He is also talking about other lands where this happens — it is not clear whether he was referring to western interference or killings by militants within the countries by rebels or fundamentalists against their own people.

When he said "remove your government", who was he addressing? This was in London. There are many different ethnic groups. Muslims cannot remove the government, so it would seem he was appealing to all the citizens.

From the little that one could gather, it looked like the murderers did not choose the specific target. Was the soldier in army fatigues? If so, then they wanted to hit out at the institution they believe is causing trouble in their land of origin.

Has anyone given them the right to speak on behalf of their people? No. They are disgruntled. Perhaps their families or friends or neighbours back home have been killed. This is no excuse, but a possible reason. If they beheaded him, I wonder why they used this form of vengeance against what they believe is bad government.

One innocent man was killed. Besides the killers, others are already making a killing of it. It has started with a warning that this is a terrorist attack, and Al Qaeda is mentioned. Someone suggested that lone operators could not be ignored. Most certainly. But they are called murderers. 'Terrorism' changes the dynamics. The government has already issued warnings of more attacks.

Instead of making the public feel secure, it frightens them.

As expected, Muslims organisations have condemned the attack. This is all very good as a humanitarian gesture, but could they not wait? Why this rush to prove that the community is not to be blamed? It is not. No one blamed Koreans when a student went on a rampage at a university in the US. The apology plays into the media shrillness, and reaches the people. The message gets distorted along the way.

One family is grieving today. They do not even know why this happened. Think about them too, and not only about the killers. That is the job of the police and the investigating agencies. One hopes they are not influenced by the media's bloody-mindedness.

Updated May 23, 10.50 am IST:

I cannot understand how what takes place miles away lands up at our doorstep. The ridiculous assertions include:

Arabisation of Muslims: What is that? One has to keep repeating that there is no uniform Muslim ethos. The fact that a country is prefixed before Islam while discussing Arabisation makes it clear that there will be ethnic aspects. Even within the Arab world there are different streams.

 People from poor countries go to the First World and then behave like country bumpkins: Besides the obvious ignorance, it reveals a superiority complex. This makes no sense considering their own people are on dole, are homeless, are fighting regressive laws.

They “bite the hand that feeds”: What about the majority that are taxpayers, who contribute to these societies? By this logic, the high profile financial scams would also qualify as “biting the hand” because they loot the country’s economy.

MJ Rosenberg, Washington Spectator’s special correspondent on Middle East affairs explained it succinctly: “Most Muslims, like most everyone else, are horrified by London horror. But 100% of Islamohaters are ecstatic.”

So where does this come from? Why do they not outrage when there are killing by the Taliban or Al Qaida in Muslim countries where the victims are Muslim? Who are the real haters? What do screaming headlines mean except to wallow in violence as porn? And, yes, the man did use the name of Allah. What does Pastor Terry Jones say? Or those who muffle voices in basements wshile they torture their victims? Is this not terrorism?

© Farzana Versey


Sunday ka Funda

“The biggest guru-mantra is: never share your secrets with anybody. It will destroy you."

— Chanakya

I do not suppose the makers of Coca Cola gave much thought to this. But the ingredients of the fizzy drink have continued to be a mystery. Now with a book on the subject and another person with inside knowledge of a later version, the secret is back in the news.

The Coke guys insist that the special recipe is well-hidden in a vault in Atlanta. It is a bit stupefying that with so much scientific activity that can break down compounds and recognise complicated chemicals this should remain an enigma. My guess is that the Coke guys are protected legally, and the white coats in the labs perhaps decided to keep quiet.

We are not talking about a mocktail that has specially been whipped up. This is mass produced stuff. Chances are that if you kept a glass before people, they might not be able to tell the difference. I can't.

Reminds of an amusing incident. I was at a coffee shop some years ago. Aamir Khan was at the adjacent table. He ordered a Coke. At the time he was endorsing Pepsi and the interesting ads had the tagline, “Yehi hai right choice, baby, ahaa..." I had avoided looking towards him until then, but at that moment in an impulsive reaction I turned and probably glared at him for the deceit. He just smiled and changed his order!

Because Coca Cola is a huge conglomerate with a believable brand, the ones who are outing it will never be taken seriously . Though it is not the USP of the drink, the fact that nobody knows how it is made gives it an edge. The rumours only add to it...

“If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees."

— Khalil Gibran


Of Garbages and Kings: LBT

I called up the provision store to check if they will renew their strike tomorrow against the Local Body Tax. “We'll know by this evening." I decided to order a few things. Last week, many of us were caught unawares. There was some talk about LBT, but as it was restricted to Maharashtra and was not about FDI or any global issue, it did not make major news.

The traders were willing to take the losses to fight one more burden of tax. As one of them told DNA, “Everyone is aware that the more the number of tax-collecting government departments, the more the corruption. So now, with the introduction of LBT, most traders will end up giving indirect bribe to one more babu."

Who benefitted from the strike? The big players - malls. Reports mentioned the surge of footfalls in the supermarkets. Even those who are not regular supermarket shoppers might now be enticed into 'everything under one roof', where the trolley is an empowering force, and the sight of other shoppers with goods laden atop one another creates a subconscious demand.

The independent stores had understood this even before the strike. For example, I have several choices within just five minutes from where I live. My regular store walla knows it. His clientele is eclectic - from some famous names to the clerk in an office, and everyone in-between. He is a call away, and if the bags are heavy, one can trust the delivery guy to enter the house and deposit the goods.

What is his USP? Customer service. He has not yet tarted up his shop, for most people rely on home delivery. The daughter of an expat friend who visited recently was shocked when she discovered that some of her friends here could also get toilet paper at their doorstep. This is truly Mumbai where the consumer is king.

If the shop does not have something, he knows I'll call up someone else. So, he says, "I'll get it." It could be ice-cream, talcum powder, or fruits. He has never added a markup or service charge for any of these.

There was a bit of romanticisation of 'kirana' stores when the FDI discussion came up. That was just a reaction, for no one calls them kiranas anymore. The owners are mostly third generation slick guys, and in some cases women, who are computer savvy, and don't sit behind a cash counter all day. They are on the go, interested in trying to procure new goods, figuring out the new tastes that people are experimenting with.

One does not have to go to a speciality bakery to get multigrain bread or a variety of cheeses. The fancy organic outlets charge you for walking on granite tiles, but I can get my Indian diet bhel and homemade soya sticks instead of some Polish cracker that has the details of the packaging in Arabic! I can even return open packets, unlike some posh nature shops.

And the guy remembers exactly what our orders are like. So, if I say tissues, he knows which brand.

Last week, in an ironical twist, I ran out of garbage bags. According to the rules in my part of the city, the municipal truck comes every morning and all the waste should be in black bags. The person who regularly cleans the stairways and compound of the building collects it. This has made life infinitely easier for those who earlier had to take the waste bins and topple the contents into a huge drum-like container. Some people would not even care to put a lid on their garbage and it would spill over, only for the 'safai karmacharis' to have to manually pick it all up. The bags are infinitely more humane.

This digression is to highlight garbage. A strike will not stop people from generating waste — we eat, throw out old packages, bottles. Also, think about the wastage in the stores. What we read in the newspapers are huge numbers of so many crores lost in business (it also means loss to the government in prevalent taxes). But food grains and perishable dairy products and the like would need to be discarded.

Maharashtra is going through a drought and this seems like travesty. What about the poor who depend on rationed grains, oil, kerosene, sugar?

The government thinks that traders don't show their true sales figures. Traders say the government wants just more under-the-table money. It is likely that since traders operate on a cash basis, there could be some hidden assets, but most packaged goods anyway are sold at MRP rates. The traders have got their benefits, much like doctors/chemists get from pharmaceutical companies, prior to selling.

Some might think this is an elitist attitude. I am conscious of it, but that does not negate genuine concern. In fact, it made me aware that there is something called a handkerchief, which I had forgotten about due to my dependence on tissues. And for all the noise against plastic bags (quite legitimate given how people dispose them carelessly) the big one was cut at the top and fit in quite nicely into the garbage bin.

As I write this, I have not yet checked whether the strike will not begin again tomorrow. Why did they take a break? Because of Akshaya Trithi - an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar. There were ads in the papers enticing people to buy precious jewellery without any down payment.

If only the clerk and the domestic help could buy essentials in this manner.

© Farzana Versey


Naya vs Purana Pakistan?

Beep-beep. Early morning. Text message from a friend in Karachi. So, bleary-eyed, I read that “My party has won. It is 5 am here and I am going to sleep!" Big smile. But before that there was a swipe about the fate of Musharraf — he knows I do not dislike the former president, which is of course putting it subtly.

Since Pakistan broke my sleep, I jotted down a few quick thoughts on the election results:

1. For all talk of democracy, it boiled down to the Punjabi, Sindhi, Mohajir, Pathan votes, and Balochi, Ahmadi non-votes.

2. There is always talk about a sympathy wave. If that were the case then the ANP that lost quite a few members to murderous devils would not have been routed.

3. Imran Khan is now a leader, so it's time he behaved like one. And not a tribal chief, even though Khyber Pakhtunkwa gave his party the votes.

4. I can already see the gleam in a certain Indian anchor's eyes as his voice quivers while screaming, "The nation wants to know if Nawaz Sharif will take action against Pervez Musharraf for crossing over to Kargil during the war"!

5. Nawaz Sharif has inherited a huge problem - his brother, Shahbaz.

6. Asif Ali Zardari has too many opponents within the PPP, including his son Bilawal. One of them will grow up.

7. Pakistan will continue to be important to the United States, China, Afghanistan and India for the same reasons as it has been for many years.

8. Imran Khan's slogan of 'Naya Pakistan' was the most potent one. Good varnish job, as happens in almost every country.

Let me end with an appropriate couplet by Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

"har chaaraagar ko chaaraagari se gurez tha
varna humein jo dukh the bahut laa-davaa na the"

(The healer avoided healing, but my troubles were incurable anyway)

© Farzana Versey


Is a goat worth the news? The Bansal case

News stories often dumb down the very issues they are exposing. What goes 'viral' is not the news anymore, but every trivia associated with it. Does it act as some sort of cathartic nervous laughter at the end of a tragic tale, scam or mishap?

This would be fine if the main subject was kept in mind or the 'frills' were handled with some perspective.

Pawan Kumar Bansal, the Railways Minister, resigned after the CBI found that his kin ran a “cash-for-postings” racket. A day prior to this, a goat was spotted at his residence. This is what followed, according to a TOI report:

“Pretty soon, channels had astrologers and pundits analyzing the significance of feeding or sacrificing a goat in Hindu mythology, even though it was hardly clear that the goat was being fattened in order to be an offering to the God. There were panel discussions on the many TV channels about the significance of worshiping white goat and black goat in Hindu mythology. Many were of the view that the apparent appeasement of a white goat on an Amawasya day could change the fate of Bansal who was under fire..."

It does not take long before a joke becomes reason for sanctimonious offerings to propitiate our superiority. Every resignation is treated as drama, when it ought to be the done and proper thing, although neither stepping down nor a jail term has dissuaded politicians from resurfacing in a different garb, by their own party or the opponents. There are always loopholes in the morality scheme.

Bansal was not a visible neta, so news has to be exciting enough. The 'nephew' joke could only get this far and no further, for nepotism isn't new to our society in any field. That's where the goat came in and a newspaper report said that even after the sacrifice he could not be saved.

Animal sacrifice is fairly common, but are we really concerned about superstition? Every leader visits places of worship to appease the gods. What about the havans? Mannats at dargahs where so many flowers are 'slaughtered'? The temples where devotees shave off their hair as offering, which results in a business running into lakhs in export of the tresses for wigs and extensions? Does corruption dare to discuss the bribing of gods?

Not only will the bakra droppings take away the meat of the issue, we don't notice something even more vile just around the corner.

In Ranchi, two girls - aged six and four - were taken away for sacrifice.

Munnlal Ram is a constable with the Railway Protection Force (RPF); he is also a tantric.

The report states:

“The girls were found with their hands tied up. Ram was on the verge of sacrificing them on the altar. Dhanbad police station inspector Akhileshwar Chaubey said, 'Police found nine human skulls in Ram’s house'."

This practice continues in our country. But girls are not goats and don't offer scope for mirth. And that is what news looks for.

© Farzana Versey

Sex can be 'unnatural'

In August last year Geetika Sharma ended her life. In her suicide note, she blamed former Haryana minister Gopal Goyal Kanda and his aide and employee in his MDLR company, Aruna Chaddha for “harassment".

Later, Geetika's mother too committed suicide and left behind a note blaming the two. It reveals the tragedy of even a progressive society where women work but can't open up about the crime, and most certainly not when a powerful person is involved. The cops did not mention the real crime in the chargesheet.

The Delhi court has finally charged Kanda, and Chaddha for abetment:

"Relying on Geetika’s autopsy report, the court concluded that there is prima facie evidence that Kanda raped her and had unnatural sex with her."

Unnatural sex sounds like something from another era to those of us who are exposed to various forms of infotainment, and are 'modern' in outlook. It also reminds us of the earlier legal criminalisation of homosexuality due to this very proviso.

However - and I emphasise this - in many cases it is important to mention 'unnatural sex' because rape, as we understand it, may not have taken place. The girl or woman might instead be forced to perform acts that are perfectly natural between consenting adults, but not under duress.

I am not interested if the Bench has moral issues and uses what we may publicly call antiquated terms. (I refuse to believe that most Indians are comfortable even in private with sexual experimentation, although some would like to appear cool about it as a sound bite.) It is way more important that 'unnatural sex' is factored in to protect the victims who might not get justice if it is proved that there had been no penetration or bodily harm.

It is sad that certain recent cases of brutal rape have numbed us to the many others that are committed using other forms of force. Even in Geetika's case, it was an autopsy report that revealed the details. Think about the hundreds who are just silenced. Think about the children, infants too, who have no voice to begin with. Think about the 'bad touch' and the many other ways in which kids and adults are exploited, in familiar surroundings, in places where they are supposed to be protected, like remand homes, in the street and at posh parties too where a woman with a glass of tipple gives men the licence to grope. These are violations and a crime, and the people committing them get away because they did not manage or even want to 'go all the way'.

We forget that rape itself is unnatural sex. And anything remotely sexual that is not agreed to or has been got by force or deceit is.

© Farzana Versey


Vande Mataram can survive without our singing it...

This has become news. A BSP MP walked out of Parliament when Vande Mataram was being played at the end of the dud budget session. No one seems interested in what came out of the proceedings, but the fact that Shafiqur Rahman Barq insulted the national song.

He was even interviewed for it. He told CNN-IBN: "I won't apologise to anyone. I respect the National Anthem, not the national song Vande Mataram. Vande Mataram is an ode to motherland. Muslims like me bend only before Allah, not before any other god."

We'll get to him in a bit, but the speaker of the house Meira Kumar responded rather quickly: "One honourable member walked out when Vande Mataram was being played. I take very serious view of this. I would want to know why this was done. This should never happen again."

Has it happened before? How often?

The BJP had a nice token Muslim Shahnawaz Hussain to speak up: "Members have no right to insult the National Song especially when they have taken oath. The Speaker has taken the right move by naming the MP. He has insulted Parliament."

Say he has insulted the national song, not Parliament, for the oath does not specify what you will sing. Does the oath specify whether watching pornographic clips in the assembly is an insult to the House, and the oath taken by members?

Unfortunately, this has turned into a communal debate. I do take exception to those who take up the Muslim cause and say most Muslims are nice folks, unlike Burq. This is not about terrorism or some crime, and the community can do without this granting of certificates for good behaviour. And for those who are concerned about Muslims and ready with their “Go to Pakistan" 'anthem', let me remind them that the song that registers most even for them is “Saare jahaan se achhaa" written by Sir Mohammed Iqbal, one of the main architects of the idea of Pakistan. Enjoy!

I reproduce here some views expressed in 2006 - read it as past tense:

How many Indians know the Vande Mataram song? Are they aware it was written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee as a cry against British oppression? Does knowing it make them better patriots?

On September 7 (2006) school children in Uttar Pradesh will have to compulsorily sing the ‘national song’ to commemorate its centenary; government papers have been passed to that effect. Forget the communal colour of the controversy for a moment. What should really bother us is the dictatorial nature of such a directive.

We are making children into pawns of our divisive mindsets.

The Muslims are cribbing that bowing before anyone but Allah is un-Islamic. These clerics ought to know that people regularly bow at tombstones in dargahs. Don’t many Muslim organisations carry around pictures of religious leaders and even rebel political figures in a crass mockery of obeisance? Where is their Islam, then?

On the other hand, we have the BJP’s token symbol Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi saying, “Those who oppose our national song should better leave the country. Their opposition is a reflection of their separatist mindset.”

At a sensitive time when almost every Muslim is a target of some suspicion, the last thing anyone ought to be talking about is separatist mindsets, especially if it hinges on the singing of a song. If people of the North East refuse to sing or do not know the Vande Mataram, will they be asked to leave the country? Would you tell this to some Christian or Parsi or even a Hindu?

Our motherland has survived this last century without off-key singing. If you wish to pay tribute to a national song, then do it with dignity. Play it in the background and everyone will stand silently and respect it. Those who wish to hum along could do so. But do not force false ideas of patriotism on the minds of vulnerable children.

By doing so you are ironically conveying that we are not even a democracy.

© Farzana Versey


1. Rabindranath Tagore rejected Vande Mataram as the national song:

"The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankimchandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman [Muslim] can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as 'Swadesh' [the nation]. This year many of the special [Durga] Puja numbers of our magazines have quoted verses from Vande Mataram—proof that the editors take the song to be a hymn to Durga. The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate. When Bengali Mussulmans show signs of stubborn fanaticism, we regard these as intolerable. When we too copy them and make unreasonable demands, it will be self-defeating."


2. Besides the Muslim 'problem', the song has had objections from other communities:



The Sarabjit Singh Dilemma: An Indo-Pak Pawn Story?

He is dead now. India was pleading for the life of a man dying in a government hospital in Pakistan. A prisoner on death row, Sarabjit Singh was arrested in 1991 and imprisoned in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail. On April 26, he was assaulted by other inmates. Some reports mentioned blunt rudimentary objects; others talked of sharp objects. Whatever the mode of attack, he was severely injured and slipped into deep coma, surviving on a ventilator. In the early hours of May 2, the support too could not keep him alive.

Burning effigies of Pakistan

The emotive nature of the case has made a closer examination seem redundant to many. The government has announced a compensation of Rs. 25 lakh for Sarabjit’s family. There is a demand for a state funeral. His family wants him to be declared a martyr. This is strange, for they had insisted he strayed into Pakistani territory by mistake. Therefore, he has not laid down his life for any cause. Or, is there a cause the public is not privy to? Due to the charged atmosphere between the two countries people are willing to blindly accept any tale of heroism.  

While the Pakistani authorities immediately granted his family visas to visit him, human rights activist Ansar Burney resurfaced with a theory: “There appears to be a deep-rooted conspiracy to attack Sarabjit ahead of polls which should be investigated.  I see some foul play in it. Pakistan government was not releasing Sarabjit and it couldn’t hang him due to international pressure. So an attack on him could serve the purpose to gain support from fundamental elements during polls.”

The international pressure is, in fact, the very same India-Pakistan peace initiatives that the human rights lobby assists in adding a cosmetic glow to. In the past two decades this is not the first time that Pakistan is going to vote, nor is the fundamentalist pressure new.


There have been instances of fishermen who have been released, just as many have been forced to remain in prison. However, if we look at the espionage cases, it makes one wonder whether in Sarabjit’s case there was more at stake for India than for Pakistan that even his family was unaware of.

Why did the highest authorities in the country come out to support an ordinary farmer who ambled across in drunken stupor to the other side of the border?

Sarabjit Singh was convicted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan for terrorist activities.  Did it not strike a discordant note that an Indian sentenced to death for detonating bombs five times, resulting in deaths and injuries, and who confessed to being a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agent, managed to bring the External Affairs Ministry into the picture to rescue him? More alarming was the fact that top Pakistani officials engaged in a dialogue on the subject.

Was this a confidence-building measure it was touted as? Or was there some behind-the-scenes hush-hush going on? At the time of the first major initiative in 2005, the Nanavati Report on the 1984 riots was out. It had enraged the Sikhs, so it suited the Indian government to help a peasant from Bhikhiwind in Amritsar to act as a temporary salve and also to dilute the domestic issue. Pakistan perhaps reciprocated for its own ulterior motives.

A Kashmiri separatist organisation too joined in and had appealed for Sarabjit’s clemency in return for the release of one of their men held in an Indian prison. Despite the prime minister’s office earlier issuing a statement saying, “If Sarabjit is really a spy, then we get into a tricky business of handing back and forth spies”, the then External affairs minister Natwar Singh discussed the matter with the Pakistani high commissioner in India. The reason given out was the strong public sentiment in India.

The sister and his daughters appealing for Sarabjit

This was whetted by Sarabjit’s sister Dalbir Kaur. “Both Delhi and Islamabad should know that Sarabjit will not be the only one who will be hanged. We have prepared five nooses at home, and we will commit mass suicide.” Were two countries held to ransom or was there more to it?

On Friday, the day he was attacked, she said, “I have been told that Sarabjit’s fellow prisoners said, ‘Hamara Afzal maar diya hai aur tum aaram se reh rahe ho (Our Afzal has been killed and you are living in leisure here).” It is easy to use a prominent case. One might have understood had the prisoners mentioned Ajmal Kasab who was hanged to death in India for his role in the Mumbai 2008 attacks. Afzal Guru is not a Pakistani and while certain fundamentalist organisations and politicians did protest against his hanging there, it is unlikely that inmates, who are themselves being held by their state, would express fealty for him. Besides, Sarabjit was not the only Indian prisoner. Why was there no outrage when Chamel Singh died just a few weeks ago in a Pakistani prison?


There are too many missing pieces and two instances of mistaken identity involving Sarabjit.

A farmer crosses the border in a drunken stupor. He repeats it 17 times. He is arrested on charges of spying as well as killing 14 people. Even if he was forced to confess, we are still left with the confusion over whether espionage work entails terrorist activities as well.

A year after he went missing from his farm, he wrote to his family that he was in a Pakistani jail. Did the Indian government have knowledge about any police complaints filed by them, which would have been the natural course they should have taken? If the government was in possession of that letter in 1991, why did it remain silent?

The mistaken identity theory mentioned that the real culprit was a ‘Manjeet Singh’. Where was/is he? Did Pakistan do away with him? In that event, the Indian government should have tried to locate Manjeet Singh’s family and appealed on his behalf. Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, Pakistan’s foreign minister at the time when the mercy plea was sent, was clear that there was no mistake. He had also stated, “The death sentence awarded by the courts can only be changed by the President on a mercy petition.”

However, according to Islamic law, only the heirs of the victims can grant the pardon. The human rights organisations, as well as Pakistan’s détente-trip leadership, played along with the ignorance. It suited both governments, for technically India would have to convince the Pakistani government to appeal to the kin of the 14 dead people to pardon Sarabjit. What would have happened to the argument of mistaken identity and the fact that he was not the person who committed the act? The relatives of the victims could not possibly grant pardon to an innocent man.

The second instance of mistaken identity arose during the purported repatriation of Sarabjit. Hours after the Pakistani media made the announcement, the government clarified that it was Surjeet Singh who was being released. The media blamed the government; the government blamed the media that called it an “international embarrassment”. This was insensitive, considering that a prisoner was being released. Humanitarian concerns seem to be restricted to a few.

On June 28, 2012, the 69-year-old Surjeet Singh was bombarded with questions about the high-profile prisoner. To which he replied, “Indian prisoners are treated well in Pakistan jails. Sarabjit Singh is also doing well there. He has sent no message with me. Leave it to me, I will get him released... Please don’t ask anything more.” He also admitted to being a spy and spoke about the Indian government disowning him: “No one crosses the border just like that. Someone sends them that's why they go… I was sent by the Army.”

Pakistan has in the past released prisoners, especially if they’ve served a long term. They return only to be disappointed by the Indian government. Gurbax Lal was lured with an offer to work for five years as a spy, following which he would get a permanent job with the Central Bureau of Investigation. “Being jobless and a keen reader of spy mysteries, I accepted the offer,” he said.  He remained imprisoned for 17 years. The homecoming wasn’t pleasant.  “I was treated like a napkin, used and thrown…Is this the reward of sacrificing one’s youth in enemy jails in service of our nation?”

The story was not too different for Kashmir Singh, except for the longer stay of 35 years. “I know and God knows that I went there to serve my country and that I did my duty even at grave peril to my life.” The training includes getting circumcised, learning Urdu and the cultural nuances (so much for ‘we are the same’ sloganeers). Like other spies, he changed his name and became Ibrahim. “And while I was there I ate beef and religiously fasted for the full month of Ramzan.”

He did not elaborate on his Indian military handlers. “I did not open my mouth for 35 years in Pakistan. I cannot do so now and I probably never will tell. All I can say is that I was a regular recruit and received a salary of Rs 480 per month till the time of my arrest. After that no one came forward to help my wife and family.”

Upon his return on March 3, 2008, he was hailed as a true patriot and was given a hero’s welcome, largely due to the marketing strategy of the peaceniks, like former Pakistan Minister for Human Rights Ansar Burney, who said, “There was no bargain. This is a bargain of love. In love there are no conditions.  Never have we seen before an Indian prisoner being escorted in a flag car of a minister. This has shown the world that Pakistan is a humane nation.”

Contrast this with his comments following the attack on Sarabjit. Where has the love gone? Or are the occasional placebos designed to obfuscate the open secret of RAW and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) by using an undercover subculture that the governments would not have to concern themselves with?


This leaves room for the flag wavers to run a parallel system that appears to be independent, but may not be. There are hundreds of cases of abuse in police stations, of innocent people being arrested, cases that are pending for more than 20 years without even being heard in our own courts. 
Indian POWS, 1965, in Pakistan

It is disappointing that the service of the nation argument does not work where it should. I had posed this query earlier too. Why is there not as much concern about our prisoners of war when the families of all 54 who disappeared during the 13-day Bangladesh War have produced tangible evidence to suggest that they were in jail? If a spy can be released after 35 years, surely there is a possibility of some of our POWs being alive 42 years later? The governments have permitted visits by their families, but they were taken to civilian prisons or misled. Nobody bothered to look through the list of spies, or those under assumed names. 

The thriving ‘humanitarian’ business cannot hawk this. So, it strives to create martyrs. Instead of independent enquiries into such arrests, they make the public into unwitting toys in the hands of governments that want to sneakily transform such whimsical acts into false peace measures. The body will be handed over. Giver’s and receiver’s hands are clean.

Sarabjit Singh is dead. There are many in Pakistani and Indian prisons who have no memory of their life. We will never know what really happened because no one is willing to tell and, worse, no one wants to know. Truth is the first casualty of heroism. 

Published in CounterPunch, May 3-5