October 28, 2013

Did you say Hoe? Well, I say - So?

Every now and then — actually more often than I care for — I hear one woman say to another ‘you’re such a prostitute.’ We’ve also seen it used in a million celebrity fights— most recent (to my recollection) the Sinead/Miley open letter wars where Sinead O’Connor sincerely urges Miley Cyrus to ‘not act like a prostitute.’

During these moments, I’m less shocked by whatever these women are actually doing to incite this manner of insult — Miley’s twerks are no Helen of Troy war starters now are they? — and more curious as to what’s so wrong with the profession of prostitution that merits such widespread social disdain.

I don’t know very many sex-workers, but that’s not to say I know none. Admittedly the women I know do not fall into the mean average of what one finds or expects to find when ‘sex worker’ comes to mind. Frankly, however, I don’t think anyone falls into such strictly labeled boxes anyway.

My friends are young women who’ve made an active choice to pursue this profession. Some are simply sexually ambivalent and use the money the same way I used my bar tending wages or my call center pay — carelessly and to buy shoes. Others got into it with full knowledge of the monetary benefits and use what they earn to fund side businesses or pay off their college loans and mortgages.

I’m proud to call these women my friends. They’re smart, tough, imbued with innate common sense; they’re sensitive and kind. It’s a joy to watch one of my friends talk to a stranger at a bar — she could make a death-row inmate feel valued and at ease five minutes before execution. I’ve seen her take genuine interest in the war stories of an old guy who every other girl there made rude faces at and wrote off as creepy. The veteran was better for the kindness she showed him, and she — one of the best writers I know— better for her accepting attitude because now she has a story or two in her arsenal. More importantly, for her, even the grubby old man drinking himself to death in a mid-western bar deserved respect.

But my objection against the stigmatization of prostitutes is greater than just the fact that they do not deserve to be stigmatized in the first place. It’s that the choice held against them is not the only choice they make — this is just their profession. They’re no more defined by what they do than my lawyer friends are defined by what they do in a courtroom all the livelong day. This constant slut-shaming rhetoric that seems to go hand-in-hand with discussions about the profession ignore a very basic fact — These women are more than how they chose to express or use their sexuality. They are more than just their jobs. They’re actors, musicians, writers, mothers, friends, and advisers. And a lot, lot more — just like everyone else in this world.

I’m aware that my friends are simply one end of the spectrum. For every one like them, there may be 8 women who are being forced into prostitution, drug addiction and exploited by their pimps. The stories of these women are gut wrenching. They face constant violence against their persons, and have no one to turn to for justice.

It’s at this point that I ask: Is it the prostitute who’s to blame for this? Is it the john?

Here, I put forth it is neither. The fault lies not with the customer or the profession. The fault lies with the law. If anything, this stigmatization— the criminalization of prostitution, society’s two-faced hatred for sex-workers, and this constant slut-shaming rhetoric plays an insidious role in propagating the exploitation of women. It creates a lose-lose situation for any woman or girl who is brought into the profession against her will. On one hand there’s her pimp, on the other the long arm of the law.

If anti-prostitution laws and this anti-prostitution attitude were to be removed from our legal and social discourse, I strongly believe women in the field would be able to exercise a larger degree of control over their bodies — and whatever they choose to do with this freedom, who is anyone to judge them?

Morality has proved time and again to be subjective. Who is to say that having an avenue where one can safely express one’s sexuality won’t benefit our society?

September 29, 2013

Jung and Justice for Juveniles

Jung and Justice for Juveniles

 Our new lieutenant governor believes that the age of majority with regard to criminal actions should be lowered, he told the media this week. “These days, young people grow up much faster,” PTI quoted Mr. Najeeb Jung, who was appointed the Lt. Governor of Delhi a few months ago. Mr. Jung’s responsibilities include overseeing police and education.

Currently, under the Juvenile Justice Act 2000 (JJA), the age of majority is eighteen years, which was part of India’s obligations under the 1992 UN Convention of the Child’s Rights (CRC). This became a sensitive topic when it was found out that one of the men responsible for the Delhi gang-rape case was only months away from turning eighteen. This week he was found guilty and sentenced to the maximum penalty under the JJA, which is three years at a reform center. This decision has been met with protests, and criticism from many politicians and activists. Mr. Jung’s statement comes in the context of these facts.

He’s not alone in this belief. This year, the Supreme Court has dismissed several PILs asking for revision of the JJA. Mr. Subramanian Swamy, a leader of the BJP party, had filed a PIL in the Supreme Court asking for a reinterpretation of the law so it takes into account a person’s mental and intellectual capability, not their age, to determine whether he or she should be tried as an adult. According to its website, the Supreme Court has rejected this prayer but Mr. Swamy indicates that he is getting ready to appeal the decision. If he is successful and such a reinterpretation is recognized, India will be in violation of the CRC.

“People are saying the age limit should be brought down to 16. Even if the age of a juvenile were lowered to 14, there would be nothing wrong with that. There is need to review it,” PTI reports Mr. Jung as saying. The Justice Verma committee, formed last year to look into the issues surrounding violence against women and recommend legal steps to improve the current situation — a decidedly grim one — advised for several legal measures to be taken, but advised strongly against lowering the age of majority. Meanwhile activists and politicians have been unrelenting in their quest to do exactly that.

It is true that the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports that juvenile crimes have gone up 40% between 2001 and 2010. In the same period, rapes by juveniles have gone up 50%, murder is up by a third and kidnappings of women and girls nearly five times. These figures are disturbing and seem to support the views of Mr. Swamy and Mr. Jung, but many of those working with juvenile delinquents don’t see it that way.

“The NCRB statistics actually prove that there is something wrong with the way juveniles are growing up in our country,” says Mr. Anand Grover, counsel for the Lawyers Collective and best known for his work in the re-interpretation of section 377 IPC. Mr. Grover works actively with juveniles in his practice.

Sociologists believe that the rise in juvenile crimes is due to a variety of factors that can’t be addressed by simply lowering the age of majority. These factors include the government’s inability to curb increase in poverty; failure of the educational system causing young people to abandon schools; increasing income disparity; domestic factors such as violence at home and failure of parental units.

Mr. Grover explains, “The law, insofar as it is concerned with child criminality, is interested in prevention first. The second thing is to see if reform is possible, then we can look at punishment. This idea that young people are growing up faster is misguided. They may have more information but that doesn’t mean they have the ability to process or understand this information.”

NCRB data also indicates that most juvenile delinquents are from low-income families and/or a marginalized stratum of society. Studies on juveniles including studies conducted by UNICEF also show that neglected children and juveniles are easy prey to criminality. “Look at the profiles of the Mumbai rapists: they’re completely out of social norms —they don’t have jobs, their parents don’t have jobs,” says Mr. Grover, “With our economy cracking up, these kids are in a position where they have no stake in society or even means to develop a stake. How can we apportion blame on children who have nothing to look forward to at all?”

Sociologists and lawyers alike are also in agreement that lowering the age of majority will have little effect on juvenile crime rates, and in fact may have little affect on India’s crime rates on a whole. In general, most juveniles are booked for petty crimes such as theft — the 2012 NCRB data shows that juveniles committed 4% of rapes in India.  “Individual incidences cannot be the reason to call for a change in the law,” says Mr. Grover.

There are also numerous studies that stand against clubbing juveniles with adult and often hardened offenders. Many worry that this approach, along with harsher sentencing and the increasing number of juveniles whose bail is rejected thus causing them to remain in pretrial detention, will backfire and result in increase in juvenile offenders instead.

Recent studies show that a welfare based approach, where the juvenile is brought back into the folds of society through reform, works better to reduce delinquency. Tripti Tandon, also with the Lawyers’ Collective, who works with juveniles says, “A young person’s involvement in crimes can be on account of many factors, and these factors may be turned around through a system of education, reform, support and encouragement. This is the philosophy behind the JJA and I think it continues to hold.” Ms. Tandon adds, “The views of our politicians is extremely hypocritical. On one hand they refuse to entertain lowering the age by which a person may be sexually active — here they say they want to protect the children— but when it comes to something so serious as crime and facing punishment in the criminal justice system, then they want fourteen year olds to be treated as adults. Then they don’t see the implications of making fourteen-year-olds face life imprisonment or capital punishment?”

July 25, 2013

Six news stories that deserve more attention than the 'royal baby'

All week, ‘royal baby’ nonsense has taken over my Facebook and twitter feeds, and even the newspapers I like to read. All week, people have been posting stories or status updates about what this baby’s name should be, or what presents it will get. I even read an article this morning about the fact that it’s being called a baby and not a fetus. Another story purported to tell me 7 things I didn't know about the royal baby - what could there be to know, it's just been born for crying out loud!

Here’s my frank opinion about the royal baby: I don’t see why it’s so royal. Britain is a bloody democracy; to a large number of the people so enthralled, the royal family actually serves as nothing more than a reminder of a long gone and not at all proud era of colonialism. I neither care that it’s born, nor do I think that its birth is a news worthy story.

However, since all we seem to read now are lists and snippets about 'the royal baby', here’s a Buzzfeed inspired list of some shit that is important, that happened, and you may have missed over the past week’s baby fervor:

1.     Bradley Manning’s trial: Bradley Manning is a 25-year-old American soldier (read: kid) who’s been charged under the US Espionage Act, and has been in jail for 3 years now. His trial began 8 weeks ago. He admittedly leaked documents about the Iraq and Afghanistan war to Wikileaks. He says he did so to spark a public debate. The prosecution in this case is claiming that Osama Bin Laden could have read Manning’s leaks and by this twisted logic, Manning aided the enemy. The judge has refused to set aside this charge of aiding the enemy.
Manning isn’t even claiming to be innocent — for one, he is not. However, he is quite rightly asserting that the interpretation of the law in his case is absurd, and that the punishment that’s about to be doled out to him is disproportionate. If he’s charged with aiding the enemy, Bradley Manning will get a life sentence.
Why you should care: Such a wide interpretation of the Espionage Act effectively means no one will ever talk to a journalist again. Anytime a whistleblower comes to a reporter, and the reporter prints his story, the whistleblower is essentially aiding the enemy.

2.     CBI autonomy: The CBI has to ask for sanction from the government to investigate senior bureaucrats. The same senior bureaucrats that make up the government, or are members of the party that is the ruling government at the moment. Does that seem right to you? So far, the government’s lawyers have been asserting that giving the CBI autonomy will open the doors for a police state and/or lead to these officials being harassed — the same officials that are responsible for the Coalgate scam.
Why you should care: Because you want senior officials in your government to know they’re open to investigation by a third party that does not answer to them. Because you want a government that is less corrupt, and corruption can only be tackled by public accountability.

3.   RTI is being changed to exclude political parties from its ambit: A major share of funding for political parties comes from voluntary donations — and it is not you and I, or any individual citizen making these voluntary donations. It is na├»ve to deny that the sources of these funds assert some influence over the views held by political parties and their MPs. As such, the funding of political parties is information that pertains directly to your democratic rights. All the functioning democracies in the world have a system in place to keep tabs on political financing, but India does not. We might have been able to file an RTI application to ask political parties (clearly public bodies) to disclose their election financials, but a recent Bill calls to amend the RTI to take political parties out of the Act’s ambit.
Why you should care: Transparency in government starts with transparency in political finance.

4.     The Rupee is expected to fall to 62 against the dollar in the next two weeks: Our merchandise exports are decreasing while our imports are increasing. To curb the fall, the government is opening up foreign direct investment into everything from telecom to defense. DEFENSE!!! The other sectors that the government is opening up includes retail, courier services, credit information companies. But please let me repeat this for you, because it is important — DEFENSE! That it’s on a case-by-case basis means nothing; when was the last time a tender went through the Indian government without involving bribes?
Why you should care: If you don’t care that our defense system is now open to foreign investment, then care because your holiday abroad just got a lot more expensive.

5.     Chinese human rights activist Xu Zhiyong, a prominent lawyer and professor known for his support for greater government transparency, was detained (again) on July 17th. He was held on suspicion of “gathering people to disturb order in a public place.” Hundreds of people have come together in Beijing to ask for his release.
Why you should care: This is a quote (you can find it on Wikipedia) from Professor Zhiyong that explains better than I ever could why you should care about this man: “I wish our country could be a free and happy one. Every citizen need not go against their conscience and can find their own place by their virtue and talents; a simple and happy society, where the goodness of humanity is expanded to the maximum, and the evilness of humanity is constrained to the minimum; honesty, trust, kindness, and helping each other are everyday occurrences in life; there is not so much anger and anxiety, a pure smile on everyone’s face.”

6.     Suspension of Five MLAs revoked yesterday: Five Maharashtran MLAs were suspended from the legislative assembly after their arrest in March for beating up a police officer. Why'd they beat him up? He stopped and fined one of them for over-speeding on the Sea-Link. These MLAs had their suspensions revoked yesterday. 
      Why you should care: The reason given for reinstating these violent thugs into office: since the police office who was beaten up was back to work now, the suspensions should also be revoked.  

July 12, 2013

When fiction becomes reality

A couple of weeks ago, IBN-live ran a report stating that the producer of a Gujarati play titled 'Aa NaMo Bahu Nade Chhey' (This NaMo creates obstacles) was told by the Gujarat state cultural board to change its title as the word NaMo was associated with the State’s CM Narendra Modi and, in their opinion, the title could create trouble.

Upon reading this report, I was deeply disturbed for two reasons: first, when did any state’s cultural board get blanket power to ban or change a play’s title based on their opinions; and secondly, on a related note, I thought that the Bombay High Court judgment on the ‘Nathuram Godse’ play had settled the idea that freedom of expression cannot simply be curbed by the State without giving reasonable grounds under the following sections of the Penal Code: Sections 124-A (sedition); Section 153-A (promoting enmity on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc. and for the maintenance of harmony); Section 153-B (to protect national integration); Section 292 (against obscene books); Section 293  (obscene objects); and Section 295-A (acts meant to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.)

Seeking some clarity, I contacted the Gujarat State cultural board using the phone numbers on their website, and also a few lawyers practicing in Gujarat. The cultural board proved to be entirely unhelpful, clamping up at the mere mention of the play. One of the lawyers I spoke with defended the intervention by citing Section 95 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, and further promised that they would provide me with a copy of an order that they were certain had been rightly passed by the State. I never heard from the lawyer after this conversation. This became entirely understandable when I later discovered that no order under any provision was passed by the State government.

Finally I decided to speak with the producer and lead actor of the concerned play, Mr. Sanjay Goradiya. During our conversation, he cleared up my first query regarding the state cultural board. Mr. Goradiya told me that as per guidelines, scripts have to be submitted to each state’s censor board and they are cleared once the censor board decides that the script doesn’t touch any of the grounds I mentioned above (i.e. sedition, obscenity, and incitement.)

Accordingly, his play was also sent to the Maharashtra and Gujarat censor boards, and while it was cleared in Maharashtra, it was the Gujarat censor board that approached him and said that while the script was not objectionable, the title was a cause for concern. They told him that they would ban it unless he changed the title.

For perspective, here’s a synopsis of Mr. Goradiya’s play: The ghost of a man whose name is Narottam Morbiwala (hence the NaMo) takes over his grandson’s body at 6p.m. every day. NaMo, in this case the deceased man, is an ill-tempered character who uses the time he’s taken over his grandson’s body to create trouble for his son. Troubled by these events, the son’s wife takes to doing pooja in all the temples of Gujarat asking for the ghost to calm down and not fight. An official in the Modi government hears of these poojas and mistakes the family for supporters of the opposition party praying that Modi himself not win the next elections. A comedy of errors that loosely resembles Oscar Wilde’s ‘Importance of being Earnest’ ensues.

So, let’s go through the list of constitutional grounds to ban a work of art once again: Does this synopsis sound like sedition? Not to my mind. Does it sound like it’s trying to incite hatred between different religious or ethnic groups? Again, I’d opine in the negative. Are we to call this obscene? Doesn’t sound like it, does it? I think the censor board might agree with me on these points since they’ve not changed a single word, not one dialogue of the script itself. As far as Goradiya knows, their only issue is with the word NaMo in the title. Goradiya tells me that his play indirectly praises the Gujarat Chief Minister rather than degrades him or the State government.

Is it that NaMo has become synonymous with Modi to the extent that it’s now worthy of state protection? As far as I know, Namo can’t be trademarked by Modi any more than Li-Lo can be trademarked by Lindsey Lohan. Nor can its use be curbed carte blanche on the basis that the acronym can only refer to Narendra Modi. In fact, if it does solely refer to Narendra Modi, shouldn’t political discourse in the form of art be encouraged rather than stopped in a democrasy?

Goradiya tells me that he doesn’t even think Modi knows about this move by agents in his government. According to him, “The people under Modi think that the issue may blow up, may cause trouble and then they’ll come under fire from Modi later. To avoid getting into trouble with Modi later, they’ve asked me to change the name of the title.”

The play’s title has been changed now to a title that was suggested by the censor board itself. Roughly translated the new title means ‘This NaMo doesn’t want to fight.’ When I asked if he agrees with the title change, Goradiya replied, “What can one man do? This is how I make a living. If I object they’ll ban my play stating law and order issues. If I was a bigger name, had more money I might have fought the change but I don’t have the money to go to court on this issue. I’d rather just release my play.” Sound like blackmail to you? Sounds like blackmail to me.

What’s worse is that this isn’t even the first time the Gujarat Censor board has jumped the proverbial gun in order to protect their revered CM. Back in 2004, a documentary titled Final Solution, which followed 2002 riots in Gujarat, was also banned. The censor board justified that ban by saying it was “highly provocative and may trigger off unrest and communal violence". This begs the obvious question- any more than the unrest that was availing in the State already? The ban was lifted in October 2004 after a sustained campaign

Both these bans have come in after the 2001 Bombay High Court judgment in the case of Anand Chintamani Dighe & Anr. vs State Of Maharashtra And Ors, where the court quoted Justice Krishna Iyer in laying out the guidelines for exercising a State’s power to ban works of art under Section 95(1) of the CrPc, “A drastic restriction on the right of a citizen when imposed by statute, calls for a strict construction. Explicitly, the section compels the government to consider it a clear and present danger in the shape of promoting feelings of enmity and hatred between different segments of citizens or as to its strong tendency or intendment to outrage the religious feelings of such segments.”

 The court has clearly said that the state MUST give grounds for their opinions as to why the work of art (in this case it was the play I am Nathuram Godse speaking) falls under the purview of section 95 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The Gujarat censor board’s only reason seems to be that the title contains the word ‘NaMo’, which is a common acronym for Narendra Modi.

I’ve given you a synopsis, the Gujarat censor board has proved by itself that there’s no clear and present danger since they haven’t changed the script at all. What worries me now is the idea that Modi’s underlings are so interested in protecting their CM that they’ve lost all interest in protecting their citizens’ right to freedom of expression; they’ve lost interest in the idea of democracy; they’ve simply lost faith in the Gujarati citizens’ power to focus on the content of a play rather than just a headline, or even their ability to understand satire. Is this what we can look forward to when and if Modi is elected into power in 2014?