If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Let not the bigots take over

The Roman Catholic Church excommunicated a Brazilian doctor and medical team for performing an abortion on a nine-year-old girl. According to CNN.com, the abortion was performed after the girl became pregnant with twins, allegedly after being serially abused by her stepfather. According to London’s Daily Telegraph, abortion is illegal in Brazil, the world's most populous Catholic country, except in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is in danger, both of which applied in this case. The physicians said that the girl was too small to safely carry twins to term and that her life would be in danger if the pregnancy was not terminated. The abortion was carried out only after it was approved by a court in accordance with Brazilian laws.

CNN.com reported that the doctor and medical team, along with the girl’s mother, were excommunicated by Archbishop Sobrinho of Brazil's northeastern city of Recife, where the procedure took place in early 2009. However, the child’s stepfather was not excommunicated because according to Sobrinho, “graver act than (rape) is abortion, to eliminate an innocent life.” He also added that the child was not excommunicated because the church is “benevolent when it comes to minors.” (How sweet of them!)

The Archbishop was supported by the Vatican. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation for Bishops, told an Italian newspaper abortion was a sin and that the unborn twins were innocent.

The world was outraged. After much sound and fury, the excommunication was rescinded on 15 March 2009. But that did not make the original action civilized.

Back home in India, the creed of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – according to its official website – is “Good governance, Development & Security”. In January 2009, activists of the Sri Rama Sene, one of the fringe organizations of BJP, barged into the lounge bar Amnesia in Mangalore, in the BJP ruled state of Karnataka. They abused the owner and customers and beat up women, even as they tried to run to safety. The civil society was outraged by this act of despicable moral policing and gross violation of the rule of law. But the Sene was unrepentant. The chief of the Sene, who was arrested, was quickly released on bail. So much for good governance, development and security!

The Sene followed it up with more such acts on 14 February, the Valentine’s Day, in many places. “The saffron brigade's moral police tarred the faces of cuddling lovebirds and ‘married off’ some of them.” – The Statesman, 15 February, 2009.

Two different kinds of atrocities reported from opposite hemispheres, yet the similarities are unmistakable. They are: A. Religious fundamentalists care for neither basic human decency, nor the law of the land, and B. Women are always at the receiving end of fundamentalist “justice”.

One would expect that a state that has been ruled by communists for 30 years should be free of such scourges. If you share this view, Dear Reader, please think again.

In July 2007, eight school teachers were heckled and humiliated for protesting the ban on wearing salwar-kameez to Bakhrahat Girls High School, in the southern fringes of Kolkata in West Bengal.

“The government-aided Bakhrahat Girls’ High School’s managing committee had, about a year back, passed a resolution making it mandatory for all teachers to wear saris. This, despite the state government as well as Calcutta High Court allowing female teachers the freedom to wear either to school. The sari stricture was not put down on paper; it was conveyed verbally to the teachers.

“Eight of the 30 teachers in the school, with 1,500 students, have stood firm in their opposition to the dress diktat.” (The Telegraph, Kolkata, 27 July 2007).

Some parents and local people ganged up, abused, and threatened the teachers with physical violence. They had to be rescued and taken from the school in a black police van normally used for ferrying prisoners, under the glare of TV cameras.

What business did outsiders have to meddle in a patently internal matter of a school? They did so because in West Bengal today, nothing is outside the purview of the ruling party. The borderline between the ruling party and the state and its various institutions (like schools) has been obliterated. "The party" intrudes into everything, including family disputes. The Bakhrahat incident couldn’t have taken place without active participation by the party activists and a benevolent nod from their bosses. Neither was it a stand-alone incident, I am confining myself to one instance for the sake of brevity.

If I may go back to Mangalore, I tend to think that many of the targets of the Sene’s ire, i.e., the pub-hopping, beer-guzzling young men and women, can’t distinguish between happiness and pleasure, much like Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince. But that is a different issue. Violence against them is despicable and must be stopped.

The incident also reminds us that democracy could turn into a tyranny of the majority, a point that needs to be made repeatedly, lest we forget! After all, how much nuisance could the Sene commit if there was no BJP government at the Vidhan Saudha in Bengaluru?

And the third incident shows that the Marxist fundamentalists aren’t qualitatively better in respect of some basic principles like gender equality and the rule of law. Truth to be told, these two cadre-based parties with total abhorrence for the law of the land are similar in substance, though different in form, agenda, and rhetoric.

In his best-selling novel, The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini has described a blood curdling incident where an allegedly adulterous couple are stoned to death in a packed stadium during the halftime of a soccer match in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Although it’s a fictionalized account, let’s remember that where there are no free media, like in Russia under Stalin, literature alone brings out truth.

The repeated instances of physical violence against people whose lifestyle the Hindu bigots don’t like foretell the possibility of a similar situation in India under the saffron party in the future. And after having lived in red West Bengal for over three decades, I shudder to think of what will happen if the Marxists ever come to plenipotentiary power at the centre.

I would request my readers, who plan to vote for the saffron party or any other fundamentalists, including fundamentalists of the Marxist variety, to read Chapter 21 of Hosseini’s book. Let not the bigots take over in the summer of 2009.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Coming home

As our aircraft touched down, I felt an inexplicable sense of happiness and relief. At first, I didn’t realize what it meant; but in a few moments, the truth dawned upon me. Perhaps birds too feel the same when they return to their nests.

Five months ago, we had boarded a spanking new state-of-the-art Boeing 777 from Bengaluru to Dubai on our way to New York. On the way back, we travelled by the same airline, but to a different airport. From Dubai, we flew by a rickety old Airbus 310 which was state-of-the-art in the 1980s. The difference between the two aircraft was striking, just like the dissimilarity between the airports at Bengaluru and Kolkata. The new Bengaluru airport is as well-appointed as any in the world, although on the smaller side. And the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Antar-rashtriya Hawai Adda is ….

Let me change the topic, everyone knows that my beloved city belongs to the backwaters of the third world, there’s no point rubbing it in.

My sense of happiness was reinforced by the immigration official, who was friendly and smiling. He was in stark contrast with the overweight African American woman whom we had met on arrival at the JFK airport. Ignoring my “Good morning!”, she asked in a gruff voice, “Why have ya come ’ere?” It took me a moment to realize that she wasn’t questioning the propriety of our visit to the US; she was only performing a routine official duty, that is, to ascertain the purpose of our visit.

But the morning doesn’t always show the day. During the rest of the trip, I was amazed by the civility of Americans. Although they are rather stand-offish and don’t get involved in others’ business normally, their manners are impeccable. Strangers often greet you on the road. Nobody ever elbows you and moves ahead while boarding or getting off a train or bus. On the contrary, if you have a bit of grey hair like me, chances are that the person in front of you will let you pass, with a slight bow. When you cross a man walking his dog on the road, he always moves aside, taking care that you don’t feel threatened by his canine companion. When you have paid for your coffee, the girl at the counter invariably says, “Have a good day!” In five months, I didn’t hear anyone talking loudly.

My sister was waiting for us. After we walked out of the terminal building, she phoned her driver to bring the vehicle from the parking area. As the car arrived and we were about to load the luggage, three young men approached our driver menacingly. Their leader, a dark fellow in an orange shirt was doing the talking, rather, the shouting. He started off with tui, the derogatory form of you in Bengali: “What do you think? You can park the car in someone’s bathroom?”

Looking around, I saw neither bathrooms, nor any sign that said the car couldn’t be stopped there. The driver had done nothing wrong. Obviously, the men were touts going about their business of fleecing hapless foreigners. And our only fault, if there could be any, was this: they thought we were standing in the way of their business. The ruffian continued to shout in filthy language and when our driver protested, was about to hit him. As I stood in front of the driver and asked the wretched fellow to stop, a police constable came ambling along. He neither talked to, nor looked at the rogues. But he was genuinely apologetic about us being harassed for no reason. He politely explained that the three men were acting under the orders of the “Airport Manager”, and requested us to move the car a little ahead, which we did.

Anyone unfamiliar with the current state of West Bengal would find this little incident bizarre. But we know there was nothing extra-ordinary about it. Actually, it’s a perfectly normal kind of welcome to the land of the lumpen proletariat, where law keepers look on helplessly if you are lucky, and side with criminals if you aren’t.

13 February 2009