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Stand-up comedies and the outrage

Stand-up comedy has become a new way for youngsters to express themselves but most stand-up comedians try to ride a fast-track route to stardom by making fun of Hindu Gods and Goddesses and the faith adhered to by most Hindus. The use of filthy language or abuses to amuse has become a new trend.

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A lot of hue and cry was made over threats from hardline Hindu organisations and the cancellation of stand-up comedy shows in Mumbai by Munawar Iqbal Faruqui. Some so-called liberals found it atrocious and described attacks by such hardliners as an attempt to stop the free flow of freedom of expression and muzzle creativity. Like an ordinary Indian, I am ready to disown both since both appear to be in the wrong. But before that let us try to understand the issues in perspective.

Stand-up comedy has become a new way for youngsters to express themselves but most stand-up comedians try to ride a fast-track route to stardom by making fun of Hindu Gods and Goddesses and the faith adhered to by most Hindus. The use of filthy language or abuses to amuse has become a new trend. It is the same as the audience laughing every time the ‘F’ word is used in Bollywood films in acknowledgement that they have understood the conversation. I find both audiences equally banal and ridiculous when they laugh at the choicest of abuses hurled whether in films or comedies. Such words are not parts of middle-class drawing rooms even if it is spoken in a group of buddies. It is not cool.

Before terrorism became a world phenomenon and knocked WTC towers down in September 2001 killing people mercilessly, the United States and other countries used to lecture India on how to deal with terrorism. This was the result of India’s governance failures they would often argue. Whether Maoist attacks or Islamic terrorism, everything was due to provocation by the government or its failures to address issues. Terrorism from across the border was described by the West and Europe as an expression of the aspirations of the people. India devised its own way to fight it out while trying at the same time to convince these countries that they were wrong in their conceptualisation. The whole theory about economic deprivation being the reason for terrorism was demolished after the London bombings in July 2005 since the four bombers were born, brought up and educated in the UK.

Many Islamists across the world even now defend Jihadi terrorism as a result of what happened in Palestine and how the United States treated the Islamic world. India always held that terrorism of any form cannot be allowed to prevail over democracy. The answer to one wrong cannot be another wrong. Mainstream political parties have challenged Naxals to come overground and test their popularity by contesting elections, something which they did successfully in Nepal.

This example of terrorism would appear a little misplaced while talking about stand-up comedians and the reactions they get. But emotion is emotion. Whether it is the emotion that hurts Islamic sensitivities and forces people to take up arms or the emotion of some right-wing Hindu organisations or people that get hurt when their faith is challenged. Using constitutional means such as FIR or other legal recourse, which is their constitutional rights, cannot be taken away. And none should grudge that.

And why is the state failing to give protection to these people rather than allowing cancellation of shows? How can the state cite the law and order problem and deny the expression of these comedians? Before asking such questions, we should weigh what should get primacy- freedom of expression or hurt of the people by the same. If any such expression has the potential to create unrest or cause problems of law and order, what should the State do?

So-called liberals can argue why people are getting hurt by the expression of art. But they would be on quicksand if asked to respond whether they would uphold the right of people to draw cartoons of reverential figures of faith of others. Whether they would uphold the right of Charlie Hebdo that has been subjected to terrorist attacks for drawing cartoons of Prophet Mohammad? How about some Indian newspapers or artists replicating the same in their publications?

They need to be reminded that senior editor Alok Tomar was arrested and jailed in 2006 for carrying a cartoon of Prophet Mohammad in his new magazine Senior India. He was charged with “hurting religious sentiments of a community” even when he had merely reproduced the cartoon that was drawn by the Danish cartoonist. None raised their voice for him so vociferously. He was later released on bail. Hindu Samaj Party leader Kamlesh Tiwari was killed in 2019 by fanatics for his remarks against the Prophet in 2015. Making fun of Gods and Goddesses to entertain would also be considered blasphemy by many more so if it comes from followers of other religions.

Salman Rushdie would not be allowed to come to India because Islamists are uncomfortable with his postulations in The Satanic Verses. Taslima Nasreen who wrote unbared the filth in Islamic society in Bangladesh is a hate figure for Muslims and she can’t hold a meeting in West Bengal. The State would not give protection. As against this, consider that noted painter M.F. Hussain painted Hindu Goddesses nude and yet the society did not ostracise him. He forgot that he was painting the revered figures from his Hindu ancestors. Why did he not dare to do the same with some of the famous Islamic figures described in the Holy Quran?

None found objections when Lord Shankar, one of the Trinity Gods of Hindus, was found running for cover in Aamir Khan starrer PK. There were some eyebrows raised but the movie became a hit. Can any actor or film dare to do the same with the Prophet or any of the revered figures from Islam? Hindus have many Gods: Muslims have only one. But in terms of inconsistencies or finding things funny, there would be many things in both religions. When you make fun of one religion and don’t dare to do the same for the other, you are exposing your bias.

Making fun of Hindus and their customs is not the same as making fun of their faith in the same way as making fun of Muslims and Islam is not the same. The use of the ‘F’ word in the context of Lord Ram (“Ram gives a F…) would hurt Hindus can be understood by anyone having any understanding about Indian society. Similarly making fun of Lord Hanuman or Lord Ganesha is not acceptable, more so because people worship them as infallible. So, if some comedians resort to ridiculing these religious figures, they should do so at their own peril.

The common argument from these comedians is that they make fun of all religions. But this is not true. In one of his comedies, Faruqui said that madrasas only teach good behaviour and how to behave with parents. But from where did he learn to use cuss words at the drop of a hat? How he faces his family back home is surprising. Or, maybe his parents do not watch his shows. Middle-class Indian families are still based on a value system. They find it uncomfortable to watch together with children and grandparents adult movies or comedy shows that use a lot of cuss words without rhyme or reason.

Why then Hindus and their faiths are being challenged every now and then? Islamic invaders destroyed temples and killed people in the name of religion. They forced Hindus to get into their own shells. The British came and tried to paint India as backward, poor and a land of snakes. They tried to impose their ideology to create an inferiority complex in Indians. After that English educated people have made it fashionable to attack anything associated with Hindus and their culture as regressive and opposed to modern culture. If you wish to be painted progressive, even if you have not acquired knowledge or skills to claim this, resort to the cheap tactic of attacking Hindus. The Leftists, Liberals, and Islamists would stand by you.

Earlier these people could do so within the four walls of some theatres or hotels. Social media has brought them into the open and exposed them to scrutiny and critical review. Youths are in an age for rebellion. But rebellion must have a cause. This could be for exposing corruption or fighting casteism or irrational things in a religion. To be relevant every religion must give answers to the issues raised. It is surprising that these comedians or so-called rebels find nothing wrong in a religion that seeks glory in the past and does not accept change since what is written are the words of God. They choose to attack a religion that is ever-changing, syncretic and eclectic.

Such bias will definitely put a question mark on their proclaimed neutrality or logic. However, those who issue threats or violence to oppose these misguided youths are not right either. India has believed in the excellence of the mind over muscle power. “Shaastra” (knowledge discourse) has always prevailed over “shastra” (weapon). Shankaracharya spread Hinduism by winning over others in a discourse about life and religion.

If you wish to fight radicalisation or wish to fight over the vitality of your religion, the best way is to first learn the religion and philosophy that have shaped life in India and invite these misguided youths to debate. Half-baked knowledge imbibed from a biased representation of history should not become the basis. Indians must trust that mind would rule over matter. If reason is the source of morality as Immanuel Kant said and if an idea rules the world, the challenge to irrationality must come from the domain of knowledge.

It is because of these reasons that I would expect people not to issue threats or verbal abuses against these youngsters. The best way is to use legal means to fight these people. Abusing others in place of abuses would demean the civilisation and culture they (those opposing some stand-up comedians) seek to represent. Read Swami Vivekananda, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Aurobindo, Veer Savarkar, Mahatma Gandhi, particularly his Hind Swaraj, Dr Radhakrishnan, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and such philosophers to know what India has been.

This is good for stand-up comedians also so that they know the deeper truth of the culture of theirs or their ancestors. Condemn irrational practices in all religions and cultures.

The writer is the author of ‘Narendra Modi: the GameChanger’. A former journalist, he is a member of BJP’s media relations department and represents the party as spokesperson while participating in television debates. The views expressed are personal.

It is surprising that these comedians or so-called rebels find nothing wrong in a religion that seeks glory in the past and does not accept change since what is written are the words of God. They chose to attack a religion that is ever-changing, syncretic and eclectic.

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Opinion

The fault, dear Bollywood, is not in our stars, but in our content

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The performance at the box office of both Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha and Akshay Kumar’s Raksha Bandhan has been underwhelming to say the least. Producers, distributors, actors, cinema owners, everyone connected to the film industry in one way or the other are lamenting the successive box office failures of Bollywood productions. Star power seems not to matter anymore. A little while ago Ranveer Singh’s Jayeshbhai Zordar, Ranbir Kapoor’s Shamshera, and even Tiger Shroff’s Heropanti all fell by the wayside.

If you stop to think of it though, in a way, this could be a long overdue and very good lesson for the film industry because it must learn that in order to survive it has perforce to improve its content and not rely unduly on star power. Content in cinema includes choreography, screenplay, dialogue, direction, editing, proper casting and many other things, but what really matters can perhaps be summed up in one word: storytelling.

Nasiruddin Shah’s wife, the actor Ratna Pathak spoke last month, in an interview published in the Hindustan Times about the star system as it had existed in the seventies. According to her it was an obnoxious system ‘where the content of films was driven by the star involved and not by the idea of telling a story.’ She also spoke of how many stars were poor performers but were nonetheless cruising along. In an earlier era, directors like Bimal Roy and Mehboob Khan had held sway who saw a movie star as the carrier of a story and not the other way around.

Now we see the star system crumbling, slowly but surely. Actor Salman Khan also interviewed recently stated that he had been hearing talk about the collapse of the star system for decades now, but it wasn’t something that was going to happen. Stars, he maintained, would always exist. That may be so, but they will hereafter no longer command the kind of position in cinema that they have commanded till now. Some sort of balance will need to be restored if Bollywood is to survive. In Salman’s own case his inclusion in a film by no means guarantees box office success. In fact, his films have bombed time and again the most recent one being the unwatchable Dabangg 3.

In terms of timing, it is perhaps no coincidence that the actor Ranveer Singh decided to take off all his clothes and do a shoot in the nude last month. He went the Full Monty and although those pictures were not put on social media as they would offend censorship guidelines, apparently the fully nude pictures were circulating on WhatsApp.

When you reach a certain kind of stardom, it is easy enough to get people to endorse whatever you do. Praise came from various quarters about how Ranveer is entitled to do whatever it is he wishes to do as part of his creative self-expression. Wife Deepika Padukone too approved his decision, as his spouse and possibly also in the light of her own revealing performance in her latest film Gehrayian.

The fact that he has done a shoot in the nude now, and not some other time, may have something to do with the fact that his most recent film Jayesh Bhai Jordar went phuss at the box office. So Ranveer, tossing and turning from the snide remarks and taunts that would have inevitably followed, needed to do something to erase public memory of that flop and replace it with something else more noteworthy. A nude photo-shoot may have, to him, appeared to be the simplest and easiest thing to do.

Why was this lesson not taught to Bollywood earlier? One way of analysing this is to say that all of us in India need an entertainment fix once a week and till a few years ago there was no alternative to the big screen. Marx said famously that religion was the opium of the masses, which may well be true, but in India cinema also qualified as an alternative escape from the humdrum monotony of daily life. Everyone in the world knows of India’s obsession with cricket and the movies.

There was television of course, but it wasn’t really such an immersive experience and moreover most serials targeted the housewife with ‘saas bahu’ conflicts, not such an engaging subject matter for a male audience. What changed over the past few years, especially after corona, was the arrival of the OTT platform with its numerous web series, docudramas and cinema made for exclusive release on Netfix, Sony Liv, Zee 5, Voot or some such channel.

As a consequence, the cinema watching audience became more discerning and more demanding. It took the star struck Indian audience some time to get used to better content, but once that happened it wasn’t so easy to lure them back to the cinema halls. For one thing it would take an hour to drive to the movie hall in the traffic and sometimes as much time to find parking. A middle-class man realises that quite apart from spending money on movie tickets, he may need to spend over a thousand rupees on snacks such as popcorn, nachos, burgers what have you, for himself and his family. No, if it wasn’t good cinema, it was better to stay at home, watch the cricket or a Netflix series or film and get the wife or cook to rustle up some fritters or pakoras. What’s not to like there?

Will Bollywood change? Can Bollywood change? No question, it can and it will. Money talks as nothing else can. Star power itself was built on the making of money, and that power will lessen and dissipate once it is clear, as it should be, by now, that star power alone cannot make a movie succeed at the box office anymore. The times, they are a changing, as Bob Dylan sang.

Rajesh Talwar is the author of 34 books across multiple genres. He has worked for the United Nations for over two decades across three continents in numerous countries.

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Opinion

A LONG ROAD AHEAD FOR CONGRESS BEFORE 2024

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The All India Congress has been aggressively pursuing its agenda against the Centre particularly on price rise. The party has been staging protests on the issue at the block level. There is a scheduled national-level rally on the issue on 28 August. Protesting against price rise is fine since the issue is of concern to the common man. But the big question is would the Congress be able to effectively use the issue against the Modi government.

Congress has raised such issues earlier too, but it has failed to take its campaigns on those issues to a logical conclusion. In not too distant a past, for instance, the party staged protests across many states against the three farm laws, which now stand repealed. In fact, it was the Congress which began protests against the farm laws, with Rahul Gandhi hitting the streets. However, the party lost the plot and the movement was hijacked and party found itself sidelined.

Now coming back to the price rise, the Congress has not raised the issue the first time. Eight months back, the party organised a national-level rally at Jaipur on 12 December 2021. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot put in all efforts to make the rally a success. If the huge crowds the rally drew were any yardstick, the rally was undoubtedly successful. Addressing the rally, Rahul Gandhi slammed the BJP saying that he was a Hindu but not a Hindutvavadi. His comments put the party in a tight spot as the BJP launched an all-out offensive on Hindutva, relegating the issue of inflation to irrelevance. The Saffron brigade won assembly elections in four states hands down. The party has once again made inflation a major issue to corner the BJP government at the centre. But nobody can deny the fact that Congress raked the issue, perforce, again to deflect the attention from the investigation in the National Herald money laundering case by the Enforcement Directorate (ED), in which the ED had summoned both Rahul Gandhi and Sonia for interrogation. The Congress staged country-wide protests against the ED interrogating the Gandhis. However, the party realised that it may boomerang on it, as the BJP retaliated by attacking the party on parivarvad (familial nepotism) and corruption. The party, however, managed to deflect the criticism by invoking issues like price rise and unemployment and putting them on its agenda in a forceful manner.

By bringing issues of nepotism and corruption back in public discourse in his Independence Day address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already set the agenda without naming the Gandhi family. It is clear that the BJP would once again take on the Opposition on these twin planks in coming elections. It is also clear from what Modi said that whosoever is involved in corruption will have to face the consequences. This stance may be worrisome not only for the Congress but also for leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Tejaswi Yadav, for nobody knows when the ED would come knocking on their doors.

But there is a silver lining for the Congress. It has been able to put pressure on the BJP government on an issue like inflation, which affects the commoners like nothing. The Congress was also able to put up a united front while staging protests against price rise and unemployment. The Gandhis hit the streets to lead party workers and leaders from the front. Encouraged by the response it has got from workers across the states, the party has drawn an ambitious plan to reach out to the people. The party will begin its “Bharat Jodo Yatra” on 7 September the success of which will depend on the support it receives from the common people. But if the party keeps pressing the issues it has been championing in recent times it is bound to find popular support among the masses, which may help catapult the Congress to become a force to reckon with in 2024.

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Opinion

Nitish’s move lacks credibility

Many have tried to depict Nitish Kumar’s as a result of the BJP’s alleged attempts to divide the Janata Dal United (JDU). But this is far from the truth. Nitish was guided by his own vaulting ambition to take a final shot at the top slot-the Prime Minister of India.

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Nitish Kumar

Nitish Kumar’s move to jettison trusted ally, the BJP, and align with forces he till recently considered inimical to the interest of Bihar, shows the new low in political gerrymandering. He has demonstrated to one and all that he cannot be trusted with words and his self-interest would govern his actions.

His opportunistic swing between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) reminds one of the hilarious Aaaya Ram Gaya Ram phenomenon that happened in 1960s and showed how personal interest guides political moves. Nitish is being described by many as ‘Paltu Ram’ of Indian politics which refers to a person known for changing sides without the slightest of moral compunctions.

At the first assembly election in Haryana in 1967, Gaya Ram had won as an independent candidate. Immediately after the results were out, he joined the Congress but within few hours he joined the United Front. The same day by the evening, he rejoined the Congress. Within nine hours he shifted loyalty thrice. Congress leader Rao Birendra Singh while addressing the media said, “Gaya Ram Ab Aaya Ram hai”.

Ever since then, frequent shift of political loyalty had become a joke for those who could not be trusted. The anti-defection law that seeks to prevent political defections is silent on the situation created by Nitish Kumar. This sobriquet of Paltu Ram for Nitish Kumar was given by none other than Lalu Prasad Yadav when Kumar walked out of the JDU-RJD alliance in 2017 on the issue of corruption by RJD leaders, particularly Tejashwi Yadav. “He has neither principles nor ideology but only greed for power”, Prasad had said.

Both the BJP and the JDU had contested elections in alliance in 2020 and Nitish became chief minister even when he had much fewer seats (43) than the BJP that had won 74 assembly seats. He has sunk and the alliance and joined forces with adversaries- the RJD and others. This cannot by any stretch of imagination be described as something that people of the State would want. People know that the mandate for the NDA was largely due to image and massive campaign by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the personal guarantee he gave about Bihar witnessing unprecedented development under double Engine NDA Government.

Many critics and analysts have tried to depict Kumar’s exit from the NDA as a result of the BJP’s alleged attempts to divide the Janata Dal United (JDU) or create trouble for the chief minister. But these are far from the truth. Nitish was guided by his own vaulting ambition to play a larger role in Indian politics and to take a final shot at the top slot- the Prime Minister of India in 2024.

One should not forget that he had similar ambition in 2013. On 16 June he had snapped ties with the BJP when the party made Narendra Modi its campaign chief for 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Nitish had given the most venomous statement when Modi was subsequently named the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate. “People of the country will not tolerate or accept a leader whose idea and policy is divisive” Kumar had said.

At the back of his mind somewhere, Kumar may have imagined that the BJP wound not get a majority and a hung parliament could throw up a possibility of someone else (read Nitish) to become the Prime Minister. If wishes had wings horses could fly. The entire country witnessed Modi’s personal charisma and trust translate into massive majority for the BJP. Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014.

This happens if one stays on one post (here chief minister) for a long time and is unable to do much for development of the State. You cannot blame others if the State has failed to catch up with other more developed States of India. With nothing challenging to do, one gets bored and starts looking for a new role. This is more so when you are on the wrong side of age. He will be 73 when the country would witness Lok Sabha elections.

Anyone in Nitish Kumar’s situation would sense a great opportunity since the Congress is in disarray and regional leaders such as Ms Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, or other players such as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader, Sharad Pawar or other leaders are not taken seriously as a national player. Nitish Kumar who has won his image of ‘Sushashan Babu’ in alliance with the BJP may rake up Bihari pride to try to win most of the 40 Lok Sabha seats of the State.

Till now Nitish Kumar’s political moves in Bihar have paid dividends to him at the personal level. He has dumped allies with impunity and has retained his chief minister’s chair. But to try to judge Kumar from the prism of political morality would be wrong. He has created his own morality which is wherever he goes is the winning side and whatever justification he gives is the new morality in politically polarised Bihar.

Thus far so good, but no further. Nitish has played his last gamble. He has dumped a trusted partner that did not stake claim to the chief minister’s post despite winning more seats than the JDU. If Nitish had any sense of political morality he would not have become the chief minister and asked the BJP to nominate its own candidate. This is greatness of Modi that he forgot the personal angst of Kumar against him and supported his cause when he left the RJD alliance in 2017 on the issue of corruption and later when the JDU got less number of seats in 2020.

There are some who say that the BJP asked Lok Janshakti Party chief Chirag Paswan to field candidates against the JDU to give the BJP a decisive edge. While the results may be true, it is a far-fetched conclusion that there was any such understanding between the two parties. The BJP did not share dais or any political platform with Chirag Paswan and even after he lost the polls in Bihar, he was not accommodated in the NDA government at the Centre. Kumar should look at his own reasons to know why Chirag opposed him so bitterly. The BJP did not change tack and stuck to its commitment that Nitish Kumar would be the chief minister.

Some critics often compare the situation with Maharashtra and argue that Nitish feared that the BJP would engineer the fall of his government. This is ridiculous. In Maharashtra the mandate in 2019 was for the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance to form the Government. The alliance had won 161 assembly seats in a house of 288 of which the BJP had won on 105 seats, the Shiv Sena on 56. Other seats were won by the National Congress Party (54) and the Congress (44). If people’s verdict was to be honoured Devendra Fadnavis should have become the chief minister.

But Shiv Sena ditched the mandate and refused to be in the alliance unless it was given the post of the chief minister. After a long stalemate, the Shiv Sena formed an alliance government with the NCP and the Congress. The BJP called it betrayal of the mandate but could not do anything. Later, many Shiv Sainiks realized the folly of the decision and they took command of the Shiv Sena and came back to the BJP. The BJP’s decision to keep the alliance was obvious when it gave the chief minister’s post to Eknath Shinde and asked Fadnavis to become the Deputy. There was nothing unethical in it. The original mandate was for this alliance and political opportunists had made an unholy alliance that lacked ideological coherence. So far as Shinde is concerned, the Shiv Sena would decide who is their leader and not the BJP.

One can argue why the BJP supported Nitish Kumar when it split with partners with whom it had contested polls in alliance. The case of Bihar is completely different. Nitish came to be known as ‘Sushashan Babu’ in the company of the BJP. The vote in 2015 was largely in the name of Nitish Kumar and his image even when he contested against the BJP. So when he decided to part ways with the RJD on the issue of corruption, the BJP had few choices than to support him in the name of stability and good governance.

The present move of Nitish is not backed by sound logic. The BJP leadership was in touch with him and he had apparently given assurance that everything was all right. The BJP could not have disturbed its own government. Nitish had complete backing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There was no justification and no provocation. If you reject the possibilities, the only possible reason is Kumar’s ambition to take a shot at the top job by exploiting the weaknesses of the opposition.

Besides the fact that Modi is going to be there for a long time to come and that he is the most popular leader in the country, Kumar has been exposed badly. The RJD has no love lost for him and when their parting had taken place in 2017 it had turned bitter with all members of Lalu Prasad’s family abusing Kumar for back-stabbing the RJD.

The Machiavellian brand of politics that Kumar has specialized makes strange bedfellows. Enemies become friends and friends become enemies with both showing that they are ready to forget the past and keen to rewrite a new future but none forgets. One point of time, the RJD was symbolic of the jungle raj in Bihar. It is clear that Kumar is no longer worried about people of Bihar. People would be scared of this alliance and may not bite the dust.

So far as the BJP is concerned, it has got a golden opportunity to strengthen its organisation and go to the people for a full mandate. This is likely to bring new energy to the party that has been working tirelessly to give representation to all sections of the society. This is a redefining moment for Bihar politics.

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Opinion

INDIA’S TRYST WITH DESTINY CONTINUES 75 YEARS AFTER INDEPENDENCE

A grateful Nation should recall the services of millions of freedom fighters and leaders who participated in movements of various kinds, some peaceful and some not so peaceful. They had only one objective that was to see their country free.

Pankaj Vohra

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The time has once again come to renew the pledges made by our freedom fighters as the country celebrates the 75th year of our independence on Monday when Prime Minister Narendra Modi shall address the Nation from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort. India has come a long way since Jawaharlal Nehru gave his passionate speech, `the tryst with destiny’ to mark the end of the British rule. Thereafter many Prime Ministers have used the occasion to present their vision of the way ahead and each one of them has contributed in some form or the other to take us forward. It is also a time to remember the martyrs such as Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru and many more, who did not hesitate to sacrifice their lives so that they could break the shackles of slavery. The immense contribution of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and his Azad Hind Fauj as also the manner in which those who started the Sepoy revolt in 1857 even though they paid a heavy price, can never be forgotten and should never be forgotten either. There are always lessons in History also in every struggle. One of the speeches I remember was made by Indira Gandhi who said that till the time there was poverty, hunger and disease, real Independence cannot be achieved. This continues to be a daunting task and though the present government appears to be doing the right things regarding development, a lot more needs to be done in this huge and vast country where people have aspirations and hope from those who govern them. Am reminded of Khalil Gibran, who wrote that they say that if you see a slave sleeping, do not wake him, lest he is dreaming of freedom. I say that if you see a slave sleeping, wake him and explain to him the meaning of freedom’’. A grateful Nation should recall the services of millions of freedom fighters and leaders who participated in movements of various kinds, some peaceful and some not so peaceful. They had only one objective that was to see their country free. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation provided direction to the masses when they needed it the most though he died shortly after Independence, a victim of hate politics. It was a time when the country was also trying to come to terms with the unfortunate Partition brought about by ambitious politicians who helped the British to divide the Nation. This partition could have easily been avoided had our leaders stood their ground without allowing Mohmmad Ali Jinnah to have his sinister way. India is today fortunate that it is a democracy like many other great countries and has an elected government by the ordinary people. This is in contrast with dictatorial regimes in many parts of the world or monarchies where freedom of every kind is curtailed and crushed by insecure rulers. Therefore, we must all count our blessings and think positively. John Kennedy’s famous words, often repeated by Nehru come to my mind, “Do not ask what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country’’. Jai hind.

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Opinion

25 years of Vishakha Guideline: Still a long way to go

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On 13 August 1997, the three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice JS Verma, Justices Sujata V. Manohar and Justice B.N. Kirpal, pointed out the ‘Legal Vacuum’ and thus the lack of rule of law when it comes to protecting a woman at the workplace, which is still predominantly patriarchal in nature. The social milieu still promotes a culture of silence among women. The bench gave the historical judgment “Vishakha v State of Rajasthan” (AIR 1997 SC 3011), famously known as the Vishakha Guideline.

The historical judgement is a landmark on various counts. First, it made the International Convention, especially the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women as the basis for national legislations paving the way for progressive laws and state accountability towards the international commitments. Second, it recognised specific vulnerability of women at workplace and the gap in existing laws, which it termed as “legal vacuum”. Third, the bench did not restrict itself but creatively used the powers conferred on the Supreme Court under Article 141 and 142 and laid down elaborate guidelines to deal with the menace of sexual harassment against women at workplaces.

The judgment remains to be a landmark as it elaborated the beauty of the Indian Constitution towards protecting the rights of individuals under Articles 14, 19(1)(g) and 21, and the responsibility on the Indian State underArticles 51(c), 73, 253 and Seventh Schedule.. The apex court referred to the above provisions which envisage judicial intervention for eradication of this social evil and pronounced the following,

“In view of the above, and the absence of enacted law to provide for the effective enforcement of the basic human right of gender equality and guarantee against sexual harassment and abuse, more particularly against sexual harassment at work places, we lay down the guidelines and norms specified hereinafter for due observance at all work places or other institutions, until a legislation is enacted for the purpose. This is done in exercise of the power available under Article 32 of the Constitution for enforcement of the fundamental rights and it is further emphasised that this would be treated as the law declared by this Court under Article 141 of the Constitution.”

The guidelines were quite elaborate and specifically dealt with the following: duty of the employer or other responsible persons in work places and other institutions; definition especially as to what constitute sexual harassment; preventive steps; criminal proceedings; disciplinary action; complaint mechanism; complaints committee; workers’ initiative; awareness; and where sexual harassment occurs as a result of an act or omission by any third party or outsider. It also stated that the Central/state governments are requested to consider adopting suitable measures including legislation to ensure that the guidelines laid down by this order are also observed by the employers in private sector.

However, it took almost 15 years for the Parliament to convert the guidelines into a law, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, in 2013. The moot question is why the legislature took so long to frame the law. Why is it that issues of gender continue to be given least priority by the Parliament even in times of an awakened human rights global world? Another illustrative example of the lethargy in legislating is seen evidently in the case of sexual crime victims of child marriage. The 2017 judgment of the Supreme Court in the matter, Independent Thought vs. Union of India [(2017) 10 SCC 800], where the top Court read down the Exception 2 of Section 375, Indian Penal Code (IPC), raising the age of Consent from 15 years to 18 years even for married girls at par with other girls. The same needs a formal amendment in the IPC, but even 5 years later the Government of India has not demonstrated any intent to make these changes. This is more so when the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 was tabled in the Parliament, making corresponding changes in various laws, the required amendment in IPC was missing.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013or the POSH law has indisputably come as an empowering tool for several working women and has strengthened the confidence in the ‘second sex’ to fearlessly voice her concerns with dignity. Since 2013, there has been a paradigm shift in the cloud of shame shifting from the complainant woman to the male accused of this act. The 2013 law mandates each organization with more than 10 employees to have an internal committee and a policy on prevention, prohibition, and redressal of sexual harassment at workplace for women. Further the Ministry of Corporate Affairs through the Companies (Accounts) Amendment Rules, 2018, makes ‘Disclosure of compliance under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act in the annual reports of private companies as mandatory. The businesses must be made accountable for ensuring adherence to human rights principles and these are must for an equitable growth and achieving the sustainable development goals 2030.

With 25 years of the law in place, it is time to fully recognise the issue at hand as a human rights issue and not one of gender. Prevention, as they say, is always better than cure and what best to practise this than now, after two and a half decades of the law in place.

Vikram Srivastava is an advocate and founder of Independent Thought and Leena Prasad is an advocate and Associate Director, Advocacy, Research, and Training. Udayan Care.

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Opinion

India at 75: The empowered woman

Women are a reflection of ethics, loyalty, decisiveness and leadership, says PM Narendra Modi.

Sanju Verma

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Among the many progressive measures by Prime Minister Modi, one that stands out for its sheer scale, size, reach and of course the manner in which it has revolutionized the lives of millions of Indian women, is the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana (PMMY).Since inception, about 35 crore people have benefitted from total loans sanctioned, in excess of Rs 19 lakh crore. Of this 35 crore, over 70% of the beneficiaries are women, especially those belonging to the marginalised sections of the society. Similarly, cooking food,using a gas connection may not be a big deal for many but for the “eight crore-th” beneficiary of Modi’s Ujjwala scheme from Maharashtra, Ayesha Shaikh, getting a gas cylinder was nothing short of a major milestone.For this daily wager, Ayesha, who is a mother of five, from Ajanta village, the days of fetching dry wood from nearby areas for cooking on a humble ‘chulha’, billowing toxic smoke, are over.

India under PM Modi,has fully endorsed the United Nations in its “think equal, build smart, innovate for change’, motto, with regard to women empowerment. Now women have an opportunity to have permanent employment in the Indian Army and Indian Navy, something that was unthinkable earlier.

But if there is one thing that stirred the imagination of 1.4 billion people, more than anything else, it was PM Modi’s unabashed acknowledgement from the ramparts of the Red Fort, two years back,of how over 8000 Jan Aushadhi Kendras had provided around 5 crore sanitary pads at Re 1, to poor women in rural India. For Modi, an international leader of towering repute, to openly embrace and mainstream the issue of women hygiene,(menstruation) is not mere symbolism. By doing what he did, Modi sent a strong message,that for him, good governance is all about walking the talk, with no ifs and buts whatsoever.

From defining the nation’s first menstrual hygiene protocol, amending the Medical Termination Pregnancy Act of 1971,giving women reproductive rights over their bodies and increasing the fetal gestation period from 20 to 24 weeks, welcoming more women recruits in the NCC, which will now be extended to border and coastal areas, to criminalising the inhuman and unconstitutional practice of instant triple talaq and decision to increase marriageable age from 18 to 21 years for women, the Modi government has truly exhibited a bold, women friendly approach which is both mature and modern,and something,which no other government in post Independent India can dare boast of.

Banning commercial surrogacy which had led to mushrooming of illegal IVF and surrogacy clinics, was yet another bold move by the Modi government. According to the new laws, only married Indian couples, who have been together for a minimum of five years and have been deemed medically unfit by a doctor or practitioner to conceive children naturally,will be allowed to depend on a surrogate.

Women empowerment is not just about gender equality and gender justice. It also means more jobs, equal opportunities for growth and entrepreneurship. If there is one leader who has recognized women for what they are and who they are, it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Whether it is providing free cooking gas via the famous PM Ujjwala Yojana ,or financial inclusion via PM Jan Dhan Yojana,or enabling women to leverage technology, a slew of schemes have been launched in recent years to empower women on the path of self reliance. Speaking of women empowerment, Mahila-E-Haat,a portal featuring 2000 products, is a bilingual online marketing platform that leverages technology to help aspiring women entrepreneurs, self-help groups (SHGs) and NGOs, to showcase their products and services.Among the many services provided by Mahila-E-Haat are, facilitating direct contact between the vendors and buyers and it is open to all Indian women above the age of 18.

The Modi government also launched the Mahila Shakti Kendra with presence in over 115 districts, to empower rural women with opportunities for skill development, employment, digital literacy, health and nutrition. The Modi government, few years back, also launched affordable “Working Women Hostels”, on a war footing, to ensure availability of safe and convenient accommodation for working women and single mothers, along with day-care facilities for their children, wherever possible in urban, semi-urban and rural areas.

Again, the Support to Training and Employment Programme for Women (STEP) scheme,is intended to benefit women who are in the age group of 16 years and above, across the country. The skills imparted include, but are not limited to, agriculture, horticulture, food processing, handlooms, tailoring, stitching, embroidery, zari, handicrafts, computers & IT-enabled services. Also,the Modi government’s Beti Bachao Beti Padhao initiative, is so much more than being just a mission statement, best exemplified by the surge in the sex ratio at birth (SRB) in Haryana, from 871 in 2015,to 914 in 2017, with districts like Panipat and Yamunanagar reporting SRB of 945 and 943 for every 1000 males. The increase in overall sex ratio is a combination of increased life expectancy of women and improvement in the sex ratio at birth or the number of female births for every 1000 male births. While the SRB last year rose to 929,the overall sex ratio stood at 1020 females for every 1000 males, with number of females exceeding number of males, for the first time ever. That again is a good sign. To cut a long story short, on every conceivable parameter, girls in India are far safer today than they were, say eight years back. Modi, is a truly progressive statesman with a liberated mindset; modern, sensitive, a thinking leader, who has uplifted scores of women by strengthening policy making tools, to deliver, where it matters most.

Sweeping amendments to the Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection of Children) Act of 2015, lowers the trial age for heinous crimes like rape and murder from 18 years, to 16 years. A 16-year-old will now be treated and punished like any other adult as per due process of law, under Sections 376 and 302 of the Indian Penal Code, which bodes well for young girls who are victims of sexual assault. Leftist cheerleaders who have been mocking the Beti Bachao campaign, would do well to know that the Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana, to facilitate the education of the girl child, has already reached out to more than 4 crore aspirational young women. Unarguably, however, the landmark achievement of the BJP government to further the cause of “Beti Bachao”, has been the over 11 crore toilets built in rural India under the “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan”, scheme.

Again, India has over 73,000 startups, with at least 45% of them having women entrepreneurs. Over 15% of India’s 105 Unicorns have women as the founders and that number is rapidly growing. Out of 78 ministers post the cabinet expansion in July 2021, 11 in Modi’s cabinet today, are women. This is the highest number of women in the Union Council of Ministers in the last 17 years.

“Women empowerment is crucial to India’s growth. Days of seeing women as just ‘home makers’ have gone, we have to see women as nation builders”, is something Narendra Modi tweeted in January 2014,even before he became the PM and that tweet sums up the progressive mindset of the Modi government, in more ways than one.Most importantly,India’s 15th President, Droupadi Murmu,is the embodiment of how “naari shakti” in Modi’s India, is essentially about the ability to dream, the willingness to work hard and the determination to succeed, unwaveringly and undeterred. That Murmu is also the first tribal leader who is now India’s First Citizen, as India celebrates 75 years of independence, makes Murmu’s achievements even more notable. Suffice to conclude by saying that in Modi’s India,a Santhali woman from a remote village in Mayurbhanj district in Odisha,is today the proud occupant of Raisina Hill. That inspiring journey of Droupadi Murmu is also an ode to the farsightedness and astute vision of PM Modi,who remains one of the most popular leaders globally and for good reason.

Ms Sanju Verma is an Economist, National Spokesperson for BJP and Bestselling Author of “The Modi Gambit”.

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