Gender gaps in education

Interesting new paper from Dr Ashwini Despande of Ashoka University on gender gaps in school education in India, which underlines the persisting gaps in the quality of education offered to girls as compared to boys. The paper notes that “the gender gap in private schooling increased slightly over the period, with the largest increase in families with unwanted girls. The expenditure gap between girls and boys was driven by families with unwanted girls” during 1995-2018.

These gaps can have large implications for economic growth in a country where numerous studies have highlighted the culture of son preference stunting the rights of the girl child to education and work opportunities. Even as the total fertility rate (TFR) has rapidly declined in India during 2001-2011 and some change has been recorded in the culture of son preference, there is a decline in the already low female LFPRs indicating the low priority accorded to women’s place in the labour force. As the paper notes, “growth, development, and structural shifts in India have not acted as natural antidotes to gender discrimination. Sex selection and educational investments in children appear to be part of family strategies to achieve upward mobility”.

Read more here.

25 years on, what’s next for Mayawati?

First published in Mint: https://www.livemint.com/Home-Page/BfUgIQbCr0xrgTr6cdHfjK/25-years-on-what8217s-next-for-Mayawati.html

A woman sarpanch finds her place under the sun

First published in Mint: https://www.livemint.com/Home-Page/MNfpZSM9Wlm8jzKFtUC4yJ/A-woman-8216sarpanch8217-finds-her-place-in-the-sun.html

Inequality in publishing

Gender neutrality in economics: The role of editors and referees https://voxeu.org/article/gender-neutrality-economics-role-editors-and-referees

Yet another paper confirming what we have known all along: Women academics face a higher bar for punishing in journals than their male peers.

Changing approach to dealing with rape

The young girl, visibly bruised and shaken, was brought for questioning amid blaring sirens and numerous cops stirred by her sudden appearance. She was reporting rape on a summer day in 2001 in a police station in central Delhi, where the policemen struggled to make sense of her distress.

In an instant, they went hurling questions at the girl; but she wouldn’t stop sobbing. Their questions to her were intimate and rattling—details on the rape, reconstruction of events leading to the crime, finding witnesses and identifying the accused.

Rajat Mitra watched the proceedings with unease. A trained clinical psychologist, he was at the police station in connection with a case at Sanjeevani, a non-governmental organization (NGO) for mentally disturbed people, where he worked; but what he saw that day was to lead him to an unusual career.

“The whole attitude (of the police) affected me deeply. The family needed emotional support and not someone yelling at them. I came back home and talked to my family about it. I began thinking very deeply about the lack of counselling services for rape victims,” Mitra recalls.

There, according to Mitra, the police’s method of questioning was weakening the case. “A rape affects the victim’s memory and perception, and when dealt with roughly, it can just emotionally wreck her. That’s where a psychologist is needed,” he reasons.

Mitra hadn’t imagined a life dedicated to picking threads of crime from psychological enquiries into pain, but what he proposed to the commissioner meant the same: his services as a dedicated rape counsellor for the Delhi Police.

His proposal that police refer rape cases to him for counselling, the first such initiative ever considered by the police in India, was approved the same year, though on an experimental basis.

In the years since, Mitra, a trained clinical psychologist from Delhi University and who has a doctorate from the University of New Orleans, Louisiana, has counselled nearly 7,000 rape victims; but, unlike before, he is no more alone in this endeavour.

 

While the Delhi police engages with Swanchetan to counsel rape victims, the Mumbai police has been engaging with Sehat, an NGO, and a few hospitals in recent years.

In Chennai, the city police has formed a separate cell to deal with rape cases and also work closely with NGO Tulir, which works exclusively for child victims of sexual abuse. In smaller cities, rape activists say the word on counselling is still to reach the local police, though rape continues to be a prominent crime with cities such as Bhopal, Jabalpur, Jaipur and Pune reporting the crime in large numbers (see box).

Typically, when they begin, no one is allowed in the counselling room, not even the police, and sessions run into hours. “There are certain strict no’s during counselling: don’t probe, don’t go deep without permission, don’t ask deeply personal and leading questions,” says Pubalin Dash, a 31-year-old counsellor based in Delhi, adding that the victim’s version, as gathered after hours of patient counselling, requires a confident submission in court to be accepted.

While the provision of counselling is yet to go a long way in India’s criminal justice system, it’s already making substantial contributions in helping victims report the crime and get over the emotional trauma.

Dash recalls an incident where the lawyer defending the offender argued that the rape was consensual since the woman who claimed to have been raped had undressed as the rapist so desired. “Rape victims don’t shout. They freeze. Research shows 80% of rape victims freeze during rape. During rape, a woman shows passive resistance, and only a counsellor can convince the court about it,” says Dash.

In another case, Vidya Reddy, a health professional with Chennai-based Tulir, recalls a gangrape victim breaking into a giggle in court as the defence lawyer asked a range of embarrassing questions. “The lawyer argued that because she giggled, she must have consented. Rape trauma may shock or make one hysterical, but this aspect is often overlooked by the police,” she says.

Mitra, so far, has testified in a hundred rape cases in Delhi, a far cry from the days when the courts would simply treat counsellors to cross-examination. Justice V.S. Malimath, who recommended counselling for rape victims in his report on reforms for the Indian criminal justice system, says that while testimony is viewed with great care and caution, “courts do accept it provided the counsellor is experienced and certified”.

In a first where a Delhi court accepted the testimony of a rape counsellor, Swanchetan’s counsellors helped the police corroborate evidence against an offender.

In another rape case—of a mute girl—the rape counsellors helped police nab the offender by interpreting the gestures made by the victim.

The involvement of counsellors, already an established norm in rape cases in the West, is more evident in India’s metros such as New Delhi and Mumbai, where rape continues to be perpetrated with impunity. In 2010, Delhi accounted for nearly one-fourth of the total rape cases in India. “I have seen the largest number of sexual assault cases in Delhi in the last 10 years without exception,” Mitra says.

The victims are mostly young, apparently vulnerable, from lower income groups, and, in many cases, known to offenders. In 2009, for example, 94.9% involved offenders were known to the victims, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

And while a vast majority of rapes still go unreported due to the stigma attached with the crime, rape counsellors have also helped survivors report it with the police. “A girl from a Muslim family was brought to New Friends’ Colony police station bleeding. We saw signs of sexual abuse, but the child was afraid to testify against her father. She finally opened up; and for four years, our counsellors fought the case,” says Nidhi Mitra, another rape counsellor at Swanchetan.

For the first six months, he got no cases to handle as the cops didn’t refer any. “When the cases slowly started coming in and we began appearing in courts, defence lawyers would often question why we (counsellors) were included when there was no provision for the same in the criminal laws of the country. One defence lawyer once told me: ‘Why do you come in courts? You should stay in hospitals’,” recalls Mitra, adding that the response from lawyers still needs improvement.

 

Then there are other challenges, such as the lack of evidence in rape since it’s a private crime, and, often, weird responses from victims. “One victim once said about the offender: ‘He loves me enough to rape me.’ Now, how do you explain that?” asks Dash, citing examples from the West, where rape survivors would talk of violation during counselling as opposed to women in India who would talk about the way in which rape has lowered their worth.

 

This was first published in Mint.

18 percent of 50

Wikipedia has been a deeply unequal place and this wasn’t going to change anytime soon. But thanks to the efforts of academics and researchers and gender experts around the world, the gender gap on Wikimedia has narrowed. Check out the figures for every country here.

Since 2015, ‘Women in Red’ project based has been leading efforts to mitigate the biases on the internet, especially the “content gender gap” prevalent on websites like Wikipedia. On Wikipedia, women have been underrepresented and this forms the basis for the ‘Women in Red‘ project to work towards turning the non-existent red links on Wikipedia into blue ones, with women’s biographies, details on their work and career, and other gender issues. Since 2015, the entries about women on Wikimedia were just about 15% of the total entries on the site; four years later, it has touched 18%.

At Rice University, Prof Diane Straussman has been encouraging students to take up wikimedia entries as part of their student projects. An interview with her to learn more about her efforts will be on this blog soon.

While I get back here with the interview, here , here, here and here are some interesting reads on the gender gap and efforts to bridge the gap, highlighting the credit for outstanding work by women that either arrives late or almost never comes!

 

 

Rape Victims Are Being Silenced. Will We Just Watch?

Often, I shut myself down when I hear of heinous crime against a woman. Like when Nirbhaya was raped. And now when his girl in Unnao has been raped and seeking justice. But her story is almost like the dirty, scary Bollywood movie you watched and hated: Girl is raped and in no particular coincidence, her family members are wiped out. Oh, I actually have a movie in mind: Damini. Sometimes, life can be stranger than fiction.

Last heard, Unnao girl’s father and two aunts were killed in road accidents, and the victim’s lawyer and the victim herself survived a fatal accident (and it’s anybody’s guess if it was a murder attempt to silence her) – both are badly injured. Police were quoted as saying that even though the victim has police protection, one of the constables deputed for her security were present at the time of the accident. I don’t want to say more because this should say enough. The accused happens to be someone in power, a BJP MLA.

I would rather discuss what this could do to rape victims across India. It’s no secret that reporting and protesting rape has been a difficult effort for women in India. Our rape laws have come a long way today but they once had deeply sexist provisions such as the “two-finger test”. One look at the history of rape judgements in the past would give a sense of how deeply patriarchy has entrenched itself even in ways justice has been delivered. It’s not surprising then that talking about rape too is like breaking open a wound that doesn’t heal. The approach towards dealing with rape survivors  (I reported on this for Mint ) may have changed, but our political and social system ensures that fighting for justice remains a battle fraught with dangers.

The Girl With The Peacock Tattoo

It was always the tattoo that stood out. Peacock tattoo on the waist. It hurt to get it done but then, is there ever any gain without pain? Neetu Singh Solanki knew it only too well. She was a girl from Matiala, the congested suburb in West Delhi that we hear of only during elections, or when a teen has shot himself to death over a family altercation, or when a man is shot dead for marrying out of his gotra. Matiala is that kind of a place you never want to go to because you don’t expect any good to come out of the suburb, notorious for illegal factories and colonies.

It is in this milieu that Neetu Singh Solanki appears like the proverbial phoenix attempting to emerge out of darkness, unhinged, a winner of life. Everyone used the words “courageous” “smart” “bright” “vivacious” to describe her. The fact that she was pretty was a bonus. Nothing could ever pull her down, not her modest roots, not her sexist locality, not her contemptuous neighbours. One day, she said to her parents what they always expected she would: she was moving to Singapore. Trusting parents them all, they dropped her at the airport and expected her to stay in touch.

In just a few months, a sack loaded with a woman’s mutilated limbs was found lying near the New Delhi railway station. It appeared like the gruesome murder of a young woman by someone whom she knew well. Her parents identified the body, and Neetu Singh Solanki became the most controversial figure of Matiala.

I wrote a story about her in Mint right after her murder. I travelled to Matiala, met her family, spoke to the cops and tried very hard to make sense of the murder. Eight years later, her boyfriend, accused of murdering her, died of multiple organ failure in Gurgaon and the case was back in news again. What stunned people was that Raju Gehlot had lived and worked in Gurgaon all these years and faked his identity to escape the police’s eyes.

Every report today seems to be calling her the tattoo girl, and she indeed was. But she was much more – a girl trying to rise above her circumstances to do make something of her life. But we aren’t asking any questions. To the police who couldn’t trace the murderer who was in Delhi all along. To the police who never even filed a chargesheet in the case. To the police who now wants to ask the court to allow them to file a closure report in the case.

This murder was no less gruesome than others. In fact, murders can’t be less or more gruesome. Murder is the forced discontinuation of life and no one has a right to do that to anyone. In Neetu Singh Solanki’s case, who was called many names, not all of it good, by her neighbours, her murder served as an excuse for many in Matiala to deny girls their rightful place within families and society.

Never could anyone doubt the free spirit of Neetu from the pictures on the walls of her home, but what was a matter of pride for her parents, became fodder for gossip for uncaring neighbours. All they could talk about was the tattoo. The tattoo stood for something profound: the courage of a girl to make her choices and live with conviction.

Hey Alexa! Say Hello To Q!

Chances are, you have an Alexa at home. So do I. So, this post is for you.

A UN study has found that voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri have been designed excessively servile that perpetuate gender stereotypes about women. The report recommended that companies stop making digital voice assistants female by default, and explore gender-neutral options.

They are programmed to be submissive and servile – including politely responding to insults – meaning they reinforce gender bias and normalise sexist harassment, said researchers from the U.N. scientific and cultural body UNESCO.

The study highlighted that Siri was previously programmed to respond to users calling her a “bitch” by saying “I’d blush if I could” as an example of the issue.

“Siri’s submissiveness in the face of gender abuse – and the servility expressed by so many other digital assistants projected as young women – provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products,” it said.

Earlier this year, Q was developed as a gender-neutral voice assistant developed by a team of technologists at EqualAI to promote gender equality in technology and to address concerns of sexism. A Quartz article explained why genderless technology such as Q matters:

Adding a voice like Q’s to a menu of audio options would address more than one ethical dilemma. As Q articulates in its introductory recording, it would make tech more inclusive by recognizing people who identify as non-binary, a population that’s becoming increasingly visible as social norms change. “It’s because Q is likely to play with our minds that it is important,” Kristina Hultgren, a linguist who was not part of the project, told Wired. “It plays with our urge to put people into boxes and therefore has the potential to push people’s boundaries and broaden their horizons.”

Wide adoption of a genderless voice would also pave the way for some much needed women’s liberation among AI assistants, which are infiltrating our lives at a rate that has even surprised industry analysts. Currently, all of the major digital voices who answer our questions about the weather, or provide the exchange rate between the peso and a dollar, or remind us to make a phone call, are undeniably feminine, even though their makers claim the bots are genderless.

Yet, however big a deal Q might be, gender bias in technology can’t be fully removed unless diversity and inclusion in technology (AI et al), creative and leadership roles happen. Until then, robots and digital assistants will continue to reflect what they learn from human behavior. 

Wanna hear what Q sounds like? Go here, and use headphones!

Kabir Singh Doesn’t Exist In An Alternate Universe. Fellow Feminists, It’s Time To Accept It

Though it’s a bit late in the day, here are my thoughts on Kabir Singh, the movie, which has been trashed by feminists as utterly vile and sickening for the sheer misogyny of its lead character played by Shahid Kapoor. A few critics have argued that Kabir Singh, the character, is so misogynistic that he couldn’t possibly exist in the universe we live in. Right from his violation of consent while kissing his love interest played by Kiara Advani,  to his treatment of women in general, Kabir Singh many argue couldn’t belong to the world we live in. They say, it’s impossible and I wonder why. Isn’t this the world where men rape women with rods and rape babies when they are as young as two. I have even heard that some of them don’t even spare lesser than mortal animals in their animalistic quest for sexual gratification. I haven’t heard anyone scream over these reports and say that these men couldn’t be from our world. They are in our world and we accept this with great horror and disgust. Kabir Singh needs this acceptance too, an imperfect, deeply misogynistic man tugging at our feminist hearts as a curse only to be condemned.

Yes, life and reality of it can be very difficult to swallow. For someone who feels very strongly about sexism, I hate to be saying this but Kabir Singh is NOT from an alternate universe. I hear you when you insist he is. What you mean, really, is that he couldn’t be belonging to this world. Yes, he couldn’t be, with his ugliness and imperfections but world, as it exists, can be very ugly. Not accepting ugliness as part of your world, I think, is a mostly urban and utterly myopic view of the world, acutely unaware of the small town cultural and social landscape, especially in the Hindi belt of our country.

In a very real world where girls haven’t been raised to be independent individuals, men step in to behave like Kabir Singh, and are welcomed to behave like one. They could be our fathers, boyfriends, and husbands. They could be in our families, or outside of it, but their existence isn’t unreal. I have heard the noise on the male protagonist in the movie not caring about consent to kiss women, or make out with them, but for decades, we have had women allowing men to usurp what’s been theirs, willingly or unwillingly, and it’s this universe (not alternate) that the film portrays. This explains why the struggle for women’s rights_right from a Shah Bano to the pending legislation on marital rape remains a difficult one.

To get back to the film, since when do we label reality as an alternate universe, say it doesn’t exist? That’s like being in a place of privilege and making judgments about a reality that may not be yours. And do I need to say that without placing difficult truths where they belong, we (feminists) could never win any battle? Without accepting what the problem is and why, one couldn’t really address the problem. And that brings me to what I thought the problem is that truly needs to be discussed.

What made me very anxious about the movie was the character of Kiara Advani. Haven’t I seen many of her ilk in the town I grew up in and did they not travel with me when I moved to a global city for my global education? Many landed in the city with their boyfriends hailing cabs, carrying their suitcases to their rooms, showing them the path from college to hostel and suggesting, sounding very concerned, safe ways to navigate in the foreign city and keep themselves surrounded by people (especially Indian friends) all the time. This protective girl gang partied together and ate together and slept together, shutting themselves in the process to the multicultural world they found themselves transported to for their education.

I saw them needing boyfriends or brothers or mothers for security, protection and every day adjustments in life as if they could always have the luxury to live life joined to the hips with those they love and trust. Nothing wrong with this, after all, India is great for the support system that covers in its broad sweep friends and families who are utterly protective and giving.  Perfectly fine, but this may be why the spirit to venture out and live life independently dies early in some girls. and they are not to be blamed. We are in a country where a majority of girls are still raised to get married and start a family. I am not talking in thin air, maybe this UN Women report I wrote about yesterday will give you a sense of the problem.

If you aren’t one of them, I must tell you that you (and I too) are in minority. You are lucky you aren’t told to continue in a tasteless, abusive marriage because marriages are forever. You are bright and you deserve it, but those conditioned to act like they would die without a Kabir Singh don’t need your shock and condescension, for Kabir Singh is just the kind of man they may be stuck with for life. What would really help is your acceptance that such men exist just as they do, the rapists and dacoits and murderers do, and then LOUDLY say, cinema reflects life and life is sad. Life is sad, yes. At times. Girls like Kiara Advani’s character exist. They are in a prison cell, the lock to the prison door is missing and yet, they stay.

Why are they staying? Often times, they don’t have the support of parents who say, girl, we are with you, don’t take anyone’s shit. Sometimes, they don’t even know that they should walk out or if it’s okay to walk out. Sometimes, they know but they still won’t. Sometimes, they just can’t. Let us please not forget the real issues, then. The real issues we (feminists) need to be raging about are our unfair inheritance laws, son preference in Indian society, female foeticide, social structures that don’t favor strong and independent girls, cultural underpinnings that wouldn’t allow men to help out women in domestic chores, women sacrificing careers to make way for obligations in a marriage, inequality in families that hinders or limits their access to education, jobs, a career, their rights to property, equal pay …… the list is endless. Don’t say these don’t exist. Next time, you think of Kabir Singh, say this aloud: Kabir Singh is a product of the inequalities women face. Then, be very angry about these inequalities and make this into a chorus. This anger will do justice to Kiara Advanis across India you wouldn’t want to let down.  

 

 

 

 

How Are Women Doing?

Hello 2019, how are we women doing across the world? Same same, this UN Women report released this month says.

Some progress has been made, yes, but institutional discrimination continues to exist in the shape of family laws, impinging upon women’s status in marriage and family structures, labour force participation and access to income and assets.

Disturbing realities persist. Women of the world even today work three times harder at unpaid care and domestic work when compared to men. Of course, when women work at home more, they are removed from opportunities for paid work and education.

I would sum up the key findings from India, you can read the entire report here:

  • Mothers-in-law still control the choices of their daughters-in-law, whether it is about choosing their clothes or making decisions over childbearing or children’s marriages.
  • Arranged marriage continues to be the most preferred way to marry.
  • Dowry as a practice is far from obsolete, hail feminism (or its failure in prohibiting the ugly practice)! Dowry practices continue to result in violence against women. Available data on dowry-related killings from the National Crime Records Bureau in India indicate that female dowry deaths account for 40 to 50 percent of all female homicides recorded annually between 1999 and 2016.
  • The total fertility rate within the Southasia region is projected to drop from 5.6 live births per woman in 1970-1975 to 2.4 births in 2015-2020 (same rate as the global average). This rate is predicted to further decline in the region to 2.2 by 2025-2030.
  • Son preference is going strong and sex-selective abortions happen with impunity. Countries with abnormally high sex ratios (greater than 105 males per 100 females) in Southern Asia are Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, Pakistan, and hold your breath, India.
  • Marriages below the legal age of marriage still continue to happen in some regions.
  • Same-sex couples enjoy few rights or legal entitlements despite the Supreme Court of India repealing Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, thereby legalizing same-sex relationships.
  • Unpaid work or other economic activities that happen within the families have the weakest potential for transforming women’s lives, yet they are a dominant feature of women’s work in the region.
    • Women who own assets such as land and housing have a greater degree of protection against violence and abusive marriages.
  • Only a fraction of women aged 15-49 in India (estimates ranging from 17 to 26 percent) receive a wage or income of their own, meaning that the great majority of women are financially dependent on their spouses, fathers, in-laws and other extended kin.
  • A majority of divorced women are still dependent on their parents and brothers for financial support and living arrangements after separation.
  • Women are overwhelmingly concerned about the adverse implications of their long working hours (paid and unpaid) for their children.

All of these, especially the last three findings, are alarming facts. Women’s guilt over giving less of their time to their children exists because they are trapped in family structures where women do most of the childcare and other unpaid work, often comprising heir personal and professional goals. Discrimination and son preference within households restricts women’s access to education and hence, jobs, leaving them financially crippled and vulnerable especially after a divorce or breakdown of the marriage. We may have seen changes in family law and criminal procedure code over the years but we have a long way to go. I have always believed that a lot of this comes from cultural underpinnings that influence every decision parents make for the girl child. A revolution is needed, nothing less.

WHAT ATISHI’S DEFEAT AND PRAGYA SINGH THAKUR’S WIN TELL US ABOUT INDIA

More than 100 years ago, in the iconic Citizenship In A Republic speech, US President Theodore Roosevelt outlined the key drivers of a successful republic: the quality of its citizens and high calibre political leaders who would hold the average citizen to a high standard—not just by words, but by deeds as well. The Aam Aadmi Party’s Atishi fits this idea of a high calibre leader, one who is, as Roosevelt said, critical to the success of a democracy.

Atishi, born to Delhi University professors Vijay Singh and Tripta Wahi, studied at St Stephen’s and Oxford University, excelled at academics, and chose to work for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) when she could have chosen the path of corporate opulence just as an overwhelming number of people with pedigree do. The 37-year-old was AAP’s only female candidate in Delhi, besides being the only woman on its highest decision-making body. In one of her interviews, she said she chose politics because that is the path that helps bring change.

Yet, today as we stand, electoral trends point to her losing out on her political debut to BJP candidate from East Delhi, Gautam Gambhir, another political debutante and star cricketer who is far removed from everything she stands for: the politics of development, social policy and genuine groundwork. Atishi also trails behind the Congress candidate from East Delhi, Arvinder Singh Lovely.

As Delhi’s education advisor since July 2015, Atishi was at the helm of large-scale education reforms in the government schools of Delhi with stunning results. A gaping divide separates government-aided education from private school education in India and she helped bridge the gap with policies and programmes that sought to replace the tarred image of government schools with that of swanky and sharp ones where classes do happen and dedicated teachers show up at school for children from India’s underclass. Her door-to-door campaign turned the BJP’s religious slogan of “Mandir wahin banayenge” into “School wahin banayenge”, a clear marker of the kind of politics she has been vouching for.

But in the din of Indian politics, strong interplay of caste and religious identities can take well-meaning leaders down. This could explain the lead of the BJP’s Pragya Singh Thakur—who has absolutely no development agenda to boot—in Bhopal even as Atishi trails. Pragya wears her Hindu nationalistic robes with fervour, rides on the politics of saffron symbolism, and played the victim card in her campaign by talking of police cruelty while she was jailed.

Atishi’s struggle has been a departure from Pragya’s politics. For Atishi, being in the electoral fray with confusion over caste and religion turned out to be a self-defeating thing to do. Advising the government on winning programmes can win women respect but to talk of real development as a woman politician fighting to win is even worse—or so it appears.

In India, being a well-meaning woman in the electoral fray isn’t enough. The political structure is designed to accommodate women in non-threatening roles with little or no career progression to bigger political roles. Those who co-opt into the system survive with glorious wins. Like Pragya Singh Thakur has. Many view women as intellectually or economically weak to win an election. From Lalu Yadav’s cheesy references to actor and BJP MP Hema Malini’s cheeks to Congress candidate and actor Urmila Matondkar’s rival calling her a bholi bhali ladki to SP politician Jaya Prada being called derogatory names—all this drama and mansplaining in politics is contemptuous and sickeningly sexist, and yet it continues to resist women from moving forward.

Atishi’s surname of Marlena, given to her by her Leftist parents, was attacked first with rumours projecting her as a Christian. Days into her political campaign, Atishi had vehemently said that the only plank for her in the elections would be her work on health and education and her vision for East Delhi. Very soon, her surname was called into question and we heard Atishi declaring her caste at birth: “My actual surname is ‘Singh’ and I come from a Punjabi Rajput family.” This is how she went around telling people, frazzled about the fuss over her caste and religious identity. Atishi ultimately dropped her the name Marlena.

In the rabidly masculine world of politics, Delhi’s East Delhi constituency looked like just another post waiting to be swallowed by the saffron surge. Gautam Gambhir was just the BJP’s foot soldier like hundreds of others, guarding the post as votes were cast for the overpowering persona of Modi. Atishi and her report card, her campaign videos and her repeated emphasis on developmental issues were just weak straws against a very strong saffron wave. The fact that Atishi suffered an attempt at her character assassination doesn’t seem to matter.

While it can be safely said that in seats that went to the BJP, the votes were cast for Modi, was it also Atishi’s aggressive campaign that weakened her position in a highly sexualised campaign? Popular support for macho, sexually-charged campaigns that male politicians run and women politicians like Pragya Singh Thakur co-opt into silences women with an agenda to work.

The Modi wave

“How will women participate in politics if treated this way?” was the common refrain during Atishi’s very difficult campaign, during which she publicly broke down. Atishi has been raw, articulate, and human. And her campaign relentlessly kept putting the focus back on real issues. In contrast, 49-year-old Pragya Singh Thakur’s contest in itself was an escape from the problematic questions that her candidature and now her win raises. An accused awaiting trial in the 2008 Malegaon bombings, she, as her political rival and Congress’s veteran leader Digvijaya Singh has said, is the face of Hindu terror. She faced arrest for terror charges, but has consistently used it to her advantage by playing the victim card. Her frequent references to her “tortuous” jail time and other comments have kept stirring controversies, the latest being the one where she called Mahatma Gandhi’s killer a patriot.

When examined through the lens of gender, Pragya Singh seems to have successfully channelled gender as a weapon to shame the state apparatus and its dealings with terror accused free of any other identity of privilege except religion. A sadhvi for Hindus remains a sacred identity and Pragya Thakur’s allegations about police torture on her body remains, if not a political issue, definitely a religious issue, finding appeal with the masses.

Way forward

Even today, women constitute only 11.8 per cent (64 of 543) seats in the Lok Sabha and 11 per cent (27 out of 245) seats in the Rajya Sabha. A 2017 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women indicates that between 2010 and 2017, the share of women representatives in the Lok Sabha rose only by one per cent. This means that the percentage of women elected to Parliament has stagnated between three and 11 percent ever since the first Lok Sabha was constituted 67 years ago in 1952.

This is a paradox, considering the increasing share of women voters in the electorate. From 48 percent in 1971, the turnout of women increased to 60 percent in 1984 and then to 65.3 percent during the 2014 general elections.

While the sheer size of women voters is heartening and the representation of women in Parliament may have a long way to go, it is time the debate on women’s participation in politics discussed the quality of women in the electoral fray and not just increasing the number of women in Parliament. To be sure, the same standards could be applied to male candidates as well, but we often fail. However, given the sheer impact of women’s political participation on the life of a nation, it’s important that we are clear about the role models we have: the ones who burn the unchartered path to build anew, or those who fall into the macho-masculine narrative of male politicians and close the room for negotiation.

This story was first published here.

What Atishi’s defeat and Pragya Singh Thakur’s win tell us about India

More than 100 years ago, in the iconic Citizenship In A Republic speech, US President Theodore Roosevelt outlined the key drivers of a successful republic: the quality of its citizens and high calibre political leaders who would hold the average citizen to a high standard—not just by words, but by deeds as well. The Aam Aadmi Party’s Atishi fits this idea of a high calibre leader, one who is, as Roosevelt said, critical to the success of a democracy.

Atishi, born to Delhi University professors Vijay Singh and Tripta Wahi, studied at St Stephen’s and Oxford University, excelled at academics, and chose to work for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) when she could have chosen the path of corporate opulence just as an overwhelming number of people with pedigree do. The 37-year-old was AAP’s only female candidate in Delhi, besides being the only woman on its highest decision-making body. In one of her interviews, she said she chose politics because that is the path that helps bring change.

Yet, today as we stand, electoral trends point to her losing out on her political debut to BJP candidate from East Delhi, Gautam Gambhir, another political debutante and star cricketer who is far removed from everything she stands for: the politics of development, social policy and genuine groundwork. Atishi also trails behind the Congress candidate from East Delhi, Arvinder Singh Lovely.

As Delhi’s education advisor since July 2015, Atishi was at the helm of large-scale education reforms in the government schools of Delhi with stunning results. A gaping divide separates government-aided education from private school education in India and she helped bridge the gap with policies and programmes that sought to replace the tarred image of government schools with that of swanky and sharp ones where classes do happen and dedicated teachers show up at school for children from India’s underclass. Her door-to-door campaign turned the BJP’s religious slogan of “Mandir wahin banayenge” into “School wahin banayenge”, a clear marker of the kind of politics she has been vouching for.

But in the din of Indian politics, strong interplay of caste and religious identities can take well-meaning leaders down. This could explain the lead of the BJP’s Pragya Singh Thakur—who has absolutely no development agenda to boot—in Bhopal even as Atishi trails. Pragya wears her Hindu nationalistic robes with fervour, rides on the politics of saffron symbolism, and played the victim card in her campaign by talking of police cruelty while she was jailed.

Atishi’s struggle has been a departure from Pragya’s politics. For Atishi, being in the electoral fray with confusion over caste and religion turned out to be a self-defeating thing to do. Advising the government on winning programmes can win women respect but to talk of real development as a woman politician fighting to win is even worse—or so it appears.

In India, being a well-meaning woman in the electoral fray isn’t enough. The political structure is designed to accommodate women in non-threatening roles with little or no career progression to bigger political roles. Those who co-opt into the system survive with glorious wins. Like Pragya Singh Thakur has. Many view women as intellectually or economically weak to win an election. From Lalu Yadav’s cheesy references to actor and BJP MP Hema Malini’s cheeks to Congress candidate and actor Urmila Matondkar’s rival calling her a bholi bhali ladki to SP politician Jaya Prada being called derogatory names—all this drama and mansplaining in politics is contemptuous and sickeningly sexist, and yet it continues to resist women from moving forward.

Atishi’s surname of Marlena, given to her by her Leftist parents, was attacked first with rumours projecting her as a Christian. Days into her political campaign, Atishi had vehemently said that the only plank for her in the elections would be her work on health and education and her vision for East Delhi. Very soon, her surname was called into question and we heard Atishi declaring her caste at birth: “My actual surname is ‘Singh’ and I come from a Punjabi Rajput family.” This is how she went around telling people, frazzled about the fuss over her caste and religious identity. Atishi ultimately dropped her the name Marlena.

In the rabidly masculine world of politics, Delhi’s East Delhi constituency looked like just another post waiting to be swallowed by the saffron surge. Gautam Gambhir was just the BJP’s foot soldier like hundreds of others, guarding the post as votes were cast for the overpowering persona of Modi. Atishi and her report card, her campaign videos and her repeated emphasis on developmental issues were just weak straws against a very strong saffron wave. The fact that Atishi suffered an attempt at her character assassination doesn’t seem to matter.

While it can be safely said that in seats that went to the BJP, the votes were cast for Modi, was it also Atishi’s aggressive campaign that weakened her position in a highly sexualised campaign? Popular support for macho, sexually-charged campaigns that male politicians run and women politicians like Pragya Singh Thakur co-opt into silences women with an agenda to work.

The Modi wave

“How will women participate in politics if treated this way?” was the common refrain during Atishi’s very difficult campaign, during which she publicly broke down. Atishi has been raw, articulate, and human. And her campaign relentlessly kept putting the focus back on real issues. In contrast, 49-year-old Pragya Singh Thakur’s contest in itself was an escape from the problematic questions that her candidature and now her win raises. An accused awaiting trial in the 2008 Malegaon bombings, she, as her political rival and Congress’s veteran leader Digvijaya Singh has said, is the face of Hindu terror. She faced arrest for terror charges, but has consistently used it to her advantage by playing the victim card. Her frequent references to her “tortuous” jail time and other comments have kept stirring controversies, the latest being the one where she called Mahatma Gandhi’s killer a patriot.

When examined through the lens of gender, Pragya Singh seems to have successfully channelled gender as a weapon to shame the state apparatus and its dealings with terror accused free of any other identity of privilege except religion. A sadhvi for Hindus remains a sacred identity and Pragya Thakur’s allegations about police torture on her body remains, if not a political issue, definitely a religious issue, finding appeal with the masses.

Way forward

Even today, women constitute only 11.8 per cent (64 of 543) seats in the Lok Sabha and 11 per cent (27 out of 245) seats in the Rajya Sabha. A 2017 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women indicates that between 2010 and 2017, the share of women representatives in the Lok Sabha rose only by one per cent. This means that the percentage of women elected to Parliament has stagnated between three and 11 percent ever since the first Lok Sabha was constituted 67 years ago in 1952.

This is a paradox, considering the increasing share of women voters in the electorate. From 48 percent in 1971, the turnout of women increased to 60 percent in 1984 and then to 65.3 percent during the 2014 general elections.

While the sheer size of women voters is heartening and the representation of women in Parliament may have a long way to go, it is time the debate on women’s participation in politics discussed the quality of women in the electoral fray and not just increasing the number of women in Parliament. To be sure, the same standards could be applied to male candidates as well, but we often fail. However, given the sheer impact of women’s political participation on the life of a nation, it’s important that we are clear about the role models we have: the ones who burn the unchartered path to build anew, or those who fall into the macho-masculine narrative of male politicians and close the room for negotiation.

This story was first published here.

25 years on, what’s next for Mayawati?

Kairana, Muzaffarnagar: The young lady was dark, dressed in a salwar-suit, and had been through college —a rarity for a Dalit woman 25 years ago (as was the dress itself). Khem Chand remembers the day in December the lady, a candidate in the parliamentary elections, came campaigning in the Al Darmiyan area of Kairana where he lives.

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She spoke of Dalit and Muslim causes and struck a chord with people such as Chand, a worker at a brick kiln, but she lost.

She was already a member of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), founded by the late Dalit leader Kanshi Ram, but the Election Commission registered her as an Independent because the party was still in its formative stages (it was formed in April 1984).

Guiding hand: A 1995 photo of Mayawati with mentor Kanshi Ram. Hindustan Times

Almost 25 years on, the lady, Mayawati, now 53 years old and the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, is still going strong. Temporarily touted as the prime ministerial candidate of an alternative coalition to those headed by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), her party contested at least 500 seats in April’s parliamentary elections but won just 21. However, the party, and Mayawati, bounced back in 7 November’s by-elections to the Uttar Pradesh assembly, where the BSP won seven of the 11 seats on offer, many in areas considered strongholds of the rival Samajwadi Party (SP).

Her appeal remains strong among Dalits.

“No one talked about Dalits then. She spoke really forcefully,” remembers Chand.

December 1984 marked Mayawati’s political debut. Parliamentary elections were held in December that year (except in two states where they were held in January 1985) in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in late October. The Mayawati of today bears little resemblance to the young lady Chand saw campaigning. Her attire has become smarter, her hair shorter, and her lavish birthday parties have become the talk of the country.

Also See The Political Journey

Yet, she remains the X-factor in every political party’s calculations, a variable that could exert its influence strongly, like it did in the last state assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh or fade into insignificance as it did during the last parliamentary elections. And so, everyone is wary of Mayawati. And the lady herself, of nothing and nobody.

“It’s her ability to fight which leads her to success. She is not afraid of anything,” says Ram Kumar, a Dalit activist and head of Dynamic Action Group, a Lucknow-based activist group.

Mayawati couldn’t be reached for comment despite several calls to her office.

The early years

Mayawati didn’t win her first election. The Congress swept to power on the back of a sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi’s killing. The Kairana Lok Sabha seat was won that year by Congressman Akhtar Hasan, but Mayawati came third, and polled around 40,000 votes, roughly one-sixth the number Hasan did.

Hasan, now 75 years old and retired from active politics, says that back then, “there was no election issue powerful enough as Indira (Gandhi’s assassination)”.

Her performance, “for a first timer from a party which was in its nascent stages, was quite something”, says Gaje Singh, a retired schoolteacher from Kairana and a campaigner for the party in Mayawati’s early days. “A large number of Dalits voted for her.”

And some of them were taken up enough by Mayawati’s fiery speeches and repeated assertion that she was one of them to start working for her. Chand was one such. He acquired a poster of B.R. Ambedkar, the icon of India’s Dalit movement and the man who drafted the country’s Constitution. But even he, like her other diehard supporters, didn’t foresee that Mayawati would rise as far as she has done.

In Kairana, Mayawati campaigned on bicycles and gave speeches at street corners.

In Al Darmiyan, she set up an office in three rooms of an old building and moved in with some of her supporters. “We took her on bicycles to neighbouring villages for her campaign,’’ says Gaje Singh.

“We often joked about her ways. Her appeal rested with young men and women. I don’t think anyone beyond the Dalit community even took her seriously then,” says Hasan.

For five years, Mayawati and her mentor Kanshi Ram worked with Dalits, trying to unite them into an electoral force. During the period, she fought and lost two elections. In 1989, she won her first election, a bypoll to the Lok Sabha from Bijnaur.

“She gained the most from the Dalit movement. In 1983, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati were fighting to unite Dalits. Before them, Dalits were divided in several camps. They became the hope for Dalits and they started thinking for them,” says Indra Bhushan Singh, a Lucknow-based political analyst.

A growing presence

By the time of Mayawati’s first electoral victory, her party had subtly changed its political platform. No longer was it merely Dalit-centric; Kanshi Ram and Mayawati started talking of the so-called other backward classes or OBCs, other minority communities that have typically existed at the fringes of the economic and electoral mainstream.

“Though Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote the Indian Constitution and gave people the right to vote, he could never win an election himself. Mayawati’s party established BSP model on Ambedkar’s theory of equality and empowerment,” says activist Ram Kumar.

And the party translated these into practice—no matter how hard it was.

“It is for the sacrifices Mayawati made that she became popular,” says Ram Kumar. She would make day trips to villages (she couldn’t spend the night in most villages because there was nowhere to stay, especially for a woman). “Her struggle was closely watched by the Dalits,” Kumar adds.

And it paid off.

In the 1989 parliamentary elections, the BSP won three Lok Sabha seats and 9.3% of the popular vote, ahead of the BJP’s 7.4% (the party, however, won 85 seats). The BSP had also expanded its presence from its base in Uttar Pradesh to Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. In 1993, it entered into a pre-poll alliance with Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP, consolidating the anti-upper caste opposition ahead of the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. The SP won 109 seats in the 425-member assembly, and the BSP won 67. “Those were the days when she used the anti-upper caste slogans most extensively. Tilak, taraju aur talwar, inko maaro joote chaar (Hurl shoes at Brahmins, traders, and Rajputs), was often uttered in her political discourse,” says Hasan.

In 1995, Mayawati became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh for five months with the support of the BJP, a national party with a pro-upper caste agenda. The alliance marked the intersection of Dalit and upper caste votes that Mayawati would later leverage to good effect.

Still, she didn’t lose sight of the fact that her original and enduring electoral base was the Dalits. In 1995, she organized a Periyar Mela in Uttar Pradesh, in honour of Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, a Tamil leader who was Ambedkar’s alter-ego in south India.

“The essence of the symbolism used by the party is the propagation and prominence given to Dalit and social reform leaders of the past and present—from Jyotiba Phule to Ambedkar to E.V. “Periyar” Ramaswamy to Kanshi Ram by constructing murals, statues and other media. However, the scale of this has blurred the thin line between symbolism and personality cult,” says Kumar.

Some of this has come to haunt Mayawati in recent months.

But Mayawati’s finest moment was in the Uttar Pradesh polls in 2007 when she successfully wooed upper-caste Hindus, who had traditionally supported the BJP, to the BSP fold and won an absolute majority. It marked the first time a Dalit party had come to power on its own.

The perils of symbolism

Mayawati and the BSP may have bounced back from their drubbing in the recent parliamentary polls with the victory in the assembly by-elections.

However, her tendency to build parks and statues dedicated to Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and herself has come in for criticism from various quarters. In October, the Supreme Court restrained installation of her statues at a park in Noida, a satellite of Delhi. The apex court order came rapidly in the wake of a similar order by it stopping similar statue projects in Lucknow in September. In the second case, the court initiated contempt proceedings against the Uttar Pradesh government for violation of its directions.

Mayawati herself is under investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for allegedly amassing wealth disproportionate to her known sources of income. In 2008, CBI asked Mayawati how her declared assets of Rs1 crore had increased to around Rs50 crore between 2003 and 2007. Mayawati claimed she had received the money as donations from party workers.

Still, some analysts say the cases against her are politically motivated.

Mayawati isn’t a stranger to controversy.

In 2003, she was accused of corruption by the SP in 140 cases filed against her by SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav.

She was at the centre of the so-called Taj corridor case in which CBI questioned certain permissions granted by her government for construction of a massive shopping mall and recreational centres near the Taj Mahal in Agra; the plan was later dropped as was the case. In September this year, a public interest litigation (PIL) filed against her revived the case and on 16 November, the Supreme Court rejected her plea for quashing the PIL.

Mayawati’s biggest problem, however, could be the criticism that she is beginning to ignore Dalits. “She has stopped mixing with common people. She is not aware of their problems any more. While she has become a symbol of Dalit movement, she doesn’t think about Dalits in remote villages any more,” says political analyst Indra Bhushan Singh.

That criticism finds an echo in Kairana.

“We have no BPL (below the poverty line) cards, land or jobs. How does she care?” says Chand.

“She is only building statues.”

 

Published in Mint.

The girl with the peacock tattoo

One evening in February last year, a girl raised many eyebrows in the conservative Jat neighbourhood of Matiala in west Delhi. She was returning home from work when a group of young men passed lewd comments. Almost in a rage, the girl hopped off her autorickshaw and grabbed one of the boys by his collar.

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That day Neetu Solanki was wearing a boat-neck spandex top and low-rise jeans which revealed a peacock tattoo on her lower back, and a navel ring. “It was a classic Jat retaliation, rough and bold—except that it came from a girl,” says Alka Solanki, her 22-year-old sister, younger to Neetu by six years, and a postgraduate student of political science at Delhi University.

Just a week earlier, Neetu had come home with an eve-teaser’s bicycle. Her aggressive reaction had prompted the man to run away, leaving his ride behind. “She didn’t fear anyone, especially when she believed she was right. That day, she simply brought the bicycle home. Obviously, no one ever came to claim it,” says Alka, breaking into a giggle.

On 11 February, Neetu’s body was found stuffed in an airbag at the New Delhi railway station. Her throat had been slit with a sharp object. According to eyewitnesses, a young man rode up to the parking bay in an autorickshaw, dropped the bag and rode off. When the Delhi Police published a “hue and cry” notice to identify the body, the tattoo became a talking point. Eventually, her father came forth to claim her ashes. Now, investigators have named her boyfriend Raju Gehlot as the prime suspect.

Feisty: Though petite, Neetu was very courageous, says her sister Alka—not the kind to stay away from a confrontation. Javeed Shah/Mint

Alka reminisces about the day her sister got the tattoo: “She was different from all of us. She was good at studies but that never meant she had to be simple. She picked up fashion trends quickly and tried them out on herself. She came home and showed it first to our father, who was amused. She was in pain for the next three days but the tattoo was like a hard-earned medal for her; it symbolized freedom and that kept her excited despite the pain.”

Even if an earthquake shook their building, Neetu wouldn’t be found running with her hair uncombed or dress crumpled, qualities she picked while growing up with her uncle in Jammu and Kashmir, who worked in the Indian Air Force, till she was 8.

Neetu’s sartorial experiments often attracted unwanted attention. Her father Kartar Singh Solanki, who used to sell milk and is now a property dealer in the neighbourhood, would hear of such instances frequently. “It would happen at least once a week. Every single time, Neetu would yell back or chase whoever it was,” he says. Then, of course, “she was beautiful”, Alka adds, pointing to a framed photograph of a petite, clear-skinned girl with an impeccably made-up face and long straight hair, placed on the fridge next to her room at their three-storeyed home in Matiala. “She straightened her hair when it became a rage even though it was very expensive,” recalls Alka, who was often reprimanded for her frizzy hair and promised a beauty treatment by Neetu at a parlour when she cleared her BEd exams.

And, though she appeared petite, “that’s the mistake people made”, says Alka. “Once she took on someone who whistled at her from his car. It must have been a Honda City, because when Neetu returned home, she said that it was a ‘big, expensive’ car. She was, to everyone’s shock here, very courageous,” Alka recalls.

This is why, when the Delhi Police repeatedly advertised last month, “we didn’t think it could be her”, Solanki says. “Neetu wasn’t someone to be killed or overpowered. She would never die without a fight.” The notice had appeared with a photograph which Solanki says was “too hazy” to recognize.

Matiala, the obscure urban village populated by small-time traders dealing in businesses ranging from scrap to property, learnt of the truth a month later.

Solanki claimed Neetu’s body in March; the police said it was a little unusual that her father appeared exactly a day after they cremated the body for lack of any claimant. “I was scared. Everyone fears the worst,” Solanki whispers when quizzed.

The last time Solanki saw Neetu, who was working in a Gurgaon call centre at the time, was in May, when she told him she was being transferred to Singapore. The police later claimed she had been living in Delhi with Gehlot, a crew member with Air India; the company says Gehlot has resigned. Neither the police nor Neetu’s relatives are sure whether she had married Gehlot. The motive for the murder remains unclear. The police haven’t found the murder weapon, Gehlot is absconding.

Various conspiracy theories are doing the rounds, but the story of the girl remains curiously robust with a string of tales about her choice of men and careers, an ambitious, independent woman who dressed and behaved exactly how she thought right, without worrying about what her conservative neighbours would think. Her late hours at the call centre jobs—her father claims, and the police corroborates, that she worked at BPOs such as IBM Daksh, Convergys and Teleperformance—the buzz around her murder, the bohemian tattoo and her ‘live-in’ relationship with Gehlot have become the subject of popular “off the record” gossip.

Rajdharam Sehrawat, an iron trader who lives a few blocks away from the Solanki household, has three daughters. Till a few years ago, “my daughters would play with them (Neetu and Alka) but now, two of my daughters are happily married”, Sehrawat says. “Who keeps a 28-year-old daughter unmarried for her to run away?”

When Neetu lived in the neighbourhood, the likes of Sehrawat often posed this question to Kartar Singh Solanki, a fellow Jat. He always replied: “They are my daughters. I want them to study.”

Today, Solanki says he is no longer in touch with any childhood friends of Neetu because “the girls she played with are all married now with children. Girls in the Jat community are married early. And who knows office colleagues these days? Children begin disliking their parents’ presence even in parent-teacher meetings these days. As for offices, you cannot even enter those places if you don’t work there”.

Despite the apparent secrecy around her friends and the nature of her job, Neetu’s video chats with her family were quite frequent and open. The chats, Alka says, would last for hours, and would only happen when their father was home because “she loved her father”. Conversation oscillated between inane and grim topics. “Once, she joked about donating her heart to our mother since she is a heart patient. She also promised our brother a sports bike if he did well in his Board exams,” Alka says.

Born in 1982, Neetu went to two public schools, first in Jharoda Kalan and then in Matiala; she signed up for a software engineering course at Aptech in addition to a correspondence course from Delhi University and later graduated from the university’s law faculty.

“She also enrolled for a management degree from Punjab Technical University (PTU) but abandoned it midway for a job because she wanted to start earning,” says Monika Roka, Alka’s friend and a student at PTU, Jalandhar, who had known Neetu for six years. Roka says she enrolled in the management course at PTU only on Neetu’s encouragement. “She was our career and fashion guide. She always listened to us and would make us laugh if we were anxious or worried about anything. But often, she would tell us how she being the eldest she had no one to lead her. She was a wise counsel for everyone younger to her, but for herself, she had no wisdom,” Roka says.

After university, Neetu also decided to try her hand at politics, and her relatives say the decision was guided purely by her own interest in the subject. In 2007, she contested the municipal elections in Delhi from Matiala as an independent candidate and lost, polling just about 150 votes. “She was a little child, enthusiastic about the polls, but I didn’t take her seriously. Wasn’t she a novice?” says her experienced opponent at the time and Bharatiya Janata Party councillor Rajesh Gehlot. Counters Roka, “Even as an independent candidate, people knew her!”

Neetu’s shots at education and later, call centre jobs and politics were all self-driven, and supported by her father, who always was eager to finance her education with an eye closed to details. “She brought her boyfriend home twice. I never interfered in anything she did. I trusted her to always do the right things,” Solanki says.

For many years, Alka says, her father has stayed home to cook breakfast and lunch for his children since mother Susheela Solanki’s cardiac surgery 10 years ago. “If I ask my children to make tea, they will never study,” says Solanki. Solanki also has two sons—Keshav, 24, works with him and Rahul, 17, is studying.

Dev Chowdhary, tuition teacher for Rahul, who is preparing for medical entrance examinations, often finds Solanki waiting in municipal parks for the time tuition classes continue.

“For many years now, he has never failed to bring him for classes. While parents from his community don’t generally bother to discuss their children’s education with teachers, Solanki always does that,” Chowdhary says.

Yet, somewhere between her academic pursuits and her ambition to build a career for herself, Solanki says his daughter perhaps lost direction. “She fell in love with the wrong man and started keeping a few facts from us. That destroyed her,” he says.

At his Matiala residence, where a group of women were mourning loudly, Solanki appeared visibly disturbed, but he was also active in hosting a steady flow of visitors who kept trickling in to offer condolences. “It (Neetu’s death) has shaken me. Now, I want to see my son addressed as ‘doctor’ in the next six years,” he says.

“I guess I’ve pretty much told you everything, right?” he remarks, promising to be back after seeing off a visitor.

By his own account, Solanki had spent years selling milk before reaching a position of moderate wealth. His struggles have become his children’s inspiration and he doesn’t want to stop, says Alka. “My father wanted to be a doctor but couldn’t,” she explains, while her brother Rahul looks up from the books he has been poring over for hours, startled by the sudden reappearance of his father.

“My son has his exam tomorrow. Will you please leave him alone now? You are disturbing his studies,” Solanki addresses this reporter angrily.

As this reporter prepares to make a quick exit, he asks wryly: “Won’t you even say sorry?”

This first appeared in Mint.

Delhi’s Belly | An equal music

Behind a tall, wrought-iron gate with sparse black paint peeling, the 300-year-old Anglo-Arabic Senior Secondary School at Ajmeri Gate, Delhi, is in the throes of change.

Past the numerous sandstone arches that adorn its façade, a large courtyard spreads into corridors and rooms where dozens of masons are busy restoring the heritage building. A library damaged by last year’s rain has been fixed with fresh white paint and teak-wood doors. The green Kota stone floor of an auditorium, complete with carpeted stage, glistens. Next to the din of renovation, a small, crowded chamber has anxious parents, including women in black veils, exchanging notes on admission fees and dates. As the classes disperse for lunch, a boy tells a girl, “You have been chosen class monitor.” Before the girl can react, he mocks, “In your dream!” They sprint and disappear.

This turn of affairs, principal M. Wasim Ahmad says, is unprecedented. Just last month, the school that admitted only boys until last year, prepared to admit a fresh group of girls as its first batch graduated. With more applications from girls piling up at the admission counters, and several from the first batch marking their presence in its classrooms, the male bastion is crumbling.

While his class XII colleagues nod in chorus, Daraksha says studying with boys makes her two younger sisters and her competitive—they were the first three girls admitted to the school.

 

“Girls have exhibited their keenness to study further. They are smart, in fact smarter than we expected, and absolute go-getters,” says Faiza Nissar Ali, who was the first female teacher to join the school, in 2006.

 

The impact is clearly visible. Girls have done better than boys in the internal exams in every stream other than science; Ali tries to explain this. The school lowered its cut-off for admission to the science stream last year to attract more girls. “This means that girls with average marks were also admitted, which is why they couldn’t cope with the science subjects.”

The aggression, however, is slowly giving way to cooperation in classrooms, says Saba Rehman, who teaches English. “The acceptance was slow to come by but the boys are now working with girls in class projects. Being in a class together fosters learning for both boys and girls and helps them deal with situations in rational ways,” Rehman adds.

At lunch, girls and boys go their different ways

Nine more women were appointed last year. As the school opened up, employees like Ali and Rehman, who had spent seven years at the school without a staff room or toilets for women, discovered the side benefits: They got the basic amenities.

Change is coming, but slowly, to the school which has produced students like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the eminent educationist and founder of Aligarh Muslim University; Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister; and Mirza Nasir-ud-din Masood, an Indian hockey Olympian.

During lunch break, there is a strict demarcation of spaces for boys and girls. Boys crowd the canteen. There is a separate counter in a corner for girls, but food is served to them in their common room. In the classrooms, boys and girls sit in separate rows. As the school closes, girls are asked to leave 5 minutes before the boys to ensure “safe passage”.

Maqsood Ahmed, a biology teacher, suggests a separate shift for girls instead of co-education. “It’s my suggestion, if you ask,’’ he says, looking at Yasmin, who poses a question, almost rhetorically, “But then, what use will the co-education be?’’

This is the question Nazma Parveen asked herself last year. The widowed mother of Daraksha, Ramsha and Gulafsha, who lives in Ballimaran, couldn’t resist the school’s offer to waive fees and open the science stream to girls in classes XI and XII. But she says she didn’t sleep well for a month when her daughters started attending the school.

 

The class VI student says she will braid her hair until her school uniform—salwar-kameez with a mandatory headscarf—arrives.

This was first published in Mint.

True Stories: Reconstructing Sonali Mukherjee

Sonali Mukherjee lives in a world of difficult extremes.

It’s a drizzly evening in Delhi and her thick fingers, a hesitant, trembling bunch, roll over a stack of medical prescriptions she is trying to arrange in a fluorescent-pink plastic file. Suddenly, she feels cold. She asks her mother for a sweater, shivering. It’s the middle of June.

Ten years ago, before three men poured acid on her, she felt the seasons like everyone else. And she could see dense fog and the summer sun. With more than 60-70% of her skin burnt, she now feels the chill at 22 degrees Celsius and cannot bear the heat beyond 25 degrees.

“There is always a difference of 6-7 degrees in temperature between what’s normal for her and what’s normal for us. The skin that regulates body temperature is damaged in her case,” explains Avtar Singh Bath, a plastic surgeon at central Delhi’s BLK Super Speciality Hospital, where Sonali is currently undergoing surgeries to reconstruct her face. “In other words, what’s pleasant for us is unbearable for her.”

Sonali now is a far cry from her past as an NCC cadet. Photograph: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Sonali now is a far cry from her past as an NCC cadet

Dr Bath and his team at BLK are trying to restore some of her past. His work as a plastic surgeon is in essence the measure of medical science in human life—its role in making it better. In Sonali’s case, living better is relative. “She will never look normal. Our aim is to give her functional utility in life in which her vital organs work,” Sanjeev Bagai, a senior doctor at the hospital who is supervising Sonali’s surgeries, says.

When Sonali came to Delhi in 2003 from Dhanbad, Jharkhand, soon after the acid attack, her body was completely lacerated, a huge medical challenge. The corrosive acid thrown on her had burnt her eyes, nose, ears, cheeks, and parts of her scalp, neck, shoulders, breasts and back. She was 17. She had been caught unawares—she was startled in her sleep by the acid. “I bled for three months. All the doctors could do was dress my wounds. My body was on fire,” Sonali recalls. “I shouldn’t be sweating much, you know. It will affect my scars and wounds.”

Dr Bath shows one of the images from her scalp surgery. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Fate intervened in Sonali’s life when three men whose sexual advances she resisted in Dhanbad, attacked her. Sonali’s surgeries were made possible by generous donations from non-governmental organizations, individuals, corporate firms and media houses, apart from the prize money of 25 lakh—about 16 lakh after income-tax deduction, which she won at the popular quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati—in November. For the treatment at BLK, Beti, a Mumbai-based NGO working for girls, offered to meet a chunk of the medical expenses. Dr Bagai says Sonali’s treatment at BLK will cost 25-30 lakh and more than half the amount has already been sent by Beti.

Before her treatment at BLK began last year, Sonali had undergone 20 surgeries, mostly free of cost, at the government-funded Safdarjung Hospital in south Delhi. Bleeding from her wounds and in pain, her father and she would queue up at the hospital in 2003, when she came to Delhi.

Sonali collecting awards for college-level dance and debate performances in 2002 from the then Jharkhand chief minister Babulal Marandi

Back home in Dhanbad, Chandi Das Mukherjee lost his job as a guard at a local dal mill and had to sell his ancestral house. Sonali’s younger siblings dropped out of school. Her mother suffered prolonged depression and refused to see Sonali for many years after the incident. Distressed, Sonali appealed for euthanasia in July 2012, a month before she enrolled for further treatment at BLK. “I had begun holding myself responsible for the miseries of my family. But the doctors at Safdarjung saved my life,” Sonali says.

Yet, when Sonali was brought to BLK for further surgeries, the severity of her deformed face stunned Dr Bagai—the chemicals in the acid had made a deep and direct impact on her skin tissues. “She had practically no tissue on her face. Whatever reconstruction of the scalp was done, it was giving way. She had no ear lobes, ear drums, no external ears. She couldn’t hear. She had lost practically all vision—in one of the eyes, the optic nerve that carries the impulse to the brain has been damaged. She had no neck tissue, no armpits,” Dr Bagai recalls. Worse, Sonali’s burnt skin had developed severe contractures—hardened tissues after burns, the affected body parts immobile. So she couldn’t lift her hand, couldn’t smile, couldn’t speak, couldn’t bat eyelids, couldn’t move her neck and couldn’t walk freely. She had shrunk from 50kg to 26, indicating acute protein malnourishment.

Sonali now is a far cry from her past as an NCC cadet

But there is nothing cosmetic about it in Sonali’s case. Her arms and legs are thin, with dark patches wherever flesh was sliced for grafting. She is constantly trying to gain weight so that the surgeries can continue. Dr Bath does most of the grafting with silicon balloons that are inserted beneath Sonali’s skin, which needs to be expanded and inflated with saline water. The surgeon, who spent years in the army, compares the expanders to invincible entities, “just like fighter aircraft”. “It never leaks, however much you poke it. Have you seen fighter aircraft whose petrol tanks don’t burst however lethal the attack?” he asks, forwarding a sample of a scalp expander. It’s imported, he adds, and each costs 50,000-60,000.

With her ‘talking’ phone at her Delhi residence. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
With her ‘talking’ phone at her Delhi residence. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The frequency and scale of surgeries have put severe strain on Sonali. Besides the excessive and prolonged medication that keeps her away from infections, the cosmetic surgeries demand unusual mental strength. Chandi Das Mukherjee, in his 10 years in Delhi’s hospitals looking after his daughter, has seen many give up, such as an 18-year-old boy he knew who died after an ear surgery simply because he couldn’t take the shock. Not his daughter, he says.

For Sonali, every surgery entails strict adherence to the vital parameters, such as blood pressure, blood count, sugar levels and a well-functioning thyroid, apart from steering clear of viral attacks and other casual infections. The period after surgery is often more painful.

Sonali is quick to remember the painful exercises that finally helped her to open her mouth. “After my lips were reconstructed, I was given a dozen ice-cream sticks to insert in my mouth which was practically sealed by the lips. I would insert sticks every hour for the next two months to create a gap, and gosh, it hurt so much,” she says.

After a few surgeries at Safdarjung Hospital and a happy image from the album

How does she do it? “I take extra care. I follow rules to the book. I tell myself that I have to do this. I know if I don’t, the surgeries that have taken 10 years would take 20!” Sonali says.

We met Sonali inside her room at BLK last month. It was time for another surgery—the 25th in 10 years. Chandi Das Mukherjee signed the medical undertaking form taking responsibility if she died after the surgery, a ritual before every surgery. “With every surgery, she is born again,” he says, looking at his daughter lying on a bed covered by a spotless white bedsheet.

After the surgery, Sonali will have to sleep on one side for six weeks, as she has several times in the past, so her reconstructed external ear doesn’t break. To look human again, she willingly bears the pain and prays for more money to fund her remaining surgeries.

 

Sonali’s attackers have been out on bail for the last 10 years.

This story was first published as a Mint-Lounge Cover story.