The Wire is a news website available in English and Hindi, was founded in 2015 in New Delhi. It is published by the Foundation for Independent Journalism (FIJ), a non-profit Indian company.
Prasangana Paul

Clubhouse Caste: How Silicon Valley Insiders Look In India

"Cultivation of mind should be the ultimate aim of existence."
Babasaheb Ambedkar.


NEW DELHI — The latest entrant in the world of social media has been Clubhouse. While the audio-based platform boasts of providing a 'room' for free-wheeling discussions on anything and everything, it is imperative that it take note and address the casteism being blatantly practiced in these rooms.

I stumbled upon the casteist side of Clubhouse when I came across a room with a clickbait topic: "Should reservation be constitutional?" In that room, the savarna hosts gave each other plenty of time to speak, but did not pass the mic to those debating the very idea of hosting such a discussion in the first place.

Hijacking our life experiences

The topic was triggering for many like me, who come from marginalised communities. Instead of letting us put our points across, we were repeatedly relegated to the audience section.

Over time, I've been witness to numerous rooms like this where elite upper-caste speakers invalidate your trauma – and in a way, your very existence – by using all sorts of hurtful words to add to the generational oppression. They keep hijacking our life experiences while blowing horns of their merit.

They don't hear us at all.

Upper castes define merit in their own ways

To those even remotely wondering as to why such talks are allowed to exist in the first place, one must remember that there are many in the audience – typically belonging to the same caste as the speakers – who not only support these casteist beliefs but also feel the need to highlight these rooms and hype the speakers, or so-called icons, who are mostly self-proclaimed intellectuals.

This is simply the age-old practice savarna gatekeeping at work.

In the room on reservation, the speakers cribbed about how seats are snatched away by Dalit students and how only those who apply through the general categories are meritorious. Such arguments are hardly limited to Clubhouse. With all their generational wealth and caste privileges, the upper castes try to define merit in their own ways.

But what many fail to understand is that we are not here to prove anything to them. We are fighting our own battles everyday and struggling to live a life in a caste-centric society where casteist comments are casually passed, where Dalits are beaten for hoisting the national flag and even murdered for riding a horse at their own wedding. Dalit women are raped and killed in the hundreds yearly, and justice is rarely done. There are countless examples of real-life violence caused by upper castes against the Bahujan community. And the vicious loop never ends.

Dalits in India live in constant fear. So how are there people who want to host Clubhouse rooms to debate if reservation should exist or not?

Photo of people protesting against increasing atrocities on Dalit community Demonstrators protesting against increasing atrocities on Dalit community, October 2020Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto/ZUMA

It is so daunting to notice how not just Clubhouse, but almost every platform is dominated by savarnas who claim to be progressive on the outside but wouldn't bat an eyelid while discussing the merits and demerits of reservation. They would rather pat their own back and say "I have a Dalit friend", but would never hold their favorite influencer accountable if they are caught using casteist slurs.

The day I encountered the Clubhouse room on reservation, I also came across a group chat where many privileged men wrote to me, asking, "So we can't even have a discussion on reservation and talk about what is right and wrong about it?"

I responded, asserting that it isn't a matter of right or wrong – it is about representation. Instead of paying attention to what I had to say, they mocked me, calling me 'too sensitive' as I was being unable to explain the facts to them calmly. How could they expect me to stay calm when the DBA samaj was being insulted in front of me, and my own voice was being invalidated? They humiliated me, even as many others stood by quietly and let it happen.

You shrink yourself in a room that is entirely yours.

DBA artists who have been hosting anti-caste rooms are barely noticed. On the other hand, savarna speakers who moderate discussions on clickbait topics by appropriating our voices have a considerable number of followers. You may have also noticed how very few artists from the DBA community are verified on Instagram or other platforms. On the other hand, savarnas are kept on a high pedestal for doing the bare minimum.

Among the words I absolutely detest is 'merit' – I simply can't stand the ridiculous nature of the word and how it forms the very grounds of discrimination. Growing up, my mother used to say, "Don't let the world dictate you, you deserve to go anywhere and everywhere". But how do I tell her that I am scared of this savarna supremacist society playing their savarnatokenism everywhere?

In a world that keeps questioning your existence, you get tired of seeking space for yourself. You shrink yourself in a room that is entirely yours.

The time has come to create our own spaces.

Prasangana Paul is an International Relations student at Jadavpur University.

Junaid Kathju

A Touching Tale Of Leprosy In Kashmir

"We all have the same story here. After my family abandoned me, it was these people who adopted me and looked after me for all these years."

SRINAGAR — Nizamuddin Bajad, who claims to be 100 years old, was a young man when he arrived in a leper colony situated on the banks of Nigeen lake, far from the noise and crowd of Srinagar city.

Bajad, a resident of Chattaragul village in Ganderbal district, had lived all his life as a nomad, traveling across stretches of Jammu and Kashmir with his flock of sheep and goats. Then one day, he suddenly fell ill and was diagnosed with leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease.

"I was married and was living a happy life as a Bakarwal. But everything changed when I was diagnosed with this disease," Bajad said, while sitting with his old friends outside his apartment.

The hope of a leper colony in Srinagar

Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease and mainly affects the skin, peripheral nerves, mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract and eyes. It can occur at all ages and is likely transmitted through droplets, from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contact with untreated cases.

With no medication back then to treat the disease, Bajad's family left him on his own before he found his way to the leper colony in Srinagar.

"I had nowhere to go. My family left me at god's mercy. I was devastated. But after arriving here I got a new lease on life," he said.

Nothing short of a miracle.

In the 1980s, after the discovery of medicines labeled as multidrug therapy (MDT), leprosy became a treatable disease. The medicine was nothing short of a miracle for patients like Bajad, who till then were considered "untouchables" by society.

Living in the colony for the past 60 years, Bajad has not only been cured but also gotten married and started a new family.

"When I arrived in this colony, there were many like me, who too were abandoned by their families and were on their own. It gave me hope that I am not alone in this," he said. "I found a new life here and it is my home now."

The colony, which currently consists of around 71 leprosy patients, is the only rehabilitation center of its kind in the Valley. Built during the 19th century under the Kashmir Medical Mission by Britishers, the colony, which gives a serene feeling because of its green ambiance, consists of 62 quarters, a mosque, a double storied hospital and a graveyard.

The colony is currently looked after by the Directorate of Health Services, Kashmir. The department provides food, medicine and clothes to the patients. They also receive a monthly allowance from the social welfare department.

Photo of houses and trees on the colony

The housing on the colony.

Married with children

Though the people, belonging to different places, were initially compelled to live a life in exile in the colony, over the years, their bonhomie, love and care for each other have made this place their permanent home.

Sharifuddin Sheikh, who is the spokesperson of the Leprosy Association that consists of the elderly people of the colony, said that after finding treatment for the disease, most of them who were abandoned by their families got married and started a new life here.

"Many of us, whose families have left them alone fearing that they too will catch the disease, later got married here after receiving proper medical treatment," Sheikh, who is blessed with two healthy children, said.

"It has been 35 years now since I have been living here. In 1994, I got married to a woman who, like me, had no one else in her life," he said. "I have two sons. One has done post-graduation and is working in a private company. Both my sons are healthy and are living a normal life."

I came here when I had no one in my life.

Sheikh's wife Zarifa is also content in the colony. "I came here when I had no one in my life. My life was full of hopelessness. But god gave me a good husband and caring children," Zarifa said.

Sheikh said they all live like a big family in the colony.

"Everybody knows each other here. It is like a big joint family. We look after many patients who are old and have no family. Besides, there is always a medical team on duty in the hospital, which looks after all of us," Sheikh said.

Sheikh said it has been many years since any new patient arrived in the colony.

Junaid Kathju is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar. He tweets @JunaidKathjoo.

Tarushi Aswani

COVID-19 Widows In India Face A Sexist Bureaucracy

Women who have found themselves in charge of a family after the sudden deaths of family members discover rules, regulations and laws making mockery of their situation.

NEW DELHI "He died months ago but the government reminds us of our loss every day," says Dipanwita Das, whose husband died on April 25, 2021, at the height of India's second wave of COVID-19.

Das admitted her husband to Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital as his vitals dipped and temperature rose. Her husband, Partho, passed away soon after, beginning an ordeal for the widow that she had entirely not foreseen.

First, the hospital misspelled her husband's name on official documentation, delaying the procurement of a death certificate. To rectify this mistake, hospital authorities asked Dipanwita to file an application. They also asked her to update the "registered contact" with her own number, as the hospital had entered the number of a hospital attendant in that space.This process took weeks.

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Mihir Chitre

Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

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Suprakash Chandra Roy

Why Can't India Win More Nobel Prizes?

Winning a Nobel Prize can't be the only criterion by which we measure a nation's scientific achievement — but it is a matter of pride, like winning a gold at the Olympics. Lower funding on R&D alone doesn't explain India's abysmal show at the Nobel Prizes. Some key elements seem to be missing, beyond funding and infrastructure, vis-à-vis our scientists' ability to produce path-breaking work.

NEW DELHI — As expected, Indians are euphoric about their country's success in the recently concluded Tokyo Olympic Games, and for all the right reasons. However, India's share of seven medals – including the first individual gold in athletics by Neeraj Chopra – has stirred the hopes of many towards a similar accomplishment in another area of human activity: winning Nobel Prizes.

The Olympics and the Nobel Prizes have similar historical significance. Modern-day Olympics started in 1896 in Athens, Greece, while the first Nobel was awarded five years later. India first participated in the Olympics in 1900 in Rome – and won the first Nobel Prize in 1913. Both the Olympics and the Nobel Prizes are the highest awards in each of their categories.

While the Olympics are held every four years, the Nobel Prizes are awarded every year. The number of active academics pursuing science and other subjects related to the prizes in India is far higher than the total strength of athletes competing at the international level.

According to the Research and Development Statistics published in 2019 by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), science workers in India numbered 27.8 lakh in 2018, being the sixth largest scientific workforce worldwide. The number of athletes according to the Athletics Federation of India was a little more than 30,000. Mathematically, we have a higher chance of winning a Nobel Prize than a gold at the Olympics. But history hasn't borne this out.

The Nobel Prizes were initially awarded for work in five disciplines: physics, chemistry, literature, medicine and peace. Winning a Nobel Prize in science and a medal at the Olympics are both investment-intensive. In addition, a Nobel Prize can be shared by more than one person, while this happens only in special circumstances at the Olympics.

Indian sportspersons have won 35 medals of the 18,876 medals awarded thus far. The US has won the most medals (2,963). And of the 6,187 gold medals awarded, Indians have won 10. So the historical probability of India winning a gold at the Olympics has been 10/6187 = 0.16%.

Similarly, since 1901, 337 Nobel Prizes have been shared by 624 laureates in the sciences (physics, chemistry and medicine). The first and only Nobel Prize for an Indian scientist – C.V. Raman – was awarded in 1930.

(NOTE: There have been winners in other categories, such as peace, Kailash Satyarthi, 2014; and economics, Amartya Sen, 1998)

But why we haven't produced a single Nobel science laureate in another 90 years is a question worth dwelling on.

The first and only Nobel Prize for an Indian scientist – C.V. Raman – was awarded in 1930.

Keystone Press Agency/ZUMA

The historical probability of an Indian winning a Nobel Prize in science has been 1/624 = 0.16%, the same as winning a gold medal at the Olympics!

Many commentators have said that one major reason for our poor show at the Nobel Prizes has been the inadequate expenditure on scientific work. It is true that, in general, countries that spend more on R&D have won more Nobel Prizes in the sciences. A simple comparison of 2014 GDP data and the number of Nobel laureates from different countries reveals the following:

  • 4 – laureates from countries that spent up to 0.5% of GDP on R&D
  • 28 – laureates from countries that spent 0.5-1% of GDP
  • 183 – laureates from countries that spent 1-2% of GDP
  • 468 – laureates from countries that spent 2-3% of GDP

However, countries that spent 3-4 % of their GDP on R&D have produced only 50 laureates. South Korea and Israel, which have spent more than 4% of their GDPs, have none and six laureates, respectively. India has spent 0.81% of its GDP on R&D and produced only one Nobel laureate in the sciences – while 11 countries that have spent less than India have produced 22 laureates.

More money won't guarantee the outcome we seek.

As we can see, India's 'performance' at the Nobel Prizes for science has been dismal, and requires introspection. The data suggests that we can improve if we spend more on R&D – but it also says that more money won't guarantee the outcome we seek.

The Union Ministry of Science and Technology has been allocated Rs 14,793.66 crore for 2021-2022 – an increase of Rs 9,517 crore from 2015. According to DST data, while spending on science has increased over the years, each allocation's fraction of GDP has been almost unchanged.

India's sports budget is about 10-times lower than that spent on science. The expenditure was increased twofold in five years, from Rs 1,200 crore in 2015 to Rs 2,636 crore in 2019. The sports budget for 2021-2022 didn't increase.

The Sports Authority of India (SAI) is the country's apex body responsible for developing sports. SAI has two sports academies, 11 regional centres, 14 centres of excellence and 56 training centres. In science: the DST and the Department of Biotechnology have 20 and 17 autonomous research institutes, respectively; and 38 research laboratories (CSIR), 65 research institutes, 14 national research centres (ICAR) and 31 research institutes and centres (ICMR). So there are many more science institutes than there are sports centres.

In conclusion, some key element seems to be missing that is beyond funding and infrastructure. Is it a fire in the belly that's missing? Do we have a leadership vacuum that fails to motivate scholars to think out of the box?

Winning a Nobel Prize can't be the only criterion by which we measure a nation's scientific achievements – but it is a matter of pride, just like winning a gold at the Olympics. And while this year's Olympic Games raised the expectations of 135 crore people in the sports arena, it has also renewed their expectations in other arenas – science being one of them.

Can we set a goal to win a few Nobel Prizes in another 25 years, when India will celebrate its 100th year of independence?

*Suprakash Chandra Roy
is a former professor and chairman of the Department of Physics, Bose Institute, Kolkata, and for*mer editor-in-chief, Science and Culture.

Ritu Mahendru

Hide Or Flee? LGBTQ Afghans Fear Taliban Will Kill Them

While life was not easy under the former Afghan government, members of the LGBTQ+ community had relatively more freedom and formal support groups that helped them. That has changed now, with potentially grave consequences.

KABUL — It's 2 a.m. in the morning in Kabul when my phone rings. "The taxi driver had a fight with me and dropped me on the main road." I could hear gunshots, blazing sirens and someone shouting in the background "Boro, izazat nist (Move on, you're not allowed)."

"I don't know what I should do," says Sheila, bursting into tears. Her voice cracks, but I sense she is still clinging on to hope for a better future. Sheila is trying to get to Kabul airport in the middle of the night, without success. A transgender woman, she informs me that she "has lost passion for life."

Sheila is not alone. I spoke to several gay men and transgender women who also fear for their lives, and the risks and challenges that lie ahead after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

One of them expressed her feelings to me: "I feel scared. I feel sorry for my people. I feel sorry for my country. It's tough. I can't find anyone to explain my condition, my situation, my feeling. There is so much sadness."

People from the LGBTQ community are one of the most vulnerable groups in Afghanistan. They didn't have an easy life in the pre-Taliban era but there were underground organizations that supported LGBTQ networks in certain parts of the country. Members of the LGBTQ community were impacted not only by conflict but also by the stigma and discrimination they face at the hands of society.

The underground networks have shut since the Taliban takeover. LGBTQ communities and groups are gripped by fear so much that many of these organizations refused to speak even anonymously. They fear being killed by the Taliban, which will be justified by citing their strict interpretation of Sharia law. It is likely that those who don't adhere to the Taliban's rules and decrees will be publicly executed, similar to the ways in which "justice" was carried out under the militant group's regime in the late '90s.

As the Taliban strengthens its control over their so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, its militants and soldiers have already been conducting door-to-door searches, confiscating people's phones to look for "evidence" of activities that the extremist group prohibits, giving them an excuse to implicate anyone who doesn't agree with their version of Sharia Law.

As Sheila said, "Members of the LGBTQI+ communities have no place in Taliban society. In Syria, Daesh killed gay men. The same thing will happen to us. All these groups have the same ideology."

Mostafa added that since the Taliban took cover, the outlook for the LGBTQ community has been grim. "The Taliban is an extremist group. For them, homosexuality is an unforgivable crime. We must be executed or thrown off a mountain. There is no guarantee of our security. We are very afraid."

Even though it has become evident that members of minority groups are being persecuted by the Taliban, the international community has shown little or no interest in providing support. The group that I spoke to was prepared to take extreme risks to get out of the country. This involved getting whipped by the Taliban at checkpoints, threats of being shot and chasing flights that were leaving the country.

Sheila said that she has been going to the airport every day. "I ran along with many people who were chasing a plane. The Americans fired gunshots in the air and used shells that made us cough and caused a burning sensation in our eyes."

Chaotic scenes were witnessed at Kabul airport, which showed people hanging on to a plane even as it took off. Horrific visuals showed some of them falling off. Sheila says she "saw at least ten people who fell from planes. When I left the airport, Taliban fighters kicked and whipped my back. They said, 'Why do you want to go to a Kafir country?"

A group of volunteers has been trying to help evacuate members of the LGBTQ community. However, the overall response to accept Afghans as refugees has been poor, evident from the protests outside the UNHCR office in New Delhi and the UK government suggesting that Afghans would be better off fleeing to the country's border rather than await evacuation.

They are terrified that the Taliban will find them and kill them.

I spoke to Ahmad Qais Munhazim, a queer Afghan scholar-activist and assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Qais has helped evacuate members of the Afghan LGBTQ community. Frustrated by the Western countries who were overseeing the evacuation, Qais tells me: "We have shared a list of LGBTQ Afghans to the governments of the US, UK, Canada and other countries. We wrote emails and filled out many forms, but they did not deliver."

A Convoy of Taliban fighters patrol along the streets in Kabul, Afghanistan — Photo: Demiroren Visual Media/Abaca/ZUMA

Qais says members of the LGBTQ community are feeling betrayed and abandoned. "They are terrified that the Taliban will find them and kill them. They are suffering psychologically and emotionally. I talk to them every day, trying to keep their hopes going – that's all I can do until we get the international community to realize their mistakes and support these vulnerable groups." Qais adds that some of the individuals have received direct threats from the Taliban.

Members of the LGBTQ community face insurmountable barriers in a country where heterosexuality is often presented as the only acceptable sexual orientation. Queer citizens are regarded as deviants, especially by the Taliban. While the rights of women have rightly come under discussion, the same has not happened with queer people, who also face severe threats.

When I asked the LGBTQ group what their options are, they were unsure. The usual responses were "I don't know," "Hide," "Escape." Some even disclosed they were contemplating suicide.

Though there have been some arguments that the "new" Taliban is more moderate, several signs point to the fact that the group has not changed. Even during the peace deal negotiations, the Taliban was blamed for targeted and random killings, leading to the deaths of civilians, newborn children, high-profile female activists, journalists and politicians. This suggests that the group has not changed since the 1990s.

All signs indicate that the group, known for its religious fundamentalism, will punish anyone who goes against their version of Sharia law. In areas controlled by the Taliban during the Ashraf Ghani regime, one gay man recalls, "My friend in Logar province was captured by Taliban and brought to a mosque. The Taliban cut his body parts. Even the family didn't say anything because everyone was scared," said Mostafa.

On August 15, as the Taliban entered the gates of Kabul, it was reported that another gay man's body was dismembered. A clear demonstration of their power sending out a message about what lives would like for queer Afghans under Taliban rule.

Sheila says that the Ghani government also criminalized the LGBTQ community, but did not have a specified policy toward queer citizens. "The government in the past had no specific policy for LGBTQ groups, but right now the Taliban has a specific, a very specific policy for LGBTQ. They seriously want to delete [eliminate] the LGBT community from this society."

With Afghanistan falling in the hands of the Taliban, it is clear that the LGBTQ community feels terrified, and abandoned by the international community. Western governments are still in the process of forming policies for the "priority groups" who will be given refugee status. It is not yet clear what the priority group will consist of. These countries need to step up their game and adhere to the UN's Leave No One Behind agenda and support the Afghan LGBTQ community.

They should order the immediate evacuation of the LGBTQ groups in imminent danger of getting killed by the Taliban. In addition, international human rights' groups and advocates of sexual freedom should intensify pressure on these governments to ensure that the Afghan LGBTQI+ community is not left to the mercy of the Taliban.

As Qias worries, "Worse will happen before the world wakes up."

Note: All the names used in this article are pseudonyms to protect individual identities.

Dr. Ritu Mahendru has been working in Afghanistan for over a decade, promoting sexual and reproductive health rights of women and girls, and working with minorities, children, and Kuchi nomads. Ritu tweets as @ritumahendru.

Pritha Bhattacharya

In India, When Mothers Live Without Their Children

The stigma around so-called "non-custodial mothers" has prevented us from expanding our own imagination of what motherhood can, or does, look like when it is practiced by non-residential mothers

NEW DELHI — Three years ago, Shalini*, a 35-year-old media professional based in Bengaluru, gave up custody of her daughter. Her child grew up in a joint family and she was very attached to her paternal grandparents. Shalini couldn't imagine taking her child away from the people she loved. Still, Shalini went through severe mental health challenges after her separation; it took her several years of therapy and counseling to adjust to the new parenting arrangement. But she is now on the path of discovering a new relationship with her 8-year-old daughter.

"I interact with my daughter like I am her friend," she says. "When she comes to live with me during the weekends I enjoy it fully without taking any unnecessary pressure of being a "mother" around her. In fact, I feel my relationship with her has significantly improved because I am a happier person now than I was before my divorce."

Shalini is one of many women in India who are defined as non-custodial mothers, those who either decide to or are unable to live with their offspring. Despite the social stigma of giving up being a daily presence in their childrens' lives, many parents make the choice based on what they believe is best for their families.

"As an adult, I knew with time I would adjust, but I could not put her through the trauma of leaving the people she cared for," says Shalini.

Available information at the national level such as census data on female-headed households provides some clues into the number of existing single mothers in India. But these statistics do not reveal the full picture, as most single mothers continue to live with their extended families. A 2019-2020 report by UN Women attempted to fill this gap, highlighting that in India, the number of "lone mothers' is rising, with 4.5% (approximately 13 million) of all Indian households run by single mothers. It also found that around 32 million single mothers are estimated to be living with their extended families. Unfortunately, the report failed to include single, non-custodial mothers in its sample design, suggesting as if to give up or lose custody of one's children is enough to render someone a non-mother.

"I could not put her through the trauma of leaving the people she cared for."

Feminist scholars Joyce A. Arditi and Debra A. Madden argue in their work on non-custodial mothers that the negative stereotyping and belief that non-custodial are somehow "unfit" or "defective" originate in the cultural image of the "good mother." This is someone who not only engages in intensive mothering practices but also makes continuous personal sacrifices for her children.

Gazal Raina is the founder of Milaap, one of India's only support groups for non-custodial parents. She says, "It is very difficult for a woman to explain why she does not have her children living with her; it is still easier to tell people that your children were snatched away from you than it is to tell them that you voluntarily gave up custody."

Among non-custodial parents, there is a distinct moral hierarchy between men and women. Gazal remembers at one support group meeting, a woman shared that she was a non-custodial mother and that she voluntarily chose that arrangement. The moment she finished speaking, one of the fathers present jumped in with a barrage of questions and said, "What kind of a mother are you? How can you give up your child like that?" Gazal had to quickly jump in to diffuse the situation.

Both mothers and fathers are affected by the patriarchal ideology that promotes mothers as nurturing, selfless caregivers and fathers as peripheral providers. Sociologist Jackie Krasas argues that the horror that underlines the negative reactions to non-custodial mothers partly rests on our low opinion (and expectations) of the capabilities of fathers. It is a commonly held notion that non-custodial mothers are putting their children in harm's way by choosing not to live with them. Nevertheless, women are increasingly resisting these ideas by leaving unhappy marriages and, in some cases, by either giving up the physical custody of their children or striving to lead a full life in spite of losing custody.

Neetu*, an aspiring image consultant based in Bengaluru, decided to give up the custody of her two children due to her poor financial condition at the time of separation. She says, "My marriage with my ex-husband had always been difficult but I could not leave because of a lack of familial support. But after the passing of my mother, my brother and bhabhi (sister-in-law) in quick succession, I realized that life is too short and that I don't want to live an unhappy life."

After voicing her decision to end her marriage, Neetu made the difficult choice of moving out of her marital home, letting her children stay with her ex-husband. She says, "People around me said I should think about marrying again, and hopefully I will find a good man who accepts my children. But I went against everyone's advice and decided to let my children stay with my ex-husband till the time I am financially able to look after them."

A woman and child sit together in Qutub Minar, New Delhi, India Photo: Unsplash user Sarthak Kwatra

It is important to note here that on most occasions, the circumstances in which women either give up custody or lose custody have profound ramifications on their subsequent relationship with their children. Gazal, the founder of Milaap, ended her marriage after experiencing domestic violence for several years. During her separation, she also decided to give up the custody of her 16-year-old son as a way to honor his choice to live with his father.

"I believe my son chose to live with his father to have access to better opportunities in life. I understood his concern and willingly accepted his decision," she says. But life after giving up custody was not easy. Her son decided to live with his father but people around her assumed that she must have done something wrong to drive him away.

"My closest friends would ask me, 'What did you do? Why doesn't he want to live with you?" As a result, I started to believe that maybe it was my fault; maybe I should have tried harder to convince him to live with me," she says.

Unfortunately, in the months following her separation, Gazal experienced complete estrangement from her son. In the beginning, she wrote many emails to him begging for forgiveness and trying to explain her reasons for letting him go, but he never responded to any of her messages.

"At a time like this, it is the other parent's responsibility to ensure that the child gets to enjoy the company of both parents," she says. "Unfortunately, brainwashing the child causes alienation and removal of the non-custodial parent."

Non-custodial mothers often report that their ex-spouses have used their children as bargaining chips either to punish them for ending the marriage or to get them to stay in the marriage. There have also been instances where mothers felt that they were wrongfully denied custody by judges who, they believe, were working hand in glove with their ex-spouses.

Rajini, a home decor designer based in Mumbai, lost the custody of her two children after an acrimonious divorce proceeding. She knew her 14-year-old son wanted to live with his father in Sweden and she accepted his decision. But she was shocked when in the high court, the judge gave custody of her 24-year-old disabled daughter — who technically does not even fall within custody laws — to her ex-husband on the pretext that in Sweden she would have a better chance of acquiring a job.

Non-custodial mothers are constantly in the process of re-imagining their role as mothers.

Rajini says she was granted only limited visitation rights based on the convenience of her children, who are presently living in Sweden. She strongly believes that the reason why she lost custody of her daughter despite having a strong case was because the judge was in touch with the team representing her ex-spouse. Naturally, the journey toward forging a steady relationship with her children has been difficult.

"I feel my son somewhere felt responsible for the pain I was in for losing my daughter; that guilt prevented him from opening up to me for several years," she says. "My daughter, who has selective mutism, is very uncomfortable around mobile phones, so she refuses to have a conversation over call. It's only recently that I spoke to her on FaceTime after many years."

Despite these challenges, non-custodial mothers are constantly in the process of re-imagining their role as mothers. Gazal says, "Redefining what motherhood means to us begins as a coping mechanism but gradually it provides the opportunity to rediscover ourselves, and our abilities."

Neetu, who is now living in rented accommodation a few kilometers away from her children, meets her sons every day for a couple of hours. She says that in the beginning, it was difficult not to be around her children 24/7 but with time she realized that what happened, happened for the best.

She says, "I have been a full-time mother to my children for many years but now I need to also focus on my career, and my happiness, to show my sons what strong women look like."

Gazal, who remains estranged from her adult son, believes her prayers for his well-being have always reached him, which in turn has brought her to a place of peace and helped her start support groups like Milaap: "From being guilty, miserable and heartbroken, I have found a way to use my experience to create a life of meaning and purpose. I am hopeful that when the time is right, my son and I will re-connect."

*Note: Two of the names have been changed to protect privacy.

*Pritha Bhattacharya is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. She has recently completed her master's degree in women's studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her previous work, covering issues of gender, culture and politics, have been featured in Firstpost, Down To Earth and Feminism in India. You can find her on Twitter, @prithawrites.

Karan Thapar

Netflix's Playbook For Tyrants Has A Real-World Example In India


INDIA — I don't watch many Netflix programs, but a series recommended by my cousin has struck me like a bolt of lightning. Called How to Become a Tyrant, it presents what it calls "a playbook for absolute power." Much of it is tongue-in-cheek, yet it's based on the actual tactics and strategies used by Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Muammar Gaddafi, Kim Il-sung, Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein. So if you take it seriously, it tells you what you must do if you aspire to be India's tanashah. And the remarkable thing is it feels uncannily like the country we're living in and the politics we're subjected to. Read on and see if you agree.

First, if you want to be a dictator, you need to be a particular type of person. For a start, you must be or, at least, present yourself as, one of the people. Hitler was a corporal, Mussolini the son of a blacksmith. As the commentary puts it: "A man who shares your dreams can fulfill them." So a chaiwala (tea vendor) will do very nicely.

The would-be dictator must also believe in himself. The series claims "a megalomaniacal belief in your abilities convinces others of them." So whether it's the mystical power of taalis and thalis or the claim that a single act of demonetization can eliminate corruption, if you are convinced of it then you can be sure an awful lot of others will also agree.

However, our putative dictator needs one further character quality: the gift of speech or, actually, the more important capacity to attract attention. Hitler's pencil-brush mustache was his defining feature. It was unmistakably him. But a flowing white beard might do as well. Hitler, we're told, was a natural-born adman. The swastika, it's claimed, was the most striking symbol ever created. If that's true, the performance we first saw at Madison Square Garden and the penchant for clever alliteration, acronyms and rhymes is clearly an enormous asset.

Now, if these are the qualities that can define a potential tyrant, there are a few others he needs to attract a firm and loyal following. First, the promise that he can create a better world for everyone. It's not necessary to succeed — few tyrants have — but the promise must remain evergreen and the belief you're steadily getting closer to delivery must be unquestioned. After all, you won't become a tyrant if you're associated with burre din, or bad days.

But this promise on its own is not enough. Our tyrant-in-the-making must also be seen as the only man who can fulfill that promise. He must, therefore, be acknowledged not just as the fount of all wisdom but also the fount of all virtue. So he needs to whip up a cult of personality. With the right number of bhakts, that's quite easily done.

In normal times this should be enough to corral the flock behind the shepherd but, sometimes, even sheep can go astray. So it's a good idea to create an enemy to keep them in line. Hitler found one in the Jews, Idi Amin in Ugandan-Asians and Gaddafi in Italian-Libyans. Our minorities could neatly fit this purpose. The Muslims, for example, at 14% of the population, are large enough to be falsely painted as a threat yet small enough to be easily kept in their place.

Every now and then, an external enemy also helps. Saddam Hussein chose Iran, Kim Il-sung South Korea, Hitler France and Germany, and Stalin most of the rest of the world. Little Pakistan next door would be perfect for us. The problem is the support it gets from China. If the enemy you choose is stronger than you, things could unravel pretty quickly. Still, if you can strike at Balakot and the only price you pay is a MiG-21, the audience at home will keep smiling.

Our tyrant-in-the-making must also be seen as the only man who can fulfill it.

Finally, tyrants need to be prepared for the worst. Not their denouement so much as the fact that there will always be critics and even rebels. Tyrants need to ensure they don't get out of hand. This is where the use of fear comes handy. As the commentary pithily explains, "Every dictator's best friend is a ruthless secret police." How lucky we are to have Section 124A, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation. I wouldn't have thought we'd need anything more.

In fact, modern India has one advantage Netflix's six-part series did not. I'm speaking of spyware technology of the winged-horse variety. Pegasus can achieve for our future tyrant far more than he did in Greek mythology. This magical equine can see and hear everything — but like a good monkey, keeps silent.

Now there's just one thing left and I've kept it for the end because it could be the most important of all. "You must dominate the truth," the series advises, "because then you end up controlling people's minds." This is where fake news becomes real news and the battle with Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook is revealed to be a disingenuous ploy. Seventy million followers on Twitter is a great start!

According to Netflix, if you've done all this, you're ready to be a tyrant. But success creates its own demands. When you reach the top of the tree, it can be boring to be on your own. Tyrants are never lonely but they do need to amuse themselves. The series claims they do it in two ways.

First, there's the ritual humiliation of those around them. Stalin executed Zinoviev and Kamenev, but a sudden and ruthless cabinet reshuffle will do equally well. The second tactic is to cast pearls. That's usually enough to turn people into swine! The commentary says: "Give your allies and supporters opportunities to be corrupt." First, it's amusing to watch them scramble for the crumbs you've thrown in their direction. More importantly, when they nibble, they'll stay loyal. Because then you'll have in your hands the evidence that can bring them to book and no man wants his judgement written so easily.

Now, as I end, does all of that feel familiar? They say truth can be stranger than fiction, but who would have thought a series on Netflix might mimic reality? No doubt it was intended to make you laugh, but many a truth is told in jest.

Parth Pandya

What Football Reveals About The Depth Of European Racism

It's not just England and not just the reaction against the team's loss in the European final. Europe's football culture, and culture in general, reflect deep-seated prejudices that require a real response.

When the final of the Euro 2020 between England and Italy went into the penalties, there was an uncomfortably familiar feeling in the air. Italy had been the slightly better team during the 120 minutes played but there wasn't all that much to choose between the two sides. And the penalties would inevitably lead to one team having to deal with agony and despair despite having come so close to touching the glory.

England arguably were under more pressure in front of a packed Wembley stadium and the weight of the enormous buildup to their entire campaign. Despite the early advantage they gained after Italy's Andrea Belotti failed to convert his kick, England went on to lose the shootout with Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka missing theirs.

None of the three players had started the final. Two of them had only been introduced as specialist penalty takers. The opinion is fairly divided on whether the England manager Gareth Southgate made the best possible selections for such a high-pressure situation. Three very young members were trusted for the job while leaving out some of the more senior and seasoned ones. However, the moment Saka missed the final kick of the shootout and Italy players broke into their celebrations, anybody even remotely familiar to the political climate in the present-day England would have immediately sensed the greater danger.

Other than being substitute players who missed their change during one of the biggest games of their careers, what unites Rashford, Sancho and Saka is the color of their skin. And it was only a matter of time before the inevitable discourse began. Minutes after the game ended, star England cricketer Jofra Archer sensing the urgency of the matter posted a tweet urging fans to not racially abuse the three players. But much like many of his tweets in the past, Archer's words proved prescient once again.

The players were booed and hooted at by large sections of England fans when they took the knee

The racial abuse reserved for the players was unhinged, but not one bit shocking. In the past, English society was anything but unconditionally united behind their players once they decided to take the knee making a powerful statement against "discrimination, injustice, and inequality." The gesture has strong political connotations and has very effectively been used by athletes highlighting the social malaise of systemic racism. The England team however had to significantly water down the gesture fearing public reactions. Southgate had to assure the press that the players were not promoting any specific political cause on the football field. Having to be defensive of the gesture in itself signaled what was to follow.

The players were booed and hooted at by large sections of England fans when they took the knee and this raucous behavior was practically endorsed by no less than Prime Minister Boris Johnson and home secretary Priti Patel. It is quite rich that both are now very conveniently condemning the racist abuse of players, but even the most committed of Tory voters will find it hard to believe that their leaders didn't know what was coming.

England went on the have a dream run as the tournament progressed, and this political divide had gone off the headlines briefly as the nation saw a very realistic chance of the team bringing home glory after 55 years. But it doesn't really take much to rally behind your players when they are winning. The moment they faltered, the worst of post-Brexit English society reared its ugly head out.

Speaking to Sky News a day after the final, former England and Manchester United defender Gary Neville very eloquently expressed his anger, highlighting how deep the rot runs. Mincing no words whatsoever, Neville went on to hold the very top leadership in the country accountable for almost encouraging the public behavior to stoop to this level. However, despite his impassioned monologue on the issue, one will be hard-pressed to overlook Neville himself helping normalize boorish actions of the English crowd when he said he found nothing wrong in the fans jeering the opposition team's national anthem – specifically of Scotland, Germany and Denmark. (Neville was in good company, with former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan echoing the sentiment.)

Sancho after missing a penalty kick in the Italy v. England game — Photo: Marvin Guengoer / Ges/dpa/ ZUMA Press

There was widespread criticism of such disrespectful conduct and the UEFA was even forced to penalize England's Football Association. Neville, though, preferred to let it pass as something that fans do when charged up. Manager Southgate had himself distanced the team from the audience's conduct. Former greats of English football Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker too had strongly expressed their disapproval. But when public figures with influence in media attempt to pass off such unruly practices in the name of banter, it should then surprise no one to see it culminate into a full-fledged act of hooliganism by fans that saw Italy supporters getting physically attacked.

The racial abuse of players and physical attacks on rival fans aren't completely detached from each other. Both stem from a deep sense of nationalistic entitlement, which breeds ethnic and racial supremacy. This fosters and abets a culture where immigrants are inherently frowned upon or at the very least are expected to be grateful for the largesse they have been offered. In this worldview, it is only reasonable for Rashford, Sancho and Saka to face racial abuse should they fail in their "duty" to England, for England has already done more than its fair share by letting them have a shot to play at the highest level.

Unlike some other places in Europe though, such blatant racism isn't all that mainstream in England yet and reflects how even a Conservative government is at least publicly motivated to condemn the bigotry in strong words. Things aren't quite the same in the backyard of the European champions Italy. Among the least diverse of all major European teams, Italy has had a far greater and far more severe problem of on-field racism. Several players in the Italian Serie A have been targeted with the most distasteful chants by the crowds.

No football culture in Europe is completely immune to racism and discrimination.

Sometimes players even fail to offer unqualified solidarity to their teammates. The star Italian center-back Leonardo Bonucci had resorted to in part blaming his Juventus teammate Moise Kean when the latter got racially abused by the fans of Serie A club Cagliari. The Italian Football Federation is among the most lackadaisical authorities in cracking down on racism and other forms of player abuse by spectators.

No football culture in Europe is completely immune to racism and discrimination. Even a progressive country like Germany had the Mesut Ozil episode in recent years. Ozil, who is of Turkish origin, said that his ethnicity is inevitably highlighted when he fails to meet expected standards. Again, his German teammates were anything but united behind Ozil when he made public his grievances. The French team, heavy on immigrants of African origin, has had to deal with racism too after their star player Kylian Mbappe recently missed a penalty, resulting in France's elimination from the Euro 2020.

This maliciousness that is ever so commonplace in football fandoms is almost rewarded by those who attempt to normalize it in the name of passion. It is almost as if fandoms are somehow not pure enough if they aren't borderline problematic. The behavior of England fans following the team's defeat in the final is due to politics of ethno-nationalism, racial supremacy and toxic masculinity, all of which are tolerated to the point they start seeping into the places where the entire world can see how primal a society can really be when emotionally charged.

It then becomes about protecting a country's international image and empty words condemning the specific acts follow. That sanctimony, though, is of very little consequence if the society continues to refuse looking into the rot that's brewing within. And Johnson and Patel perhaps really need to look into what they are helping flourish and thrive right under their noses. Some introspection certainly won't hurt.

Vinod Mubayi*

West Bank To Kashmir: Why Modi Sees Israel As A Guide For India

Aspects of discredited Israeli policies are being imitated in a country half a continent away.


NEW DELHI — Nothing demonstrates the arrogance of Israeli settler colonialism more than the periodic killing, every few years, of hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza by its bombs and missiles.

Leading Israeli politicians and military leaders are fond of describing this brutal violence as "mowing the lawn," as if Palestinian people are noxious weeds that need to be cut ever so often. "Mowing the lawn" is a nakedly political act meant to repress and suppress the non-Jewish population of territories like Gaza or the West Bank that are under de facto Israeli control.

"Israel has the right to defend itself," says U.S. President Joe Biden, who knows full well the profound asymmetry of military power between Israel and each and every one of its potential adversaries. The choice of words is clearly meant to justify brutal actions by Israel against Palestinians who live under occupation.

The trigger for the current conflict is widely acknowledged to be the threats of eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. This was followed by the Israeli police using tear gas and stun grenades on worshippers in the al Aqsa mosque on the holiest day of Ramadan. This provoked Hamas militants in Gaza to fire rockets into Israel, most of which were successfully countered by the Israeli "Iron Dome" system. Then came the aforementioned "lawn mowing," i.e., the Israeli artillery and aerial assault on Gaza.

When the cease-fire took hold, 12 people had died inside Israel, two of whom were ironically Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel and one a domestic worker from Kerala. In contrast, the UN estimates that 270 died in Gaza, 68 of whom were children, many of whom were infants. This is deemed by Israel a "proportionate response," preserving an approximate ratio of 20-25 Palestinians killed for each Israeli life lost.

Amira Hass, one of the most perceptive commentators on Israel-Palestine affairs, writes in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

"The lethal Israeli bombings of the residents of the narrow and sealed Gaza Strip may be presented in Israel as a "response," but every Palestinian and also other sensible observers understand them as part of the century-long continuum in which one people takes over and expels, fragments, divides and crushes, while the other people refuses to give up its identity and homeland — so it is attacked time after time."

American support to Israel is usually couched in terms of the $3.8 billion military aid given every year. More insidious and hidden are the many hundreds of millions given in the U.S. in tax-exempt donations to entities that use the funds to finance the growth of settler colonialism.

"The settlement enclaves sprouting up across the area are supported by a constellation of corporations and nonprofits financed mainly through U.S. tax-exempt donations," says Tanya Wintman. In the case of Sheikh Jarrah and other East Jerusalem neighborhoods, one need only look at two such settler organizations, Nahalat Shimon and Ateret Cohanim…These tax subsidies and the activities they support — the ethnic cleansing and Judaization of East Jerusalem…subsidizes private provocateurs, settlement lobbies and multinational corporations sowing destruction in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem."

This relentless drive to create an Eretz (Greater) Israel with no defined boundaries finds its voice in the increasingly right-wing majoritarian Jewish Israeli population egged on by their political representatives. It is manifested in the Jewish mobs shouting "death to the Arabs' in mixed Jewish-Palestinian cities like Lod/Lydda.

The basic underlying cause is Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories and its policy of apartheid not only in the areas conquered in 1967 but within Israel itself, west of the so-called Green Line.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times of May 25, Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu emphasises, "We Palestinians living in Israel ‘sub-exist," living under a system of discrimination and racism with laws that enshrine our second-class status and with policies that ensure we are never equals. This is not by accident but by design."

For approximately five decades, India had supported Palestine completely.

These facts have been acknowledged by international organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the courageous Israeli human rights groups B'Tselem.

While the settler-colonial regime in South Africa was forced by international pressure to dismantle the ugly features of apartheid two decades ago, Israel defiantly refuses to do so and its patrons in the West, notably the U.S., remain complicit in its adamant rejection of international law and morality.

Most ironically, however, aspects of Israeli policies are being imitated in a country where one would have least expected it.

On August 5, 2019, the Modi regime in India, whose fervent adherents make no secret of their goal of transforming India into a Hindu Rashtra, abolished the statehood of India's only Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, and read down Article 370 of the India's constitution that conferred special status to these territories.

Then-Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Narendra Modi in January 2018 — Photo: Lalit Kumar/Planet Pix via ZUMA Wire

While several reasons have been advanced to explain why the Modi regime took this drastic step, one particular reason — a settler-colonial policy to change the demography of the area by settling Hindus from other parts of the country there — has received a fair amount of attention.

A number of laws have been passed to remove previous restrictions on acquiring land and property in the newly designated Union Territory downgraded from its previous status as a state. How feasible this attempt to foster settler colonialism is may be debated but this notion became more credible when it was explicitly mentioned by an official of the Indian government.

In November 2019, India's consul-general in New York was seen on video telling an audience at a private gathering about the changes wrought by the Indian government in Jammu and Kashmir. He referred explicitly to the actions of the Israeli government in facilitating Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank and is reported to have said, "If the Israeli people can do it, we can also do it."

Any significant demographic alteration, if it occurs, would of course be done under the shadow of the Indian military in the most heavily militarized region in the world today. This, if it happens, would bear a strong similarity to the way the Israeli military facilitates Jewish settlers to appropriate land and terrorize the Palestinians living in the West Bank.

Where India stood before

For approximately five decades, India had supported Palestine completely.

Its diplomatic relations with Israel were limited to a consulate in Bombay for the purpose of facilitating the travel of Indian Jews to Israel while it established full diplomatic relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization and allowed it to open its office in New Delhi. Several factors were likely responsible for this situation, including India's emergence as a leader of the non-aligned bloc while Israel was firmly anchored in the western bloc, a position that was cemented when Israel joined Britain and France in imperial gunboat diplomacy: a military attack on Egypt in 1956 after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.

It is hardly any surprise that the Modi regime would take lessons in settler colonialism from Israel.

India's position could also have been influenced to some extent by Mahatma Gandhi"s views on Palestine expressed in his paper The Harijan. Writing in 1938 when the Nazi atrocities against the Jews of Germany were accelerating, Gandhi said that Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense as England belongs to the English and France to the French and it is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs.

Gandhi described the Jews as "the untouchables of Christianity" and compared their treatment by Christians in Europe to that of untouchables in India by caste Hindus but then went on to remark:

"My sympathy for Jews does not blind me to the requirements of justice. It is wrong for Jews to enter Palestine under the shadow of the British gun…they are co-sharers with the British in despoiling a people who have done them no wrong."

Gandhi repeated this in July 1946 when he stated that Europe's Jews, "who have been cruelly wronged … have erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain and now with the aid of naked terrorism." Gandhi's position, basically, was that the western world that had done little to save German Jews from destruction at the hands of the Nazis was trying to salve its guilty conscience by grabbing Arab land to settle European Jews in accordance with Zionist policy.

This position, like many other moral stances espoused by the Mahatma, has little appeal to the Hindutva groups, one of whose members assassinated Gandhi in New Delhi on January 30, 1948.

So, it is hardly any surprise that the Modi regime would take lessons in settler colonialism from Israel just as the Indian police and paramilitary bodies are reported to have received training from the Israelis in so-called "anti-terrorist" actions.

Meanwhile, Palestinians continue to live under the boot of the Israeli occupation. When periodic bouts of violence inevitably occur, Amira Hass, quoted above, reminds us, "It is only natural that Palestinians will want the Jewish military superpower to lose it and for the Israelis to know what fear is."

On the other hand, Israel can and does inflict violence on a vastly greater scale while the sight of Palestinian children killed and maimed and homes and schools destroyed that arouse feelings "of helplessness, rage and despair among every Palestinian…are sights that in the best case do not move most Israeli Jews, and in the worst case make them happy."

This is the arrogance and the reality of settler-colonialism that the Modi regime ostensibly wishes to imitate in Jammu and Kashmir.

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Siddharth Pandey*

Pandemic Pollution, And Our Philosophical Duty To Clean The Air

NEW DELHI — I had never given thought to the provenance of funeral wood, until news reports revealed in late April that officials in Delhi had begun receiving requests to chop trees in city parks amidst the colossal surge in COVID deaths. It was a jolting statement to encounter, for it forced me to reframe a life-giver into a death-enabler in ominously stripped, urgent terms.

Wood, of course, had been used for cremation since ancient times, but to think of it as coming from our very midst instead of some sequestered supply-area bore a sting of abrasiveness. Would our public spaces remain the same now on or, for that matter, even the public that once walked and ran under their trees? "Nature repairs her ravages," observed the English novelist George Eliot, "but not all." She qualified, "To the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair."

The world was quick to recognize her repairs last year during the global lockdown, when birds and animals started appearing "magically" from their hidden bowers onto our frozen civilized spaces. My most abiding memory from that long period of imposed isolation was the sighting of the Himalayas from the plains of north India, which happened due to the robust clearing of human induced pollution. It was after three decades that those great white sentinels impressed themselves upon the views of the Punjab plains a hundred miles to the south. And although I myself couldn't view those ephemeral vistas from our home further down in Ghaziabad, it felt enough to simply know that the Himalayas had gotten closer to me.

Birds and animals started appearing magically from their hidden bowers.

That exhilarating enlargement of spirit had everything to do with the three decades I spent in the mountainous regions of Himachal Pradesh, before my family's shift to the NCR plains in 2019. For all my growing-up years, those highlands had resolutely ensured that they were the only true high-rises. This was despite the severe urban development that had begun to inflict that geography during my teens and twenties, much like its plain-based counterpart. Nonetheless, the dignity of breathing fresh air in the Himalayas had remained fairly intact, as it still does to a certain extent.

With my shift to the gray-laden sprawl of the metropolis, I realized that untainted oxygen — a basic of life's prerequisites — was a privilege in itself. So when the surreal erasure of haze and smog manifested within a few weeks of the 2020 lockdown, I involuntarily found myself developing a habit of frequently checking the Air Quality Index. I knew that I wasn't alone in experiencing this strange passion, since a number of my Delhi acquaintances were also sharing their incredulity at those deepening azure skies. But I liked to believe, almost childishly, that my delight was "different", for I had nothing less than the Himalayas as my yardstick for comparison. Whenever a "very-good/healthy" reading of the city air conjured up in a cedar-green label, I found myself exclaiming, "This is like the mountains!"

A man travelling on a bus during the COVID-19 Pandemic period in Kolkata — Photo: Sudipta Das

And yet, that joy was no "thorough repair". Not only was it temporary, it also underscored a horrifying reality of displacement and suffering. For those countless fleeing migrant workers who were never allowed to claim their city-homes as their own and forced into making arduous return-journeys on foot, the shift in environment was anything but revivifying. Today, when the second wave wreaks unprecedented havoc across India, that oxygen ironically becomes a leveller in its very brokenness, with the rich and the poor meeting a similar, cruel fate.

In May, when cyclone Tautkae brutally ravaged parts of Western India and led to palpable changes in temperatures across many adjacent areas, this sense of air's imbalance again came to the fore. Standing on my fifth-floor balcony, even as I exulted in the soothing embrace of the 16 degree dip in temperature, the pinch of the knowledge that this wasn't normal pressingly played along. After all, the sudden "coolness' that we experienced was the result of the same factor that had brought destruction in other parts of the country. And the factor behind that factor was obvious too, with news reports stoically blurting future disasters in making: "Tautkae result of climate change, expect more cyclones in coming years: Experts."

We have always been aware that we are nothing without air.

The philosopher David Abram observes in his modern classic The Spell of the Sensuous that like many native and ancient languages, classical Sanskrit makes an association of the inner self with the wind. There, "the word ‘atman" signifies not only the soul but air and breath too."

While water is understandably perceived as the "elixir of life", we have always been aware in an oddly understated manner that we are also nothing without air. Hence the ubiquity of the phrase hawa-pani ("wind-water"), and the inextricability of the two words. Ask anyone visiting the mountains about their first impressions, and they would instantly revel in the difference from plains: "Wahaan ka hawa-pani kitna alag hai…"

Perhaps more than any other philosopher, it was the Buddha who best understood the link between the soul and air, devising his practice-based spiritual teachings on this very connection. But it is the tragedy of our country that political opportunists and bigoted religious babas use such vital legacies as a ruse to overlook the deficiency of medical facilities that we have been acutely suffering from. For instance, recently, Baba Ramdev illogically advised patients undergoing heart-attacks to promptly practice anulom-vilomen route hospital. Not only do such crude suggestions strike as blatantly insensitive, they also have the effect of rendering the otherwise beneficial exercises undesirable by citing them inappropriately.

It has been said that the third world war will be fought over water shortage. If anything, the pandemic must serve as our greatest warning for such a war to never take place. For battles of a different sort have already been fought globally during this and the last year, all united by the need for air. As quantifying markers of something that we once took for granted become the norm of our daily vocabulary and existence — cylinders, oximeters, concentrators, ventilators and so on — air assumes an uncanniness like never before. How we would deal with this estrangement in the near and the distant futures is perhaps our greatest personal and collective challenge now on.

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Ranjit Sabikhi

COVID-19 Reveals The Ugly Truth Of India's Urban-Rural Divide

The need to prioritize comprehensive planning is just as acute in both in urban and rural areas.


The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that we are currently passing through will have a disastrous effect on the life of large numbers of people across India and is more serious than the government acknowledges.

The biggest impact is going to be on the poorer sections of society that constitute more than half of the population, particularly the daily wage earners who were suddenly made helpless with the onset of the pandemic and the arbitrary announcement of total lockdown in March 2020.

These were the people who lived in slums and highly congested areas in cities who could not pay rent and did not know how to feed their families. They left for their homes in rural areas, with an estimated 25 to 30 million migrants escaping the cities.

Many of them found no work after returning home, and their household income fell drastically. With the partial revival of economic activities after the first lockdown, several workers were able to return to the cities by February 2021, finding employment at salaries that were 8% to 10% less than what they had previously earned.

The second wave of the pandemic has now hit them hard, leading to uncertainty and fear, as they have again been forced to return to their villages. They and their families are in urgent need of a sustainable plan for their future.

People who lived in slums left for their homes in rural areas.

Except for a draft national policy on migrant labor prepared by Niti Aayog, government agencies entrusted to provide help have not attempted to study, record, and analyze the details of the massive migration of workers that took place last year. There has also been a complete lack of sympathetic response to the uncertain future that migrant workers face.

The various programs set up by the government to provide food and jobs have not reached a large number of migrants. Recent surveys reveal that 74% of them had no access to subsidized cereals like rice and wheat, and only 12% got pulses. Less than 10% got jobs in public works at their native place under the MGNREGA plan.

The demand driven skill training under the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Yojana (GKRY) did not reach most migrants — only a very small number of migrants got any skill upgrade or training at their native place. Almost all the relief plans that the prime minister announced with such fanfare have been poorly implemented in only bits and pieces, and have failed to be of real help.

Safe spaces for everyone

In planning for post-pandemic development in both urban and rural areas many issues will need to be addressed.

First and foremost is the issue relating to the provision of space on an equitable basis for all sections of society. To minimize the spread of infection, minimum distance has to be maintained between individuals in all areas whether at work or home and also in public areas and streets. This is an issue that is related to equitable access to land, both in the urban and rural areas.

As per the 2011 Census data, almost 46% of the urban population consists of migrants who need rental accommodation. Wherever there are concentrations of low-income housing in cities, they are squeezed into minimal size plots built as four- to six-story walkup apartments.

Many of these are built on 25 square meter plots — an area on which you can barely squeeze in a single room, a toilet and a narrow staircase. Each floor on such plots has a single dwelling unit accommodating one family of four to six persons and this is the basis on which large numbers of unauthorized colonies have been developed all across Delhi. This is where over 60% of the population of the national capital currently lives.

With the realization that these are the hot spots where the coronavirus contaminates large numbers of people, it is necessary to ensure that future development — even with small sized residences in urban and rural areas — has substantial open space both within and around it.

With the return of migrants to their villages, the problem of long-term rural development requires urgent attention.

This change is not easy to bring about, particularly due to the stranglehold that politicians and administrators have on land all over the country. To develop plans where space is allocated on a fair and equitable basis to all sections of society, a complete change in the approach to planning and urban design is called for.

To ensure that the same mistakes of crowded development in urban areas are not repeated in the rural areas, a more sympathetic and responsive framework of planning needs to be prepared. With the return of migrants to their homes in villages, the problem of long-term rural development requires urgent attention.

Keeping careful records

For proper planning, the GIS survey of every village in the country, along with a record of all existing structures, access roads, trees, forests as well as all individual farm holdings is essential. It should be the responsibility of each state to get such accurately updated records.

All new developments can then be properly considered and planned on a comprehensive basis. The process of regional planning also calls for the active participation of professionals like economists, sociologists, demographers, engineers, architects, town planners, urban designers, landscape architects, etc. to produce long-term plans to bring about meaningful change.

Concrete buildings in India — Photo: Juniper Photon

Currently, there is no separate administrative body to deal with the effective implementation of development in rural areas. For improvements and development in village abadis to happen, proposals need to be prepared with the active participation of the local Panchayats.

Because of the enormity of our rural areas and the different social and economic conditions that prevail, it is necessary to set up a separate Rural Administrative body for effective coordination with the state and central government.

This is needed urgently. It has been proposed repeatedly in the past, but IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officials have resisted these plans, which they see as an intrusion on their domain. Many years ago, Jayaprakash Narayan, a senior politician, wrote a detailed note on the subject, stressing the need for proper rural development, but the note was never able to get past the IAS stranglehold.

Plans are shelved or stuck in the administrative quagmire.

Regardless of the obstacles, the enlargement of the entire rural administrative setup in each state is now essential. With the proper regional planning of rural areas in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, locations from where the largest number of migrants originate, large scale employment opportunities need to be created within the states themselves.

It is essential to have accurate surveys for the proper planning of rural areas. The Svamitva plan for the survey of village abadis and mapping with aerial surveys was launched in April 2020, and is in the process of being implemented by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj. One of the components of the Svamitva plan is the preparation of comprehensive GIS survey maps of the rural areas in each state. Until April 24, 2021, maps had been generated for only 875 village abadis in Haryana, two in Karnataka, and 976 in Uttar Pradesh.

The plan aims to provide an integrated property validation solution for rural India. The demarcation of rural abadi areas is being done with the help of Drone Survey Technology.

The intention is to help provide the "record of rights' to village household owners possessing houses in inhabited rural areas in villages, which in turn, would enable them to use their property as a financial asset for taking loans and other financial benefits from banks. The process will also help to create accurate land and property records of land ownership.

And yet, as of March 2021, surveys have been completed in only 31,000 villages, and property cards have been distributed to around 230,000 property holders in 2,626 villages.

As in many of the current government schemes, shortcomings including their slow progress have not been corrected, and the process of implementation is long drawn out. In this particular program, proper coordination with local panchayats has not been done, and a process of entrusting property rights along with the issue of proper property titles has not been followed through with individual states.

Similarly issues of property ownership such as multiple owners, and the recognition of an individual or joint women's ownership rights, and their correct record on property cards, have not been resolved. It is also necessary to introduce legal changes to empower gram panchayats to collect and utilize property tax for the development of village areas.

In the absence of proper follow through, including the need to set up the necessary rural administrative infrastructure, it is likely that this important plan may lose focus over time.

Like with most of the prime minister's ambitious development proposals, the approval of adequate funds is a major problem that ultimately leads to the plan being shelved or stuck in the administrative quagmire. But seeing how deeply this year has impacted migrant workers across the country, it is imperative that urban and rural planning be more carefully considered and prioritized.

Ranjit Sabikhi is an architect and urban designer. He was formerly a Professor of Urban Design at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.