Womanly Tales

Reading – Stuffed & Starved

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Channel 4 has a show called ‘SuperSize Vs SuperSkinny’ where they team up an obese individual with an undereight individual and have them swap lifestyles in the hope that it will help the individuals make different personal choices in the future and if that fails, that it would nevertheless certainly entertain the folks who get to witness this transformation. This show like much of its brethren that make up Reality Television – made it all too easy for me to treat it with my very best conservative haughty reserve (a la Michael Portillo)

However it was not long before I realized the folly of my response.  Art and Life are but two sides of the same coin – or – as I like to picture it, like a fox chasing its own tail.  It’s a futile exercise and yet most of us are fascinated with one or the other and never realize that we’re merely spinning in vain.

This week I am reading ‘Stuffed and Starved’ by Raj Patel.  It is a fascinating book that introduces us to the intimate relationship between the overweight and the hungry that are both on the increase due to our global food industry.   We live in an age where we are producing more food that ever before, and yet one in seven go hungry. There are about 1 billion hungry people on Earth. This happens at the same time as another historical first – since 2006 the number of overweight people outnumber those who are hungry – IE, about 1.5 billion are overweight.  Raj Patel applies research and reason to explain how obesity and hunger are two points on a continuum for poverty.

For most of us, being overweight is considered a personal flaw – It is very easy to apply moral censure to someone who is overweight or obese. Alternatively some of us imagine that it is the rich who are overweight. Raj Patel disagrees. In one example of Mexico, he counters the argument based on income.  It isn’t income that makes children of some families living in Mexico more obese than others – but instead it is proximity to the US border. This is because families living closer to the US border tend to adopt their sugar and fat rich processed food habits and as a result have children who are more overweight.  Patel quotes the lament of Porfirio Diaz who said ‘Pobre Mexico! Tan lejos de Dios; y tan circa de Estados Unidos’ (Poor Mexico! So far from God; And so close to the United States).

This intimate relationship between obesity and hunger however is not restricted to just the United States but is spreading at alarming rates across the world.  Globalization has  meant that only a few, large, capital-rich companies have the ability to profit from the production, processing and sales of food – and this food industry that we all support & participate in a serious threat to health, the environment and our social structures.

At the end of the day, it comes to changing habits – however the problem we face in changing habits is that we tend to focus on one or two habits and to our own detriment ignore the larger integrated chain.  We tend to focus on just increasing and decreasing specific actions instead of finding an approach that finds & sustains a happy balance.

For example, let’s take recycling.  Most of us have in some ways or other participated in some form of recycling activity at work or at home. As much as possible, and where convenient, most of us will do our bit to recycle and feel our chests puff up with pride as we realize our contribution to saving the environment.

However, has this solved the problem of exhaustible resources? No – in fact we’ve managed to create an equally resource intensive industry around recycling that is now becoming harder and harder to sustain in the long term.

So where did we go wrong?  To begin with, we ignored the holistic solution that recycling was just one part of.  That solution was made up of three parts:  REDUCE, REUSE and RECYCLE.  The people who came up with recycling programs however unanimously decided that they would focus on just RECYCLE.  Was that the most important part of the solution? NOT!  The solution actually is listed in order of importance – – FIRST, reduce. Then, reuse. Lastly recycle.

So now, that we have got a large chunk of the population recycling, we now need to help them unlearn some of this and learn how to REDUCE and REUSE.  Once again, we went about it in reverse fashion – You will recall those cups that show up in offices & stores that encouraged you to carry your coffee in your own cup instead of getting it in your Starbucks or Nero styrofoam cups.

Have you ever stood in a coffee shop like Starbucks or Cafe Nero and actually took account of how many people bring their own cups / mugs? I have yet to see one person show up with their own mug / cup!

The first ‘Reduce’ activity I participated in was related to food.  I attended a fair at my local park and had a person give me a spagetti measure.  It’s a2″ wide flat piece of plastic with three varying size circular holes.  When cooking spaggetti, you simply use this measure to decide how much spagetti to cook for 1-2 people, 3-4 people or 5-6 people.  Fantastic I thought – except my only issue is that I rarely have spagetti.  I wish I could have something similar for rice, I thought.

In Ayurveda, we use the measure of different parts of our body to come up with the exact portion needed for us.  One measure of rice that fits into the palm of our hand; for example. In case of spaghetti I realized that for just me, it’s really where my index fingers meets the base of my thumb. Excetera, Excetera (a la ‘King and I’)

The ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ slogan sticks with me because I feel that it just as easily applies to all our habits. In my case, where I need to relearn my food habits, it works beautifully.

The first and the bulk of focus goes in ‘Reduce’.  If we have to eat less, we must also eat high nutrition food – – Have you ever tried to have sugary foods when you’re hungry – it tastes like shit. So reducing what we eat can be the best gift we give ourselves – because it makes us choosy about high nutrition foods.  We will stop visiting supermarkets and instead invest in cooking our own food using good ingredients – mostly vegetables and fruits. This way we are reducing the extent of processing and giving ourselves a chance at survival.

Next, Reuse – freshly prepared food made up of natural ingredients and minimally processed grains lasts longer.  Have you ever tried to store a cooked pizza for reuse? Processed foods have less moisture in them – that way they can stay in their processed state for longer on shelves till we come across them.  The moment we cook them, they must be eaten immediately OR they taste like crap. It isn’t necessarily the case with food we cook with natural ingredients – like vegetables, fruits or minimally processed grains.

Last and definitely the least – – Recycle. Two tbsps of dal that really isn’t going to be eaten today can get mixed with atta and recycled into dal rotis. 2 tbsps of dahi mixed with 1/2 liter of warm milk can generate enough dahi to last another two days.  With this last example, let me also illustrate the additive benefits that don’t necessarily hit our stomachs but help with the environment.  We typically spend £10/week buying greek yogurt – that’s about 3.5 plastic boxes with lids each week.  By making yogurt at home, I have reduced the use of 3.5 plastic boxes with lids.  I also have reduced my spend down to £2.25/week. Last but not least, during the winters when this home made process is most challenged, I can reduce the consumption of yogurt because it’s a kapha-increasing food and best avoided in winters (kapha dominant months).

On that happy note, let me sign off from this post.


Written by Priya Banati

May 12, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Posted in Book, Green Shoots

Reading The Indispensable Vivekananda

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Chapter 1b
“Because some individual English man may call us ‘natives

‘ or ‘niggers’ and hate us as uncivilised savages we do not gain or lose by that. We, on account of caste distinctions have among ourselves far stronger feelings of hatred and scorn against one another; ”

Written by Priya Banati

April 25, 2013 at 10:51 am

Posted in Book

Read a book in 10 minutes or less

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I am not going to teach you how to do what this blog title suggests. I can’t possibly when I love reading and re-reading some books. However, off late I have felt that my memory is not what it used to be – or perhaps it never was what I perceived it to be once…  In any case, I feel that I need to take notes on what I am reading and put it somewhere so that I can access it easily and also share it easily. This is the first of such posts to capture the highlights from a book I have just finished.

Like most Virgos, I am into all things ‘healthy’. This does not translate into good health for me per se but I like being on the journey towards better health.  It is indeed rare when I do not pick up a magazine or a book that is about health or nutrition. I also love that my Mother-in-Law ( a fellow Virgoan) is a monthly subscriber to Prevention – that Reader’s digest lookalike that is all about healthy things.

This latest book I have read is called ‘The First 20 Minutes and is writted by Gretchen Reynolds.  This is a witty account of some research based evidence on what actually works and what does not work to lose weight, improve health and become an athlete.  This book is especially handy for those of us who are grappling with all the advice out there on getting or staying healthy AND who do not have good genes that help some ignore all good advice and yet remain frightfully healthy. It is also an insight into all the research that is happening out there and how some of it contradicts things that I have always believed as fact.

Here are my highlights from the book.  It does not in any way summarize the different stories – for that, you must read the book. Gretchen’s humorous writing goes a long way in making what would otherwise be downright boring stuff an interesting read with lots of room for giggles and outright barks of laughter.  What you will find in the list below is what I felt was important to take away – little nuggets of fact to refer back to for when I forget.


  • Being active is the easiest & cheapest way to decrease all-cause mortality and increase functional life-span.
  • Key note – Exercise does not contribute to weight loss but can help maintain weight loss.

How much?

  • What does being active mean in a week? 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity + 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity + 2 sessions of weight training.
  • To be fit as a 40 year old woman means running a 9 minute mile (7 min mile for men).  It also means doing 16 push ups (27/men)
  • To be least fit as a 40 year old woman means running a 12 minute/mile (10 min/mile for men).


  • Exercising at the fat-burning zone burns fat that is recently consumed. It does not amount to maximum calorie burn however.
  • Push yourself sometimes for a higher metabolic rate post exercise.
  • Work out before breakfast.
  • Add speed then drop it.
  • Low intensity ambulation, standing etc, may contribute to daily energy expenditure without triggering caloric compensation effect.
  • Vacuuming or mopping may make you happier.

What else?

  • When you are thirsty, drink.
  • Low fat chocolate milk is the best thing to have after a workout (Three cheers for research based evidence!)
  • Use a pedometer and a food diary to stay true and to sidestep our often erroneous perceptions of how much we exercise and our body’s ultimate betrayal (also called caloric compensation) to maintain status quo when we’re busting our butts to lose weight.
  • Strengthen your knees with Front Step Ups (going up and down a single stair many times), Wall Squats (be a chair with your body against a wall) and Straight Leg Lifts (harder to describe briefly – Google this one).
  • Be grateful.

Written by Priya Banati

April 15, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Posted in Book, Exercise

Tagged with

Becoming a practivist

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The Southall Black Sisters organization is holding a protest in front of the Indian High Commission in London from 4pm – 7pm on January 07, 2013. The information on the website lists five actions and asks people to bring posters, placards and whatever else that can help make this protest a success. When I tried to picture myself as someone carrying a placard and shouting out slogans, I failed. And this when London is experiencing a mild winter this year and believe it or not it is warmer here than in New Delhi.

So, I reached out to the Southall Black Sisters (via their website here) to make a suggestion.  I asked if it would be possible to use this occasion to gather ideas / suggestions that can be submitted to the second commission (details at the bottom of this post).  I got a prompt response from the group saying that this was not possible because a) they focus on local community issues and b) They are completely stretched for resources and can barely find a few members for the protest on Monday.  Fair enough, I replied.

This got me thinking about what it means to be an activist or a kractivist (there’s probably just one person I know who is such) and landed up coining (or so I naively thought for all of 24 hours in my google-less head) the term ‘Practivist’.  I shared with the Southall Black Sisters that I will not be attending this protest since shouting and sloganeering isn’t my thing. This in no way however condones their protest – in fact, I have a lot of respect for people who are able to do just that.  On the other extreme of this form of activism is this case reported on Kractivist this is both appalling and disconcerting to me. The loss of life to crime or towards crime is deeply wounding. (IE: I do not support the death penalty).

Activism of this sort is (among other things) a purge of sorts. It’s an antidote to ‘swallowing our emotions’ and instead wholeheartedly encourages getting it all out.  Shouting, sloganeering, participating in candle-light vigils, maintaining silence for 2 minutes etc are all fantastic and once again, I applaud the initiative facilitated by the Southall Black Sisters organization and others in getting people out there on the streets.  No where is it more clear, on how this form of activism can focus our attention on an issue and broadcast our demand for change, than in the case of the december gang rape victim in New Delhi.

However, this form of activism is not enough. As I sat down to blog about this, I started with a Google search and lo & behold there’s a whole world of commentary on what Practivism is all about – much of which I agree with completely.

Practivism = Practical methods for radical sustainability in design

Practivism = Practically presenting solutions to the problems in the world.

Practivism is about more than choosing recycled paper; it’s about envisioning and mobilizing a better future.

and my pet topic and passion:  the need for Collaboration in sustainable design – the Practivist way – http://blog.breavo.com/2011/11/practivism-collage-of-words/

Now, how does this actually work?  I think there are some broad principles that apply to bringing about sustainable change such as:

  • Each individual has the ability to contribute – The task they need to apply themselves to is to understand how can they be of service or utility.  As the character Hugo says in the film ‘Hugo’, if all of this world is one big machine, and there are no spare parts, then each of us has a function / a purpose that we must endeavor to discover and then act upon.
  • Each individual is most conducive to act  in a climate / environment of inclusiveness.
  • Distinct functions do not need further qualification by hierarchy. We must refrain from adding judgemental and relative values between functions.  (IE, this function is better than that)

With these three broad ‘guiding principles’ let’s then understand what this could mean.  Simply put, any collective enterprise (a company, a philosophy, a religion or institution) cannot operate independently of the environment it is part and especially not on perceived values of popularity or rightness.  This concept of ‘What goes around, comes around’ or ‘Circle of life’ means that while we continue to form collectives, we need to be sensitive and accountable to the impact of this on the environment.

How do we do this?  We cannot resort to honoring the boundaries delineated by ‘authority’ or existing collective enterprise.  We need to find ways to communicate across boundaries.  The government responded to the people on the street by announcing two commissions and this is an example of how to set oneself up to fail.  A commission is a formal structure with clear boundaries and little to no means of facilitating a broader, cross-boundary consultative discussion with people across India.  Take the example of the following request from the second commission (full excerpt at the bottom of this post) and also found here.

The ‘public’ have been asked to telephone / fax / email either Ms Usha Mehra or Shri S.M.Aggarwal (except for on gazetted holidays and weekends) and share their complaints / suggestions.  ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

This is not an example of how this team (regardless of the people in it) can effectively engage with individuals and organizations by creating a safe environment for consultative discussion.  Why not?

1. The information shared is uni-directional.  How is that a conversation? How is it consultative?

2. Since none of us know what the other is sharing, we’re all having to spend precious time & resources repeating ourselves / duplicating suggestions.  Clearly this is not a vote bank where the more times they hear a particular suggestion makes it more likely it is included in the recommendations they will submit. Ineffective processes stifle engagement and are in itself a deterrent for contributions.

3. The lack of transparency also perpetuates the perception of a deaf authority.  It does not validate the thoughts / ideas of the submitter.

4. A conversation ensures a multi-way exchange that has an impact on all those who are engaged.  This commission is stifling engagement – it’s saying: Please go home; send us your ideas / suggestions and we’ll come back to you with recommendations.  Well, thank you very much but NO THANKS.  The people want to engage NOT because we have the solution but we want to discuss what solutions COULD emerge. Instead of the blanket ‘Adopt Saudi punishment methods’, there is the opportunity to build awareness, spread optimism and sooth frayed sensibilities.  What is the role of the commission in facilitating this?

Where are the means with this commission to do this?  My sister-in-law had asked me in response to the first commission’s request for information – are there enough people here who are going to be able to sift through all the emails / suggestions.

OR worser still, is the impression that people will not really follow their talk/activism with something substantive.  If the authorities believe this, they are not being just arrogant.  There are plenty of examples of social collaboration (Eg: Wikipedia) where the # of contributors or editors are a tiny fraction (1 – 6%) of the number of consumers.  There is also quite a bit of research published on the growing capacity for humans to CONSUME that in turn impacts our ability to contribute and engage in a PRACTIVIST fashion.

Just as the commission has begun on the wrong foot, you and me need to also realize that we are also ill-equipped to engage and collaborate in this boundary-less, consultative way.  We are often tied down by the same boundaries that the people in authority are.  Our world has been fragmented one too many times into different functions, factions all in the erroneous goal of enterprise!  Nor is television (media and entertainment – traditional or new age) a viable medium because it primarily fuels consumption.

We need to do something urgently to OPEN the ways for engagement. Away from the glare of media or personal/organizational glory, we need to open up our institutions, our enterprises, our homes and our public places to facilitate conversations and RISK the emergence of creative suggestions.  We can start with a short list of three or five ‘talking points’ – there is no need to fear the perceived ‘Pandora’s box’.  We need to leverage media channels to publish the output of what we’re discussing.  Our colleges, our Coffee Day Cafes, our gyms, our spas, our theatres, our places of worship and offices can all be part of this engagement.

We do not need a ‘new way’ of doing things – but an earnest intention to get back to the basic principles of practivist engagement. The journey to a safer environment for women, children and those who are vulnerable begins with our engagement and our individual development as we find our voices.  Start with our families, our friends, our colleagues, our school / college mates and together let’s see if we can give Ms Usha Mehra a response she cannot ignore.

Further reading:

A post by Mrinal Sen from the Delhi Law University:

My take-aways are:

  • There are two phases of a rape trial: The first part that convicts the offender and the second ‘sentencing’ phase that determines the punishment.
  • The sentencing phase is ‘judge-centric’ and entirely dependent on the individual’s sense of justice.
  • The minimum sentence judgement of 7 years can be discarded during the sentencing phase.
  • Most judges operate on the belief that rape causes a loss of virginity, chastity and brings on social shame for the victim and the punishment is proportional to the degree of loss perceived by the judge based on  evidence.
  • Scientific evidence prompted by the doctors (that are not required by law) contribute to quantifying the ‘loss’ of the victim in court.
  • Married women or rape survivors that get married,  sexually active women and women who cannot prove that they physically resisted the rape give the judges ‘reasonable cause’ to reduce the punishment for the offenders.

An article from 30 years ago by a rape survivor.

The sad truth is that though this incident happened decades back, the message and story still rings true.  It echoes the frustration felt by people on the street that nothing has changed, despite things changing.  A couple of thoughts on ‘internalized patriarchal values’ and ‘the most fanatical kind of self-righteousness’ has got me reflecting more about this in my next post.


Justice (Retd.) (Ms.) Usha Mehra Commission Invites Complaints/ Suggestions 
          Justice (Retd) (Ms) Usha Mehra Commission will function from their office at Vigyan Bhawan Annexe, New Delhi-110 003.  The Commission of Inquiry has invited complaints/suggestions that could be sent to the Commission on the telephone nos/ Fax/e-mail address as below:

1.     Justice (Retd.) (Ms.) Usha Mehra

Room No.331, and 331 (A),

Vigyan Bhawan Annexe,

New Delhi-110003.

Telephone No. 23022365

Fax- 23022364

Email address: usha.mehracommission@nic.in

2.     Shri S.M. Aggarwal,


Room No.330,

Vigyan Bhawan Annexe,

New Delhi-110003.

Telephone No.23022363

Fax- 23022364

Email address: usha.mehracommission@nic.in

The Commission has been set up to enquire into various aspect of the shocking incident of rape and brutal assault of a young woman in Delhi on 16.12.2012, identify the lapses, if any, on the part of the police or any other Authority or person that contributed to the occurrence; and fix responsibility for the lapses and/or negligence on the part of the police or any other Authority or person.  The Commission shall suggest measures to improve the safety and security of women, particularly in NCT of Delhi and NCR.

The Chairperson of the Commission Justice (Ms.) Usha Mehra and the Convenor Shri S.M. Aggarwal, Addl. District & Sessions Judge (Retd.) can be contacted on any working day (except Saturdays/Sundays and Gazetted Holidays) during office hours at the above mentioned telephone Numbers, Fax and Email address.


Written by Priya Banati

January 5, 2013 at 10:45 pm

Posted in Green Shoots

Tagged with ,

Giving voice to amending laws in sexual assualt cases

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What can we do differently to reduce violence against women (and children and those most vulnerable in our society)?

The government has set up a committee headed by Chief Justice of India J.S.Verma that is constituted to give recommendations on amending laws to provide speedier justice and enhanced punishment in sexual assualt cases within 30 days.  This three-member committee has sought suggestions from the general public by January 05The suggestions can be sent by e-mail to justice.verma@nic.in or through fax at 011-23092675.

Suggestions are particularly sought from eminent jurists, legal professionals, NGOs, women’s groups and civil society members.  This is not an adequate response from the government HOWEVER it is nevertheless an opportunity for us to act and respond.  Each of us has something specific we can do to help move this forward – let us not wait for someone else to act. Let’s collectively find our feet as we move them forward.

How do you and me respond?  Here are a few suggestions:


  • Dial/SMS a friend:  Do you know someone who is an eminent jurist (whatever that is…), a legal professional, an NGO focused on violence against women and anybody else who has some experience working on this issue?  Call them up and encourage them to pull together a group of 3-5 related folks and submit their sugggestions.

This is a complex issue.  But the answer is not with ‘them’.  All of us are part of a network of experts – across our family, friends and neighbours and we can encourage them to bring their experiences to bear on this issue.  Why in groups of 3-5? Because it is a good size for conversation, moderation and faster output.

Side note: For those of your friends who have ‘day jobs’ and are not able to volunteer their expertise / time, ask them to send an invoice along with their suggestions to the Justice committee.  Just because they have not offered it, does not mean the government cannot afford honoring the time / resources of its citizens.


  • Law colleges:  Can you host a one-day brainstorming session with students across all years and come up with your suggestions for the committee? Once again, let’s start with our own network – Do we know any law students? Do we know any professors or principals of law colleges?  Who can we call and urge that they facilitate a contribution from their students? Once again, I would suggest avoiding large group / debates but instead a structured series of conversations in small groups of 3-5 people.  Collating the collective suggestions and faxing it to Justice Verma would be the intended goal.
  • NGOs:  Can you host an ‘Open House’ for women to come into your offices and share their views on what can help them feel and live a safer life? Most of the survivors of sexual assualt are silent and invisible in our society.  This can be an opportunity to invite them to give their voice to this debate.  It is the responsibility of the NGOs to ensure that these women are able to share what they think in a safe environment.


  • Can everybody who participates in this discussion share what their suggestions are publically?  This could be in the form of  a blog or a website or a facebook status update.  
  • Can the NDTV channel that is also collecting suggestions (ndtv.com/solutions) please also make public what the suggestions are.
  • Can these individuals reach out to the protesters at Jantar Mantar and elsewhere and make available information about current laws, data and suggestions with the people on the street?

If only… my personal cribs about the lack-lustre, clueless response of those in authority…

The government would broaden the scope of action beyond amending laws to also preventive measures… Violence against women goes beyond amending laws for once the crime is committed – Each of us can do a better job of being the change that we want to see happen (as Gandhi said).  While the scope of this committee appears quite restrictive, let’s not let that stop us from collecting our suggestions and sharing it with each other and the government.

Starting a special helpline is waste of money and resource.  Once more, the Chief Minister of Delhi has failed Delhites. She needs to resign immediately.  The reason I feel the helpline is ineffective is this – – when I go for my early morning / late evening runs, I often wonder what if I am attacked – how fast will I be able to pull out my mobile and get help?  The answer is ‘Not fast at all’.  First, I will need to get to my phone that is zipped up in my pockets. Next, I will need to enter my security code to unlock the device.  Then I need to click on the ‘Phone’ symbol and tap the help line number.  In all this, is it fair to assume that the offender would stand by, watch and wait his turn?  Instead I have been wondering if I need to carry a pocket alarm – something that if I press makes so much noice, it is bound to bring me help from those around me.  Or in cases where we are indeed alone, is it pepper spray?  Do I need to carry not just my lipstick but also my pepper spray?

Our laws are not just for when a crime is committed but also help us combat crime – For example, I do not know if it’s ok for me to legally carry a bottle of pepper spray. In what circumstances can I use it?

A three member team seems like a joke.  Most of these folks also appear quite elderly. Surely the government can give them more funds and resources to come up with their recommendations?  The bulk of the cost / resources is in the consultation portion of this exercise.  Simply publishing notices for suggestions is not enough.  There needs to be far more transparency about what is coming and more options on how people (outside of these three people) can influence what suggestions are higher priority than others.

NDTV and other news channels that are augmenting this process by collecting suggestions from people directly can also do one step better by making public the suggestions. Instead of running senseless debates with politicians who are not accountable on television, why not share the top 5 / 10 suggestions that have been collected in the past day with viewers to better engage on what’s coming through the suggestion pipeline.  This will help build awareness but also build some optimism amongst a saddened population that there are creative ways to make a difference!

Why is it a committee of two men and a woman?  Why not a team of all women? Is it not possible to find three experienced women who can chair this committee?


More on the Justice Verma Committee: Source: Multiple websites on the Internet

A three-member committee headed by former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma, constituted to give recommendations on amending laws to provide speedier justice and enhanced punishment in sexual assault cases, has sought suggestions from the general public by January 5.
The committee has issued a notice seeking suggestions from the public in general, particularly eminent jurists, legal professionals, NGOs, women’s groups and civil society members in a bid to provide quicker justice and stringent punishment for crimes against women.
The suggestions can be sent by e-mail to justice.verma@nic.in or through fax at 011-23092675.
The committee, which was constituted after public protests erupted over the Delhi gang rape case, will look into possible amendments to the criminal law for faster trial and proper punishment for criminals accused of committing sexual assault of extreme nature against women.
The other members of the committee, constituted by the government, are Justice (retd) Leila Seth, former Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh High Court, and Gopal Subramanian, former Solicitor General of India.
The panel has been given 30 days to give its report to the government.
Under the existing law, the maximum punishment for rape is a life term but the nation-wide outrage over the gang rape of the 23-year-old physiotherapy student in a moving bus last Sunday night has sparked a demand for death penalty for rape convicts.
The suggestions should be sent by January 05, 2013 so as to enable the committee to
complete its task and give its report with necessary recommendations within the available

Written by Priya Banati

January 1, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Twelve days of….

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This holiday season has been marred by the death of a 23 year old woman who was gang-raped by a group of six men. In a country where a woman is raped every 20 minutes (second to only the United States and South Africa) this is not new. Albeit some experts believe that only 10% of rape cases in India are reported due to social stigma, apathetic policing and the fact that most rapists are known to the survivor’s family.

What made this incident stand out was what followed. Over the past fortnight large groups of people of all age, sex and backgrounds from different parts of India have come forward to demand change. In response, a broad diaspora of figures of authority have joined debates on television channels and have (equally spectacularly) failed to make sense of what has happened, what is happening and what will happen in the future.

In my post, I would like to share my view of how this fortnight unfolded and add my voice to this conversation. At the onset, let me start with sharing my personal wish: When I heard of this crime and the woman fighting for her life in Safdarjung Hospital, I wanted to ensure that just as her friend had shared with her that the six offenders have been caught, we could have also ensured that we shared with her that they have also been punished (as per the laws that stand.) That to me would been a demonstration of our commitment to uphold the law such that personal justice was delivered to this survivor. My biggest regret and shame is that despite all the to & fro conversations, the figures of authority stalled and bullied their way to fail us again. Our survivor is no more. She will not know what happened to the six people who violated her. She was allowed to die with no justice.  To me this failure must be accounted for by the Home Minister, the Commissioner of Delhi Police and the Chief Minister of Delhi. The three of them must resign.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride…

Let me instead now reflect on what I viewed across new articles on the Internet and Indian TV channels and try to pick up some common threads that securely bind us all as part of this failure.

Beginnings… (Day One – Four):  Yeh Dilli hai mere yaar, bus ishq, mohobat, pyaar! (Lyrics by Prasoon Joshi, French lyrics by Viviane Chaix, Claire)  [Watch / Listen]

When the first news of the gang rape crime spread, the people in Delhi were surely shocked, saddened and fearful.  They also felt, with the rest of India, a sense of ‘Deja Vu’ – an acceptance that if this sort of crime were to happen anywhere, then Dilli would be it. I moved to Delhi from Bangalore ten years ago. I have been away for Delhi for 5 years and yet for the first time, my Mom said to me – ‘See, this is why I was afraid for you to go to Delhi’. It should come to us as no surprise then that most of the voices of authority on television and off were distancing themselves from the event.  This is the Indian ‘apathy’ and ‘fatalistic’ mindset that we know so well.  People are resigned to fate and any conversation is a reflection – an interplay of the could-bes, the have-beens and the what-ifs with no real or intended commitment to change.

As more and more people gathered to voice their shock, sadness, fear and anger, in response, a large diaspora of figures of authority (Government officials, Opposition party leaders, Leaders of women NGOs, Bollywood personalities, Retired police men & women, Activists, Reporters etc) also spoke up – stoking the fire by joining the conversation.  There was one SIGNIFICANT difference however. The people on the streets demanded change and wanted to see action. Most people who were asked what they wanted were very clear in their demands (Eg: Hang the offenders).  Those on the television cameras and behind ‘official’ residences were NOT invested in the conversation for change or action. They were merely habitual opportunists eager to argue and debate with no real conviction behind what they said and with no intent to act decisively.

For the Congress party, we yet again saw a host of MPs willing to fall on the sword of inaction & failure in order to safeguard the ‘clear leadership’ at the top (Sonia and Rahul Gandhi). If anything, it almost seems like a rite of passage for Congress MPs to prove their loyalty by humiliating themselves on television and yet miraculously emerge unscathed and with seat secured and party membership guaranteed for life.  Has anybody heard anything remotely sensible come out of Congress MP of Rajya Sabha – Renuka Chowdhury? I shudder to think that this MP was once Minister for State for Women & Child Development (Add to the rape statistics above, 1 in every 2 children in India is sexually abused). Yet, there she is, spokesperson for the Congress through almost the entirety of this past fortnight.

The politicians and government officials are not the only figures of authority. What about the tone of the hosts of these debates (The fourth estate!)?  What was apparent early on was that these individuals too were creatures of habit, comfortable in canoodling with politicians and film stars but funnily inadequate when trying to have a conversation with an ‘aam admi’. This inadequacy was apparent in their inability to read the demand of the people and the surge in debates where the number of panelists increased in proportion to their confusion about why ordinary men and women were out and about every day in cold, unfriendly climes, daring to raise their voice.

Last but not least among the voice of the authorities is the dynastic Bollywood triad of television debate: Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar and Farhan Akhtar.  There is indeed a fascinating and equally horrifying connection between Bollywood and political debate in our country. Nowhere else do film artists hold such sway over their interpretation of what people want or desire (Yeh public kya mangta hai?).  For example, during the London riots last year, I do not recall Daniel Craig (James Bond) or Colin Firth (King’s Speech) being asked for their opinion or interpretation on the mood of our people.  I certainly do not know of any Hollywood family that has such a sway on political views as the Akhtars enjoy on Indian television.  My sense is that if you were not fated to be born into a political family, then the next surest route to being a ‘Neta’ is surely via Bollywood.  That or a life of crime which is perhaps the slow but steady path to political glory.  Perhaps Farhan Akhtar intends to become President or even Prime Minister some day? This is not as far fetched as it seems.  How many of our retired stars end up on a party ticket?

Will we watch more of Farhan Akhtar’s movies where he frolicks in a Tomatina festival because he cares for what happened to the rape survivor’s friend?  What is it that Farhan, Javed or Shabana (despite her Rajya Sabha status) done to really be in such high demand? Or even so Mrs Jaya Bachan – apart from lavish birthday and baby shower celebrations, when have we last heard her speak of anything remotely political – and yet here she has managed to do a complete volte face in less than a fortnight by first asking that we all support the Delhi Commissioner (instead of demanding his unconditional resignation) to sobbing her way through a speech of seeming culpability which is excusable because she spoke of herself as part of an entire generation that is responsible for this failure – Damn right, she is too, albeit a tad too late.  And yet, it is nearly not enough – her opinion is well and good but what will she DO differently?

The fat middle… (Day Five – Nine):  All authority is violence over people – Mikhail Bulgakov

Research has proven that people who are rendered deaf find it much harder to cope than those rendered blind.  After being water-cannoned and tear-gassed several times, it was clear that the people out on the streets of Delhi were not being heard. No one felt their anguish more than each person, man, woman and child, standing on the street with placards, candles, being vulnerable to a hostile government. Violence was the perogative of the oppressor and the oppressed.  TV channel hosts spoke of ‘bad elements’ in the crowd thus confirming their own cowardice and fear in the face of who really pulls the strings of our so called ‘fourth estate’.  Barkha Dutt delivers her cozy rendez-vous with the Chief Minister who all but incriminates herself and yet equally is confident that her government will not be held accountable. After Narendra Modi’s hatrick in Gujurat, the Congress need Ms. Dikshit to win a fourth term to stay ahead of that race. The Home Minister laments about how a conversation with the people on the streets is akin to speaking with Maoists (armed insurgent groups). The Finance Minister (and touted to be the next Prime Ministerial candidate for Congress) compares the people on the street to a flash mob turned protest.

In the midst of all this, one police man dies. Is this indiscriminate fate readdressing the horrible imbalances faced by the survivor, as she waits for justice and a remote chance at living? Or is it blood on the hands of the Commissioner, the Home Minister and the Chief Minister who have conveniently passed the accountability parcel down to the junior ranks to live and die by?

The Home Minister announces a couple of inquiries. The people on the streets surge further.  There comes a point when everybody on television is confused as to what more these people want.  Why can’t they just go home? How dare they come out still despite the many closed Metro stations, the barricaded roads and the heightened insecurity felt by everybody in Delhi – – all orchestrated not by the people on the street but by the police and Home Ministry.  This is perhaps the tragic nature of such an event that those in authority do not understand nor have the means to respond to the demands for change from the people on the street.  My sense is that the people out on the streets wanted to participate in a consultative process that led to viable change. They wanted to be included in the process and not dismissed. They were looking for a leader who would find resonance through engaging with dissonant voices and NOT by stifling them. Alas, this leadership was missing.

Soon this confusion also led to a generational issue. There was a quick ‘us versus them’ where the figures of authority were the ‘elder, wiser, experienced, employed’ lot while those on the street were mere students or ‘young adults’.  I found it rather amusing to hear of parents with children being described as ‘young adults’.  However this generational issue also raised an attitudinal problem.  When the young voiced a demand for change, this is considered their ‘zid’ or stubbornness.  In contrast when the ‘experienced” voiced their demands (let’s go back to status quo; let’s go back to how things are done in proper ways and proper channels), this is considered ‘parampara’ or continuity that comes from tradition.  This ‘Zid’ versus ‘Parampara’ battle demonstrated the disconnect between the voices and the responses.  It displayed a certain arrogance and power-craziness on the part of those in authority who found it hard to have a conversation with the ‘youth’ representatives often appearing angry and threatening.  How representative this is of our families where figures of authority (our parents) often get their way by exercising anger and threats.

The people on the streets do not want an enquiry or even two and 30 days / 60 days when compared to a young life that was barely hanging on was too long.  The people wanted to be involved. They did not want this to go back to a closed panel of ‘experienced’ people because these very same people have already failed.  This young woman would not be fighting for her life if our experienced figures of authority had got it right. Why did not the government set up a corridor of temporary stalls where representatives listened to the people and made a record of their thoughts and desires?  Why did we not use technology to give everyone the opportunity to share their opinions and views?  Why did we not set up adequate communication channels that would help build the awareness of people on what rape laws existed?  None of the media companies were even able to highlight the status quo today of present laws and processes.  Instead media hosts weilded their microphones as batons in front of ordinary folk, quickly dispensing their emotions and demanding that they suggest the way forward… and yet when people did in simple ways (Hang the offenders), the hosts would recoil back in fear.  It appears that the 30 day commission has put out a public notice for people to share their opinions with them – this is laughable. Do we really live in an internet age? Is that the best this commission can come up with is to publish a public notice for suggestions in the local newspaper??  There are people out on the streets every day – is the commission afraid of engaging with them directly in person? Are they really doing the best the can to make it easier for people to share their opinions on what has transpired?

The role of the media to become a mediator or a channel between the people on the street and the figures of authority is also highly suspect. It reeks of fear on the part of these figures of authority and their inability to engage with the people on the streets.  It reeks of a ‘We will tell what you think’ arrogance that takes what transpires on television to be more real than what is happening on the ground! To further dramatize the incident by naming the survivor ‘Damini’ and ‘Amanat’ was to further distance people from what was happening on the ground and instead lull them into a fake sense of reality that was manufactured on television. The scenes of large groups of police trying to protect the ‘few’ from the ‘masses’ sealed this atmosphere of fear and arrogance among those in authority.  The many rounds of tear gas shelling and water-cannons being used against the groups of people are proof of this fear and arrogance. The fact that the survivor’s father was coerced to request for peace and calm at a time of such personal suffering demonstrates the intimidation of the authorities over the most vulnerable.

The beginning of the end… Day Ten – Twelve:  “Chronic remorse, …, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved bady, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time… Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.” – Aldous Huxley

When all else fails, the Prime Minister himself stood up to fall on the sword once again to atone for the dearth of leadership in the Congress party.  Sonia Gandhi followed and after the survivor died, so did the heir apparent – Rahul Gandhi.  However, the remorse sentiments notwithstanding, the mood had not changed. This was not repentance; nor was it amends.

Just a few months earlier, another Congress faithful was rewarded with a cosy retirement post as the President of the country. Nobody then could have guessed that fate would demand a price for this transgression – albeit from the ‘young’ generation of the President’s family – his son, Abhijit Mukerjee, another MP and exemplar of dynastic politics.  In an interview, he claimed that the people on the streets of Delhi were not young students but ‘dented, painted’ women who were he mocked part of a ‘Pink revolution’.  Soon after, he ‘officially’ retracted his statement and apologized for the ‘hurt sentiments’. He then, in the tradition (parampara) of so many Congress MPs before him, made himself available for a public humiliation across some television channels. Furthermore he pouted and sighed enough number of times in hope of gathering pity as he was publically flogged for his ‘mindset’. Alas, in the witty words of Oscar Wilde, “”There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is NOT being talked about.”  From relevant obscurity to the center-stage of national television, this might yet work in favor of the ambitions of this ‘young’ MP and his ambitious (and perhaps angry about being sidelined) father.

What we have left is a dead woman, a failed authority that is complicite in stifling the voice of the people they serve. Still, this is I hope the beginning of the end of politics as we know it; of apathy as we know it; of brutality towards women, children and the most vulnerable in society as we know it.  This change will not come easy; nor will it be straight-forward.  We need to be resolute behind our citizens on the streets and find ways to join this demand for change.


Written by Priya Banati

December 30, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Posted in Green Shoots, human feeling

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Written by Priya Banati

May 30, 2012 at 10:25 am