Monday, January 18, 2010

A Cautionary Note

I have referred many to the Actual Freedom Trust website, and used to prominently display its web address in my blogger sidebar.

I am obligated to say this to the fellow travelers and seekers and to those who via my blog, or via interactions with me, have come to this mailing list or considered the contents of the AFT website.

For the historical record, I can no longer unhesitatingly recommend 100% of the contents of the AFT website (and especially the recent developments about the "direct route" etc.).

There are valuable insights and discussions available on the AFT website, but the labyrinthine contents (which are mostly archived correspondence) need a very high degree of discrimination, probing, thought, enquiry, reflection, practice, and experimentation to derive benefit from.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Gender Biases in Indian laws

The following in today's Hindustan Times:

“We have decided to review all gender-biased laws, which affect the legitimate rights of women. All laws should be gender-neutral,” Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily told HT.

The two sentences above are inconsistent. Either Mr Moily is thinking of removing biases in all gender-biased laws, or he is thinking of removing gender-biases in laws which are weighed against women.

In case you think there are no laws which are weighing against men, think again:


Section 125 of the CrPC

(1) If any person leaving sufficient means neglects or refuses to maintain-
(a) His wife, unable to maintain herself, or ..."

Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005

Section 2(a) Definitions: "Aggrieved person" means any woman ...

Section 304B of the IPC

Dowry death - Where the death of a woman is caused by any burns or bodily injury or occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances within seven years of her marriage ... such death shall be called "dowry death" and such husband or relative shall be deemed to have caused her death.

Section 497 of the IPC

Adultery – Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor.

Section 498 of the IPC

Enticing or taking away or detaining with criminal intent a married woman – Whoever takes or entices away any woman who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of any other man, from that man, or from any person having the care of her on behalf of that man, with intent that she may have illicit intercourse with any person, or conceals or detains with that intent any such woman, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

Section 498A of the IPC

Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine...


What say Mr Moily? Ready to replace all the red words? I guess not.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Be the Change, or Change the Policy?

Some days back, a few of us were discussing whether to attend a circus which is currently showing in the city. A friend was insistent that he would not go because he did not approve of the abuse of animals. Notwithstanding the use of animals in agriculture, dairy, honey, wool, leather, poultry, meat production, etc. this led me to think of a deeper issue: Whether an individual's actions have any significance? The circus will go on, the animals will continue to get abused. It was not my friend's contention that he doesn't enjoy seeing animals performing tricks (I, on the other hand, find animal tricks silly), he insisted that he was engaging in a form of individual protest by not going to the circus.

Many people, as a matter of principle, change their lifestyle in small ways to be consistent with their opinions or knowledge. A friend of mine does not attend weddings because he considers them to be the formation of a potentially limiting lifelong attachment. Another uses both sides of a paper, in order to conserve rainforests (though he can be seen driving an SUV). Another does not like using plastic bags. Then there are those who do not like to consume Coca Cola or wear Nike shoes, as a form of protest against their corporate policies.

I have nothing against someone drinking coke, or someone not drinking it. In my understanding, individuals don't matter when it comes to large-scale phenomena, and individual acts of protest are meaningless, especially if they are passive and non-participatory. What makes a difference is a policy-level change (e.g. one which takes care of the corporate abuse) through sustained effort. A few people refusing to use plastics, or refusing to drink Coke (let's say 1000 people in a population of 1 million) is a literally negligible change - 0.1% to be precise, more akin to noise, and is even less than the normal fluctuations between the daily consumption figures of plastics or coke in a particular city/region.

Yes, if 2012 was at hand, such acts would delay the apocalypse by a minute. But is it possible to make use of one's understanding of an issue in a better way than to waste one's time trying to live up to a lifestyle choice (for example by insisting in every shop that one won't take a plastic bag, or by asking for a glass of juice when everybody else is having coke)?

Now if a person doesn't drink coke due to its presumably ill effects on health, I can understand his decision (and the polite thing to do, when offered the drink, is to smilingly refuse, without explanation). What I don't understand is the assertion that somehow his decision (limited to not drinking coke) is a meaningful protest against the Coca Cola company. If he writes a letter to a newspaper, or stands besides a cold drink vending machine and distributes a pamphlet describing the corporate policies of Coke, I could find some merit in his stand, but as an individual refusal to drink coke, I find his decision a feel-good act which actually does nothing.

One argument in favour of such acts is that they may propagate via individual interactions with such people. However, it is unlikely that the deep understanding and research which ideally lies behind such decisions can be communicated in 2-3 minutes (except by being highly biased and selective) to another person. Hence, such propagation is likely to be opinionated and half-baked, and usually results in an "us-versus-them" mentality.

On the other hand, by assisting in policy level changes by addressing the authorities in charge, one has a real chance at making an effective change. But this is hard, usually requires writing skills (whereas most righteous folks have unquestioning, and hence questionable, reading skills only) and requires persistent engagement. As an example, some citiies in India have banned certain forms of plastic bags after sustained efforts by some NGOs, and in one swoop have done far more than an individual could have done in a lifetime of resisting plastic bags.

But what is that someone to do, who is admittedly unable to engage with the public authorities? Should he/she just go on doing what he/she used to do? What about the guilt that one would have everytime one consumed a coke? I think it is reasonable to want to avoid these feelings of guilt, but maybe one can temper one's ego and self-righteousness by keeping in mind that an individual act is meaningless insofar as making a difference to the world is concerned. That the world is not a "fair" place in any sense of the word, and that one has only symbolically addressed a particularly known form of unfairness by a rather easy act.

What do you think?

The Ruchika case

Ruchika Girhotra was a 14 year old girl (as of 1990) who committed suicide in 1993 allegedly due to sustained harassment by a senior police officer (Mr SPS Rathore) against whom she and her family had lodged a complaint of "outraging her modesty". A mostly factual account is present here.

Mr Rathore was sentenced to six months in prison in 2009. Dissatisfied with the verdict, her family and friends are seeking both a retrial as well as addition of new charges against Mr Rathore (attempt to murder Ruchika's brother, and abetment to Ruchika's suicide, among other charges).

Stung by public outcry over this whole affair, the Home Ministry and the Law Ministry have recently notified changes to police procedures which give more powers to the police (no right to bail for sexual offences) and to the complainants (every complaint describing a cognizable offence must be registered as a criminal case, sexual offences to go through a fast track trial with a right to appeal acquittal).

In my opinion, these steps are misguided and are knee-jerk reactions which ignore some deeper problems in our system which led to Ruchika's suicide:
  1. Misuse of power: A public servant cannot be easily prosecuted in India. Sometimes the approval for even chargesheeting a public servant has to be given by the highest authorities of the land (the Chief Minister of the state, or the Prime Minister of India). Certain categories of judges cannot be prosecuted or dismissed except by a motion in the Parliament (even though their appointment is not that public an affair). Moreover, the abuse of authority by public officials to evade conviction and punishment is legendary in India. There is no reform in the offing to make prosecution of public servants easier, and to introduce stringent deterrents for misuse of authority.

  2. Harassment through involvement: In India, mere involvement with the police and the courts is a punishing experience, as the police is highly corrupt and has scant respect for human rights, and because criminal trials take a long time. Moreoever, the police is usually not interested in gathering evidence and aiding the prosecution but is much more interested in harassment, unjustified arrests and torture. There is no reform in the offing for holding the police to a higher standard. Everybody knows that by filing an FIR, one subjects the accused to the prolonged misery of dealing with the police and public prosecutors in India. That was precisely the harassment that Ruchika's family underwent which led to Ruchika's suicide. The government, instead of reforming the criminal justice system, educating the police, and deterring misuse of the police apparatus, is giving more powers to the complainants and to the police. Mr Rathore misused the police by filing false complaints. What steps is the government taking to avoid such misuses? As for registration of FIRs (which Ruchika's family had trouble accomplishing), the Supreme Court has ruled long back that investigation must follow - and not precede - an FIR, yet there is daily contempt of the highest court of the land. What can another circular mandating the same do?

  3. Misuse of the Power to Arrest: The power to arrest someone and to restrict a person's movement must be justified and be used sparingly by the police even when it has the right to arrest (as per the Supreme Court of India). In practice, being accused of a non-bailable offence means getting arrested, whether or not one is guilty. This is a flagrant denial of the basic human right to liberty. This sort of harassment is ubiquitious in India and is viciously taken advantage of by both the police and by complainants, which are in many cases vindictive spouses. The long-awaited amendments to the CrPc, which take the power of arrest away from police for minor offences, have been only partially notified due to opposition by lawyers' associations (since the lawyers would lose their fees for filing bail applications).

  4. Inequality before Law: Even though equality before law is a fundamental right as per Article 14 of the Constitution of India, in practice that is hardly true. Filing of certain categories of complaints (e.g. domestic violence) is available only to women, prosecution of certain categories of elected and public officials requires approval (which enables such examples), and so on and so forth. There is not even a hint of reform in this area.

  5. Police Torture: Ruchika's brother was tortured in custody. When a policeman is convicted of using third-degree methods, he/she is merely suspended/transferred/dismissed. Such policepersons must be tried for criminal intimidation, and for physical assault. This problem can only be tackled by introducing stringent punishment for custodial torture and custodial deaths.

  6. Perjury and False Complaints: Even though CrPC and IPC provide punishment for bearing false witness, for perjury and for filing false complaints, these punishments are paltry and nobody is afraid of being prosecuted for them.

  7. The Moral Attitudes to Sex: I know this is controversial, but in my opinion most middle class Indians are extremely touchy as well as hypocritical about sex. While in males this results in repression and violence towards women, in women this leads to neuroses and a sanctimonious attitude to "modesty", "honour" and suchlike (which is there in society at large but is internalized during upbringing). Due to these attitudes, a girl/woman is afraid to come out with a complaint of sexual harassment (since this would taint and stigmatize her forever). And even though I am aware that many women in India are subject to ogling, eve-teasing, molestation, frotteurism, etc., I cannot but help observe that just as many men wrongly interpret a woman's openness and laughter, many women also have a heightened and vehement response to mild flirtation, especially by those men who they do not like to begin with (say, those who are below them in social status). I write about it in more detail here.

  8. Delay in Trial: If the system needs 15 years to come to a considered decision in a criminal case, it is going to be a miscarriage of justice to "fast track" a particular category of cases. How is a judge to ensure that a judgment is delivered in two months for a trial of a sexual offence when even summons to respondents or witnesses cannot usually be served in this period? Instead of treating certain offences (such as domestic violence, flirting) as deserving of a time-bound first response (which first response will anyway go through the lengthy appeals process, as provided), isn't it more important to overhaul the trial process itself?
Given that the masses in India are tired of being mistreated by the system, they are understandably baying for Mr Rathore's blood. However, it is far more important to strengthen the system and to streamline the processes. It is not enough, not by a long shot, to exult in the prosecution of a single individual, nor is it wise to introduce knee-jerk "reforms" in our criminal justice system.