Dear Zahir

I have been one of your avid readers over the last few months. Let me express my unadulterated admiration for the style of your exposition, which becomes all the more engaging as you compellingly use the personal anecdotes that you acquired during your Gujarat sojourn. More importantly, though, I find your columns educational because I disagree with many of the perspectives you present. You must therefore indulge me for taking the liberty to try and engage you in an open dialogue over the differences in our ideological positions.

I learned a little about Gujarat during a month long trip that I undertook to satiate my wanderlust. A highlight of my trip has been the engaging conversations that I had with the blue-collar Gujaratis who I would not normally encounter had I been on an academic conference circuit. I started with Ahmedabad, visiting the Nal Sarovar bird sanctuary on December 9, 2012, the morning that I flew in from Philadelphia. I entertained myself with conversations with my boatman in between the bird sightings. He aired his grievances about business slowing down due to the recent prohibition on tourists from driving up right to the lake. I desisted from sharing the environmental ground that I believed motivated the above move in order not to impede his candor.

Little later his cousin ferried me in his motorbike to another viewing location. Emboldened by my success with the first stranger, I initiated a political conversation with my chauffeur. I asked him who would win the impending state elections – he would not hazard a guess. I unabashedly trespassed on his privacy by asking him who would he vote for. Pat came the answer, “Kangress “(Congress). He went on to tell me that the political choices in his village were divided, with some support- ing Bhajpa (BJP). I never asked either about the faith they profess, but, their names told me they were Muslims. The point, Zaheer, you would have noted by now, is that they did not hesitate to reveal their grievances or political choices, to a rank outsider, even though the choices evidently were against the ruling dispensation which was very likely to be voted back.

I could continue with similar stories, for example, that of the auto-rickshaw driver in Vadodara, also a Muslim by faith, who did hazard a guess on the electoral outcome, that in favor of BJP. But, I will fast forward to my Gir safari in a post-election Gujarat. You may know that the limitations in the habitat is threatening to arrest the growth spurt in the Asiatic lion population in Gir. Some neighboring states like Madhya Pradesh have offered to host a part of the Asiatic lions in its forest premises. Gujarat government has so far refused to oblige. I asked the guide and the driver of my safari of what they felt about the prospect of translocation of some royal residents of Gir.

My guide summarily rejected the possibility asserting that “sher bhi nahin denge, unke baal bhi nahin denge “. My driver was more measured in his response, yet in full agreement with his colleague. Incidentally, Zahir, the guide was a Muslim and the driver a Hindu. I would not digress to articulate the opinion that I hold regarding the merits of such a translocation, but rather dwell on the fact that I observed in my guide a confident Gujarati Muslim, an equal stakeholder in his state’s economic progress as his Hindu brethren By now, you must be contemplating on whether I talked only with Muslims during my trip – not quite – I just highlighted my interactions with them since they revealed a mindset which is in stark contrast with your observations.

In this connection, Zahir, you voiced your concern on the Gujarat government’s refusal to disburse the scholarship for students who are religious minorities. I wonder why religion ought to constitute the basis for selective economic empowerment – shouldn’t current economic status suffice? Wouldn’t such selective benefits be perceived discriminatory and exacerbate the religious chasm in our society? Granted, India has since independence administered economic protection based on castes; it is debatable if this has substantially empowered the target population. Regardless, it is undeniable that a citizen (read Hindu) can not alter her caste, but can migrate to a new faith. Will it be acceptable then if religious conversions are motivated through selective economic benefits?

I will move on to the actual trip now. Starting from Ahmedabad, we, that is my mother and I, completed the Northern circuit enjoying the splendid sun temple at Modhera, the unique artwork at Rani ki Bhao at Patan, the Buddhist ruins of Vadnagar, and paying obeisance to Goddess Ambaji. The northern loop was followed by a day trip at Varoda, the Indus valley ruins at Lothal, and a couple of days at the Blackbuck national park at Velvadar, one of the best places for viewing the black bucks amidst a dense grassland. We proceeded to the Jain pilgrimage of Palitana and ascended the 3800 odd steps up to the exquisitely carved Shatrunjaya temples, subsequently opted for a brief foray out of Gujarat into Diu and returned for the Somnath pilgrimage.

Another pilgrimage followed, that at the last abode of the Asiatic lions, Gir, of which I wrote before. We alternately celebrated faith and reveled in nature as we treaded into Dwarka and the unique Marine national park in Jamnagar; a fascinating marine-animal safari in the latter while wading into the sea during a low tide remains etched in my memory. The highways were among the best I have come across and the landscape was dotted with windmills, a pleasant reminder of the government’s focus on alternate energy. The last stop was the incomparable Kutch, devastated in the earthquake of 2001, but now a resurgent industrial hub. Kutch is also a tourist’s delight what with the Ranotsav at the white Rann, the spectacular Indus valley ruins at Dholavira and the wild ass sanctuary at Little Rann. And, thanks to the splendid local road network, acquisition of exquisite block-printed shawls, or Ajraks as they are locally known, from the Muslim artisan villages around Bhuj have become remarkably facile.

A combination of public and private transport helped us realize this odyssey.We found our hotels mostly through the world-wide web and sometimes through helpful auto-rickshaw drivers, and organized our onward travels and local sight- seeing without availing of the services of a travel agency. We traveled at odd hours, at times, and I ventured out in the streets well-past midnight, sometimes by choice and at other times by compulsion. Yet, we felt safe throughout.

My confidence led me to not so advisable course of actions of disagreeing vociferously with service providers who I thought were fleecing us. And, more often than not, a rank outsider like me, who also happens to be a woman traveling without a male companion, would comfortably win in the debates, without any knowledge of the local language whatsoever. My mother wisely counseled that I will not get away with such recklessness in my hometown, Howrah, a suburb of the progressive metropolis of Calcutta. But, I did, in Gujarat. I was therefore naturally surprised to read that most women you know no longer feel safe in Gujarat. Have my experience then been a fortuitous coincidence, more of an exception than a norm? The conversations I had with fellow women travelers  students, mothers of teenaged daughters, however discredit the above conjecture. More conclusively, media groups like India-today, ABP-news and IBN7, some of which have not been particularly supportive of the current ruling dispensation have felicitated Gujarat for ensuring safety of the residents (1)

I was very disappointed to note from your articles that housing discrimination is prevalent in Gujarat. Having spent only one month, that too as a tourist, I would of course not have a first hand knowledge of the gravity of the challenge. But, let me take you instead to my home state where I do have a firm knowledge of the ground realities. West Bengal is typically associated with socially progressive values in public perception owing to the three-decade long left regime there.

Even there, I can assure you that Muslim families will be discriminated against if they seek rentals at suburban middle-class family homes. Similarly, there are large Muslim neighborhoods where Hindus will not be accommodated. Moving South, we learn from the Hindu (April, 11, 2013), that Hindus and Muslims live in separate neighborhoods in V. Kalathur, a village in the Perambalur district of Tamil Nadu; worse, Muslims are objecting to Hindus holding religious processions through the streets in their neighborhood. Note that housing discrimination is not limited to faith-based-distinction but includes many other considerations: single women, and likely single men too, will have similar plight locating rentals of their choice.

Extrapolating, housing discrimination and ghettoization constitute sad realities of entire India, but then, are these phenomena limited to India?

It is worthwhile to note that in many states in US housing discrimination based on gender identity, marital status, sexual orientation continues to remain legal. I am certain you have been to China-towns throughout US, and individuals not of Chinese descent are rarely welcomed to houses in the China-town of Philadelphia.

There are also predominantly Indian, Bangladeshi, African-American neighborhoods throughout US; without further elaborating on this unseemly phenomenon, it is therefore safe to conclude that segregation has gone global. The large scale prevalence of this social evil does not make it right though, for example, I have deliberately chosen a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic neighborhood of Phildelphia as my home if only to avoid being cloistered. It is however unreasonable to attribute this evil to the social structure of one specific state, and even more, to the policies of one government. It is my understanding that segregation existed in Gujarat long before Mr. Modi or even his party assumed office.

I did notice that you associated Modi government with misogynistic practices. More specifically, you mentioned that Modi is seeking to distance himself from misogyny which in effect insinuates that he was associated with the same. I learned from you in a social media platform, where we have recently connected, that your statement has been motivated by the failure of the Gujarat government to control the rapes that were perpetrated during the unfortunate riots in 2002.

Rapes constitute one of the most barbaric violation that members of our species inflict on each other, but should the failure to control them in one ghastly event of mass-violence constitute sufficient basis for concluding misogyny?

By that rationale, many other governments in the world ought to be accused of this social evil. For example, US forces have been accused of rapes in Afghanistan as late as December 2012, which ought to implicate Obama of misogyny, more so, because he is their commander-in-chief, while the rioters do not report to Modi. I would have hoped that an author of your reputation would have alleged the same somewhat less cursorily. Regardless, to assess the veracity of your preconception, I delved into governmental policies subsequently. I share my findings below.

India has had a checkered record of gender sensitivity: on one hand she has been one of the first to be governed by a premier who was a woman. On the other hand, as late as 1987, a hapless bride, Roop Kanwar, all of 18 years of age, was burnt in the pyre of her husband; worse, all those who cheered as she reduced to ashes have been acquitted in a court of law.

The young, progressive and western educated prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, incumbent when this atrocity was perpetrated, had also negated the spousal maintenance that a 62 year old Shah Bano had secured from her former husband through a verdict of the Supreme Court of India. The negation was accomplished through the Muslim Women Act, 1986, enacted by Mr. Gandhi’s government which en- joyed absolute majority in the Indian parliament at the time. While several empowered women have succeeded as entrepreneurs, academics, scientists, engineers and doctors in the 21st century India, many unborn female foetuses are routinely aborted leading to an alarming gender imbalance nationwide.

Thus, a comprehensive agenda that seeks to ensure the (1) social and physiological well-being of women (2) their economic empowerment and (3) participation as equal partners in decision processes is imperative.

Above and beyond, women’s empowerment initiatives ought to focus on the most economically disadvantaged woman since her more fortunate sister would likely be equipped with the tools to contest and even win against gender discrimination as and when she chooses to. It was heartening to note that the empowerment drive in Gujarat has been structured accordingly.

But, presuming that by now I have already overstayed my welcome on your indulgence, I will mention only a few flagship initiatives of the Gujarat government that seek to accomplish the above goals. The beti bachao andolan (“save the girl child”) has arrested the severe decline in child sex ratio noticed be- tween 1991 to 2001 (from 928 to 883 women per 1000 men), and in fact slightly enhanced it to 886 per 2011 census.

The trend is therefore positive though restoration of the gender balance will need a sustained effort. Modi utilizes many of his highly publicized addresses (eg, Google hangout in 2012 August, address to the women’s wing of FICCI) to draw public attention to this men- ace confronting Gujarat, as also the entire country. Gujarat government has undertaken the Kanya kelavani initiative for furthering girl child education, which is now in its tenth year of operation. I learned that that the literacy rate of girls has increased by 13% and the school dropout rate has dropped by 29.77%; the dropout rate in primary schools is now 2% (per census 2001 and 2011 data). The chief minister auctions the gifts he receives every year and contributes the proceeds towards this initiative; the auction in February 2012 fetched 2.04 crore Indian rupees.

The Chiranjeevi Yojana that has substantially reduced the infant mortality rate has been awarded the Asian innovation award by Singapore Economic Development Board and The Wall Street Journal. A whopping amount of 1094 crores has been provisioned annually for the Mission Balam Sukham initiative that seeks to counter malnutrition by attending to the needs of 44 lakh beneficiaries including pregnant women, nursing mothers and girl children. The CAG report on integrated child development scheme has revealed that Gujarat has reduced its percentage of malnourished children from 70.69% in 2007 to 38.77% in 2011.

Regarding economic empowerment, the sakhi mandal project provides a micro finance platform for funding initiatives of rural women in the lowest rung of the socio-economic strata. Skill development and entrepreneurship are being promoted among single women, particularly widows. To incentivize property ownership, property registration fees have been waived for women. Gujarat is striving to provide 50% reservation for women in local bodies.

Towards enhancing the electoral participation, in an election address, the chief minister had publicly appealed to women for voting in large numbers (voting percentage has traditionally been substantially lower among women). That, and concerted efforts by the election commission, ensured that the percentage of women voters in Gujarat increased from 57% per cent in 2007 to 68.9% in 2012. Not surprisingly, some of the worst media critics of Modi, like Aakar Patel, Mahesh Langa, Rajdeep Sardesai have ceded that Modi commands a strong support base among the women in Gujarat. In a fitting tribute to his contribution to women empowerment in Gujarat, Modi was invited to address the annual general body meeting of the ladies’ wing of the industry lobby Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

I conclude this rather long monologue with the hope that we continue this discussion further, and learn from, if not agree with, our divergent perspectives. I will look forward to get together with you whenever you happen to visit Philadelphia.

Regards
Saswati Sarkar

 

Footnote

(1) They have adjudged Gandhinagar and Surat as the best cities in India in the category of crime and safety, Rajkot as the safest for women and Gujarat as the best big state for ensuring citizen security.

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Saswati Sarkar

Saswati Sarkar

Professor of Electrical Engg at Univ. of Pennsylvania. She has strong political persuasions. Views expressed here are entirely in personal capacity.