When I was asked to curate this newsletter, almost a year ago, I agreed readily. An outline was prepared, drafts were shared, and an eventual essay on “mapping accountability” materialised over the last few months. The approach was fairly cut-and-dry: begin with an explanation of how maps are everywhere, move on to show how they’ve been used over the years, and then go on to show how activists can take advantage of them today.Ever since I read ilesha’s heartwarming January letter, however, I realised that a more clinical approach towards turning to maps as sites of justice needed to be accompanied by a politics of care.
I turned, then, to the two maps that had become ubiquitous over the last four months of the genocide in Gaza. The first, a political map of the region that showcased increasing Israeli occupation of land over the last few decades (in complete violation of international law). The second, a project compiling queer narratives called Queering The Map that is being used to highlight the lived experiences of queer Gazans to counter efforts to pinkwash the war. Both maps, in their own way, turned the very logics of cartography on their head to make powerful political statements that could resonate across the world.
Historically, after all, mapping has been a tool for those in power to mark and expand their dominance. Initially used by early seafarers to cross uncharted waters, maps were later used by colonisers to plunder the wealth of communities across the world. Putting something – or someplace – on the map, then, meant staking your claim to it. As a result, maps have been sites of dramatic political confrontation: a small error in representing what regions are within your control on a map has been seen as seditious or anti-national.
Recent scholarship, most notably JB Harley’s Deconstructing the Map, has pushed the boundaries of what maps can represent and led to the creation of a field now commonly referred to as “critical cartography.” Maps are being seen not just as repositories of empirical information but sites of complex negotiations of power. If earlier used to assert dominance over others, maps are now becoming tools by marginalised communities to invert conventional power dynamics. Mapping and other forms of data visualisation have become integral to finding new ways of ensuring accountability and building community.
The Gaza maps are a case in point. The first inverts the logic of staking claim to a territory as being a mark of dominance. Increasing occupation of Palestinian lands, then, is not a cause for celebration for Israel but rather a visual demonstration of injustice that becomes a rallying cry for global solidarity around the Palestinian cause. The second rejects the empirical claims made by maps, refusing to let maps merely be static displays of facts and brings in lived experiences. These experiences are created by, sustained by, and shared by queer communities as objects of care – stories that bypass the convoluted debates around authenticity and evidence in journalistic reportage on Gaza.
These maps are not very difficult to create. Inspired by a counter-mapping project that documented how the New York City Police Department disproportionately surveilled black and Muslim communities, I began using open source Geographical Imaging Systems (GIS) software like QGIS to create my own maps. The first project I worked on analysed the ways in which the New York City subway was inaccessible to those who were not native English speakers, and how the excessive reliance on text could make navigating the city a nightmare for the least privileged – including, but not limited to, recent migrants to the United States.
Pink List India, a project I co-founded in 2019, today uses Mapbox (a community mapping software) to track every single statement on LGBTQ+ issued by every single Member of Parliament on an interactive map. This allows you to simply type in your address and find a report card on LGBTQ+ rights for your elected representative. At a time when there is unprecedented surveillance against citizens, Pink List is a site of counter-surveillance that turns the gaze onto our politicians to ensure that they are held accountable for their stance on equal rights.
At a time when physical organising and activism seems too difficult or even pointless, I hope that maps can become a vital source of sharing knowledge and building networks of care. If you, or your communities, are interested in the ways in which maps can effectively strengthen your own advocacy – please feel free to reach out for a conversation.
Mapping and negotiating power
Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world
Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice
Having unpacked various forms of state violence through the podcast, in this final episode, we contend with the questions- what is the way forward and how do we build towards our ideal world? In an insightful discussion with Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India, we explore what solutions for social justice challenges can look like, who needs to be involved, and how best we can involve them to build towards conflict resolution in our quest for social justice.
Sanchi- Hello everyone and welcome to our podcast Uncuff India by One Future Collective. My name is Sanchi and my pronouns are she, her.
Uttanshi- My name is Uttanshi and my pronouns are she and her. We are your hosts today, and it’s so good to have you all listening in. All our episodes so far have documented various forms and manifestations of State violence, and by different agents of the state as well. We’ve looked at overt violence, violence which is carried out by the State or in the name of the State and who gets impacted by violence and how they get impacted as well. We are now asking ourselves the question, what really is the way forward?
Sanchi- Yes, thank you, Uttanshi. Today we will be exploring what these solutions can look like, who needs to be involved in building these, what shape this involvement can take, and how best it can be realized as we go on. The episode will also unpack the meaning and forms of conflict resolution in the Indian context.
Uttanshi-To discuss this and share their insights on how conflict can be transformed constructively, we have with us Amitabh Behar. He is the Chief Executive Officer of Oxfam India and is a global civil society leader. He is also an authority on tackling economic and gender inequality and building citizen participation. Mr. Behar was the vice chair of the Board of Civicus, a global alliance of civil society organizations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society across the globe. He also serves on the boards of several other organizations including the Center for Budget and Governance Accountability and Indian public policy think tank. Prior to Oxfam India, Mr. Behar was the Executive Director of National Foundation for India and served as the convener of the National Social Watch Coalition and the Co- Chair of Global Call to Action Against Poverty, a network of over 11,000 civil society organizations. It’s lovely to have you join us today and to give your time to us to have this very important conversation. Amitabh, it’s really lovely to have you here and to learn from you.
Amitabh- Thank you Uttanshi, and thank you, Sanchi for inviting me.
Sanchi- It’s absolutely lovely to have you join us today, Amitabh. And I am sure that our listeners will agree when I say that we’re all looking forward to hearing your thoughts. And so without further ado, let us jump in. And Amitabh, to start us off, why don’t you tell us a bit about what, what does it even mean when we talk about the way forward? How can we as a community, a nation, as a globalized society, how can we move past State violence? And what does this look like in action?
Amitabh- So, thank you for inviting me. And I think what you’ve picked is a fascinating subject in terms of looking at it academically. But when you look at it as a human being, it is very, very depressing. It’s heart wrenching and thank you for picking it up. I’m glad you’re looking at multiple dimensions of it and and I’m also quite excited that you’re starting with the way forward and what the way forward would mean, you know. I was just thinking that if you go to political philosophy, whether it’s Plato or Hegel, they all talk of what is the ideal world. And I think you know that’s really the way forward and it’s going to be different for different people. But it is essentially building that ideal world is the way forward and we not we cannot see the entire conversation on conflict State violence independent of where we want to reach. That’s the way forward. There is a normative worldview of vision that we have and how do we arrive there is the central question. So,
that’s how I would frame it and obviously it would mean, you know, different paths, different trajectories, but we can talk about it. So for instance, you know, just because I don’t know how much of your audience is Indian, but to say if you’ve achieved Ram Rajya, you’ve reached probably, hopefully no State violence and no conflict. And if you have achieved, if you’re a Marxist, the stateless socialist society that you’re looking at, then again there’s no conflict. I don’t know in capitalism if you really have anything which is a parallel, but, but I hope my point is clear.
Uttanshi- Yeah, I think while I was listening to you speak, you know I’m also very intrigued by the question itself. Is there going to be a way forward? Is there that distinction between violence and non-violence, violence and peace which even exists? There is a certain level of difficulty that gets attached to that, right? It’s an ideal world, but can they coexist? Do you think they can?
Amitabh- So, they do. As I would say, the human civilization is an endeavor in moving towards that ideal world. And it’s not just in these 200 years, 400 years. I would say that there is some level of movement towards a normative worldview towards that idealism and and you know they’re obviously going to be ups and downs. We dip for centuries in some ways you’ve made some significant progress, but you again dip down. So that’s happened. But I’m a dreamer. I’m an optimist. And I believe that, you know, that’s really the project of humanity. If we don’t believe in the possibility of a way forward of an ideal world, then I think we’re going to be sliding much more into conflict.
Sanchi- Yeah. And also while you were talking, I was thinking about then whose ideal world are we really working towards? Whose? Whose idea is it that gets more space when we talk about moving forward? So what is, what is the direction that we are actually moving forward in? And then what kind of difficulties come through this because like you said, there can be so many conceptions of what an ideal world is. There could be a Ram Rajya, there could be a stateless society. So right now what do you think are we moving towards at least in the Indian context and what are the difficulties then of managing all of these different perspectives?
Amitabh- So in so, so you’re right doesn’t what I would say there are two kinds of conflicts, one I would say which is an enduring conflict that happens and it is at the core of all conflicts, which is essentially about power, who controls power is the fundamental question. So, you know the questions about resources on an etcetera all are part of who control power and that’s very, very fundamental and that’s something that’s going to continue for a fairly long time and it’s happening in multiple spaces. So, whether it’s patriarchy ensuring that there is control of power with a certain set of people or whether it’s the Brahminical caste society in our country or just the idea of margins as in what the way Delhi treats Kashmir or Nagaland and Mizoram. So, the conflicts are of multiple kinds. So, you know we need to start unpacking them and and we start you know once we start unpacking we’ll see many more further layers of conflict. So, the multidimensionality of conflict is also very, very critical. But having said this, you know, coming to India, I think we are in the midst of a very fundamental conflict in terms of the idea of India. There’s one idea of India which has been so strongly articulated and to keep it simple in our Constitution, in the Preamble of our Constitution and that’s the idea that we have aspired for for the last 75 years. I must say that if you’re Adivasi living in Bastar, you probably did not see significant progress towards that idea of India. But I must say that that normative framework, which is clearly articulated in the Constitution, in our Preamble, was not challenged. In practice it was challenged, but not in terms of the normative world view of the country and now we are looking at a conception which completely challenges that fundamental idea of India. So it is, you know, when our Prime Minister says it’s a new India, it is really a new India that he wants to create. But that’s new India is not the way he articulates it in terms of India where everybody will have better resources or or or employment hidden behind that and a lot of times it’s not even hidden, it’s pretty clearly articulated is an alternative vision of idea of India which is homogeneous, which is Hindu and which is, in many ways I would say authoritarian. So, there’s a tremendous conflict happening and in that I think because you’re also looking at State violence, State has become an instrument and the primary instrument of furthering that violence. Yeah, So, that’s what is happening and it is these are really difficult times for the country.
Uttanshi- You know, while you were speaking I caught on this term that you said about the multidimensionality of conflict, which also then immediately, because we’re talking about the way forward and what that could mean for our communities who find themselves in the midst of this conflict. Do we also then have to start thinking about multidimensionality of solutions, just keeping in line with the intention saying now we’re going to really start thinking about, ok, this violence has happened, how do we take a step forward and move beyond it? But I’m assuming that one-size-fits-all approach didn’t work for picking a conflict. And I don’t think we’ll definitely work for solving or addressing that conflict either.
Amitabh- Yeah. No, I would agree As in the solutions have to be both creative and multi-dimensional. In fact, what I would say is that I have often talked of rainbow coalitions and those coalitions are also in terms of solutions. So, the coalition could be a coalition of ideas as well and that’s what I think we need that you will not be able to divorce a problem or a conflict from its context and therefore we will need to try and address the entirety of the system. So you know that I think it is critical, but you know, can I just introduce another idea?
Amitabh- In our conversation, I sometimes feel that conflict is also slightly limiting the way we do a lot of our conversations on conflict because it’s essentially about lack of justice and we need to introduce the notion of justice as central. So human dignity, justice of, you know, all kinds- economic, social and political and primary human rights. I think that those are something that we are trying to achieve and as people, you know, even individuals try and achieve that in their own locations. Sometimes it’s just within the family, it could be in the community and then that leads to conflict because there is always a privileged class which is trying to not let you access these. So you know, just to also say that it’s important to recognize and and I’m sure you do, but you know solutions are not going to be where there won’t be a group of losers. I think it’s very, very important. A lot of times people say oh let’s say you know it’s not a zero sum game and you can easily have solutions where everybody is happy. That’s not going to happen. Yes, they could be happy in a spiritual way that you’ve created a just society but I have lost power once you have reached that level of consciousness, yes. But in real life, it is about a conflict of power and there would be winners and losers.
Sanchi- Thank you so much for your thoughts on that, Amitabh. While you were talking, I was also thinking about how so many different experiences come together, the very identities of people that we build solutions for, so many different identities intermingled there. And since we’re talking so much about multidimensionality, and another thing that we’ve spoken of at this podcast is how a state of peace, especially in the experiences of people who are on the periphery, a state of peace, is not just about the absence of violence, but rather a persistence of a safe environment. So when we talk about moving forward, when we’re talking about centering justice, how do you think we can imagine a future where violence is eradicated sustainably and peace is defined not through the dearth of violence but the continuum of safety?
Amitabh- Sure. So Sanchi, you have said it. I would say that it is not just a continuum of safety or peace, it is a just society. Once you have created justice and one can say that it is, it is a utopian idea. But you know when we started, we started talking about- that’s the human endeavor that we need to move towards that just society and there would still be disagreements, but there’s at least a conception of where we are headed. So, that’s something that one needs to aspire for. Again, it’s not an easy path and what needs to be done is open to a conversation.
Uttanshi-No, I think I just wanted to come in to also add another question to Sanchi’s question, if I may, and to carry on that train of thought is just there is also a lot of focus on transforming the systems within which the violence persists, right? I am understanding even when you talk about building not just a safe society but a just society, the idea is that the very situation which breeds conflict itself gets addressed and resolved and often that requires a lot of systemic effort at all levels, you know, government, institutional, but also individual and community levels. But I’m also wondering, Amitabh, if in your experience and in your way of thinking about this, do we stand to lose sometimes by focusing that much on bringing about systemic change? Should we sometime just focus on quick solutions? It may not lead to justice, but it will lead to safety in that moment. And do you think that there are situations where that can happen and we should be comfortable with it?
Amitabh- Absolutely. With Uttanshi, you know, I that if you don’t agree with what you’re saying then you are still a romantic, but you are a foolish romantic. Sorry for saying that, but that’s how I would see oneself. If you do that yes if somebody is going to be you know just look at the experience of domestic violence and and I have seen that we have worked on it so somebody who is getting badly beaten you cannot say that let’s fight patriarchy and let’s do systems change and and for that night you need a shelter for that person and and then you need a different support system which is essentially about charity that you know first few days somebody is willing to keep her at their place you are able to initially give the seed money for her livelihood etc And and that happens all the time. So, you know I would say that people who are practitioners would never make this distinction. You know so, so while you fight these very small battles which are absolutely critical, you also need to have your eye on the system exchange. So, as institutions you can say I work on only systemic change. But then I would say that’s why the idea of coalition becomes critical that you work with somebody who actually understands the realities of domestic violence and is available for that survivor. And it’s so critical it’s you know I’ve seen so many of us that we’ve worked on it for a long time. So it is you know you completely forget about patriarchy when you’re actually come face to face with that reality. So I totally, totally agree and and you know we, we, we certainly in these conversations would tend to privilege the systems change. And I would say let’s see this as a continuum, let’s not, it’s not an intellectual conversation, it’s about real people. But on the other hand, let’s not also be little- the systems change because you’re looking at long term enduring solutions.
Sanchi-Yeah. Thank you so much for that, Amitabh. And as like as lots of practitioners are listening into this podcast, I was just wondering if there’s something that you’d like to share with everybody about what keeps you going as a practitioner, if there’s anything that you think you have specifically drawn strength from and would like to share with us.
Amitabh- So, there are many things, Sanchi, that give me strength. I I think for me my strength comes from a very clear conviction or an understanding of what my North Star is. So that normative framework. I am clear that irrespective of whoever, whatever I read, I go through the idea of justice, the idea of human dignity is central to that. So that itself gives me strength. It’s difficult but it gives me strength and clarity and that’s why I’m using the word North Star. I know where to go. But on the other hand, the people that I’m talking of, you know, for instance, we just talked of survivors of domestic violence. It’s fascinating, I used to run a program, a fellowship program for grassroot leaders for several years and we would, you know, shortlist around 50 individuals, of which we intentionally ensured that they’re at least 35 to 40 women of the 50. So, 75% of women painful reflection of our reality that almost 90% of them went through serious domestic violence. But on the other hand they were absolutely inspirational as in for me to work with them, to understand, to hear their stories. So, the human resilience and desire for justice itself is so central to what keeps me going, as in sometimes, I feel I’m very privileged. I come at it from an intellectual position, from a moral position. But the ones who are, who are fighting this battle on a daily basis are the ones who give you enormous inspiration. So you know, the ones that who feel lost and scared in serious battles today in this country there are serious battles happening, battles in terms of ideas, but and and and people are, you know, kind of backing off. But the ones who experience injustice, I’m sure are going to continue their struggle for a more just and a humane society.
Uttanshi- Thank you for that. It’s been really wonderful to really understand because even while you were speaking earlier, I was very much meaning to ask you, you know, what is your light at the end of the tunnel, so to say. And it’s been really fantastic for me to understand a little bit more as well about that as we are moving towards the end of the episode, Amitabh, I think because we are ending this season discussing something that affects each of us in very different ways. In this episode, because we’re talking about building and co-building that way forward, do you have any advice for us as individuals, as members of a community, as members of a State and eventually, you know, members of institutions as well?
Amitabh- Thank you. Thank you for this. So let me just say two things. One as I said when we started that I’m fascinated by the way you frame the topic. These are not times when people actually talk of State violence. So thank you for doing it, but what we also need to fundamentally understand that and this is slightly conceptual, but indulge me and do let me know if I’m not clear because to my mind that’s central in terms of the State violence that in the last 100 or so years we have. And I’m using it loosely in terms of the time period we have created an idea of a State where the relationship of the State and citizen is the State here to serve the citizens. That’s the fundamental idea of a Liberal Democratic architecture. So the State has to provide for the poor, the State has to ensure your security, and that’s why you have the fundamental rights in our Constitution, which is so central to any Liberal Democratic architecture. And that conception is getting challenged in India, where now the idea is that the citizens need to be in the service of the State and that completely changes the equation. And that’s how then you start building your laws, your policies, the public narrative is already built around that. You know those jokes of somebody says that you know that, I’m sure you would remember at least 3-4 years ago they were very popular that somebody says that I’m going through a tough time and the other person says, oh you cribbing about this. What about this soldier in Siachen It’s a joke but but essentially what it is saying is that you should be in the service of the State and and that is hugely problematic and we’ve seen in history, whenever we have seen the State becoming an authoritarian, totalitarian entity, then I think it’s not good news for people and citizens. So, you know this whole debate has to be understood from there. How do we constantly challenge that? The second piece that I would say is that for people like us, for people like you, because I know a little of your work and people like me, there’s no really end or steady State. You know, I started with that ideal State, which even if you reach the ideal state, which would be fantastic, but even if you reach there, the possibilities of that peace, that justice being fragile, are always going to be alive. So, those possibilities are going to be alive. And therefore our job is to be constantly vigilant. You know that famous line of, you know, the price of democracy is eternal vigilance and that’s something that we need to do. So, that’s also important that we might reach there. But you know that it doesn’t take much for things to slide down. So human dignity, we have worked on it. Just just look at what we have done in the last 100 years. You know a lot of us would have thought oh we’ve finally won the battle against say post-apartheid and finally South Africa was free. We thought the race story is over but we saw what happened with George Floyd. I think that that was his name, which is last year. And it continues. Racial injustice continues and you know, you can go on. So how are we, you know, gonna constantly work on ensuring a just sustainable society is my only request to all of us.
Sanchi- Yeah. Thank you so much for that, Amitabh. And thank you for sharing actually the conceptual background with us as well. I think that first piece was very, it was very informative and I think it’s a great lens to look at the kind of work that we do as well. And yeah, thank you so much. I think we are for sure taking back a lot from this episode today. But before we close, Amitabh, do you have any closing thoughts for our listeners today?
Amitabh-Thank you. Thank you, Sanchi. And Uttanshi, I’m happy you’re doing it. I just hope that people do these discussions because as I said, there’s very little space for discussions of this kind. So, I hope people do that while they continue doing the good work they do. It’s also important to try and engage with these larger questions and certainly let’s, you know, try and understand, unpeel the idea of the State. Nothing should be sacrosanct. That’s what I would say. Everything should be questioned. It should be open to critical inquiry within a framework of justice, of of peace, of sustainability.
Uttanshi-Thank you so much, Amitabh. It’s really been phenomenal to listen to you. I feel like I will take back this eternal want to question and to not settle. And in your words you know nothing is sacrosanct. And to constantly remind myself of that.
Mapping and negotiating power
Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world
Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice
As protests by civilians continue and are forcefully suppressed, it becomes essential to confront the state’s response to dissent. This episode engages with the relevance of protests in today’s political climate. Neha Dixit, an independent journalist based out of New Delhi, speaks to us about their experiences of reporting state violence and social inequity and the cost and consequence of speaking truth to power. She focuses on the intersection of politics, gender and Social Justice in South Asia through long form, investigative, narrative pieces. She has reported for publications including Al Jazeera, The New York Times, The Washington Post, among others.
Hello everyone and welcome to our podcast, Uncuff India by One Future Collective. My name is Sanchi and my pronouns are she/her.
My name is Uttanshi and my pronouns are she/her. We are your hosts today, and it’s so good to have you all listening in.
In today’s episode, we are going to discuss the prevalence of protests in India and explore whether and how state responses to them have changed over the years. This episode will also delve into the state’s reaction to dissent in the present civic and political setting of India – wherein the state has tried to use or legitimize the use of violence during protests. This is also abetted and enabled by complementary state machinery, which makes the possibility of questioning seem rather bleak, which has, in the past, been the bedrock of social justice and human rights movements.
Thank you so much for sharing that Sanchi. To discuss this and to share their insights on the topic with us, we have Neha Dixit. Neha is an independent journalist based out of New Delhi, India and their focus is mainly on the topics of intersection of politics, gender and social justice in South Asia. Thank you so much Neha for taking the time out and being on this podcast with us. We’re really excited to hear from you and learn from you.
Thank you so much. I’m very happy to be part of this.
Yes, Thank you so much Neha for making the time and joining us today. So let us start right off and let us start simple and right at the base of the theme for today. So Neha, how would you describe the state’s response to protests at the moment and do you think it has changed over the years?
Thank you for that question. I do think in the last few years, since particularly 2014, I do think that we have seen a number of protests. in many forms. So whether it’s around caste, gender, attacks on religious minorities, there have been protests and it started out with a number of people sending back their awards in the name, in the name of award wapsi; then the Not in my name protests, the anti caste protests after Rohit Vemula’s death, and many other things. And I do think that the state’s response, I would say generally in the last 10 years, has been a consistent erosion of a number of democratic institutions. And so protests are a response to that. And so, which is why I would say that a number of things that are part of the society around us, the civil society around us, the democratic structures, the freedom of expression, the press, the other kind of activism that is involved, all of that, has been collectively suppressed by the state through various means. Whether it’s through physical assault, whether it’s through online harassment, whether it’s by slapping legal cases on people – it has actually gone to a level where you can’t really distinguish one form of assault from the other in actually silencing people out. Let’s look back at the 2012 anti rape movement, right. So there were lots of people who came out and so while there was no sort of mobilization around a political ideology or mobilization around certain issues, but definitely around gender – people from across sections were coming. And that was also a sort of sign against a kind of patriarchal system that has roots in what we are facing right now, which has also been an integral part of how the state has been responding to the society around us. And when there were Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013, when just before the 2014 general elections, we saw that there were lots of attacks on working class minorities in North India, particularly in the districts of Shamli and Muzaffarnagar. And soon enough, a government was elected that came into power with a very select commitment to political Hinduism. And so in that situation, I would say that the assault on the plurality, on the kind of diversity that we have and also, the movements that for all these years had been fighting against the regressive caste, class structures, they were all again suppressed because it did not gel with the idea of the current government in power, which wanted to establish a certain sort of political system in the country. And so there began the attacks on everybody who was dissenting against this sort of establishment.
Thank you so much for sharing that, Neha. And as you were speaking, a couple of points that really stood out to me were of course the change in the government’s response to how protests and dissent is viewed. But I also want the listeners to take away a little bit more in terms of how the meaning of protest, what we protest for, how we protest even that has diversified over the years and there are many different narratives of how these protests are shaped and designed and executed are coming out in the past few years as well. Taking from that, I also want to understand Neha, what do you think has, you know, transformed or what do you think has enabled this transformation in the government’s response to protests? Like we’ve noticed it hasn’t always been like this. What factors do you think made the government’s almost default response to any protest be violence or assault? What do you think changed?
Okay. Let me start by saying this, that in the last almost eight and half years, the people in power have criminalized any kind of defiance, any kind of disagreement, any kind of debate, any kind of discussion. All of these things are actually put out as criminal acts, and this has been normalized. Criminalizing any kind of discussion, debate, disagreement has been normalized by many people in power. For example, one of the cabinet ministers in the previous term of this government V.K. Singh – he actually, not just coined, but also normalized the word prestitute. And this word was actually supposed to be used as a slur against journalists who were critical of the government. And then they kept using this word. It started with prestitute and soon enough, when there was assault on JNU and when there was assault on Hyderabad Central University and many other such places, they also started coining other similar words like tukde-tukde gang, anti national, urban naxal, etc. So the list is endless and anyone who actually tries to have a rational conversation is clubbed in under these categories. Which is why I would say that the government actually is not open to any kind of disagreement because they want to establish, like I said, a Brahminical, patriarchal, political, Hinduism order in the country, which actually champions marginalization of everybody: whether it’s according to their caste hierarchy, or whether it’s according to the minority religion that they belong to. So it’s part of the larger agenda that the government has, the kind of ideology that it believes in. And so, which is why, it comes down very heavily on anybody who questions the establishment. And that’s where it comes from. I also want to add to this that the reason why the number of protests have grown in the last few years is not just because more people are protesting, it’s also because people do not see any kind of political alternative or any sort of electoral change or challenge or anything that remotely qualifies as a strong opposition that can bring these people down. So, which is why the government is very keen on quelling any kind of dissent, anywhere, in any part of the country. I do want to say that this template was made by the central government. But now all the other state governments, which may have different political parties in power, all of them are very happy following the same template. So which is why, they also keep using similar laws, similar draconian acts against activists, against filmmakers, against journalists, against artists everywhere. So it has been normalized now to not allow any kind of conversation that is different from what people in power are making.
Thank you so much for explaining that to us, Neha. I think I’m learning a lot about how the criminalization of defiance has happened in the last eight and half years and how it has become so normalized, and also how it is feeding into the larger ideology of Hindutva that we’re seeing around us now. So thank you for taking us through that. And since we are talking about how violence has become the answer, the government is resorting to more and more, I am also thinking about the nature and the magnitude of this violence. And here I’d like to ask you about two things. The first is, what forms does this violence that we are speaking about take? Is it always overt or does it differ according to time periods and settings? And second, is the impact of this violence felt and experienced differently by people of different identities? And here I’m talking especially about communities that have been historically marginalized. But in your professional experience as a journalist, if there’s something that comes up, then we’d like to hear that as well.
Thank you for that question. I would like to say that this sort of violence – it’s now everyday violence that people face. And like you rightly said, according to their identity, the degree of this violence changes from geography to geography, from place to place, from language to language, from caste to caste, from religion to religion. Let me give you an example. In 2016, I had done an investigation on how the RSS affiliated bodies traffic children from Northeast India and they take them to Punjab and Gujarat to indoctrinate them in political Hinduism. And this is similar to what happened in Canada and Australia where indigenous children were taken by Christian missionaries and they were sort of indoctrinated into Christianity and made to forget their own culture and traditions and language. Something similar was happening here and I traced the trail and I had documents and parents of these girls (and these girls were between the age group of three to 11), who confirmed that once the children were taken on the promise of free education and lodging, the parents just couldn’t contact their children any longer. So I traced those girls eventually in Punjab and Gujarat. Now let me give you an example. And finally when I traced those girls in Gujarat, so they were 31 of them, 20 in Gujarat and Surreen Nagar district and 11 in Patiala where these really young children, 6-7 year old girls were telling me how they want to do self immolation, kill Christian and Muslim invaders and stuff like that. And so while I was there and interviewing them, this person who was running this RSS school, he locked me inside the campus. So we were talking and because I’m a freelancer, I don’t have a press card, so there was no way I could prove to him that I’m a journalist. It was risky for me to, you know, actually tell him to Google my name because that would have got me in trouble more because of the kind of stories that I have done, they may not have liked it because it was critical of what was happening. And so eventually, after an hour, you know how this guy actually let me out? He said you are a Brahman woman, you are not going to do anything wrong, so you can go. And why I’m saying this is, is because I want to insist on the fact that it is your privilege, because of your caste, because of your religion, because of your gender identity, all of that is actually playing a role on an everyday basis to determine your place in this, you know, hierarchy of violence that is happening with people at every level. And it was very sad because once the story was out, a very fabulous Muslim journalist from Lucknow, he called me up and he said that, you know, you got away by doing the story. I could have never done it, just because of my name. And so what I want to say is that yes, these hierarchies are at work and your identity does play a big role when this happens. Also, I would like to say one more thing – that this violence, like I said earlier, is at many levels. So for example, for me in 2013 is when I actually started receiving a lot of online threats. My pictures were out like, you know, we’ve heard about this, what happens usually when women are attacked online. And so there were all these conversations about how you should be raped, whether it should be a steel rod, whether it should be a, you know, rosebush with thorns, all of those things. And then eventually it moved to legal cases. So, I have three legal cases against me and they are in Guwahati. I live in Delhi and so every three months I have to travel for these cases since 2016, so it’s going to be the 7th year now. Apart from that, last year somebody tried to break into my house after five months of physical stalking and actually identifying what exactly I was doing in those five months – whether I was sitting on the balcony or whether I was buying stuff from the market. And these people, some 150 – 200 phone numbers were used through Internet to tell me my exact location and to tell me whether they’re going to rape me or throw acid and eventually they tried to enter my house.
So why I’m telling you this is because there are no boundaries for this sort of violence any longer. It is instigated by an army online. It is executed by an army offline. And then there are also people within these institutions in this democratic country- there are people in these institutions, who take it one level further and harass you. And if you are from a marginalized community based on your identity, you can be further targeted if you do not fall into line. Another thing that I would like to say is that this is also a time when we see an increasing corporate political nexus in mainstream media. So, which is why, we see a lot of mainstream organizations are toeing the line of the government. Some examples are just – newspapers putting out press releases – but it’s no longer restricted to that. It’s actually glorifying whatever has happened. And as we speak right now, there is a lot of investigation that is happening in the Adani case. And if you do see all the mainstream anchors talking about it, they are actually acting as PR professionals for this particular corporate group because this corporate group is so close to people in power, the political party in power. So, which is why there is consistent killing of stories, new stories, and important information within newsrooms. And so while stories are being killed and filtered all the time because of this corporate political nexus and mainstream media, there is a lot of self censoring also happening for journalists. Like I said, if I have to deal with criminal cases for the last seven years, not everybody has those resources. So what this is also leading to is that everybody is self censoring themselves all the time. They are thinking about the consequences of putting out anything in the public domain: whether they want to deal with it, do they have the resources or not, and if you do not have the resources, then it’s even more difficult.
I’ll just give you one more example: which is that if you remember in 2019, a journalist called Pawan Jaiswal in Mirzapur, in Uttar Pradesh (UP) had done a story on how children are being served roti and salt as part of midday meal program instead of being served some nutritious food. And when he did that story, the UP government filed a case of criminal conspiracy on Pawan Jaiswal. Pawan Jaiswal was a local journalist used to freelance for various organizations and the moment this case was filed against him, the organization that he used to write for, distanced themselves from him, and said that we don’t know this person. Like we know that the revenue model of mainstream media now is that they have shut down all the news bureaus and they totally rely on a number of local journalists and pay them per news item that they submit. And so, which is why most of them do not have press cards, do not have a steady source of income. Pawan Jaiswal was also running a grocery store and so the UP government said that because he’s running a grocery store he did the story. Now this story is not some big scam that is being investigated against some political party. This is bare minimum, basic, ethical reporting that should have been done and no cases should have been filed. But in spite of that, when you start charging and slapping journalists and people within the space with criminal cases, it takes a longer time in the court of law to fight them. And it’s so unfortunate that Pawan lost his life last year also because he did not have money to pay for his medical expenses, forget supporting himself and the court of law.
Thank you for sharing that, Neha. And also to speak about your experience as a journalist at a time like this, when we are trying to make sure that these stories are not unheard of, that these stories don’t get hidden in these active efforts by the state to hide them. And, you know, I’m just thinking about how, going back to your previous point, about how there are different forms of protests, there are different ways by which people are protesting and I’m thinking how, you know, certain professions by themselves have become an act of resistance. You know, as you were speaking, it really just seems like you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing professionally, right? As a journalist, I imagine that should be your role. That is something that you should be doing and you’re doing it well. You’re researching stories, you’re writing stories, you’re making sure that people are reading these stories. All of that seems like something that’s a part of your profession and what you do professionally. And I’m just thinking about how that by itself has become a way of protesting. And to that end, I really just wanted to ask you, how do you navigate this challenge? I presume that, there is definitely a challenge that you face as a journalist, your ethics of journalism as opposed to, this very real fear of safety, that has been a real concern for you given your own experiences, the experiences of other journalists in the country.
OK, so let me start by saying that as a journalist, in spite of all that has been happening and legal cases and physical attack, I’d still want to say that I live in Delhi, I write in English, and I do have caste and religion privileges right now in this country. And so that still sort of gives me some padding. If I say something, there are five people who would listen to what is happening. And that is something that is not available to most journalists, right now, as we speak because like I said, most news organizations in the corporate media have shut down their news bureaus. And so anything that is coming from the ground to us, is coming through extremely lowly paid journalists who, for some disease, are actually still putting themselves out and facing risks every day. I would just really say that because there is no other way of putting it. I mean because you don’t get a salary, you are not protected, you are paid per item whatever you submit Like one of the greatest examples of this is COVID-19: when a number of workers were walking back home, we saw the media going out and capturing this hours of footage of people walking back home. But we don’t know what happened to those people once they reached home. That’s because a lot of local journalists who would use public transport, would require resources to actually go from one village to the other to tell us what is happening with those workers, they did not have the resources. And additionally, if you see at the first three months of the lockdown in 2020, in just three months there were 55 criminal cases filed against journalists from, you know, very remote towns and cities under Disaster Management Act, under Epidemics, Diseases Act, – just for reporting that there is lack of PPE kits or oxygen supply or stuff like that. And so why I’m talking about this is because these are the things that still are not part of the larger conversation about either journalism or about freedom of expression or even the breakdown of democratic structures. These are the people who bring out news and they are nowhere in this conversation. And so at that level, I would really say that… you know when people say why are people say why are some journalists still reporting? I would really say that they are all diseased. There’s no other reason why we are continuing to do this, because you cannot save yourself, your family members are under attack and there is no one, absolutely no one, determined to stop this. So in this scheme of things, I would really say I am quite privileged in that manner. Other than that there are various examples, like for me one story that I had done in 2019 on how there were thousands of encounters in 2017 in UP once Yogi Adityanath became the chief minister; and then they started putting out the number of these encounters as part of their achievement of the government every six months. And so they would say, after 2017 the first six months 1200 encounters were conducted. And there is absolutely, again, no conversation because now that number has risen to almost 7000, and out of which some 1200 people have lost their lives in police encounters. So once I met some 14-15 families of the people who had been killed and they were showing me pictures of how the dead bodies were mutilated, skulls were broken – I was out. And so these were clearly not chance encounters but properly planned killings by the police. These were extrajudicial killings and there was no inquiry. Once the story came out, the top cop from UP called me up to say “till when are you going to do this? I know where your mother lives”. So the impunity and the audacity at the same time to say something like this… maybe I don’t know till when am I going to continue… but there are lots of people who have lots of things to be responsible for and so they can’t go ahead with this. So it is absolutely difficult now to do any sort of groundwork. Also because, I would say… earlier I used to say as a freelancer – my strength is to be a freelancer because in times of people killing important investigations and news inside newsrooms, if one organization would refuse to publish my story, then I would give it to the other, and if the second wouldn’t, then I would I would give it to the third, so the story would eventually come out. But as we speak, in the last five years this has changed because now the organizations that have the money to publish and the resources to publish important critical stuff are not going to publish it and the ones who do not have the resources will publish, but that’s not going to support the kind of in depth investigation or in depth reporting that you want to do.
Yeah, that does sound like a difficult situation to be in, Neha. And just want to say, I don’t know if it makes a difference right now, but thank you for all the work that you’ve been doing. And since we are currently in a political climate where it is absolutely important for us to be raising our voices. I am then thinking about what happens next and how do we make sure that we as citizens can help out or maybe ensure the safety of dissenters. And do you think you could point us to some strategies of holding the state accountable that can be undertaken while ensuring the safety of anybody who tries to speak up?
So what I would like to say is that, unfortunately, right now we’re only paying attention to extreme situations and extremely draconian laws that are used against the centers – and also high profile cases, not that they’re not important, But I would like to say that this is happening every day in every district. And how we define a dissenter, that in itself is actually so subjective according to the state, right? You could just be from a certain community and you may appear to be a dissenter to the state, regardless of you not doing anything that typically qualifies as protest or dissent in their eyes. I’ll give you an example, for example in UP, there are, again, in the first one year of the Yogi government, there were close to 150 NSA cases slapped against the people. This is the National Security Act and this was slapped against all of them. Most of them were working class Muslims or OBCs or people from the Dalit community, who were slapped with NSA, which is as draconian. Of course, all of you would know that the law is actually defined as no vakil, no appeal, no dalil. So the government is going to set up a body to decide whether you should be in jail or not. And so it’s not very easy to challenge it. And so I remember meeting a family in Bahraich in UP, again. The day I had gone – this was the family of a rickshaw puller who used to work in Delhi and his family was in Bahraich – and that day it was raining. His five children, his wife, were sitting outside their mud house. And of course the thatched roof was broken and there was a clay stove there, and on the clay stove there were five potatoes boiling with water and salt and haldi (turmeric). And that is all that they had to eat that evening. And this person, these children, their father, were supposed to be a threat to national security and had been in jail for the last eight months. So this is the kind of brutality of the state that is being unleashed on its citizens on the basis of which community you belong to… there could be no reason, but you will have to face this. And I think as all of us, as citizens, I think it’s really important to keep an eye out for these people who are just there – that person was just in jail. Nobody knew about it. And so it’s really important to keep an eye out each time there’s a figure, even if you see some figure, something that seems fake on WhatsApp just Google and figure out what is happening where. If we don’t keep an eye out for this, slowly we’ll see that a lot of people, anyway, are behind bars or facing the consequences for it. And there is no way to compensate for that any longer.
Even right now as we speak: for example, Khalid Saifi who’s been in jail since February 2020, and has been accused in Delhi riots and was an active member of the anti CAA protests. If you see when he was arrested, his three children, two teenage boys, another daughter was five (who is eight now) – how are those children? Those children have not been able to attend school for the last two years because they were being bullied in school by other children because of the charges that have been slapped against Khalid Saifi; their family has no income any longer. They have no resources. And what is the compensation for this? Who’s going to compensate for all these years that the children have lost? Who’s going to compensate for the mental health trauma that they’re facing so early in their lives? And they’ll have to live with that all through their adulthood. So these are the costs that people are paying for the kind of liberties I think some of us are still enjoying by being able to speak up. I think we need to listen to other people more and be at least… I don’t know. I don’t have anything to say except that just pay attention to what is happening around you. I think there’s been so much fatigue in the last few years. We’re all fatigued one after the other: there have been assaults on us in various phases and so a fatigue has set in amongst us and I think we have to shake that off a bit.
Thank you so much for saying that, Neha. You know, and I think my biggest learning that I take away from this conversation with you is that it’s important that we do what we need to do in order to be able to get over that fatigue, to not look away when it’s not something as big as the worst case scenario happening. I think, especially when you spoke about how it catches our attention only when it’s extremely violent or when it is extremely regressive is not good enough. And how it got there because before each such instance there were hundreds of instances that we just chose not to look in the direction of, looked away saying that this is a small thing, it keeps happening, it’s something that’s casual. Thank you for this and for all the other very thought provoking instances that you have shared with us, stories from your life and your work that you have shared with us. It’s really been illuminating. And with this we come to an end for this episode. But before we close off Neha, I want to ask you if there are any closing thoughts, any parting thoughts that you would like to leave with our listeners before we close this episode?
You know, what I want to say still is that I’m still very hopeful about how things are right now in our country. Because even when we’ve seen, for the last almost 8-9 years, consistent assault on our rights, on our fundamental rights, on our rights of expression, on our right to dissent, all of that. Inspite of that we have consistently seen some sort of resistance from some quarter. So if there was an anti CAA protest, there was a farmers’ protest as well. If there was an award Wapsi protest, there was also Not in my name protest. If there was a Rohit Vemula, there were many other people, there was a Umar Khalid as well. So that really, really makes me hopeful. The fact that people are not taking it lying down. Someone from some quarter is always ready to stand up, to mobilize people and to say that whatever is happening is not right. And that is something that really gives me strength and makes me very hopeful. And I think we should all draw our strength from there.
Thank you so much for saying that, Neha. And this is not to romanticize anything that’s happening in India right now, but listening to you today, it has really been inspirational and it’s really been really powerful to have you with us today. Thank you so much for your time. I think all of our listeners will agree if I say that we’re taking a lot back. So thank you so much for joining us today!
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