Ambassadors of Conscience

In today’s Times of India, an article on an innocent man who spent 11 years in jail for allegedly raping and murdering a six year old girl.

Kounder was released from the Yerawada prison on the directives of the Bombay High Court which took cognisance of a suicide note left by police inspector Iqbal Bargir in 2000 who said that Kounder was not guilty of the crime he was charged with.

The court order said that Kounder, who at the time of his arrest in 1995 was employed as an illiterate sweeper with the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation, was suspected to have been wrongly implicated in the crime.

And what if Kounder had been given capital punishment? Surely raping and murdering a six year old girl justifies it (after all, the last time a Manila rope was made at Buxar jail was in 2004, for Dhananjay Chatterjee)? The next time I rise in righteous anger against rapists and murderers and shout ‘off with their heads’ in a grotesque imitation of the Red Queen, I will have to remember Armogam Munnaswami Kounder. A poor man, from a family of casual labourers in Tamil Nadu. A family he had lost all contact with in the past eleven years. As I write this, he is on a train – somewhere between Pune and Vellore – wondering whether his wife and son will recognise him.

In the midst of the on/off line (in more ways than one) debate around the death penalty, I think Shivam said it simply and effectively. Dilip quotes Nandita Haksar, the civil rights activist representing Mohammed Afzal Guru:

Can the collective conscience of our people be satisfied if a fellow citizen is hanged without having a chance to defend himself? We have not even had a chance to hear Afzal’s story. Hanging Mohammad Afzal will only be a blot on our democracy.

However, Rahul Mahajan gets into the act, saying he will sit on dharna to register his protest against those seeking pardon for Afzal. Perhaps he feels the Delhi police will then help him get elected.

Collective conscience? I leave you with an excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s extraordinary poem, that asks from us the greatest and deepest responsibility of all time: to be an ambassador of conscience, beyond the platitudes, beyond the politics of expedience. Please read the whole poem on the Art for Amnesty site.

When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway

At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather

The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye

No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared


I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself

The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen

He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue

Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved

You’ve come a long way, baby?

…into a world in which your parents tell you you’re ‘unwanted’ every time they call your name.

From Uma’s post, in which she quotes a news report on what some girl children are called in Punjab and Haryana:

Kaafi ~ Enough

Bharpai ~ Paying the Penalty

Dhappan ~ A Full Stomach

Mariya ~ Deathly.

Badho ~ Excessive.

Bas Kar ~ Stop It.

Unchahi ~ Unwanted.

In protest

I’m too sickened by all that’s going on around and about me to write much today. I’m just going to point towards the various online petitions I’m signing and the on-ground protests I’m sympathising with – and hope that somehow, somewhere, something changes for the better… Tomorrow better be another day. Or as Yoda might say: Another day tomorrow better be.

About the siege in Lebanon, a description from within, and anti-siege protests from within Israel (the latter much tougher to find online than the former). And two petitions against it: Justice for Lebanon and Save Lebanese Civilians.

About the Right to Information Act of India and the government’s proposed amendment: to remove file notings from much of the decision-making conveyed to citizens (so what does that leave of the ‘information’ given to us by ‘public servants’ and ‘polity-cians’, hmm?). A petition against the amendment.

Continue reading “In protest”

Mumbai: resilience and resistance

Oh no, not again. Not as bad as in 1993. Worse than in 2003. Can we actually compare suffering by numbers? Can we compare suffering at all? Only when the world forgets some 7/11s and remembers others. We’ll see how long this memory lasts.

And Mumbai awakes to another day, another journey by local train, another round of fear, cheek by jowl with resilience and courage: the extraordinary strengths of ordinary people.

While the politicians, the terrorists and the TV channels plan in separate conclaves (we presume), how best to maximise the impact for themselves.

Vive le difference, le debate, le dissent…

Around the time Ashwin and I decided to set up this space (Ashwin with energy and enthusiasm, and I somewhat diffident and uncertain… I mean how self-indulgent can one get, I thought??!), I was sent the link to a raging debate around the (possible) racist implications of the cover to a book edited by Shamillah, Kristy and me: Defending our Dreams. Without going into too much detail about the book – of course you have to read it – it was a wonderful privilege putting together what is possibly the first anthology of its kind. A collection of young feminist writing from across the world, representing a range of issues, with contributors from eleven countries and all the populated continents, including a piece by male feminists (yes, they exist; if you don’t think so… you got it. Read the book.).

Coming back to the debate on, Defending our Cover turned out to be a strangely joyful task: infuriating and inspiring at the same time. Infuriating, because initially it seemed perverse that Southern (read: black, brown and white from South Africa and India) feminists should be defending the cover of their – international – book against a bunch of Northern (read: possibly white) feminists. Inspiring, for exactly the same reason. When I got past the upside-down-ness of it all, I was amazed by the range and depth of the debate around race, racism and its implications. A debate conducted on a bulletin board by a dozen women (of different ages, I suspect): serious, funny, passionate. And I could pop right in with my comments around our interpretations and intentions, including the fact that the cover was inspired by a great self-portrait by Jasmeen, a young woman from Bangalore whose art and activism are beyond doubt. A book that had been created almost entirely virtually (that’s another story) continues a life beyond its covers in exactly the same way: through virtual communities who share its convictions, debate its contents and hopefully, live its ideals in real, tough, worlds.

Continue reading “Vive le difference, le debate, le dissent…”