Category Archives: Guest Post

The Fate of Dissent in an “Export-quality” Democracy

Originally posted on Wednesday, November 25, 2015
The Fate of Dissent in an “Export-quality” Democracy

Featured Author: Sankaran Krishna

(Originally Posted in The Wire)

In India we often indicate the superiority of a particular product (be it a pair of pants or a crate of mangoes) by referring to it as being of “export-quality.” I have often wondered whether our much-vaunted democracy is another instance of something Indian that is not really intended for domestic consumption but only to impress those outside our country. It seems we have reduced democracy to just three things: (a) the conduct of largely free and fair elections; (b) orderly transitions of power between civilian regimes; and (c) the fact that the Indian armed forces are uninvolved in politics.

When subject to a less superficial and more substantive audit, our claims to democracy falter at so many levels. Almost 70 years after independence, nearly 80% of our population remains incredibly poor, living on less than $2 a day. The degree of malnutrition among our young is the highest in the world. On the Human Development Index we are not only buried way down the list of nations, we are regressing in comparison to neighbors such as Bangladesh. What good is the right to vote if so many cannot even be sure of the next meal?

At any point in time since Independence the number of Indians in states governed by some form of authoritarian rule (Kashmir and the entire northeast come to mind) exceeds the population of many nations in this world. We claim to have freedom of press, but a study by Delhi’s Center for the Study of Developing Societies found that not one of the over 300 leading media executives and shapers of opinion was from a non-dvija background. While a rapidly rising number of authors and artistes have rightly returned their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest over the growing communalization of our institutions and public life, the murder of Dalits in broad daylight evokes barely a smidgen of protest.

It is strange that in the world’s largest democracy, any female between, say, 12 and 72 would be taking a huge risk if she were to venture out alone after dark into any of our cities. Female infanticide remains a horrendous blot on our record, while the lives of so many of the girl children who survive are marked by continuous deprivation and discrimination.

All this and more is well known, and the gap between our thin democracy and the substantive ideal remains wider than ever. In this essay, however, I would like to turn to one instance of how our democracy operates when faced with a most important and basic test: how does it treat a principled individual who happens to disagree with the state? I have in mind Dr. S.P. Udayakumar, an educator and opponent of the nuclear plant at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu.

In the mid-1990s, Udayakumar completed his dissertation (on the politics of Hindutva and the threat it represented to our secularism) at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa. He had multiple options to work as a scholar in the United States and did so for a few years.

Udayakumar, however, was very clear that he had to return to his native Kanyakumari district to fulfill his lifelong ambition: to establish a quality school providing free education for the underprivileged. In due course, with the support of local residents and small donations from his many friends in different parts of the world, Udayakumar and his wife Meera were successfully running a school whose philosophy of education was based on Gandhian principles in the best sense of the term. Most importantly, the school catered overwhelmingly to the poor and destitute from the lowest castes– precisely the people neither India’s state nor its much-vaunted emerging market ever gave a damn about.

Once Udayakumar became conversant with the various issues surrounding the nearby Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP), he was drawn into the movement opposing its construction and commissioning. The KNPP, like so many other projects involving India’s nuclear establishment, is marked by cost overruns, dubious safeguards, poor environmental impact assessment, corruption, secrecy, and highly inadequate crisis-management planning in the event of a disaster. As M.V. Ramana’s meticulous research in his recent book (The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India) has shown, our track record is one where the adverse impacts are visited disproportionately on the poor and any benefits accrue exclusively to our urban middle-classes. Udayakumar emerged as a well-informed, principled and staunch opponent of the KKNPP.

Yet, for doing that Udayakumar has had about 380 patently false cases filed against him – including charges such as sedition and “waging war against the state.” The Supreme Court recently insisted that the state government of Tamil Nadu withdraw about 140 of the cases as lacking any merit but Udayakumar continues to be hounded, with about 30 charge-sheets filed by the Police necessitating repeated appearances in court. Alongside this, his passport has been impounded; he is under continuous police and IB surveillance; and his bank accounts frozen. There is not one shred of evidence that any of his activities have been remotely against the law or the best interests of his community – and the harassment is unending. The school that he and Meera started is now down to just about 125 students and has been attacked by the usual goondas with the covert support of the local police and party hacks.

In any society, especially one that proclaims its democracy from the rooftop on every occasion, the right to dissent from the state is paramount. The Udayakumars, Teesta Setalvads, Binayak Sens and Medha Patkars of our nation are to be treasured and valued for they are the exceptions, those who despite paying an enormous personal price have continued with the struggle. Think of how many who espoused the right causes gave up after the initial onslaught of trumped-up court cases, intimidation, allegations of being unpatriotic, and harassment? And further still, how many gave up without even trying after seeing what happens to whistle-blowers in our society?

Disagreement, dissent and principled opposition to authority are the lifeblood of any democracy. The example of Udayakumar’s continued harassment and intimidation by central, state and local governments, by political parties of every hue at both New Delhi and Chennai, is proof of our authoritarian core. Next time we feel the urge to celebrate our allegedly exceptional and vibrant democracy, let us instead remember that until individuals such as Udayakumar are treated with fairness and in accord with their Constitutional rights, our democracy will be nothing more than yet another “export-quality” commodity: intended for foreign audiences but denied to those who matter within our own country.


Sankaran Krishna is Professor of Political Science, University of Hawaii at Manoa. He has written extensively on ethnic identity and conflict and identity politics in India and Sri Lanka. Prof. Krishna is the author of Postcolonial Insecurities: India, Sri Lanka and the Question of Nationhood, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000) and Globalization and Postcolonialism: Hegemony and Resistance in the 21st Century, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009. He can be reached at

The Nepal Earthquake and a Pizza Party

Originally published Tuesday, July 14, 2015
The Nepal Earthquake and a Pizza Party

Ranjan Adiga

We were nearing the end of the semester at Westminster College when the earthquake struck Nepal. My students and I had planned to celebrate the final week of a tough semester with a pizza party on Monday, April 27—as it turned out, two days after the devastation. Instead of a grammar and mechanics session, we’d have a proofreading party. I volunteered to bring donuts.

The weekend before that Monday, however, turned out to be life changing. At 2 a.m., April 25, my wife, Jessica, and I found out about the earthquake that had just struck our country. We spent the next few hours glued to the internet, horrified by the images and headlines unraveling at social-media speed. After what seemed like a hundred attempts we managed to contact our families. They were safe. That instant relief turned into nagging helplessness as large parts Kathmandu collapsed into rubble. The images kept pouring in on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. The landmarks we’d grown up around, such as the old-brick temples in Durbar Square, had collapsed into dust. Even the 213-step Dharara tower was now just a stump.

Worse affected were villages outside the capital that had simply vanished. Relying on sporadic phone calls and text messages that assured us of our family’s safety, Jessica and I lay in bed all day, scouring the internet as aftershocks kept rupturing land and lives. Meanwhile, our two-year old son Tenzing exhausted his arsenal of gestures to indicate he wanted to go out and play. He walked around carrying his tiny pair of shoes, motioned his hands to mimic the steering wheel, stood near the door with his ball while my wife and I lay immobile, numbed by shock and depression. When we finally took Tenzing out for a drive, the tranquility of suburban Salt Lake City seemed like a different planet. My privilege embarrassed me, but there was nothing I could do except take my son to the park.

Monday arrived. On my drive to work, I listened to NPR’s Morning Edition, which was my go-to station for breakfast news. Cat-Man-Do and Ne-Paul had invaded the news space in a way that I hadn’t seen or heard since I moved to the U.S. in 2003. It was surreal. Part of me was surprised that Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne even knew that our country existed. Part of me felt guilty for thinking about such trivial things. I took the longer route just to stay with the news. When I finally reached college, I realized I’d forgotten something: donuts. I’d even forgotten to email my students to let them know that in light of the tragedy in Nepal we would have to forgo the pizza party. Class would start in half hour. It was too late to send that email. I knew my students wouldn’t mind that I’d forgotten the donuts, and maybe, they’d had a discussion in their dorm rooms to cancel the party out of courtesy.

I was wrong. I walked into the classroom greeted by stacks of pizza boxes, red cups, fizzy drinks, and cookie-brownie assortments. The students had done an excellent job with the preparation. They’d perhaps forgotten that I was from Nepal, or maybe they hadn’t caught the news, yet, or maybe they had, but didn’t know how else to respond. We had a plan, and unless we were informed to act otherwise, our job was to stick to it. America is a melting pot. Uncomfortable and inconvenient histories are left at the door. But higher education in the U.S. emphasizes critical thinking and questioning assumptions. Should I enlighten my students about a country they might otherwise never hear about? Or, start an invigorating discussion about social conscience and global citizenship? At Westminister, we have institutionalized on our campus walls the contemporary vocabulary of higher learning by enshrining words like “interconnectivity,” “global consciousness,” and “ethical awareness.” Each summer students take educational trips to Ireland, India, and Thailand and post pictures on social media, which the college proudly displays on its streaming web banner.

So I stood at the door of the classroom, wondering if I should turn this into a learning moment. “Sorry, I forgot the donuts,” I began. “Because of the earthquake.” Those who weren’t scrolling their phone screens stared back in silence. Did they know what I was talking about? “How many of you followed world news in the last two days?” I asked. A few hands went up. “Did you read about the earthquake in Nepal?” I proceeded, putting on my cheerfully inquisitive smile. One student shook her head in sympathy. I latched on to that moment. “What did you think?” I asked. After a lazy shrug, she said, “Sorry, it’s Monday morning.”

“Oh, well,” I finally said. The warm smell of cheese and marinara sauce had found our nostrils. We dug into the pizza and commenced reviewing papers about legalizing marijuana and lowering the drinking age. The students sat in groups and exchanged their laptops. They did what dutiful students would do — read each other’s papers and engage in discussions about their topics. During a short break a student even offered to drive to Dunkin’ Donuts, where they now had glazed croissants.  The proofreading party was a success. No one mentioned the tragedy again.

A version of this blog entitled, “Even an Earthquake Can’t Stir Student Empathy,” appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education,

Ranjan Adiga was born and raised in Nepal. He currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Westminster College. His works have appeared in Story QuarterlySouth Asian ReviewThe Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. He obtained his doctorate in English (Creative Writing) from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in 2013.


Violence Against Women and Girls: Will the Death Penalty Solve the Problem?

Originally published Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Anchita Ghatak
We need to secure women’s and girls’ access to the streets and their right to mobility instead of asking why the Delhi gang rape moved Indians so deeply while other rapes around the country did not.

Anchita Ghatak has worked with NGOs and various development organisations and projects for more than two decades on issues of poverty and rights. Her passion is women’s rights.  With other activists, she was part of founding Maitree, which is a women’s rights network in West Bengal. She is the Secretary of Parichiti — A Society for Empowerment of Women, which works for rights of women domestic workers and girls.  Anchita also translates literary works from Bengali to English.  A Life Long Ago, which is her translation of Sunanda Sikdar’s Dayamoyeer Katha, was published in 2012 by Penguin and Zubaan.

Women domestic workers who travel to the city of Kolkata to work everyday describe different kinds of violence they face on the suburban trains that they take to and from the city. Many travel in the early hours of the morning from villages in the adjoining districts of Kolkata and start their journeys home in the afternoon. All through the day, at different times, working class women travel from the villages to Kolkata to earn their livings as domestic workers, vegetable vendors, workers on construction sites, sex workers and so on.

Domestic workers (and other women) face harassment by men on the streets as they make their way to and from the station. Male travellers grope, pinch, and push women on the trains. Suburban trains have one or two cars earmarked “ladies’ compartments,” which are meant for the exclusive use of women commuters. However, that does not automatically foster female camaraderie and solidarity. We need to remember that most public transport facilities in India are stretched beyond capacity and, most often, these women are travelling in very crowded trains. Therefore, sometimes, skirmishes break out among working-class women. Additionally, domestic workers report that most middle-class women commuters view them as interlopers and are condescending at best, if not downright offensive.

The police and railway personnel also tend to view women domestic workers as ‘illegitimate’ commuters, travelling without tickets. They often demand bribes or subject them to abuse, both verbal and physical, and to arbitrary checks of their belongings and persons. Body checks are often conducted by male personnel.  Fearing reprisals, the women rarely object.

The gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman in Delhi on December 16, 2012 has focused a great deal of attention on the issue of rape in India, in the national and international media, and also among people outside of feminist and women’s groups. An immense public outrage across the country and sustained mass protests in Delhi rattled the government enough that it appointed the Justice Verma Committee to recommend changes to the existing anti-rape law.

The issue of violence against women, both at home and outside, has been the preoccupation of women’s movements in India. Activists have repeatedly questioned the deeply ingrained patriarchal values and attitudes that are widely held across India – by the state system, educational institutions, families, communities and individuals.

Despite the widespread outcry against the Delhi gang rape and murder, very few substantive steps have been taken either by the Government of India or various state governments to ensure that crimes against women are prevented and women can move around safely. I live in Kolkata, which is the capital city of the state of West Bengal. On 7 June, 2013, a 20-year-old college student, one of the first people in her family to access higher education, was gang raped and murdered in Kamduni, which is less than 30 km away from Kolkata. This incident has created a furore in West Bengal, though it did not evoke the nationwide rage that followed the Delhi gang rape and murder.  Various rights groups have organised several protests in West Bengal.  In an instance of great personal courage, Suzette Jordan, who had been raped on Park Street in Kolkata in February, 2012, decided to ‘out’ herself in the wake of the Kamduni protests.

People expressed anger and outrage again last month when a trainee journalist was gang raped in Mumbai. That same month, the media reported the rape and murder of a young Dalit student who came to Jind in the state of Haryana to take an exam. The police and state administration tried to cover this up by claiming that the woman had committed suicide. However, activists have kept up pressure for a proper investigation.

Whether those attacked are domestic workers on their way to and from work, college students, school girls, professionals or full-time homemakers, women and girls in India have to confront various forms of violence and harassment when they are out in the streets. These forms of violence range from stares, leers, comments, catcalls, groping, touching, shoving, pushing, hitting and, of course, rape.  As a result, are there no women on the streets in India? Of course there are! Women and girls of all classes and age groups are out on the streets, parks, buses, trains, rickshaws, markets, schools, colleges, and offices. They are visible in big cities, small towns and villages. However, many codes and strictures govern the lives of women and girls both at home and outside.

One of the major reasons why girls drop out of school in early adolescence is that they are harassed by men on the streets. Families feel that it is better that girls stay at home so that no harm comes to them and the reputation of the girls and their families are not ‘ruined.’ The ‘harm’ that the families envisage is molestation and/or rape. Unfortunately, families take the girls out of school and deprive them of education in their attempt to combat this potential threat.

Street harassment is a terrifying reality in India. Everyone knows that it exists. The usual responses to street harassment are:

  • Trivialising it with the name ‘eve teasing’: Over the years, feminists have pointed out that street harassment is violence against women and not fun and games or good-natured teasing.
  • Putting the onus on women and girls: Girls and women are expected to guard their ‘dignity,’ ‘modesty,’ or ‘virtue.’  So, they are expected to dress ‘decently,’ not be out after dark, and travel in groups, if possible.
  • Underplaying the prevalence of street harassment: Law enforcers and politicians do not recognise how widely prevalent the problem is and take no steps to either prevent or punish such harassment.
  • Ignoring harassment or keeping silent about it: Most women, especially girls and young women, report that they are met with harassment practically as soon as they step out of their houses. So, they learn the fine art of ignoring such harassment, unless it really gets too much to bear. Many keep silent about it and are wary of discussing it with their parents or others in the family because they fear that talking about harassment will further compromise the restricted degree of freedom of mobility that they have.

Women are well aware that keeping quiet about harassment aids the process of normalising such violence. However, they see their silence as a strategic choice. It allows them to get on with their lives.

Confronting the harasser: This is not widespread but it is gradually becoming popular. If someone is staring, leering or passing comments, girls and women say that they outstare that person until he is forced to lower his eyes and walk away.

The aftermath of the Delhi gang rape and murder has led to many protests and discussions. Immediately after the incident, there were loud cries for death for the rapists both from different Indian politicians and the general public. Although the Justice Verma Committee Report categorically ruled out the death penalty for rapists, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013 says that the death penalty may be awarded if the rapist “inflicts an injury which causes the death of the person or causes the person to be in a persistent vegetative state.” In September 2013, four men accused of the Delhi gang rape and murder of December 16, 2012 were convicted of their crimes and sentenced to death. (This sentence was awarded according to legislation that existed when the crime occurred. The new law is applicable only to crimes that occur after the law has come into force.)

It is worth noting that the Government of India announced in February 2013 that the conviction rates of rape cases show a declining trend. However, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) records, the number of rape cases being reported in the period of 2009-2011 have increased. The conviction rates for rape were 44.3 percent in 1973, 37.7 percent in 1983, 26.9 percent in 2009, 26.6 percent in 2010 and 26.4 percent in 2011.

In conversations across the country, it is evident that since the Delhi incident families have become even more protective about their daughters. Speaking at a panel discussion entitled, “Pushing Boundaries: Girls and the Right to Mobility” organised by Parichiti – A Society for Empowerment of Women in May 2013 in Kolkata, the principal of an elite girls’ school in the city said that parents were now wary of letting their daughters go to college in other Indian cities.

The incidents in Kamduni and Gede in West Bengal, however, clearly show that rapists and murderers also attack women and girls who  go to school and college close to home. Rights groups are all demanding that the law enforcement machinery stop being so callous about women’s lives.

Horrified as they are by the spate of rape and murders that keep occurring, feminists are concerned that families and communities are getting more protectionist and girls and women, too, are wary of being out on the streets. Many women’s groups are working to make the point that if streets have to become safe for women and girls, they have to be out in public.  They have to go to school or college, play in parks, chat in tea stalls (as opposed to globalised coffee shops), ride buses and trains on their way to work, and go shopping, or to the cinema.

Maitree, a women’s rights network in Kolkata, organises public meetings at street corners every six to eight weeks to discuss the issue of sexual violence against women outside the home and within. Since December 2012, two young women in Kolkata have begun organising monthly ‘Take Back the Night’ gatherings in different places in the city.  The organisers have made special efforts to invite transpersons to Take Back the Night events. Organisers of Take Back the Night say that they must fight transphobia in their struggle against patriarchy and gender-based violence.  Both Maitree and Take Back the Night also make it quite clear that they are opposed to the death penalty. In recent months, feminists have made statements and written articles explaining their position opposing sexual violence and the death penalty.

The Delhi gang rape and murder case has shaken us. We can keep asking why the Delhi rape moved us so deeply while others did not or do not but those questions are unlikely to lead us to the correct answers. The challenge for women’s groups and women’s movements in India is to initiate public debates and discussions about women’s access to the streets and their right to mobility, and to ensure that the criminal justice system responds promptly whenever women are harassed or attacked in the streets. Police, administrators, professionals, communities, families and individuals need to understand that women and girls have a right to the streets.  It is not a privilege to be out in the streets but a right. There has to be a political will to create an atmosphere in the country where streets and other public spaces are not seen as hostile to women but welcoming and empowering.


Originally published Monday, January 14, 2013

Elizabeth Louis

Elizabeth Louis, “Cedar,” received her Ph.D in Geography from University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2012. Her dissertation, “The Political Ecology of Food Sovereignty Movements in Neoliberal India” was based on the fieldwork she conducted in the Telegana region.  She is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at Texas A&M University, and is conducting fieldwork in rural India on the political ecology of sanitation and toilet use in rural India.

Vandana Shiva has become an iconic figure in the fight against the corporate takeover of agriculture. Her “Raise Awareness, Inspire Change” tour of Hawaiʻi in January will bring attention to two very important issues – seed sovereignty and food sovereignty (or what she calls food freedom or food democracy). Seed sovereignty is the right of farmers to save, use, exchange, and sell their own seeds. Seed sovereignty is seen as an essential requirement for food sovereignty, which is defined as the right of each person, community, and nation to define its own agriculture and food policies and practices that will enable each entity to not just have food security, but also ensure that the food produced is environmentally sustainable, and socially just.

The entry of multinational corporations into agriculture aided by the neoliberal policies of particular nation-states, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) pose the biggest threats to seed and food sovereignty today.   This commodification is dominated by a few agro-food giants through an integration of all aspects of production from seed breeding and research all the way to the food that ends up on our tables. While a handful of big agro-food giants control the market, Monsanto has become a symbol of all that is undemocratic, unsustainable, and inequitable in farming and food.

The fight against Monsanto and genetically modified crops is a just fight, and food and seed sovereignty seems to represent a universal good. However, in any movement there are contradictions. So while there is no question that the taking down of agro-food giants is important, one should also ask who defines seed and food sovereignty, how and, why.   How do these definitions affect those who struggle to eke a living from the land?

One of my most fundamental findings that emerged from my research on the food sovereignty movement in the Telengana region of India in 2008 and 2009 is that the perspectives of those who depend on agriculture, especially those who have to scrape a living from small pieces of land, are vastly different from urban intellectuals and activists who claim to represent these grassroots voices. For example, in the Telengana, a prominent food sovereignty NGO’s promotion of sustainable traditional food crops as a way to achieve food security and control of the food system (food sovereignty) did not resonate with farmers’ bread-and-butter issues and aspirations to move beyond a subsistence livelihood.  Even if the NGO’s prescriptions allowed the farmers to take care of their food needs, they needed enough income to educate their children, pay for medical expenses, to get their daughters married, and participate in an economy that was becoming an increasingly monetized.  By growing subsistence and traditional food crops, they could hardly meet these needs.
Unless farmers are completely isolated from the market and live subsistence livelihoods they cannot but feel pressured to participate in an increasingly monetized economy, and move to commercial crops. Monsanto has been implicated in farmers’ suicides in India because of the sale of GM cotton seeds. But a little known fact is that the suicides started before the introduction of genetically modified cotton in 1997-1998 in Warangal[i] district of Andhra Pradesh. The state created incentives for farmers to grow cotton even in areas that were not suitable for its cultivation. World cotton prices were high, and the promise of high profits encouraged many to move from low-risk to high risk cotton cultivation. When market prices crashed, pests attacked or droughts occurred, then farmers were caught in a downward spiral of dispossession, extreme desperation and suicide. All this happened during a time of shrinking state supports and reduced safety nets for the rural poor with the adoption of neoliberal economic policies. In the Telengana, it is not just cotton farmers who have committed suicide, but those who have been involved in a high risk commercial agriculture, and have nowhere to turn. This implicates the neoliberal model of agriculture more than the work of one corporation.

As far as I can see there are two battles – the one against the likes of Monsanto, and one on the ground that relates directly to ensuring that the rural poor have food and livelihood security. Unfortunately, these two do not always align.  Those who “own” the discourse of food/seed sovereignty need to consider how programs influenced by their ideas play out in specific localities for impoverished farmers, and the particular challenges they face in the shift toward commercial agriculture and high capital input crops. Vandana Shiva and other ideologues in the food/seed sovereignty movement in India have been accused of essentializing and idealizing rural livelihoods, and gender relations[ii]. We need to hear more about what farmers have to say about the multiple pressures they are facing as a result of the entry multi-national corporations, austerity measures imposed by their own governments, shifts in social aspirations and changing climate patterns among other things.   It is up to the movement spokespeople like Vandana Shiva to keep their finger on the pulse of the needs of the rural poor and make seed sovereignty relevant to their struggles.

As those who are working for food security and sovereignty in Hawaiʻi get ready for Vandana Shiva’s tour, I urge you also to keep in mind that the needs of western farmers, and those of Indian farmers –  who still struggle to get their needs for adequate food, healthcare, education met –  are vastly different.  How will the seed and food sovereignty help the poor farmer who is desperate to grow a commercial crop on her land because she needs money? Monsanto is culpable in all sorts of ways.  But let us remember that the quotidian problems of poor farmers in South Asia and in many other developing countries are much larger than what the struggle for seed sovereignty aims to address.


[i] Gathering agrarian crisis – Farmers‘  suicides in Warangal District (A.P.) IndiaCitizens‘ ReportCentre for Environmental Studies Warangal1998

[ii] Rural poverty and impoverished theory: Cultural populism, ecofeminism, and global justice. Regina Cochrane, The Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 34, Issue. 2, 2007

Mies and Shiva’s ‘Ecofeminism’: A New Testament?”  Maxine Molyneux and Deborah Steinberg, Feminist Review, Issue 49, 1995

“We are all Sikhs”: The Oak Creek shooting, and what it means for South Asians in the United States

Monday, September 3, 2012

Monisha Das Gupta was the director of the Center for South Asian Studies until 2014, and is associate professor of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

She is the author of Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism, and Transnational South Asian Politics (Duke University press, 2006), and has written about the post-9/11 racial landscape, and its impact on South Asians.  The essay, “Of Hardship and Hostility” in Wounded City: The Social Impact of 9/11 edited by Nancy Foner (Russell Sage Foundation, 2005) documents the violence directed at South Asian and Middle Eastern yellow cab drivers in New York City.

On August 5, 2012, terror and death visited those gathered to worship at the Oak Creek Sikh Temple of Wisconsin outside of Milwaukee.  Across the United States, mourners signaled the message, “We Are All Sikhs,” printed across t-shirts, or signs at the vigils to grieve those who were shot dead at Oak Creek, and to remember the many named and unnamed victims of anti-South Asian violence. The stalking and shooting crystallizes the South Asian diasporaʻs history and experience in North America, and marks yet another manifestation of the racism that has accompanied our presence in the United States and Canada.  As the advocacy organization South Asian Americans Leading Together underlined in a statement issued immediately after the shooting, it was “as a tragic reminder of the violence in the form of hate crimes that Sikhs and many members if the South Asian community have frequently endured since September 11, 2001.”

If we stretch our historical memory to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, we will be reminded of the deadly xenophobic hysteria over the “tide of turbans” directed at South Asian migrants, among them Sikhs, in the Pacific Northwest.  What happened in the gurudwara in Wisconsin becomes even more disturbing when we consider that the U.S. diaspora includes many survivors who fled state-sponsored violence unleashed in Punjab in the 1980s by the Indian central government under the then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, to flush out ‘terrorists.’  This included the 1984 battle conducted by the Indian Army inside Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the holiest place of worship for Sikhs, where separatists led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale were camped.

The violence in Punjab continued well into the mid-1990s, and during the fifteen-year period, civilians were targeted and killed both by separatists demanding autonomy, and by the Indian government’s counterinsurgency forces.  Almost all media reports in the United States about Oak Creek missed this transnational context within which the contemporary Sikh diaspora has taken shape, thus obscuring a painful history of displacement, and the repeated signification of an ethnic group as a national threat – whether in India or in the United States.

Reflecting on the Oak Creek killings that came in the wake of a series of gun violence-related events in which civilians perished, Hamid Khan, the former executive director of the South Asia Network, pointed out the blind spot – the role of the state – in the discussions about the roots of such violence. In an e-mail communication soon after the Oak Creek shooting, he observed, “The question is where does this [gun-happy] orientation come from: home – Yes; school – Yes; place of worship – Yes; media – Yes; political culture—Yes; corporate profit-making – Yes; and we can go on and on.  But one place that seems to get a free pass most of the time is the state itself.”   The post-9/11 national security-driven domestic policies, and the war in Afghanistan that has destabilized the entire region, have fed the ongoing hate crimes across the United States against South Asians, Muslims, and Sikhs.

South Asians in the United States felt the full weight of the state’s punitive machinery after 9/11, when, as part of the war on terror, they were relentlessly surveilled by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the local police force.  The surveillance was particularly intense in places of worship – institutions that the immigrants had built to create a sense of community – but that were now watched for fomenting religious fundamentalism. Family members and friends were racially profiled.  Many disappeared into prisons and detention centers.  Neighbors and colleagues became arms of the state helping it identify suspected terrorists on the basis of appearance and religious markers. These state-sponsored actions fostered a public culture that framed those of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent as the enemies within.

Two reports, one released by SAALT in 2001, and another by the New York Commission on Civil Rights in 2003, carefully documented the intensification of violence –physical and verbal – against South Asians, Muslims, and Arabs in their neighborhoods and workplaces.  Between 2001 and 2007, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney General’s office reported investigating 750 incidents involving these groups.  The actual numbers, according to South Asian organizations, are a lot higher.  Not surprisingly, practicing Sikhs, including young boys, have been easy targets (and there is a long post-1965 history of that), as the Sikh Coalition and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund have documented.  Both organizations have repeatedly demanded that government authorities record hate crimes against Sikhs, and that they record the desecration of gurudwaras as hate crimes too. The Sikh community in Milwaukee had been expressing grave concerns about their treatment for over a year before the Oak Creek attack, according to Harsha Walia, a Vancouver-based activist and writer whose family members attended the gurudwara.

Despite the very public organizing in the South Asian communities against the escalation of racial and religious profiling in the last decade, few of these progressive community-based leaders were approached by mainstream media, in particular network television, to comment on what happened at Oak Creek or on White supremacy.  Since Vincent Chinwas beaten to death by two white autoworkers thirty years ago in Detroit, Asian Americans, including South Asians, have made a conscious effort to build a political infrastructure that can draw media attention to such violence, and parse for the American public the sociopolitical environment that breeds it.

Among mainstream outlets, USA Today did carry an op-ed by SAALT’s executive director, Deepa Iyer, and the CNN interviewed the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund board chair, Manjit Singh, and Valarie Kaur, the maker of the documentary, Divided We Fall, and the founder of the multifaith advocacy network, Groundswell.  (See her blog entry on the inclusion of a Sikh-led prayer at the RNC).  But most of the analysis was to be found in Left-leaning media.  Within a day of the shooting, Salon had carried a reflection on White Supremacy by Rinku Sen, the publisher of Colorlines, and executive director of the Applied Research Center.  Vijay Prashad, professor of South Asian History and International Studies at Trinity College, commented on Counterpunch, adding the much-needed historical dimension to the shooting and the discussions of White Supremacy while also highlighting the resistance to such violence from the Sikh and the broader South Asian community.  Democracy Now! interviewed the director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition, Rajdeep Singh Jolly, who had eloquently debated the author of the novel, Towelhead,  and the director of the movie by the same name in 2007, to make the case that using such pejorative language loaded with a long, xenophobic history normalizes the violence directed at South Asians, Muslims, and Sikhs.

Even when mainstream or progressive media channels interviewed Sikh leaders, the framing of the event remained limited to gaining a basic familiarity with U.S. Sikhs and Sikhism in order to explain why Sikhs should not be “mistaken” for Muslims.   As a thoughtful opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune written by Scott Anderson, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the Catholic Theological Union, points out, the frame, “Sikhs are not Muslims,” does little to challenge the demonization of Muslims and Sikhs, and the legitimacy of targeting a whole group of people signified as terrorists.  Taking on the CNN’s repeated clarification to its audience, Anderson says, “One cannot help wonder whether those at CNN cringe as they listen repeatedly, as I have over the past few days, to the mantra that ‘Sikhs are not Muslims.’… [A]re we to believe that no one at CNN is aware that the statement “Sikhs are not Muslims” — in the post-9/11context of a deadly act of domestic white supremacist terrorism against a largely ethnically South Asian faith community with a number of bearded men in turbans — is more than just another example of what can happen when people don’t read up on world religions?  Is no one at CNN aware of the insidious subtext, however unintentional it may be, of this allegedly simple clarification of facts?”

The power of the message, “We Are All Sikhs,” that the South Asian community sent out at the vigils directly counters the dreadful speciousness of “Sikhs are not Muslims.”   The South Asian activist community learned its lesson from the early months that followed 9/11 when some Sikh advocacy groups promoted the “mistaken identity” argument.  Such arguments, especially when deployed by the media, are reminiscent of the infamous December 22, 1941 Life Magazine article that sought to teach the public in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor to distinguish Chinese from Japanese immigrants.  The same argument of misplaced anger about the competition in auto manufacturing from Japan was used to ‘make sense’ of the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American.  Reflecting the political education that has gone on for over a decade in the South Asian community, mourners expressed their solidarity with, and mourned for all the casualties of the war on terror in a conscious effort to expose and reject the racializing logic operating through the apparently benign language of religious diversity.

Power Games: Why people in Tamil Nadu are protesting nuclear energy

Originally Published Saturday, May 19, 2012
S.P. Udayakumar

S.P. Udayakumar is a member of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy and the National Alliance of Anti-Nuclear Movements.  He is one of the leaders of the non-violent protests against the Koodankulam nuclear power project in Tamil Nadu.  He got his doctoral degree from the Political Science Department at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in 1996.  He is the author of Presenting the Past: Anxious History and Ancient Future in Hindutva India (Praeger 2005) and Handcuffed to History: Narratives, Pathologies, and Violence in South Asia (Praeger 2001).  See “UH alum S.P. Udayakumar leads anti-nuclear movement in India.”

We have been fighting against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) since the late 1980s. This Russian project was shelved right after the Soviet Union’s collapse and taken up again in 1997. The Indian government and Russians have constructed two huge reactors of 1000 MW each without the consent of or consultation with the local people. We have just obtained the outdated Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report after 23 years of long and hard struggle. The Indian nuclear authorities have not shared any basic information about the project with the public. They do not give complete and truthful answers for our questions on the ‘daily routine emissions’ from these reactors, the amount and management of nuclear waste, fresh water needs, impact of the coolant water on our sea and seafood, decommissioning costs and effects, Russian liability and so forth. We are deeply disturbed by all this.

Our people watched the Fukushima accident of March 11, 2011 on TV at their homes and understood the magnitude and repercussions of a nuclear accident. Right after that on July 1, 2011, the KKNPP announced the ‘hot run’ of the first reactor that produced an alarming amount of noise and smoke. Furthermore, the authorities asked the people, in a mock drill notice, to cover their nose and mouth and run for their life in case of an emergency. As a result of all these, our people in Koodankulam and Idinthakarai villages made up their minds and took to the streets on their own on August 11, 2011. Then we together decided to host a day-long hunger strike on August 16 at Idinthakarai and a three-day fast on August 17-19 at Koodankulam. On the first day of the fast, authorities invited us for talks and asked us to postpone our struggle to the first week of September because of the upcoming Hindu and Muslim festivals. In a few days’ time, the chief of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) announced that the first reactor would go critical in September 2011.  See the Times of India coverage.

So we embarked upon an indefinite hunger strike on September 11, 2011 and our women blocked a state road.

September 13 for a few hours when the state and central governments continued to ignore us. The state Chief Minister invited us for talks on September 21, and passed a cabinet resolution the next day asking the central government to halt all the work until the fears and concerns of the local people were allayed. We ended our hunger strike on the next day but went on another round of hunger strike from October 9 to 16 when the talks with the Indian Prime Minister failed. We laid siege in front of the KKNPP on October 13-16, 2011 when the KKNPP authorities did not halt work despite the Tamil Nadu state cabinet resolution. We ended both the indefinite hunger strike and the siege on October 16 in order for our people to participate in the local body elections. From October 18, 2011, we have been on a relay hunger strike. We have been carrying out massive rallies, village campaigns, public meetings, seminars, conferences, and other demonstrations such as shaving our heads, cooking on the street, and burning the models of the nuclear plants. When the state government of Tamil Nadu arrested some 200 of our comrades on March 19, 2012, fifteen of us embarked on an indefinite hunger strike until March 27. This struggle has been going on for more than 260 days and the morale of the people is still high.  On May 14, a public hearing “Koodankulam and State Suppression of Democratic Rights” was held in Chennai.  The next day relay hunger strikers took over from those who were on an indefinite strike.

There is no foreign country or agency or money involved in this classic people’s struggle to defend our right to life and livelihood. Our fishermen, farmers, workers and women make small voluntary donations in cash and kind to sustain our simple Gandhian struggle. Our needs and expenses are very few. We only provide safe drinking water to the hunger strikers and visitors. People from all over Tamil Nadu (and sometimes from other parts of India) come on their own arranging their own transportation. For our own occasional travel, we hire local taxis.

Instead of understanding the people’s genuine feelings and fulfilling our demands, the government has foisted serious cases of ‘sedition’ and ‘waging war on the Indian state’ on the leaders of our movement. There are more than 200 criminal cases against us. Police harassment, surveillance by intelligence officers, concocted news reports in the pro-government media, abuse of our family members, hate mail, death threats and even physical attack have become a daily part of our lives.

Although India is a democracy, our central government has been keen on safeguarding the interests of the multinational corporations, and pleasing powerful countries such as the United States, Russia, and France. The welfare of the ‘ordinary citizens’ of India does not figure on their list of priorities. The central government and the ruling Congress party stand by the secretive nuclear agreements they have made with the different countries, and consider us as stumbling blocks on their road to development. The main opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party (Hindu nationalist party) is equally interested in the nuclear weapons program and making India a superpower and hence loves everything nuclear. It is ironic that these two corrupt and communal forces join hands with each other against their own people. They bend backwards to please their American and other bosses but question our integrity and nationalist credentials.

Our leaders and the group of fifteen women were physically attacked on January 31, 2012 at Tirunelveli by the Congress thugs and Hindutva fascists when we had gone for talks with the central government expert team. Now the government cuts electricity supply often and indiscriminately in order to drive home the message that nuclear power plant is needed for additional power. They try to create resentment and opposition among the public against our anti-nuclear struggle.

To put it in a nutshell, this is a classic David-Goliath fight between the ordinary citizens of India and the powerful Indian government supported by the rich Indian capitalists, multinational corporations, imperial powers, and the global nuclear mafia. They promise foreign direct investment, nuclear power, development, atom bombs, security, and superpower status. We demand risk-free electricity, disease-free life, unpolluted natural resources, sustainable development and harmless future. They say the Russian nuclear power plants are safe and can withstand earthquakes and tsunamis. But we worry about their side-effects and after-effects. They speak for their scientist friends and business partners, and have their eyes on commissions and kickbacks. But we fight for our children and grandchildren, our animals and birds, our land, water, sea, air and the skies.

7 Billion People and our Future

Originally published November 23, 2011

Waquar Ahmed, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Dr. Ahmed studies the socio-economic and environmental contradictions of capitalism.  His current research focuses on global governance institutions, corporate power, foreign direct investments, exploitation of nature in general and conventional energy resources in particular, energy infrastructure, and state-society relations.  He also examines the genealogy of global and national economic change, and social and environmental movements in opposition to such change.

October 31, 2011 was an important date in human history – it marked the birth of the 7 billionth person. With the focus on population, it is time again to raise the specter of Robert Malthus who wrote his first ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’ in 1789. In his essay, Malthus argued that the power of population is indefinitely greater that the power of the earth to produce subsistence, and that population will inevitably press against the means of subsistence. He then went on to suggest positive checks (which raised death rate, and included hunger, disease and war) and preventive checks (which lowered birth rates, and included birth control, prostitution, postponement of marriage and celibacy) through which population could be kept in balance with the means of subsistence. It is to be noted that Malthus wrote his doomsday scenario essay as an antidote to the hopes for social progress aroused by the French Revolution. He argued that the positive checks would impact the poor, as this was “natural law.” He, thus, cautioned against providing welfare to the poor, as this would increase human misery. Freeing the lowest classes in the society from positive checks, he argued, would only result in the expansion of their numbers, a gradual reduction in the standards of living of all members of the society, and a decline in the incentive to work. He also argued that increasing subsistence levels to “a part of society that cannot in general be considered as the most valuable part diminishes the shares that would otherwise belong to more industrious and worthy members, and thus forces more to become dependent.” Malthus was an apologist of the business class and his solution to population growth was anti-poor. Yet, he and his ideas remain popular amongst scientists, as well as in the popular media.

Fast-forward to October 31, 2011 when NPR carried a story by Corey Flintoff titled “When humans hit 7 billion, will it happen in India?” While this story was not as crude as the essay by Malthus, the ideological underpinnings were similar. It had a picture of 6 babies huddled together in a hospital in India and pointed out that fifty-one babies were born in India every minute. It also had a picture of an overcrowded street and a crowded maternity ward in India. The NPR story quoted a doctor who pointed out that “there will be a lot of intolerance and more physical violence, probably. And water and food are going to be a major crisis situation.” In other words, this story insinuated that poor countries such as India were the reason for the global population explosion, which in turn, endangered our planet. This story had no mention of the fact that the population density of a Western country like the Netherlands is higher than that of India. There is also no mention of the fact that India’s decadal population growth rate has declined from 24.8 percent between 1961 and 1971 to 17.6 percent between 2001 to 2011.

A similar view is found amongst certain scientists as well. I recently came across a survey conducted by a scientist that focused on climate change and population growth. The surveyor made a direct connection between population and climate change and enquired if additional taxes on families with more than two children, elimination of tax subsidies for agriculture, or removal of tax credit for children, amongst others, could help reduce population growth. It also asked if these were political feasible. While it is necessary to answer the kinds of questions that this particular scientist was raising, I wonder why there were no questions on higher taxes for those owning more than one car or more than one generator or more than one air conditioner.

If Malthus’s argument were to be turned on its head, then one would ask: is the constraint on resource or food based solely on population size or is it about allocation, where certain groups have it in abundance and control its distribution to control prices and profits? Similarly, in view of the dangers of climate change, we need to remind ourselves that those living in North America and Europe consume much of the global energy, despite the large size of the Chinese and Indian population. We also need to ask if our current energy dependent and economic growth-based (read – increased energy requirement in the future) system is sustainable? And more importantly, can we fathom a zero-growth economy, and better still, a more egalitarian economy where we equalize wealth/resource distribution across space so that we can have the moral authority to request countries like India and China not to embark on a path that would produce climate change and destroy the earth? In other words, I am arguing that in view of our current lifestyle in the ‘West,’ we have no moral authority to ask China or India to ‘save our planet.’