Ultra Violet

Interview with Madhu Bhushan


VIMOCHANA IS one of the oldest women’s rights organization in Bangalore. They have been part of the Indian women’s movement and have significantly contributed to the rights of women facing violence in Karnataka. They have a crisis intervention center for women facing violence called Angala and campaigns against dowry deaths, harassment and female infanticide. More on their website. I spoke to Madhu Bhushan, activist at Vimochana, about terrorism, fundamentalism and women’s rights in a two-part interview.  Here’s the first part:

UB: As a women’s rights and human rights activist, how do you look at the recent terror attacks and the various  responses to them?

MB: With a lot of apprehension. We are undoubtedly moving towards a harder police state and an openly intolerant and paranoid public polity moulded by a media that has blatantly cast aside its fig leaf of objectivity. The candle-lighting elite who wept and raged against the attack on their symbols of prosperity and their way of life have finally acquired their own cause with which to hit out at the totally delegitimised political class. And in their desire to have a more aggressive militarised state which can protect their way of life (the way the Washington clique in America sought to do after the original 9/11 attacks) it matters little if the basic human rights of all to peace, security and justice, are abrogated with impunity.

What the middle class and elite are also conveniently blind to is the fact that the corporate and political class are two faces of the same coin. Communal politics will get a new legitimacy in the name of the corporate war against terror since it feeds on racism, xenophobia, intolerance and bigotry at all levels. It is a war that will target not only Muslims and other minorities but also those who question its ethics and morality. Those who question the legitimacy of this war will be seen as undermining the power of the nation state and targeted as traitors, people who are not patriotic and nationalistic enough and therefore even potential terrorists or naxalites.

Nineteen-year-old Mukkaram who was shot and killed by in an army compound in Bangalore is perhaps the most recent example of collateral damage of the war on terror. The army and the police justify the killing saying the city is on “high alert”. They reportedly took the extreme step of shooting him instead of overpowering and catching him, not only because he was an intruder but more, because they heard him speak on his phone in Urdu! The tragedy is that he was apparently crying out for help on the phone to his family when he was trapped by the police.

Did Mohammed Mukarram Pasha, a college student and a playful teenager like most boys of that age, have to pay with his life for speaking in a language that like an entire community, has become suspect? What will this mean for youth like him in terms of choices if they have to counter at every stage the stigma of belonging to a community that is suspect irrespective of how common or ordinary their lives are?

What do human rights mean in times when, for the privileged few to have a right to their way of life, the dispensable majority will have to give up their right to be human! And how do we look to the state to protect the rights of those it does not even consider to be quite human?

The biggest challenge therefore before those who seek to speak out for women’s and human rights is to find a language, a political imagination and praxis outside this framework of state-centered rights to articulate and confront the long term impact of the violence of this war.

UB: There seem to be an upsurge in fundamentalisms all over the world. How do you think it affects women’s rights?

MB: The global war against terror, whose subtext is the clash of civilisations and the war of the rest against the west is undoubtedly going to fuel the increased fundamentalisation of all major global faiths. But we must not forget that this war is actually rooted in a very secular market fundamentalism and the global conflict over fast-depleting natural resources like oil and water. Because it is waged against the backdrop of religion and faith, this war will have a impact on the recasting of all identities be it that of caste, language or gender.

Women have always been the victims of and borne witness to the intolerance of identity politics. But the traditional stereotype of women being the carriers and repositories of their religions is going to be recast in these times when faiths are getting more homogenised to fit in with the needs of a globalised world. An increasingly talibanised wahabi Islam fueled by the petrodollar, an evangelical Christianity rearmed with all the symbols of western capitalism, the resurgent hate-filled politics of Hindutva attempting to go global on the back of the global Indian….

UB: How is all this going to affect women?

MB: Apart from the fact that women’s gender will continue to render them more vulnerable at the time of conflict as the mass rapes of Muslim women in the state-sponsored genocide by the Hindutva brigade in Gujarat prove, we are also seeing a more disturbing trend: the emergence of the new empowered woman flying the flag of her fundamentalised faith with militant vigor — much like women, after being coopted into the mainstream of development are flying high the flag of the dominant economy as its mindless consumers and exploitative entrepreneurs.

Who are these women? The new age corporate sati savitris popularised through TV soap operas who continue to fall at the feet of their husbands even as they morph themselves, when required, into a Sadhvi Pratigya willing to kill for the cause of the Hindu fatherland. Armed with a critique of the overexposed western woman, articulate Muslim women willingly walking into the invisible folds of the impenetrable veil, holding the holy book in one hand and an AK 47 on the other, seeking to bring faith back into a faithless world. Holster-swinging hockey moms like Sarah Palin rearming themselves with good, old fashioned Christian values who are not hesitating to fight for deregulation of fire arms in the US.

These women have rendered hollow the rhetoric of women’s rights. We need to redefine the term in today’s times of hyper-masculinised power and politics. Times when it is going to get increasingly difficult for disempowered women to negotiate more subversive spaces for dissent and transformation from within communities. The challenge for the women’s movement will be to recover and reassert this language of subversion as opposed to the language of cooption.

(To be cont…)