Tuesday, July 27, 2010

It's Rush Limbaugh's India

A liberal guru can't compete with India's new televangelists.

By Jason Overdorf
July 27, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — Dressed in a long, orange kurta, orange pajamas and a bright orange turban, Swami Agnivesh looks every bit the haranguing fanatic.

But India's latest televangelist is cut from a different cloth. In a forest of Rush Limbaugh-style conservatives, Agnivesh is the sole voice of India's fast-fading social liberalism on TV. Or was. The crusader has just been canceled.

"From March 1968 till today I've been deeply involved with the struggle of the people, with the main focus on issues of social justice," Agnivesh said. "I felt that in order to consolidate an ideological perspective around these movements, struggles, agitations, which are all directed towards social change, I need a platform by which I can reach millions of viewers and engage them in discussion, debate and dialogue."

At 74 years old, Agnivesh speaks with a quiet, measured voice. As the president of the World Council of Arya Samaj — an affiliate of the Hindu reform movement that was founded in the 19th century to eradicate the caste system — his "sermons" are as much about politics as they are about religion.

Frustrated with religious leaders' opaque platitudes and increasingly commercial bent, not to mention the news channels' preference for shouting matches featuring the same old rogue gallery of party hacks, he set out to open substantive debates about the causes underlying caste discrimination, illiteracy, poverty, corruption and more. And he did it by passing the microphone to people whose voices had never been heard on Indian TV: including the Dalits who scrape human excrement from primitive toilets for a living, AIDS patients and lepers.

"We got an extensive response, not only through letters and emails," said Agnivesh. "But in my travels throughout the length and breadth of the country, people would walk up to me, shake hands and talk about the latest episode. I could see from their faces that it was impacting the minds of the people."

An ascetic who took monastic orders in 1970, Agnivesh is most famous for his decades-long fight against bonded labor. But he has also crusaded against female feticide, the liquor mafia and sati — a practice in which widows are encouraged, or forced, to immolate themselves on their deceased husbands' funeral pyres. On TV, he adopted the talk show format to send out his message for 52 episodes, playing devil's advocate instead of preaching.

"The strength of this program was that we took up issues that were not being taken up by the mainstream media and demonstrated through this talk show that there is more than one side to the truth," Agnivesh said.

There were some of the usual hijinks, too, of course. He theatrically touched the feet of a Dalit woman on one episode. But what was striking about the show was that he encouraged his underprivileged guests to talk for themselves, rather than banging on for them.

The fact that the government and the Maoists agreed to make him the go-between for peace negotiations in May — until his Maoist interlocutor was killed in controversial circumstances in June — is testament that he came off as fair, reasonable and honest. But fair, reasonable and honest doesn't sell.

Agnivesh's message of social reform cuts against the grain in modernizing India, where the upwardly mobile masses are increasingly looking to conservative leaders to explain their new world. That's why his show first migrated from the state-owned general interest channel, Doordarshan, to Lok Sabha TV — a channel primarily dedicated to the live broadcast of parliament — and was eventually canceled, while his most prominent competitors continue to amass million-dollar television empires.

"[The new conservative evangelism] marries the notion of what the audience feels to be traditional with consumption and individualism," said Santosh Desai, a prominent media analyst and CEO of Future Brands. "It sits really well with the Indian middle class, which is trying to make sense of the world around them. It assuages a lot of anxiety about change, by giving it a sort of spiritual sanctity."

Freed from state control in the 1990s, Indian cable has moved from soap operas to game shows to reality TV. Along the way, spiritual India's preoccupation with gods and gurus has inspired a bouquet of religious channels, too. They run the gamut from homegrown Sanskar TV, which broadcasts Hindu sermons and devotional music, to Power Vision, an all-God-all-the-time Christian channel that broadcasts in Hindi, Malayalam and English.

But in contrast to bygone gurus like the Hare Krishna movement's Swami Prabhupada or Beatles inspiration Mahesh Yogi, who sought to explode and transform society, India's new preachers are essentially conservative protectors of tradition. And the biggest stars of televangelism are its most controversial ideologues: Hinduism's Baba Ramdev and Islam's Zakir Naik.

Both televangelists appeal to a young, new India that's embracing commercialism and trying to make sense of a rapidly changing socio-economic landscape. Ramdev is more like self-help star Tony Robbins than Pat Robertson; he promises viewers tangible, individual benefits, like any brand, says Desai.

Similarly, Naik offers an imminently practical and useful service for Muslims. "He seems to have connected with the middle class Muslims ... [because] he tries to show that Islam is not incompatible with modern ideas," said Mujibur Rehman, a professor at New Delhi's Jamia Milia University.

"They are propagating themselves," said Agnivesh. "With each show, they are getting a little more followers, a little more power in that sense and, also, a little more money."

Their self-promotion, if that's what it's all about, can take an ugly turn. After claiming simple breathing exercises could cure cancer and AIDS, Baba Ramdev drew liberal ire — and additional fans — by opposing India's progressive move to decriminalize homosexuality. He went on to claim he could turn any erring lad butch with his yogic arts, and promptly announced he was forming his own political party.

For his part, Zakir Naik's opaque statements in support of terrorism and Osama bin Laden — though he claims they've been taken out of context — got him banned from entering the United Kingdom and Canada this June.

Arguably, this is reactionary radicalism in the guise of the rational. Whether the effect is intentional or not, Naik's propensity for inflammatory statements like "every Muslim should be a terrorist," make him a dangerous influence. And Ramdev's peddling of prejudice and superstition is perhaps more dangerous still in a country already flirting with Hindu fundamentalism.

"It's too much to say that Hindu right revivalism is directly linked to this, but certainly it softens up the audience for the revivalist agenda to some extent," said Desai. "In that respect, although it's couched in the language of modern, it has the effect of the other kind."

Indeed, with every bombshell, India's conservative gurus have grown more popular. Ramdev's programs reportedly attract an audience of more than 85 million people, and his yoga and homeopathic medicines businesses bring in $40 million a year. Meanwhile, Naik claims an audience of 50 million for his program on Peace TV, and one of India's top newspapers ranks him the country's third-most powerful guru, after Ramdev and the Art of Living's Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

At the same time, Agnivesh's most radical statements helped get his show canceled. He didn't just call out the government on the Maoist issue. He came out against Hinduism's massively important kumbh mela — a ritual bath in the Ganges that attracts millions of pilgrims — and threatened to launch a Right to Information inquiry into the huge sums that the government spends on the celebration. And he pilloried Dalit leaders, like the present Congress Party speaker of the Lok Sabha, who rise to power based on their caste affiliation and then abandon the empowerment agenda for party politics.

Sometimes, when the truth sets you free, it also leaves you unemployed.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

India population: Is sterilization the answer?

Millennium Development Goals could push India back to a "sterilization first" policy.

By Jason Overdorf
July 14, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — Every year in India, shanty towns mushroom in the cities, cities sprawl into farmland and the country increases by the population of Australia.

Every day, every minute, on trains and buses, on sidewalks and streets, the country squeezes and shrinks and sucks in its breath to push too many people into too little space.

India has fallen behind in the race to meet the Millennium Development Goals for reducing its birth rate by 2015. Only about half of India's 26 states have reached the targeted level of two children per mother.

In large, economically depressed states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, an average woman still bears four children over her lifetime. This means India will surpass China to become the world's most populous country by 2030. The continuing swell threatens the environment and places a tremendous burden on government services.

But obsession with the Millennium Development targets is pushing India back to incentive-based family planning, something the country first visited in the 1970s — where dangerous sterilization operations for women are too often presented as the first, and sometimes only, option for birth control.

Critics of India's repackaged population control program say the cure may be worse than the disease.

"There's a great hurry to again set targets from above to be followed by everyone. And that's again creating problems," said A.R. Nanda, executive director of NGO Population Foundation of India and the former health secretary who wrote India's population policy in 2000.

The main worry? India's National Population Stabilization Fund has brought back controversial, incentive-based sterilization, among other initiatives aimed at reducing the birth rate.

While sterilization in and of itself isn't new to India, for the first time the country is outsourcing the work to private clinics — a move that has raised concerns about poor and illiterate women of rural India being pressured or fooled into going under the knife without fully understanding the risks, consequences and alternatives.

Cash rewards threaten to turn operating theaters into veritable assembly lines. The fund's Santushti scheme offers private sector payment of 15,000 rupees per operation and hospitals and clinics get 500 rupees extra per case if 30 cases are done on a single day in a fixed facility.

These factors make it more likely women will be denied their right to make informed choices about their medical care and increase the chances of surgical complications, said Abhijit Das, a former fellow in Population Innovations at the MacArthur Foundation who now heads an NGO called Healthwatch Uttar Pradesh.

"When you create an incentive system, it privileges one solution over the other and encourages them to cut corners," Das said. "And we've had very bad experiences with that in the past."

In the 1970s, the Indira Gandhi government pursued an aggressive, target-based sterilization program that featured similar incentives for participants, as well as compulsory vasectomies for men with two or more children. Because of widespread corruption and abuses, however, many other men were tricked or forced to get the operation, and many women, too, were compelled to undergo much more dangerous sterilization procedures.

According to Dr. Amarjit Singh, who heads the National Population Stabilization Fund, it is making progress in getting people to use alternative forms of birth control, like intrauterine devices — a form of birth control that uses an object inserted into the uterus to prevent fertilization — in traditional problem states like Bihar and Orissa, which now have effective and proactive governments.

In Bihar, for instance, the number of women using the devices — an essential part of the population program in China, where 60 percent of women use them — climbed from around 40,000 in 2009 to around 200,000 last year.

The fund has also leveraged India's recent Right to Education legislation with innovative schemes to encourage girls to stay in school, which not only means a delayed start to their childbearing years but also increases the likelihood that they will use birth control.

And private-public partnerships have helped reduce the number of home births by increasing the number of facilities available to poor women. But the general perception remains that uneducated villagers can't be trusted to use other birth control methods and female sterilization is the only foolproof solution.

"In certain states, it's still a very male-dominated society, so there's no certainty that women can ensure that a condom can be used. An IUD is a good alternative," said Singh, referring to the acronym for intrauterine devices. "But until we're able to increase use, then sterilization is the focus."

According to the latest National Family Health Survey, 37 percent of Indian women have undergone sterilization, compared with 1 percent of men, while just 3 percent are on the pill and only 5 percent use condoms.

The figures can be mind-boggling. Along with the 150,000-odd women who were fitted with intrauterine devices in Bihar last year, for instance, another 150,000 went for sterilization operations.

"Repeated surveys done in India say that in most cases sterilization is the first method [of birth control] people are using — which should not be the case," said Das. "About one-fourth of the people [in a recent national health survey] did not have any information about a second method and about a third of that one-fourth did not have any information about the safety of the sterilizaton procedure. So there is no informed choice."

That focus on sterilization has its own dangers.

Although activists pushed the Supreme Court to mandate minimum safety and quality standards for sterilization in 2005, there is no real monitoring mechanism to ensure that facilities adhere to the norms. Surgeries are no longer performed in cattle sheds. But Das said that infections and other complications are still common. All too often women die under the knife as tired surgeons rush through operations in hastily erected rural camps.

Although international figures suggest that about one in 200 female sterilization operations fail — resulting in unwanted pregnancies and other difficulties — in India that number is likely much higher.

Moreover, the focus on sterilization for birth control pushes women to have children early and then go for sterilization operations at 22 or 23 years old, which studies show makes them more vulnerable to various gynecological problems — and four times more likely to undergo a hysterectomy later in life.

As the world takes fearful stock of India's growing numbers, it should remember that those figures represent human beings, says the Population Foundation's Nanda. And focus on the progress that has been made and why it has been made, rather than putting the country in the cross-hairs again.

"No such scare mongering should be done," he said. "The fertility rate has come down. When we started, it was around six. It has come down to 2.5 or 2.4, and it will reach 2.1 in another five or 10 years, maximum. In some states it may go a little later, but that should not lead us to do things that will cause problems for women."


Friday, July 09, 2010

kashmir's web: is a contested region set to explode?

Analysis: Things are getting ugly in one of the world's most dangerous places.

By Jason Overdorf

NEW DELHI, India — With thousands of armed police and paramilitary soldiers patrolling the deserted streets of Kashmir, it's hard — or maybe sad — to say that things are back to normal.

Late Tuesday night, New Delhi deployed the army to quell protests in Kashmir for the first time since 1990, after police bullets allegedly killed three more civilians, bringing the total for the month to 15. By Wednesday, the machinery of the government had regained a tenuous control over the Kashmir valley with a strict curfew that barred all civilian personnel, including the media, from the street.

But hundreds — and in some cases thousands — of people defied orders and went back onto the streets after darkness fell. As soon as the authorities rotated security forces from a pacified area to a problem zone, torch-carrying protesters poured back onto the streets shouting, "India, go back" and "We want freedom." And once again, in the Batmaloo area of Srinagar, police could only disperse demonstrators by firing live ammunition in the air.

On Thursday the curfew was extended, with no end in sight.

Nighttime protests and anti-India slogans shouted from the minarets of mosques harks back to the volatile Kashmir of the militancy plagued 1990s. Facebook and other social networking sites are brimming with outpourings of rage, bordering on hatred for India's security forces, from Kashmiri youth. And the moderate, or pro-India, as they are known locally, political parties in Kashmir, as well as the civil administration, stands marginalized, with People's Democratic Party leader telling a local national television channel, "Mainstream parties will become irrelevant if the situation in Kashmir doesn't change."

"Right now, definitely the mood on the streets is very volatile," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a prominent separatist leader. "The anger is quite high. It's brimming with hatred."

Kashmir has been seething since early June [2], when news surfaced that army officers had allegedly murdered three innocent boys, then claimed they were militants killed during a gun battle near the Line of Control that separates Indian- and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Yet as the anger escalates, New Delhi's only solution has been to counter violence with more violence. And now, with locals taking the streets to demand the curtailing of the draconian powers granted to the army and the gradual demilitarization of Kashmir, all the government can think to do is order the troops out of the barracks and into the streets. The fear of the army — which unlike the police and paramilitary forces may shoot to kill with impunity, thanks to the loathed Armed Forces Special Powers Act — so far has been enough to end the violence. But local observers say that in the long run that fear will stoke, rather than suppress, the anger in Srinagar and the surrounding valley.

"When there's discontent, you bring in the army. When there's more discontent, you give the army more power. But it's a vicious cycle," said Kashmir University's Professor Noor Ahmad Baba.

With as many as 500,000 troops deployed amidst the houses and schools of its towns and villages, Indian-administered Kashmir is one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world. Until 2009, the number of boots on the ground had grown steadily since 1989, when a militant separatist insurgency began with the aid of Pakistan.

But following a decline of violence since 2006, India had been following through on the promises it made to the people on its side of the border and slowly withdrawing troops from the state. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, as many as 30,000 soldiers were pulled out in 2009. New Delhi acknowledged the unofficial end of militancy, and Kashmir was "normalized." Now, observers say, that brief glimmer of hope has been snuffed out.

The situation looks as grim as ever. In a show of power Wednesday, the army conducted a flag march in Srinagar's most volatile areas, deploying bullet- and mine-proof vehicles. Local police allegedly confiscated television cameras and beat up journalists trying to cover the continuing protests. And by all appearances, it looks as though this is how New Delhi hopes to restore order in Kashmir, as the central government continues to insist that the problems in the Srinagar valley are the doings of Pakistan, the paid troublemakers of radical separatist leaders, or just about anybody in the range of a pointing finger. Case in point: Home Secretary G.K. Pillai told a high-level meeting of security officials late Wednesday that the current problems are due to anti-nationals and vested interests, who should be dealt with sternly.

To local Kashmiris, that sentiment guarantees that the efforts will fail. They argue that the army has indeed succeeded in rooting out militancy. But acting sternly has alienated people and created a new set of foes — especially among the generation that grew up during the suppression of the insurgency, today's stone throwers — that India cannot fight with bullets.

"Public protest is rooted in public discontent, and separatist politics is based on that discontent," Baba said. "If not for that, there would be no separatist politics in Kashmir. It's more that the politicians are driven by the situation on the ground than that they are driving the situation."

Indeed, most of Kashmir's separatist leaders have been jailed over the past few weeks, and others, like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, are under house arrest.

And it is hard to imagine a handful of teenage stone-throwers were able to convince hundreds of doctors and paramedics employed by Srinagar's main tertiary care hospital to take over the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences compound Thursday, shouting anti-India slogans, in protest against the army intervention.

"Maybe they'll continue with their oppressive methods, and it will quiet down for awhile," said Farooq, who is chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of separatist political parties. "But then it will start again. You can't hack at the leaves, you have to get to the roots of the problem."

And there's the rub. To do that, New Delhi would have to admit that Islamabad isn't the only troublemaker in Kashmir.

With Parvaiz Bukhari in Srinagar.