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Beyond Anna Hazare
While the rise of civil society in 2011 may be synonymous with the reach and impact of the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement, groups across the country have notched up less talked about but no less notable victories for their movements.
In April, Dr Binayak Sen, the paediatrician and tribal rights activist incarcerated by the Chhattisgarh government since May 2007 on charges of sedition and aiding Naxal insurgents, got bail. A long and sustained campaign by activists across the country undoubtedly contributed to the Supreme Court finally granting him bail.
The 'Free Binayak Sen' campaign's methods might contain lessons for advocacy groups working in the country. It combined grassroots activism with international pressure. Not only was Dr Sen's case fought in courts, put forward on college campuses, petitioned to politicians and amplified through protest marches in Chhattisgarh, the issue was also raised in the British House of Commons, in foreign medical journals and on American university campuses.
Dr Sen's case is just one of a string of human rights abuses, many of them far worse, emerging from the fog of war in Chhattisgarh. The torture of Soni Sari, an adivasi teacher jailed on allegations of having tried to extort money from Essar corporate house, has further galvanised civil society activism about the harassment of tribals in Naxal-affected districts.
Unable to get relief from their government, the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy are attempting to build up international pressure, as Dr Sen's supporters did, by petitioning the organisers of the 2012 London Olympics to distance themselves from Dow Chemicals, the company that now owns Union Carbide.
International influence works both ways. Momentous events across the world gave an impetus to Indian agitations in 2011. The anti-nuclear protests that had been going on in Jaitapur in western Maharashtra and Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu were re-energised by the Fukushima nuclear tragedy in Japan in March.
Slutwalks, the marches started in Toronto with the aim of redirecting shame from the victims of sexual abuse to the perpetrators, found an echo in India, and a 19-year-old college student successfully organised the Slutwalk Arthaat Besharmi Morcha in the notoriously misogynistic capital in July.
Some of this global sharing is taking place through social media, on Twitter and Facebook in particular. Earlier this month, Union telecom minister Kapil Sibal got a taste of just how far Twitter activism has progressed after news leaked that he had asked social media representatives to remove "objectionable content" from their sites. Within hours, Kapil Sibal was trending on Twitter, just one spot below #kapilsibalisanidiot. "Kapil Sibal is an idiot", a satirical take on the minister's attempt to stifle criticism, spread virally across Facebook as a status message.
The disproportionate media coverage that Anna Hazare's eight-day hunger strike received revived the 'Free Irom Sharmila' campaign, a movement that calls for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, against which Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila has been on a 10-year-long hunger strike. Similarly, the National Campaign for People's Right to Information, which has worked on accountability mechanisms for far longer than Team Anna in relative silence, received much greater attention once
Hazare hit the national stage, providing an alternative view on how anti-corruption legislation needs to be structured.
Global events undoubtedly had an effect, as did the successes of Anna Hazare's campaign. But perhaps a less credited reason for the rise of civil society in 2011 is the role of the state itself. The National Advisory Council, set up by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi in the UPA's first term and resurrected in the second term, has given civil society members an unprecedented seat at the policy table. It has given activists like Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan founder Aruna Roy and economist Jean Dreze the ear of the government, but by being exclusive in nature, it has also left some out. Perhaps part of the reason that Anna Hazare needed to go on a hunger strike at Delhi's Ramlila ground is that his draft Jan Lokpal Bill did not have an NAC that could help it along into Parliament.
However civil society's role doesn't end when a Bill reaches Parliament. The MKSS-driven National Rural Employment Guarantee Act being passed in UPA I was undoubtedly a victory, but the Rajasthan-based workers' rights group has had to repeatedly go on protests and agitations to prevent the Act's dilution. Even at the moment, the MKSS is locked in a battle with the Centre to ensure that Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme wages are not allowed to be lower than the minimum wage. The fight continues.
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