Category Archives: Profiles

Fight against corruption has to come from below

arasuHis latest effort has been to start an Academy of Honest Politicians in the city along with the Tamil Nadu Lanjam Kodathor Iyakkam . Having spent much of his retired life fighting corruption to make life easier for the lay man, S.M. Arasu of the Anti-Corruption Movement told Vidya Venkat that a proactive citizenry and a firm leadership could help erase this menace from society.

“My first tryst with corruption was in 1963, when a public works contractor slipped in a few hundred rupee notes inside a diary as a gesture of gratitude for awarding a contract. Though I have resisted attempts to bribe me all through my days of employment, I took to anti-corruption activism fulltime post-retirement,” says Mr. Arasu, who was formerly chief engineer of the Tamil Nadu Public Works Department.

Denying that government officers come out into the open about corruption in public office only after retirement, he says, a number of serving IPS officers and government functionaries from other departments are members of the movement now. “In fact, our association’s by-laws encourage public officials to join us,” he says.

Started in 2001, today the movement has 4,500 members all over the State. “Many of them are students. We have four to five branches in the State and also bring out a monthly journal named Nermai Neri,” he says. Quoting a study report brought out by Transparency International last year, he says Tamil Nadu figures among the most corrupt States in India. The study says the police, revenue and regional transport offices are among the most corrupt departments in the State.

“In any building or road repair project, up to 50-60 per cent of the project cost is siphoned off by contractors and lower-level officials,” he says. He says most local bodies such as municipalities are corrupt and utilise only half of the allotted money for project work.

While the Right to Information Act has empowered activists like him to question the authorities when a public project is incomplete or taxpayer’s money is squandered, he says most Public Information Officers are not adequately trained to handle queries under the RTI Act. Due to unsatisfactory responses or delays in sending replies, he says a number of cases are pending with the State Information Commission.

However, he credits the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption for trapping several bribe takers whenever a representation is made. But he says, this is not enough and that the leadership, at the end of the day, must show its resolve to fight corruption.

“When leaders at the top are firm about eradicating corruption, the system will become clean and efficient,” he stresses.

For, corruption is a practice that percolates from top. The fight, however, he says has to be waged from below.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Tamil Nadu edition, dated Sep 13, 2009)


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Voice of silence

TWENTY-TWO years ago, six young Indian women living in the United States – Radha Sharma Hegde, Shashi Jain, Rashmi Jaipal, Vibha Jha, Shamita Das Dasgupta and Kavery Dutta – founded Manavi to support victims of domestic violence. They were jolted into action after the story of Amita Vadlamudi, a battered Indian immigrant woman who killed her husband unable to tolerate his abuse, brought the issue of violence within homes out in the open.

When Manavi was born in 1985, it became the first South Asian women’s organisation seeking to address this issue in the U.S. Based in New Jersey, the non-profit and non-governmental organisation (NGO) handles the cases of an average of 300 women victims of domestic violence annually.

shamitaFrontline caught up with Shamita Das Dasgupta recently while she was on a visit to India. Quoting from a study, she described the disturbing pattern of domestic violence in the nearly two-million-strong Indian immigrant community in the U.S. The study, conducted among 160 highly educated South Asian women by A. Raj and J. Silverman and published in the Journal of American Medical Women’s Association in 2002 showed that 40.8 per cent of the respondents had been physically and/or sexually abused in some way by their current male partners; 36.9 per cent of this number reported that the victimisation happened one year before the study. However, only 3.1 per cent of the abused South Asian women in the study had ever obtained a restraining order against an abusive partner. The study says this rate is substantially lower than that reported in a study of women in Massachusetts, in which over 33 per cent of women who reported intimate partner violence in the past five years had obtained a restraining order.

Excerpts from Shamita Das Dasgupta’s conversation with Frontline:

When I started working among women victims of violence in the U.S. independently some 30 years ago, there was almost no one working in this area. The main reason for violence is the gender discrepancy of power. Most immigrants seem to carry with them their native cultural prejudices…they attempt to keep their dominance through violence. Also, among immigrant women there is this extraordinary tendency to keep the marriage intact regardless of the cost. Women tolerate violence. The social customs that approve endurance perpetuate the violence.

From hostility to awareness

When we started work in 1985, we got so many calls from so many battered women that it surprised us. Initially, we faced only hostility from the community and disbelief from the victims, as if there was no hope. But now women’s awareness of laws is improving and with help in hand more and more women are reporting such instances of violence to the police or to NGOs. The awareness generation done by Manavi and other similar organisations has proved useful. We must acknowledge, however, that there are still those among the Indian diaspora who are not aware of their rights. When it comes to women standing up to violence, community responses such as “this is not necessary” and “why wash dirty linen in public?” are common. But over the years, these responses have dwindled. At Manavi, we conduct visible community events such as marches and campaigns to generate awareness. Our organisation has also been featured in newspapers such as The New York Times and in radio talk shows. Our success has inspired several members of the South Asian diaspora to take up the cause of battered women. But we have come a long way.

Next year [in 2008], Manavi will conduct its third National Conference, urging South Asian Women to rise up against violence. Our short-stay home, Ashraya, provides shelter to battered women, whom we later refer to government homes if they need help.

Role of the American state

The U.S. government has played an important role in assisting NGOs to tackle the issue. During the 1970s, there was a significant women’s movement in the U.S. which held the state responsible for the welfare of women. A model under the Coordinated Community Response was developed to bring together state agencies and NGOs. NGOs get grants to run shelter networks. The Violence Against Women Act, 1994, has addressed the issue of domestic violence adequately. Also there are common torture and harassment laws that address issues of abuse. Many American States have adopted practices such as mandatory arrests and no-drop prosecution to ensure that victims of violence get justice.

Speedy justice

Speedy justice is a remarkable feature of U.S. courts. For instance, an Order for Protection can be issued overnight to victims to prevent violent or threatening acts – including stalking – harassment, and contact or communication from the abusive spouse. It can be either a criminal or a civil order. However, no verification is necessary under Federal law to issue an Order of Protection. Federal law requires that all valid Orders for Protection of any jurisdiction be enforced to protect victims wherever violation has occurred. Immediate action is taken by the police when protection orders are violated. Initiation of criminal procedure and arrest is quick. Though the police are trained to handle cases of domestic violence sensitively, much more remains to be done in this field as the problem is widespread. Also, there are issues such as contradictory legal systems, conflicts related to cultural issues such as stree-dhan – dowry and mehr – distrust of law enforcement, racism and xenophobia; language issues and perceptions of credibility pose problems.

Cultural assumptions

Immigrants hang on to their culture in a very strong way because of the constant fear of losing their identity in a foreign land – even to the extent that they hang on to an imaginary culture… These cultural notions often get distorted. For instance, several women I have dealt with assume that Indian culture accepts violence against women, which I think is a tremendous distortion. I ask the victims: Why ignore the empowering aspects of our culture? We urge these women to wake up and ask who benefits from perceived cultural notions?

I remember the case of this particular young woman from India who had two children and was physically abused and starved in her in-laws’ place in the U.S. When she came to us she couldn’t even speak proper English. We helped her to separate from her husband. She found herself a job in a hotel and was determined to bring up her children on her own. Today she is independent, drives a car and her children are doing well too. It is this resilience and courage of women that encourages us to keep going.

Today, thanks to the support system made available to battered women, several of them are able to stay aboard and find a job. We help them find these jobs, provide training, if need be. And most of them manage to survive on their own. Several women seek divorce from abusive husbands and carry on with their lives with dignity. But the problem of domestic violence is very much there and I feel the struggle has to go on.

(Originally published in Frontline, issue dated Dec 22-Jan4, 2008 as part of the Cover Story on ‘Violence against Women’)


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Imagining the world from his bed


For someone who has been paralysed by a degenerative disease and confined to bed for nearly 18 years now, painter R. Udhaikumar has been astonishingly prolific, making nearly 700 paintings in the last 10 years. He told Vidya Venkat that persons with disability need to be recognised by their talent.

Art is a way of making one’s life meaningful for a person with disability. “I live through my paintings,” says Mr. Udhaikumar, who has to be propped up with pillows under his arms and limbs to stay steady. Surviving on a liquid diet, he takes up to a month to finish a painting.

“I get fatigued if I sit and paint for too long,” he says. Affected with spinal muscular atrophy, his muscles are wasted. He can move only two fingers in his left hand, with which he paints.

But what is it that prompts him to be at it despite the odds? “For me it’s therapy,” he explains. “It’s my way of expressing my innermost thoughts. It also helps let out frustrations,” he says.

Having picked up the nuances of painting by attending a workshop held by the abstract artist K.M. Adimoolam, Mr. Udhaikumar’s oeuvre comprises monotone sketches and acrylic paintings which include landscape and abstract work. “Making portraits of the self is the most challenging task,” he says.

His self-portraits are mostly monotone sketches that show him bending over a canvas from the behind. “Imagining myself while drawing is the hard part,” says the artist, who has reproduced even paintings of famous archaeological sites he has seen on television.

His work surprises with a splash of bright colours – a yellow horse on a red backdrop, a turquoise blue sky before the rain… They are partly inspired by fantasy and partly by observing daily life, he says.

He was 13 years old when his spinal cord got bent and he became immobile. He finished schooling but could not pursue education. “Television is my window to the world,” he says. “I watch channels such as Discovery and other history programmes from which I draw inspiration for my work.”

It has been three years since Mr. Udhaikumar exhibited his paintings, though he is eager to reach out to the world through his work. “Getting the paintings framed is difficult as it involves a lot of money and effort,” he says.

Living with aged parents who are pensioners, he says he sometimes cannot afford the kind of money needed to put together an exhibition. He is also eager to show his work to veteran Tamil actor Sivakumar, who is also a painter, and get feedback from him on his work.

“I want to be recognised by my work, not my disability,” he stresses. “My muscles may be weak, but I am keeping my mind firm.”

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition dated Jun 07, 2009)

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An Act of Faith

At Thandeeshwaram, a tiny village in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu, Sharifa Khanam is building her dreams brick by brick. The 42-year-old social worker has initiated the construction of a mosque here for Muslim women as a symbol of their struggle for equal rights in a male-dominated society.


The first recipient of the Durgabai Deshmukh Award instituted by the Central Social Welfare Board in 1999, Sharifa found her calling in women’s rights activism when she attended an All-India Women’s Conference in Patna in 1988. “It was a turning point in my life. I realised it was possible for women to act together to negotiate a space for themselves in society,” she said.

In 1991, she set up STEPS Women’s Development Organisation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), in Pudukottai with the help of the then District Collector Sheela Rani Chunkath. STEPS started functioning near the Pudukottai bus stand as a community welfare centre for women, but eventually it began to handle cases on behalf of battered women. In 2003, Sharifa began to organise a monthly jamaat, or congregation, for Muslim women under the banner of Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat. This was meant to provide Muslim women a space for expressing themselves. And since a jamaat is traditionally attached to a mosque, Sharifa decided to erect a separate mosque for women. The mosque when complete will be fully managed by women, but will keep its door open for men, she said.

The women’s jamaat is an attempt to challenge the authority of the traditional “jamaat system” which by and large controls the social life of Muslims. Each mosque elects a group of influential men from within the community to form what is known as the pallivaasal jamaat. This group, besides managing the affairs of the mosque, would gather outside the mosque and arbitrate over community disputes. “The jamaat is more or less like a caste panchayat – functioning at the behest of powerful men,” said writer and gender rights activist V. Geetha, who has sided with Sharifa and her movement for the last two decades.

Sharifa says because the traditional jamaat has no woman representative, no one hears the woman’s version during a dispute. Often in cases like dowry harassment or domestic violence, she said, the male jamaat members refused to come to the women’s rescue.

The pallivaasal jamaat survives on chanda (commission) collected annually from the community members. Families are also expected to pay up separately for religious rituals on occasions of birth, death and marriage. Individuals and whole families could be declared outcast if they failed to pay up the commissions. According to Sharifa, jamaat members often thrust their decisions on women, threatening to “deny them a space even in the burial ground” if they failed to obey their decrees.

The women’s jamaat handles cases of marital disputes relating to dowry, divorce or domestic violence. Most women approaching Sharifa are those who have apparently been denied justice by the traditional jamaat. There are cases where women are given talaq through e-mails and telegrams and the jamaat would do nothing to condemn the man, said Sharifa. Petitions coming in occasionally from people of other communities and even men are not turned down here.

Sharifa said in the last 15 years she has handled about 10,000 petitions from Muslim women alone. Jamaat members interact with the police and lawyers to ensure speedy resolution of cases. “If the response is poor, we take to the streets,” said Sharifa.

In 2004, the intervention of women jamaat members led to the suspension of a few police officers in Annavasal town for “counselling” a rape victim rather than taking action in the case. A 12-year-old girl employed as a domestic help with a Muslim family in Chennai, Vennila was raped by her employer. The police dragged the investigation on and when repeated petitions to the police were ignored, Sharifa and other members of the jamaat staged a dharna in front of the office of the Superintendent of Police and saw to it that the culprit was brought to book.

The jamaat members are Amazonians in the real sense of the word. The 30,000 Muslim women who form her support base in Tamil Nadu today are an empowered lot. In the last 10 years, Sharifa has mobilised women in ten districts across Tamil Nadu – Trichy, Pudukottai, Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari, Madurai, Theni, Dindigul, Nagapattinam, Tuticorin and Perambalur.

Women jamaat leaders in these districts travel to the Muslim residential areas to spread word about the jamaat. They also mobilise women to oppose the three dominant social evils in Muslim communities – ex parte divorces (talaq), polygamy and dowry demands during weddings.

At a women’s jamaat meeting held at the Pudukottai office of STEPS on March 26, this reporter met 60 participants who had come from all over Tamil Nadu despite the sudden rain. With their heads covered with dupatta or clad in burqas, the women gathered in a tiny hall and began the jamaat with a rendition of the Quran. Prayers done, the first topic to be discussed was the model nikahnama released recently by the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board in Lucknow. Most jamaat members felt that the new nikahnama had nothing new to offer as such and only reiterated the rights of women, such as the right to demand khula (divorce), which has been guaranteed in the Quran already. But they welcomed the move as a positive development.

Next, the jamaat heard the case of a Boushiya Begum from a nearby village who was allegedly harassed by her husband for dowry during their three years of marriage. This despite 35 sovereigns of gold and a vehicle being reportedly given as dowry to the groom at the time of the wedding.

At the Women’s jamaat, Mehr-un-Nisa, who is well-versed in the Quran and Arabic, reading out from the holy book. She helps other members to interpret the verses.

Boushiya’s brother Zakir Hussain told the jamaat that her husband “did not like her looks” and was demanding Rs.1 lakh to keep her. He said he had sought help from the Karambakudi jamaat, which presided over their wedding, but they refused to intervene saying it was “their family matter and they must solve it on their own”. The Karambakudi police did arrest Boushiya’s husband, but only on charges of simple hurt and criminal intimidation. No case was filed under the Dowry Prohibiton Act.

Boushiya pleaded for help as her husband had been released on bail and was threatening to separate their two-year-old son from her. Sharifa promised to take up the case with the police. This case sparked off a discussion among the women on the prevalence of dowry in Muslim communities.

Taj Begum, a jamaat member from Singampunari in Sivaganga district, said that traditional jamaats were getting a share of money from the “un-Islamic” practice. As per Islamic tradition, it is bride who is entitled to mehar (gift from the groom) and not the groom to dowry, she said. She said Muslim grooms demanded dowry ten times that of mehar offered to the girl. “And these exchanges are seldom recorded in the marriage contract or nikahnama though the rule says so,” she said.

The women’s jamaat is also demanding that women be allowed to pray in mosques, which they say is a Quranic right. Though some mosques have separate enclosures for women to pray, conservatism is keeping women from congregating in mosques for prayers. Subaitha Begum, a jamaat member from the fishing community in Tuticorin, narrated how she initiated a mosque inclusion movement for Muslim women in Thracepuram last September. On February 22, she assembled 300 women in a separate hall near the mosque for Friday prayers. She said she even managed to garner the support of a few Muslim men in the area who let their wives participate in the mass prayer meet.

“The local jamaat was furious with me for encouraging women to participate in the mass prayer. On jumma day, they even announced over mike from the mosque that Muslim women from ‘respectable families’ ought not to side with me,” said Subaitha. “But after the separate prayer meet for women was held successfully the Thracepuram mosque is considering giving space for women to pray inside the mosque.”

M. Janakam, district co-ordinator of the jamaat from Dindigul, said that when she took up the case of a Muslim woman who was being denied divorce by her husband, the traditional jamaat discouraged her saying, “Don’t go to the women’s jamaat, we will solve your problem.” She said it hurt the ego of traditional jamaat members when the women’s jamaat successfully intervened in a case.

Mehr-un-Nisa, who is well-versed in the Quran and Arabic, pointed out that not all decrees of the traditional jamaat enjoyed religious sanction. “Islam is a progressive religion that guarantees several rights to its women,” she said. “And because the Quran is taught in Arabic, most women do not understand its meaning despite knowing it by heart.” During jamaat meetings, Mehr-un-Nisa helps other women interpret the meaning of Quranic verses.

Quoting from the Quran, she listed the various rights guaranteed to women in it. These include rights to demand a share in ancestral property; demand mehar; seek khula (divorce); choose a husband; approve a groom before marriage; raise children; and speak and participate in community activities. But in practice, the traditional jamaat often denied these rights to women, she said. Mehr-un-Nisa is also compiling a half-yearly journal, Pengal Jamaat, on behalf of STEPS to propagate the message of women’s rights.

The story of Sharifa and the thousands of women who come seeking help at her doorstep is also the story of how Muslim women are marginalised in society. They are faced with the double jeopardy of being “Muslim” and “women”. “In India, political parties woo Muslim voters but when it comes to the welfare of the community, especially its women, they turn their backs,” said Sharifa.

As V. Geetha points out, pitching Muslim women’s issues around personal law has given the impression that issues to do with personal law are pertinent only to the minorities. “We assume that Hindus are default democratic citizens and all others are bound by their religious lives. The flip side of thinking this way is that we do not see Muslims as developmental subjects – as subjects of state policy to do with poverty, employment, malnutrition, housing concerns and so on,” she told Frontline.

Sharifa said such prejudice against Muslims reflected, for instance, in their difficulty to obtain loans. Though the State government had set apart funds for providing loans to the minorities, much of it remained unutilised, she said. To fill this gap, Sharifa is planning to start a jamaat bank, which will provide women with low-interest loans to help them start a small business or such like.

Faced with prejudices both within and outside the community, the emergence of the Muslim women’s jamaat is “one of the most creative things to have happened in Indian feminism,” Geetha said. “The jamaat takes the feminist battle away from these familiar forums to those that are not known to many of us: community lives and organisations. In doing so, it carries the struggle for gender justice to where it is often denied: the family, kin network, the larger community world…,” she added.

But as Frontline gathered the opinions of popular representatives of the Muslim community on the women’s jamaat, it emerged that the movement does not enjoy much support. Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) President M.H. Jawaharullah dismissed Sharifa and her women’s jamaat as being a “fringe group thriving on media hype”. “It is unfair for Sharifa and STEPS to take away credit for work that other Muslim organisations are doing as well,” he said, adding that the TMMK too runs a “reconciliation centre” for settling marital disputes between Muslim couples.

His party, now an ally of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led coalition government in Tamil Nadu, extended full support to the pallivaasal jamaat system because it provides an “alternative forum to settle disputes at a time when the courts and police stations are already overburdened”. He said the pallivaasal jamaat had an important role in making sure “discipline prevailed in society”.

Concerning women’s rights to pray within the mosque, he said while Islam gave equal rights to women to pray besides men, some Ulemas at home were “extra-conscious” about this. “I cannot use the word conservatism, but yes, some Ulemas fear that letting women pray in mosques may lead to untoward incidents,” he said.

Eminent lawyer Bader Sayeed and Member of the Legislative Assembly of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam concurred that the jamaat upheld patriarchal norms of living for Muslim women. Her personal experience in dealing with jamaat leaders during her tenure as Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Wakf Board had sensitised her to the issue, she said.

She said a few months ago she filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court against members of the jamaat in Ammapettai, Thanjavur, on the charges of excommunicating a Muslim woman and torturing her. The jamaat had not satisfactorily settled a divorce case between the woman and her husband and when she approached the court the jamaat members took offence. They retaliated by treating her like an outcast, said Bader Sayeed. “When her husband died, the jamaat did not send a priest to perform the funeral and it forcefully separated her daughter from her,” she said. “In such cases confrontation is necessary.”

Bader Sayeed said she supported the view that women leaders should be appointed in traditional jamaats. She prefers judicial settlement of Muslim divorces and registration of marriages, and is also for codifying Muslim law so that the judiciary can resolve disputes easily. “But I disapprove of the idea of a separate women’s jamaat as that would mean alienating women from the mainstream,” she said. Her argument was that if Sharifa built a mosque for women, men in the community would only be too happy to exclude women, asking them to go and pray there.

Leading Muslim scholar Asghar Ali Engineer, however, extended full support to the women’s jamaat. He said Islam allowed its followers to interpret the Quran and live their life accordingly. “So, if women wish to build a mosque for themselves, religion gives them the right to do so,” he said. He also sought speedy implementation of the recommendations of the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee submitted to the Indian government in 2006 so that socio-economic conditions of Muslims in India could improve.

As of today, Sharifa’s dream mosque stands incomplete – only a few bricks have been put together and the iron rods jutting out of the concrete base rust among wild bushes at the construction site. But Sharifa is hopeful. “I will erect the structure in another two years,” she said.

There has been no dearth of media coverage for the mosque project and in the last four years Sharifa’s work has drawn attention from India and abroad. But as Sharifa points out, “This has brought much appreciation, but little in terms of support.” Global Fund for Women, a United States-based non-profit organisation, offered Sharifa help initially but later shied away from supporting a “Muslim religious cause”.

What Sharifa and her women need now is support, both moral and financial. “I need at least Rs.40 lakh to finish the mosque and a steady flow of funds is necessary to keep the movement alive.” But fund-raising has been difficult. “I have already put in all my money in buying the land for the mosque and setting up a foundation,” she said. “The last thing I want to do is squeeze the poor Muslim women coming to me to donate for the cause.”

“So how are you going to manage to build the mosque for women?” I ask. Sharifa does not answer. She only turns to the women attending the jamaat meeting and says, “The cause of the women’s jamaat and women’s mosque should not die with me. You, my women, must keep it alive.” And the women nod their heads in unison.

(Originally published in Frontline in Apr, 2008)

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The birdwatcher

One winter morning in 1968, on one of his weekend ‘birding’ trips, an unsuspecting Theodore Baskaran was crouching by the bund of the Devarayan Lake near Tiruchirapalli, when a skein of bar-headed geese emerged from the skies, dropped their wings and landed on the placid waters of the lake, a few meters from where he was.

A fledgling birdwatcher since his college days, Baskaran could recognise them immediately. They were rare visitors to South India, coming in search of food from snow-bound Ladakh. Today, at 66, after more than four decades of bird watching, the retired civil servant recalls this encounter with a feeling close to awe. “Looking at those lovely geese while I was all by myself was a spiritual experience,” he says.

Baskaran’s tryst with birds goes back to boyhood. Growing up in Dharapuram village near Erode district in Tamil Nadu, he would often peer among bushes and trees to spot new birds, learn their names and call out to kingfishers and bee-eaters on his way to school. As a student of history at Madras Christian College in the late 1950s, Baskaran’s love for birds became more intense. Under the guidance of Dr Gift Siromani, then head of the statistics department and an avid birdwatcher, he would roam the 365-acre wooded campus looking for birds.

“Gift was a great birdwatcher,” remembers Baskaran. “He had a keen eye and could effortlessly move back and forth between his disparate worlds of bar graphs and birds with passion. He inculcated a love for nature in many students by simply taking them out on campus walks.”

Another inspiration for Baskaran was Dr Joshua from the zoology department, who would take students for visits to the Vedanthangal bird sanctuary, 85 km from Chennai. “Dr Joshua would watch the birds without taking his eyes off them, and insist we read Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds and step beyond the realm of our regular studies.” Reading this book, Baskaran confesses, changed the way he looked at the world.

Later, as part of his job as director of postal services and then postmaster general, in the civil services, Baskaran travelled across India, exploring its rich avian life. His travels overseas – to Kenya (while on a UN assignment as adviser to Kenyan government on marketing postal services in 1999), Japan, Mauritius, America, UK, and Australia – official or personal, were never complete without special birding visits. Baskaran has a ‘life list’ of over a thousand distinct birds that he has sighted in his lifetime, which includes rare birds such as the Mauritian kestrel (small falcons with short wings and long tails that have been declared as an endangered species with only about 5,000 or less left), and Lesser Florican (among the smallest bustards in the world and found in the Indian subcontinent; fewer than 1,000 survive today).

He still hasn’t got over his encounter with the largest flying bird in the world, the sarus, on a visit to Kheda in Gujarat in the mid-1990s. Baskaran was with a group of nature lovers when he spotted the 6-ft-tall crane, its head coloured red, spreading its large wings to dance for its mate. “It pirouetted and trumpeted in wild ecstasy. It was an unforgettable sight.”

More tales come tumbling from the birdwatcher’s memory: “The sarus has been called krauncha in the Ramayana,” he says. “It is the sarus pining for its mate’s love that inspired Valmiki to write about Sita and her pain of separation from Rama. The sarus too is monogamous like Rama!” In 1999, Baskaran’s essays on birds and wildlife were compiled in a book titled, appropriately enough, The Dance of the Sarus (Oxford University Press).

Bird watching, according to Baskaran, is a great way to stay in touch with life and nature. “When people grow old, boredom becomes their greatest enemy,” he says. “Bird watching can work as a great antidote to monotony that claims everyone, young and old.”

Living in Chennai with wife Thilaka, who retired as principal of MGR Janaki College, Baskaran now divides his time between wildlife conservation and freelance writing. He is a trustee of World Wildlife India (WWI) at present and has served for five years in the Tamil Nadu Wildlife Board. Baskaran also writes on a wide range of subjects, from environment to cinema. His first article, on the bar-headed geese, was published in The Hindu in 1968.

While his son Arul lives in Sydney and works with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Baskaran’s daughter Nithila has followed her father’s footsteps and runs a Bengaluru-based organisation called Vanam, which conducts environmental awareness programmes in rural Karnataka. And yes, she sometimes goes birding with him. “Last year, I went with my family on a bird-watching trip to the Andamans,” says Baskaran. “It brought back memories of taking Nithila to Guindy Deer Park in Chennai when she was about five.”

He is quick to clarify, though, that you don’t need to start young to make a good bird watcher. “You can start anytime and watch birds sitting right at home for a start,” he says. All it takes is enthusiasm, patience and observation (see Go birding). He recalls spotting four birds perched on a tree within 10 minutes – a mynah, bulbul, drongo and tailorbird – as he sat and chatted with a writer friend in the open veranda at the entrance to his single-storied house in Thiruvanmiyur, which faces tall trees, flowering plants and creepers. His friend, reportedly, was amazed that there were so many birds around that go unnoticed.

For Baskaran, bird watching has opened up a vast world of nature waiting to be explored. “You watch the bird, the butterfly, then the plants and begin to care for nature and enjoy its beauty,” he says. “My relationship with birds and wild creatures has been intuitive. To me they symbolise the external world and my link with it,” he says.


  • Buy yourself a pair of binoculars – a decent pair would cost Rs 1,000 to Rs 3,000.
  • Look out for birds while going on your morning walk. It’s the best time to spot them.
  • Be quiet while looking for birds or they may fly away!
  • Unleash your curiosity. Peep into the thick of trees; listen carefully for birdsound.
  • Carry a camera or pen and paper to capture the features of the birds you come across. Later, you can look up a guide to learn more about them.
  • Start in places close to home. You can then venture outside to wooded areas, lakes or visit national parks. Orioles, tailorbirds, barbets and mynahs can be spotted within city limits, while lakes are mostly home to waterfowl like egrets and ducks. Wetlands on the outskirts of the city are home to many birds like kingfishers and migratory birds that arrive in winter.
  • Read Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds or go to, website of the Bombay Natural History Society (see below for details), and To subscribe to journal Indian Birds, email or write to New Ornis Foundation, PO Box 2, Banjara Hills, Hyderabad-500034.
  • Joining a birding club can be fun. But remember, you don’t necessarily have to join expensive clubs to make a good birdwatcher. Just keep your eyes open whenever you’re outdoors.

(Originally published in Harmony magazine in April, 2007)

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Every refugee longs to return home

The Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfeRR) has completed 25 years of work among Sri Lankan refugees in the State who narrowly escaped from the ethnic war in the island nation.

Its founder, S.C.Chandrahasan, spoke to Vidya Venkat about the hopes of the refugees and the future he envisions for the Tamils, now that the military operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has concluded.


The memory of his father, Thanthai Chelvanayagam, sitting on the verandah of their ancestral home in Tellipalai in northern Sri Lanka, is still vivid in the memory of Mr. Chandrahasan. Living as a refugee in Tamil Nadu since August 1983, he says,

“I am told that place where my house once stood is a jungle now. Branches of trees have invaded our rooms through its open windows…”

Running OfeRR out of the terrace of a building in Egmore, he says he retained the makeshift roof here to remind himself that he is a refugee after all and one day he must move.

Being on the wrong side of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE forced this lawyer and social activist to flee the island nation.

For peace

A prominent Tamil leader in Sri Lanka, Chandrahasan’s father was a Gandhian who believed in non-violent protest. “I knew right from the start that violence would beget more violence,” he says, in the context of the spread of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka.

“I had disapproved of it when Tamil militants massacred innocent Sinhala civilians in Anuradhapura in 1985. At the same time, I was critical of the government at that time for enacting draconian laws that gave the army excessive powers to muzzle voices of democratic dissent. In the wake of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, social activists had become vocal in pressing equal rights for Tamils. The government had even suspended with the process of inquest mandatory before arresting presspersons,” he says.

“I survived three attempts on my life while I was there. The last attempt was when I was being interviewed by a journalist like this,” he says with a laugh.

Of the refugee, for the refugee

He has used his refugee status to mobilise support from Indian government and the international community in favour of the war-ravaged Tamils . “We did our best to make sure the refugee population was not misused by LTTE propagandists in the State during the general elections. We mobilised the refugees to assist the locals in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami,” he says.

As for the future of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, he says a lot remains to be done. “I appreciate the positive gesture President Mahinda Rajapaksa made by speaking in Tamil on national TV recently but words alone will not suffice.”

The government must ensure a free press and equal rights for Tamils. “The refugees can effectively contribute towards rebuilding the island nation’s economy,” he says. Internally displaced persons held in camps in Sri Lanka must be given amnesty and mainstreamed.

As of September 2008, a total of 73,378 refugees were living in camps spread across 25 districts in the State.

Between 2006 and 2009, 23,765 refugees from the war-affected areas braved the rough seas risking life and limb to reach India.

“Our hearts bleed every time we hear of a beloved one dying in the war zone,” he says. “The Tamil civilians have long lived in fear of the Sinhala army and the LTTE gun. We wish to return to peace now.”

(Originally published in The Hindu, Tamil Nadu edition, dated May 25, 2009)

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He gives ‘Dalit’ a new meaning


Dalits are yet to be liberated from the stranglehold of caste-based occupations such as manual scavenging, laments Martin Macwan. The Gujarat-based activist and winner of the Robert F.Kennedy Human Rights Award spoke to Vidya Venkat about the need to promote entrepreneurship among Dalits.

It was his moment of realisation when on a visit to a village in Gujarat he came across Valmiki scavengers demanding the village panchayat to replace their broken brooms so that their hands would not get soiled while removing human waste. “It struck me as to how the Dalit community was trapped in its caste occupation and the most they could aspire for was new brooms,” says Martin Macwan, “But the panchayat would even deny that citing lack of funds…”

In 1989, he founded the Navsarjan Trust, a grassroots organisation, which has been working for social justice for the Dalits. It has raised issues such as discrimination against Dalits in educational institutions and atrocities against them. Through its Dalit Shakti Kendras, the organisation imparts vocational training for youth from the community to liberate them from their traditional occupations such as scavenging.

Mr.Macwan visited Madurai and then Chennai last week to learn more from the experiences of French bakery La Boulangerie that helped Dalit youths to become entrepreneurs by training them in food processing technology. “At a time when we are talking of a stronger India and economic progress, encouraging entrepreneurship among Dalits should be the way forward,” he says.

But vocational training alone is not enough; the social and political struggle for justice has to continue as long as the community is trapped in unhealthy occupations such as manual scavenging, he says. “In Gujarat alone, the government has conceded that 65,000 Dalits are working as manual scavengers. This is true of several other states, including Tamil Nadu, where the scourge continues,” he adds.

Biggest violators

Unfortunately, the Central and State governments are guilty of being the biggest violators of the law prohibiting manual scavenging as they employ more scavengers than private agencies. “This calls for judicial intervention to bring about necessary reforms,” he says.

“Recently, the Gujarat High Court Chief Justice filed a suo moto case against manual scavenging in government agencies. Other courts can replicate this method in their respective states,” he suggests.

A victim of child labour and discrimination himself, personal is political for Mr.Macwan. As a student of St.Xaviers College in Ahmedabad in the early 1980’s, he worked on a project dealing with caste oppression.

In 1986, while working for the cause of land redistribution for Dalits, two of his friends were murdered by local landlords. The incident brought a radical transformation in his approach and he intensified his political and judicial activities.

He has formulated a new definition of Dalits. “Anyone who believes in and practices equality is a Dalit. I hope, if defined thus, everyone would want to be one,” he says with a smile.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition dated Feb 15, 2009)

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