Human Rights Defenders programme report
‘Tell the Prime Minister to go and wear a sari’ said an adolescent boy, jostled by grinning men, as he accused the PM of having ‘given in’ to the demands of Muslim groups in the face of tensions over Babri Masjid. Around me, as I sat cross-legged in a darkened room watching these images from the documentary ‘Trial by Fire’ along with 25 young adults, there was an outbreak of angry whispers from the audience. The film shows the gender biases inherent in communalism- an ugly truth that remains disappointingly invisible because of the lack of media coverage on such issues. I’m not surprised by the shock and rage expressed by all of us in that room. Like many other images we have seen, this one has left its mark. But what hits home, at the end of the day, is that the images we see, like it or not, are the ones we have built. Whether it’s the blind eye we turned to a child labourer the other day, or a casual derogatory comment among friends, we are all an undeniable part of the “system” that propagates such beliefs.
Over a week, a group of approximately 25 young adults went on a high adrenaline adventure that challenged them to face highly controversial questions of sexuality, gender, human rights and law, with Debolina Dutta and Oishik Sircar. ‘In the rights direction’, a PeaceWorks – Positive Spaces Human Rights
Defenders workshop, was held between 23rd and 29th January, 2009, at the Seagull Arts and Media Resource Centre, Kolkata. The workshop attracted people who joined as late as the fourth day, after having heard their friends go completely ga-ga over the activities, games, discussions and films lined up for each day’s schedule. I don’t believe a single person walked out of that room without a new purpose in their steps at 5:30 pm each day, after having spent seven hours there. I remember distinctly the first energizer I was a part of, where we had to sing ‘I am alive, awake, alert and enthusiastic’ with actions- just like we did when we were kids. Inhibited at first, I loosened up with every new chant and before I knew it, the words began to sound real.
We had a body-mapping exercise afterwards and discussed areas of pain, pleasure and shame on body outlines we had drawn. Strangely (though it only dawned on us after it was pointed out), the genitals on every group’s outline were absent. Surprisingly, some of us had gone to the extent of drawing nails, hair and a brain. After a frank discussion, we had several people rushing towards the charts to draw the missing genitals. Feeling liberated, we proceeded to watch a documentary on the social stigma faced by homosexual couples and transsexuals. To reinforce the message of the film, we were asked to create a sexual hierarchy which would list the social acceptability of sexualities. It didn’t take long to realise how confused we were about sexuality and gender. We concluded the day by watching a Tamil film that poignantly portrayed a young girl’s journey to find her uncle as he journeyed to find his sexual identity.
It’s never easy to put yourself in another’s shoes, is it? Place yourself in a world where heterosexuality is unnatural and needs to be “treated’’. Imagine that your parents (a homosexual couple, of course) are apprehensive of your heterosexual tendencies and fear you may become a “breeder”. The thought made me recoil as we watched the video clipping that illustrated such a world. It was apparent from the documentary that followed- ‘My tango with porn’- that the day’s theme was about challenging existing sexual norms. I began the day with a set of notions- pornography and prostitution are wrong, no question about it. And that was my first mistake- not even bothering to question. Midway through a discussion on what sexual acts are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, I realised how much we had progressed as a group- we were suddenly talking about which porn is okay and how ambiguous penetration in rape really is. We hadn’t all started out so open-minded and yet, we had begun to critically examine our own value systems.
The next day, set to the beautiful song by Bob Dylan, ‘Blowing in the Wind’, we watched images of war, weapons and destruction, right from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the Iraq war. Feeling ashamed and angry with the misplaced sense of priority that has dominated and still dominates political decisions, we were asked to create a circle of honesty by coming forward with stories of injustice that have affected us personally, leaving us with a feeling of helplessness. After about seven stories, people began to open up and reveal incidents that they had never discussed earlier. It was emotionally disturbing for most of us and we were all slightly shaken at the end of the session. Of course, an energizer revitalised us all and we were ready to watch ‘A Narmada Diary’. In the discussion that followed, concepts like equality and inclusive representation seemed more nebulous than ever to us and increasingly out-of reach for those affected by the construction of the dam. I reflected on all that we claim to uphold as sacred and inalienable and wondered how a black and white document could take it away so easily.
On the final day, we were no more virgins to the ‘rights-based approach’ after having been given a brief explanation of human rights regimes in the past century and the components of international human rights law. We were led through a game of trading chana seeds afterwards where everybody began with fifty chanas to trade with. After a couple of rounds of trading, there was a clear demarcation between those who had amassed more than 90 chana seeds, those who had around 40 to 70 chana seeds and those who were left with less than 20. Those who had amassed the largest numbers were asked to set the rules of trading, much like the capitalist “free” market of the world today. Several interesting observations were made since the “rich” tried to help the “poor” to compete in the market by taxing the “middle class”, and of course, while excluding their “money” from the trading process so that their status wasn’t threatened. A debate on the validity of the death penalty as a punishment for terrorists followed and after some heated debate on the issue, we were able to reach a consensus on capital punishment being an inhuman method of punishment which is unsupported by the flawed logic of deterrence.
It wasn’t the certificates signed by Justice Ruma Pal. Nor was it the delicious lunches we had every day. In fact, it wasn’t even about having bunked college for 6 days. We had come in as individuals who wanted to learn and were eager to experiment, and we walked out as people who were ready to make a difference, not just because we wanted to, but because we knew how to do it.