National Meet: Kerala 2010

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Social activist and Ramon Magsaysay award-winner Aruna Roy inaugurated the three-day National Convention of the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) during a public function at the Tagore Centenary Hall in Kozhikode on February 5. Her speech set the tone of the annual meet by appealing to the media to safeguard its credibility.

Ms Roy made an impassioned plea to the Fourth Estate as members of an honourable profession to be fearless and honest while reporting news that would be accessible to the majority of the people. She reminded the women in the media that it was their responsibility to play a proactive role to uphold the democratic spirit of the Constitution that was increasingly in danger of being subjugated.

Ms Roy, known for her sustained crusade against abuse of official power and the primacy of transparency in all aspects of governance, exhorted journalists to protect the democratic right of the general public to know the truth. “We need a media with an independent mind that will make the voice of the people heard, and not one conditioned by dogma, caste, religion and other considerations,” she said. This was needed so that people can locate themselves and have their views heard at the local, regional and national levels.

Unfortunately this was not the situation now, and the general public is in the dark about many actions of the administration in different parts of the country. In fact, the country is passing through a traumatic period when the major chunk of the population comprising the underprivileged has become ‘voiceless’ and disenfranchised. Alarmingly, advertisements now appear even on the front page earlier held ‘sacrosanct’. It is here that women journalists can play a vital role in empowering the general public through meaningful news that is based on the real situation. Ms Roy viewed the increasing commercialisation of the Indian media as a “tragic happening” especially during election time when news packages revealed the nexus between the media and political parties. Assaults on minorities have increased. It is at such a juncture that ethical journalism becomes critical to uphold the tenets of the Constitution. Underscoring the essence of the secular nature of Indian democracy, Ms Roy wanted the younger generation to be educated on the issue.

She termed the National Rural Employment Generation Scheme (NREGS) “a huge success of the right to work of the poor”, and a positive development especially for under-privileged women since there is now a shift from begging to dignity, from fear of being victimised, raped and harassed to economic self-sufficiency.

Ms Roy likened the ongoing situation in Chhattisgarh, and the ‘Operation Green Hunt’, launched by the government on the Maoists there, to the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka where the media is allegedly gagged. It is a huge democratic nightmare that despite the large amount of information put out by the media, ordinary people are not in a position to know what is true and what is false.

A large number of people, even in remote parts of rural Rajasthan, want to read news about roads, employment opportunities and issues that affect them such as the public distribution system and NREGS. So it is a myth to assume that newspapers sold only if they depicted female sexuality, said Ms Roy.

Anupama Jayaraman Award

Mr M Kesava Menon, Editor of Mathrubhumi, presented the Anupama Jayaraman Award instituted in the memory of the young journalist Anupama Jayaraman to Neha Dixit, Senior Correspondent, Tehelka, New Delhi. The prize (awarded to women journalists under the age of 25 years) is an initiative of the Jayaraman family, supported by the NWMI, aiming to nurture the spirit of sensitive journalism among young women journalists in the print media. Ms Dixit won the award in recognition of her sensitive writing in an investigative series, ‘A Taliban of our very own’. She was selected from among seven journalists who were shortlisted for the award. Mr C Rajagopal (State President, Kerala Union of Working Journalists), and Mr N P Rajendran (Mathrubhumi), among others, addressed the gathering.

Two books were released at the inaugural event. The first book, authored by Deedi Damodaran, was on Seema (a heroine of yesteryears of south Indian films), and the second one, jointly written by K A Beena and Geeta Bakshi, was on veteran journalists in Kerala. Ammu Joseph, senior journalist and writer, explained the objectives and activities of the NWMI. Reji R Nair (Mathrubhumi) welcomed the invitees and K A Beena (News Editor, Doordarshan) proposed the vote of thanks.

Focus on Kerala (February 6-7)

Sessions organised as part of the NWMI’s National Convention at the Navajyothi Retreat Centre sought to highlight varied aspects of Kerala such as the trajectory of development programmes, health, women, decentralisation, poverty alleviation, “terrorism” and the views of women who chose to defy oppressive religious diktats. Since one purpose of the NWMI’s annual meetings is to provide participants with insights into the socio-economic, political and cultural realities of different parts of the country, the local networks organising each meeting make a special effort to highlight key current issues in the concerned city and/or state.

Kerala Development Model

During the first session on 6 February, Dr Prabhat Patnaik, renowned Marxist economist and Vice Chairperson, State Planning Board, Kerala, clarified at the outset that he would not be talking about the “Kerala Development Model” per se but would discuss it in the context of the prevailing economic issues in Kerala.

He said socialists held the view that no development is possible without unleashing the people’s creativity and this was not possible in the current bourgeois society. In fact, under the present capitalist scenario in the country, although the growth rate had increased, so had figures for malnutrition and poverty. The extent of landlessness, too, had increased. This was the flip side of India’s emergence as an economic power, he said. He noted that increasingly an opinion was being voiced that development must be kept above politics but suggested that such a view would demand a consensus on the very same policies that have caused this duality of increasing poverty amidst economic growth. It would mean institutionalising this duality. This was untenable for the Left and it could not subscribe to a development strategy within this system.

Dr Patnaik stressed that the development process in Kerala is an evolving one, and ought to be reinforced. What the State ought to attempt is not to replicate the development model being promoted across the country but rather to have a transitional approach taking into consideration the Kerala Development Model envisaged earlier. The Left Democratic Front Government in Kerala did not subscribe to the development strategy of the Manmohan Singh Government at the Centre, but rather attempted to strengthen the survival strategy of the ordinary people. The development policy of the Centre is on a different footing, and the State Planning Board is not into the ‘Development Game’ either, he said.

Enumerating some of these survival strategies he pointed out that a matter of serious concern had been the 1,500 farmer suicides in Wayanad district. Stemming them was of prime concern to the government. Significantly, he pointed out that whilst the suicide figures remained high at the national level despite the debt relief legislation, there had been a significant drop in Kerala. This was because the package of measures used in the state had worked. Since the bulk of the suicides had been among the producers of cash crops who require substantial inputs, he said, the Kerala government had made conscious efforts to get cash crop producers to return to food grain production. He noted that the Centre’s willingness to provide food grains to Kerala had declined and therefore the decision to shift to cash crops had been invalidated. With the crisis in the world economy and the decline in per capita availability of food grains it was all the more essential for the state to have a modicum of food grain sufficiency. It was with this in mind that the state government was offering food grain producers a greater procurement price than the central government. From the following year cooperatives would be involved in procuring food grains, which would then be retained in the state. In addition legislation had been introduced to prevent the conversion of paddy lands for other use; this had also prevented land speculation.

Pointing out that the middle class in Kerala was remarkably uninformed about the poor in the state, he said it was a myth to echo the view that unskilled unemployment did not exist. Interestingly, 80 per cent of the unskilled labour enrolled in the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) Scheme when it was first launched in Palakkad District. In Wayanad, too, under the NREG scheme there was a substantial demand for manual work. But in other areas what was required was income support schemes in addition to the NREG. For example, traditional skills like fishing often needed to be boosted with such income support schemes.

Another significant step in the survival strategies approach was the state’s public health insurance scheme. The target is to bring 15 million people under an insurance cover in which the premium is paid for by the state. Later, in the question and answer session, he pointed out that a large portion of the expenses entailed by the government in paying premiums was offset by the amount paid by the insurance companies to the public health care systems since a majority of the patients were admitted to public hospitals instead of private care.

He added that the state believed that modern sector activities like tourism and information technology must not be used as a camouflage for land speculation. There had been efforts to revive the public sector. Answering a question, he said the fact that 46 out of 50 public sector units are profit-making proves that if there is political will they will function well.

Dr Patnaik concluded by once again emphasising that the measures he spoke about did not constitute a development strategy as much as a survival strategy within the context of the current development strategy, which threatens the survival of large numbers of people. The Kerala model was fundamentally unsustainable in the current scenario because it was daily being undermined; it was therefore a model which had to be struggled for.

In answer to a question on Special Economic Zones (SEZs) he said the Kerala government was extremely reticent on the issue and the fact that there hadn’t been any significant peasant protests is indicative of the fact that the government has been careful to ensure that the peasantry is not dispossessed.

Women and Health

Dr B Ekbal, National Convener, People’s Health Movement, then spoke on ‘Women and Health’. He began by giving a quick history and account of women’s health issues as first articulated by the Boston Women’s Health Collective in the 1970s. It was the contradiction between sex and gender (or the physiological/biological factors as against the social factors) that determined women’s health and status in society. Women’s health would have been superior had there not been these gender issue contradictions. Dr Ekbal pointed out that even today in India the infant mortality rate continues to be very high as well as the maternal mortality ratio and that the male: female sex ratio is still skewed against females. There is still discrimination against women from the cradle to the grave and various socio-economic hardships account for high morbidity and mortality rates.

He opined that two primary trends are evident in the health scenario in Kerala. One is that the health delivery system does not reach the desirable levels and the male-female ratio has come down when compared to the 2004 data. Besides being affected by occupational health hazards women are also the target of population control measures. A gender bias noticed in the medical profession is that the focus is on the male while researching physical diseases, and on the female for mental disorders such as hysteria. Modern medical technologies (like ultrasound and amniocentesis), used judiciously, can boost women’s health but are also being abused to target the female sex.

He paid tribute to the women’s health movement in India and to the contributions of many veteran women journalists present in the audience who had highlighted gender issues in health and healthcare. Today, he said, there are new technologies coming up in a big way that have potential for emancipation but are becoming exploitive. They include the Genomic Revolution and in vitro fertilization (IVF). The prospect of embryos being outside the human body has increased the potential for control of a woman’s body. The situation now is that the embryo can be humanly manipulated outside the woman’s body. There is a shift from preventive to predictable technology and the side effects are many for the recipients. Similarly the cloning of the sheep, Dolly, has raised enormous possibilities as has stem cell research. But the knowledge that embryos provide the best possibilities for stem cell research raises a number of ethical issues like: should embryos be sacrificed at the altar of science?

On the issue of Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART), Dr Ekbal said that in Kerala alone there are some 50 infertility clinics but women undergoing treatment are never adequately informed about the effects of the heavy hormonal drugs. He also warned that while it is relatively easy to clamp down on ultrasound technologies that allow sex determination it is difficult to control pre-implantation genetic screening which facilitates sex selection.

Noting that the Delhi-based women’s group SAMA had taken up these issues as well as surrogacy motherhood and induced abortions for the purpose of good foetal tissue, he pointed out how all these technologies and stem cell research could put women under pressure for overproduction of oocytes, donation of embryos and so on.

Another recent phenomenon was the emergence of BRCA and BRCA2 screenings for genetic breast cancers. He cautioned against over-emphasis on such tests since environmental and lifestyle factors also play a key role in cancers.

A recent survey showed that the sex ratio in the 0-6 age group in Kerala is now negative, revealing fewer female children than male. This indicates that female foeticide is taking place in Kerala, especially in districts neighbouring other states. The survey also showed that caesarean sections are increasing and that 63 per cent births now take place in private hospitals. A shift in the demographic graph shows that the number of widows is increasing in Kerala, necessitating care. In the future the number of pensioners will increase and longevity may well produce a scenario 20 years hence when the typical household will consist of a lone woman. He said healthcare for the elderly woman is emerging as a major problem since ageing is generally accompanied by ailments like heart disease and strokes, osteoporosis, incontinence and reduced mobility. On the flip side, the life expectancy of women in Kerala is 76 years (higher than men) and infant mortality rate is low, especially in comparison to many other states. He urged advocacy efforts on these health-related gender issues and said it is important to develop strategies on how to counter the new technologies that are targeting women.

Kerala Women: Gender paradox

In her session on the shaping of the gender perspective in Kerala, Dr J Devika, associate professor, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, traced the history of the social reform movement in the state that had played a part in the ‘proper gendering of women’ perspective. As for the shaping of the concept, women in Kerala had achieved the image of ‘rationalised care-giver’. With marriage practices being a yardstick for determining the status of women in society, among the Hindu community the secularised Brahminical marital system came to be imposed.

The positive aspects of Kerala state that need to be highlighted are the good male: female sex ratio, and the late age of marriage. An insight gained with the average age of sterilisation of women in Kerala (26) is that the system in the state presupposes that women are married only once in their lifetime. Family planning continues to be woman-centric, and though life expectancy is high, there is a perceptible fall in the quality of life. Basing her arguments vis-à-vis the constantly changing “Kerala Model of Development,” Devika pointed out that Kerala had moved from being viewed as a problem state in the 1970s to a situation where, on many indicators, Kerala is comparable to developed countries across the world. By the 1980s, human development and strengthening individual capabilities became a vital aspect of the development initiatives and in the 1990s it was a revolutionary and reformist model that came into view, with much to boast of in the form of social capital of the State.

These processes have brought certain benefits. Women in Kerala are more educated than in other states. The rate of girls dropping out of school in Kerala is lower than that of boys. However, few women take to higher education. The age of marriage for women is higher in Kerala than in other parts of the country, but Devika said this did not necessarily mean that women had put off marriage in favour of a career. It is more likely they are waiting for a partner, as Kerala men marry only after they find employment and that happens at a much latter age in Kerala.

Despite education, Kerala women have not joined the work force in droves, Devika pointed out. In fact, there is a rise in the number of women in urban areas and a fall in their number in work participation. The trends show that between 1901 and 2001, the number of women in the workforce has been declining. This holds true for Keralite women returning from the Gulf as well. Even though they held down jobs in the Gulf, once they return to Kerala they tend to stick to domestic roles. This was different from the trends observed among Sri Lankan women, she said.

Marriage has become a livelihood option and the sum paid as dowry for a ‘secure life’ by the girl or her family to the boy or his family is phenomenal. The space for women in politics is limited. Devika opined that there is a glass ceiling for the entry of women in politics, with the few women entering the field given an ‘honorary masculinity’. In the literary field, although women got an early entry, men set the terms of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in literature.

Another negative aspect is that Kerala has very high levels of domestic violence. The rate of attempted suicide is also very high. One theory holds that women who are educated are more individuated than other women. Women are also subjected to domestic intensities of space, which puts them under high stress. According to Devika, that higher rates and levels of women’s education will necessarily lead to gender justice is a limited view. There is no alternative to struggle, she pointed out.

Decentralisation and women’s empowerment

To what extent have women benefited from the decentralisation of local self-government bodies that stipulates a 33 per cent quota for women? This was the scenario reviewed by Aleyamma Vijayan (Sakhi Women’s Resource Centre, Thiruvananthapuram). The 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution brought about a paradigm shift in the governance system of the country. The major objectives of the constitutional amendments were to ensure social justice and enhance local economic development. The guiding principles were autonomy, subsidiarity, role clarity, complementarity, uniformity, people’s participation, accountability and transparency. The Left government in Kerala kick-started the decentralisation programme by allocating 35-40 per cent of the state budget to institutions of local governance (panchayats in rural areas and municipalities and corporations in urban areas). Unlike in most other states, the state enabled the devolution of financial power to local bodies.

The earmarking of 35 per cent of the Plan Fund for local bodies under the Panchayati Raj and the Nagarapalika Act ushered in by the Left Government in Kerala in 1995 is in effect a social movement, she explained. Between 1996 and 2002, a decentralisation process was designed and launched in campaign mode, whereby resources and authority were transferred first, and a system was then put in place to operationalise local governance. The approach, which came to be known as the ‘Big Bang approach,’ involved different sections of society, especially women. Funds were transferred on the basis of the backwardness of the respective panchayat. The huge positives are the pro-poor initiatives in housing, sanitation and the like. Public awareness has increased; there is better functioning of anganwadis. The drawbacks include lack of engineering support, and absence of a monitoring procedure for the Panchayat’s activities. Today in Kerala, there are 1,200 local governments, with no sharp differences between urban and rural areas.

The decentralised planning process gave serious thought to the status of women for the first time. As a result, there has been greater visibility for women and recognition of issues of women by elected representatives. The Women Component Plan mandating that a set proportion of local government budgets be targeted towards women’s needs, the Kudumbasree project, etc., evolved from this recognition. Women are also represented at the grassroots level of state functionaries.

While women’s development was considered a part of overall development process, a separate chapter on women and development was made mandatory in the development reports prepared by each local body. For example, statements such as ‘This will not adversely affect women or the environment’ were added to proposals and projects. This meant that a gender impact statement was made mandatory in the cost-benefit assessment of projects. Special instructions were given to ensure women’s participation in gram sabhas and other working groups and sectoral committees. Gender and women’s development constituted an important component in the training programmes organised by the campaign cell of the planning board.

On the downside, women’s issues are tackled under the welfare department in Kerala; there is no separate department for women. There is a tendency to dump any problem concerning women into the Kudumbasree project. Another limitation in the early days was that funds for women got diverted to children, because children were seen as an ‘appendage’ to women. Large amounts were earmarked for anganwadis – building, feeding, honoraria, children’s festivals, etc. However, through sustained effort to alter the mindset, some examples of meeting women’s needs in a non-stereotypical manner emerged. Among them were a women’s transport cooperative, a women masons’ cooperative, the formation of jagrutha samithis, girl-friendly toilets in schools, and better facilities in primary health centres.

According to Ms Vijayan, there has been no systematic analysis of the needs of women and there is no understanding of gender as an issue of power. As a result the strategic needs of women were not addressed through the decentralisation programme. For instance, issues of reduction of drudgery, control over income, domestic violence, alcoholism in the family, work place security and comfort, sexual and reproductive health issues and empowerment needs did not manifest themselves as viable projects for women’s welfare. Data from studies and resource maps about women were not linked to plans. There was an absence of a gender framework for projects in terms of planning, budgeting auditing and evaluation.

Though the jagrutha samithis functioned at the grassroots level to address problems of women, issues relating to human rights violations are not taken up to the desired levels. There is not enough media coverage of the decentralisation process, she said, while bureaucratic control over local governments has increased. Evaluating the outcome of the decentralisation process Ms Vijayan opined that the very term ‘empowerment’ had to be better defined and more women must be involved in the decision making bodies.

Gender politics of Kudumbasree

According to Dr Binita Thampi (Research Associate, University of Sheffield), the Kudumbasree Anti-Poverty Mission follows a participatory model, refocusing on poverty eradication and involving women as active agents in the development process. The Kudumbasree Mission, launched by the Left Government in Kerala in 1998 as a 10-year programme, functions through self-help groups (SHGs) of women. Explaining the structural details of the programme, Dr Thampi said poor women are represented in the federated structure comprising the Community Development Society (CDS) and the State Kudumbasree Mission. There was massive enrolment of poor women under this major programme of poverty alleviation. Their presence and participation in local governance is a major change, and women are viewed as economic agents for creating own resources.

On the limitations of the Mission, Dr Thampi pointed out that there is no presence of women as a distinct political group. A number of low category jobs are dumped on them. Women from the economically weaker segments are drafted by political parties and others to undertake jobs such as conducting surveys and waste collection under the Kudumbasree Anti-Poverty Mission for Women. There are instances of exclusion within the programme itself as in the case of tribal groups who are not part of the poverty alleviation drive. The Kudumbasree Mission, considered an endeavour of the Left Government, has been challenged by the Opposition through the launch of Janasree, a similar programme of poverty alleviation and encouragement of thrift.

Given the present milieu, said Dr Thampi, the gender bias in political parties could prevent the upward mobility of the women within the Mission, too. Also, income generation has become the priority of the Mission in the State, resulting in the neglect of other aspects of upliftment. Although no attempt has been made to gauge the financial implications, the impact is far-reaching since Kudumbasree is a state-supported network unlike similar missions in other states she said.

Reflections of a former naxalite

In the afternoon of February 6, there was a brief interaction with K Ajitha, president of Anweshi, a women’s group based in Kozhikode, who had played a prominent role in the Naxal movement in Kerala. Their armed struggle had led to the deaths of two policemen in the late 1960s, and Ajitha was convicted and spent nine years in jail. When she was released, she parted ways with the Naxal struggle and joined to the feminist movement in Kerala.

In 1987 Ajitha started the Bodhna group which took up the issue of violence against women. At that time a prostitute had been killed in a police lock-up. An inquiry was set up by the Collector but, because of shoddy investigation, the verdict was ‘suicide’. Bodhna organised working class women and led several agitations on the issue. Later Ajitha set up the Anweshi Counselling Centre which offers legal aid to women, conducts seminars and workshops, has a library of more than 7,000 books on women’s issues and feminism, and provides shelter to children in need of support.

During the discussion, Ajitha also spoke about how Anweshi ensured that their work took a different approach. One way, she said, was by interacting with girls and raising their awareness about gender and sexuality. Women now are more aware of their rights – they know that families and husbands are not gods, she said.

She said tourism was turning Kerala into a mafia country. According to her, a parallel economy fuelled by liquor, sex rackets and real estate was worth more than Rs 50,000 crore. This did not come up overnight, she pointed out, questioning the role of the police, the politicians and the state in creating the current situation.

According to Ajitha, the media had been running one sided campaigns to benefit fundamentalists. One case in point was the sensationally named ‘Love Jihad’ campaign – which alleged that large numbers of Hindu girls were marrying Muslim boys and converting to Islam. Counter views were censored, she said. This was part of the anti-Muslim campaign run by the media and resulted in the polarisation of communities in Kerala.

One of the first questions Ajitha was asked was why she gave up armed struggle. This led to a discussion of the role of violence in people’s movements. She pointed out that the Naxal struggle in Chhattisgarh was essentially a struggle between MNCs and Adivasis for control over land.

When asked if her feminist consciousness rose only after she parted ways with the Naxal struggle, Ajitha said it had been a simultaneous process. “I was always fighting for my rights even when I was part of the Naxal struggle. I felt I was discriminated against, not taken seriously, was given no role in the decision making process,” she said. Her book Ormakkuruppukal – Autobiography (DC Publications, 1982), which she wrote before she declared herself a feminist, articulates similar struggles, she said.

Media, ethics and paid news: editors’ panel discussion

The panel discussion on ‘Media, ethics and paid news’ held at the Malabar Palace Hotel, on the evening of February 6 featured eminent editors and senior journalists analysing the growing threats to the media’s credibility. Editors of prominent Malayalam newspapers, too, spoke on the issue. The deliberations sought to focus on measures to counter the erosion of ethical journalism, including the responsibility of both media professionals and media audiences to help reverse the trend.

Ms Mrinal Pande (Former Editor-in-Chief, Hindustan, and current Chairperson of Prasar Bharati) termed the present situation as a ‘worrisome phenomenon’ that has eaten into the very roots of what is considered the core in journalism, giving way to crass commercialism. According to her, the growing vernacular press, which has a wider reach than the English press, is all the more vulnerable to the malaise. The situation now is that the rot has spread and even newspapers that were originally launched with the specific intention of maintaining credibility of news began to follow the trend when the second and third generation of owners, who wanted better returns from the business, took over. The power wielded by the media attracted those with capital to launch newspapers and operate with an editorial team that has no say in what is published.

Ms Pande suggested guidelines such as apportioning of space for news and advertisements, the clear demarcation of editorial and advertising content, and the printing of the name of the advertisement manager along with that of the editor and publisher. Another malaise, she pointed out, lies in the recruitment policy, which was unethical and unprofessional with no monitoring process in place. There is no continuity, and staff is hired on the basis of political recommendations. The sad part is that, instead of boycotting a newspaper for which they pay, the readers, who have the most to lose from such trends, expect someone else to fight their battle.

Despite the campaign launched by major national dailies against the practice of paid news when the trend first came to be noticed in 2003, the tendency has only spread, and tomorrow’s journalists are going to work for the highest bidder, opined Mr T N Ninan (Editor-in-Chief, Business Standard and head of the Ethics Panel set up by the Editors’ Guild to look into the “paid news” phenomenon). Structural problems in the Indian media, such as price cuts to keep pace with competition, have created a situation where “we cannot rely on any media house or publication”. Marketing and advertising have become important players in the present scenario and advertisers are aware of their stranglehold on newspapers. The trend of not publishing ‘negative news’ eventually leads to the publishing of ‘paid news’.

Mr Ninan suggested certain correctives to tilt the balance towards integrity and credibility. The Editors’ Guild is working towards getting an assurance from all editors not to publish ‘paid news’. A “name and shame” strategy through which the names of those violating the rule will be publicised, dialogue to change unethical mindsets, and using every forum possible to discuss the issue are among the possible actions suggested by him. “If we do not retract we will have none other than ourselves to blame,” Mr Ninan warned.

Commercialisation of the press is a reality, with business goals being “harmonised” with editorial goals, and profit becoming the ultimate aim of media houses, explained Sandhya Taksale, a senior journalist from Pune. Paid news has now moved from the individual level to an organised trend, and this is a matter of great concern. Satyavati G V from Andhra Pradesh pointed to the widespread use of the media as a campaign plank by prominent leaders of the State during elections. The politician-media nexus that is growing in Andhra Pradesh is a worrisome phenomenon which journalists’ associations and the Press Council of India have taken up in right earnest, she said.

Mr O Abdurehman (Editor, Madhyamam), Mr M Kesava Menon (Editor, Mathrubhumi), Mr P Koya (Editor, Thejas), Mr B C Jojo (Executive Editor, Kerala Kaumudi), among others, represented the mainstream Malayalam press. Mr Menon suggested a legal remedy in the form of public interest litigation to counter the trend of paid news, with courts setting a precedent. There is also a need to mentor young journalists on ethics in the profession, he said. His view is that hard news sells, and professional journalists’ associations such as those which exist in Kerala have helped to arrest the trend of paid news.

Mr Yasin Ashraf (Associate Editor, Madhyamam) wanted the serious issue of paid news to be addressed in its entirety. If journalists are well paid, paid news can be avoided to a great extent, he said. Consumers also must be prepared to shoulder part of the burden. The issue of who decides what is news is a deeper malady than what is visualised, he added.

According to Mr Aboobacker (Deshabhimani), election time packages of newspapers, in evidence during the October 2009 elections in Maharashtra, comprise evidence of the nexus between media and politicians. Paid news is a manifestation of money power during elections, and news can be pre-paid or post-paid, he opined. According to him, debates involving the public and media professionals must be organised to counter the trend. The concept of a free press has become more significant in the present milieu.

Journalists, as practitioners of a democratic craft, need to play a significant role in society, and make news more meaningful and vibrant, said Mr B C Jojo. There is no difference between paid and unpaid news if the media chose to black out certain happenings, was the view of Mr Koya. The bias of the Kerala media is clearly evident when it chose to ignore a massive meet in Malappuram of Muslim women demanding changes in Muslim Law. The media campaign on ‘Love Jihad’ is another instance when the credibility of the media took a knock, he said.

Ms Kalpana Sharma, senior journalist and columnist, moderated the discussion which was open to the public.

The state, media and terrorism

The first session on February 7 focussed on ‘The state, media and terrorism’, in view of recent revelations and allegations about some individuals from Kerala being involved in terrorist plots executed in other parts of the country. Mr N P Chekutty (Executive Editor, Thejas) alleged that the mainstream media in Kerala took a position in contravention to democratic norms by not basing their reports on reliable sources when it came to issues relating to terrorism vis-à-vis the Muslim community. Tracing developments in the country and the state over the last decade, he listed instances when members of the community were booked by the police on fabricated charges. He cited the example of Abdul Nasser Madani who was arrested in Kozhikode and lodged in the Coimbatore jail for eight years, allegedly on fabricated charges.

The ‘Love Jihad’ campaign is another instance when even major Malayalam dailies did not base their reports on reliable sources. The media in Kerala played a big role in branding the entire Muslim community as a terrorist group. Even a magazine such as the Frontline, generally noted for its professed secular credentials, was outrageously irresponsible in its report on ‘Love Jihad’, he said. Such a biased attitude has created a feeling of discomfiture among the Muslims. The right of the minority to protest was being questioned and this amounted to the violation of a Constitutional safeguard, Mr Chekutty opined.

Mr C Gouridasan Nair (Senior Assistant Editor, The Hindu) admitted that although Kerala is a welfarist, benevolent state, with every individual being a recipient of some welfare measure or the other, the dissenter is placed on the firing line and subjected to inhuman treatment. Laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, under which a suspect can be jailed for six months before the due process of law would come into play, make this possible. Not many in Kerala question or are concerned about the plight of those arrested by the police.

Mr Nair admitted that the ‘terrorist’ was largely a creation of the media. The large network of middle class in the State meanwhile has more to lose than gain through dissent. A status quo mindset prevailed here, and an independent, active civil society was absent. Answering a query about custodial deaths during the Emergency, Mr Gouridasan Nair said it was an ugly reminder of the fact that, despite its credentials as a welfarist state, Kerala tends to be repressive towards dissenters.

The politics of the veil

Sister Jesme (author of the recent book, Amen) and Dr Khadeeja Mumtaz, author of Barza) – both of whom had the grit to brave repressive religious diktats – were the resource persons during the afternoon session on ‘The Politics of veiling and unveiling’. Sister Jesme, a nun who has chosen not to wear the veil, argued that although the veil is seen as a symbol protection, elevation and sanctification, it was in fact one form of subjugation and discrimination. In the Catholic community nuns routinely wear it as part of their dress code and other women, even in other Christian communities in the state, wear it (or cover their heads with the ends of their saris) during worship. Priests and men do not have to conform to any such dress code. According to her, many factors were responsible for her leaving the convent. When she was convinced that democratic functioning was a myth inside the convent she decided to walk out. “I had the calling to protest. I want to prove that a nun can be independent and at the same time serve the community.”

Dr Khadeeja Mumtaz, who was born and brought up as a Muslim and does not wear a purdah, described the change she had noticed in Kozhikode since the 1990s, when more and more Muslim women began to opt to wear the purdah. Women not conforming to the religious diktat about the veil were scorned. She wondered whether the trend was part of national or regional politics or international religious politics.

Dr Khadeeja, Head of Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Government Medical College, Kozhikode, spoke of the opposition she had to face from male students in the college because of her stand on the purdah. An article she had written in the college magazine on her misgivings about a woman such as the famous writer Kamala Das/ Madhavikutty/ Surayya wearing the purdah had created a controversy. She opined that reading the Quran in the literal sense is not meaningful. She also added that intellectuals have to reflect on the growing trend of Islamophobia. What is vital is a re-reading of the Islamic laws to ensure that the tenets of the Quran are not misinterpreted.

The last session of the conference was a field visit to the Palliative Care Institute where Dr Suresh Kumar, the institute’s director, delivered a lecture on Pain and Palliative Care. This was followed by a lecture by Dr Manoj on integrating primary health and mental health care.

The colourful concluding session of the conference took place in the open air theatre of the institute and featured a Nangiarkoothu performance by Usha Nangiar. Ms Nangiar is one of the last Nangiarkoothu performers left in Kerala. She is the only full-time professional Nangiarkoothu artiste from the traditional community of Nangiars, who are supposed to maintain this rich but slowly dying tradition. Nangiarkoothu is an art form which tells the story of Lord Krishna and is predominantly performed as a solo dance by the Nangiars. It is one of the most graceful dance heritages of India, highlighting the purity of ancient artistry backed by a thousand years of tradition.

The NWM-Kerala team that organised the Eighth National Conference of the NWMI in Kozhikode in February 2010 included Suchitra M, Vidhu Vincent, Reji R Nair, Remya T R, Chitra Ajith, Divyasree, Gayathri, Roshan Banu, Anjana, Krishna, Soumya, Radhika, V M Girija, Sandhya P P, Beena Rani, Sandhya Balasuma, Reshmi C R, Beena K A, Gita Nazeer, and Sajitha M. This report was put together by Maleeha Raghaviah, Freny Manecksha, M Radhika, Ranjani Raghavan, Sriranjini Vadiraj and Sameera Khan.