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Saturday, November 27, 2021

Sound and fury in the Hills

How can the image of Uttarakhand hinge on a few copies of an offending booklet?In her article, `Savaging the civilised' (IE, May 10) Namit...

Written by Urvashi Butalia |
May 12, 2000

How can the image of Uttarakhand hinge on a few copies of an offending booklet?

In her article, `Savaging the civilised’ (IE, May 10) Namita Gokhale raises several important points about the now well-known controversy over the report, AIDS aur Hum, produced by Sahyog, an NGO based in Almora. However, there are some crucial points on which she inexplicably remains silent. The first of these is to do with that well worn thing: human rights. No matter what the fault or culpability of Sahyog (and incidentally, another point that is missed out is that Sahyog has actually apologised for having caused offence and has offered to withdraw all copies of the booklet in question), there can be no justification for the abuse and violation of human rights its activists have faced.

Immediately after problems broke out on the content of the pamphlet, several Sahyog activists were attacked; two of them still remain in jail unable to get bail; the entire body of lawyers in Almora has refused to take up their case. This last circumstance is often quoted in the media as a way of proving Sahyog’s guilt. No one has asked about the ethics of this refusal: why is it that lawyers are only too willing to take up cases of all kinds of criminals including murderers, drug peddlers etc., with the full knowledge of their guilt? Precisely because the law believes that even known criminals must be given a chance to prove their innocence. But in this case, Sahyog activists have already been condemned.

So also, by implication, have NGOs for being “self serving” and “lacking in credibility”. It always amazes me how quick we are to condemn those who are at least trying to fight for change. There is no doubt that among NGOs too, there are both exploiters and serious, committed workers. Yet we are very quick to lay blame on all NGOs, universalising from the experience of a few. Let us not forget too that NGOs, like other political formations, do not come into the world ready made, with all the answers. NGO activists also make mistakes, as the Sahyog activists have done, and they learn from those mistakes, as hopefully the Sahyog activists will do. Let us not forget too that in what is known as the social sector, the contribution of NGOs has been crucial. Why is it that we never talk about this? Indeed, for all the criticism that is levelled at NGOs, very little is levelled at the State. What is the reason for the rapid spread of AIDS in some parts of India? Not the lack of NGO activity but rather, Statecorruption, State apathy, State misuse of funds, the lack of State accountability.

Somehow, when controversies of this nature arise, emotions run high and people make statements that they would perhaps not do otherwise. It is this kind of emotionalism that has led Namita Gokhale to respond to the Sahygg report “as an Uttarakhandi” objecting to the classification of her “home state as a place where incest is rife, where fathers and brothers routinely sleep with their daughters and sisters…” Yet, is there any place in India where incest is not rife? Had the author of `Savaging the civilised’ not been an Uttarakhandi, would her response to the conclusions of the booklet have been any less valid?

There’s little doubt that the Sahyog report is faulty and ill-conceived. The pity is that activists within the group did not think to examine the report or edit it carefully before it went out into the public domain. But they have recognised their mistake, they have apologised. Why then, to use Namita Gokhale’s phrase (though differently from how she uses it) all the “sound and fury”? There is no doubt that the pamphlet has caused widespread resentment among a range of people but then, a further question presents itself: can the image (and the image of Uttarakhand, especially of activists within the movement, has always been a peaceable, non-violent one) of an entire region be changed with the limited circulation of a few copies of an offending booklet?

The booklet may make ill judged conclusions about Uttarakhand: the answer is to rebut them, not to throw its writers into jail. The answer is to hold them accountable, not to deny them their constitutional rights.

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