Arrest of activist sparks protests across India

This is not the first time that the Indian government has come down hard on an anti-corruption campa

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in India to protest against the arrest of Anna Hazare, the country's most prominent anti-corruption campaigner, and at least 1,200 of his followers.

Hazare, a 74 year old activist, was detained by police hours before her was due to begin an indefinite hunger strike to demand tougher laws on corruption.

The harsh crackdown follows a series of huge corruption scandals, which have sent the government's poll ratings plummeting, along with wildly inflated food prices. The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has been accused of being out of touch with public opinion.

This is by no means the first time that the government has come down hard on anti-corruption protestors. The New Statesman's recent India special is essential reading for the background on this latest incident.

Patrick French describes public support for Hazare's cause, and how his public fast in April successfully forced the government to promise a harsh parliamentary bill on corruption (the bill has since been denounced by Hazare as a "cruel joke", as it exempts the prime minister and senior judges. This has prompted his latest protest).

In April, an elderly Gandhian activist named Anna Hazare led a public fast against corruption in public life. As a method of exerting pressure, it was certainly effective: the government agreed to introduce a severe law against corruption - the Jan Lokpal Bill - and to give Hazare and his nominees a hand in drafting it...

With the Middle East convulsed by change, it was understandable that the Indian media should draw parallels between Hazare's pro¬test and the events in Tahrir Square, Cairo. The spontaneous support expressed for his cause has more in common with the Tea Party movement in the US, however, than the Arab spring: it grew out of a sense among educated, middle-class people that the government was aloof, and that something indefinable but important was being taken away from them. The protests sprang from pent-up frustration and a sense that, even as India is growing richer, corruption is deepening and professionals are becoming isolated from the workings of government. The country might have one of the largest middle classes in the world, but its members are kept out of the driving seat. Even business tycoons share the growing feeling that India's political leaders are part of an alien tribe, with which they have little in common.

Nor is the harsh crackdown on Hazare and his supporters unprecedented. In the same issue, Siddartha Deb describes action taken against a guru known as Baba Ramdev:

This year, he began to make ever more strident pronouncements about corruption, including the way money was allegedly being siphoned out of the country into Swiss bank accounts. By June, his statements had grown into plans to hold a public gathering in New Delhi that would be part yoga camp and part protest rally.

The Indian National Congress (INC) government made a conciliatory gesture by despatching some of its senior ministers to meet Ramdev as he arrived in the city, but the guru went on with his plans, beginning a hunger strike on 4 June at the Ramlila Maidan grounds. Tens of thousands of Ramdev's followers gathered at the venue. Shortly after midnight, the government sent in a team of riot police. Tear-gas shells were fired, sticks were swung and, after a futile effort by members of the crowd to shield Ramdev, the guru was arrested. The authorities sent him back to Haridwar, from where he threatened to continue his campaign even as the government began an investigation into his business affairs, including his acquisition of the island of Little Cumbrae.

Due to mounting public anger, officials have ordered Hazare's release. However, he has refused to leave jail unless police drop the conditions they set for his freedom, which include limiting his fast to three days. Hundreds of his supporters have begun a vigil outside of Tihar jail. With protests on-going today, it does not look like the government has succeeded in burying this protest yet.

To read everything from our India package, including an interview with Arundhati Roy, click here.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.