Letters from India No 10

´Letters from India´ is a fortnightly brief written by Finnish exchange activists participating in the Lokayan - Kepa co-operation programme. The ´Letters´ are circulated primarily among the staff of the organisations and members of the groups responsible for the joint activities, i.e. Lokayan´s Global Responsibility Forum - Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam and Kepa´s India Group.
Oras Tynkkynen


DELHI -- This Letter covers the period between two longer trips to Rajasthan in early February and Orissa and the Maldives in early March respectively. Apart from the short piece on the rickshaw workshop in Agra, all articles are based on either material I have read or people I have met in Delhi.

First I give a brief account of the situation of sexual minorities in India. The question I tried to look answers to was what it is to grow up and live as a gay or lesbian in the Indian society and culture. The second article dwells on the enigmatic and elusive phenomenon that is called the caste system. As my source of information I rely on P. Sainath's powerful essay on dalits. The short pieces in this Letter cover work with rickshaws in Agra, a metro system in Delhi and some notes from my meeting with Arun Kumar better known as Pani Baba (pani means water in Hindi). Finally in reflections I share my encounter with information technology in India.

Sexual minorities in India

In late 1998, Mamta (24) and Monalisa (19), two Oriya women, attempted suicide. They drunk insecticide Matadex mixed with fruit juice and slit their wrists open. Mamta's mother found the two girls lying on the floor bleeding profusely; Monalisa died soon thereafter. Mamta who was lucky enough to survive was, ironically, charged with Monalisa's murder.

Mamta and Monalisa were a lesbian couple. They were driven to their desperate attempt by the fear of being separated - Monalisa's father was transferred to work in another city.

Unfortunately this is not an isolated case but a story that can be heard many times over in varying forms. Sexual minorities in India are faced with a multitude of problems. They are outlawed by the state, harassed by the police and discriminated by people. Gays and bisexuals have to live under the pressure of mainstream heterosexist culture that does not recognise or tolerate, let alone accept, their lifestyle. It is not therefore surprising that denial, self-discrimination, guilt, shame and suicidal tendencies are prevalent among sexual minorities.

The most obvious sign of discrimination is the section 377 of the Indian penal code that dates back to 1860. It in effect criminalises homosexuality by forbidding "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" - a suitably vague formulation to provide ample opportunities for misuse. The police repeatedly use the section as a tool with which to intimidate and blackmail gays.

Indian movement for sexual minorities is still more or less in its infancy, but several groups already exist in bigger cities and it is fast gaining momentum. There has been a lot of media coverage recently, many more gay people find their way to support groups and even the first gay pride march has been held in Mumbai. Some gay activists argue that satellite TV channels and the Internet are among the best tools for empowerment and gay community does seem to be well established in the net.

Gay liberation groups would seem to suffer from an urban, educated middle-class bias that easily excludes people of lower classes, more humble economic background and a limited command of English. However, this bias is acknowledged within the groups and efforts are being made to counter the problem – organising separate Hindi groups for instance. The basic demands of the movement are repealing section 377 and decriminalising consensual homosexuality, the inclusion of homosexual rape in the criminal code, forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the constitution and allowing same-sex marriages under the special marriage act.

While the struggle for equal rights has just started and has a long way to go, many gay activists acknowledge that living as a gay in India is not all gloomy and depressing. In fact Indian culture has many strengths vis-à-vis gays. Showing affection publicly and casual caressing between male friends is culturally acceptable whereas in the West even holding hands is considered a telltale sign of homosexuality.

Another positive feature is Indian parents. In their infinite love and caring for their "darling children" they will eventually come to accept their gay offspring even if they may not understand why precisely their son or daughter has to be "different".

The experience of one Indian gay man is worth sharing. His mother told him that if he was not going to marry a nice girl, it would be better to marry a nice boy than be left alone. She even went on to look for a possible suitor. The son, however, thought he would be able to find a suitable partner on his own.

Breaking the glasses: improving the situation of Dalits

For many foreigners the caste system in India is strange, complicated, confusing and oftentimes outrageously unjust. Whatever people may think about it, caste is omnipresent in India. It affects every level of society and is manifest in all religious denominations. It is both very mundane and spiritual, at the same time personal and political. Despite 50 years of efforts to eradicate caste from the face of the earth, it is very much alive. It can be argued that it would be impossible to understand India without understanding caste.

Dalits ("oppressed") are the untouchables left outside the caste system. Dubbed harijans or children of God by Gandhiji, they number more than 160 million and constitute a sixth of the population in India - more than there are people in Pakistan. The contribution of dalits to the nation is vast, but they still suffer from blatant prejudices, discrimination and, at times, also violence.

P. Sainath, a renowned journalist and author who I had a chance to meet in Finland many years ago, has written a lucid and powerful paper titled "Dalits & Human Rights: The Battles Ahead". In the paper Sainath analyses the situation of dalits, shares some telling examples of how they are treated even in the 21st century and suggests action that needs to be taken to improve their lot.

In many schools dalit children are made to sit separately – provided, of course, that they get the education in the first place. They may not drink from the same pitcher with other kids and may have to bring their own pattis (carpets) from home to sit on.

If dalit students against all odds fare well with their studies, they may suffer from a backlash. In one case a girl who was the first of her community to complete her education had acid thrown on her face in cold blood. In many villages barbers refuse to cut the hair of dalits and dalit grooms are not allowed to ride a horse - a customary part of the wedding ceremony. Dalits may be required to stand up when upper-caste people pass by. Sometimes tea-shops use separate glasses to serve dalits and non- dalits. In eastern Uttar Pradesh the police may use dalits as a convenient and free labour force. In one case a jail had held eight times its capacity of people for three days and was understandably filthy. The police climbed on their jeep and arrested a group of Musahars (a subcaste of dalits) on false charges. The people were forced to clean up the jail and were only released after it was done. Incidentally this has made Sainath sceptical about moves to bar people with criminal records from contesting elections - no-one knows the number of cases in which the accused is framed by the police.

Sainath calls for a renewed effort against untouchability in all its forms. He argues that the only way to end untouchability is to simply destroy it at every level and in every form that it exists. "You have to act and act radically on issues like the separate glass system. Go out there and break those glasses if you must. But don't allow this system to continue."

Highlights from the fortnight


Tri-Chakra ("three wheels"), a joint effort between Asian Institute of Transport Development (New Delhi), Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (New York) and the development aid agency of the US government (USAID) has been working on improved rickshaws. The rationale behind is that rickshaws are a non-polluting and cheap mode of transport that should be revived as one solution to the burgeoning environmental problems in big Asian cities. Lokayan has also been actively working with rickshaw-wallahs (rickshaw pullers) as reported earlier, e.g. in the Kumppani magazine.

I visited the Tri-Chakra assembly workshop in Agra in mid-February and had a chance to see the new improved rickshaws. The standard model has two gears and is significantly lighter than the older models thus reducing the strain on the rickshaw-wallah. Passengers will appreciate a comfortable seat, a permanent top protecting from both sun and rain, and seat sides that increase safety. There are also separate models for transporting school children and cargo. There are some 50 improved rickshaws currently in action in Agra.

The difference between old and new rickshaws was easy to notice as a passenger. The old models were very shaky and insecure in heavy traffic and on potholed roads. The rickshaw-wallah had a hard time taking two people around and oftentimes had to resort to pulling. There was no top on the seat and sitting was not particularly comfortable. The new model provided an enjoyable ride - hopefully both for the passengers and the rickshaw-wallah.


Whenever I engage in conversations with Delhiites travelling on buses, a popular topic is air pollution. Delhi is considered to be the second most polluted city in the world. City's 12 or so million people have more than three million vehicles, most of them two-wheelers. The number of vehicles tripled between 1981 and 1991 and is expected to nearly double between 1991 and 2001 reaching four million. On an average five people are killed and 13 injured in traffic every day in Delhi.

I visited the Delhi railway museum with my mother who works at the Finnish railways. The museum had a fancy and informative multimedia exhibit of the new Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) that is planned to provide at least some relief to the congested and polluted roads of Delhi. MRTS, an urban transport system based on rails and large traffic volumes, is capital-intensive and has a long gestation period. However, it is more or less vital in a metropolis. There are urban rail systems already operating in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Chennai (Madras) and Kolkata (Calcutta) with Bangalore, Poona, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad soon to follow.

The construction of a wide network of metro lines in Delhi started in 1998. The first section will be opened for traffic in 2002. When the first phase is completed in 2005 with an estimated cost of 50 billion (thousand million) rupees, there will be a total of 55.3 kilometres of metro lines most of which are above the ground. The number of stations will total 45 and the lines are expected to carry 3.2 million passengers every day. Frequency of service should be one metro every three minutes during peak hours and the scheduled speed is 30 km/h. Eventually the network should span nearly 200 kilometres and cover most of the city.

While the exhibit paid scant attention to issues such as relocating people living in 6 500 jhuggis (huts) on construction lands and the suitability of selected technology, it is obvious that something has to be done to the burgeoning traffic in Delhi. If MRTS can deliver what it promises - a remarkable cut in pollution levels, fast and safe transport, reduction in congestion, more efficient use of energy - it is probably well worth the money invested.


Arun Kumar - not to be confused with the Arun Kumar who participated in the WTO ministerial in Seattle - or Pani Baba as he is more often known is an experienced activist, former journalist and, I was told, a fervent critic of the ways of the West. While waiting to meet a die-hard radical denouncing everything even remotely related to the West, he proved to be a very reasonable and knowledgeable person with sound opinions about Indian society and culture.

First Arun Kumar made it clear that he is not critical of the West per se, but how its values and systems are imposed on countries like India - the process he calls cultural transplantation. The western paradigm is destroying ¾ of the world. Although Indian civilisation is age-old, westerners with a past of merely 3 000–4 000 years come here to teach what Indian people should do. Westernisation of India is not going to work: in the past 200 years it has benefited only 5% of the population. The media behind cultural transplantation include among others the use of English, western notion of liberal values, technology and modern science.

Arun Kumar is not just satisfied with criticising the way things are going, but also proposes alternatives. Instead of trying to get rid of all western influences at once he envisages a solution that combines in a fruitful mix all the three strands of Indian history: pre-colonial, British and post-independence. Instead of yet another disruption he sees the virtues of continuity; societies cannot change dramatically overnight. The Indian government is not only responsible for its own people but also for fighting for other countries for instance in Africa and East Europe.


What has struck me in India is how enthusiastically people are adopting the fruits of what is sometimes dubbed the information revolution. India is the world leader in software exports and suddenly everyone in the urban middle class seems to have an e-mail account. Ranging from Vijayji's young daughter Manu to Ritaji's septuagenarian father, many of the people I have encountered are eagerly exploring new possibilities opened by information technology.

Internet has been a vital tool for me for the past three to four years, so I have been happy to find out that the connections in India are usually good. Internet provides access to a wealth of information on just about every imaginable issue – and some more thrown in for a good measure. For instance if I am interested in the devastation caused by the recent cyclone in Orissa, the effect of rising sea levels for the Maldives or the proposal Brazil has made in the UN climate negotiations, a number of reports and articles can be retrieved from the net without ever leaving the room or sacrificing trees for paper. Of course this has to be complemented with information from meeting people, travelling, observing and other methods, but it is of great help nevertheless.

E-mail is an even stronger case in point. It provides a cheap, fast and reliable way of communicating with those people who have Internet access all over the world. Although I am thousands of kilometres away from Finland, I can effortlessly discuss important matters with my activist friends back at home. Whenever in doubt about a certain aspect of international climate politics, I can turn to my colleagues in Norway, the UK or Bangladesh for example.

Information technology can be criticised for good ideological reasons and it is still a far-fetched dream for a majority of the world's people. However, there is one additional reason for my acceptance: it gives me a chance to stay in touch with my loved ones. All academic doubts aside, this is more than enough for me to make full use of the possibilities provided by this new technology. And as our friends in social movements know and was argued by the activists in the gay community, Internet can also be a tool for liberation.