When a “womel” replaced a “manel”

By Kalpana Sharma

If all-male panels are called “manels”, what should we call an all-woman panel?  Womels?

People, meaning even well-intentioned men, get irritated when women remind them that it is possible to attempt some kind of gender balance when organising panel discussions on a range of subjects.  But the norm remains virtually unchanged.  If the discussion is about women’s issues, children, health, the elderly or other so-called societal issues, there is a preponderance of women on the panel.  But if the topic is politics, business, foreign affairs, defence and even law, women are rare or non-existent.

During the extended election process to five state assemblies that concluded earlier this month on March 11, the majority of commentators on television channels were men.  There were women, some of the regulars.  The anchors were sometimes women.  But the majority on any panel discussing the elections were never women.

No wonder the exception stood out.  And not surprisingly, the person to break the norm was Ravish Kumar of NDTV India, the indefatigable journalist who continues to dare the establishment, break the norms of the dominant forms we see in mainstream television journalism, and yet survives!

On March 9, when all the other television channels were going ballistic over the exit polls, Ravish Kumar hosted a “womel”, an all woman panel of journalists who had covered the elections and were experienced political reporters.  The women journalists on the panel were Neha Dixit, independent journalist, Sunita Aron from Hindustan Times, Vandita Mishra from Indian Express, Supriya Sharma from Scroll.in and Poornima Joshi from BusinessLine.


Ravish Kumar deliberately decided to ignore the exit polls and instead drew out these journalists on the issues that faced the electorate in the different states that went to the polls.  The programme was informative, there was no shouting and screaming, no butting in or cutting off the participants.  The anchor gave each person adequate time to make their point.  In the end, the viewer came away with an enhanced understanding of the issues that underline the electoral process and that go beyond just the counting of the votes and the results.

In the last decade and more, scores of women journalists have been covering politics.  Unlike the 1970s and even to some extent the 1980s, no one is surprised today to see women interviewing politicians, covering election rallies, and writing incisive and analytical articles on politics in the print media.

Yet, on television, although women anchor programmes on politics, and are also reporters, they are still rarely seen as “experts” on the subject.  We have to question this.

Is it gender blindness on the part of mainstream television channels?  Or are experienced women journalists hesitant about pushing themselves forward even as their male counterparts boast about their contacts and experience, however limited?

Perhaps it is a combination of the two.  And even if one Ravish Kumar cannot topple dominant norms, his initiative has the potential to do so.

Why Irom Sharmila Lost

By Chitra Ahanthem

Several analyses abound as to why Irom Sharmila, icon of the struggle against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, was trounced in the Assembly elections. Chitra Ahanthem explains why no one – man or woman – stood a chance against sitting chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh. That Ibobi Singh, despite his party having won more seats, is set to be dethroned by the BJP which has staked its claim to form the government, is the other side of the story.


Widows of Vrindavan Assert Their Right to Citizenship

By Jyoti Punwani
The widows of Vrindavan periodically make news. Mostly it’s their sufferings that get written about, the neglect from close family members that drives them to Vrindavan to lead lonely lives, bereft of joy. Some time back, this mould was broken as reports came in about them playing Holi, the festival of colours that Vrindavan is identified with, but which these women had been forbidden from enjoying by custom.
But as these reports show, from asserting their right to happiness, the widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi are now asserting their rights to the privileges of citizenship, to which they are as entitled as anyone else.  Given that women barely get a mention in election reports, these two reports in two national papers are “news” in more ways than one.

The Meaning of Ninety Votes in Manipur

The Meaning of Ninety Votes in Manipur

By Laxmi Murthy

A day after the declaration of the results of the Assembly elections in which she garnered only 90 votes to sitting Chief Minister Ibobi Singh’s 18,649, poet and activist Irom Sharmila announced her decision to conclude her brief sortie into electoral politics. Soon after ending her 16-year long fast to repeal the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act on August 9, 2016, Sharmila, popularly called the ‘Iron Lady’, had announced, “I am the embodiment of revolution. I want to become the Chief Minister so I can change society here.”  In October 2016, against the backdrop of disapproval from local civil society groups about giving up her fast and shedding her iconic status to enter ‘dirty politics’, she launched a new party, the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) to bring about “non-violence, peace and understanding” to Manipur, a state wracked by decades of conflict.

Campaigning house to house, like Sharmila, with no large rallies or road-shows, PRJA’s Najima Bibi, Manipur’s first-ever Muslim woman candidate, promised improvements in education, women’s welfare and small-scale employment, communicating a broad message of development and welfare. She incurred the wrath of clerics who issued a fatwa against her, denying her space in the community burial ground in her village in Thoubal district. Lodging a formal complaint, she kept going, undeterred, as controversy and opposition from conservative elements was not new to Najima Bibi, having faced opposition when she started up a cheng marup (rice fund) co-operative for women, or even when she first began to move around on a bicycle.

Manipur with 86% voter turnout, witnessed one of the highest turnouts in its electoral history, and significantly, the female voter turnout was as high as 89%. However, only 11 women candidates contested among the 266 candidates across Manipur’s 60 Assembly constituencies, and as many as 49 constituencies did not field a single woman candidate.

The Manipuri electorate evidently has enough faith in the political system to come out in large numbers and cast their votes, this time without having to brave calls for boycott of the polls by militant groups –a regular feature in the past.

Yet, despite the desire to end corruption and bring about stability and development, or Sharmila’s promise of doing away with the AFSPA she had less than a hundred takers, with about 140 voters choosing ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA).

Even discounting her inexperience and lack of money and political heft, why was her showing so dismal? NWMI member Linda Chhakchhuak in the Outlook attributes Sharmila’s loss to having missed the agenda. “The polls weren’t about AFSPA, but who’ll save Valley from Hills,” she says. “And Irom Sharmila didn’t look like a saviour.” Her main opponent, Ibobi Singh, besides nurturing his constituency and providing universal employment, put forth a formula to protect the territorial integrity of Manipur from the onslaught of the movement for an ethnic Naga homeland emanating from the Hills. In fact, he even incorporated the repeal of the AFSPA in his manifesto. Chhakchhuak also analyses the role of Sharmila’s boyfriend in her short-lived political foray – reviled as an ‘outsider’ by her local supporters, he was seen to have adversely influenced her campaign, which was shaky and inconsistent to begin with.

Ironically, while she was rejected by the Manipuri voter, Sharmila’s succinct “Thanks for 90 votes” message posted on Facebook on March 12, has been shared 2800 times and got 7100 ‘likes’ and 849 comments as of the morning March 13. 

The woman voter – lost and found!

By Ammu Joseph

I read this series of op-ed articles on the elections in UP backwards, starting with “The clarity the secret ballot enables” (The Hindu, 9 March 2017), not realising that it was the third piece by Neelanjan Sircar, Bhanu Joshi and Ashish Ranjan of the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, examining the electoral scene in the state.

The fourth paragraph caught my attention, with its reference to “an undercurrent of frustration” among people “with the way most journalists and academics characterise the politics of Uttar Pradesh as driven by blind allegiance to caste and religion.”  The next paragraph pointed out that a lot more than caste or religion went into “an individual’s vote choice calculation” and that “to reduce this complex choice to uncritical identity-based decision-making is disrespectful to the voters of U.P.”

As I read on I was intrigued to note that almost every voter mentioned in the article was identified by caste.   And not one of them was a woman.  This is despite the fact that the writers were consciously political correct, using the female pronoun to refer to voters in general: “(The secret ballot)… ensures that a voter can express her preferences without intimidation.”

Having found a reference to an earlier piece in the sixth paragraph, I sought it out. The headline –  “Waiting for the silent voters of Uttar Pradesh to speak” (The Hindu, 7 March) – appeared promising:  after all, among the most silent (or is it silenced?!) of all voters are women.  The first paragraph was also encouraging: at a rural roadside tea shop the writers struck up a conversation with the owners, a married couple.  The woman seems to have successfully interrupted her husband twice.  “His wife interjects, ‘The SP will win.’”  “His wife looks up from making fresh pakoras, pauses, and quips sarcastically, “Oh yeah, he’s a good man.’” (referring to Yogi Adityanath, who her husband said had done much for the area). According to Sircar, Joshi and Ranjan, “The woman seems to have made up her mind, but her husband seems genuinely torn as to whether he will cast his vote for the BJP or the SP…”

That was the only reference to a woman voter in this second article even though, again, the female pronoun was used to refer to the generic voter: “Unlike a sincere voter, who always votes her most preferred party, a strategic voter is a voter who is averse to ‘wasting’ a vote on a party that has little chance of winning…” Focusing primarily on categories and patterns among voters (core and floating, sincere and strategic), this particular piece did not mention many individuals, but it did refer to caste, religious and political affiliations, and even language, as determinants of voter behaviour.  From the analysis it would seem that gender plays no role in this context.

The first article in the series, “Bywords in Bundelkhand” (The Hindu, 28 February), which I happened to read last, was rich in people’s voices:  “a diverse group, Hindu and Muslim, forward caste and backward caste” in a (Muslim) tailor’s shop, a “Rajbhar man,” “a small shop owner from the OBC Lodh caste,”  “a family from the backward class (OBC) Rajbhar community.”  The only problem was that not a single woman was, apparently, to be seen or heard.  It is not surprising that the “family” comprised only male members since women are rarely to be found “sitting and chatting in front of their home,” because they are usually too busy and, in any case, unlikely to be hanging around outside the house, waiting to talk to strangers.

Senior journalist Smita Gupta’s article, “Ear to the ground” (The Hindu, 4 March), which attempted to figure out whether “a village, with its specific caste complexity, local dynamics and cross-pollination of allegiances” could “hold pointers to the rest of the State during election season,” was refreshingly different.

Far from a “lady-oriented” piece, it nonetheless presents both women and men (from diverse backgrounds in terms of caste, class, religion, educational level, occupation, etc.) as citizens with their own political perspectives and preferences.  The women are not just wives who happen to be around – and even when they are they seem to have their own opinions (some express their real views only in private – but make sure they do! – while others are evidently assertive enough to contradict their husbands and/or other men).  Several of the women mentioned in the article also have occupations outside the home:  as anganwadi workers, a farmer and even a pradhan. As expected, women are the only ones who refer to drains, toilets and roads as issues to be considered in elections.  But they also obviously have strong views on notebandi and the impact of the central government’s abrupt “demonitisation” exercise on the lives of ordinary people.

I’d say this is a must-read this election season – and I for one would love to know what the women of Kalan have to say after the election results are announced, as well as a year down the line, and beyond.


An attempt to get women’s voices. But not enough

By Jyoti Punwani

While reporting on elections, it is easy to talk to men. Even if women are present on the scene, they tend to remain silent while the men talk. It’s a rare reporter who feels women’s views are worth soliciting, and rarer still is one who makes an effort to do so, specially if the reporter is male.

Ravish Kumar’s reports come to mind immediately.

Prashant Jha of Hindistan Times therefore, should be commended for being aware of this gap in election coverage. But alas, though he tried, he didn’t succeed in getting women’s views as this report shows.

Not even lip service to women

By Ammu Joseph

Issues of special concern to women are missing from election campaigns in the five states where Assembly polls are currently on, according to this Hindustan Times video in which Lalita Panicker is in conversation with Aasheesh Sharma.  

Is this because women are not yet seen as a “vote bank” despite the fact that female voters are turning out in ever larger numbers (recently overtaking male voters in Punjab, according to the Election Commission of India: 78.14%  to 76.69%) and, increasingly, exercising their franchise independently of male family members?
According to this report, women may well determine the results of the ongoing elections in U.P.  If that’s the case, how come political parties and leaders don’t seem to think it’s important to address the particular concerns of this sizeable electorate?