Different Angles- Different Perceptions

A few years ago, my husband and I decided to attend a diploma course on Human Rights conducted by the Bombay University. It was a year-long course with lectures on Saturdays and Sundays. We were a group of about 25 people. Some of us were associated with projects in underprivileged areas. There were a couple of lawyers who intended to specialise in Human Rights legal practice. There were some social workers who wanted to formally study Human Rights. There were a few Police personnel and government employees who were encouraged by their respective departments to attend the course .

There were theoretical lectures by Professors of this discipline, as well as lectures by Human Rights activists. We found the course extremely interesting. We also realised that Human Rights legislation is generally formulated from the viewpoint of the developed Western nations- it often does not take into account the ground realities of life in the poorer countries.

We noticed, too,  that many Human Rights activists pursue their own personal agenda, which is often very different from what would really benefit the people that they claim to represent. But that is not the subject of this post!

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There was a lady in our group who was an officer in a Government department. One Sunday morning she came into the classroom a few minutes before the lecture was to start and sat down next to me. “Don’t you notice anything different about me today?” she asked.

I didn’t and told her so. ” Look, I’m wearing a cotton saree today and almost no jewellery” she explained.

Since I seldom notice what people are wearing, it was no wonder that I hadn’t noticed this. But now I understood what she meant. She usually wore expensive sarees and jewellery, so she did look different that day.

“Even my husband noticed”, she went on,”as I was leaving the house, he asked me whether I was ‘dressing down’ to fit in with the NGO types that were in my class.”

At this last sentence, I almost fell off my chair laughing. ‘NGO types’! Was that what the rest of us were!

But in a way she was right. When working with any project in an underprivileged area, it is necessary to establish a certain rapport with the people living there. We can understand what their situation is, what their problems are, only when they feel comfortable talking with us. And that does not happen if we stress the difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’ by wearing expensive or fashionable clothes.

So I suppose, ‘dressing down’ probably becomes a habit with anyone associated with activities in such areas. Not that I had really thought about it until this lady’s remark about NGO types!

And what she, no doubt, didn’t understand was that the attitude is much more important than the dress. I think that it’s advisable to ‘dress down’ your attitude if you want to successfully understand the problems of those living in underprivileged areas!

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Once our group went on a ‘field trip’ to Yerawada Prison in Pune.

For most of us, it was the first time we had been inside a jail. There were separate sections for male and female prisoners, and the ladies in our group were escorted to the section where the female prisoners stayed.

There was a large hall where the women inmates were taught weaving. They also earned some income by later working there. We talked with some of the inmates and learnt about their routine in the prison. It was a very different and fascinating experience for us.

I noticed a woman working alone, a little apart from the others, and went to talk with her. She had a young son, about two years old- he also stayed in the prison with her. She told me that though he would be allowed to stay there with her, she intended to send him to live with relatives in a year or two. She wanted him to attend ‘a good school’. All mothers want the best for their children, whatever their own situation!

I asked her whether they often got the chance to interact with people from outside. “Every few days” she told me! Visitors often came to see how jail inmates lived, she said. Even foreigners visited every now and then!

 I felt sad at this. Had we done the same thing? Come to see ‘how jail inmates lived’? Invaded their privacy just to experience something different? Or was our coming there justified because we wanted to understand their situation?

I really don’t know!

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26 thoughts on “Different Angles- Different Perceptions”

  1. that many Human Rights activists pursue their own personal agenda…
    It is true….

    but on a different note, I cant but note how rich your experiences are Manju! nd thankfully we get to read them too…

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  2. Dressing down the attitude is really important for sure..or how will you connect to the person you’re wanting to !

    Hm that’s pretty sad..I mean the impression that is being left on the inmates..of course they are not an object of entertainment that you people went there to watch…but others..what’s the purpose of their visits ? there must be some,right ?

    May be the jail inmates should be explained and be prepared for the visitors coming in..may be !

    but sure it’s sad that they feel like this !

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  3. Many, obviously, who indulge in social service are those who belong to the priveleged society. Some of them do good work and some are there only because they can ‘talk about it’ or ‘to be seen’. Dressing down to an extent is required, and as you put it the attitude is more important.
    And as for the visit to the jail, I guess it is not really an invasion of privacy. I do not think they expect privacy. And your visit would have definitely given you a view of their life and probably better ideas on how to make their lives more productive.

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  4. NGOs get recognition after it is felt that the promoters are loyal to a political agenda.
    Most of them have their own interest in mind.
    Does one need to say more when we read about human rights activists taking front stage when one civilian gets killed in cross fire in Kashmir. They would never show up when the Armed forces personnel are being blown up.?

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    1. Yes, I’m afraid that Human Rights activists have often shown bias and a hidden agenda. As you say- we have seen this in various conflict situations in India.

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  5. having been to many insitutions such as these – the residents say – they come to see us as if this is zoo, and we have no rights in these insitutions – just treat us as human beings at least.” some come straight to the point , ” can you help me? mera koi kassor nahi hai”. so some see such visits as a point of release -. Mostly the residents are told to “behave” when they are told that there are visits such as these and they are not asked, can some visitors meet you ?

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    1. but institutions for juvenile delinquents break your heart – most of them are impaired psycholgically for life – some land up for stealing a piece of bread and all those kids are so either to talk. i remember one kid so adept at a carpenter’s table and some being so good at drawing portraits . His parents didn’t have a job, than they begged, and when bread didn’t come they stole – just a few loaves of pav and for that he is with the police who beat the hell out of these kids.

      These people who land in jail – some of them did not have basic rights – and so they committed the crime and not because they wanted to. if we put their shoes we will realise that the kasoor – lies with the society. Some people have more food than necessary that they have become gluttonous. Haven’t we reached a full circle ?

      look at america now – when the jobs are no where in sight the internet is a grand scale crime hall, phishing and identity theft are on the rise .

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      1. Anrosh, I wish you would write posts about your experiences- I am sure many would find them interesting as well as illuminating!

        I completely agree with you that more than these individuals themselves, society is to blame for their crimes.

        There was a lady in our HR class who was associated with a govt. committee set up to enquire into the welfare of children in these Homes. The cases that she told us about truly shocked us. As you have written, some of these children have gone through horrible situations.

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        1. i have logged this in black and white and in detail and it is the property of somebody else now . may be i should get in touch with them and ask if i can have it back .

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      2. Yes.. the basic rights… wish it could be given to all…

        nd the % of Indians on the obese side is indeed increasing but the sad fact is that the number of starvation deaths are also increasing…

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        1. manju, i just have to try. and if i get my hands on it – i am hoping i can , you will know. because of some of the experience i recall when you or the others write, a flood of memories come back and that’s why it is mostly comments than a post.

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  6. Happy Kitten – I left my job to raise our children, and once they started high school, I had a lot of spare time. Also my family background is such that I preferred social/volunteer work over other things. So it was easy for me to have a few such experiences. 🙂

    Nu– The lady with the young son, whom I have mentioned, talked with me in a very sincere way. But I got the feeling that some of the others were sort of making fun of us. And if many people came to ‘look at them’, that would perhaps be understandable!

    Radha– The lady in our class whom I mentioned- she was not associated with any social work. And she had a quite friendly nature. I was amused to see, though, how she had noticed that most of the group dressed a bit differently than she did!
    Yes, attitude is the most important thing.

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  7. I think it’s important to understand how our jails are maintained. Because we keep hearing about how sometimes people spend years there simply waiting for their case to come up! As of now, there isn’t much awareness about the conditions and I’m glad that there are people like you who visit these places to give us first hand information…

    Even if it’s done to “get a new experience”, it still has the side effect of ensuring that jail authorities never get the feeling that no one’s watching. Otherwise sending a person to jail might be worse than killing them!

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    1. Yes, That’s true.

      Actually we saw that the conditions were not so bad at the Yerawada jail. But I understand that is it one of the better-maintained ones.

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  8. Govt. officer story is interesting. And to an extent true also. As you said, if we want to do something sincerely to the needy, we should be able to come closer to them to know their problems.

    ‘Or was our coming there justified because we wanted to understand their situation?’ Unless we know them, understand them, we will never know how to help them. This feeling of yours will be there, Manju.

    I have got a feeling that they must be feeling happy because somebody is visiting them for their sake, not for seeing themselves in the newspapers or TV. It must be a change for them too. The authorities too have to treat the prisoners at least a bit decently so that they don’t disclose the drawbacks of the prison. Who knows, some innocents might be there.

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  9. Sorry for being late. Once again. Somehow it seems my ‘clock’ has got disturbed, not the least due to Twitter which might even kill my own blog!

    You have made very important observations that many of us either dismiss or are not aware of. Some of these HR types do pursue their own agendas, which have little living in underprivileged areas!” This is something that many of us tragically have lost sight of; the biggest culprits being politicians for whom the connect ends with the dress.

    And, yes, a lot of us invade the privacy of “those people” to experience something. Something new to talk about and show off, something to write and speak about. Something to fill the bio with. The connect is getting lost in a lot of cases.

    But there is yet hope. And plenty of it. And we have seen that in the many inspiring stories that you have told us over the years here.

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    1. Twitter does seem to have replaced blogging to a great extent, hasn’t it? Though it seems to be a very effective way of expressing one’s opinions too.

      After learning about the philosophy and working of various HR groups, I had to think that though Human Rights is a great concept in theory, in practice they are very difficult to enforce. And almost always, enforcing HRs of one group means taking away the Rights of someone else.

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  10. NGO types’..so true, a certain way of dressing is associated with social workers..but then as you said its to make up the difference.
    Sometimes social work is taken by some socialites, for them its a pastime and to get some publicity. Once I joined one such forum, where they planted 1000 saplings, took pictures, got them published and thats it. Nobody bothered after wards whether they lived or died.

    As for jail inmates, its very sad but true that many people spend their life there and there trial never even starts.

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  11. manju, where is this banner from ? A real picture ?
    I was looking at old photographs of bombay – and was shocked ! to see the swaying coconut trees

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    1. We took this photo a couple of years ago on a trip to Orissa. This place is in the countryside a few hours out of Bhubaneshwar. Looks just like Kerala, doesn’t it? 🙂

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  12. LOL at NGO types 🙂 My company has been doing a lot for underpreviledged in collaboration with different NGOs in and around Pune. I participate voluntarily in these activities..And I fee lsatisfied after doing my bit for them ! Truly its different perspectives 🙂

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