A NYC press conference called off: cold weather or politics?

Quirky turn of events puts spotlight on rape in India.

By Sujeet Rajan

NEW YORK: It was a so-called press conference announced in ‘loving memory of Damini (recent gang rape victim,’ to be held today on the steps of New York City hall, organized by a New York-based Indian American publisher of a news weekly, and with alleged confirmations of some top city officials and politicians as speakers at the meet, including US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio – who is a likely contender for Mayor, but a few hours later in the day, on January 23rd, it was called off, with the organizer citing the ‘extremely cold weather.’

The strange turn of events, or the non-event, that transpired had a catalyst also, in the form of Ravi Batra, a prominent Manhattan-based attorney, who circulated an email, including to this reporter, addressed to the organizer of the press conference, Jasbir ‘Jay’ Singh, the ‘CEO/Chief Editor, Media Resources Inc, d/b/a Hum Hindustani News Weekly.’

Batra, started off his email with: ‘Jay, Urgent. Let’s talk. This Rally is ill-advised and ought be cancelled.”

In his email, Batra, while denouncing the fact that even one rape is too many, defends India’s number of rape cases compared to some other nations, which he – citing UN figures – terms as ‘per UN statistics India enjoys the near-lowest rapes per capita amongst nations.’ He cites also the Abner Louima case – the Haitian male raped with the handle of a bathroom plunger by New York City policemen in 1997.

“Rape can be made even more horrendous by evil outlaw rapists, yet In addition, the Indian judiciary has acted by fast-tracking the prosecution with due process and the Indian government has introduced legislation to strengthen the protection of women and to have greater and certain punishment for rapists convicted of this horrible crime as a general deterrent. In the Louima case, the bad cops were prosecuted for federal civil rights violations and convicted, and good cops vindicated and society protected,” wrote Batra.

According to Batra, the rally organized by Singh, “even if well intentioned and not a publicity seeking device, will aid in continuing to create a false impression about a friendly nation that observes the rule of law and has a documented political history of being in the forefront of nations advancing women to power and cherishing women’s rights. That religiously, Hinduism enshrines the concept of strong women in power capable to exacting justice (Durga) by just punishment of those who do wrong is beyond dispute.”

Batra continues: “This Rally will subvert the facts and end up defaming a friendly nation and a people who have shown that they are freedom and democracy-loving, love the rule of law and who have petitioned their government and their government is acting with all deliberate speed to deter-by-very tough laws this soul disturbing Delhi Rape from ever happening again. Finally, I must observe, that like Israel, India has been on the forefront of effectuating the principle that was announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Rep. Carolyn Maloney in 1995 during the Beijing Conference: Women’s Rights are Human Rights. Israel gave us Golda Meir and India gave us Indira Gandhi long before there was Maggie Thatcher from England. Hillary is the closest we came to a lady president.”

Citing the UN statistics on the high number of rape cases in other countries, Batra says in the email: “India doesn’t deserve the unfair and unjust bashing that this rally will cause. I’m circulating this email to prevent a mis-direction and mis-education of the People’s right to know and prevent a bilateral injustice within the comity of nations. I request the Rally be called off, or the mis-use of the First Amendment to mis-inform the public discourse cease and desist.”

Batra signs off his name as Chair, National Advisory Council on South Asian Affairs.

A few hours later, after the press conference was called off abruptly, Batra circulated another email addressed to the organizer: “I greatly appreciate your call just now informing me that you got my email request to cancel the press conference/rally, and that you have decided to cancel it. I applaud your wise judgment in that regard, as well as that of your co-hosts.”

In an interview to The American Bazaar, Singh, when asked as to why was a press conference being called more than a month after the incident happened in India, on December 16th, said “it was going to be a candle light vigil.”

“We were not going to condemn the Indian government,” said Singh. “We were instead going to talk about measures taken by the Indian government like fast track courts for rape cases.”

Singh said he didn’t cancel the press conference because of Batra’s email. Asked if he plans to hold the press conference next week, when the weather is expected to come back to normal temperatures for this time of the year, Singh said the press conference was now canceled.

“We were given space by Bill de Blasio in his office, but it could accommodate only 20-25 people, so we decided against it,” he said. “We would have gotten a space on the steps of New York City hall next week, but only next Tuesday or Thursday, so we decided that it would be too late for us to hold a vigil.”

According to Singh, a dozen Indian American and elected officials were confirmed to speak at the press conference, but he wouldn’t name them. In his email yesterday, announcing the press conference, apart from the names of Gillibrand and de Blasio as confirmed attendees, he had also named Reshma Saujani, who was previously the Deputy Public Advocate of New York City, and who lost the 2010 Democratic primary for the U.S. House of Representatives in New York’s 14th congressional district against incumbent Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney.

Speaking to The American Bazaar, Batra says the rape case of the unnamed girl in India who later died of the injuries she sustained during the assault, has now become “an indictment of India and Indians.”

Referring to the Louima case, Batra retorts: “We all have evil cops everywhere. Does that make New York City bad?”

Batra, apart from running his own practice in Manhattan, and an entrepreneur, was a former member of the New York ethics board, which he resigned from last year, and is also a de facto ambassador for India, having been appointed by the Indian government as Member of the Governing Council of OIFC (Overseas Indian Facilitation Centre), a public private partnership between the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) to help overseas Indians to expand their economic engagement with India.

As the ghastly rape and murder case plays out in the courts in New Delhi, and the discontent of the masses continue to simmer over the measures taken by the government so far to combat the rising number of rape cases in the country, the politics of it continues to unspool around the world, with the expatriate Indian community caught in the cross-hairs of condemning it whole heartedly, but cringing also at the widespread condemnation it has brought to the country and the image of the community itself.

Even as Batra was defending India, writing from his office in Manhattan, to ward off further bad publicity for India, a few blocks away, the Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, was speaking up for the country, and like Batra, invoked the image of ‘Durga,’ the Indian goddess of creation, in his speech.

At a session of the UN Women Executive Board, Michelle Bachelet, Under Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women, began her statement by referring to the Delhi rape incident, as well as the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio, and the shooting in Pakistan of girls’ education activist, Malala Yousufzai.

“This senseless violence, wherever it takes place, must be condemned and perpetrators must be brought to justice. There is greater awareness than ever before that violence against women and girls cannot and will not be tolerated,” she said. “Violence against women is rampant everywhere, in all countries. And everywhere, women and men are rising up and saying: enough is enough.”

She said that UN Women is calling on governments everywhere to commit to end violence against women and girls.

In his address, Puri said that in India which is home to 500 million women, “…even one incident of violence against any woman or any girl, is an incident too many, and simply unacceptable.”

“The edifice of the Indian society is premised on the all-embracing power of the Indian woman – which in our ancient thought and religious belief, bestows her the power to create, nurture and transform. She is not only worshipped as ‘Durga’ the goddess of creation, but also as ‘Saraswati’ – the inspiration for all music, poetry, science and learning,” said Puri.

“It is, therefore, absolutely reprehensible that such an horrific tragedy happened on Indian soil. While it would remain a blot on the strong feminist credentials of the Indian societal fabric, the incident indeed shook the whole conscience of our nation at its very roots,” said Puri.

Puri said the India government will ensure that “the culprits are brought to speedy justice, and the sternest possible message sent out by giving them the punishment they deserve. The Government of India shares the collective anguish of all Indians, on this most horrific incident…”

Puri’s words have only been a reiteration amongst most Indian diplomats around the world, as they have strived to save the country’s image as much as possible from the incessant negative battering by the media, emanating from the case.

The rape case even found its voice at Davos, the hallowed shrine of the global business community, which is what the Indian government is most wary of, that the negative impact of the rape case might actually end up in erosion of Foreign Direct Investment.

The chief of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, speaking of the rape case in India and the Yousafzai incident, made a passionate appeal for gender equality.

“I dedicate the moment to Malala, daughter of Pakistan, and another daughter in India (the 23-year-old gangrape victim),” Lagarde said, and then posed a question, “But you will ask what it has to do with economy. It is indeed about economy and equality and bringing in prosperity. No policymakers have paid enough (attention) to the fact that more equal distribution of income would help in supporting women better. Gender inequality is also very important and the policymakers have not paid enough attention to either of the two. The fact is when women do better the country does better and policymakers need to understand this.”

(Sujeet Rajan is Editor-in-Chief of The American Bazaar).

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