Chapter 56 - Human Rights

The Prime Minister of Tawa – 56

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The cost of my domestic peace treaty, Mash told himself as he rose up to shake hands with Girlee. Nedeem and the Minister for Cultural Affairs were also with him. Girlee had brought a colleague with her. Mash had expected Girlee to be her chirpy and chatty old self, with a little bit of awe at meeting the Prime Minister. However, Girlee was anything but chirpy or chatty. And if she was awed, she showed no sign of it. Girlee’s companion was even less friendly. They both looked at Mash and the other two ministers as if they were enemies with whom a nebulous truce was being negotiated.

‘It’s been a long time Girlee,’ Mash said.

‘Yes, it’s been such a long time. I had given up hope of ever seeing you again. And now thanks to your wife, we meet once more.’ Mash noted the thanks given to Judy. Girlee was right. If Judy had not requested him and if he weren’t trying to cosy up to Judy once again, he wouldn’t have agreed to meet Girlee.

‘My wife has told me a lot about you,’ Mash began. If he expected it to win him any brownie points with Girlee, it did not. What has Judy been telling this woman? Mash wondered. He had slipped back into talking terms with Judy a month ago. But even now their relationship had not gone back normal. Even now, there were times when Judy treated him like a stranger with whom she was forced to be civil. Judy had met Girlee three or four times altogether since their first meeting sometime in early 2002. That was almost two years ago, when she had invited Girlee home for tea after hearing Mash ask Kamel to fob her off. Maybe he was wrong. For all he knew, Judy and Girlee were meeting each other regularly when he was spending time with Sulawa. No. No way. It was very unlikely that Judy considered Girlee to be a friend. They had absolutely nothing in common. Most probably Judy met her after the initial meeting because Girlee pestered her, and Judy had nothing better to do with her time.

‘This is my friend and colleague ___________. Human Rights Watch is run by us. I mean, we are the main people there. We of course have a lot of others who assist us. Mash missed Girlie’s friend’s name. He looked at Nedeem to see if he was faring any better. Nedeem was playing with this mobile phone and was hardly paying much attention to Girlee. The Cultural Affairs Minister was even less bothered.

‘So tell me, what can we do for you? Judee tells me that you are human rights activists and have many good ideas which I ought to listen to.’

‘Yes, your wife has been kind enough to receive me and listen to my ideas,’ Girlee said politely. She hasn’t got close to Judy, Mash noted with relief. The last thing he wanted to find out was that Girlee had become Judy’s confidante during the period when their relationship was strained and that Girlee knew all about the state of his marital affairs for the past one year.  ‘And I’m glad she has been able to persuade you to meet us,’ Girlee added.

‘I too am glad my wife was able to persuade me,’ Mash politely replied.

‘Even though it took her a while to persuade you,’ Girlee’s friend said by way of rejoinder. Mash gave her a puzzled look.

‘After Girlee met your wife for the first time. Wasn't that more than eighteen months ago? No, almost two years ago? You met Judee-ree in March 2002 and now its December 2003. Your wife promised to get us an appointment. We thought maybe a month. But it’s taken a while for you to meet us.’ Girlee’s friend spoke as if she expected Mash to fall to his knees and crave for an apology.

‘Maheshdas-raan is very busy,’ Nedeem cut in. There are so many things he needs to attend to.’ Girlee and her friend ignored him altogether. It was as if they were sure that Nedeem and the Cultural Affairs Minister would never ever agree to their requests.  And they wanted to have nothing to do with them. ‘Why did you invite them to this meeting? their demeanour seemed to ask of Mash.

‘We had hoped that after you became the Prime Minister, there would be some change. But to be honest, there hasn’t been any!’ Girlee rolled out the first of many accusations. Girlee was in her late forties with very short, cropped hair. She wore a doree, sarong and thuli, but had such an air about her that she might have been wearing suit and trousers. There was only a faint hint of the chirpy girl she had once been. Had she been pretty? Mash tried to recollect. No, he had never thought her to be pretty. She used to be very shapely – not too slim, but not too plump either, with a few curves in all the right places. All that was now well-hidden under the multi-layers of fat she had piled on. Girlee’s friend was a bit older than Girlee but had longer hair. She too wore traditional Tawan clothes. But unlike Girlee, there was no way she could ever have been considered anything close to good-looking. Her pockmarked face was unlikely to have ever caused a man heart to go aflutter and her small sharp eyes had obviously never been in the business of causing heads to turn.

What do you want from us, tell us? the Cultural Affairs Minister asked.’ Girlee and her friend ignored him just as they had ignored Nedeem.

‘These two people are in the best position to help you. In fact, if you ask me, you ought to have met with the Interior Minister and the Cultural Affairs Minister before you tried to meet with me.’ Mash wanted Girlee and her friend to realise that it wasn’t acceptable to belittle Nedeem and the Cultural Affairs Minister in his presence.

‘But your wife said you would meet us and listen to us,’ Girlee said.

‘I am indeed listening to you. And I’ll do my best to help you.’

Girlee took a deep breath with the air of someone who had been cheated.  ‘There are of course so many things wrong with this country,’ she began. Mash gave her an encouraging smile. ‘But I’ll just stick to the top five issues.’ Mash gave her another smile – this time a smile of gratitude.

‘Our police forces are not only corrupt but have no concept of human rights. They actually believe that they have a right to torture anyone they arrest. And usually, they arrest only poor people. So, something needs to be done to change that.’

‘Do go on. I’ll wait till you’ve mentioned all the top five issues before I comment.’

‘Number two, our laws regarding rape and other offences against women are antiquated. Marital rape is not an offence. I wish you legislators would realise that the burden of proof in the cases of offences against women ought to be relaxed. In a country where women play such a small role in public life, where most women stay at home and are incapable of living on their own, it is cruel to treat offences against women on par with other offences. I don’t think we’ve had a single conviction for domestic abuse.’

‘We’ve not had a single conviction for tax evasion either,’ Mash said. ‘But do go on. I’m not saying that one is less important that the other. What’s next?’

‘Homosexuality is an offence even now. I am not saying that it should be legalised right away. But at least it ought to be decriminalised.’

‘What’s the difference?’ Nedeem asked, ‘between legalisation and decriminalisation.’  Mash was surprised to see that Nedeem had actually been paying attention.

‘Legalisation would mean giving homosexuals legal rights – such as the right to marry, the right to inherit property and the like. I am not…, we are not asking for that at this stage. We are a long way away from all that. But at least, at least, don’t make it a crime. There’s that horrible provision in the Tawa Penal Code which the British created for us. Anything against the order of nature. If any act against the order of nature is a crime, then most heterosexual couples are committing crimes almost every day.’ Girlee waited for Mash to smile at her joke. Mash refused to oblige her. Nedeem in fact went a step further and asked, ‘is that one of your demands? That we should treat heterosexuals who have sex against the order of nature on par with homosexuals and punish them?

‘No, of course not. I was only joking!’ Girlee protested.

‘Is this a joking matter?’ the Minister for Cultural Affairs asked Girlee and her friend. They ignored him.

‘Number four. Offences against children. We have a record number of street children in Hepara. Eko is not much better. There are so many children living on the streets. Something needs to be done about that. I mean, it’s a question of allocating funds for running more orphanages, getting people to adopt more children and … And I guess, we should spend less on defence and more on things like this. Now that we have a peace treaty with the SFF ...’

‘Number five?’ Nedeem asked.

Girlee snorted softly and said, ’Prisoners rights. We have so many under-trial prisoners. So many people languish in jail without a trial. It seems so unfair. We thought that after General Naranin left, things would get better. But things have not got better.’

‘So, what do you think can be done about all this?’ Mash asked.

‘We need to cut down on defence expenditure and spend money on these things. We need more orphanages, more schools, more teachers, more hospitals, more doctors, more nurses….’ Girlee stopped, waiting for Mash to contradict her. But Mash remained silent, and poker faced. ‘Human Rights Watch brings out a report every quarter. I’d like to give you a copy of our report for the last quarter.’ Girlee took out three copies of the newsletter and gave a copy each to Mash and the two ministers.

‘So, tell me Maheshdas-raan, when do you think we’ll start seeing some change?’ Girlee’s friend asked.

‘Trust me, I agree with everything you say. It’s just that, it’s not easy to implement all of this in one go. Even though I agree with you in principle, it’ll take a while before we tackle these things.’

‘Now that we have peace in this country once more, will there be a cut in the defence budget?’

‘Why should there be a cut?’ Nedeem demanded. ‘In fact, the civil war showed how important it is to have a strong army. We will have to use this peace to modernise our armed forces so that they can be ready for any eventuality.’

‘So, there will be no cut in the defence budget?’

‘No, definitely not! And the common man on the street will support us in that.’

Girlee sighed. ‘There are so many other things I could tell you about, but I’m sure you’ve pressing matters to attend to,’ Girlee said.

‘Go on, tell me, are there a lot of other things?’ Mash asked with a smile. ‘I thought we’ve practically covered everything.’

‘Oh! But there are. For example - prostitution. Either the government ought to spend a lot of resources and prevent it from happening. Or else, it ought to be legalised. Legalised and regulated.’

Before Mash could reply, Nedeem burst out with a ‘how can you say something like that? As long as I am the Interior Minister, I will never allow prostitution to be legalised.’

‘I agree with Nedeem-raan,’ the Cultural Affairs Minister chipped in. ‘Tell me’, he asked Girlee, ‘If your own mother or daughter wanted to be a prostitute, would you let her do that?’

Girlee was shocked for a moment. Then she recovered and said, ‘that’s not the point I’m making. Prostitution does take place. We are unable to prevent it. So many women get trafficked as a result of it. So, what’s the best way forward? How can we help these women?’

‘You haven’t answered Minister-raan’s question,’ Nedeem said furiously. ‘Tell me, if you are in financial trouble and your mother says she wants to work as a prostitute, would you let her?’

‘Nedeem,’ Mash protested. ‘Let’s not get too personal. I consider all women in this country as members of my family. I would never agree to any of them becoming a prostitute.’

‘I agree with Nedeem-raan,’ the Cultural Affairs Minister said. ‘Even with regard to homosexuality. It’s against our culture. Why should we decriminalise it? Just because western countries allow it, why should we follow suit?’

‘Tell me Girlee-ree,’ Nedeem said, ‘if your own son decided to become a homosexual, would you let him do that? Won’t you beat him black and blue till he sees some sense?’

‘No, I wouldn’t,’ Girlee howled in protest. ‘Sexual orientation is genetically pre-determined. You can’t punish a person for that.’

‘If that’s the case, everything is genetically pre-determined. Murderers commit murders because they are genetically programmed that way. A kleptomaniac can never be punished because his genes force him to steal.’

‘But in western countries, kleptomaniacs are not punished for theft. Instead, they are forced to have psychiatric treatment,’ Girlee’s friend protested. 

‘’That’s brilliant. Maybe we should start doing that here as well. You’ll have half the country claiming kleptomania. Of course, each and every Seeda will carry a certificate saying they suffer from the most severe kleptomania. Also, I assume you would want rapists to be let off, if they show they suffer from a mental illness?

Girlee and her friend were silent. They looked at Mash who turned his face away.

‘Tell you what, as long as I am the Interior Minister, homosexuality will always be an offence,’ Nedeem grimly promised Girlee and his colleague who quietly got up and made their way out.

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More by :  Vinod Joseph

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