Tag Archives: disenfranchised

Reckless Facebook Comments to Facing Trial

Megha Majumdar’s novel, A Burning, released on June 2 is a highly anticipated debut by an Indian American writer this year. Majumdar grew up in Kolkata, India, and then attended Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University where she pursued graduate studies in sociology. She is currently an editor with the online magazine Catapult.

I approached Majumdar’s novel with a bit of trepidation. Advance praise from acclaimed authors like Amitav Ghosh and Tommy Orange made me feel that perhaps my expectations had been primed to an unreasonable high which the experience of reading the book would not be able to fulfill.

However, this novel actually captured me from its opening pages and kept me in its spell till the end. Its appeal stems from its taut narrative structure resembling the plot of detective fiction or courtroom drama, albeit without the typical resolution of such popular genres. This novel’s purpose is not so much to uncover who committed a heinous act of terrorism but to expose the ways in which the Indian state has failed its most marginalized communities.

The novel unfolds through the point of view of its three major characters: Jivan a young Muslim woman who finds herself accused of terrorism on the basis of a thoughtless comment she writes on Facebook; Lovely, a member of the transgender Hijra community who takes English lessons from Jivan and aspires to become a film star; and PT Sir, a physical education teacher who was once a mentor for Jivan but who, in his quest for political power, quickly abandons any moral compunctions.

The two female characters’ narratives are offered in first person while PT Sir’s sections of the novel are rendered in the third person. This parallels the greater intimacy that readers are invited to forge with the two female characters.

In the very first chapter, we are informed through Jivan’s voice that a train has been torched at a station near her house. She sees the burning train but just rushes home to safety. In the shanty home that she occupies with her parents, she follows a Facebook thread on the train burning incident and writes the reckless comment accusing the police and the government of inaction towards the victims and equating them with terrorists. Her comment goes viral and soon she is accused of being friends with a well-known terrorist recruiter. She is arrested and becomes an inmate of a women’s prison. 

In the sections which follow in her voice, we hear of her family’s history of eviction from lands considered to be rich in minerals, the brutalization of her father by the police, the tenuous efforts to start a new life in Kolabagan driven by her searing ambition to step into the middle-class and rescue her parents from destitution. 

Like Jivan, Lovely, too, is struggling to enter middle-class, overcoming the obstacles of poverty and the ostracism she faces as a member of the transgender/intersex Hijra community.

While we have seen representations of Hijras in Indian fiction, Anjum in Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness being a notable example, Majumdar offers a fully developed and complex emotional life of Lovely. She faces constant humiliation but never loses faith in her ability as an actress. Yet, traditional expectations of patriarchal society prompt her to push away Azad, the love of her life, and drive him to a traditional marriage that will give him children, even though he had resisted the idea before.

PT Sir is already a member of the middle class, unlike the two other protagonists. But he aspires for more power and more of a sense of importance beyond the humble borders of a teacher’s life. His ambitions lead him to seek refuge in the culture of political sycophancy, paying obeisance to the nationalist party leader, carrying out petty acts of subterfuge, and gradually dispensing with the last vestiges of moral conscience.  

In depicting contemporary India under a neoliberal regime that on the one hand ushers in a consumerist urban culture, Majumdar is fearless in exposing its underbelly with its total disregard for the lives of the poor and the destitute, and the myriad ways in which the nation betrays them. To this, she adds an astute understanding of the role of social media platforms in exacerbating the dangers of disenfranchised citizens.

Everyone, including Jivan, can have a cellphone and a Facebook account, these platforms make her more vulnerable to becoming a target of social media outrage and scapegoating. Her impulsive comment on Facebook exposes her to being branded as a terrorist in the court of public opinion well before her actual trial. While social media provides Lovely the opportunity to disseminate her acting video and finally command the attention of a serious producer, it covertly censors her from expressing support for her friend Jivan, as the culture of fandom is fickle and aspiring stars have to carefully calibrate their personal and political comments to retain popularity. 

Social media is depicted as a source of power and currency, all other institutions of a democratic society seem to be crumbling. The media, the police, the justice system are all shown to be mired in corruption. In an era of beef lynchings, attacks on journalists, police brutality on students in various universities, and scapegoating of individuals as anti-national, there is an uncanny correspondence between the fictional and the real events.

Currently, mass protests against police brutality on minorities in the U.S instigate a fight for global criminal justice reform and support for Black Lives; this novel and its concerns resonate with dreams of justice by oppressed people across continents.

Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.


A Burning: by Megha Majumdar. Knopf, June, 2020.

Journey from Coerced Sterilization to Misinformation

The dialogue around health and healthcare systems has increased at similar rates to that of the pandemic. Fingers are pointed at the lack of ventilators, hospital beds, and testing kits. 

While it is easy to pick at the chipped paint, the flawed structural foundation becomes glaringly obvious when there is less paint to chip. Much like the horror one might feel seeing a panel of their home infested with termites, America’s structural integrity is threatened by its hegemonic narrative – its own version of termites. Exploration of government policies, in the past and present, is a necessary context for the receptiveness of diverse communities to information from government sources. 

A History of Racialized Care Breeds Distrust

Racism was not a singular one-dimensional vector but a pandemic, afflicting…communities at every level, regardless of what rung they occupied.- Ta-Nehisi Coates

History of racialized care has had an adverse effect on communities of color. Racialized care takes into account your race and subsequently, the healthcare you receive. African American, Latinx, Native American, and AAPI populations are disproportionately subjected to worse healthcare due to income, language barriers, lack of research, and implicit bias from healthcare professionals.

But above all, healthcare in the US is informed and shaped by an oppressive history. Disenfranchised communities have been given reason to be wary of a healthcare system that has been used as a conduit for injustice.

Virginia Hedrick, Executive Director of the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health and panelist at Ethnic Media Services April 17th briefing on the impact of Coronavirus on diverse communities, noted the distrust of the healthcare system by Native Americans and their unwillingness to believe in the protocols of the pandemic. And why wouldn’t they be skeptical, considering the “sterilization of Native [American] women existed up until 40 years ago”, Hedrick added.

So what were marginalized populations encountering up until 40 years ago? And perhaps even as recently as 10 years ago?

In the 1960s, President Lyndon B Johnson led the Great Society Project in an effort to eliminate poverty by increasing access to welfare and social services. The backlash came from physicians, white men, who took it upon themselves to lower the rates of people on welfare. No short of a God complex, they believed that by sterilizing women of color, they were helping society – limiting birth rates in low-income, minority families. 

Between the 1960s and 1970s, 25% of Native American Women were sterilized by the Indian Health Service; various government programs formed the Indian Health Service. IHS had found that the average Native American woman had 3.79 children to the white woman’s 1.79 children; within 10 years that number declined to 1.99 for the Native American woman. This was attributed to education and higher income but unwanted sterilization was erased from the historical narrative. In actuality, the decrease in births had to do with the use of coerced sterilization as a procedure to help a medical ailment even if it was unrelated or nonconsensual.

A map from a 1929 Swedish royal commission report.

Latin and African women were targeted starting in 1909 when states started adopting eugenics programs. 32 states rallied together to advance eugenics during which 60,000 people were sterilized. In the documentary, “No Mas Bebes”, a Mexican American woman speaks to the trauma of being sterilized while giving birth to her children. This story isn’t dissimilar to the story of sisters, Minnie Relf and Mary Alice, two mentally disabled African American women, whose mother tried to get them birth control shots and, unbeknownst to her, they were surgically sterilized. Relf vs. Weinberger, a landmark case, revealed that 150,000 poor women were coerced into sterilization under the threat of their welfare being taken away from them. 

Mental institutions and prisons became breeding grounds for such programs and even a law was passed allowing anyone committed to state institutions to be sterilized. Until as recently as 2010, there were cases of inhumane treatment in California prisons and it is reported that 150 Latina inmates had been inflicted with forced infertility

Eugenics was just the start of questionable activity by the US government. It progressed beyond sterilization when marginalized populations became lab rats for large-scale experiments. There are 40 documented studies done on incarcerated peoples and we have yet to know the number of undocumented studies; most studies hurt the recipients and yielded no results.

The US Public Health Service worked on a study with Tuskegee University to observe the natural history of untreated Syphilis for 6 months. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment ran from 1932 to 1972, lasting 40 years during which the patients were purposefully misinformed, misdiagnosed, untreated, and eventually, forgotten. 600 impoverished African American men, 399 with Syphilis and 201 without, joined with the promise of free healthcare; healthcare which was inaccessible to the black diaspora due to their race. Without informed consent, those with Syphilis were not told of their condition. Instead, they were led to believe they were being treated for “bad blood”. To make a bad situation worse, the free treatment the patients were receiving was no treatment at all. By 1947, penicillin was discovered as a cure but was not given to these patients for another 25 years. Not a single one of the patients consented to the experiment and many died without ever knowing their actual cause of death or that their death was preventable.

Racialized disparities in health factors in the omission of and lack of care given to minorities. Asian Americans were less likely to be asked about their lifestyle, mental health, and doctors did not understand their background and values. The same study, additionally mentioned that Asian Americans felt their doctors did not listen, spend as much time, or involve them in decisions about their care. Significantly, not much is documented about Asian American health until the 2000s. 

Lack of Access Presently

Genoveva Islas, Founder of Cultiva La Salud and panelist for EMS, is confronting the plight faced by the farmworkers in Fresno. Fresno has 1% of the farmland, provides 25% of the food we’re eating in California, yet the farmworkers don’t have personal protective equipment, health insurance, savings, or retirement funds. A majority of these farmworkers are left out of the CARES Act and their housing and food security are in question. “We need a just and fair immigration system”, Islas advocates, putting the spotlight not on the lack of healthcare, but on our immigration policies that leave immigrants and undocumented people at a disadvantage. She wants to ensure that the pandemic is not a time when those who are already being exploited are driven to the fringes of society without access to basic human rights. 

Distrust is the Seedling and Misinformation is the Byproduct

COVID19 has brought with it an onslaught of news, statistics, and warnings, both fake and real. Minority groups are struggling with effectively parsing and using this information given their inconsistent histories with the US government and healthcare systems. 

Virginia Hedrick reminds us that in Native American populations, the myth is that the Coronavirus “was here in December and that now, there is herd immunity.” Many within Native communities believe that homeopathic remedies have the ability to heal and protect someone from COVID19. 

Another reporter at the EMS video briefing expressed that African American populations are taking social distancing and Coronavirus information lightly. 

One only has to look as far as their WhatsApp groups to find confusing and misleading information and anti-Asian propaganda.

A doctor on the frontline at the University of California, San Francisco, and EMS panelist, Dr. Tung Nguyen, acts a buffer to inaccurate information:

People within your network may be struggling, sifting through information and misinformation (real and fake news) about COVID19. The onus is on our communities to understand that American history is rife with instances of disinformation and misinformation. Discerning what information is relevant requires collective work.

And right now, more than ever, action must be taken against an infodemic that is percolating through the pandemic. 

Srishti Prabha is the current Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


Featured image is a poster for a 1971 rally against forced sterilization in San Francisco, CA designed by Rachael Romero. (Library of Congress)