Feminism v. Religion?

17 May

I came across a picture (meme) posted on a feminist page I follow on Facebook. This picture really disturbed me, not simply because it is disrespectful, but also because it made me wonder where modern-day feminism is headed. After the progressive victories of feminism in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, has 21st century feminism lost its way and focus?

The picture in question –


And my reaction –
Feminism simply promotes the very logical idea of equal rights and freedom of choice for all. Respect for all. It doesn’t necessitate atheism. A person’s relationship with God is a very personal one, as personal as one’s sexuality. Denigrating that relationship is counterproductive, since it’s this idea of one set of people being more ‘enlightened’ than the other that necessitates feminism in the first place. Judging my choice to believe in Jesus or Allah or Shiva, now that’s as morally reprehensible as judging my life choices or blaming my dress style for rape. God, by and large, stands as a moral compass and source of strength for the majority. Let’s not disrespect that. God isn’t sexist or misogynistic, manmade organised religion is. The idea of God is actually asexual. If feminism starts dictating what I should and shouldn’t believe in, what’s good for me and what’s bad for me, how is it any different from the prevailing scourge of patriarchy? I’m an independent, adult woman -perfectly capable of choosing for myself, and rightfully entitled to that choice being unquestionably respected. So while I identify as a feminist, disrespecting the personal religious beliefs of anyone makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Look forward to hearing your opinions!

– Saumya Sharma

Bhopal and the London Olympics

16 Nov

Recently the ghosts of the past have awoken and there’s been a lot of talk about the controversial sponsorship of the London Olympics by DOW Chemicals. The problem with this is the fact that the infamous Union Carbide is a subsidiary of DOW Chemicals. Naturally this has lead to protests, in India and in the UK. A lot of conflicting viewpoints have come to light and I found it worth my while to pen down my take on the issue. At this point, I find it wise to include a disclaimer- although born and brought up in New Delhi, I am basically a Bhopali. I am quite sure this deeply affects my view on the issue. Nonetheless, here it is..

The aftermath of the Bhopal gas tragedy is more of a mindset issue rather than anything else. Even though we are one of the world’s strongest and fastest growing economies,we still don’t receive the respect we deserve on the world stage. A major reason for this lack of respect, is us Indians. India is always the country with population, poverty and corruption problems. While in no way diluting the severity of these problems and the need for attention, I find it necessary for everybody to realise that we are a very young country, a teeny bopper in comparison to the old fogies that are US,UK,France,Germany etc. And for our 60 odd years, we are remarkable. Progress is resonant in every corner of India and we are the world’s largest stable democracy,en route to being the world’s model for success. And our success is even more remarkable considering the path we’ve adopted, so starkly different from others in the same fray, namely China. My point at the end of this monologue on national pride is the fact that we cannot afford to be pushovers any longer, we are better than that. So even though we don’t have a gazetted holiday commemorating the bhopal gas tragedy, our pain,our suffering is no less than any other disaster in the ‘first world’ not only because india no longer classifies as ‘third world’ but also because we don’t adopt a classist mindset towards human life and death. Let’s not kid ourselves, safety measures were overlooked in Bhopal and the result is before us all. Why,how,what when..well those are question for Union Carbide to answer, their internal functioning is not our problem. Everything that goes wrong in India cannot be attributed to corruption. Let’s get real, we are neither the first nor the most corrupt country in the world. The fact remains that UC,and thus DOW, are responsible for the death,poisoning and illness of thousands and what we get from them is arrogance and a refusal to own up to their mistakes. An example must be set, in a nation of over 1.2 billion-every life is precious. And if a multinational company wishes to operate in India,as they mostly do, well they’d do well to keep that in mind. UC and by default DOW must be treated on the world stage for what they are- under trial murderers. UC’s inept handling lead to the world’s largest industrial disaster so to allow them to sponsor a prestigious event such as the Olympics is downright blasphemous. And if, in it’s greed for corporate money, the UK does continue with DOW as a sponsor of the event then our foreign policy should register and reflect this insult to the victims. India is no longer a playground for the Europeans and the Americans, we are a world power in our own right. Its about time we, as a nation, demand the respect that we rightly deserve.

Fallen Dictators and the Dilemma that Follows..

25 Apr

When Ben Ali fled Tunisia,little did he know that his departure would unleash a wave of revolutionary fervour in the Middle East and beyond. Egypt followed suit with Libya,Syria,Yemen and Bahrain close on its heels. In today’s scenario, Gaddafi shows no signs of relenting and the Libyan people are caught in a desperate stalemate. In Yemen, Abdullah Saleh has agreed to step down subject to immunity for himself and his sons. Bahrain continues its widespread crackdown on dissidents even though a young woman on a hunger strike for her arrested father and husband has captured the world’s attention. The people are demanding justice, so much so that the crown prince of Bahrain will not be attending Britain’s royal nuptials for fear of arrest. In my opinion, a very important question has arisen from these agitations across the region- what should be the fate of fallen dictators?

A mere few months ago, it was business as usual for the Mubaraks in Egypt. Hosni continued to rule with an iron fist while Gamel waited patiently for his turn at the throne. 2 months on, Hosni is detained at a hospital in Cairo with heart issues and Gamel is a prisoner at Tora Farm- Egypt’s most notorious prison. A trial for the Mubaraks will undoubtedly result in the death penalty, since the arrests themselves are a move to appease the dissatisfied Egyptians. It is quite natural for the Egyptian people to be out for some Mubarak blood after living under years of oppression and terror. Even in Yemen, the popular opinion of the people is to reject any deal granting immunity to Saleh. But are these knee-jerk reactions really beneficial in the long run?

It seems highly probable that a heavy handed approach with fallen dictators, justified though it maybe, would give the world many Ivory Coast scenarios. After the incumbent Gbagbo was defeated in elections he chose to hang on rather than relinquish power, unleashing a wave of violence and bloodshed across the country. Gaddafi may well be thinking along these lines- if he steps down it is his end, why not hang on with a shot at success. Although the thought of letting dictators go scot free makes one’s skin crawl, I think a balance between emotional retribution and sensible reasoning is the need of the hour. Post apartheid South Africa set a brilliant example of moderation. The tribunal investigating the crimes against humanity rejected the death penalty for offenders, stating that in order to move forward we must embrace our humanity beginning now and not deal in revenge and retribution. A moderate approach may go a long way in encouraging the dictators in Uzbekistan, Belarus and other countries to step down peacefully and ensure a smooth transition of power. Ultimately it all boils down to the maturity of the interim government and how well they can achieve the precarious balance between heart and mind. And as unlikely as it may sound, my glass-half-full thinking will persuade me to end with a prayer for peace in the Middle East!

Signing off,
Saumya Sharma,
New Delhi.

To cover or not to cover- The Burqa Debate

14 Apr

Before I begin this post, I want to apologise for my prolonged absence from the blogging scene. I’m currently pursuing my masters in London and there’s so much to do that I often find myself hard pressed for time. Rest assured, I’m back and I aim to remain quite regular in my posts from now onwards! And now to the matter at hand..

On April 11th 2011, the very controversial ‘burqa ban’ came into effect in France. This law does not specifically ban the burqa, but bans all face coverings in public places. This distinction is hardly important though since it is common knowledge that this French law is aimed at Muslim women. The French government claims that the ban further enforces two underlying principles of the state- gender equality and homeland security. In the eyes of the government- the burqa is a symbol of female oppression and also provides a convenient disguise for miscreants,namely terrorists. Hence it has to go. On the other end of the spectrum, the ‘burqa ban’ is seen as an assault on the freedom of religion and the freedom of choice by the hypocritical “Liberte” state.

In my opinion, France is a sovereign,secular nation and they have every right to do as they see fit. Also, they must be doing something right since France has the largest number of Muslims in the EU, most of whom are fiercely patriotic. Infact the ‘burqa ban’ affects only about 2000 of France’s 5 million Muslims. And when we talk about a democracy, its all about the will of the people right? Well the controversial bill was passed by a 336:1 majority and in a recent survey, 4 out of 5 French citizens approve of the law. In a way, every nation dictates what we wear. In no country is one allowed to roam public places naked. So if a woman is not allowed to roam the streets with only her eyes covered then why should she be allowed with only her eyes exposed?!

Looking at the bigger picture, is the burqa really an infringement of women’s rights? I would say a definite YES! (Let it be known, that my views on the burqa are mine as a feminist and do NOT make me an Islamophobe. There is a lot more positivity in the religion of Islam, although the position of Muslim women is a cause for concern.) In the past few weeks we’ve heard even feminist defences of the burqa, stating that its a woman’s right to choose. A feminist defence of the burqa is like cutting at the knees of feminism with a sword of misogyny. The so-called religious reasons for the burqa are a joke, nowhere in the Quran are there directions for women to cover themselves in such manner. The Islamic holy book does call for modesty in dress, but this is a dictate for men and women both. Infact the Imam of a mosque in Paris endorsed the law, stating that Islam was fast becoming a religion of fanatics and oppression. I don’t want to be naïve and claim that I believe that the burqa ban was motivated by purely altruistic motives. Sarkozy, who’s been sliding in approval ratings, finds the ban an easy way to appeal to the growing right wing thinking in France. But we must all keep in mind that since time immemorial, religion in general, be it Christianity or Islam, has been utilised to further male dominance over women. So maybe the means here in France are wrong, but they do justify the end.

Signing off,
Saumya Sharma
New Delhi.

Commonwealth in India-Let The ‘Games’ Begin!

8 Aug

Since the first edition of the Commonwealth Games in 1930, the world has witnessed 19 such events. But never before has any edition of the games attracted as much attention as the Commonwealth Games 2010 to be held in New Delhi, India. From corruption to severe delays, the Organizing Committee and the Government of Delhi have spared no effort in bringing CWG 2010 right into the spotlight. Well obviously the officials involved seem to think that no publicity is bad publicity, since they’ve chosen a month before the games to be the ideal time for public mudslinging and airing of dirty laundry. Set aside the delays and the corruption for a moment because let’s be realistic-this is India,what did we really expect? First things first, which dimwitted individual decided to bid for the Commonwealth Games in the first place???It would explain a lot if it was a NRI who doesn’t know the lay of the land. The only other explanation could be that we have mentally retarded people roaming the corridors of the Sports Ministry. Secondly, which equally mentally impaired person thought it was possible for the Government bodies to be able to handle all the preparations for the Games in an efficient and timely manner? We might be facing a very different situation if the responsibility of the Games was handed over to the likes of Lalit Modi. Fine, there might still have been misappropriation of funds, but at least they would’ve got the job done. It is my serious belief that the only reason Indian cricket flourishes is because the BCCI is an independent body. I realise I sound like a sardonic pessimist but don’t get me wrong, I am your average bull-headed Indian- trashing my country at every available opportunity but developing a sense of serious patriotism when finding an outsider with a similar view! But just for a while lets remove the rose-tinted glasses and confront the harsh reality.

So coming to the juicy bits of the fiasco, lets start with the usual drama of corruption. The Oxford Dictionary defines corruption as “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery.” Corruption is a social evil,so does that make Indian society just plain evil? Corruption is engrained in us from the very beginning. Whether it be a quick note in the hands of a waiter to jump up the que at a restaurant to the gifts showered on a minister to swing a particular tender, this greasing of palms is a way of life. What first catches one’s eye is the sheer stupidity of the person(s) responsible for the manipulation of the books to reflect the vast amounts of misappropriated funds. I mean Kalmadi might still be able to swing the issue of the treadmills ON HIRE for 9 lakh rupees each (although Harrods of London SELLS one of the best treadmills in the world for 7 lakh rupees each) but a toilet paper roll for 4050 rupees is just pushing your luck beyond all realms of possibility. I mean if you’re going to swindle hundreds of crores of taxpayer money, at least be smart about it! So the usual drama unfolded- first the media became frenzied about the “breaking news” of corruption in the Commonwealth Games. Then came the usual denials and oaths of honesty. And then upon further “breaking news” (and many talk shows and interviews) about mounting evidence, the scapegoats were lined up to satisfy the blood lust of the general public. Mind you, Darbari doesn’t come across as an innocent lamb but he’s definitely not the biggest cog in the wheel. Kalmadi bashes on regardless, it would take no less than a Prime Ministerial directive to get this man out, and Michael Fennell (Commonwealth Secretariat) has many a sleepless nights. Digvijay Singh (General Secretary,AICC) blames the Central Vigilance Commission for turning a blind eye while urging the public to back the games for matters of national prestige. ‘National prestige’..what a joke! Is Digvijay Singh “intellectually arrogant” enough to believe that hours upon hours of coverage about the corruption in the Games will be overshadowed by crowds in the stands of hazardous stadia waving flags to cheer on Indian athletes who probably won’t win anyway? But in the midst of this flying circus, what really has me rolling on the floor laughing is politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav feigning a long dead conscience to score a few point against the UPA government. I mean seriously, what kind of bubble do these people live in? My 7-year-old nephew probably has more common sense than them. But then again, this is India and we vote keeping in mind religion and caste, morality and conscience be damned.

Okay so a lot of people involved in organizing the Games wanted to secure the finances of their future generations. Maybe we wouldn’t be so agitated if these people had given some serious thought to the actual preparations for the Games. The Central Government and the Delhi Government have collectively spent approximately 50,000 crore rupees on the Games. And the result? Not a single project has been completed by the prescribed deadline. When public and media pressure about this tardiness built, the OC decided to start inaugurating facilities which weren’t even complete! A brilliant example of this is the Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Swimming Pool Complex inaugurated by the Sports Minister, M.S Gill on 18th July,2010. “This is an outstanding complex and a remarkable engineering marvel. It is equipped with all the modern facilities even better than the Melbourne Games,” Gill said. The reality? The first accident took place on the 27th of July, when Priyanka Banerjee from West Bengal was going to dive and a cover on the water drainage system around the swimming pool came loose. She received injuries in her leg. In addition, on the eve of the swimming meet,the false ceiling of the warmup pool at the complex gave away. And this isn’t just a one-off facility with problems. The Dr. Karni Singh Shooting Range was more or less swept away after enduring just a few hours of rain. There is no end to the shame, instance after instance of utter incompetence staring us in the face.

So whats the conclusion? My gut feeling tells me that we’ll swing the Commonwealth Games owing largely to the great Indian expertise in ‘jugaad’ (improvised quick fix)! And what after that? Well if there is a solution, it begins with bursting the ‘developed country’ bubble. India had not escaped the third world country tag, and judging by the current state of affairs, we may not be escaping it anytime soon. We are a country burdened with the post-colonial syndrome. And what might this be, you ask? Take the survivors of the Holocaust, who became obsessed with food even many years after being freed from concentration camps, due to the deep-rooted hunger and lack of food which was a part of the concentration camp horror. Similarly centuries of colonial rule have left an indelible imprint upon the Indian psyche. We are hoarders by nature, quickly gathering up and storing things found in abundance. This hunger, this greed is what drives almost all of us. Morality restrains most of us to reasonable bounds, whereas some are beyond control-bringing shame upon a nation of billion. So lets stop talking about India being the next superpower, and lets first attempt to pull our nation out of the endless filth in which we stand. Kashmir is burning, the Naxals are out of control and all we can talk about are the Commonwealth Games. Enough is enough! Either we stop complaining or we change our ways. Next time you skip a red-light, pay the fine instead of taking out a 100 rupee note, otherwise you are no better than the Kalmadis of India. If you can’t stand in the line for your licence, then you don’t have the right to complain because obviously status quo suits you. While pessimism floods my veins, I can’t help but sound idealistic, the ever optimist Indian inside me refuses to shut up. We the people are the only ones who can bring about change. How??? Now that’s for each one to figure out on their own. So go on, find yourself, take your spirit walk. And while we Delhiites stumble into yet another morning, figuring out which is the best route to take in order to avoid the Commonwealth construction, maybe its time for an entire nation to WAKE UP!!!

The Naxal Menace

12 Jun

It has been more than four decades since a bunch of agitators from a small village in West Bengal called Naxalbari decided to follow a violent form of what they called Maoist philosophy. The split within the Communist Party can be attributed to a certain section which decided that the fight for tribal rights is ultimately a fight against the state. What started as a minor movement in the northern parts of West Bengal consisting of roughly 1000 villagers armed with rudimentary bows and arrows has today developed into over 40000  Naxal “soldiers” equipped with guns and grenades spread across West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Not only have the ranks and files of this movement swollen tremendously, the Naxals have found support from certain sections of the academic and political “elite”. Booker prize winner Arundhati Roy has been outspoken in her support for the so-called tribal warriors. Freedom of speech is one thing but where do we draw the line between opinions and treason? And more importantly, has enough been done to crush this movement which threatens the very fabric of the state?

Author Arundhati Roy proclaims her right to say what she wants because according to her she isn’t an Indian citizen at all. In Roy’s own words, she is a ”citizen of the world” (if such a thing exists). If being a citizen of the world allows you to make critical comments on sensitive matters of state and support an anti-establishment movement, then where do I sign up? I want my “world” passport now! For heaven’s sake, haven’t we had enough articles about the good folk of Dantewada? There are times when a difference between state and citizen occurs, but this does not sanction taking up arms. Armed rebellion against the state is basically treason and is usually regarded as an act of war. So why then do we have these so-called academic elite supporting this movement which has come to believe in nothing more than cold-blooded killing? Maybe its an attempt at grabbing the limelight or maybe a bid at solidifying their empathic bond with the common man. Whatever it might be, Arundhati Roy and her like were way off target. Fighting for tribal rights is one thing and killing innocent security personnel and civilians is another. However much these misguided academics might proclaim, the Naxals are definitely not the Gods of small things. And while we’ve seen a few too many photo-ops of Arundhati sitting in protest with the tribal rebels, this Naxal quarter of support is surprisingly mum in light of recent events. In an obvious act of desperation, the Naxals have now unleashed a non denominative killer wave, targetting security personnel and civilians alike. Evidence of this can be seen in the killing of 76 security personnel in an ambush in Dantewada and the bombing of a civilian bus. The recent train derailment which claimed the lives of many innocents is also attributed to the activities of the notorious Naxals.

The recent increase in violence along the “Red Corridor” brings me to the more important question. Is the government really doing enough to crush this movement? Well to any sane thinking individual the answer is NO! The reaction to the Naxal problem begins with the usual state vs. center blame game. To make things worse, the hub of Naxal activity is West Bengal, a state ruled by the Left. While the Congress tries to handle an already delicate situation with an estranged ally, current ally Mamata Banerjee could not make things more difficult. What really is appalling is the Union Railway Minister’s reaction to the train derailment. The sad reality of Indian politics is that every incident is an opportunity to gain political mileage. Banerjee obviously views a tragic train crash to be the perfect moment to launch a political attack against the CPI(M)  and strengthen her position in the domestic politics of the state. Banerjee appears to be obsessed and possessed with one thing and one thing only- gaining power in her native state of West Bengal. Everything else is simply collateral. After West Bengal, the state with ever-increasing Naxal activity is Chattisgarh. This recently established state, to put it bluntly, is little more than cowboy country. This lack of development centered around the Bastar region can be attributed to both Naxal violence and the usual Indian reasons- corruption,lack of motivation etc etc. Considering that Chattisgarh has a BJP government makes coordination between center and state all the more impossible. Incidents involving the Naxals are viewed as a political battlefield rather than what they really are- a breakdown in the sovereign state machinery. According to me, the only way to combat the Naxals is to clearly demarcate the responsibilities and powers. A joint effort by the center and state is quite evidently useless. A policy of state control coupled with monitoring by the center might prove to be more effective than the current scramble for political mileage.

What I fail to understand is the reluctance on the part of the Congress to call in the Army. Poor Chidambaram is firstly tormented by the lack of consensus to deploy the army and then he’s slammed for being too honest. The primary mission of the army is to ensure national security and defense of the Republic of India. Additionally the Army is charged with maintaining peace and security withing national borders. A bunch of tribal hooligans running around blowing up buses and ambushing security personnel seems like a lack of national peace and security to me. It is understandable for the government to not involve the army in the early stages of such a conflict considering that the rebelling party comprises of citizens of India. But when all attempts at peace, including negotiations and involvement of the CRPF and IPS, have failed miserably and the Naxals continue to kill indiscriminately it is the responsibility of the government to take all necessary measures to get the situation under control. It seems quite simple to me-bomb the Naxals out of their forest cubby holes and send out a clear message to potential rebellions against the state, political consequences be damned,this is a matter of national security. I agree this is an over simplistic naive approach and if we lived in a such a perfect world, Naxals wouldn’t exist in the first place. But I strongly believe that the time for political maneuvering is over and its crucial that strong measures are taken to crush this ever-increasing Naxal menace. If the government doesn’t wake from its slumber immediately, New Delhi might soon be facing a Bangkok type seige-only this time the shirts will be red with human blood.

Saumya Sharma,
New Delhi,
12th June, 2010.

Panchayati Raj

15 May

A khap refers to a cluster of people united by caste and geography. The main rule of a khap states that all boys and girls in a khap are siblings. The khap panchayats (caste councils) are prevalent in Haryana, as well as parts of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.  Historically, the khap panchayats were basically a means for upper-caste Jats to consolidate their position and power. Khap panchayats have survived through the ages, but their mentality remains as medieval as their 14th century origins.

Suave, young and educated- Naveen Jindal had it all going for him. The famous court case fought by Jindal, allowing Indians the right to display the national flag, had added to the allure of the debonair politician-industrialist. All this faded into oblivion when Jindal wrote the infamous letter of support for the khap panchayats and also attended the Sarv Khap  Mahapanchayat (sort of an Annual General Meeting for medievalists!). Not only did this earn him the wrath of all sane thinking Indians but it also landed him in the not so esteemed company of INLD leader O.P. Chautala. The Congress, whose unruly flock has run amuck once more, finds itself in the throes of yet another controversy. None of this bodes well for the political future of Jindal. Why then did this Congress MP from Kurukshetra, Haryana decide to air his support for the khap panchayats?

It all boils down to politics, the only thing which possesses the power to turn sane men into irrational blabbermouths. Kurukshetra comprises of a 17% Jat population. Hence the Jat vote is crucial to any political party wanting to seize power. The Khap Panchayats have put forward a demand to amend the Hindu Marriage Act, hereby banning unions between a man and a woman of the same gotra or sub-caste. To add to their “glory”, the Khap Panchayats are known to sanction ‘honor killings’ where couples who resist the tradition and marry within the same gotra or sometimes even the same village, are mercilessly murdered or forced to commit suicide. The people who comprise these khaps are not blameless either. The Panchayats are not questioned and are mostly preferred over the judicial system of this country. Whether this support stems from the efficiency of the Khap Panchayats, they deliver a verdict in one sitting, or from the innate sadism prevalent in these people, is debatable. Coming back to the demand of the Khap Panchayats, the opposition INLD immediately pledged their support towards this proposed amendment. O.P Chautala brazenly called marriages between the same gotra as being ‘unnatural’. Further evidence of the influence wielded by the Khap Panchayats is reflected in a letter addressed to all Haryana ministers demanding that they clarify their postion on this issue by the 25th of May. Many ministers, Jindal included, were warned of a seige on their residences if they failed to attend the Khap Mahapanchayat.  Naveen Jindal obviously takes such threats seriously since he cancelled a foreign tour in order to be present for the meeting. The audacity of these caste councils, who take the law into their own hands, is remarkable.

In a public statement, Jindal professed his admiration and regard for the ‘traditions’ of the Khap Panchayats. Well either the Kurukshetra MP has a severely warped sense of morality or he’s just one big liar, because even a 5-year-old would know that there is nothing ‘admirable’ about anything the Khap Panchayats do. They are a medieval group of playground bullies spreading the plague of discrimination, insensitivity and barbarism.

Although compromised values and moral systems in Indian politics are as commonplace as stray dogs on the roads of New Delhi, one can’t help but give in to the temptation of hope. A word of caution to the Khap Panchayats- your days are numbered, progress exists to rid us of social evils such as yourselves. The Congress statement on the issue was a step forward, as the party distanced itself from the madness that has consumed Jindal. Considering that we lost a brilliant man like Shashi Tharoor over charges that haven’t been proved till date, it would really be horrible to see Jindal march on without facing the consequences for his actions. So wash Jindal’s mouth out with soap or threaten him with dire consequences, whatever gets the job done! The last thing we need as a nation is the young politicians, who finally provided a ray of hope, losing their minds. Power may be the ultimate mediator in all conflicts, but there must be someone in the government who can put an end to this insanity. My money is on the soft-spoken, brilliant man who is Manmohan Singh.

Signing off,

Saumya Sharma,
New Delhi,
15th May,2010.


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