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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Movie Review: Court

India's judicial system is reeling to provide justice to the billion plus population of the nation with its outdated machinery and flawed conceptions of justice. This is a reality that everyone in India knows and it is also the reason why people normally shy away from court proceedings and the police. Yet, director Chaitanya Tamhane's magnificent debut not only translates this sorry reality to the screen, but it does so while exposing the hidden class narratives and an almost mechanical conception of justice, as opposed to a humane one, adopted by the legal fraternity of the country today.

Narayan Kamble (Vira Satidhar) is arrested for abetting the suicide of a sewage cleaner by inciting him to commit such an act through his folk songs. Advocate Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), a young criminal lawyer, appears in proceeding after proceeding where his pleas for a reasonable interpretation of the law are repeatedly thrown out of the window and with it is thrown out the conception of justice. While 110 year old laws and stock witnesses are relied upon to unsuccessfully prove a completely fabricated charge, life outside the court drags on in its monotonous routine. 

The title of the film leads you to believe that it tries to flay the incapacity and incompetency of the country's judicial system. In my view, it not only succeeds in doing that, but it achieves much more by weaving the personal lives of the lawyers and judges involved into the courtroom drama. The prosecution lawyer, a middle-aged woman, is shown bickering to a colleague in the bar library about the unnecessary delay in the trial and suggests that the judge should simply sentence the accused for 20 years. Later, we cut to her home where she dutifully assumes the role of a housewife in what is obviously a patriarchal household. Later, the family goes to watch a play where the protagonist is seen kicking out people from UP and Bihar out of his household and extolling the courage and virtues of the Marathi Manoos. It is a chauvinistic play which tells you about the chauvinistic mentality of all those who have come to see it.

When Mr. Vora, who is a reasonable young man, tries to protest an irrational application of an outdated law, he is targeted by members of an ethnic sect for "hurting their sentiments". Still unperturbed, he is shown securing the bail of the accused at last and also helping the family of the victim. He is a lawyer with a conscience in a conscienceless system. The judge, Mr. Shirodkar, although admired by some lawyers as sharp and efficient, is shown to be a firm believer in numerology. He goes through the procedure in a monotonous way, without any regard for the humane aspect of the law. He is also shown extolling the virtues of an IIM MBA which guarantees a truckload of cash every month upon graduation. The film subtly underscores the point that where the motive is money, justice quietly takes a backseat.

In between all this, lies the accused Narayan Kamble. He is the cynosure of a peeved system which targets him because he dares to exercise his fundamental right of free speech in the remote corners of Maharashtra. He writes radical books and sings radical songs and incites the downtrodden from his own community to take matters in their own hands. He is perhaps the only character in the movie with a better social and political understanding of all despite having the poorest financial standing. An aged man, he is the symbol of the skewed class hierarchy of modern India, who is dragged into the labyrinthine corridors of India's legal system for questioning such an arrangement in the first place. No wonder that as soon as he is released, he is promptly charged with another baseless and more dangerous accusation.

The achievement of this movie is not that it exposes the weakness of our criminal justice system. Its real achievement is its depiction of the opposing social interests of the prosecutor and the prosecuted. Court is perhaps the most brutal Neo-Noir film of our times, just like Do Beegha Zameen was for the post-independence generation. You cannot miss watching this film. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Bihar Election Results: Modi wave has become Modi vapour. Why is his charisma fading?

Photo Courtesy: Truth of Gujarat on Facebook

This was published on Khurpi

The Bihar election results have shocked the BJP. Till a day before, the cadres of the party had been expecting a victory. The party had ordered 100 KGs of sweets and firecrackers to celebrate the anticipated victory. However, as the trends of the Bihar election results began coming in, the party embarrassingly had to cancel the order placed for the celebrations. The BJP got a massive reality check when the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) emerged as the single biggest party with 70+ seats. The Lalu Yadav who was supposed to be the biggest liability for Nitish Kumar’s Grand Alliance proved to be the biggest vote catcher in the elections. A gloomy Sambit Patra was seen singing paeans to the virtue of humility in various television studios and the otherwise combative BJP spokespersons were meek and subdued due to the shock given by the Bihari voter.

The BJP’s explanation for their defeat is that they lost to the “arithmetic of caste”. It is a dishonest explanation and one that shouldn’t be bought. The real reason for their defeat is that they are still campaigning as if it is May 2014 and they have formed a government with majority for the first time in 30 years. By not declaring Chief Ministerial candidates in other states where they have won since, they thought they could perennially ride on the Modi wave to win election after election. Delhi busted that belief. And now Bihar has shattered it.

Alarm bells are ringing in Nagpur and Ashoka Road. Has the Modi wave begun to fade? It is this writer’s submission that the Modi wave has not only faded, but it has now become a vapor. The people of the country are slowly beginning to shake off the veil of development that the BJP and RSS used to hide their real Hindutva agenda and are now watching the ruling party’s actions with apprehension and dismay. Here are the factors which are responsible for this change in the mindset of the common man.

Modi’s hubris is damaging people’s trust in him

The people of the country overwhelmingly voted for Modi in May 2014 because he represented the kind of qualities one expects in a leader. A decisive, no-nonsense, development oriented, incorruptible man was pitted against an unprepared, reluctant, blundering dynast defending the most corrupt government in Independent India’s history. Since then Modi has transformed into a globe-trotting, arrogant, know-it-all who bends colleagues to his will to get his wishes fulfilled. He has under delivered on his promised reforms agenda, has been too pre-occupied with image building on the international stage while displaying none of the qualities of a statesman. He is seen as an admired orator who is silent on the rampant inflation and blatantly communal politics being practiced by his party. We are supposed to believe that he is a tough leader who will teach Pakistan a lesson, rein in the bullying tactics of China and forge relationships with superpowers like USA while at the same time accepting the fact that he is helpless and cannot rein in potty mouths from his own party. The common man has begun to see through the ridiculousness of this proposition and has begun to realize that like others before him, Modi has surrounded himself with yes-men, who do not give him a reality check and keep him immune to any constructive criticism.

Although he has become the PM, he still has a street fighter image

Despite becoming the Prime Minister, Modi still speaks and behaves like a RSS pracharak. He uses the kind of language that does not suit anyone of his stature and has an extremely contemptuous attitude towards the Chief Ministers of the opposition. Continuous victories had made him hallucinate and dream of himself as an ideologue whose sermons would be consumed by the people like samosas and jalebis in festive season. But not only does he have no action to live up to that image, he is in fact colluding with the more rabid elements of his party to reorient the plank of his government from Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas to ‘ghar wapsi‘ ‘ramzaade vs. haraamzade‘ ‘Go to Pakistan‘ ‘Reservation hatao‘ etc. He still believes that plastic surgery was pioneered in India when Shiva rejuvenated Ganesha with an Elephant’s head while at the same time slashing the funding for science and technology related research. It is hard to follow such a ‘leader’ seriously.

He has a non-inclusive approach 

While many writers, artists, filmmakers, intellectuals etc. have been returning their awards protesting against the growing atmosphere of intolerance in the country, the Prime Minister does not even have the courtesy to allay their fears by taking a note of their concern and promising to work in a direction that includes everyone in the development story. Instead, his and his party’s PR machinery is busy discrediting and assassinating the character of such dissenters. Modi is very reluctant to admit that communalism is vitiating the atmosphere of the country, tearing apart the social fabric and is hurting India’s economic prospects. His Mann Ki Baat programs do not tackle these uncomfortable topics, his tweets do not mention the same and his speeches and rallies are full of chest-thumping and braggadocio. The reason is that it has become his habit to see the party as the country and all others as the opposition.

All quiet on the Economic front

As shown by this brilliant article in the Indian Express, all Modi has done in the last 18 months is to repackage old schemes of the UPA-II and relaunch them with a glitzy marketing campaign. Inflation is rising and the budgets of key social sector schemes have been heavily slashed (such as Mid Day Meal scheme by 32.6%, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan by 22% and for health and education by 15 and 20% respectively). His non-inclusive approach has meant that the Parliament has seen frequent logjams early in his tenure and the key GST bill is still pending. In addition, Arvind Subramnian, NDA’s own Chief Economic Advisor has cautioned the government that its attempts to tamper GDP figures to fit its political agenda is hurting India’s credibility in the International Market. While the assets of some business leaders close to the Prime Minister continue to grow manifold, the rest of the country is still waiting for the economic miracle that the Prime Minister and his enthusiastic followers promised in the run up to the General Elections.

A stunning defeat in the Bihar Assembly elections has meant that Modi should forget about getting a majority in the Rajya Sabha at least during this tenure. The only alternative before him now is to reach out to various sections of the opposition and work with them in the parliament to pass key economic reform legislation while at the same time gagging the vitriol flowing out of the hyper Hindutvawadi pracharaks in his party. If he fails to do that, both Modi and the BJP would have lost a historic opportunity to prove themselves worthy of their mandate and the Modi wave would turn around and become an anti-Modi tsunami.

Bhakt Logic: If you are anti-BJP, you are 'Anti-National'

Over the last few weeks, one thing has become very clear in the ongoing political discourse of the country. If you are anti-BJP, you are an anti-national, unpatriotic, ungrateful fool who is exploiting his/her right to freedom of speech and expression while living at the mercy of the majority of the Hindus of this country. If you as much as mewl a word of dissent, expect to be on the receiving end of slander, abuse and character assassination because, hey, despite criticizing Hindutva principles while living in a Hindu majority country you are still alive. You should thank your stars that the Hindutva government isn’t as bad as the Islamist theocracy of Saudi Arabia, otherwise you would’ve been beheaded without a moment’s notice. So you shouldn’t complain about blatant public political bullying because you are being spared your life. The fact that the Constitution of India grants you the right to express your views freely shouldn’t stand in the way of this line of logic.

The Modi bhakts have appropriated for themselves the role of the spokespersons of all the Hindus in the world without the latter’s consent or approval. Everything that a BJP supporter says is backed by 100% facts and irrefutable logic, while every criticism directed at them is the handiwork of a small group of “presstitutes” (a term coined by sitting Union Cabinet Minister and former Indian Army Chief V K Singh) who are grumbling because the alleged regular supply of easy cash from the maa-beta Khangress Party has stopped flowing into their bank accounts. The amount of respect for the fourth pillar of democracy and basic tolerance of dissent apart, this really shows the high esteem in which Mr. Modi’s followers and sitting members of his cabinet hold the media.

The level of debate and discussion in the media has also reached an all time low. Journalists are constantly on the hunt for the next hate-byte to drive up TRPs and once whiskey-sipping, globe-trotting elite media persons have begun extolling the health benefits of cow-dung and cow-urine. Added to this is the series of incendiary and toxic remarks made by a string of notable BJP and RSS leaders aimed at polarizing the population of the country for petty gains in the just concluded Bihar Assembly Polls. Dialogues between people holding opposing view points have been reduced to shouting matches, with the fanboys of the Sangh working hard to stifle the voice of anyone who dares speak out against their version of history, their interpretation of Indian culture and their definitions of national and anti-national. A number of intellectuals such as Narendra Dhabolkar, M M Kalburgi and Govind Pansare have already been silenced.

To further stoke an already simmering cauldron filled with the poison of communalism and hate, the far-right allies of the Sangh parivaar have identified the issue of cow slaughter as the biggest malaise facing the people of modern India. Hunger, Poverty, Unemployment, Housing etc. can take a back seat in front of the holy cow. Going by their logic, cow slaughter warrants man-slaughter. Mohammad Ikhlaq from Dadri was dragged out of his home and lynched by a mob and his son was hit on his head with a sewing machine – not once, but several times – to drive exactly this point home. It does not matter that Ikhlaq didn’t even eat beef. Or purchase it. Or was caught with it. He was a Muslim, a second degree citizen whose citizenship depended entirely on unhelpful submissiveness to the agenda of the Hindu Nationalists. And therefore his life was an expendable commodity which was spent to highlight the grave national crises of cow slaughter. It is as if the followers of the BJP insist that one must really try to understand that if Ikhlaq wouldn’t have been killed, Hindus all over the country would have remained getting sentimentally hurt and therefore his murder was necessitated in a fight to preserve the good sentiments of the Hindus.

Yet, given the fragile nature of Hindu sentiments, the fight continued. The Shiv Sena, challenged to prove its nationalist credos by the actions of the Sangh, promptly got hold of Sudheendra Kulkarni, a former bureaucrat and chairman of a prominent think tank, and blackened his face for organizing a book launch featuring Pakistan’s former foreign minister. They also got a concert by a popular Pakistani singer cancelled, thus achieving one more of their unwanted goals. All this, while the residents of Mumbai still wait to get to their homes safely without falling in one of the many potholes of Mumbai’s roads, without getting stuck in serpentine traffic jams or by drowning when the rain falls, a task for which they elected the Shiv Sena in the first place. But the leaders of the Shiv Sena seem to have bigger nationalistic concerns in their minds and they expect the people to understand that the party cannot spare the time required for solving their petty concerns.

When did we reach a stage where our politics descended into a quagmire where public representatives are in denial of facts, intolerant to an opposite point of view, undeterred by new information, contemptuous of science and rationality, harbor a tribal mentality and are quick to ascribe political motives to intellectual criticism? Our idea of India had been recently redefined from “wiping the last tear from the cheeks of the last citizen” to “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas”. We were happy, even optimistic. We had discarded the criticism of the BJP by a few stray political loudmouths (including this writer) and had thrown out the most corrupt government in India’s history. We had handed the opposition a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha after 30 years. We had decimated the ruling Congress and had shown them their proper place. We felt as if we had taken the control of our country back into our hands and we felt we would now develop rapidly and eradicate the numerous problems facing our country. For once, we felt pride in our democracy. Yet now we wonder, where did the Chief Minister Modi, who talked about bullet trains, smart cities, ease of doing business and a strong rupee, vanish? When did this globe trotting, expensive suit wearing, egomaniac, potty mouth, hate apologetic, election crazy, control freak Prime Minister Modi take his place?

The BJP and its followers think that the number of anti-nationals in this country is increasing day by day. Ram Jethmalani and Arun Shourie, earlier iconic nationalists in the eyes of these few, are now the latest additions to a list already full of ‘sickular’ intellectuals. The war is on. But it is not against the woes facing the common man in his day to day life. It is instead against the ideology of unity in diversity, communal harmony, national brotherhood and Secularism. The RSS is spearheading this war and its general is the Prime Minister himself, who silently supervises as his followers go about destroying the social fabric of the nation. Anybody fighting against the foot soldiers of the RSS and the BJP is considered anti-Modi, anti-BJP, anti-RSS and therefore, anti-national, where the nation is taken to mean a Hindutva nation.

I, for one, do not identify with the idea of such a nation. And I guess, because of that, I too am an anti-national.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

When do men mature?

This first appeared in Daily News and Analysis

A recent photo shared by a popular Facebook page put me in a quandry. When do men really mature? What is the age when it is suitable to say that a man has enough intelligence to judge between what is right and what is wrong? When do they stop being impressionable and start being rational?

A recent photo shared by a popular Facebook page put me in a quandry. When do men really mature? What is the age when it is suitable to say that a man has enough intelligence to judge between what is right and what is wrong? When do they stop being impressionable and start being rational? The photo had tried to find those answers in light of the recent political developments but had concluded nothing.

Unfortunately, even medical science is split on this question. The relationship between age and maturity is a debatable one as it is difficult to determine how does one's biological development effects one's cognitive and psychological functions. So as Medical science gave me a cold shoulder, I turned from the particular to the general, i.e., how the society perceives maturity of men. But while the scenario here too was like that in the scientific arena, however, it was made even more interesting by the combination of a variety of factors.

Sample this: When it became known that one of the rapists involved in the Delhi Gang Rape case is a juvenile, the public was salivating at the jaw for his blood. A physician was called in to determine his 'real age'. When he found no discrepancy then a bone test was recommended. When the bone test refused to yeild anything, there was a clamour of voices in the media debates and talk shows where many legal experts and panellists cried that a person is mature enough by the age of 16-17 and that the age bar for juvenile crimes should be lowered to 16 years. Everyone demanded death penalty for someone who had been described as the "most brutal of all rapists".

So one sat back thinking that yes, a man attains maturity by the age of 16. They become adults capable of exercising judgement to protect themselves from the possibility of harm. But as the after effects of the gang rape case subsided and as media began to hunt for its next prey, there was suddenly the Supreme Court which handed the popular Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt a sentence of 5 years for possessing illegal arms. Suddenly, everyone was welling up. Tissue papers were being passed around by the public who said "What a pity! What about the poor man's family?" "What about his career?" "He is such a good hearted man!" Even the PCI Chairman Justice Katju, who thinks that 90% of Indians are fools, jumped on the bandwagon of foolishery by advocating a Governor Pardon. All this, after the fact that Dutt was not even charged by TADA but by the relatively lenient Arms Act and that the Supreme Court judges went to extraordinary lengths to give him the minimum punishment under the act. Politicians melted. "He was just 33 and quite impressionable at that age" said one. "He was just a child!" quipped another.

So one scratched his head and said "to hell with 16! No one even understands how people are and what effects will the acts have until they are 30-35. 35 actually. Moving towards old age and wiseness." But for some, even 35 is too young to be mature. Case in point: Rahul gandhi. The Congress seems to be obsessed with projecting the Gandhi scion perennially youthful, so much so that I hope he starts bagging commercials for various beauty products if the politics peters out. "Rahul Gandhi, at 42, is leading the Congress campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections" so say the media outlets. Even 42 is made to sound like 7.

Although I lost a couple of internet hours in trying to get an answer to this query of mine, I was not able to find a satisfying reply. While the age of maturity of men seems to be disputed among the various sections of the society, there exists no such dispute in the minds of a particular section of the society about the age of maturity of women. A women is mature enough as soon as she hits puberty, they say, and can be married off. 13, 14, 16...doesn't matter. In fact, women get so ripe with maturity around 35 that even men lose interest in them. Or so do some people in the Police say.

What does this difference of behaviour of our society towards two different genders tell about the atmosphere that we are living? For one thing, it does point towards the hypocrisy of perception that exists in the society about an individual regarding their status in public life, their social strata and most importantly, their gender. While we may shake our heads in disapproval of certain acts at a certain age, lets not get carried away by the superficial circumstances to trump rationality and give in to the popular sentiment. Take that as food for thought.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Kangaroo Courts Must Go!

This first appeared in Daily News and Analysis

The recent gang rape of a 20 year old woman in West Bengal on village council orders highlights the need to stamp out such extra judicial kangaroo courts in compliance with the previous Supreme Court orders.

In West Bengal’s Birbhum district, a village council ordered a 20 year old girl to be gang raped in front of the entire village on the accusation that she was having an affair with a married man from another village. The accusation wasn’t proved, but the girl had “visited Delhi and spoke Hindi” and that was enough for the village council to order such brutality on her.

Such incidents are not new. In Mushahari district in Bihar, a rape victim was offered Rs. 10,000 as compensation by the village council and her family was threatened not to report the incidence to anyone. Another famous case is that of Siya Dulari of Bhawanipur, who was burnt to death just because her son eloped with a girl belonging to an upper caste family. The incidence sparked widespread condemnation and was later the inspiration for a Bollywood film called ‘Lajja‘.

One can go on with a list of such incidences which were ordered by village councils and dutifully carried out without a hint of shame or remorse. These village councils do not exercise any power to mete out criminal punishment under any law and yet, there are frequent cases in which these councils not only order gang rapes, illegal confinements and social boycotts, but go to the extent of ordering killings, a phenomena which has come to be known as ‘honor killings’.

The Supreme Court has time and again delivered judgments against such village councils, asking them to be stamped out from the country. In Lata Singh v. State of UP and Another (2006), the apex court observed:

We sometimes hear of ‘honour’ killings of such persons who undergo inter-caste or inter-religious marriage of their own free will. There is nothing honourable in such killings, and in fact they are nothing but barbaric and shameful acts of murder committed by brutal, feudal minded persons who deserve harsh punishment. Only in this way can we stamp out such acts of barbarism. The police at all the concerned places should ensure that neither the petitioner nor her husband nor any relatives of the petitioner’s husband are harassed or threatened nor any acts of violence are committed against them. If anybody is found doing so, he should be proceeded against sternly in accordance with law, by the authorities concerned.

In Fiaz Ahmed Ahanger and Ors. V. State of J& K (2009), the court held that:

“In such cases of inter-caste or inter religion marriage the Court has only to be satisfied about two things:

(1) That the girl is above 18 yeas of age, in which case, the law regards her as a major vide Section 3 of the Indian Majority Act, 1875. A major is deemed by the law to know what is in his or her welfare.
(2) The wish of the girl.

In the circumstances, we direct that nobody will harass, threaten or commit any acts of violence or other unlawful act on the petitioner, Chanchali Devi/Mehvesh Anjum and the petitioner’ family members and they shall not be arrested till further orders in connection with the case in question. If they feel insecure, they can apply to the police and, in such event, the police shall grant protection to them.”

In Arumugam Servai v. State of Tamil Nadu (2011), the apex court ruled that:

We have in recent years heard of ‘Khap Panchayats’ (known as katta panchayats in Tamil Nadu) which often decree or encourage honour killings or other atrocities in an institutionalized way on boys and girls of different castes and religion, who wish to get married or have been married, or interfere with the personal lives of people. We are of the opinion that this is wholly illegal and has to be ruthlessly stamped out. As already stated in Lata Singh’s case (supra), there is nothing honourable in honour killing or other atrocities and, in fact, it is nothing but barbaric and shameful murder. Other atrocities in respect of personal lives of people committed by brutal, feudal minded persons deserve harsh punishment. Only in this way can we stamp out such acts of barbarism and feudal mentality. Moreover, these acts take the law into their own hands, and amount to kangaroo courts, which are wholly illegal.

In the Manoj Babli case (2011), the Punjab and Haryana High Court remarked:

"Even in the 21st century such a shameful act of hollow honor killing is perpetrated in our society. We feel that it is really a slur on the fine fabric of the Indian society. Abduction is really cruel and that too murder of the abductees is barbaric."

In addition to constituting a crime, any political justification of the acts of these village councils cannot stand the test of law as their actions are violative of Article 21 of the constitution, which guarantees the fundamental right of life and liberty to everyone in the country.

Failure of the state authorities to curb such crimes which are primarily directed against women also runs afoul of India’s international commitments as India is a party to Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Law Commission of India in its 242nd report titled “Prevention of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances (in the name of Honour and Tradition): A Suggested Legal Framework” has suggested a draft bill to penalize these honor killings and other crimes committed in the name of preserving one’s honor. The proposed bill prescribes strict punishment for unlawful assemblies of the panchayats, objectionable behavior towards any couple, criminal intimidation etc. and empowers the district magistrate or the SDM to take preventive measures against the same (salient features here).

It is high time that the state governments took note of the rising incidences of crimes committed on the orders of these Kangaroo courts and ruthlessly stamped them out to rid the society of their evil influence. The sooner such stringent measures are taken, the better it will be.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Diplomacy of Language

First Published in Youth Ki Awaaz

While the more broad minded and vernacular oriented people in India whose preferred domestic language happens not to be Hindi might take offense, the fact is that encouraging the usage of Hindi in other nations has long been on the agenda of India’s foreign policy. With its ideal of projecting its soft power of culture, customs and the way of life, India’s foreign policy places an unusual amount of importance on encouraging the usage of Hindi in other nations.

India is not alone in this move. In fact, encouraging the usage of their respective vernaculars in foreign countries has for long been on the to-do lists of nations with a strong vernacular culture. The westerners did not need it, as the necessity of the same was fulfilled by the forceful colonization and subjugation of countries across the globe. In India, to be particular, the famous minute of Lord MaCaulay heralded the arrival of English as the sole medium of imparting education and consequently, as the de facto official language for the rest of her life under the British. However, for the nations which did not have the luxury of expansionist programs or large swathes of colonies under their rule, the process of language diplomacy started only after the process of decolonization had been accomplished to a significant degree in the latter part of the twentieth century.

A Cold War Equation

Nehruvian vision and a particular tilt towards Russia in the cold war and non aligned years ensured that Russian Universities were the first to take up the teaching of Hindi as an optional language. The banning of Hollywood films in the cold war era resulted in Soviet Russia turning to Bollywood films for their entertainment, a phenomenon which made actor Raj Kapoor an instant celebrity in that country. The warm response to such films provided both the countries with an opportunity to further their people to people ties, as a means of furthering their national interest, making the exchange of their respective vernacular languages inevitable.

Indian governments which succeeded Nehru were quick to realize the pragmatism of “exporting” domestic culture to other countries as well as familiarizing themselves with the culture of their counterparts. Jawaharlal Nehru University (which was established in 1969) was one of the first universities to take up the task of dissemination of foreign languages in the country. Following the grand success of festival of India in Soviet Russia in 1988, the Indian Embassy in Moscow embarked on an aggressive program of showcasing the country’s culture through the Jawaharlal Nehru Cultural Centre which was established in 1989.

Apart from Nehru’s experiments of cultural ideas in the laboratory of International relations, India’s reluctance to engage in any kind of third party military adventurism has over the years, strengthened the case for its projection of soft power. In this larger scheme of things, language, undoubtedly, plays the largest role.

In a Globalized World

While a more muscular Cold War age may not have been particularly receptive to such ideas, choosing instead to gain allies with the show off of its arsenal, the case is certainly not so in a globalized and inter connected post cold war era. The immediate agenda now is to shift the study of their respective languages from the drowsy seminar rooms of a few odd universities in a friendly country to a larger audience in the primary and secondary schools with a long term view of creating a fertile field for realizing their goals and interests in foreign relations.

In June this year, China decided to introduce Hindi in South China by setting up a Hindi chair in Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in Guangzhou. Several schools and universities in other parts of China are already teaching Hindi as an optional language. This month, India decided to reciprocate this gesture by announcing that Mandarin would be introduced in over a hundred schools as an optional language.

While Sino-Indian reciprocity can be seen in the light of two nations trying to shake off the shackles of their past scarred by a bitter war in 1962, other nations which are warming up to the idea of introducing foreign languages in their school and university curriculum, see it as a result of the fast paced growth of Asia.

Last Monday, Australian Prime Minister Ms. Julia Gillard introduced a white paper on the “Asian Century” which included, among other proposals, a proposal to introduce Hindi, Bhasa Indonesia, Japanese and Mandarin in the country’s primary and secondary schools, with the primary focus being on Hindi. Aimed at maximizing the links with the fast growing economies of Asia, the proposal has already been lauded by various sections of the Australian civil and political society.

A Policy of Necessity

Although the diplomacy of language remains the central scheme of things in India’s soft power, so dear to its foreign policy, it can also not be denied that this is a policy that India badly needs in order to create more jobs for its young population in order to realize the maximum potential of its demographic dividend. India is expected to surpass China in population terms by 2025 with the majority of its population being in the working age category. In order to provide employment to such a large proportion of population, India cannot depend entirely on the public sector. New and unconventional avenues will have to be explored which is only possible if the youth of the country are equipped with the right set of employable skills.

A continuing familiarization with the languages of different countries can not only boost India’s tourism industry and provide it with more translators, interpreters and teachers, but it can also help in adding more value to the already strong Diaspora of Indians which exists abroad.

It is in India’s interest to continue to experiment and explore new avenues in addition to its diplomacy of language, that can not only further its interests abroad, but can also prove beneficial in domestic terms in the long run.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Victory for Thangjam Manorama

This first appeared on Daily News and Analysis

The Justice Verma Committee recommendations regarding sexual violence against women in conflict areas by the armed personnel are a victory for its many forgotten victims like Thangjam Manorama and Soni Sori.

Patriotism mixed with mass hysteria of our mainstream media often pushes the silent screams of the countless victims of sexual brutality at the hands of armed personnel, into a dark corner. Punished by those who were tasked with protecting them, these victims' endless cries for justice eventually get lost in the labyrinthine corridors of power. They find themselves repeatedly driven back in the long queue of the aggrieved waiting for redressal of their wrongs; a queue that is conveniently jumped by those with money in their hands and power in their heads. Brutalized by the army, ostracized by the society and regularly denied justice, the lives of these women either become fodder for bleeding hearts like me or are reduced to obscurity. That is, if they come out of the ordeal alive.

Thangjam Manorma was lucky. She didn't survive the ordeal at the hands of the Indian Army Personnel. In the wee hours of 11 July, 2004, the 32 year old was dragged out of her house by the personnel of 17 Assam Rifles on charges of being a PLA agent. No incriminating evidence was found during her arrest as recorded in the memo of the arrest (This was not-so-subtly denied by the official spokesperson of the Assam Rifles who later said that a hand grenade, a wireless radio and plenty of incriminating evidence were "seized" from her house). However, after much searching, her body was found four kilometres away from her house. Although there were barely any clothes on her body, there were plenty of bullets in her vagina.

Not so lucky was Soni Sori. The (now) 38 Year old adivasi primary school teacher and human rights activist was arrested in October 2011 on charges of being a courier between the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and the Essar Group as a part of the Naxalites' extortion scheme. The Essar Group, the Naxalites as well as Soni herself have denied the charges. Despite her protests, she was remanded in the custody of Chhattisgarh state police in Dantewada where she was stripped naked and given electric shocks. When she was finally hospitalized on the orders of the Supreme Court, stones were extracted out of her rectum and her vagina.

What happened to the offenders? The army personnel of 17 Assam Rifles still roam free after a court ruling termed the inquiry against them constituted by the Manipur Government as 'Illegitimate'. Manorma's body still lies in the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal as her family alleged that the post mortem was not carried out according to the guidelines set by National Human Rights Commission. As for Soni Sori, the principal accused in her case, SP Ankit Garg was awarded the Police Medal for Gallantry last year by the President (This same President also pardoned many prisoners who had been sentenced to death for various crimes of rape and murder). Soni Sori still languishes in the Raipur Central Jail.

These are just a representative sample of the cases that have managed to grab the limelight. There are still others who are missing, whose dead body was never found or if they escaped alive, their story was never picked up by any news outlet.

So, it is with a sense of relief that one reads the Justice Verma Committee's report where unlike other various committee's, they have not glossed over this grotesque reality of Indian Armed Forces. Starting from Page 149 of the 631 page report, the committee notes that India is a signatory to the International Convention for the protection of all persons from Enforced Disappearance and also recognizes that like most other countries, our country too flouts the norms laid in this convention with impunity. They go on to recommend that "Sexual violence against women by members of the armed forces or uniformed personnel must be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law" and that "There is an imminent need to review the continuance of AFSPA and AFSPA-like legal protocols in internal conflict areas as soon as possible."

The Prime Minister has often reiterated his "comittment" to replace AFSPA with a more "humane law". But unfortunately, he lives in a world where everything is "theek hai". For countless victims like Thangjam Manorma and Soni Sori, who have been fighting their lonely battle against the brutalizing machinery of the state for too long, one hopes that the recommendations of these reports finally bring them closer to achieving justice. The ball is in the court of the government now, and despite the banal and robotic monotone of Dr. Singh's address, I would be all ears tomorrow morning to see how his government moves forward in implementing the recommendations of the report.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Amartya Sen vs The Clones of Hitler

This first appeared on Daily News and Analysis

The great fascist tamasha unfolding in India's political landscape threatens to brow beat and bully even the sanest voices of reason.

The communalists have only one thing to occupy themselves with, writes Dilip Simeon in his blog - spread hatred and cultivate hooliganism. Their ideas and practices, he continues, are the quintessence of patriarchy and machismo. Perhaps there has been no better vindication of these words through deeds than through the events of the past week. As soon as the word was out that Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate and distinguished Economist, was not a member of the Narendrabhai fan club, the right wing brigade on the social media immersed itself in a vicious campaign of ad hominem slandering.

This has been the standard repartee of the BJP fan boys. Unable to see beyond the constricted worldview of Hindutva which they unquestioningly gulp down in litres, their counter arguments and rebuttals have focused not on the merits of the argument put forward, but on the bona fides of the one putting forth the arguments. In such a scenario, even a Nobel laureate cannot escape the verbal lynching that is unleashed by people who do not even have comparable bona fides to begin with. The hooliganism practiced through threatening, bullying and malicious slandering knows no bounds and is safely practiced through the anonymous cover over the internet.

Such is the level of this intellectual vandalism that if you are a politically vocal observer using the social media, you would at one time think that the only option for 2014 and beyond for the development and advancement of India is to convert it into a minority free Hindu Rashtra. A false duopoly is created based on the Bush doctrine - either you are with us or against us. Political neutrality does not have any space in the ensuing discussions and if you try to be neutral, you are bound to be slapped with the label of a 'Muzzie' or a 'Congi Stooge' by some Tom, Dick or Harry. On such occasions, you lean back and heave a sigh, thanking your stars that this opinion exists in a bubble, and represents perhaps less than 3% of India's total population.

The main opposition party has been at the forefront of fanning these flames of hatred by covert or overt means. Moments after Sen's statement, BJP member of the Rajya Sabha and Editor of 'The Pioneer', Chandan Mitra, demanded that he be stripped of his Bharat Ratna when NDA returns to power the next time. Political sycophancy pervades the corridors of power we knew. But what we did not know was that some of our parliamentarians inhabit the same intellectual hemisphere as that of the trolls present online. Seen in the larger context of the freedom of speech and expression, this provides us a very worrying scenario of the analytical landscape of those occupying the seats of authority in a country already reeling with appalling shortage of application of the grey cells.

While such pandemonium persisted, another volcano erupted in the already scorched environs of Facebook and Twitter. This time, it was a crudely morphed allleged photograph of Sen's daughter in a skimpily clad manner. Circulated by the account of BJP Gujarat (official or unofficial, we do not know), this photograph had moral lessons plastered all over it for Dr. Sen. "Handle your daughter properly" it said, "instead of giving us lectures". There is no connection to be made between the personal life of Dr. Sen or his daughter and his statement on Modi, but then, that's an irrelevant observation. Logic is not one of the stronger areas of a fascist brigade blowing their own trumpet atop their moral high horse.

The slanderous vocabulary of the social media hindullectual receives patronage from the very top, when their leader uses phrases like 50 crore ki girlfriend or Kutte ka pilla in his addresses to the public and the media at large. It does not bother the conscience of those standing at the forefront of crowds ready to lap up and regurgitate such phrases as the gospel and when pointed out, the reply is a belligerent chest thumping of one's own patriarchal and sectarian credentials. Ignorance is indeed the marker of strength. One is reminded of Orwell's 1984 and of duckspeak as explained in this excerpted passage below:
Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak. Like various words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when the Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.
Needless to say, the hindullectuals are indeed the masters of doubleplusgood duckspeak.

It is important, indeed very important, to grasp the graveness of this entire situation despite its blatant ridiculousness. By fabricating a militant consciousness of a false identity, the communal hate groups seek to further their own interest and in this grand fascist project, democratic ideals such as freedom of speech, expression and association, freedom of worship and faith etc. are but small sacrifices. Dilip Simeon calls these organized groups as 'clones of Hitler', as they are 'the champions of the fascist project to destroy democracy'. It is imperative that such cognitive homogeneity be arrested in its tracks since we have a limited capacity to bear the burden of only so many Hitlers.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Republic of Hurt Sentiments

This first appeared on Daily News and Analysis

The events of the past week involving the brouhaha over Kamal Hasan's latest film is a reminder of how intolerance and narrow mindedness has percolated the fabric of our society.

In 1927, Katherine Mayo, an American writer and Social Historian, released a book called 'Mother India' in which she highlighted the various ills of the Indian Society including the treatment of women, the Dalits and the 'character' of nationalistic politicians and made a case against Indian self rule. The book created a furore in the country with Mahatma Gandhi labelling it as "report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon, or to give a graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains." The book prompted at least 50 other books and pamphlets in response which rebutted all the arguments put forward by Mayo against Indian Independence. However, the most famous rebuttal came from Mehboob Khan, who wrote and directed a film by the same name. Mother India the movie needs no introduction. It is known to all and sundry in this country as Independent India's one of the most famous contribution to the world cinema, which lost the Academy Award for the best Foreign Film by a whisker.

Amartya Sen would agree when I say that the response to the publication of 'Mother India' highlighted the best Argumentative Traditions of the country at the time. Not only did the book receive powerful rebuttals that contradicted its claims, but in the end, the very idea of Mother India was usurped and transformed to rid it of all the negative connotations. However, while the India of 1927, with a tiny educated population responded in such an intellectually charged manner, it is a shame that the India of 21st Century has behaved like illiterati supreme over works of arts and literature that dwarf in comparison to Mayo's book. The events of the past few weeks regarding Kamal Hasan's Vishwaroopam or Ashis Nandy's comments over corruption in the country are an unfortunate reminder of how as a society we have become ultra intolerant towards differing points of view.

The social acceptability of a ban has encouraged the fringe political groups to soothe their sensitive egos in the limelight by jumping at a moment's notice to demand the immediate curtailment of someone's work of art or literature in the name of hurt sentiments. In a civilized society, those with hurt sentiments would have been immediately referred to a competent psychiatrist. Yet it is only in our country that these fringe elements, which rarely represent more than 5% of any community, are repeatedly entertained in the name of preserving 'law and order'. It is difficult to imagine how 20 people protesting a film can create a law and order situation for the entire city that would force the government to halt all the screenings in the entire state.

It is a mark of growing intellectual bankruptcy in the society that has allowed the conservative groups to rub the nose of artistic freedom on the ground and has sapped the vitality of the public sphere which allows an individual to make a reasoned judgement him/her self. It would not be wrong to say that in the absence of better debate and adequate control over these fringe groups, the state has shed its responsibility of protecting the freedom of speech and expression and has instead let these contractors of religion to dictate what's offensive and what's not. This is a dangerous practice inherently inimical to the values of the democracy that we so greatly cherish. For any progressive minded individual it is clear that the Muslims in the country are in a dire need of education and jobs. Instead of being treated like a vote bank, a mindset cruelly responsible for the steeply deteriorating respect for the freedom of expression in the country, they would be much happier if the government can provide them with a semblance of self respect by opening avenues of progress instead of bending over backwards every time a fringe group that does not even represent 5% of the community starts kicking and crying in the name of hurt sentiments.

One can only expect that the government recognizes the apotheosis of intolerance that the society has achieved and takes stringent remedial measures in order to restore an atmosphere of vibrant and level headed debate in the public sphere of the country where the power of brains instead of the power of lungs and numbers is recognized and heeded to.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Sexism in Science? No Kidding.

This first appeared in Daily News and Analysis

As Women enter workforce in the largest number for the first time in the history of human kind, they face entrenched bias and gender related hurdles even in the most unlikely areas.

In March 2012, a scientist employed by LabX Media Group, which owns LabWrench and publishes Lab Manager Magazine and The Scientist, decided to take her love of science away from the labs. She created a Facebook page called 'I Fucking Love Science' which soon started attracting people due to its often humorous and educative posts. However, when Elise Andrew decided to reveal her identity on the page last week, there was an explosion on Facebook. "What?" People wondered. "She is a SHE?"

As Andrews admitted in this interview with CBS, there were quite a few people who were shocked. That a woman administers and runs such a hugely popular page on Facebook (by the time of writing, her page has more than 4.3 million 'likes') came as a rude surprise to many. The National Geographic quoted Rita Colwell, a Molecular Biologist and University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, as saying that "it was absurd and clearly indicates [that] although we've made progress over the past 40 to 50 years, we haven't made that much progress in behavior and attitudes".

Mrs. Colwell makes a valid point. Back in March, 2010, the New York Times reported on how bias in the scientific arena still posed a major hurdle in the career growth of Women (see infographic). Similarly, last June, Mark Fidelman of the Forbes Magazine wondered why were there so few women in technology related fields. Rejecting the old explanations (that women were not interested in Science, or wouldn't succeed at it or would not be happy and comfortable working in the field), he claimed that the main reason why there was a frustrating lack of women in technological fields was because women, while being interested in the field, were not choosing it because of the confusion regarding the various options and an ignorance about the economic potentials. To quote Fidelman:

"According to research by Penn Schoen and Berland (PSB), nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of teens have never considered a career in engineering. In another research study by Girl Scouts of America, only 13% of female teens say a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) related career would be their first choice. Why? It turns out Klawe was on to something. From the research results, PSB found that 74% of teens that considered engineering did so only after being explained the economic benefits and impact they can have on the world."

While Fidelman's logic does explain a great deal about what's wrong with women not opting for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related careers in the US, it conveniently side steps the third reason: Why do women feel that they would be unhappy and uncomfortable working in STEM fields? As Andrew's experience clearly shows, the answer is Sexism. Of course Andrew in not the only victim of sexism. Last week, Adria Richards, an employee of Silicon valley based tech firm SendGrid, was unceremoniously fired from the company after she tweeted about the sexist comments being passed around at the PyCon Developers Conference in Santa Clara, which she was attending as an employee of the company. In an article posted on her site which details a blow by blow account of what occurred at the conference, Richards revealed her real motivation behind calling those two men out:

"I saw a photo on main stage of a little girl who had been in the Young Coders workshop. I realized I had to do something or she would never have the chance to learn and love programming because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so."

While terminating her employment, SendGrid did acknowledge the incident and its nature, but faulted Richards for her own conduct. According to the official statement issued on SendGrid's website:

"We understand that Adria believed the conduct to be inappropriate and support her right to report the incident to PyCon personnel. To be clear, SendGrid supports the right to report inappropriate behaviour, whenever and wherever it occurs. What we do not support was how she reported the conduct. Her decision to tweet the comments and photographs of the people who made the comments crossed the line. Publicly shaming the offenders – and bystanders – was not the appropriate way to handle the situation."

The issue of women in workplace in Silicon Valley has been red hot for quite some weeks now after the release of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg's book 'Lean In', which deals with it. But what makes employees like Adria Richards keep getting fired and scientists like Andrews face sexist jokes? The real problem seems to be perception. According to Mrs. Colwell, there seems to be a perception problem among the larger population which sees women through the old fashioned glasses of tradition. As the nature and medium of technology and most importantly, work, changes, it is going to be rough for a populace that has grown accustomed to seeing half the population squat (according to them) at home - to see them come out and demand an equal share. It is refreshing to see this dialogue finally getting started in the US, whose media houses and publications scorned at the developing world last year for its high rates of crime against women. So the next time you go on a date or welcome a new person in the neighbourhood, do not be surprised if she turns out to be a scientist. After all, they are just starting to get your attention.

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Question of Reasonable Freedom

First Published in Youth Ki Awaaz

Till 1983, October 31st was marked as the birth anniversary of India’s first home minister and one of the tallest leaders of National Independence movement, Sardar Vallabhai Patel. Known and feared for his shrewdness, presence of mind and clever deployment of tactics to force his enemies into submission in the political arena, Patel is also considered the best Prime Minister India never had. While his stormy relationship with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru may had earned him some detractors within his own party, respect for invented traditions and the fierce loyalty of his supporters and followers ensured that Vallabhai was never reduced to a distant figure buried in the yellow and dusty pages of history.

That was until 1983 of course. In 1984, at the height of the Punjab separatist movement, two Sikhs, who also happened to be the personal bodyguards of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, decided to pump their anger into the PM’s body via their automatic machine guns and thus burden the fateful date of the Julian calendar with another marking of History.

Rules of nature and science validate that Vallabhai’s birth anniversary still falls on 31st October. However, he now shares the extra tight compartment of that one day in the books of history with a lady, whose successors have ensured that their madam suffers no inconvenience by being reduced to the margins. Entombed under the eventful baggage of his Prime Minister’s daughter, Mr. Patel’s birth anniversary has today become a forgotten appendage to a greater event that transformed India.

Although joined by fate on the same page, a study of the style of functioning of the two leaders is a study in contrast. I would choose to speak of their attitudes and behaviours towards the issue of freedom of speech, because for me no other sphere of activity can shed more light to their glaring differences as this one.

Independence, Republic and The First Amendment

One can say that Sardar Patel resided over the most tormentous phase of national security over the country as its home minister. Given the situation, he could have acted in a dictatorial manner citing law and order; however, Gandhian principles and the ritual of consensus building ensured that things did not come to such a pass. Fresh out of the rule of the British, which had left their stamp on the history of freedom of speech in the country in the various forms of gag orders and press censorship, Mr. Patel and his government were determined to reverse the trend as a crucial part of their aim of nation building.

Perhaps the first and the only serious challenge which arose in his lifetime as the home minister regarding the freedom of speech and expression in the country was from the hallowed corridors of the courts which necessitated the Indian parliament into passing the first amendment in 1951, shortly after his death.

In a series of two judgements (Romesh Thapar vs The State of Madras and Brij Bhushan vs The state of Delhi), the courts in the country interpreted the scope of the term “public safety” or “public order” in Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution to imply only those actions or expressions which would pose a grave danger to the security of the nation as a whole. The court opined that banning such expressions or speech would constitute a violation of fundamental rights unless it could be shown that the particular case fell under the exceptions provided by Article 19(2) of the constitution which said:

“Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause 1 shall affect the operation of any existing law insofar as it relates to or prevents the state from making any law relating to libel, slander, defamation, contempt of court or any matter which offend against decency, or morality or which undermines the security of the state or tends to overthrow the state”

This interpretation left the acts of hate speech which could incite violence and hate crimes totally out of the purview of the Article and hence provoked a great deal of alarm in the government. Lawrence Liang, in his paper “Reasonable Restrictions, Unreasonable Speech” writes:

“The government argued that the expression “public safety” in the Act, which is a statute relating to law and order, means the security of the Province and, therefore, “the security of the State”. Within the meaning of Article 19(2), “the State” has been defined in Article 12 as including, among other things, the Government and the Legislature of each of the erstwhile Provinces. The court, however, stated that the phrase “public safety” had a much wider connotation than “security of the state”, as the former included a number of trivial matters not necessarily as serious as the issue of the security of the state. It concluded that “unless a law restricting freedom of speech and expression is directed solely against the undermining of the security of the State or the overthrow of it, such law cannot fall within the reservation under clause (2) of Article 19, although the restrictions which it seeks to impose may have been conceived generally in the interests of public order. It follows that Section 9(1-A), which authorises imposition of restrictions for the wider purpose of securing public safety or the maintenance of public order, falls outside the scope of authorised restrictions under clause (2), and is therefore void and unconstitutional” (Regarding Romesh Thapar vs State of Madras)

This decision, coupled with that of Brij Bhushan vs State of Delhi, triggered hectic discussion in the government over the need to introduce an amendment so as to bring hate speech and incitement to violence under the purview of the aforementioned article.

It was a unique situation. Patel thought that the Romesh Thapar decision “knocked the bottom out of most of our penal laws for the control and regulation of the press” and hence supported the idea of introducing an amendment so that adequate controls could be established in order to safeguard law and order situation in the country in view of the fragile relationship between its various religious communities. Even so, the intention was not to place a blanket ban on the expression of such ideas in the media, but was to place “reasonable restrictions” which were justified by the kind of atmosphere people lived in.

Such decision making characterised the working style of the home minister: to find balance and unanimity, to be benevolent but also be a realist.

Indira, India and Emergency

However, by the time Indira Gandhi came to power, these values of democracy, of tolerance and of thoughtful action had already started withering from the arena of India’s polity. Transformed into a battleground for power struggle, the chief objective became to acquire power and thwart the rival interests in favour of one’s own. Indira Gandhi, not known too much for her intellect as for her family background, turned out to be the quintessential politician that one would have expected once Indian democracy started to mature and show its true colours. Having acquired a following and legitimacy by promoting her personality cult after the 1969 split of the Congress into two rival parties, it became imperative for her to silence her critics, either by hook or by crook.

It is in this regard that the emergency of 1975 should be seen. Far from the considered pragmatism of the country’s founding fathers, the Emergency is a case study in intolerance to criticism and blatant disregard for the principles enshrined in the Indian constitution. The press was censored, opposition members jailed, free speech and freedom of expression revoked and the judiciary just made a compliant cog in the wheel of the state’s vehicle of things.

Could things have been any different without the Emergency? One cannot say. However, with the benefit of hindsight, one can safely conclude that the deterioration in the belief of rights to freedom of expression, which gathered pace after Nehru’s death, was accelerated with the catalyst of the Emergency and even without it, would have continued to grow, albeit at a slower pace.

In our Times

Thus, it is with a certain sense of deja vu that one analyzes the events of the past year. The cheap trick through which Salman Rushdie was not allowed to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival, apparently to soothe the hurt sentiments of a particular religious minority, the route of Baba Ramdev from the Ramlila Maiden during his fast against corruption and black money, the arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and Binayak Sen on charges of Sedition, the arrest of a professor of Jadavpur University for allegedly forwarding “insidious” mails against Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the censorship of the internet in reply to the North East exodus in the aftermath of Assam Riots and the latest, the arrest of a small time businessman for tweeting against the present Home Minister’s son.

It seems that the modern Indian state is in a state of limbo. Confronted with the rapidly advancing means of communication and modes of dissemination of information, the present administration finds itself inept of taking action in a balanced manner like that of Sardar Patel and fearful of going whole hog in destroying the civil liberties enshrined in the constitution to assume complete control like Indira Gandhi. In this state of indecision, the blunders that the government commits, with regard to free speech and free expression, only weaken the base of the limited liberties we enjoy and thus paves the way or a bleaker future.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Are Women 'Secondary Citizens'?

First Published in Youth Ki Awaaz

When a government fails to protect the honour and dignity of its women, it not only degrades them to the status of second class citizens, but in this process, it also reduces the constitutional provisions guaranteeing various rights and freedoms to all its citizens, to sorry figments of imagination.

In the last one month, over 19 different cases of rape have been recorded in the northern state of Haryana, which is infamous for having the lowest sex ratio among all the states in India. The rapists include teenagers, security personnel, neighbours or just random strangers. Like the rapists, the political opinion regarding these rapes has been varied and bizarre. Khap Panchayats, the rural kangaroo courts that seek to maintain the “honour” of the community even when it involves justifying “honour killings”, came out with the bizarre theory of lowering the age of marriage for girls to “protect” them from such incidents. Lending an intellectual bent to this ridiculous piece of “suggestion”, Om Prakash Chautala, the former Chief Minister and the head of the powerful opposition party INLD, explained:

“Look back at the past, the Mughal sultanate in this country used to misbehave with women and used to kidnap them. In order to prevent that people started getting their young girls married early so that no one does anything wrong to them… I have seen girls getting married at tender age; the same situation is back again.”

Another Congress leader, Dharamveer Goyal, eager to present his understanding of the whole scenario, suggested that 90 per cent of rapes were consensual:

“The girl gets into an affair with a boy and she goes with him without knowing that he is of criminal mindset. It’s not the state government which is responsible for rapes, in fact in most of the cases its consensual sex. In 90 per cent cases, the girls and women initially accompany boys on their own and are later trapped in gang rape by criminals” 

Apart from being sexist, horribly insidious and callously irresponsible, these comments are also a crude reminder of the mentality towards rape, molestation and other such crimes directed towards a female’s body in particular and the attitude towards women in general. To then expect a safe and secure environment where women have an equal right to opportunity to achieve their desired goals would be to expect too much.

Such mindsets and attitudes are not unique to the Indian polity. In fact, these are in sync with the phenomenon of global misogyny that the world has witnessed in recent days. Just day before yesterday, the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard thundered in the Australian House of Representatives against the Leader of Opposition Tony Abbott, who had ironically demanded the resignation of the Speaker of the house of representatives (after he was found to have sent sexist texts to a former staff member), when he himself had been going around passing loose remarks about the Prime Minister and the women in Australia as a whole. In the United States, amid the flurry of election campaign, Rep. Todd Akin, in a bid to endear himself to the voters, earned the wrath of the media when he suggested that “legitimate rape” rarely resulted in pregnancy. Rep. Roger Rivard wasted no time in jumping to Akin’s bandwagon when he opined in a newspaper that “some girls rape easy”.

The irony amid all this slur of misogyny being vomited by political representatives from all across the spectrum was that just days before, on October 11, the world had celebrated its first “International Day of the Girl Child”, which reaffirmed the global pledge to “end gender stereotypes, discrimination, violence, and economic disparities that disproportionately affect girls.” In the light of these remarks, the celebration seems like a bad satire on the state of women all over the world.

One of the victims of rape in Haryana was just 7 years old. In any other part of the world, even in Australia and the United States, this single incident would have been enough to shame a government to death. However, in our country, this is just another rape, just another flash of bulbs and we are back to normal. It is with profound shame that one admits that when a woman is raped, it is not only an assault on her body, but a sad commentary on the vulnerability of women in an unsecure and predatory society and the government’s inability and also collusion, in removing that sense of insecurity.

Sexual assault of any kind snatches away from a woman, her inalienable right to pursue her desired objectives in life, by traumatizing her psychologically and shaming her in the society. It reduces her chances of being treated with respect, with dignity, with equality and without any prejudice. A rape increases her chances of getting pregnant and burdened with the responsibility of motherhood, without fulfilling the pre requisite avenues in life which would ensure a better and secure childhood and future for her children. In effect, a rape also snatches away the rights of an individual who has not yet been born.

The National Crime Records Bureau statistics suggest that there is an incident of rape every 22 minutes in the country and that instances of rape have gone up by 873 per cent between 1971 and 2011. Seen as crude statistics, these mindboggling numbers only makes one feel helpless and incompetent. However, the sheer gravity of the situation demands no less than a sincere effort to beef up the law and order and increase awareness about the rights and liberties of the womenfolk. Such an effort would need to attack, first and foremost, the institutions and practices which subordinate women to men.

The sense of complacency and neglect with which issues of gender equality and gender rights are treated only signals a demise of gender sensitivity in Indian politics and call for drastic action. The prevailing state of affairs in the country can only be summed up in the words of Faiz who said:

“Nisar mein teri galiyon kay aye watan kay jahan
Chali hai rasm kay koi na sar utha kay chaley
jo koii chaahanewaalaa tawaaf ko nikale
nazar churaa ke chale, jism-o-jaan bachaa ke chale”

(My salutations to thy sacred streets, O beloved nation!
Where a tradition has been invented- that none shall walk with his head held high
If at all one takes a walk, a pilgrimage
One must walk, eyes lowered, the body crouched in fear)

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Aspiration, Poverty, Drugs, And A Home For The Homeless

First Published on Youth Ki Awaaz

It’s a wonderful contrast. On the one side of where am standing, is Delhi’s famous ring road, where cars are whizzing by at breakneck speed, driven by people whose life has been following a similar pace. On the other side of where am standing is the Yamuna, on the banks of which, people whose life’s journey has come to a full stop are being cremated. I am actually standing in a park adjacent to Nigambodh Ghat located at Kashmere Gate, where temporary as well as permanent shelters have been erected to house those who have been left behind in this rat race to become successful in life and have taken refuge in the illusions spawned by the pleasures of semi-consciousness induced through drugs.
Contrary to popular perception, peace and tranquility is elusive for a person coming to this park, as the consciousness is haunted by the figures of people who, although awake, barely know who they are, where they are and what are they doing where they happen to be. They look at you with hope, hoping desperately to find their long lost friend, relative or well wisher until this hope turns into confusion, triggered by a conflict between imagination and reality and finally into disappointment. This realization is bitter, the truth behind it even more unpleasant, and hence to escape the clutches of this damning reality, these homeless seek shelter in the world of their own making, the world of imagination and fantasy built upon the foundation of countless bottles of liquor, choking puffs of smoke and unquantifiable amount of tobacco, smack and heroine.

In a society obsessed with its own sense of self righteousness and conceptions of virtue, these misfits aren’t even given treatment at par with other humans, and are left to cope, stumbling and staggering, in this whole wide world full of road blocks, on their own. Every winter, numerous of these homeless destitute leave this material world to live in their fantasies forever. Hence, it fell upon the courts to chide the government to realize its duty towards these homeless and erect shelters for them so that they could find relief from the biting cold of the winter and escape the clutches of a merciless and painful death.

I, through an NGO named Aman Biradari, which is run by Social worker and NCPRI member Harsh Mander, went to see some of these permanent and temporary shelters opened by the NGO and the government of Delhi. The people that I found there not only left a deep impact on me, but some of their philosophical insights were so deep that one could only scratch their head to determine the reasons that compelled these people to end up in the shelters for homeless.

Sunil is from Lakhi Sarai in Bihar. I find him sleeping under a tree, away from the comforts of the permanent shelter situated just 5 steps away. I stand near him and wait for some moments during which he stirs, perhaps acknowledging the presence of someone nearby and finally opens his eye to stare at me in wonder. I ask him for a short chit-chat and he readily agrees.

“I came here hoping to earn lakhs and crores” he says “but now I just want to save enough to buy a ticket to go back home”. His voice has a tinge of realization and repentance. “I want to accept all the wrongs that I have committed and ask forgiveness for them and want to serve my parents for the rest of my life.”

“I came to Delhi in 2001, along with an uncle of mine. We took up work in a factory in Gurgaon. However, after 3 months, the contractor who employed us, fled with all our money leaving us with nothing. My uncle wanted to stay there and find some other work, but I felt dejected. I left him and came here in Delhi to look for work. I did many odd and petty jobs for meager sums of money. At one time, I was pulling a hand cart in Chawri Bazar. But Money was hard to come by. Even after working this much, I barely earned enough to feed myself three times a day.”

“I fell in the company of bad people. They misguided me and cheated me. I was a novice in this game and hence I got cheated. I have no money now.”

“I have a family back home. I have two elder brothers and three elder sisters. I am the youngest of us all. I also have a wife but no children. All of us used to work on our farms or earn wages through some labor work. But I wanted to earn lakhs and crores. Farm work did not satisfy me as my eyes were on the glitter and buzz of big cities like Delhi. Now I am repenting.”

“Yes, I take drugs. I used to take smack and heroine, used to spend a lot on cigarettes, bidis and have consumed a lot of liquor. But now I take only bhang and tobacco.” He shows me a packet of ‘SWAGAT’ brand of tobacco that he chews. “It is my favorite brand” he adds with a smile.

I ask him about the harshness of the winter in Delhi. He pauses, and then looks at me and says “My life has turned into a cold winter. This winter is nothing in front of it.”

But all the drug addicts aren’t as forthcoming as Sunil, about their past. I spot a man sitting on a stone near one of the temporary shelters erected by the MCD. With long hair and an even longer beard, this man reminds me of the impoverished character of Adrian Brody in THE PIANIST. However, this man is neither a Nazi, nor a Jew, although like both of them, he seems to be fighting a war — a war against the ignominy heaped upon him by the docile denizens of the society.

He is visibly disoriented, perhaps drunk, and when I approach him, he gazes at me for a long time to mark out my features to ascertain whether I am a human being or an animal. I ask him several questions, but he answers only in monosyllables — yes, no or sometimes just a curious look coupled with a shrug.

Finally, I ask him whether he takes any kind of drugs. He shakes his head vigorously, as if to emphasize that he neither takes any nor has touched any kind of drug in his whole life. Yet, he seems to be unable to explain his presence in a camp for homeless drug addicts.

I leave him gazing at the Yamuna, where the relatives of someone who has just been cremated are dispersing his/her ashes, and perhaps wondering whether there would be someone to cremate him when he dies, let alone disperse his ashes.

But unlike the bearded man sitting in seclusion and gazing at Yamuna, some people are just not concerned about death. “It will come when it has to come”; says Hira Lal, aged 48.

“I hail from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. I used to have a family, but it has been 15 years since I left them. I don’t think anyone will recognize me now.”

For an ordinary little kid, Hira Lal may be the perfect depiction of all things with a devilish hue. With a distorted face, he also has a bright red eye — the brightness of which seems to have been aggravated not by lack of sleep — which is his favorite pastime — but by some kind of flu which went unnoticed and consequently, undiagnosed.

“I had a wife. But she died soon after the marriage due to measles. I could not save her and left home in disappointment.”

“Money is hard to come by. I also do not try much to earn it. On some days, when someone comes looking for some labor, I earn a hundred or two hundred bucks. On other days, I just sleep here and pass my time.”

“I take tobacco if that qualifies as a drug.”

Asked about the climate, Mr.Lal admits that the temperature has increased in the past couple of days, but “the winter is nothing compared to what it used to be 10 years ago.”

This winter, the Delhi government raced against time to cover up its ineffectiveness in covering up these homeless migrants who are forced to sleep in the open due to the lack of cover over their head. Several media reports in leading national dailies and television channels admonished the government for not carrying out what should have been its primary duty. The irony of the whole narrative does not seem to be the relative destitution of the homeless drug addicts, but the paranoia appended with them by the society, which is terrorized even at the thought of providing some space for these people in a ‘prime location’ near Kashmere Gate. For many, these homeless only represent the ‘daily nonsense’ that creeps into the capital every day.

However, for many like Sunil and Hira Lal, NGOs like Aman Biradari, who have been putting up temporary and permanent shelters along with the government in many areas which include central Delhi, are a ray of hope, the last step in the ladder for their survival. This does not mean that these people are sitting away, eating merrily and living joyously at the expense of the taxpayer and the donators, rather, these people are repulsed at the idea of having to accept the ‘generosity’ of the society for their survival.

One only hopes that with the passage of cold and harsh winter and the arrival of spring, the sun also shines brightly in the dark cells of these people’s lives and provides them with more opportunities to prosper and grow.