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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, February 24, 2015

Land Acquisition Ordinance and Anna's Confused Gandhism

The Land Acquisition Ordinance has been a subject of much debate. There are differences between the government and the opposition over the finer nuances of the bill. However, instead of a reasoned debate and discussion which can result in a compromise, the opposition is piggy backing on the agitation started by Anna Hazare. This is wrong and dangerous. 

A natural question that arises is: why is Anna wrong now and why wasn’t he wrong when he started his agitation for the Jan Lokpal Bill? The answer is simple. Corruption is a plague that no one in their right minds would support. The anti-corruption agitation came in the backdrop of mammoth scams under a shaky UPA-II government which was reluctant to enact a strong Jan Lokpal Bill and was playing politics instead of tackling the problem head on. Land Acquisition, on the other hand, is a policy. Different people may have different opinion on this policy and the government can either take note of these opinions or can ignore them. It is ultimately the difference of perspective; it does not signify a lack of political will or policy paralysis.

To arm twist the government into accepting a particular set of amendments is unacceptable. And that is exactly what Anna is threatening to do. In an interaction with Zee News, he threatened to return to Ramlila Maidan and start a ‘jail bharo andolan’ if the government did not accede to his demands. What kind of Gandhism is that? For Gandhi, agitations and fasts unto death were last resorts, which had to be undertaken only when all other options such as negotiation, deliberation, compromise etc. had been exhausted. For Anna however, this seems to be the first and the last resort.

This does not mean Anna doesn’t have a right to protest. Protests are a legitimate form of expression of dissent in a democracy. Yet, there is a difference between expressing your dissent and trying to enforce your will. At the end of the day, all protests have to be responsible towards the democracy in which they take place. By threatening to sit in Ramlila Maidan, he is being highly irresponsible for he is insulting the clear mandate that the people of this country have bestowed on the Modi government. He is also setting a dangerous precedent.

The opposition which is rubbing its hands in glee in a sign of true opportunism should realize that they can also get their hands burnt in the fire they are putting a match to. There is no problem with any political figure or party joining Anna on stage or elsewhere during the protest at Jantar Mantar. But before extending any support to his threat of an agitation at Ramlila Maidan, politicians should think long and hard about what would happen if a similar threat was handed out in the future to a popularly elected government. Would 67 seats out of 70 matter then?

For Gandhi, Satyagraha was meant to change the heart of the oppressor in order to show him the injustice of his position. One can discern no such intention in the protest being headed by Mr. Hazare. On the contrary, this seems to be a battle between the mood of the central government and the bloated ego of Mr. Hazare where the latter is content with calling names instead of finding a compromise. No Mr. Hazare, no matter what you think, neither is this “a battle for second independence” nor is the central government “acting like the British”. 

By hiding behind the Mahatma for all his agitations, Anna is only damaging his own hard earned reputation. He is also misleading people regarding the nature and meaning of Gandhism, which is a greater disservice. Instead of being a means to an end, his agitations have become an end in themselves. They have started looking less like political protests and more like a part of a Reality TV show. 

For a better understanding of how Gandhism works, Anna needs to train his eyes to Manipur, where Irom Sharmila has been carrying out her peaceful hunger strike against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act for the last 14 years. Yes, 14 years. She hasn’t succeeded yet, for Gandhism doesn’t assure quick results. But when she does, and I am sure she will, her victory would be the true victory of the Gandhian method.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Photo Essay: Paanch Saal Kejriwal

Once upon a time, when I used to be a Kejriwal supporter, I recorded the oath taking ceremony of the Delhi Chief Minister in Ramlila Maidan. This is the photo essay of that ceremony.

After a landslide victory in the Delhi Assembly elections in which his party grabbed 67 out of the 70 seats, Arvind Kejriwal, the national convenor of the Aam Aadmi Party, took oath as Delhi's 8th Chief Minister in the presence of thousands of his supporters (including me) in the historic Ramleela Maidan.

I reached the venue early in the morning to find a suitable spot from which to witness this historic moment. To my dismay, passionate supporters of the Chief Minister had already occupied the front row seats and I got a spot somewhere around the front-middle. My disappointment was more than made up after I witnessed the swearing in ceremony and heard Arvind's speech. The crowd was ecstatic and the experience was what people describe with a cliche: "once in a lifetime". 

I managed to click some pretty good shots and I am sharing them with you all. Years later, when I see this blog post, I will remember that history was made this day and I was fortunate enough to be a part of it.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Another Assault on Free Speech: The AIB Controversy

In the past few days, I have read the reactions of many on the AIB controversy. I have seen how some have expressed their indignation, outrage and disappointment over the whole episode. I want to say only this: I share every moment of that indignation, all the passion of that outrage and the absolute helplessness of that disappointment.

Many in the mainstream media have taken to lecturing us about free speech and how it is a slippery slope. This 'advice' by 'professionals' who have long compromised the ideals of free speech at the altar of corporate convenience, political preference and pure profit, sounds incredibly hollow. I am not buying a word of it. You may have different opinions on the humor of AIB. Many have called it crass, uncouth and insulting. Many others have found it funny, rib-tickling and amusing. Opinions differ, they must be allowed to differ and they must make a difference.

The self proclaimed guardians of public morality are out in the streets again. They cry while wringing their hands that their religious sentiments have been hurt. I find it quite unbelievable how those religious sentiments flourish in the middle of extreme poverty and malnutrition that at least 30% of our population finds itself in. Are these same sentiments not hurt while perpetuating the barbaric traditions of caste, dowry, female infanticide, polygamy, purdah etc? The moment there is a bold attempt to make people have a laugh at the absurdity around them, all of a sudden, all these dormant sentiments flare up.

It must be emphasized that this is not an isolated incident. Writers, cartoonists, comedians and even innocent civilians have been banned, their videos taken down or jailed overnight for offending the sentiments of a particular group, class, religion or political party. Shaheen Dhada and her friend were arrested in 2012 for posting a status against Bal Thackarey. Shirin Dalvi, India's lone woman editor of an Urdu daily, has been hiding her face in public ever since six criminal complaints were filed against her for publishing a Charlie Hebdo cartoon. Perumal Murugan, a critically acclaimed Tamil writer, was forced to withdraw all his books because of the pressure from Hindutva outfits. He has said that the 'author Murugan' is now dead. The list goes on. Taking offence has become an industry in India and the Fundamental right to Free Speech increasingly looks only theoretical in our democracy.

Perumal Murugan, AIB, Shirin Dalvi etc. are the latest additions in the long list of martyrs of free speech in this country. Martyrs is a heavy word and I insist on using it because to have your voice clamped down in a 'democracy' is nothing short of intellectual death. We have written about it enough. We have demonstrated and have spoken out and have trended our hash tags. Yet, we must think, speak and write even more. This world depends on ideas and ideas are bulletproof.

Replug: The Republic of Hurt Sentiments, Daily News and Analysis, (Feb 1, '13)
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 fromMehboob 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.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Return of Kejriwal

Published in The Forthright

I think it was sometime in March 2011 that Arvind Kejriwal had come to the Arts Faculty in North Campus. The India Against Corruption movement was yet to gather steam; in fact it was just beginning. Arvind and his friends had come to appeal to the students to join them in large numbers and show their support for the anti-corruption movement.

By some coincidence, I happened to be in the Arts Faculty at that time. I listened to him attentively. There were only 20-25 students there as no one knew who Arvind Kejriwal was. I too had only a faint idea about his background and for me he was just another RTI activist. Clad in his trademark half sleeve shirt, baggy pants, wire-rimmed glasses, plaited hair and a bushy moustache, his appearance was that of a government employee rather than that of a determined anti-corruption crusader.

In the talk, he apprised us about the draft of the Jan Lokpal Bill and how it would be effective in curbing corruption. Prima facie, the draft looked draconian and I had strong reservations against it. When the talk got over, he along with his friends started moving towards the Law Faculty to discuss with more students and perhaps to catch a quick cup of chai. I introduced myself and began talking.

We spoke for about 15-20 minutes. I told him what my reservations were and what I frankly thought the bill, if enacted into law, would do. I was very critical of the bureaucratic approach to tackle corruption that he was championing and told him then that it would only end up inflating the bureaucracy and increasing corruption. He listened to me as I spoke, nodding and maintaining eye contact and after I finished, he started countering my arguments one by one.

Post by Arvind Kejriwal.

Someone wise has said that a speaker is judged by the audience not by the facts that (s)he marshals out, but by the way (s)he makes the audience feel. I felt like a student learning from an experienced activist as he gave his rationale behind the key provisions of the bill, trying to dispel my doubts one by one as best as he could. At the end of our meeting, I was not wholly convinced by his arguments and told him so but I got attracted to the honesty and conviction with which he spoke.

He just said one thing before taking leave: "The corruption in this country must stop at any cost. We need a strong deterrent against corruption. Jan Lokpal is that deterrent."

We met many times after that but I didn't get to speak with him at length. I watched the India Against Corruption movement unfolding from the steps of Zakir Husain Delhi-college, my alma mater, which is situated right in front of the Ramlila Maidan. I and my friends discussed passionately about our understanding of the movement, our disagreements with it and our reservations about the ideological perspective of the people involved.

We did not want to be blind followers and yet we loathed to be pessimist idealists.

As I stood at Jantar Mantar on the day Arvind and his team launched the Aam Aadmi Party pondering whether I should join it or not, I had in my mind the recollections of our first meeting. I was hesitant as I was still trying to form my views on many issues and wondered if the party would champion the same causes that I personally feel passionate about. I had no inkling about the direction the party would take and frankly, I thought most of its founders (barring Yogendra Yadav) were politically immature.

Some of that hesitation turned into disappointment as Kejriwal resigned as the Chief Minister after 49 days. It was as if he had proved all his critics right. Almost everyone seemed to be screaming ‘we knew it!’ and personally, I felt let down. It is one thing to be idealist and it is another thing to commit political suicide for the sake of that idealism. I could understand the compulsions he found himself under, and maybe he would have been hailed as a hero had he been the Chief Minister in the murky world of politics in the mid-1990s. Yet, the reality was that he was living in the 21st century, his party and government was under constant scrutiny by the 24x7 media and his political opponents, quite simply, outnumbered him. The Modi wave hit ashore in May, 2014 and for a time it looked as if it was time to collect the shattered remnants of a beautiful dream and start afresh.

Yet, the dream endured. It grew silently as dreams generally do, expanding into ever new avenues revealing the vistas of tomorrow. The people refused to part with their beloved cap even after the blooming of the lotus and silently donated 100, 200, 300 – whatever they could – to their homegrown party. As the central government dithered and faltered, AAP consolidated its strength. They apologized, they worked, they listened, they conducted a dialogue instead of a monologue, they revamped, recalibrated and renewed.

Today, I find no trace of that hesitation in me that made me think twice earlier. The people I had reservations against have left. The person who struck me as politically immature at that time has evolved. The party that was trying to find its feet is now pulling the rug underneath the feet of the powers that be.

I am not a voter of Delhi. Yet, that has not deterred me from supporting them and, at times, expressing my disagreements to them. As Delhi votes on 7th February, I suddenly sense a new energy in the air, a new confidence in the people and a clamor in the mainstream media. I have seen these signs before and they are a sure indication of what is coming.

It is a dream morphing into a reality. It is the ideals of the JP movement and the IAC movement finding their fruition after all these years. It is the determination of an anti-corruption crusader finally delivering a knockout punch in the electoral arena. The Aam Aadmi Party is forming the government with absolute majority. No one can deny it.