Nov 152015

After a long time, i wrote an opinion piece for the DNA. And, it essentially was on why India was not being ruled by the Hindu Taliban.

The Indian electorate makes informed and wise decisions – it may not be as literate or as sophisticated as its western counterpart; it may neither be as wealthy, nor as involved – but, the Indian voters have tended to surprise Indian politicians, political parties, and the world at large with their choices. We vote for a direction. We vote to teach rulers a lesson. We participate in the electoral process with joy and involvement. And, we vote because it is our right to do so. There are those who many not like the outcome, but that does not mean that the voters are wrong or have voted ‘fascists’ or ‘communists’ or whatever. Accepting the Indian voters’ choice is the first step of understanding and participating in Indian democracy. The political parties have to do so, in all humility. It is time supporters of those parties did so too.

Read the full piece here

Apr 102015

i wrote this, for the dna on the 5th of Feb

In the last 10 days, two very different incidents have taken place that have serious implications on freedom. The first is the hounding of Shireen Dalvi, the editor of the Mumbai edition of the Urdu daily, Awadhnama. She published a Charlie Hebdo cartoon on the front page of her paper in the context of a story. As expected, there was furore and outrage – much of it not reported because it took place in Urdu language. Since then multiple police cases have been filed, the Mumbai edition of the paper has been shut, and Dalvi is on the run, escaping the multitude of FIRs filed against her. This is one more statistic of expression being stifled and truth being suppressed. Journalists in India have been trained by the law of the land to avoid content that could lead to ‘communal disharmony’. Invariably, this means that when they report riots, the story will be couched in sanitised terms such as ‘two communities clashed over a religious procession in place x’. From a news point, it tells you nothing. From a legal point of view, it keeps you safe. But, the point is that if journalists are supposed to record the first draft of history, they cannot do so by sanitising those things that offend people. Ultimately, if the profession has to be the watchdog, it cannot be told that there are things you cannot bark at. Explaining issues to people in context is a vital part of journalism. Dalvi has paid the price for doing her job. The Right to be Offended seems to have, once again, triumphed over the right to know and the freedom to express without fear.

The second incident, which has got tremendous media attention, is the case of AIB. One would be wary of using the full form of AIB in a family newspaper, but all those who have seen or heard of the group know what it means. The group of comedians put up a live show called AIB Roast, where their friends, Bollywood celebrities, turned up to display their sense of humour while being ‘insulted’. The show was a ticketed one, which means that only people interested in that genre of humour purchased it. And, those who did, claimed that they enjoyed it. The show was edited (a two-hour live show edited to 50-odd minutes) and was put up on YouTube, where again people who were interested, watched it. Given the nature of the show, and the platforms it was available on, there was little or no chance that people who are not interested in that kind of humour would view it. But, this is India. People will read books that they aren’t interested in with the purpose of protesting; they will watch films they don’t like with the purpose of getting them banned; and they will watch a show whose humour they hate, to call for a ban. And, that is exactly what happened. The producers have withdrawn the show from YouTube. The Right to be Offended has triumphed once again, over the right to free expression.

The question now arises, what offends people and can you legislate offense? A few days ago, in a case regarding the application of the draconian section 66A to ‘gross offense’,Supreme Court justices J Chelameswar and Rohinton F Nariman made a very crucial observation: “What is grossly offensive to you, may not be grossly offensive to me and it is a vague term.” It is this vague term of causing ‘offense’ and ‘hurting sentiments’ that stands in the way of our freedoms. So rather than rail against this ‘gross offense’ and ‘hurting sentiments’, this author thought she would list at least 5 issues that cause her deep offense, and that hurt her religious and constitutional sentiments, and asks the readers of this column to do the same.

a) Children living in the street, facing grave dangers and losing their childhood, causes me great offense, and deeply hurts my sentiments. Sixty eight years after Independence, children should have a decent present and a good future. And, I would like all those responsible to be banned — politicians, administrators, local goons — and to pay the price of this, just the way Shireen Dalvi and the rest are paying.

b) People throwing garbage, spitting on the street, and dumping industrial waste in water sources seriously offend me. I believe that nature, land, rivers, mountains are all sacred spaces, and this consistent, deliberate pollution is hurting my religious sentiments and causing me great pain. Could we ban all those who indulge in such behaviour?

c) Sound Pollution is my pet bugbear. I believe in worshipping in silence, where I can contemplate the nature of the Universe and seek guidance from it, in peace. When loudspeakers blare bad music, sermons, satsangs etc, not only am I forced to consume religious content I don’t want to consume, but also, the out-of-tune renditions offend my ears. This not just violates my right to practise my religion (of one) in my own way, it also impacts my musical sensibilities. Who can I file a FIR against for gross offense?

d) People who tell women what to wear and how to behave. I am fundamentally offended by patriarchal behaviour. It is none of anyone’s business. Women are not their chattel. Not even women in their family. What do you do about the offense caused by people who want to deprive almost 50% of the population of their rights?

e) Discrimination offends me. It doesn’t matter if it is gender based, religion based, caste based – it simply offends the daylights out of me. Religion tells me that all are equal in the eyes of God. The Constitution tells me all are equal in the eyes of the law. How do you deal with people who impinge on both rights? How do you deal with the offense caused?
If we go down this logical path, there won’t be anything left to ban, because everything would be banned. Welcome to a sterile world – where there is no humour, no offense, no freedom, no opinion, no comment, no fiction, no poetry. Sounds a bit like the moon. Not conducive for life, living and civilisation.

Feb 162015

I look at media centres and media peripheries, in this article in the DNA. What makes certain events more important than others?

Let us look at the difference in response to the killings of journalists from Charlie Hebdo in Paris,  and the killings by Boko Haram in Nigeria

Early this year, while the world was watching the events in Paris unfold, as Islamist terrorists, part of the Yemani al Qaeda, murdered 12 people in cold blood, the extreme Salafist terror organisationBoko Haram attacked and killed 2,000 people in the fishing town of Baga, Nigeria. While the former received acres of newspaper coverage, hours of air time, and terabytes of Internet outrage, the latter passed without even a blip in popular consciousness.

Within India too, there are clear differences between regions and states that make the headlines, and those that are ignored.

If you do a Google search for “floods in India 2014”, you will see a list of articles and sites that look at the human devastation caused by nature’s fury. Assam, Bihar, Odisha and J&K were all impacted by floods — hundreds of villages were submerged, thousands of people were displaced, and scores died. Yet, when it comes to both media attention and public consciousness, the one we would remember is the floods in J&K.

This is primarily because

The media centre tends to be aspirational, and aspirational is defined in terms of success, wealth, power, colour, caste and religion — and other things that we all like to believe are no longer relevant. The world is more concerned about people dying in European countries than it is about death in Africa; India is more interested in the states that are close to Delhi and the further away a state is from the national capital, the less important it becomes. Also important is the social class, caste and colour.

The full article is here – do read and let me know what you think

Jan 182015

I write for the @Dna on the 14th of January

I am not Perumal Murugan, but I very well could be. So could you or anyone else, who run afoul of a tiny, vocal, rabid fringe that thinks nothing about hounding people who go against their view of what is right. These are people who are an antithesis to the idea of a plural, diverse, multicultural nation and want this country to embody their narrow view of religion, culture and nationhood. It is important that we pay heed to this now, and stand against it, because this is not just a vague concept of ‘freedom of expression’. If we, the people, let this fester and grow, we will end up with the same kind of restrictions that we see across our borders.

Who is Perumal Murugan and what is Mathorubhagan or One Part Woman about?

Perumal Murugan is a Tamil author, poet and Professor and the author of six books.

Photo posted on the author’s Facebook page

Penguin’s author description of him is:

PERUMAL MURUGAN is a well-known contemporary Tamil writer and poet. He has written six novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry. Two of his novels have been translated into English to wide acclaim: Seasons of the Palm, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Kiriyama Award in 2005, and Current Show. He has received awards from the Tamil Nadu government as well as from Katha Books.

The book in question Mathorubhagan, whose English translation is called One Part Woman, narrates the story of a childless couple.

Kali and Ponna’s efforts to conceive a child have been in vain. Hounded by the taunts and insinuations of others, all their hopes come to converge on the chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara, the half-female god. Everything hinges on the one night when rules are relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned. This night could end the couple’s suffering and humiliation. But it will also put their marriage to the ultimate test. (blurb from the Kindle edition of the book)

(I purchased the Kindle version of the book yesterday, and read it till late at night and am awestruck by the author’s characterisations, his narrative and his empathy towards humanity).

Who wants the book banned?

Lots of groups. According to the author :

I think, for the first time, caste organisations and Hindu organisations have come together on the same platform. The Hindu Munnani and three other caste organisations are running the campaign. Their objective has nothing to do with the book, since they are not ready to relent even after I promised to change the name of the village in the next edition of the book.

The book has ran afoul of the right wing Hindu organisations including the RSS and the Hindu Munani. They believe that Mathorubhagan offends their religious, cultural and caste sensibilities, in addition to insulting their hometown, women in their hometown, and the temple. In December, the Hindu had reported on this issue :

Alleging that Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s novel, Madhorubhagan, has portrayed the Kailasanathar temple in Tiruchengode and women devotees in bad light, the BJP, RSS and other Hindu outfits have demanded its ban and the arrest of the author. They burnt copies of the book on Friday at Tiruchengode.

What was the impact?

On January 13, after almost a month of protests, which has led the author and his family to flee their home,  Perumal Murugan put out a statement on his Facebook page. This is the translation :

Author Perumal Murugan has died. He is no god, so he is not going to resurrect himself. Nor does he believe in reincarnation. From now on, Perumal Murugan will survive merely as a teacher, as he has been.

He thanks all magazines, media, readers, friends, writers, organisations, political parties, leaders, students and anyone else who supported Perumal Murugan and upheld the freedom of expression.

The issue is not going to end with Madhorubagan. Different groups and individuals might pick up any of his books and make it a problem. Therefore, these are the final decisions that Perumal Murugan has taken:

1. Other than those books that Perumal Murugan has compiled and published on his own, he withdraws all the novels, short stories, essays and poetry he has written so far. He says with certainty that none of these books will be on sale again.

2. He requests his publishers – Kalachavadu, Natrinai, Adaiyalam, Malaigal, Kayalkavin not to sell his books. He will compensate them for their loss.

3. All those who have bought his books so far are free to burn them. If anyone feels they have incurred a waste or loss in buying his books, he will offer them a compensation.

4. He requests that he be not invited to any events from now on.

5. Since he is withdrawing all his books, he requests caste, religious, political and other groups not to engage in protests or create problems.

Please leave him alone. Thanks to everyone.

Books by Perumal Murugan posted on his Facebook page

Historically, there is precedence for this kind of recanting under the threat of violence. Galileo, ran afoul of a corrupt, centralised and dogmatic Catholic Church of his era. They objected to his scientific theories that repudiated the scientific vision of the universe laid down in their scriptures.The Church believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Galileo showed that the Earth moved around the sun. For this, the Church ordered him to be placed under arrest and face the inquisition. A 70-year-old Galileo recanted.

After an injunction had been judicially intimated to me by this Holy Office, to the effect that I must altogether abandon the false opinion that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center of the world, and moves, and that I must not hold, defend, or teach in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing, the said false doctrine, and after it had been notified to me that the said doctrine was contrary to Holy Scripture — I wrote and printed a book in which I discuss this new doctrine already condemned, and adduce arguments of great cogency in its favor, without presenting any solution of these, and for this reason I have been pronounced by the Holy Office to be vehemently suspected of heresy, that is to say, of having held and believed that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center and moves:

Protesting against a book, a painting, a cartoon, a caricature is par for the course, in a vibrant, diverse democratic republic. But, what is not acceptable, is hounding of artists, writers, and those who dissent against a unified view of a religion or culture.  People have the right to profess their faith and follow their cultural norms. What is dictatorial and intolerant is not just to expect that everyone else does the same, but also threaten to cause a law and order issue until such time that the offending piece of expression is banned.

History tells us that Galileo was right. The Church finally apologised to him in 1992.

What is the role of the State ?

The state has one very important role – to protect the rights of the individual citizen and ensure that politically motivated groups do not impinge on our constitutional rights. The Tamil Nadu state administration has failed miserably in protecting the rights of Perumal Murugan. They have allowed fringe elements to bully, harass and finally exile a writer from his mode of expression. They need to collectively hang their heads in shame.

Do people have the right to protest against books, films and other forms of expression?

Yes, unambiguously so. They have the right to show their ire and objection, it is part of their right to free expression. But, and this is an important caveat, this stops short of violence, threats of violence, threats to life, livelihood and hounding of people till they flee the country or stop writing. Freedoms are not just for people and causes that you like and support, they better be present for everyone. Every time the State fails to protect the right of expression, the right of the individual and allows fringe groups to gain victory, each individual in India loses a little bit of their freedom. This is not about Perumal Murugan alone, it is about all of us and our right to express without fear.

Finally – what is this about? 

An author hounded till he gives up writing. This is not what my religion or culture or nation is supposed to stand for – this is not in my name. As a culture, dissent is a part of our civilisational ethos, as is questioning everything around us. Offence or even blasphemy is not a good enough reason to stifle and strangle expression of ideas and views. We have always been a culture that respected dissent. When Tulsidas wrote the Ramayan in a language people could understand, he ran afoul of the orthodoxy who bayed for his blood; when Dnyaneshwar wrote the Dnyaneshwari (a commentary on the Bhagwad Gita in Marathi) that every one could understand, he faced the same problems. Today, no one remembers the names of those who opposed these great men. All we do, is imbibe from the Ramcharitramanas and the Dnyaneshwari.

Today, we are facing one more push back from the orthodox and those who wish to interfere in our right to religion and free expression (which is both a constitutional right and a civilizational one), it is time we took a stand and asked our government to be steadfast in protecting our rights.

Jan 182015

I write for the DNA, 13th of January

Amidst all the international attention on the Paris shootings, and Charlie Hebdo – much of the world missed out the increasingly violent conflict between Boko Haram, the Nigerian extreme Islamist group, and the Nigerian Government. Last week, the Nigerian town of Baga, that lies in the North of the country, saw an armed attack by the Boko Haram on civilians that led to an estimated 2000 plus people killed. It is currently difficult to be precise about the number of killings simply because Boko Haram is still in control of the town, and getting information about the atrocities committed is difficult.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald

Villagers from Baga, a network of 16 fishing communities on the southern shores of Lake Chad, have told of hundreds, and perhaps as many as 2000 locals, being gunned down by militias who arrived on trucks – from which they offloaded motorcycles, to give chase to those who fled on foot, most of whom were children, women and the elderly who were not capable of running.

More than 1000 of 20,000 who are estimated to have fled the villages are reportedly stuck on an island on Lake Chad – with no food and inadequate shelter.

However, the Nigerian Government has disputed the number, and has said this:

“From all available evidences, the number of people who lost their lives during that attack has so far not exceeded about 150 in the interim. This figure includes many of the terrorists who were bearing arms and got killed in the course of their attack and battle with troops.

“It should be noted that Baga and the neighbouring towns have been under a series of attacks and harassment by the terrorists. In the course of this, many residents have left, leaving the population in the town almost seriously depleted. Many were also able to escape while the terrorists’ battle with troops lasted.

“The figure given by sources who claim to be eyewitnesses must be an extremely exaggerated estimate. Unfortunately, this figure is now being bandied about in a section of the media as if it has been authenticated. It cannot be true,” he said

Whatever the figure maybe – the fact remains that Boko Haram is a threat that is taken seriously by both the Nigerian government and the world at large. Boko Haram is on theUnited States’ list of terror organisations

Who or What is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram, literally translated means ‘westernisation forbidden’, is one of the most extreme Islamist groups that operates in Africa, and has, as it’s stated mandate, the establishment of a ‘pure’ Islamic State that is governed by their interpretation of the Sharia. According to the BBC:

Boko Haram promotes a version of Islam which makes it “haram”, or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society. This includes voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers or receiving a secular education. Boko Haram regards the Nigerian state as being run by non-believers, even when the country had a Muslim president.

Set up at the turn of the millennium by Mohammed Yusuf, the organisation has been spreading its tentacles slowly across Northern Nigeria. The group attracted followers

“….under its roof by offering welfare handouts, food, and shelter. Many of the people the group attracted were refugees from the wars over the border in Chad and jobless Nigerian youths. The source of the group’s money at this stage of its existence is not clear. Members of the Borno religious establishment say that Yusuf received funds from Salafist contacts in Saudi Arabia following two hajj trips that Yusuf made during this time”

Boko Haram Tactics

Boko Haram has been primarily terrorising other Muslims in the northern part of Nigeria. They believe that they, and they alone, have the right to decide what variant of Islam should be taught. They have been at the forefront of bombing mosques, attacking Friday prayers, killing preachers and murdering the devout. Their intention, one could say, was to become the sole voice of Muslims in the area, and they killed those (especially other Muslims) who stood in their way. Termed the Nigerian Taliban, the group came into the limelight when Mohammed Yunus got killed in a pitched gun battle between his supporters and the army.

According to the United States Institute of Peace, the Boko Haram has been escalatingviolence and terror in Nigeria in the last 4 years. And now it has spread its terror further to try and intimidate other communities in Nigeria.

Since August 2011 Boko Haram has planted bombs almost weekly in public or in churches in Nigeria’s northeast. The group has also broadened its targets to include setting fire to schools. In March 2012, some twelve public schools in Maiduguri were burned down during the night, and as many as 10,000 pupils were forced out of education.

It hit the international headlines once again in April 2014 when it kidnapped around 300 school girls, many of whom were converted to Islam and married off to Boko Haram fighters.

A video message from the leader of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau. 

Boko Haram and the Islamic State

As Boko Haram grows stronger in Nigeria, partly fuelled by its own success and partly because the Government has abandoned large swathes of Northern Nigeria to the terror groups, there is genuine concern that they may join hands with the other bunch of brutal, neo fascist Islamist groups such as Islamic State, to cut a swathe across the region.

ISIS, like Boko Haram seems to be interested in conquering territory rather than launching an al-Qaeda-style global jihad. Boko Haram is taking advantage of the lawlessness and lack of border control in the Nigerian borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, like ISIS which uses the Syrian-Iraqi region as its safe ground. Nevertheless, there is an important difference. Boko Haram operates within Nigeria which faces state failure signs in its Northern region, ISIS on other hand operates in the absence of any state authority.

Both ISIS and Boko Haram have taken advantage of the political and strong state vacuum in the regions to establish their authority.

Going forward, restoring Government and the power of the State will be an important step in rebuilding legitimate political authority that will restore power back to the people. It is neither going to be easy nor is it going to be quick. It will be a long hard journey, and an already afflicted people are going to be beggared even more. For the sake of future generations in the region, it is imperative that a regional solution is found that checks the advance of these organisations and decimates their foundation. It will be a Herculean task, one filled with human right violations, dead people and shattered societies.

And, the question that everyone needs to ask and answer is this, how do you deal with a bunch of nihilists who think nothing of strapping a bomb to a 10-year-old and turning her into a suicide bomber. How do you deal with an organisation whose members think of death as the ultimate goal? How do you check their advance without becoming all those things yourself? And, finally, how do you rehabilitate a traumatised populace and bring them back to modernity. To win the war on terror, these are questions that need to be answered.