Jan 232017

I Write for the DNA today

To understand the issues surrounding Jallikattu, it helps to look at a changing India and the fault lines that arise from it.

The first thing we need to understand is that Urban India is made up of immigrants. Immigrants from rural to urban areas and one region to the other, where primarily the reasons to move are both, economic and social. While we follow the customs that our ancestors did, they are more in the nature of rituals than in the spirit of these customs. For example, Holi in the city is fun and about colours and water; however, in the rural scenario, it is far more than just a festival of colours. It is also a very important harvest festival where people thank the land for the bounty and celebrate a better tomorrow.

In Tamil Nadu, Pongal is the harvest festival which, in the cities, is often reduced to the food we cook – Pongal, a type of khichdi. And while we may carry forward traditions like tying sugarcane outside our homes and decorating pots and pans with haldi and kumkum, it really is not the same as in the villages. There, it is about genuine and heartfelt worship of the tools of the trade, the animals who help with the crop, and the land that gives the bounty. Mattu Pongal, during the Pongal festivities, is done to honour all farm animals, of which Jallikattu is also a part. Most of the festivities are built around thanksgiving and community congregation. Every region in India has its own set of harvest festivals. Most of these cut across community, caste, gender, and economic status – which means, everyone involved in the rural economy participates enthusiastically as equals. Is religion a part of it? Yes, but not in the way most city people understand religion. Rural India is far more fluid in the matters of religion and far stricter in terms of caste. Urban India is the other way around. Harvest festivals are when most of the differences are set aside and you celebrate as one. For long, the concept of village art, music, culture, sports, and dance were looked down upon with the underlying message that villages had to adopt the ways of the more ‘cultured’ urban dwellers. Less than 20 years ago, the joke, in rather poor taste, would be ‘the only culture in villages was agriculture’. However, with increasing education, prosperity, political participation and rural transformation, Rural India and rural culture is making its voice heard. It is partly in this context that we need to understand Jallikattu.For most commentators and activists (city-based), the choice is binary – between animal rights and cultural practice. For the rural economy though, it is far more multi-layered – economy, culture, tradition, achievement, aspiration, self-image, and a sense of community are all tied to the festivities.

(image from here)

The second equally important thing to understand is the concept of the Tamil identity which subsumes all other identities that one may have. It cuts across your birth area, religion, caste and education to make everyone in the state a Tamil first. To feel the sense of Tamil identity does not need you to be born a Tamilian, so it’s less about birth and about the emotion. There are enough and more non-Tamil borns who consider themselves (and are considered to be) Tamilians. Rajnikanth, MGR, Jayalalitha, Khushbhoo – just to name a few.It also cuts across religious lines and caste lines. I cannot quite recall any other group where the sense of identity is so strong and so pervasive.The last time the Tamil identity came into play in a big way was during the anti-Hindi protests in the 1960s. The consideration of the imposition of Hindi as a national language was enough for the Tamilians to believe there was a threat to their identity and culture. The Central Government of the day, capitulated. Needless to say, Hindi is one of the official languages not the national language.

The third thing to understand is that regional parties in India are going through a flux. Most of the issues are to do with succession. Be it Shiv Sena in Maharashtra or Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu or the Nationalist Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra. The ruling party of Tamil Nadu, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is no different. After the death of Jayalalithaa, the power seems to be split between Chief Minister Panneerselvam and Sasikala who was Amma’s companion and is now the General Secretary of AIADMK.The Jallikattu protests were vital in both, asserting the claims to protect the Dravidian identity (The D in both DMK and AIADMK stands for Dravidian) and the Tamil way of life. No political party in Tamil Nadu can stand against the assertion of the Tamil pride. And for parties like the DMK and AIADMK that are looking to revive their game and become relevant to a new Tamil Nadu, this was a Supreme Court-sent opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of the protest, while claiming them as their own and the victory as its result.

The final thing to understand is that there will be organisations – NGOs or even the State – that will challenge local customs because they are no longer in sync with the law. Be it child marriage or animal cruelty, polygamy or devdasi cult, many practices were culturally acceptable once but legally challenged later. This will continue and it will step on the toes of the ‘customs’ – and the local custom will fight back. It is all a part of being a thriving Democratic Republic. If everyone agreed on everything, it would be a terribly boring place to live in. And whatever else you may say about India, we are not boring.

The recent capitulation by the Central Government by pushing through a hastily drafted ordinance and its request to the apex court not to rule on the validity of this ordinance, is the culmination of these four seemingly non-connected aspects.

The protests to hold Jallikattu have been going on for a few years. This year’s demonstrations have been as much about Jallikattu as they have been about the other things. There has been an underlying sense of resentment in the state towards the way the ‘North’ has been treating them.The North is a combination of the Centre, the Supreme Court, the media, and anything else that is not from Tamil Nadu. Be it the Kaveri water dispute, the treatment of the refugees from Sri Lanka, or the reaction to the Chennai floods, or the Hindi used in government advertising — it has all been building up for a while. It has been seen as a gradual whittling away of federalism and the Tamil identity and culture. The last rebuff from the Supreme Court on Jallikattu was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Centre and the State reacted and peaceful protests by Tamilians across the state have led to an ordinance that overturns a Supreme Court ruling on the game.

The question is what happens the next time a community decides it is going to use state/ cultural/ regional/ tribal/ caste pride to protest a law which it believes is against their culture. And protests to carry on their way of life? The best Jallikattu analogy here would be that individual sub-cultures can be like raging bulls, the one who wins would steer the bull his way, not one who gets steered by the bull. Because if you get steered by a raging bull, it is going to gore you sooner or later. It is a lesson India learned after Rajiv Gandhi yielded on Shah Bano. One can only hope that we don’t have to learn the same lesson all over again.

Jul 282016

(this first appeared on shethepeople.tv )

A headline caught my eye today, and made me grimace. “Chennai man killed by speeding Audi, police to determine if woman driver was drunk.” It made me ask the same question I seek to answer, every time I write. Is a descriptor needed? Does the line still read right, if I bump off the word ‘woman’. Does it really make a difference whether the drunk is a man or a woman? But, there are things that we don’t expect women to do. And, it is not just headline writers. A few days ago, a professional acquaintance was telling me about a case of corruption in a private company, and someone getting sacked. “She was caught red handed” they said. I responded “a woman taking a bribe?” part incredulous, part shocked. Frankly, after all these years of working, some of it in news, things like this should not surprise or shock me, but they do. There are things we expect of men and women, and there are things we don’t expect them to do.

All of us, to a greater or lesser extent refer to the world, through gender lenses. There are things we expect ourselves to do, and expect to be done for us. And, it applies to men, women, and society at large.  The number of female friends who do not pay attention to personal finance (I used to be one of them), and leave it to the men in their family; the number of men who have no cooking skills, and leave it all to the women in their family (how many men do you know who tell you they can just make tea, and boil an egg). These are at a very basic level. And, the roles determined by culture and society, which we broadly call gender roles, impact both sexes.


(Trapped & Chained by gender)

At my age, my father was the main provider for a family of 7. A spouse, 3 children, and two from the older generation. He never went on holiday. Or got himself  new clothes. We lived on a honest Government servant’s salary, that was supplemented by a honest teacher’s salary.  I asked him, much later in life didn’t he crave for the nicer things in life – a new pair of shoes, a watch, a new tie, maybe even a holiday.  He laughed and said, ‘I had the pleasure of seeing you all grow, I didn’t really need anything more.”  My father was the provider. My mother was the nurturer. He loved photography and travel. She loved reading and studying. Both put their dreams away for us. A former colleague of mine, who wanted to start up, put his dreams aside. He wanted to be the good provider. Another colleague, stayed at home to look after her family, because she believed it was her role. One is not judging any of the decisions here, one is simply saying that our decision making is often, even sub consciously, based on gender programming.

While sex is biological, gender is societal programming.  And, while we often talk about how gender roles impact women, the fact is, it impacts both.  A woman is expected to be responsible for the upbringing of the children and taking care of the household, never mind if she has other dreams. A man is expected to go out and provide for his family, dreams be damned.

The question of gender has come back into the public sphere in a big way, for the first time since the 1970s. And, it has to do with discrimination. And, that discrimination is neither governmental, nor organizational. Both encourage diversity. That discrimination is innate. Within individuals. And, most of us don’t even recognize it, because so much of it is linked to society, culture and traditions.

So the starting point in ending discrimination is to recognize that there is something called genderthat is a product of society and culture, and that it is very distinct from sex that is determined at the point of conception. It has to do with roles that we perform. If we accept that roles have little  to do with biology, then we can make a beginning to end gender.

As women, we cannot achieve equality, until we recognize that men are as weighed down bygender roles as women are. The average  man –father, brother, partner, colleague, friend – is not patriarchy. He is an individual, just like the average woman. Maybe a set of conversations will help change things at the individual level. A conversation on dreams, and wishes, and how they can be achieved, may really help redress the balance in our own immediate universe. And, many adjoining universes, may end up shifting the balance towards a more gender free, or gender neutral world.  It is the world we owe future generations.

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