Jan 182015

My blog on Charlie Hebdo shootings, in DNA on 8th January 2015

Is the price of offending nutcases, death? How far do you hold your silence? Who all are you supposed to be scared of? Can you really blaspheme against a religion you don’t follow?  If you don’t believe in God, or you don’t believe in the story of the origin of the universe in terms of religious reference points, if you don’t believe in a ‘One God’ theory and are joyfully polytheistic, if you like beef, if you laugh at idols, if you question the Virgin Birth, if you don’t believe that Prophet Mohammed is the last prophet— are you committing blasphemy or going against religious beliefs?  What if they are not your religious beliefs? Are you supposed to follow the religious dogma of religions you don’t follow? And why?

There is this extreme religious fundamentalist arrogance that looks at the world and expects it to be reordered as per the dictates of someone’s interpretation of a ‘holy book’. And the reason the term holy book is in quotes is that there is no one holy book for all the people, and there never will. Every time, we give in to any section of population whose sentiments are ‘hurt’ by some depiction or the other, we are not just giving up on the essence of religion, but the essence of a Secular Democratic Republic. The job of the State is not to assuage offended egos, and self appointed guardians of morality, religion and God, but to protect the rights of the individual whose right to express and expression is threatened.



Some of the illustrations in Charlie Hebdo

The ruling against the representation of the Prophet was to prevent idolatry (which is considered to be taboo in Islam).  However, when people, who are neither followers ofIslam nor of any religion, are killed by terrorists for physically depicting the Prophet, this is the most primitive form of idolatry behaviour possible. A human sacrifice to an angry God.  No God, no religion asked for this. Self appointed guardians of religion, who are possibly borderline psychopaths, are setting the agenda and expect the rest of the universe to follow out of fear.

Expecting people who do not follow a faith to follow the taboos of a faith is not just nonsensical, it also interferes with other people’s freedom to religion of their choice. I have been hearing voices on social media, op-ed pieces in respected newspapers on how restraint is needed in expression. This piece from the Financial Times especially hit hard–

Financial Times later changed this to a version that did not include the word stupid. Actually, Charlie Hebdo is not being stupid. They are exercising their freedoms.

There was an inexplicable quote by a woman I really admired as a school girl, Kiran Bedi –

Why provoke is a good question but maybe a better question is why do some people get provoked while most of the world doesn’t. And, why are we supposed to give up our freedoms for these whiny, attention grabbing types? And how long do we live in fear, and for what all?

We live in a world where anything can cause offense. The fact that you eat meat can cause offense to a vegetarian; the fact that you as a woman demand control on your body may cause offense to an orthodox religious type; the fact that you interpret the scriptures can cause offense to those who believe in a comic book version of the religion. There is no end to those who get offended and throw a hissy fit that says ‘pay attention to me and my views, I am important’.

Every time we give in to buy peace, we forget one thing – peace cannot be purchased. And peace purchased to assuage the anger of a psychopath carrying a gun, is temporary fragile peace. You will do something else tomorrow to offend him and cause him to raise the gun again. This is not about religion. This is about domination of all spaces in society and making them comply with a twisted vision of reality.

It needs to stop now. Peshawar and Paris are the clarion calls to stop appeasing bigots of all shades.  And, finally I will end with a quote attributed to Charab – the cartoonist who was murdered yesterday by terrorists-

“I am not afraid of retaliation. I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit. It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing than living on my knees.”

Jan 182015

My column in the DNA on the 29th of December,

It is that time of the year when publicity hungry groups go chasing movies they want to ban. Two years ago, it was those who wanted Vishwaroopam to be bannedbecause it affected their sensibility and hurt their sentiments, now it is another set of groups who want PK to be banned because it hurts their sensibility and sentiments. At a very fundamental level, the two sets of groups, despite their affiliations, are similar. What do they want – they want the world to be re-imagined in their own narrow, humourless, intolerant, uniform, black and white view of what is acceptable and what is not. Furthermore, there is this deep rooted arrogance that they are God’s spokespeople and God, for some unknown reason, requires their intervention. If anyone even remotely believes that this is linked to faith or devotion, they would be mistaken. This is linked to piggy backing on a more famous brand name (God, Religion, Stardom) for interested parties to make a name for themselves and establish themselves as a source of unelected power and influence.

Do people have the right to protest – indeed they do. Can people protest about a film that they dislike? Of course. But do people or groups have the right to prevent others from watching a film – a very emphatic no.  A film bothers you – don’t watch it. A book bothers you, don’t read it. A piece of music offends you, don’t hear it. There is nothing and no one forcing someone to consume any artistic product. On the other hand, the groups that protest, try and force the State to ban a film; or prevent an author from a public gathering; or prevent the performance of a play; or ask for a book ban; thereby depriving others of consumption, by threat of creating a law and order situation – do try and force the rest of the world to accede to their wishes. This is intrinsically undemocratic and also goes against a civilizational ethos of not just pluralism, but also dissent. People have the right to express their creativity and their point of view, without threat from outraged hordes.

Protest against PK in Jammu. PTI

Last year, while writing about the outrage over multiple things (including Vishwaroopam), I had written this:

Goethe, the German author, poet and dramatist, observed that the “There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.” It is a quote that comes to mind every time there are protests about books, authors, paintings, films, music – in short ideas and concepts. Most who protest have neither read, nor seen, nor experienced the object of their outrage. They believe that the idea has profaned what they hold in great esteem. And, they think, therefore, that they have the right to silence this ‘offending’ view so that no one gets to experience it. John Stuart Mill, in his seminal work “On Liberty” (1859), termed this behaviour of wanting to silence a particular view, as evil. He said “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”.

The government must send out a stern message to all those who are protesting against the film (or any other work of expression). You have the right to protest and the government will defend it. But break the law, and you will go to jail. Vandalism, threats, and trying to shout down the rest of the population will not be tolerated. The message needs to go out loud and clear, for the more these groups are emboldened by inaction, the more they will thrive.

Dec 292014

First published in the @DNA
296559-congress-leadersThe Indian National Congress celebrated Foundation Day on Sunday. 130 years ago, the first session of the party was held in Mumbai. In these 130 years, the Congress has fought many battles – lost some, won some others.

But never in its history has it been so bereft of focus and leadership as it is in its current situation. Today, it is less a matter of 44 seats, and more the fact that the party seems adrift, waiting for someone to come by and save them. That is not going to happen. The transformation has to happen from within, and it is not going to be simple. So here are 5 things that the INC needs to do to revive itself (if it so wishes).

Democratise: There was a time that the party attracted the brightest and the best. The most idealistic. It was at its most glorious and its most effective when people from all walks of life associated themselves with the party and worked with it to achieve a certain common objective. The party was home to Jaiprakash Narayan an ardent socialist, and Rajaji– who was not; to Gandhi who believed in the village economy, and Nehru who believed in industrialisation; to Gokhale and Tilak whose ideological clash was legendary; to Patel who believed in a strong Centre and an Ambedkar who believed in a Federal State. It was people from different ideological standpoints who were secure enough in their beliefs and ideals to work with others with differencing ideologies for a larger goal. The party could bring together different strands and weave them to a greater goal. The modern Congress, since the early 1970’s has been failing in achieving this. Pluralism is not just a word. It is a practice.

Get rid of hereditary rule: Republicanism is a higher form of evolution. Hereditary rule is two versions earlier. As a party the Congress has moved from Republican mode to a monarchy. And, it is showing. In video technology there is a simple technical rule – you cannot move from a higher form of anything to a lower form of that something without perceptible loss in quality – ironically it is called ‘gen loss’ or generational loss. With each subsequent transfer, the gen loss is higher – sounds familiar? Look at point one again. The party needs to throw its doors open, and let meritocracy be the governing mantra. While this still does not mean that the best will get to the top, the most adept at survival may. The problem with the principle of dynastic succession is that your leaders have no survival instinct – they never had to fight to get to the top or fight to stay there. It is all too easy for them.

Get rid of High Command culture: If you follow one and two, then this is natural progression. The state units cannot be subservient to the central party. Not if you want the state units to thrive. And if you don’t have healthy state units, it will be very difficult for them to command respect amongst the people, and without respect you cannot win. It is actually quite simple. With the passage of years, the top down mode of leadership no longer works, especially in a dynamic environment. If you need to build strong units – you need to decentralise, and empower your cadre and local level leadership. If you don’t empower your own party workers, how do you propose to empower the people?

Buy a calendar, take a crash course in colloquial language: It is almost 2015. Stop talking like you belong in the 1980’s. People have moved on. Their aspirations have scaled up. They are no longer looking at being saved by you (or any other party). People are looking for service delivery. We are looking for professionalism. Ask yourself one question – if you weren’t the Congress Party, and all other things being equal, would you vote for yourself? Then ask yourself what do you need to do to change that?

Apologise to your supporters: People like my parents have voted for the party all their lives. The party has let them down. Terribly so. Many of their lifelong supporters did not vote last time – they were too angry with the party to vote for you, them, but loved it enough not to vote for others. So they abstained. The party needs to talk to its base to find out how it has erred in its direction.

This is not an easy route, nor is it a guarantee for success. However, if as a party they want to survive they need to try. To build back credibility is not going to be easy, nor is it going to be a cakewalk in rebuilding an organisation ground up. But, if the party needs to celebrate its next decadal anniversary, it definitely needs to heed the wake up call that it has got from the people of India.

Dec 292014
Looking back at 2014 – in @Dna
Tectonic political shifts, space exploration and global terrorism mark the year
  • Getty Images

Even before it began, 2014 had a special place in history. It is the 100th year after the war to end all wars, as World War 1 was called. A century after minor potentates and major Empires slugged it out on the battlefields of Europe, Africa, with cannon fodder from the colonies, the world was revisiting the possibility that ‘Peace in our Times’ may still be a distant mirage. Many of those former colonies, now independent states are shrugging off intellectual and academic legacies of the past to determine their own path. Many of them are seeing the rise of classes traditionally kept away from command structures, to positions of power, thereby giving established elites and processes a jolt. It is a situation akin to what Europe faced at the end of the Second World War, where the old order crumbled, making way for the new. As the old year draws to a close, here are three key events that will possibly make it to the history books a 100 years from now.

An Electoral Shift: While the world, in 2014, grappled with violence and war, there was also hope. India reaffirmed its faith in the power of democracy and electoral politics. While progress might be relatively slower than a nation where fear rules, this progress is more long term and sustainable. This week marked the results of the last set of elections for the year 2014. For the first time, since my generation was in school, has there been such an overwhelming mandate not just at the Centre but also in the states. And, like that time too, it is less for a party, and more for a leader. Travel to any state and travel by public transport and ask people who they are voting for, and the answer is clearL “voting for Narendra Modi”. It doesn’t matter if he is the Prime Minister and these are state elections, the answers are similar. For the first time, since Rajiv Gandhi’s overwhelming mandate in 1984 has there been such faith reposited in one person. And that, history tells us, is a double edged sword. Mr Modi and his Cabinet have to be cognisant of this fact and see that nothing, not even the chatter from their own party and supporters, derails thedevelopment agenda.

Also evident, is the rejection of dynasty – not the just the Congress Party but regional parties. If they want to survive, these parties have to recast themselves to be in line with the aspirations of a modern India. Parties can no longer be the fiefdom of one family – be it the Congress, the Shiv Sena, Samajwadi Party, RJD DMK, NCP or NC – it is the lack of internal democracy and the stranglehold of one family at the helm that are slowly eroding the base of once mass parties. 2015 will tell us if the political obituaries of these parties need to be written or not. It finally depends on them.

A New Hope: for the first time since the 1960’s, when the then Soviet Union and the United States competed in the space race, has the world been so excited about space travel. Mars, our planetary neighbour, is in the spotlight with space missions trying to delve into it’s mysteries and secrets. India’s Mangalyaan – made with a budget lower than mostHollywood blockbusters – hushed the naysayers and the sceptics to successfully reach the red planet and send back valuable data. The question often asked is: Should a country that has inadequate sanitation be spending money on space exploration, and the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. It is an investment for future generations. The question is not whether India can afford to invest in space exploration (or in science) the question is whether India can afford not to. Hopefully, the success of the Mangalyaan will have the same impact on young students in India as the Sputnik and Apollo missions had on Russian and American students four decades earlier – inspiring scientific curiosity and the desire to reach for the stars.

Barbarians at the Gate: At the international level, there is nothing more disconcerting than the return to barbarianism – as depicted by the Islamic State (IS) and the Taliban. The treatment of the Yazdis, of Shias, of anyone not like the rampaging armies is horrific. There are stories that are coming out about people being sold into slavery, women being used as sex slaves, of the horrors of beheading and mass graves, of torture and pillage, and these are just the tip of the iceberg of the turmoil in the entire West Asia. Kingdoms and States built at the point of the gun, are disintegrating rapidly. Unfortunately, these States had killed or exiled most of those who opposed it. Their finest minds live elsewhere. And as these States crumble, the power vacuum left behind is filled not by those who want progress or development or a better life for the citizens – rather by ruthless psychopaths who think nothing of using slavery, beheading and other medieval methods of warfare that have left the world shaken, and the people in those nations bereft of hope. The massacre of children in Peshawar is just one of the long list of atrocities that have been perpetuated by these groups against people in this region. Europe and the United States, who have caused this problem in part, are in no position to solve it. It is left to the impacted states, and nations in the neighbourhood to try and find a solution. But, the question remains – how do you negotiate with nihilists – people who would rather see the world burn than sit at the negotiating table for everlasting peace? A solution has to be found sooner rather than later, before the region burns even more, creating toxicity and instability worldwide .

As the year draws to a close, one can only hope and pray for peace and prosperity, for a world without rancour that works in a collaborative manner for a better tomorrow. The colonisation of other planets is still sometime away, and for now there is only one planet that we have, where we need to learn to co-exist.

Dec 292014
I write for the print edition of @dna on the 11th of December
The first step to tackling crime against women calls for radical attitudinal changes

One more December and one more rapein the nation’s capital that has made women across the board feel far more insecure than before. Last weekend, a woman called for a radio cab using an app on her phone – it was a Uber app. She believed that travelling by radio cab would provide her the safety and security of being able to reach home without being attacked. Her faith was shattered, her security breached, and her person attacked by a man who threatened to do to her what was done to the woman in the December 16th rape case — brutalised with an iron rod. Unlike the December 16th case, this woman survived, complained to the police and a manhunt resulted in the accused being arrested.

Most women in India (possibly elsewhere too) would tell you that at least once in their lives they have faced momentary terror at the thought of their safety and security being violated brutally. Most of us would tell you of all the things that we generally ignore — being groped in trains, buses, planes or any crowded space. We would tell you of the taunts that we block out on a regular basis. What we would also tell you is the truth — it is not about the clothes we wear, or the lifestyle that we adopt, or the time we get home. It doesn’t matter if we are young or old, modern or traditional, inside the safety of our home or out and about; whether we work outside the home or are homemakers, whether we are students or workers. It doesn’t matter who we are, and what we do. We are attacked for one and only one reason — we are women. And, what we see is the increased frequency of the crime of opportunity, an almost Russian Roulette with any one of us being a target. The woman who went to Shakti Mills to cover a story, a Jyothi who climbed into a bus expecting to get home to safety, a woman who gets into a rickshaw or a cab, you or I — we are all walking targets, except that we don’t know where the attack will come from, or the men involved.

Like the December 16th incident, there is collective outrage over this case. That outrage is looking for a target — the cab company in question (Uber) — whose promise of security turned out to be a marketing line; the home minister, who is ultimately responsible for the safety of citizens; the system that allowed a man, accused of rape to be out on bail. As more details of the case emerge, the level of rage increases — the accused was a serial sexual offender and had prior cases against him. He was out on bail for sexual offences. While Uber failed to conduct background checks on the man, it is also true that there is no centralised database of those convicted of sexual offenses. While things can definitely improve if employers conduct stringent background checks and law and order is enforced in Delhi and elsewhere, there is one area that needs to be addressed, and is often ignored: Women are seen as targets because that is how boys are brought up. “Jaa rahi hai woh chhammak challo’ “kya item hai’ “Aati kya Khandala” are all things most women have heard at various points of time. Most of us have developed filters to block these out — because hearing them means reacting, and reacting means starting a fight which you cannot win. And, the bigger problem is the consent of many political elders on this. Every time I hear a politician say “boys will be boys” — when it comes to this sort of behaviour — the reaction is not a civil conversation or an outrage on women’s rights, but a primeval desire to pummel sense into him. Physically. Along with other women who feel the same rage.

There is a list of things to improve safety for women. Starting with sensitising police and the judiciary to crimes against women and sensitising politicians and leaders on a changing world. You can have better background checks, but they won’t deter the first-time rapist. You can have more police on the street and faster courts, but they won’t prevent rape at home. So what do you do? Whatever you do will be doomed to failure if boys are brought up thinking every woman is out for the picking and that they have the right to force sexual intercourse on women. If women and girls have to be safe, there has to be a systemic societal and attitudinal changes at the individual family unit. Laws have to be strict. Punishment has to be stricter, and this ethos of ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘what happens to the Indian family if marital rape is penalised’ needs to be met head on and demolished.

The Justice Verma Committee Report that made so many fantastic recommendations to ensure women’s safety needs to be accepted in its entirety. Those dilutions that were made to ensure its passage through Parliament would need to come back in as amendments and, hopefully, passed. The security and safety of women cannot be held hostage to politicians who want to give a free pass to stalkers and rapists.

Being paranoid is not going to help. Being angry is not going to help. Effecting tangible changes that is what will make the world safer for the next generations. It is too late for my generation – we have to live in a world we have made. But, can we ensure a better tomorrow for your daughters and sons, for your grand children – and the answer is, if we have the will to make hard decisions and make the change.

(A version of this had earlier appeared on dnaindia.com)