Jul 062014
 

An edited version of this appeared in the DNA last week

 

What differentiates our species from the rest of the animal kingdom is, not just the use of words, sentences, grammar and syntax for communication, but also the way these are linked to other aspects of our civilizations – society, culture, religion, science, technology, history, literature, poetry and basic expression.  Most of us see our identity expressed less in terms of religion or even caste, and more in terms of language and linguistic grouping and mother tongue. One of the questions that vex anthropologists, historians and those involved in the study of evolution of humanity is the appearance of language. They haven’t quite been pinpoint what caused early humans to replace grunts with language, neither have they been able to work out what made different people communicate with each other differently. Or in other words, why didn’t humanity evolve a single language, and what caused so many different groupings of people to communicate with each other in different ways. The 2013 survey of Ethnalogue, a web site that catalogues the languages of the world, declared that there were 7016 languages and dialects. In the case of India, Ethnalogue has this entry “The number of individual languages listed for India is 461. Of these, 447 are living and 14 are extinct. Of the living languages, 63 are institutional, 130 are developing, 187 are vigorous, 54 are in trouble, and 13 are dying.”

When we talk about languages in India, it is more than a way to communicate or to be understood – it encompasses an entire gamut of socio-cultural-religious facets and for many Indians, our linguistic culture, heritage, pride and identity is as important as a broader national identity. However, despite our obvious pride and love our linguistic heritage, we are a deeply pragmatic people – we have no issues in migrating from our roots, our linguistic base to new areas for trade, commerce or jobs – in the process learning new languages, adapting to somewhat new culture and building new traditions, without letting of our old ones.

The Government of India, through the decades, has had a rather fuzzy policy towards languages. While the stated intent has been to respect all languages and consider Hindi for official use, the reality is that no concrete steps have been taken to implement this. And, rightly so.  Any attempt to adopt one language as being more important than any other will have repercussions at the state level. And the reason for this is neither linguistic pride nor culture, nor is it fondness for the language or its literature – it is a rather more real reasons and that is employment. If one Indian language, let us say for example Hindi, became the predominant language of official use – it would give those people whose mother tongue is Hindi an advantage over those whose mother tongue is not Hindi. And this has economic implications on the lives and livelihood of those who wish to work for the government, the administration, bureaucracy or any government department.  English has become the defacto link language – not just because it offers upward mobility, but also because it does not give any state or linguistic grouping within India an unfair advantage when it comes to competing for jobs. On the other hand, those who insist on the imposition of a state or a central language for official use, do so less out of pride and joy in their language, and more out of ensuring that those who are part of their core support group have an advantage while it comes to employment.

Indonesia faced a similar conundrum when it achieved independence. With a 100 plus languages what should be the link language. They didn’t pick Dutch (the language of the colonisers), they didn’t pick the most spoken language in the Nation, rather they picked the least spoken language in the country and made it the link language. The idea was that if the most spoken language was picked, it would give an unfair advantage to the people who spoke the language, and cause resentment and divides in the fledgling nation.  Pakistan at independence, rather than picking one of the languages native to its geography – Sindhi, Punjabi, Pushtu or even Bangla – went and adopted a language native to India – and more specifically to UP and Bihar – Urdu as the national language. The result was that migrants from India had an unfair advantage in terms of Government jobs, leading to resentment from other linguistic groupings. The genesis of the Bangladesh liberation movement had its roots in the resentment against the imposition of Urdu and the pride that the East Pakistanis had in their language and culture.

When it comes to language as a means communication – the Government of India needs to be language agnostic. It shouldn’t be an either English or Hindi scenario –rather they need to put out their communication in all official state languages, so that the maximum number of people have the ability to read it.  Furthermore, Parliament itself needs to move away from a 2 language formula and empower parliamentarians to speak in the language of their choice. Use translators effectively to translate the proceedings into other languages. If the purpose of language is communication, and the purpose of communication is to be understood, then we need to allow people to communicate in the language they know best. When it comes to language as culture, the Government can, at best support it – but it is up to people to learn languages, not the government to ensure that it is learnt.  What the government can do, is to use its direct control on education to make language learning fun. They need to ensure that children don’t dread language classes.  Language education needs to be less about rules of grammar, and conjugation of verbs and more about basic communication skills and storytelling. Many of us relate more to the language in films and television than is taught in schools and colleges.  Which is probably why Bollywood and Hindi television have been far more successful in spreading language than any state run scheme. Maybe the Government can take a leaf out of this book.

 

Jun 122014
 

An edited version of this appeared in today’s dna

Until a few weeks ago, most of us had a barely passing familiarity with Baduan in Uttar Pradesh.  Around 200 kms and less than a 4 hour drive from the national capital, Delhi – the area hit the headlines after a particularly brutal rape and murder of two teenaged girls.  It is an old story, told again with callous violence and viciousness. Two cousins – some accounts put them at 12 and 15, others at 14 and 15 – had to attend to nature’s call. They had no toilet in their house and they went into the fields to relieve themselves. They never returned home. Their bodies were found hanging, with their own dupattas, from a mango tree. They had been raped, strangled and strung up like the spoils from a shikaar. 2 young men from a neighbouring village, and two police officers are believed to be the culprits.

This is not the first rape in India, and it is unlikely to be the last.  A report by PRS Legislative in 2011, looked at the abysmal state of women’s safety in India. According to the report there were 23,582 rapes in India – almost 65 rapes on a daily basis and around 3 every hour. But, most experts believe that the number of rapes is underreported. There are a number of reasons for this – the starting point of which is the social stigma assigned to the victim of the rape, and the perception of her having lost her honour.  Rather than being seen as a survivor of a heinous crime, she is seen as the provoker of the crime. And, her gender is enough to stigmatise her for life. Different views are put forward – maybe she was dressed provocatively, maybe she led the boys on, maybe she had ‘loose’ morals, maybe she said no but meant yes. We have all heard these comments from people who should know better – politicians, policemen, ‘elders’ of the community and the like.

At the core of the debate on women’s safety lie 3 main issues. The first is the availability of safe spaces – sanitation within the house or rather the lack of it or street lighting or the lack of it, both indicate the lack of safe spaces. The second is the lack of spaces where the two sexes can meet socially on an equal footing – schools, colleges, employment, and social occasions. And the third problem is a age old problem of the distinctions in social hierarchies and the social acceptance of the rapist and the social boycott of the victim.

The one thing your realise when you travel the length and breadth of India – visiting small hamlets and villages, is the lack of sanitation. There are few public toilets that are usable, even on state or national highways. Those that do exist make you fear attack from scorpions and snakes, not to mention the fact that they have doors that don’t shut and windows that give your full view of the world, and the world a view of you –without any means of securing your privacy. Schools and colleges – public spaces where both genders congregate – show a similar problem.  Toilets, and the privacy to use them, are such an important facet of safety and we don’t discuss this problem enough. The norm is to use the world at large as a public toilet – apart from issues of health and hygiene that crop up – there is also the very grave issue of safety. The first thing to do is to address this. Young girls, even if they lived in the most secure state in the universe, should have the right to perform their bodily functions in relative privacy. This is factor that most of us, living in relative middle class comfort in cities, take for granted. Associated with this is the issue of darkness. Unless you have electricity our towns and villages are going to be in dark. And darkness encourages the breach of law.

Where boys and girls grow up together, studying together, sharing playtime – and understanding and respecting differences there tends to be a natural evolution of gender sensitisation. On the other hand when girls and boys are segregated and social intercourse is considered taboo, you have scenarios where stereotypes and older mindsets are perpetuated. The second important factor to help build a safer world for women is creation of spaces where they are not just considered to be equal, but also where their  individuality and personal preferences are respected.   The creation of these spaces needs to be backed by education not just of young boys and girls, but also their parents, teachers, elders in the community, and administration.  Police reforms and Judicial reforms would help, but unless society as a whole is in synch with the need for social reform that prevents young men from seeing young women as prey for the taking – no amount of police on the street or stringent punishment is going to help.

And lastly, there is a problem social hierarchies and what is considered acceptable behaviour. While caste is a factor as is class, there is a third problem, and that is the unwillingness of those who wield power to bring about change. Caste and class reform may take generations and women’s safety cannot be held in abeyance till that is achieved.  And, this is where the Indian State needs to step in. With the recent changes in law rape trials are speedier and more stringent. We have seen the effects of this in both the Nirbhaya and the Shakti Mills rape case – due process was followed and the guilty were punished. This needs to extend to the smallest hamlet in India. Women will be safer, if the system punished the guilty – without fear or favour of powerful local interests.  However,  as long as the guilty walk around with their heads held high and their chests puffed up with pride, and the victims cower in their houses in shame – nothing will change.

May 312014
 

An edited version of this appeared in the DNA last week -

And, we have a brand new Government of India, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).   This is a Government that has the undisputed mandate of the people. There are those who may argue, till the cows come home, about percentage polled and number of votes; but the fact remains that we are a first past the post system and the BJP has won more seats than everyone else put together.

As data comes in, and people conduct various forms of post poll analysis, and as reporters talk to ordinary voters, and as you yourself interact with more and more people what is evident is that people voted for Mr. Modi rather than the party; and that they voted against the Congress, UPA partners and major regional satraps who can routinely hold the Central Government to ransom. Mr.Modi’s victory is as much about the decimation of the Congress, as it is about marginalising State level parties, and reducing them to absolutely local level players, in those areas they still exist. The AIADMK, and the BJD are prime examples of this – they won, but they are limited to their State, with their central influence severely marginalised. In other cases the political graveyard beckons – be it the Samajwadi Party or the Communists, be it the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)  or the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Even NDA allies who won, won less on their merit and more as a result of the BJP election juggernaut. What Mr.Modi has done, is reduced them to near irrelevance, at least in the short run. In most of these cases the parties have deeply frayed their connect with the voter base, and representation of  local level aspiration and ‘pride’, and have become a family run business. The moment a Party, that is supposed to represent the people becomes a family run entity, then, sooner or later, it becomes disconnected with the people it claims to represent. The other problem is that fresh blood, fresh ideas, and passion cease to be injected in the system because there is no hope of growth unless you are part of the family. These parties have a grave future ahead of them and the only way to avert death is to free up parties from family control. The Congress as well as parties such as the SP or the DMK, or the MNS and the SS have to redefine their existence in the context of the 21st century and goes beyond the family name of its’ strongest leaders.

The other important aspect of the elections is it is the most significant one in terms of the India’s overall construct. A large number of Indians did not vote for regional issues or even local issues, or even because of caste or religious affiliations.  They voted for a Government of India. The lesson for Parties is that they need to fight on issues other than identity. Their raison d’être has to go beyond their past. They have to be future ready – and that means, at the very least, the promise of not just governance, but also a promise of hope for a better tomorrow.   With the permeation of the media, distances in India, as elsewhere, have shrunk. Voters have glimpses of lives that are more comfortable than their own – better roads, better jobs, better infrastructure, water on tap, schools with teachers and hospitals with doctors – and they realise there is a world not so far away from them where things work. The burgeoning middle class – which includes cab drivers and maids, shop assistants and courier boys, Office assistants and drivers– all aspire for a better tomorrow, not just for the next generation but our themselves.   They have been most impacted by inflation, often seeing them at the precipice of slipping back into the ‘poor’ category again. Their world is less about austerity and more about the desire to consume. Also, as the middle class base increases people define themselves less by what they do and more by who they are as people and aspirations.

The last factor to consider is the change of elite. India is no longer run by the old elite.  Even since liberalisation began in the early 1990’s a change in society has been underway. New elites have begun coming up in every field from media to telecom, from construction to retail.   It has been the era of the calculated risk taker, the buccaneer who had the vision and foresight to invest into newer areas – be they areas at the outskirts of rarefied upper class city centres to develop as new cities, where the new elite would live; or service sectors that employed this new elite. This new strata in India, is bound by, at best, loose ties of caste, religion or linguistic identity. It may follow various customs and traditions, celebrations and rituals of their associations, but beyond that it plays very little role in their lives. This elite is a meritocracy – which has gotten there as first generation achievers in every field. You see this in all sectors – people from smaller towns, people from humble backgrounds achieving great heights. In the last decade the two men at the helm – Dr.Manmohan Singh and Mr.Narendra Modi  – were not from the elite. Far from it. Both of them acknowledged it in their final and first speeches to the nation. Dr Singh said “I, an underprivileged child of Partition, was empowered enough to rise and occupy high office” and Mr. Modi said “It is proof of the strength of our Constitution that a man from a poor family is standing here today.” It is this that has changed in the core of India – the ability to move across economic and social strata, and not see India through older prisms.  India, possibly for the first time in memory, is becoming upwardly socially mobile. People can aspire to more than they were born into.   And, they can hope to achieve it. The election results reflect that.

Apr 222014
 

My column, in last week’s DNA

In the last three days there have been two instances of suppression of expression due to ‘hurt’ sentiments and political beliefs. The first was the independent publisher Navayana that is focused on literary works based on caste from an anti-caste perspective. They decided not to publish the English translation of Tamizh writer Joe D’Cruz’s book Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (The Ocean Ringed World). Considered by many to be a modern epic, the novel tells the story of Parathavar fishermen in Tamil Nadu. On the face of it, a story based on the lives of fishermen that delves into their history and culture would be an ideal topic for a publishing house that gives a platform for fiction, poetry, non fiction and graphic novels by anti-caste voices. However, Joe D’Cruz came out in support of BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and that was enough for the translator, V Geetha, to withdraw consent for her translation to be published. In her letter to the publishing house she states “given D’ Cruz’s insistent and clear-cut support for Narendra Modi, I cannot bring myself to allow my translation to be published.” And so, a novel that should find a wider audience is sacrificed at the altar of personal sentiments. The second incident is that of the newspaper The Hindu that put out an internal circular instructing its employees not to consume non-vegetarian food in the office canteen as it causes ‘discomfort to the majority of the employees who are vegetarian’. In both cases it can be argued, that private organisations have the right to choose who they publish, what they decide as dress code and what they allow into their canteen. However, this is less about private organisations and more about the society and the increasing intolerance towards diversity in tastes, views and political leanings.

James Madison, the fourth President of the United States of America, had a very interesting observation about free speech and its curtailment. He said “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” And, that is precisely what has been taking place in India. Be it non vegetarian food or books that ‘cause offense’, be it women’s rights in terms of wearing western clothes, or carrying a mobile, wearing a veil or going to a pub, be it a song in a film or a play that questions sacred cows, the creeping intolerance resulting in restrictions to freedoms bodes ill for all of us.

A recently released report by the Hoot.org’s Free Speech Hub shows how censorship has crept in. The report states that in the first three months of 2014, there have been 52 instances of censorship across the length and breadth of India. The petitioners, says the report, cuts across society — “courts, student organizations, state governments, publishing houses, the Lok Sabha Secretariat, the Central Board of Film Certification, a lawyers’ association, Hindu groups including the Shiv Sena, the RSS and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Tamil groups and individual industrialists; they all moved to exercise various forms of censorship”. What is more is that the censorship cuts across media, platforms and forms of expression — books, Facebook posts, films and plays have all been at the receiving end of offended sensibilities.There have been 52 acts of censorship in the last 90 days — a record that a democratic republic should not be proud of. In fact, if anything, we should hang our heads in shame that there have been so many instances of violations of free speech and expression — where ‘hurt sentiments’ have triumphed over freedoms.

The year started with Penguin losing its nerve and withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. This was in response to a court case brought by an aggrieved individual. Rather than wait for the verdict and fight for the right to express, Penguin bought peace by withdrawing the book from the market. This was followed by the Kala Ghoda arts festival in Mumbai withdrawing a play Ali J based loosely on the life of Jinnah, after threats on a right wing website. In neither case did the State ask for censorship — this was voluntary.

There are four sources of restrictions of freedoms. The first is the State — and this is the one that we get to see the most. If the State, that is supposed to guarantee our freedoms, restricts it, then there is a problem for all of us. The second form is organisational — all organisations have a code of conduct and we accept those codes as a part of our everyday life. But, if that code descends into discrimination — not employing people of a certain community and women, having a discriminatory attitude towards the LGBT community — then it is definitely a restriction of individual freedoms. The third is societal — societies own dos and don’ts. The reason there is an uproar over the actions of khap panchayats or fatwas issued by mullahs, or restrictions by building societies, is that they impinge on individual freedoms. And the last is self censorship — the fear that you may step on toes, and those toes will retaliate with violence. More often than not, it is the last that is the most worrisome. If we start curtailing our expression of the truth for fear, then it is a slippery slope from where pulling back will be very difficult.

If we have to leave a better country for future generations that fear has to go. It is as Rabindranath Tagore said “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…. into that haven of freedom, my father, let my country awake”. When there is a choice between the rights of the majority, and the freedom of the individual, the freedom of the individual will have to triumph. If we, as a nation, cannot guarantee that freedom, it is dark times indeed for the society and the nation.

Mar 202014
 

My column in today’s DNA

It is election season and, therefore, it must be the time for rhetoric, more rhetoric and even more rhetoric. Each party and its supporters are trying to pitch themselves to us, the voters, and each trying to get us to vote for them. While political leaders and party workers are traversing the length and breadth of India, trying to woo the masses in the blistering heat, their more privileged keyboard warriors are using their fingers to good effect, drumming up support on social media. And, it is social media, especially Twitter, with its concentration of journalists, editors, film stars, politicians, would-be politicians, policy makers, industrialists, media magnates, bankrupt tycoons, cricketers and the rest, that makes for the most entertainment. Because there is nothing as funny as serious, sanctimonious rhetoric in 140 characters, especially when you sneak some time to yourself to look at the phone on a tough working day. It is the sheer chutzpah in the pronouncements, the dauntless confidence with which people mouth inanities, the gumption with which inaccuracies and factual errors are put forward as ‘truth’ and the sheer pizzazz of the entire thing that makes you wonder if Twitter has taken its place in the sun as the provider of multiple streams of live commentary for what promises to be the greatest show on earth — the Indian elections. If only one could charge entertainment tax on the proceedings, the current account deficit would probably be wiped out.
So what are they fighting for? Politicians and political parties are fighting for power. They — especially the BJP and Congress — would prefer absolute power — 272 seats all to themselves, without their allies spoiling their party. Will they get it is anyone’s guess, but that doesn’t prevent them from projecting the confidence of being able to make that figure. But, to keep their options open, you do occasionally hear murmurs of a ‘larger NDA’ or “UPA III”.
While it is easy to figure what the politicians want, the role of their supporters on social media is slightly more complex. Their aim seems to be less about converting neutrals or voters who have not made up their mind into votes, and more on keeping the faithful gathered and motivated in the days leading up to the elections. It is a vital role that they play — the social media warriors — in terms of fact-checking, repudiating, muddying the waters, creating a ‘what if’ scenario in the mind of the public. While BJP supporters had the lead in the utilisation of social media for rallying and attacking, more recently the Congress and the AAP have joined in. As a result social media, in general, and Twitter, in particular, have become a battleground of ideas, allegations, innuendos and camaraderie. In my mind, the role of the partisans on social media is interesting because of the space that they occupy between the media and the party. They take corridor-level gossip from the party and drawing room chatter and blast them into a somewhat public space dominated by the traditional media, and when traditional media picks up this gossip, it gets carried back into social media for further conversations. Recently in a media conference, a point was made about mainstream media watching its audience (us), monitoring them via social media posts on shows and news, and using this instant feedback and chatter to fine tune content offerings But, a far more interesting phenomenon that we are observing in these elections is that a part of this audience, realising that it is being watched, are indulging in a sort of behaviour that feeds content to the media only to promote the former’s agenda. For a media professional, it’s a fairly fascinating phenomenon.

The other thing very clear in these elections is this: The mask of media neutrality has finally fallen off and is being left for dead. Journalists do not even pretend to have a lack of bias. When leading anchors don the political mantle, and prominent journalists push the agendas of political parties without joining them, then you cannot help but wonder, how much of the content that they put out is biased and how long ago did this begin? This is not about voting preferences. You can still vote for who you believe in and try and be balanced in content. It is about pushing political agendas in the name of journalism. In an ideal world the bias should impact ratings. But, as recent studies in the United States show, it is the ratings of those seemingly unbiased platforms that are falling when compared to those who take partisan views. Research also reveals that audiences are more and more looking for views that dovetail with their own. They don’t want the bland neutrality of Doordarshan. They much prefer the fire and brimstone of the evening news anchor who demands answers on behalf of the nation.

Way back in 1964, Barry Goldwater, the American Republican Party candidate for President, in a speech declared: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”. It seems that our media — mainstream and social — have taken this speech to heart. Except that liberty and justice are no longer absolutes but relative to whom they support. For example, outrage on suggested curbs of freedom of speech is not universal but defended by party supporters and opposed by detractors.

We are in for fun ride where truth is falsity, and falsity is truth. So who do we, the people, trust? The answer, surprisingly, is each other. According to a recent Zee Media Taleem Poll on the state of the nation, while 54% said that they relied on electronic media for their views and opinions, 30% still rely on friends and peer groups for ‘truth’. In a world where truth becomes an elusive commodity, it is little surprise that we are getting back to a more traditional way of making up our mind: our own personal social networks.