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

Dec 262014
 

I wrote this for the @dna on the 8th of December :

Radio cab services allow you to believe that you are safe. Last Saturday, I was out with friends, and I booked a radio cab service to take me home. As is my normal practice, I ordered a cab a few hours before the time I planned to leave. The service, after accepting the request and confirming details, sent a message back an hour later saying that the cab that I booked was not available, and that they would send me another one. I thought nothing of it, until I reached the parking space – there was a cab, with a driver – but it didn’t have the company markings. It was a tourist cab, it had a nice pleasant driver, and I got home without any problems. But, when I got in to the car, my heart did miss a beat – one of my mobiles had the map switched on to track every movement of the journey, the other one was clasped to my ear, while I was talking to a friend, through the journey. I used phrases like “I am travelling in X cab company’s car, have messaged you the car details” etc etc. There is a part of me which laughs at, what it describes as my over the top safety measures. It is the part of me that hates feeling insecure. But there is another part of me that whispers in my ear ‘better paranoid than sorry’. On most days I listen to the paranoid me, sometimes I don’t.

I haven’t always been paranoid about my safety. For the last two decades as a producer of television content, I was used to working late in far flung places (even within Mumbai). This was before the era of late night drops that most companies employ now. There have been times I have returned home well past midnight, after two shifts of solid work, exhausted to the point of slumber, through areas that are not inhabited. Anyone who has filmed in the areas around Madh Island, would tell you the sense of isolation that the place has. But, the sense of security being breached was never there. Now, a combination of high profile cases in rapid succession, have shaken that sense of safety. And, it is hardly surprising.

Women are being attacked for the simple reason that they are women. It is a crime of opportunity, an almost Russian Roulette with anyone being a target. The woman who went to Shakti Mills to cover a story, the woman who climbed into a bus on December 16, 2012, 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.

On Saturday evening, a woman called for a radio cab using an app on her phone – it was the 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 girl in the December 16 rape case – brutalise her with an iron rod.

Naturally, there is outrage about the incident. There are those who want Uber Cabs to be banned. There are those who are protesting outside the Home Minister’s house. There are others who are talking about women travelling in groups and staying indoors, forgetting that most rapes take place at home, by men they know. While Uber should have had stringent background checks, while the Home Minister is ultimately responsible for law and order in Delhi – the fact remains that all of these are ways of diverting attention from a very basic fact – women are seen as targets, because that is how boys are brought up. “jaarahi hai woh chamak challo”, “kya item hai”, “why this kollai very di’  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. Every time I hear a politician say “boys will be boys” when it comes to rape, the reaction is not a civil conversation or an outrage on women’s rights, but a primeval desire to pummel sense into them. Physically. Along with other women who feel the same rage.

There is a list of things to improve safety for women. Starting with sensitising the police and judiciary to crimes against women as well as sensitising politicians and leaders on a changing world. You can have better background checks, but those won’t deter the first-time rapist. You can have more police on the street and faster courts, but they won’t prevent a 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 them. If women and girls have to be safe, there has to be a systemic, societal and attitudinal change at the individual family unit. Laws have to be strict. Punishment has to be stricter, and this entire ethos of ‘boys will be boys’ and questions on ‘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. The 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. Getting through tangible change 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? The answer depends on whether we have the will to make hard decisions and make the change.

Dec 262014
 
My column for the @Dna on the 27th of November

Six months ago, yesterday, the citizens of this country elected a new government. Fed up with alliance blame-games, policy paralysis and continuous allegations of corruption, the voters of India voted in the Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with a majority that allowed them thefreedom to deliver, without relying on allies who demand a pound of flesh or more for basic support to implement governance objectives. In the approximately 180-plus days since it took office, both the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his government has been both seen and heard. A number of policy initiatives have been announced, and some old ones taken forward. Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan as well the village-adoption scheme have been simple and effective initiatives that have not just cut across the political spectrum, but also captured popular mindspace. The involvement of ordinary citizens, beyond celebrities, has been heartening, because it has been a long time that people, especially from the middle class, have been inspired to leave their busy existence and do something for society at large. There has been the Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana and the Make-in-India initiative that are also beginning to resonate.

Usually when governments reach a certain interval (100 days, 6 months, 1 year), we, the media types, get into an analysis on success and failures of the government. However, to be fair, six months is not enough time to make a judgement, because the impact of policy initiatives takes longer to show up. Hence, rather than looking at what this government has achieved, one would look at what should be its policy imperatives in the coming months and years. And, rather than looking at the entire spectrum of government activities, one would like to focus on a specific area where one would see policy initiatives that would lay the foundation for a better future. While there are a number of areas that need focus — from education to health, from defence to space exploration – this column would like to zero in on one aspect that is fundamental to becoming a strong and vibrant republic — that is protecting and enhancing the rights of the individual.

November 26 – the day the Modi-led government of India completes 6 months is also another anniversary. It was the day in 1949 that the Constituent Assembly of India adopted the Constitution that was presented by one of the greatest Indians of all time – Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. This Constitution that was adopted, embodied the hopes and aspirations for equality and freedom and has, possibly, the most emancipating set of promises ever made by citizens to themselves – Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation.

Today, 65 years after we adopted the Constitution, the time has come to ensure that the promises made to the citizens of India are fulfilled, and that these promises are protected from the onslaught of an ever-reactionary religious Right, from across faiths and social groups. The one thing that we can safely claim is that Indians are freer than ever before in history. That, over the years, our ability to exercise those freedoms have increased. We have fewer restrictions than the people of our parents’ generation. Generations that followed us face even fewer restrictions than we did. However, we are also seeing that reactionary groups from across the religious and societal spectrum are raising their voices and demanding that freedoms be rolled back, because they believe it is against their ‘religious’, ‘social’, ‘cultural’ values. The problem is that most of us as citizens are not organised as pressure groups, and most of those demanding a roll back on our rights, are. Governments in the past have succumbed to the temptation of buying peace by giving into these demands.

In a vibrant democratic republic, do these groups have a place? The answer is yes — they have the right to be, to thrive, to live their lives as they see fit. Do they have the right to demand that others in their group or outside follow these norms, and the answer is simple – No. When it is a conflict between the rights of a group and the right of an individual – the right of the individual citizen has to be paramount. And, this needs to be the case whether we are speaking of a Muslim woman’s right to alimony or a Hindu’s right to eat beef, or a gay couple to cohabit without fear or an academic’s right to question historical figures. Will there be people and groups objecting to these — definitely. But, the question is whose side does the Government of India come down on – and the answer is simple – the individual citizen.

Why are rights important? Simply because without that freedom to think, to be, to achieve, to soar, we will miss all the goals we have set for ourselves — as individuals and as a nation. The Government of India represents us, the people. And, it acts in our interests. A core part of those interests is guaranteeing these freedoms. And the starting point of guaranteeing those freedoms is informing and educating people about their rights and duties as citizens. This part of nation-building has been ignored for the better part of three decades. Maybe a renewed focus on this would help.

This government, by the sheer dint of its numbers, is in a position to make a difference in this arena. It needs to look at rights in a holistic manner and look at how the rights of individual citizens can be enhanced and protected. And in protecting the rights of the individual, the Government of India will also be fulfilling the remaining promises – Justice, Liberty and Equality.

Dec 242014
 
My column in the DNA on the 13th of November :

2014 is the anniversary of two, primarily, European events, that had worldwide repercussions. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the war that was supposed to end all wars, and the 25th anniversary of the fall of theBerlin Wall – the event that was supposed to lead to unprecedented peace and goodwill the world over. Alas, neither event lived up to the great expectations that the world at large held out.

100 years ago, various European countries decided to seal the fate of the world and establish the boundaries of their individual power. The resulting war, engulfed Europe, dragged in her colonies, brought the United States of America out of a self-imposed isolation from the international stage, and changed the nature of the Nation-state forever. It also changed the nature of warfare, which moved away from set battlefields, to being fought everywhere – land, sea and, for the first time ever, in such large numbers, the air. The battles that were fought – became more organised, with more fire power, and a greater ability to kill. This war began the mass use of chemical warfare (mustard gas), and was the most lethal war that humanity had known. The war, also called the Great War, cost almost 16 million lives, of which just under half were civilian casualties. The First World War also wrought major changes in the nature of geopolitics. It made the United States a world player; it strengthened the status of the British Empire as the pre-eminent power in the world; it catalysed the unravelling of the Ottoman Empire, stirred the nationalistic aspirations of the colonies to a higher level, and allowed the Communists to take charge in Russia, which then became the Soviet Union. The events that led to the fall of the Berlin wall, had seeds in actions undertaken almost 60 years earlier.

The United States of America and Great Britain entered into an unwritten partnership of sorts, after the end of the First World War. This partnership has lasted, through thick and thin, through ups and downs, and rapidly changing geopolitical equations, to manoeuver the course of international affairs for the better part of the next century. While Great Britain, with her Empire, was the elder partner in the years that preceded the Second World War, the leadership position moved to the United States by the end of the 1940’s. Be it the war against Communism, the war against drugs or the war against terror, just to name a few, the British-American combination has held, even in the face of disapproval of the rest of the world.

The fall of the Ottoman Caliphate, led to the creation of a number of states in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. Each little potentate in the region made a bid for power and control over their own territory. Countries were carved out without any logic of language, culture or shared history, and the resultant mess still impacts international affairs today. One of the most controversial decisions of this era, was the non-implementation of the Balfour Declaration that provided for the creation of Israel. That decision got implemented only in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the death of 6 million Jewish people in concentration camps. It also, placed the new state of Israel in a geography of immature states that collectively wanted the destruction of the Jewish State .

Nationalistic aspirations and the desire for independence, by the colonies of the Imperial European States gained momentum in this era. This was the time when Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Bhagat Singh, Mohd Ali Jinnah, BR Ambedkar – made their mark on the Indian freedom movement in rapid succession. It was the time when cries of ‘azaadi’ led young men and women to court arrest and even be ready to lay down their lives for a greater cause. It took a good quarter of a century more for nations and people to gain their independence.

And the most potent and immediate fallout of the first world war was the Russian Revolution in 1917 that polarised the world on the basis of governmental systems. When the Soviet Union came into existence, it stood in direct opposition to the values held by the dominant ideology – Imperialism and Capitalism. It was perceived as being a nation that was led by the interests of the workers and peasants, and promised an egalitarian state where people would live together in peace and harmony. Like most idealistic positions, this too was fiction. The Soviet Union was governed by the Communist Party that concentrated all powers in its hands. Neither peasants nor workers had a say. Protest was quelled without mercy and all decisions were centralised. At the end of the Second World War the Soviets expanded the sphere of control all the way to Germany in the West and China and North Korea in the East, and directly intervened in the fate of these States, first as allies and then as the overlord.

The Berlin Wall was built to prevent people from East Berlin – which was Communist and controlled by the Soviets, from escaping to West Berlin – which was controlled by the West and perceived as being freer. It was a wall built to prevent freedom. But, freedom is an idea and cannot be stopped by walls, or bullets. People’s innate desire to be allowed to lead their lives without interference takes over and protests, and it was this protest that allowed ordinary people to pull down a wall built by an Imperial Power – for, despite all its protestations of being egalitarian, the Soviet Union was also Imperialist.

Today, when we look back at the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is important for us to remember that history is not a snapshot. Rather it is a set of events that have repercussions for many, many decades. The former Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai is supposed to have said, in the 1970’s, “too early to tell” as a response to a question on the impact of the French Revolution that took place in 1789 (many have offered different interpretations of this statement, but this version is apt). While the fall of the Berlin wall was the manifestation of the desire of citizens for freedom, the impact of the fall is yet being measured