Feb 122014
 

My column in the DNA on January 31st

“The Medium is the Message” declared Marshall McLuhan, a phrase that has become the most misinterpreted phrase in the short history of mass media. What McLuhan talked about was far deeper than mistaking your TV set for a soap. What he meant was, that every so often a technology manifests itself, that is so revolutionary that it disrupts the very way in which society is structured, the way people think and our very concepts of the way the world about us is ordered. He begins by describing the invention of the printing press and the evolution of print as a medium. That invention led to the printing and sharing of ideas, allowed for scientific ideas to be duplicated in an error free manner, allowed religious texts to be available to a larger audience, allowed mass literacy– by enabling the printing and reprinting of books, and allowed ideas of equality, fraternity and freedom to permeate through the world. Each subsequent mass media– film, radio waves, terrestrial broadcasting, satellite broadcasting and now the Internet – has changed the world – not just because they exist as boxes in our house, but the way they allow for the exchange of ideas, the permeation of values and the empowerment of people.

The digital world is exciting not just because technology is exciting, but because of what it allows consumers to do with that technology. Fifteen years ago, before the first dotcom bust, the technophiles were talking about consuming news on a handheld device, ordering milk, getting your pizza delivered, get your heart rate monitored – and many people laughed. Today, we take the apps on our smartphone for granted. The office on the go, is not just a promise for the distant future, but very real. But, the digital revolution is exciting not just about the conveniences that technology offers us. It allows far more than that. The real promise of digital technology is not what advertisers or large corporates want us to consume, rather it is the enabling of peer to peer communication. Where we, as citizens or as consumers, talk to other  citizens or consumers on issues that bother us, on things we like, or causes we support– and thereby bypass the entire mode of broadcasting.

The earlier modes of communication were one way– from those who wanted to say something to those who wanted to listen. Those who had something to say were the elite, challenging the views of other elite. Those who wanted to listen, were the commoners– people like us. There was certain etiquette, a certain politeness, a sort of ‘let the status quo remain’ attitude that permeated through the system. Digital has changed that. It is as though all the barricades, all the inequality of access, all the proper way of behaviour that tied us down – has come crumbling down, dissolved by the power of digital. Purists and public intellectuals often argue that the rise of digital has given rise to uniformed opinion, and therefore diluting the nature of debate. That people who don’t have expertise should not be taken seriously. That the new media is not so much democratic but anarchic. A babble of voices blurting out whatever they want, consequences be damned. These arguments are the death knell of a dying system- a stratified, inbred hierarchy that is trying to keep control on the way the world thinks and behaves. We are at the dawn of the digital revolution.

There will be mistakes made. But, those mistakes will be quickly rectified– by the very same crowd that the elite hold in contempt. The advantages are many- sacred cows are no longer considered exempt from questioning or indeed, considered sacred. People’s issues can no longer be buried. Brands can no longer run roughshod on consumers. If that isn’t a promise for a better future – I’m not sure what else is.

Feb 122014
 

My column in DNA on 23rd January 

On Tuesday evening, the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, ended one more high-pitched protest. At the end of it, two police officers were sent on leave, pending judicial investigation. The seeds of the drama were sown when the newly appointed law minister of Delhi, Somnath Bharti, decided to take the law into his own hands. Aggrieved at what he believes was police neglect, he and his supporters held up Ugandan women, assaulted them, subjected them to a humiliating body search, got them to give urine samples in public — and then threw a hissy fit when people objected to their behaviour.

Bharti’s contention was simple. There is a drug menace in the locality he serves, Africans are associated with drugs, ergo, Ugandan women who are also Africans must also be drug pushers, involved in prostitution and guilty by virtue of their race. Confronted with dissent, from an otherwise fawning media, Bharti became shrill, even threatening to spit on the lawyers —Arun Jaitley and Harish Salve — who had dared to question his behaviour and represent the women.

In any other organisation, Bharti would have been pulled up and reprimanded. However, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is not just another organisation. It is the self-styled representative of the common man (not woman). It has a sense of self-righteousness and moral superiority that makes it believe that its members have the right to do whatever they deem fit, and anyone who questions this is morally inadequate and compromised. Therefore, rather than taking action against the overzealous minister, Kejriwal took to protesting against the police and Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, and sitting on dharna outside Railway Bhavan. AAP’s demand was simple — transfer the policeman who dared to offend the minister. When accused of anarchy, Kejriwal said in a statement to the press, “They say I am an anarchist. Yes, I am. Today, I will create anarchy for Mr Shinde.” Part of the protest was a threat to disrupt Republic Day celebrations. Again, Kejriwal had a well-crafted sound byte, “Republic Day does not mean people enjoying tableaux at Rajpath… it means the rule of people.”

The problem of setting yourself up as morally higher than mere mortals is that logic, rationality and the rule of law go for a toss, and the demands of the party become the demands of not just those who support it, but the demands of all citizens in general. India is a constitutional republic, where elected representatives exercise power on behalf of the people and within the rules laid down by the Constitution. While protest is a right guaranteed by the Constitution, protesting without negotiation is childishness. The behaviour of the Aam Aadmi Party over the last week has been akin to children throwing a tantrum after being told that they cannot have an extra helping of sweets. It is not the behaviour that one expects of elected representatives.

There are multiple problems that India faces. A system that is infected by corruption, a political class that is arrogant in its approach to the issues facing common people, large business that tries to subvert the system by collusion, an administrative system that gives citizens the run around. In all of this, a party that claims to stand for the interests of the aam aadmi and speaks up for their concerns and issues is an obvious attraction. However, a ruling party taking to the streets in protest against policemen not bending to the will of a minister is less about the general will of the people and more about the hubris of power and the imposition of will and wilfulness on the system.

That citizens of India (or Delhi) want to live in a safe and secure environment, without being bothered by drug addicts, drug pushers and commercial sex workers, is not being questioned. What is being questioned is the presumption of guilt and vigilante action to tackle this guilt. The excuse given is that it is a new party, give them time. The problem with giving a free pass to a new party, or anyone else, is that you are condoning mob action that deprives individuals of liberty, in the name of keeping ‘society at large’ safe. If behaviour like this is not checked, then tomorrow, it could be your liberty and dignity at stake.

BR Ambedkar in his famous speech to the Constituent Assembly in 1949, said, “The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enables him to subvert their institutions’. …As has been well said by the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty.”

The first thing, of course was the need “to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods.
These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.”

Dharnas and drama are great for television viewing, wonderful for ratcheting up the pitch, and increasing audiences for TV news — but the question we all need to ask (and answer) is, what is the cost to the Republic of India?

 

Feb 122014
 

My column in the DNA on 9th January 2014

I joined the media in the mid-Nineties.  The television industry was new, budgets were low and we all did everything — we wrote, directed, edited, ran about to find costumes, painted sets on the shoot floor — and it was hard work. Most of us worked 18-20 hour days, for weeks on the trot. We shot in all kinds of places — most of which were lonely where we could film without crowds getting into the frame. Areas like Shakti Mills made for the best-shoot locations — because they gave a certain ambience, a certain atmosphere. We never thought of it being unsafe. And then when the shoot was over, we would take the rushes to a little edit studio in some bylane and edit till late into the night. And at twilight, when the roads were empty, would walk to the main road and catch a rickshaw or taxi to get home. I have forgotten the number of days that we all did this. And yet the predominant memory was of fun. It was a Mumbai recovering from riots and blasts, and yet, I cannot ever remember feeling unsafe or insecure about the environment. Things have changed. The sense of being ‘unsafe’ is palpable.  The sense of not being safe is at the back of the mind — and it doesn’t have to be late at night, or in a lonely area.

What is safety? Most of us know instinctively what it means. Safety is being able to walk home from the station without being robbed, raped or run over. Safety is the ability to cross the road at a zebra crossing without it feeling like an obstacle race. Safety  is the ability to visit a public toilet on the highway, without wondering who is watching. Safety is the ability to take a train without being pushed out (by the crowds). Safely is the ability to walk down a street without feeling eyes following you. Safety is walking on the pavement without being run over by two-wheelers. But, safety is more than that. We know that instinctively too. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Safety as the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury; The Miriam Webster Dictionary, on the other hand, defines Safety as freedom from harm or danger: the state of being safe; the state of not being dangerous or harmful; a place that is free from harm or danger: a safe place. And these definitions, more or less dovetail with what we believe about safety.

But, are we safe?  If you look at the crime statistics, most of India still is a relatively safe place. There isn’t the kind of madness associated with the drug cartels in South America that impacts ordinary citizens, nor is there the state of constant civil wars that parts of Africa have seen in the last few decades. We don’t have a Syria-like situation, nor is there the kind of ethnic targeting and killing that you see in Pakistan on a daily basis. There are riots that lead to murders, arson, and rape — however, they are contained in a small geographic area. There are sporadic terror attacks.

And while most of us manage to go about our lives without being attacked, do we feel safe about our lives, or the lives of our loved ones? Let me give you an example. For many in my generation, the normal thing to do was to walk to school. We would often cut across slums, construction areas, empty lots, bus depots, railway tracks to get to school and back. Would you be comfortable with your children doing the same? Talk to people and they will say the same thing: “It was different in our generation. Things have become so unsafe”. Frankly, I am unsure whether we felt safe because it was safer, or because we knew no better.

In a way, our sense of safety has been threatened not so much by a serious spike in crime as much as a phenomenal spike in information. Things that would not be talked about or discussed openly even a decade ago is in the public domain now. We feel unsafe, primarily because we read about things that threaten our innate sense of security and well-being.  You cannot open a paper, turn on a television news channel, turn to the Internet without gory details of violent crime assaulting you and your sense of safety. It seems like a dark alley outside your home, and that the only safe harbour is to lock yourself behind  the double doors of your home, and hope it keeps the ‘bad guys’ out.

However, hiding away in our own self-made fortresses may not be the solution. After all, how long do we hide? And, do we bring up the next generation in fortified ghettos or do we make the world safer for them? I would think that the answer is the latter.  It is election year, and our vote is at a greater premium than ever before. All our leaders are more accessible across media and platforms. For the first time, the middle class seems to be an important part of the election process. Ensuring that politicians and parties put our safety as part of their manifestos is necessary. Also, we should not be satisfied with general, vague statements such as ‘we will make India safer’. We need to ask how — how are you going to make India safer? We need to nail it down to specifics, for example police recruitment or better street lights. There is a power that many voices have, that a lone complainer does not. Maybe it is time these voices got together to push the agenda, and that agenda is safety.  The sense of not feeling threatened while doing the mundane things in life — such as walking down a street. That is not too much to ask for, is it?

Feb 122014
 

My column in the DNA on 26th December 2013

And one more year comes to a close. As the years pass, it seems like each year is ending more rapidly than the previous one, jam-packed with events that come like a barrage of missiles at the unsuspecting population. This year has been no different — awe-inspiring events and stomach-churning brutality competed for headlines. There were people whose loss made us feel bereft, and there were those who we wished to see hanged. Like every year, the headline for this could read “the best of times, the worst of times”, but that cliché is so well worn, that it would be tragic to dust it out and use it again.   In these plethora of events — the good, the bad, and the ugly — that made it to our headlines, I am going to filter out the depressing, the mind-numbing and the savage ones — and look at my top five events and personalities for the year.

Justice Verma Commission report: The end of 2012 saw the death of the young woman savagely attacked, raped and brutalised by a gang of men, out for a joyride and ‘good time’. For some reason, among all the brutal and bloody rapes and murders that take place in this country, this one awoke the conscience of India. Women and men poured out onto the streets not just to protest this death, but also to ask for an India where they, their families and friends could lead a life of relative safety and security. The culmination of that protest was the appointment of the Justice Verma Committee to look into amendments to the criminal laws that dealt with violence against women in general, and sexual violence against women in particular. In addition to looking at rape, the committee also looked at other forms of sexual violence — stalking, acid attacks, marital rape, sexual harassment at the workplace, khap panchayats and honour killings, child sex abuse, trafficking and more. But it was not just the  proposed amendments to the law that made the Justice Verma Commission Report extraordinary. Its sterling achievement was drawing up The Bill of Rights for Women. If even a fraction of them come to pass in my lifetime, it would be a tremendous achievement for the Indian Society.  Parliamentarians diluted some of the recommendations during the passage of The Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013, but it is a start.

Mangalayan: The smallest, lightest, most cost-effective spacecraft is on its way to Mars. And it is completely made in India — a testament to Indian scientific progress, ingenuity and, dare one say, jugaad. The naysayers were many — it can’t take off, it won’t leave the orbit, it is a waste of time, energy and effort; what about sanitation? But the scientists at ISRO persisted with the dream of having a Mars Mission and triumphed over all negativity.  When it enters Mars’ orbit — and here I evoke the power of positive thinking — it would place the Indian mark on the planet. The rationale that a country like India with its myriad developmental issues should not spend money on luxuries such as space exploration is often heard, especially in international media. But, can India deny future generations the advantages of at least a fledgling space programme? I would believe the answer is ‘no’.

The triumph of the outsider: Two major political shifts have taken place in India this year — and they both have two do with the outsider surmounting all odds to rise to the top. The two men could not be more unalike, but they have managed to catch the imagination of their political constituencies and are setting the agenda for political discourse — Narendra Modi, the BJP’s PM candidate, and Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party and Delhi’s CM-designate. Love them or hate them, one thing is clear: you cannot ignore them. And, you cannot take away from the sheer dint of hard work, perseverance, vision and personal charisma that attract people to their ways of thinking. In a political system bound by traditional courtesies, family ties and used to incremental improvements, Modi and Kejriwal have come from outside the system and shaken it up. It gives hope to people that they don’t have to know someone, or be related to someone to make it big.

Sachin Tendulkar retiring: When Sachin Tendulkar’s last match was played in Mumbai, and when he walked back to the pavilion for the last time, there were tough, grown-ups who were in tears.  I would think that 50 per cent of India cannot remember an Indian cricket team in which Tendulkar was not present. And if Indians could unite on anything, it was that Tendulkar is their favourite hero. And we got together to give him a farewell like no other. Inspiring because nice guys sometimes finish so far ahead of the rest, and with so much grace and decency that it feels good.

Nelson Mandela’s long walk to the stars: When Nelson Mandela died, I posted on Facebook that it felt personal, like a very dear and loved member of my family had died. The response to that one statement was huge — those who responded seem to feel the same.  For a man who started life believing in violent means to achieve ends, and then transformed himself into a symbol of peace and reconciliation, Mandela appealed to that part of us that celebrates all that is good and noble.His funeral in South Africa became a celebration of his life. What more could one ask of a life well-lived?

Through the year we consume all that is going wrong with the world as news. Maybe as the year comes to an end, it is time to introspect and pick out the good — the events that will stay with us in years to come. The events that we will think and smile wistfully about.

Goodbye 2013. Happy 2014.

Dec 232013
 

This column appeared in the DNA on the 12th of December

Shortly after eleven, on Wednesday, I got a call from a friend who is gay. He was close to tears.  “The Supreme Court just made me a criminal” he said. “All I have done is been honest about my sexuality, and asked is the right to be with the person I love.  And now that has made me a criminal”. The call, one of many, followed the Supreme Court ruling on Section 377 where it upheld the law that criminalised gay sex, setting aside a 2009 Delhi High Court judgment.   Naz Foundation had challenged the Constitutional validity of section 377. Its contention was that the section violated a whole host of rights of citizens including the Right to Equality (article 14) and Non-Discrimination (article 15). And the Delhi HC essentially agreed. However, the esteemed SC has seen this issue differently and passed it back to Parliament to legislate.

Section  377 is a throwback to the colonial era, 1861 to be precise, when Lord Macaulay drafted the Indian Penal Code. It says, “377. Unnatural Offences — Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine.” Essentially Lord Macaulay came to the land of the Kama Sutra and Khajuraho and criminalised everything that did not fit into his vision of acceptable sex. Hardly surprising — given the country and the culture that he came from, where Lady Hillingdon, as late as 1912 describes the act of sex with her husband as being so exciting that every time he approached her room she closed her eyes and thought of England. Lord Macaulay, incidentally had contempt for the ‘natives’ of conquered lands. On being asked about the contribution of natives to literature, his response was: “A single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”  It is this man’s pronouncements on sex and sexuality that have been upheld by the highest court in India.

When India got Independence and adopted a new Constitution, section 377 of the IPC  was not repealed. We can outrage about the Constituent Assembly and the lawmakers in that era, but we also need to remember it was a different, more conservative time. It was a time that the very act of giving Hindu women rights of succession or divorce under the Hindu Marriage Act caused uproar and the law minister — Dr Ambedkar — resigned in protest when the bill was not passed in the first ever Lok Sabha. It took an election to get those rights in place. On a different level, although people like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar fought relentlessly to get the Widow Remarriage Act 1856 passed — as late as the 1970’s — film maker Ramesh Sippy killed off a lead character (Amitabh Bachchan playing Jay) in Sholay because he felt that audiences would not accept the concept of a widow (Jaya Bachchan playing Radha) remarrying. Yet, today neither the concept of a woman divorcing, nor inheriting, nor a widow remarrying seem to be alien to Indians.

The Europeans have always had rather strange notions of sex and have used the Church and the Monarchy, in the past, to impose these laws on the people. Homosexuality was not just a sin but also a crime —  and punishment in many European monarchies included death. On the other hand, the ancient civilizations of the East while not actively promoting homosexuality did not really care enough about the sexual habits of their subjects, to legislate. They assumed social norms would take care of social order, and that intervention by the State would not be required. Neither China nor India had laws against ‘unnatural sex’ as defined by Macaulay. It is possible that neither culture thought anything was ‘unnatural’ about any form of sex. And, a glance at ancient Indian literature would validate this point. Kings had better things to do than obsess about what people got up to in private spaces.

So it is back to Parliament. A Parliament made up of members who refuse to criminalise marital rape. A Parliament made of members who dilute anti-stalking laws on the grounds that “Everyone has stalked women at some point in their lives…. stalking is a norm in the country,” (Sharad Yadav of the JD(U)). And it is Parliament, with these Parliamentarians, that is supposed to repeal a law that criminalises gay sex.

This is not just about gay rights. It is about rights as laid down by the Constitution. It is about equality. And about non-discrimination. You cannot have the so called ‘moral’ majority deciding the limits to our freedoms. You cannot have populist morality defining freedoms. And, you definitely cannot legislate on what consenting adults do in the privacy of their homes.

The Delhi High Court, in 2009, when it struck down Section 377, said “If there is one constitutional tenet that can be said to be the underlying theme of the Indian Constitution, it is that of ‘inclusiveness’. This Court believes that the Indian Constitution reflects this value deeply ingrained in Indian society, and nurtured over several generations. The inclusiveness that Indian society traditionally displayed, literally in every aspect of life, is manifest in its recognising a role for everyone in society.  Those perceived by the majority as ‘deviants’ or ‘different’ are not on that score excluded or ostracised… in our view, Indian Constitutional law does not permit the statutory criminal law to be held captive by the popular misconceptions of who the LGBTs are. It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is the antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual.” It is this principle that needs to be adhered to. It is tragic that the Supreme Court did not see it fit to uphold this.