Sep 082014
 

My column in the dna, last week

 

There are milestones and there are millstones. The former help you in terms of direction, the latter become a weight around your neck dragging you down. Often, the same event is both. And, a 100-day target, in a cranky democratic republic like ours, definitely counts as being both. However, given that this Government, like the last one, has given itself a 100-day target to showcase its achievements, and since their opponents are using the same to ask ‘what achievements’ — it is only natural that the rest of us (including the media) looks at the 100-day milestone. A word of caution here — it is too early to judge achievements, that will take at least a year, if not more. However, what can be looked at, and evaluated, are broad policy outlines.

The Good 100 days 

Focus on sanitation: The single most neglected area in India, sanitation, has been brought out from the shadows that it has lurked in, to the forefront of conversation. Given that more homes in India have TV sets than toilets, and given that the lack of toilets and adequate sanitation lead to a variety of issues from diseases to sexual assaults, the Narendra Modi-led government in general, and Modi in particular, have done a good job in getting this talked about. What would be good is if, in addition to building toilets, there is a certain emphasis on training people to use toilets (as opposed to the world outside), and understanding basic hygiene.

Make sons accountable: For this columnist, the single most interesting portion of thePrime Minister’s Independence Day speech was him saying “Parents ask their daughters hundreds of questions, but has any parent ever dared to ask their son where he is going, why he is going out, who his friends are?” This was in the context of the growing violence against women – especially sexual violence. The focus on personal and parental responsibility was timely. In a society where it is the woman who has to bear the brunt of rape — both as an act of sexual violence, and in its aftermath of being judged by society — this was a welcome statement.

Calling off talks with Pakistan: While it is important to talk to Pakistan, it is equally important that the powers in Pakistan understand that they cannot arbitrarily break all norms of civilised behaviour, all rules of bilateral understanding, and still expect that India behaves as though nothing untoward has taken place. It is essential that the message that India is displeased is conveyed, and calling off the talks is a good way of getting the message across.

Scrapping the Empowered Group of Ministers: One would assume that a minister is empowered to take decisions. Therefore, to have an empowered group of ministers to take the same decisions that an individual minister is supposed to make is inexplicable. Why would you need a group to take a decision that a single individual would make? The Prime Minister’s decision to scrap the EGoM, hopefully, would mean greater ownership and accountability for individual ministers, as well as hurrying up the decision-making process.

The not-so-good 100 days
Scrapping the Gadgil report on the Western Ghats
: While development is vital for India, it cannot be at the expense of our natural heritage. This is something that we hold in trust for future generations, and we cannot destroy it in the name of development. It is imperative that the Narendra Modi government reconsiders its decision on not just scrapping the Gadgil report, but also the way fragile ecosystems are conserved. While there will be tremendous corporate pressure on the government, it needs to remember that if the ecological balance is disturbed, no one will make profits. China is paying the price of its development sans ecological perspective, India need not do the same. Being environment friendly, acting at one with nature, is as much a part of our civilisational ethos as language or ‘culture’.

Governmental silence: The Government of India is not just the government of its supporters but of all the people of India. While the party may feel persecuted by, real or imagined, left-liberal domination of the media, it still needs to communicate. Reading ministry press releases is neither interesting nor illuminative. The government’s silence looks less like strategy and more like petulance. In fact, often it appears about as communicative as UPA II. So advice to the government and ministers is — stop sulking, and start communicating. And no, Twitter and Facebook accounts are not enough. Your communication needs to be more inclusive and interactive.
Part-time defence minister: We have Pakistan to the west; China to the north; and the armed forces of India with rapidly aging equipment. There are issues of recruitments, corruption, infrastructure and more plaguing the armed forces. One would think it required someone who gives full time attention to these, rather than someone who juggles another ministry, especially one as taxing as Finance.

Price rise: It is hurting. When staple food becomes a luxury, when basic vegetables become unaffordable, and when the response is the same as the earlier government, then you have a problem on your hands. This government has no more been able to put a lid on inflation, than the previous government had. And, it’s method of communicating this has been as effective as the last government.

The current Government of India looks more decisive than the previous one. It has made the correct noises on a whole range of issues from Indian manufacturing to boosting tourism, from health care to education, from smart cities to cleaning up rivers. But, right now these are just words. To be able to evaluate the impact of these, these policies need to be implemented and progress needs to be monitored over a substantial time frame. For now, all that can be said is that it is a good start. But, unless the aam janta gets to see very rapid changes and benefits, their disenchantment will be equally rapid.

Sep 012014
 

My column in the DNA, last fortnight

Forty five years ago, the United States of America, did the unthinkable — it put a man, actually two men, on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went into the history books as the first human beings to walk on the surface of earth’s only natural satellite. The lines that Armstrong says on stepping on to the lunar surface “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, is part of textbooks around the world. While there was great euphoria on this momentous scientific and technological achievement, the benefits from this, apart from national pride, were seen in the following decades. The investment in putting a man on the moon went beyond the material and the technological. It had a multiplier effect in scientific research, energy sources, food technologies and in many more fields. The impact on society was gradual; it wasn’t seen that pervasively in the decade that followed, but the Eighties and the Nineties reaped the benefits of this endeavour. From a communication perspective, the advances in satellite communication and miniaturised integrated circuits that were a by-product of the research into space exploration, transformed the world. Television, computers, mobile phones, and a host of other gadgets, that we don’t even think about, are the distant descendents of the investment into space exploration. The world, in the words of the famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan: “human family exists under conditions of a global village. We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums”.

Twenty five years ago, in 1989, a British theoretical physicist, Tim Berners-Lee, working in CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, came up with an innovative way of getting computers in CERN to talk to one another, and thereby allow the various scientists working on different projects to share information. His work led to the creation of the Hyper Text Markup Language, known more popularly by its abbreviation HTML. It allowed people to cross link content, and direct users to different pieces of content sitting on different machines. This simple and elegant way of connecting content led to the birth of the World  Wide Web and the Internet revolution that we are living through. When it started, in 1991, there were fewer than 500 servers that were connected. Today, there is no point counting, because by the time you have finished counting the number of servers, a large number would have been added. HTML revolutionised the world of information publishing and sharing. Suddenly everyone could be a publisher, a distributor, a commentator. Like the printing press almost 500 years earlier, the World Wide Web changed the way in which people saw the world. Suddenly, you realised that your views or issues, your fetishes or hobbies were not in any way unique —  there were others like you elsewhere in the world. If the moon landings and satellite communication had made humanity a ‘global village’ – the World Wide Web made it even smaller.

On September 4, the most ubiquitous web brand ever, Google, turns a sweet 16. Two young men, Larry Page and Sergey Brin looked at all the content on the web, and the existing ways of searching for information and decided that it was not good enough. The algorithms that they created for searching, classifying and organising content made using the web a lot more easy, and a lot more accessible. If HTML changed the way we create and share content, Google changed the way we searched and consumed it. There are those of us who remember a world before Google. We used Hotmail for email, Alta Vista for search, Netscape and Internet Explorer as browsers – all that has changed with the advent of Google.

If you really strip away the jargon and the technology from these three landmark events — in essence what they have done is made the world a smaller place, and made people very cognisant of the fact that the differences between the peoples of the world, in different nations, of different languages and traditions is actually not so great. We all bleed when we are cut, grieve when we lose near and dear ones, are inclined to help others (even random strangers), laugh at almost the same things, dance to almost similar beats and so on. Also, what is seen is that the desire for freedom and democratisation, the need to aspire and achieve is universal. What divides us is far less than what unites us.

It is, therefore, not surprising that there has been a backlash against this sense of being a ‘global family’ with shared ideals and values from those who were the traditional custodians of power – those who held the power over life and death of populations — extreme forms of religion, patriarchy and defenders of ‘cultural purity’. These are people who, until a few decades ago, were obeyed without question. Today, they are, mostly, ignored. When we see the backlash of regressive elements — be it the khaps in Haryana, or the mullahs who are asked for opinions, be it former Pope of the Catholic Church or the most extreme of all reactions the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) – what they are railing against is that loss in absolute power over the lives of the people they controlled not so long ago. Cultural purity, religious purity, way of life et al are just excuses for wanting absolute power.

Most of the world is slowly moving towards the idea of a global village – people are escaping their shackles and aspiring for the better things in life, including not being restricted in their aspirations. The medievalists who want to drag people back into their cordoned off ghettos are trying their level best to hold on to their crumbling power base, that has been reeling under the onslaught of science and technology, through violence. Like others before them, who stood in the way of aspirations of people, these medievalists too will turn into a footnote in history.

Aug 032014
 

Last week’s column for the DNA

The horrors of child sex abuse can be offset by a few simple but essential measures

There are many brutal things that one reads as a part of our news consumption – passenger airlines shot out of the sky in conflict zones; children killed in the escalating warfare between the Israeli government and Hamas; young schoolgoing girls kidnapped in Nigeria by fundamentalist terror groups; children dying of malnutrition; systematic violence against women; ethnic cleansing in Iraq and Syria; targeted violence against religious minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh – and the spontaneous thought is ‘thank heaven, it is not here’; thank the stars that we bring up our children in a relatively safer society. But that feeling of relative safety, security and a better tomorrow for the next generation gets shattered when we read about horrific child rape cases, that are increasingly featured in the media.

Last week, most of us reading or watching the news came across the story of the 6 year-old in an upscale Bangalore school who was raped by her skating teacher. As more and more details of the story emerged, the sense of horror and terror increased. The girl was allegedly raped by two staff members; one of the staff members, who was later arrested,  had child pornography depicting  kids in uniform being raped. There may have been other cases of child sex abuse in the same school that are still being investigated by the authorities. The school had outsourced the skating teacher’s function to an outside agency,  absolving themselves of responsibility. The school in question, as well as other private schools, also tried to get parents to sign a disclaimer that absolved the institutions of any responsibility for incidents that took place on premises or at school organised events.

This is not the first child sex abuse case to hit the headlines, nor will it be the last. Just last year we were shocked by the story of a little boy who was raped by school bus attendants. A six month old child who was raped; a three year-old abducted from home, raped and thrown away into the bushes. The horrors seem never ending and relentless. And, what makes it worse is that it is just the tip of the iceberg – stories that are reported as opposed to incidents that have occurred.

Child sex abuse is not a new phenomenon. There were always men, and sometimes women, who indulged their carnal desires with children. Not so long ago, it was believed that sex with a prepubescent girl would cure men suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. Children would be kidnapped, purchased and sold to men suffering from such transmittable diseases. The STD would not be cured, but the girls would be infected. It is not just false belief or superstition that drives such behaviour, but also baser instincts.

Children, today, are growing up in a far more complex and sexualised world than earlier generations. They are also exposed to images and behaviour that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Morality has changed, values have changed, and yet educators, the government and other bodies would rather cling onto modes of behaviour and deterrence that is better suited for a century earlier. These powers are seemingly taking an ostrich-like approach to the whole issue instead of taking concrete steps and measures that not just prevent such occurrences but also punish the offenders.

What is needed to keep our children safe? The first is a national level campaign educating parents, teachers and citizens in general about the dangers of child sex abuse. Creating an awareness that such a problem exists and steps that can be taken to counter it are essential. The solution is not to keep children at home – in many cases the home is as dangerous a place as outside. In many cases the case of sexual assault begins at home, by people who are supposed to keep the child safe. Simultaneously, making the children  understand that the world is not safe. That there are people who can touch and harm them in ways that are beyond their comprehension. Children need to be made aware of the dangers from such predators.

The second, and this is a slightly more controversial measure, is to start sex education classes. There are a number of social and cultural norms that will challenged by this – but the purpose of sex education is not to make sex more attractive. As anyone who has gone through a sex education programme will tell you, it is most likely to put off youngsters  and push the age of experimentation by a few years. If children cannot, for whatever cultural reason, go through these programmes, parents can perhaps take their place. So that they are best able to communicate to the children the issues at hand.  In a world where the local paanwallah can give you a memory card loaded with films for an amount as low as Rs50, the system cannot cope with the kind of content that is being disseminated. Porn is legally banned in India, anyone caught downloading it is theoretically breaking the law. But, when people can access this kind of content through a very different mode of file sharing – memory sticks and pen drives – control becomes difficult.

And finally the authorities need to be both more sensitive and sensible. The job of the authority is not to preserve culture, that is the role of family and society. Their job is to deliver governance and keep citizens, especially the most vulnerable in our society, safe. They need to be put through an education programme that helps them handle situations like this with sensitivity. This would include elected representatives at the central, state and local levels; the police force; the judiciary; administrators and educators.

The problem of child sex abuse is not going away anytime soon. The sooner we, as a society and people are geared to combat it — leaving aside our preconceived notions — the more likely are children to grow up in a safer world.

Jul 132014
 

There has been a fair amount of traffic on my twitter TL on an article that was taken down in the DNA . People have, rightly, asked for an explanation.

Fact checking, misrepresentation of facts etc all good excuses/explanation to give when u pull down an article. However, they all sound rather silly – especially given that you have published it.   Sometimes silence is better than a hastily cobbled together justification. And, everything doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theory. Nor does everything have to be high drama. Sometimes there are simpler explanations.

I could say editorial prerogative. But, that would be arrogance.  I could blame the author, but that would be cowardice. I could blame the government or my ‘bosses’ but that would be a lie. I could say i didn’t know it went up, but that would be cop out. Fact remains, I should have caught onto something that was in the piece, but I didn’t. I did exactly what I have ranted about, and outraged about for the last decade – that is in the need for speed, the desire to be first,  to put out a piece, I didn’t look at it with the attention that it deserved. We have run far more scathing pieces by the author on Mr.Shah and they are still on-line. If I pulled down this one, it was for a good reason, and that reason is not fear.

I can understand readers ire on this, and appreciate the author’s anger  – i would have felt the same way if i was in her place. If I had the time on the day to make a call and sort it out, I would have. Unfortunately, I didn’t.  I was in a very long conference, where our phones were tucked safely away in our bags. Which is also the reason why I couldn’t respond to newslaundry.

Now to something else – when other TV editors/websites write about this, they obviously suffer from selective amnesia.  they have pulled out, pulled back, changed tack on issues. Was it fear, favor or fickleness? Or all three – that made them do this? And i am not even going into other areas of breach of ethics such as the cash for votes sting, or radia tapes, I am simply looking at spiked stories, and stories that disappeared. Seriously, i can appreciate reader ire, I can’t figure the hypocrisy of other media professionals. They know exactly what they had suppressed in their entire career Am sure if you follow any good news monitoring website you will know some of what has been taken off, what they have changed tack on, and where they have spiked their own stories.

I have not responded to this on twitter as  there are no 140 character explanations for things like this. Hence, this  blog.

And finally, far as the ToI piece is concerned – cute, very cute. Must be the first time that the ToI has run a piece naming a competitor without routing it through medianet.

 

Jul 062014
 

He thought she was a warmonger; she thought he was helping along a genocide.

Bass, Gary J. (2013-10-01). The Blood Telegram (Kindle Location 5592). . Kindle Edition.

(Gary Bass on the relationship between President Nixon and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi)

Among the more brutal events in the 20th century, was the birth of Bangladesh. And this is despite the fact that the holocaust and the partition of India took place in same 100 year span. The mass killings in East Pakistan, as it was then, was especially cold blooded because of two reasons a) the casualness with which people were being murdered b) the lack of reaction of western powers, especially the USA.  It is a testament to the brilliance of the perception management of the Pakistanis, that they could, in cold blood, murder their own people and get away with it. I also wonder, if  the west, especially the Americans, had clamped down on the sadism and excesses of the Pakistani armed forces at that point in time, would Pakistan have been such a failed state today. While the Germans, for generations, will have to bear the cross of the holocaust, the Pakistanis have gotten away scot free with being tarred with the same brush. There is little spoken about the issue, even less written about it. It is as though the sub-continent – apart from a few troubled souls, want to brush the stigma of targeted killing, ethnic cleansing, mass murder, mass rape, mass displacement, and genocide from our collective consciousness.  It allows those in South Asia to slot ‘genocide’ as an activity that happens elsewhere,  and it helps the West maintain its image of Pakistan as this cuddly, albeit, misunderstood entity.

The Blood Telegram - by Gary Bass

The Blood Telegram – by Gary Bass

Gary Bass‘ book “The Blood Telegram : Nixon, Kissinger & a Hidden Genocide” spares no punches in its description of the bloody events that led up to the birth of Bangladesh,  especially,  when it looks at the role played by the then US President Nixon, and his Secretary of State Kissinger and their attempts in hushing up the entire event. As the author points out one crucial difference between the events in East Pakistan and other instances of genocide, where the US was a non participant

Pakistan’s slaughter of its Bengalis in 1971 is starkly different. Here the United States was allied with the killers. The White House was actively and knowingly supporting a murderous regime at many of the most crucial moments.

The American tango with Pakistan, says Bass, was due to two reasons. One was that the Americans were using Gen Yahya Khan – an alcoholic megalomaniac, whom Kissinger thought was a moron – as their conduit to establish a working relationship with China, and the second was, rather more petty, that Nixon loathed Indira Gandhi (an emotion that was fully reciprocated) and quite liked Yahya Khan. Ultimately when you take away all the strategy, and the realpolitik (there was an alternative route to mending fences with China), and the lofty terms – it boiled down to less of National Interest and the ‘good of humanity’ at one end, and more of personal animosity and camaraderie at the other.

“I don’t like the Indians,” Nixon snapped at the height of the Bengali crisis.

Late in the book, Bass qoutes Nixon on India

“I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about India. There are 400 million Indians.” Keating corrected him; there were actually 550 million Indians. Nixon was surprised: “I don’t know why the hell anybody would reproduce in that damn country but they do.”

Bass brings alive the interplay between the various nations and their leaders with each other, at the same time as driving home the viciousness of the Pakistani action in East Pakistan, that ultimately led to the birth of Bangladesh. The author notes,

Nixon and Kissinger bear responsibility for a significant complicity in the slaughter of the Bengalis.

It is a crying shame that Nixon and Kissinger were never called to account on the brutalities and scale of murders  in East Pakistan.

In the Blood Telegram, the story of the birth of Bangladesh is told at three levels – the story of an American Presidency that wanted to leave the restoration of links with China as its legacy; the story of an India, led by Indira Gandhi that was isolated in its support for the Bengali cause;  and a man called Archer Blood, the American counsel general in Dacca, whose relentless bombarding of the State Department with clinical observations of ethnic cleansing, murder and genocide gave the world the first indication of the level of bloodshed taking place in East Pakistan. The narrative moves seamlessly between the machinations at the State Department, Washington; Delhi and the interactions that the Government of India – which did not have the clout that it has now – with various nations and governments – hearing no most of the time; and Archer Blood in Dacca who has to choose between his career and his conscience. The Americans do not come out of this smelling of roses. If anything they look kind of flatfooted and clumsy (not to mention callous & woolly brained) in their decision making. Looking at the world around us today and US decisions, it seems that their penchant for poor decision making persists.

Archer, much to the chagrin of Nixon and Kissinger does not back down from documenting that which was distasteful to his political bosses. A decent man, he goes about his work with precision and the quiet rage of the righteous. He especially highlighted the plight of the Hindus in East Pakistan who bore the blunt of the Pakistani Army blood lust. 6 million Hindus fled East Pakistan. Till date, the numbers of dead, are at best, fuzzy. Entire villages were burnt to the ground, those who escaped to terrified to return. People are burnt alive, shot randomly, men picked out and killed, women raped and murdered – the stories of the genocide are recounted in a chilling matter of fact manner.

Blood finally gets his transfer orders out of Dacca

The chapter that deals with Nixon and Kissinger meeting Indira Gandhi and Haskar – a meeting before the war –  is worth its weight in gold. if India, had sold tickets for it then, there may have been no national debt now.

India would win on the battlefield, Nixon said, but a war would be “incalculably dangerous.” With the superpowers involved on opposite sides, it would threaten world peace. Hinting broadly at a possible Chinese attack on India, he told the prime minister that a war might not be limited to only India and Pakistan. Gandhi was blunter— if anything, less tactful than Nixon. Kissinger later wrote that her tone was that of “a professor praising a slightly  backward student,” which Nixon received with the “glassy-eyed politeness” that he showed when trying to muscle down his resentment. She ripped into U.S. arms shipments to Pakistan, which had outraged the Indian people, despite her efforts to restrain her public.

The book is a really good read, it is almost as thought i was the fly on the wall while history is unfolding.  When the Indian Government goes from nation to nation asking for support, it realizes that this is a battle that it needs to fight alone.

“Mrs. Gandhi went around the world saying this is a genocide ,” says Admiral Mihir Roy of the Indian navy. “Nobody listened to her.”

The relationship between the leaders, their aides and the world at large is reconstructed extremely well. More so, from the perspective of the Americans – who have copious notes and recordings of that era; and less from India – where papers from that era are probably still classified. The isolation of India, although not explicitly stated in the book, comes through very clearly. It was a lone, long battle, with the very real threat of China joining in on the side of Pakistan. When war officially began, it did so when Pakistan bombed Indian on the 3rd of December. Mrs. Gandhi is reported to have said, “Thank God, they’ve attacked us.” In Parliament she said –

“We meet as a fighting Parliament,” Gandhi stormed before the Lok Sabha. “A war has been forced upon us, a war we did not seek and did our utmost to prevent.”

A war that India won, to lead to the birth of Bangladesh.

If the history of the sub continent fascinates you, then this should be on the must read list.