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.

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.

Mar 092014
 

And, my column last week for the DNA – on the UPA retrospective 

Ever been to a theatre to watch a film that on paper sounded fabulous — great director, good casting, top-of-the-line banner, great promos? But when you get inside the theatre the film simply won’t get over.
Every moment drags; every dialogue in the film has the monotony of something you have heard before, and no matter what you do, you cannot escape from the highly intrusive soundtrack. Worst of all, you cannot get out of the movie hall.  Most of us have at least watched one such film, trapped inside the theatre for, what seems like, days, unable to get out, unable to move our eyes from the screen while asking the question “what  on earth were they thinking about, when they put this together”. And, when the end credits start rolling, you clap out of the sheer relief that the film is over, and you can get into the bright lights and fresh air outside, and scrub all memory of the movie from your subconscious. Think Ram Gopal Verma ki Aag or Kites. Know the feeling? It is pretty much the way that most felt while watching the last two years of UPA II — it just dragged on, and on, and on.

As the credits roll, this column takes a look at some of the characters and scenes from UPA II:

A for Anthony: The Minister for Defence. A man who confused inaction with integrity and took the old adage ‘if you don’t get out of bed and get on the road, you won’t get run over’ seriously. Unfortunately, that is no guarantee for the ceiling falling on your bed.

B for Bills: The trouble with leaving most of your key bills to the last minute of a five-year Parliament is that nothing is thought through, the sense of dissonance is high and like a bad film, certain elements are put in just to give a sense of faux completion.

C for CWG: The Commonwealth Games that really marked the begging of the end.

D for DMK: The key ally then, fence sitter now and the hands behind the 2G scam.

E for Elections: #Elections2014 and the UPA hoping for a sequel, ie. UPA III. But when a film is such a box office dud, will you really buy a ticket for the sequel?

F for Food Security: Nobody, with a conscience, will disagree with the concept of Food Security — the principle that no individual should go hungry, but as with all concepts, the devil is in the implementation. And, implementation in this particular case is fraught with internal opposition.

G is for Gandhi: The name that ruled the Congress for the best part of the last 45 years. And, it seems that the aura is finally waning, though Sonia Gandhi still has some of that aura. But for all his earnestness, it does not seem that Rahul Gandhi has that aura — the aura of wanting to handle power.

H is for High Command: See Gandhi above. All organisations need hierarchies, and a chain of command. But, if all power is concentrated in one set of hands , then currying favour rather than competence becomes the order of the day, leading to poor decision-making

I for Indian National Congress: The grand old party. It seriously needs to introspect and reinvent itself for the new millennium.

J for Janata: That is us, the people. The voters. Just get this over with seems to be the general sentiment all around.

K for Kaajneeti: That is on hoardings across the country, with voters looking at each other and asking “what is that”?

L for Leadership: Conspicuous by its absence through the five years, especially towards the end.

M for Mani Shankar Iyer: The architect of the Chai pe Charcha campaign. Enough said. M is also for Manmohan Singh, who didn’t say enough.

N for Narendra Modi: If politicians  in the Congress spent as much time in talking about what they did right, as they did about why Modi is wrong, they may have fared better in both  perception and the ballot box.

O for Ordinance: When bills aren’t passed, the route is ordinance. But, in Parliamentary democracy, bills are meant to be debated, deliberated on and passed. It is a good job that the last few bills were not passed via an ordinance, because…

…P for Pranab Mukherjee: He put his foot down and said ‘no’. A leading character in UPA I and in the first part of UPA II, his political skills would be sorely missed, even if his economic skills were not.
Q for Questions: That the people had, for which there were no answers. In fact, part of the UPA’s problem was the fact that it rarely spoke to the people or the press, and when it did it was either so stage-managed or so full of wordplay that it alienated.

R for Robert Vadra: The son-in-law. The man who could get away with everything, or so it seemed.

S for Sheila Dikshit: The Empress of Delhi, who is now the Governor of Kerala after losing her seat to Arvind Kejriwal.

T for Telangana: The disaster of the last five years. While smaller states are not a bad idea, pandering is.

U for UPA II: Coming to an end in a few months from now

V for Voter: That is us. Are you even registered?

W for Win: Winning seat by seat, state by state, to take the nation. From all accounts that is a tough one.

X for X: Marks the spot where we vote, and UPA II hopes that it is for their constituents.

Y for Gen Y: The first and second-time voter who cares less for the ‘isms’ of yesterday and more for how good their tomorrow will be.

Z for Zero Loss: Made famous by Kapil Sibal when confronted with allegations of misallocation of spectrum. If only humility was in action instead of hubris, this government may not have ended up in this state of being generally disliked.

Feb 122014
 

My column in @DNA last week

My earliest memories are of growing up in Delhi, and going to school there. Amongst those memories was a line that a six-year-old had seared into her subconscious — tu kaali hai (you are dark). It wasn’t a line thrown at her by classmates on a playground, but by the teacher in the classroom. A first standard student does not really have the wherewithal to cope with race, and I guess I was no different. I cried to my parents, and they assured me that my colour was the best, and the teacher was possibly jealous and brave girls don’t run away from school or teachers but face them with confidence. My father was transferred to Mumbai the following year, and in a multicultural school with classmates from different parts of India, I never felt different.

Much later, I came to know that Mumbai was the setting for anti-South agitation before I was born, and my parents lived in fear of the violence encroaching into their lives. Then, the 1990s saw the Bombay riots targeting Muslims, and more recently the anti-North Indian agitation — the anger against the perceived ‘outsider’ played out to its logical conclusion by those who benefit by these divisions. Studying in England, I was very conscious of ethnicity and nationality. The occasional taunts of “Yo Paki, go home” were met by “I am an Indian student, and will go back when I finish my studies.”

India has always lived with flashpoints based on differences. There have been a multitude of Hindu-Muslim riots since (and even before) Independence. Through the early 1980s, there was the targeted killing of Hindus in Punjab by Khalistanis. There was the targeted killing of Sikhs in the 1984 riots. In 2002, there was the targeted killing of Hindu pilgrims in Godhra, and then there was the targeted killing of  Muslims. More recently,  in 2012, there were riots in Assam between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims that combined aspects of religion, ethnicity, race and linguistic divisions to a bloody end. And towards the end of last year, we saw the Muzaffarnagar riots that were neither ethnic, nor linguistic but based on religious ‘otherness’. We have seen violence against South Indians (Madrasis) in Bombay, against Tamil speakers in Bangalore, against North Indians (bhaiyyas and Biharis) in Mumbai and more. And, I am not even counting the violence in the name of caste in this list.

Every time there is a riot or violence, we blame the political class and reassure ourselves, “We have lived in peace for generations, they fanned the flames.” This is an argument that has been bandied about and accepted. As a result, we have never really examined our own individual biases towards the other — religion, race, ethnicity, linguistic. We live with the myth that we are tolerant towards others, liberal about different ways of life, respectful of diversity. The fact remains that we are not. We may pay lip service towards values of tolerance, wring our hands when there is a breach of peace, shed tears at violence — but the reality is that, as individuals, we are not very tolerant of those not like us. The most recent manifestation of this has been the violence towards Ugandan women and the killing of Arunachal Pradesh student Nido Taniam. These, as much the riots, highlight the deep intolerance and fear of the other.

There can be many steps taken to address this. The first is at home. Our values are formed by what we learn at home. What is it that we teach our children? Our concepts of sharing, mingling, forming bonds with others are shaped here. So when we tell children not to ‘play with others not like us’ what is it that we are teaching? The second is at school. Unity in diversity is not just a phrase; it is real. Do we teach children about heroes from other states, do we let them understand the beauty and vastness of India beyond data points? Maybe at the 9th and 10th standard level, we relook at civics to examine diversity and differences and how those who are not like us are also like us.

The third is the media. How much of diversity is reflected in the images that we see and consume? How many of us even know about the lives and lifestyles of people not like us beyond the stereotypes? Hollywood adopted positive role models of African-Americans long before Barack Obama became the President, way back in the 1960s. Where is the diversity on our screens? The fourth is society. How welcoming are we of people not like us? Do we rent accommodation to them? Do we hire them? Do we make friends with them? And lastly, it is the state. What is the kind of mechanism put in place to make people who are immigrants feel at home? Much as we complain about the racism in the west, go to any government office there and there are multilingual forms available as are translators. If you, a Hindi speaker, went to a Chennai police station (or vice versa) to fill a report, would you even understand what was being said? How do you assimilate if you are not made to feel part of the system?

Race, religion, ethnicity and language — factors that unite us but also mark us as being separate from others. This sense of ‘otherness’, unless dealt with, can and has become a flashpoint for violence and hatred. The solution is not being separate and guarding what is perceived by some as uniqueness; rather, it is accepting and living with diversity. There are many ideas of India, possibly 1.2 billion of them  — and each of these is just as beautiful and as wondrous and as Indian and as real  as your or my idea of India is. Maybe it is time that we recognised and accepted that.