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.

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?

 

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.

Dec 232013
 

This column appeared in the DNA on the 28th of November

Over the last week, the media has been agog with allegations of sexual misconduct, and then rape, against Tarun Tejpal, the owner of Tehelka. The incident took place in Goa where Tejpal and one of his companies, Thinkworks, organised the annual jamboree Think. It was attended by international celebrities such as actor Robert de Niro, author Evgeny Morozov (To Save Everything Click Here: The folly of Technological Solutionism); former World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov, crusading journalist John Pilger and others. It also saw a bevy of India’s who’s who   MP Jay Panda, Amitabh Bachchan, Gopal Srinivasan. The sessions were interesting and had great panellists. One of its opening sessions was called The Beast in Our Midst a panel discussion with rape survivors moderated by the editor of Tehelka, and co-owner of Thinkworks, Shoma Chaudhury. Incidentally, Chaudhury also moderated two other sessions that are of interest Naked Rage on Occupied Territory: Women and the Body as a Weapon and Beauty and the Beast the Problem of the Global Media. Amidst all this intellectualism and a desire to articulate the issues facing the modern world and their possible solutions, Tejpal tried to use his charm to get a young colleague to have sex with him. When charm didn’t work, he tried force.

Tejpal stands accused of rape.

In a case of rape there are usually no witnesses. There are mostly only two main testimonies one of the violator and the other of the violated. But, in this case, given the chain of mails that are now in public domain, the answer may be simpler. The world at large came to know of the story when an internal Tehelka email from Chaudhury managing editor who had appended Tejpal’s ‘apology’ to the mail was leaked to the media. In the mail Chaudhury described the attempted rape as an ‘untoward incident’ and Tejpal calling it a ‘bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident’.The woman journalist at the receiving end of these ‘untoward’ ‘unfortunate incidents’ had different words to describe her predicament:  “The editor-in- chief of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal, sexually assaulted me at Think on two occasions last week.” In another letter, from Tejpal to the young journalist, he writes: “I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on 7 November and 8 November 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me”.  ‘Attempting a sexual liaison’ when a woman is ‘clearly reluctant’ can only mean Force and Rape. These are words we shouldn’t hesitate to use in this context. Tejpal, however, thought otherwise, as he said in his anticipatory bail plea to the Delhi High Court “only light-hearted bantering which led to a moment of privacy between the two individuals”. It was a lot worse.

Tejpal is a powerful man with powerful friends and the public backlash has only begun. Shoma Chaudhury, a woman who has espoused women’s causes in the past, has suggested that the accuser is lying. And some other powerful men are casting aspersions on the woman in the guise of “fairness”. ‘Why did the woman get into the lift with him’ said one of the older men called in to defend Tejpal on a news channel. (He later retracted). Presumably, the same reason why anyone gets into a lift, to get to another floor. Another said something about two people kissing in a lift not being rape; a third asked why a lift, why not a private space. And, of course, there is Tejpal’s own bail application which states that this is a BJP plot to discredit him implying that the woman is a plant and, therefore, lying.

The vilification of the woman had begun. She must have asked for it, how could she have (gasp) got into a lift with a man. Never mind that the man in question was old enough to be her father; was her boss and had a duty to look out for her, protect her, nurture her talents and ensure she became a better professional;  never mind that he violated her trust, her body and then tried to brazen it out; that he  violated the faith of the readers and supporters who believed in Tehelka’s brand of fearless journalism.

There are those who will argue that sexual encounters in the workplace are unavoidable. While this may be the case with equals, the norms and the rules are quite different when it comes to people at different levels in the hierarchy, especially those in a direct reporting relationship.  The question is that when the ‘encounter’ is between a junior and a senior, how much of it is mutual attraction and how much of it is pressure. When an older charismatic achiever turns his (or her) attentions on a much younger person, seemingly mentoring, seemingly encouraging, and draws him/her into a sexual relationship, is it mutual consent or is it sexually predatory behaviour? At the risk of sounding dreadfully old-fashioned and terribly middle class, one would submit it is the latter.

And, finally, most women have faced some form of unwanted attention at least once in their professional and private lives. Most have learnt to bury the experience deep in their subconscious and move on with their lives. Others have given up their careers, often their passions, to escape from it. Yet others have not been believed. Maybe, this case is a wake-up call for women to fight back. Like the Nirbhaya case last year, this one is going to be a cause célèbre. The young woman in question has shown incredible courage in coming forward and making a case of it. It cannot be easy. The pressure on her must be phenomenal. It is also going to be the start of a series of claims of sexual harassment that companies across the board not just media have to deal with. The dam has broken, the flood will begin