Sep 262014
 
My column in the DNA, earlier this week
The Times of India’s stand is pretty much the same as that of khap panchayats – she was wearing revealing clothes, therefore she asked for it
  • PTI

Last week, the Times of India, that claims to be the most read English daily in the world, peeked down actor Deepika Padukone‘s dress and put up content titled “OMG – Deepika Padukone’s Cleavage Show”. Ms Padukone, unlike most who grin and bear this sort of intrusion into personal space, hit back in a series of tweets that essentially took the news brand to task, in no uncertain terms.

In a Facebook post that has attracted over 2000 comments and over 150,000 likes (at the time of writing), Ms Padukone says, “I am not naive about my own profession; it is one that requires lots of demanding things of me. A character may demand that I be clothed from head to toe or be completely naked, and it will be my choice as an actor whether or not I take either. Understand that this is a ROLE and not REAL, and it is my job to portray whatever character I choose to play convincingly.”

And then the TOI decided to explain itself: “Deepika, we accept your reel vs real argument, but what about all the times, and there have been many, when you have flaunted your body off screen – while dancing on stage, posing for magazine covers, or doing photo ops at movie promotional functions? What ‘role’ do you play there? So why the hypocrisy?”

Well, since the old lady of Bori Bundar has asked, I thought I would help them understand the most basic aspect of women’s rights. And that is actually just one word – one simple yet elegant word – consent. Consent, very loosely defined, is permission or assent. Has the person in question said yes? At a second level is a related question, just as equally valid in the context of women’s rights: “Do women have the rights over their own body?” When a woman says no, no matter who she is, does it a) mean yes? And, as importantly, b) is she going to be judged by what else she says when she says no?

It is all very well to say, you are flaunting your body, albeit in a different context and therefore it is all right for us to intrude on your privacy, and use your body to our advantage. But at a very fundamental level, this is pretty much the same argument that we have been hearing from every regressive element in the Indian ecosystem. What the paper and everybody else needs to understand is that it is very clearly a matter of a woman’s right over her body and her consent for anyone else having a right over it.

The response of the TOI on the Deepika Padukone issue occupies the same space as a famous film scene. In the film Dostana starring Amitabh Bachchan, Zeenat Aman and Shatrugan Sinha, Zeenat Aman plays a modern woman who wears a bikini and a sarong at a beach. When ‘eve-teasers’ whistle at her, she complains to the policeman (played by Amitabh Bachchan). His retort is, “Aap aise kapde pehen kar ghar se niklengi toh ladko ke seeti nahi toh kya mandir ki ghantiyaa bajengi?” (if you wear such clothes and leave your home, what do you expect men to do – whistle or ring the temple bell). Today, we can look back at these lines and say regressive, regressive attitude, blaming the woman for violence and the rest. And we would be right. What do you say to the leading English language daily?

It looks like almost three decades later nothing has changed. It is the same argument that is being used. Today, when we talk about women saying no to sex and then being forced, or to being groped, or being whistled at, the same set of counter arguments pop up.  The argument, whether made by a leading English daily or by the head of a khap panchayat, ‘but she was asking for it’ needs to be treated with the same contempt that you would have for a traditionally dressed woman or man, who with the full fire of righteousness, and in an Indian language tells you that girls who don’t cover up their bodies will be prey to rapists If that had been the case, we could be sure that all of us, including the newspaper in question – would have outraged over medieval attitudes and patriarchal behaviour.

This entire argument goes beyond Deepika Padukone and into the space of women and media created perceptions. I would argue that it is not Bollywood or item numbers that demean women, rather it is these sorts of attitudes that do. When a leading newspaper tells ‘you that you flaunt you body, therefore we can peep into your cleavage’ it is far more dangerous than the head of a feudal setup saying something similar. We know we should oppose the latter as it is antediluvian and archaic insofar as its perception of women is concerned. But, what about the former? If the feudal organisations think of women as their property, this treats women as much the same. And frankly, there is not much to choose from between the two ways of seeing women. Except that one is in English and the other is in an Indian language.

Finally,

A ‘roadside romeo’ is lumpen, but a media house peeking down a woman’s cleavage is ‘respectable’.
A khap panchayat that says a woman must be well covered to avoid rape is regressive, and a leading English daily which asks but if you flaunt it anyway, why do we need your consent?
No means no, except when we understand it as yes .

I agree with one point in the TOI article, and that is it reeks of hypocrisy. Unfortunately, it is not the hypocrisy of Ms Padukone, but of the media outlet. When the largest English Language daily in India justifies the invasion of the body of a woman – without consent – you should hardly be surprised that you have a system that justifies rape.

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 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.

Mar 312014
 

5 years late. But still makes a lot of sense…

“Why do people think “free” means diminished quality in one instance, and not in another? It turns out that our feelings about “free” are relative, not absolute. If something used to cost money and now doesn’t, we tend to correlate that with a decline in quality. But if something never cost money, we don’t feel the same way. A free bagel is probably stale, but free ketchup in a restaurant is fine. Nobody thinks that Google is an inferior search engine because it doesn’t charge.”

And this

With magazines it can clearly be effective to charge a minimal price, instead of nothing. But in most cases, just a penny—a seemingly inconsequential price—can stop the vast majority of consumers in their tracks. A single penny doesn’t really mean anything to us economically. So why does it have so much impact?
The answer is that it makes us think about the choice. That alone is a disincentive to continue. It’s as if our brains were wired to raise a flag every time we’re confronted with a price. This is the “is it worth it?” flag. If you charge a price, any price, we are forced to ask ourselves if we really want to open our wallets. But if the price is zero, that flag never goes up and the decision just got easier.
The proper name for that flag is what George Washington University economist Nick Szabo has dubbed “mental transaction costs.” These are, simply, the toll of thinking. We’re all a bit lazy and we’d rather not think about things if we don’t have to. So we tend to choose things that require the least thinking.

“The phrase “transaction costs” has its roots in the theory of the firm, Nobel Prize–winning economist Ronald Coase’s explanation that companies exist to minimize the communications overhead within and between teams. This refers mostly to the cognitive load of having to process information—figuring out who should do what, whom to trust, and the like.
Szabo extended this to purchasing decisions. He looked at the idea of “micropayments,” financial systems that would allow you to pay fractions of a cent per Web page you read, or millieuros for each comic strip you download. All these schemes are destined to fail, Szabo concluded, because although they minimize the economic costs of choices, they still have all the cognitive costs.”

Excerpt From: Anderson, Chris. “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.”

Despite the title – the books costs money :)