Feb 122014
 

My column in the DNA on 9th January 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 122014
 

My column in the DNA on 26th December 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye 2013. Happy 2014.

Dec 232013
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 232013
 

This column appeared in the DNA on the 14th of November

If Campa Cola had created so much buzz when it was a soft drink manufacturer, it would probably still be in business, selling aerated water to the consumer market. Alas, that was not to be the case. Campa Cola, for those born post the liberalization era, was one of the largest soft drink manufacturers in India. It made its mark at the time when Coca Cola departed India in the late 1970s. It was also one of the first victims of Pepsi and Coke re-entering India. The land allotted to Campa Cola was acquired by builders who constructed upscale apartments. The builders had permission to build apartment blocks of six floors each. Many of the buildings are much taller. The tallest one is 17 floors high. All this happened a long time ago, and like much else in India there was a ‘nod-nod, wink-wink among all concerned’.  Banks give loans, owners buy properties, electricity connections are given, tankers supply water, and it all proceeds as though everything is normal and legal. The modus operandi is as follows: File a plan, get municipality approvals based on the plan, begin construction, violate all that is in the plan, and then pay a small fine to regularise the construction. It happens all the time. There are posh localities in the suburbs of Mumbai that still get water via tankers, five years after residents have moved in, because the entire complex is yet to get an OC (Occupation Certificate) from the BMC. And more often than not things like this gets regularised — someone knows someone, who knows someone, and for a little compensation (for greasing palms and getting through the bureaucratic labyrinth) everything gets fixed. Except that in the case of Campa Cola houses it did not. The current fracas is over 35 floors that were constructed without permission, occupied without an Occupation Certificate, and which was ordered to be demolished by the BMC.

Naturally, the residents were shocked. They refused to move out. Upper middle class agony, expressed in fluent English and anglicized Hindi makes for great news television. It makes audiences identify with those portrayed. And, more importantly, it makes news anchors outrage in an even shriller manner. Suddenly, the residents of the Campa Cola Compound were no longer the educated, well-heeled, well-connected individuals who had access to lawyers and could check contracts and building paper work, but innocents who were duped by a corrupt system. And once the media got into the fray, so did the politicians. To give him his due, Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan refused to pass an ordinance that would halt the demolition. But, the rest got onto the bandwagon, including his own party members. Suddenly, a bunch of people who should have known better while they were busy breaking the law, were portrayed as babes in the wood. The very same people who would otherwise rant when illegal slums and pavement dwellers began using the same analogies to defend their illegal constructions. ‘we have always lived here’ ‘our children grew up here’ ‘where will we go’ ‘our entire community is here’.

Any house owner in Mumbai (possibly elsewhere too) will tell you that buying a flat is fraught with tension. The chain of ownership is often vague, and very often there are situations where buildings have neither Occupation Certificates, nor No-Objection certificates. Most of us are not used to reading technical documents in archaic technical language, and most just glance at the requisite paperwork to see if it is complete before buying. But, ignorance is not a defence against breaking the law.  And when you strip the Campa Cola Compound case of all the emotion, the tears and the angst, all you are left with is one thing: The law was broken, and those who broke the law may get away with it, with the media whipping up outrage to dissuade the law from taking its course. At the time of writing this column, the Supreme Court — reacting to media reports — has stayed the demolition.

In April this year, the residents of Golibar, a slum in Mumbai, were protesting for the same reason.Their homes were being demolished to make way for buildings. They had occupied the land since the mid-1960s. Television news did not care. Demolitions are proceeding as per plan. In June this year, slums at Ejipura in Bengaluru were demolished after residents were evicted in an area they had lived in for decades. Media coverage was nowhere near as sympathetic.

It seems that the middle class likes the idea of the rule of law when it is applied to others. It is quite comfortable breaking the law, and sheds copious tears when it is caught. The sentiment is simple — the rich get away with it because they have influence with those in power. The lower middle class and poor get away with breaking the law because they are the mass, and political parties need mass votes. Given that the middle class have neither the political influence nor the numbers, it does the next best thing — use the media, made up of people like them, to amplify issues. And it has worked.  While in the occasional case like a Jessica Lal when the media got it right, the fact remains that this sort of coverage of raw emotions has repercussions in terms of the rule of law. Think back to the hijacking of IC 814 and ask if the media had not constantly broadcast and amplified the heart-rending anguish of impacted families would the Government of India have been placed in such a ridiculous position?

Two sections of India that most often talk about declining morality and increased lawlessness have in the last week gotten together to do both: The middle class and the media. It is pointless to point fingers elsewhere. If you want the rule of law, you start by following it, not by breaking it, because others do just that.