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 the DNA on January 31st

“The Medium is the Message” declared Marshall McLuhan, a phrase that has become the most misinterpreted phrase in the short history of mass media. What McLuhan talked about was far deeper than mistaking your TV set for a soap. What he meant was, that every so often a technology manifests itself, that is so revolutionary that it disrupts the very way in which society is structured, the way people think and our very concepts of the way the world about us is ordered. He begins by describing the invention of the printing press and the evolution of print as a medium. That invention led to the printing and sharing of ideas, allowed for scientific ideas to be duplicated in an error free manner, allowed religious texts to be available to a larger audience, allowed mass literacy– by enabling the printing and reprinting of books, and allowed ideas of equality, fraternity and freedom to permeate through the world. Each subsequent mass media– film, radio waves, terrestrial broadcasting, satellite broadcasting and now the Internet – has changed the world – not just because they exist as boxes in our house, but the way they allow for the exchange of ideas, the permeation of values and the empowerment of people.

The digital world is exciting not just because technology is exciting, but because of what it allows consumers to do with that technology. Fifteen years ago, before the first dotcom bust, the technophiles were talking about consuming news on a handheld device, ordering milk, getting your pizza delivered, get your heart rate monitored – and many people laughed. Today, we take the apps on our smartphone for granted. The office on the go, is not just a promise for the distant future, but very real. But, the digital revolution is exciting not just about the conveniences that technology offers us. It allows far more than that. The real promise of digital technology is not what advertisers or large corporates want us to consume, rather it is the enabling of peer to peer communication. Where we, as citizens or as consumers, talk to other  citizens or consumers on issues that bother us, on things we like, or causes we support– and thereby bypass the entire mode of broadcasting.

The earlier modes of communication were one way– from those who wanted to say something to those who wanted to listen. Those who had something to say were the elite, challenging the views of other elite. Those who wanted to listen, were the commoners– people like us. There was certain etiquette, a certain politeness, a sort of ‘let the status quo remain’ attitude that permeated through the system. Digital has changed that. It is as though all the barricades, all the inequality of access, all the proper way of behaviour that tied us down – has come crumbling down, dissolved by the power of digital. Purists and public intellectuals often argue that the rise of digital has given rise to uniformed opinion, and therefore diluting the nature of debate. That people who don’t have expertise should not be taken seriously. That the new media is not so much democratic but anarchic. A babble of voices blurting out whatever they want, consequences be damned. These arguments are the death knell of a dying system- a stratified, inbred hierarchy that is trying to keep control on the way the world thinks and behaves. We are at the dawn of the digital revolution.

There will be mistakes made. But, those mistakes will be quickly rectified– by the very same crowd that the elite hold in contempt. The advantages are many- sacred cows are no longer considered exempt from questioning or indeed, considered sacred. People’s issues can no longer be buried. Brands can no longer run roughshod on consumers. If that isn’t a promise for a better future – I’m not sure what else is.

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?

 

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.