Apr 102015

From the DNA on the 6th of February 2015

Each year, since 1953, on the first Thursday in February, the President of theUnited States of America takes part and leads the National Prayer Breakfast. It is an annual ritual attended by politicians, administrators, media, religious leaders, and other members of society. They wax eloquent about giving, sharing, tolerance and other lovely values that remain largely forgotten for the next 364 days. This year was no different. President Obama addressed the gathered crowd, and spoke about faith and values; and in particularabout
“the degree to which we’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.”

President Obama, then went on to talk about how faith not only gives strength to achieve, but also to selflessly serve others. But, when one talks about the power of faith for ‘good work’, it is impossible to ignore the other, more warped, image of faith; where the distortion of faith leads to a almost nihilistic approach to the world. Faith imposed by the barrel of the gun. The President acknowledges this and says:

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.  From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.  We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism  — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.

We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.

One of the problems with seeing such large scale damage caused by bigots claiming to act in the name of religion is that, we see a religions through the distorted lens of the hater, not the loving lens of the devout. And, while religious bigotry is not a new thing, the pervasive nature of mass media ensures that we see only the bigoted part of religion in all its brutality, illogic and intolerance; and ignore the billions who follow religions in their true spirit. President Obama refers to this:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

It is the last set of lines that has caused a furore in India. My issue with the statement is less what President Obama has said – he has the right to his opinions – and more an issue with the assertion about the Mahatma.

Gandhiji would not have been shocked by religious intolerance. He lived in a time that was far more brutal and intolerant than the world we inhabit today. He lived through the first world war, the independence movement, the second world war and the partition of India. He saw the aftermath of firing on peaceful worshippers in Jallianwalla; policemen being burnt alive at Chauri Chaura, the holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brutal Hindu Muslim riots across India that scarred the psyche. The brutality and carnage that was on display during this period, has not been matched since. If you remember your history right, while the rest of India was celebrating Independence, Mahatma Gandhi was fasting to end riots in the name of religion.

(Watch this clip from the film Gandhi, featuring Ben Kingsley and Om Puri in a cinematic representation of the human tragedy of religious riots).

In each of our cultures, there have been great acts of courage, belief and faith. There have been people who have fought relentlessly to end the tyranny of men over other men (and women). In each of our cultures and nations, there have been those who have upheld these values, and there are those who choose, willfully, to restrict rights of others based on religion. I am sure that Thomas Jefferson would have been appalled at the hounding ofEdward Snowden. I am certain that Martin Luther King Jr. would have been saddened by the state of race relations in the USA, especially the impunity with which the police kill young, unarmed black men. Margret Sanger, the pioneer of birth control, would have been devastated at the fact that in 2015, women in parts of America have no control over their own body and male politicians choose whether women should have access to birth control (including abortion). Roosevelt, the father of the New Deal, that got the USA out of recession and back to work, would have probably joined the Occupy movement. I am not even sure what the founding fathers of the United States would have made of Gitmo. And, while these may seem like random sentences linked together to prove a point, they are not. These acts derive from the USA moving more and more towards religious conservatism, and nationalism that is derived from it. In many of these cases God, Nation, Patriotism are tied up in one tangled knot and is difficult to unravel. And these need to be separated, to make society a better place.  And, this is the lesson India can learn from the USA – not to mix up our various identities by putting them in the blender to create a giant all encompassing identity.

Would Gandhi have been shocked by what is happening in India? I don’t think so. He would have been saddened. But rather than wasting time on emotions, what Gandhi would have done was what he always did; direct action, appealing to the conscience of the people to come together and defeat hatred. The reason he was successful was because he enabled people to become better/greater than what was expected of them. And, that is what makes the Gandhi experiment unique. Not that he was non-violent or practised ahimsa. What made Gandhi a Mahatma, is that he raised the consciousness of the nation towards that mode of conflict resolution. And, while riots are covered, and hatred is amplified, there are a lot more people working towards rebuilding the peace, healing the wounds, and rebuilding trust.

Do read the rest of the speech here, it is truly inspiring and helps all of us contemplate. If we get stuck on one line, we will miss the wood for the trees.

Apr 102015

i wrote this, for the dna on the 5th of Feb

In the last 10 days, two very different incidents have taken place that have serious implications on freedom. The first is the hounding of Shireen Dalvi, the editor of the Mumbai edition of the Urdu daily, Awadhnama. She published a Charlie Hebdo cartoon on the front page of her paper in the context of a story. As expected, there was furore and outrage – much of it not reported because it took place in Urdu language. Since then multiple police cases have been filed, the Mumbai edition of the paper has been shut, and Dalvi is on the run, escaping the multitude of FIRs filed against her. This is one more statistic of expression being stifled and truth being suppressed. Journalists in India have been trained by the law of the land to avoid content that could lead to ‘communal disharmony’. Invariably, this means that when they report riots, the story will be couched in sanitised terms such as ‘two communities clashed over a religious procession in place x’. From a news point, it tells you nothing. From a legal point of view, it keeps you safe. But, the point is that if journalists are supposed to record the first draft of history, they cannot do so by sanitising those things that offend people. Ultimately, if the profession has to be the watchdog, it cannot be told that there are things you cannot bark at. Explaining issues to people in context is a vital part of journalism. Dalvi has paid the price for doing her job. The Right to be Offended seems to have, once again, triumphed over the right to know and the freedom to express without fear.

The second incident, which has got tremendous media attention, is the case of AIB. One would be wary of using the full form of AIB in a family newspaper, but all those who have seen or heard of the group know what it means. The group of comedians put up a live show called AIB Roast, where their friends, Bollywood celebrities, turned up to display their sense of humour while being ‘insulted’. The show was a ticketed one, which means that only people interested in that genre of humour purchased it. And, those who did, claimed that they enjoyed it. The show was edited (a two-hour live show edited to 50-odd minutes) and was put up on YouTube, where again people who were interested, watched it. Given the nature of the show, and the platforms it was available on, there was little or no chance that people who are not interested in that kind of humour would view it. But, this is India. People will read books that they aren’t interested in with the purpose of protesting; they will watch films they don’t like with the purpose of getting them banned; and they will watch a show whose humour they hate, to call for a ban. And, that is exactly what happened. The producers have withdrawn the show from YouTube. The Right to be Offended has triumphed once again, over the right to free expression.

The question now arises, what offends people and can you legislate offense? A few days ago, in a case regarding the application of the draconian section 66A to ‘gross offense’,Supreme Court justices J Chelameswar and Rohinton F Nariman made a very crucial observation: “What is grossly offensive to you, may not be grossly offensive to me and it is a vague term.” It is this vague term of causing ‘offense’ and ‘hurting sentiments’ that stands in the way of our freedoms. So rather than rail against this ‘gross offense’ and ‘hurting sentiments’, this author thought she would list at least 5 issues that cause her deep offense, and that hurt her religious and constitutional sentiments, and asks the readers of this column to do the same.

a) Children living in the street, facing grave dangers and losing their childhood, causes me great offense, and deeply hurts my sentiments. Sixty eight years after Independence, children should have a decent present and a good future. And, I would like all those responsible to be banned — politicians, administrators, local goons — and to pay the price of this, just the way Shireen Dalvi and the rest are paying.

b) People throwing garbage, spitting on the street, and dumping industrial waste in water sources seriously offend me. I believe that nature, land, rivers, mountains are all sacred spaces, and this consistent, deliberate pollution is hurting my religious sentiments and causing me great pain. Could we ban all those who indulge in such behaviour?

c) Sound Pollution is my pet bugbear. I believe in worshipping in silence, where I can contemplate the nature of the Universe and seek guidance from it, in peace. When loudspeakers blare bad music, sermons, satsangs etc, not only am I forced to consume religious content I don’t want to consume, but also, the out-of-tune renditions offend my ears. This not just violates my right to practise my religion (of one) in my own way, it also impacts my musical sensibilities. Who can I file a FIR against for gross offense?

d) People who tell women what to wear and how to behave. I am fundamentally offended by patriarchal behaviour. It is none of anyone’s business. Women are not their chattel. Not even women in their family. What do you do about the offense caused by people who want to deprive almost 50% of the population of their rights?

e) Discrimination offends me. It doesn’t matter if it is gender based, religion based, caste based – it simply offends the daylights out of me. Religion tells me that all are equal in the eyes of God. The Constitution tells me all are equal in the eyes of the law. How do you deal with people who impinge on both rights? How do you deal with the offense caused?
If we go down this logical path, there won’t be anything left to ban, because everything would be banned. Welcome to a sterile world – where there is no humour, no offense, no freedom, no opinion, no comment, no fiction, no poetry. Sounds a bit like the moon. Not conducive for life, living and civilisation.

Dec 262014
My column for the @Dna on the 27th of November

Six months ago, yesterday, the citizens of this country elected a new government. Fed up with alliance blame-games, policy paralysis and continuous allegations of corruption, the voters of India voted in the Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with a majority that allowed them thefreedom to deliver, without relying on allies who demand a pound of flesh or more for basic support to implement governance objectives. In the approximately 180-plus days since it took office, both the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his government has been both seen and heard. A number of policy initiatives have been announced, and some old ones taken forward. Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan as well the village-adoption scheme have been simple and effective initiatives that have not just cut across the political spectrum, but also captured popular mindspace. The involvement of ordinary citizens, beyond celebrities, has been heartening, because it has been a long time that people, especially from the middle class, have been inspired to leave their busy existence and do something for society at large. There has been the Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana and the Make-in-India initiative that are also beginning to resonate.

Usually when governments reach a certain interval (100 days, 6 months, 1 year), we, the media types, get into an analysis on success and failures of the government. However, to be fair, six months is not enough time to make a judgement, because the impact of policy initiatives takes longer to show up. Hence, rather than looking at what this government has achieved, one would look at what should be its policy imperatives in the coming months and years. And, rather than looking at the entire spectrum of government activities, one would like to focus on a specific area where one would see policy initiatives that would lay the foundation for a better future. While there are a number of areas that need focus — from education to health, from defence to space exploration – this column would like to zero in on one aspect that is fundamental to becoming a strong and vibrant republic — that is protecting and enhancing the rights of the individual.

November 26 – the day the Modi-led government of India completes 6 months is also another anniversary. It was the day in 1949 that the Constituent Assembly of India adopted the Constitution that was presented by one of the greatest Indians of all time – Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. This Constitution that was adopted, embodied the hopes and aspirations for equality and freedom and has, possibly, the most emancipating set of promises ever made by citizens to themselves – Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation.

Today, 65 years after we adopted the Constitution, the time has come to ensure that the promises made to the citizens of India are fulfilled, and that these promises are protected from the onslaught of an ever-reactionary religious Right, from across faiths and social groups. The one thing that we can safely claim is that Indians are freer than ever before in history. That, over the years, our ability to exercise those freedoms have increased. We have fewer restrictions than the people of our parents’ generation. Generations that followed us face even fewer restrictions than we did. However, we are also seeing that reactionary groups from across the religious and societal spectrum are raising their voices and demanding that freedoms be rolled back, because they believe it is against their ‘religious’, ‘social’, ‘cultural’ values. The problem is that most of us as citizens are not organised as pressure groups, and most of those demanding a roll back on our rights, are. Governments in the past have succumbed to the temptation of buying peace by giving into these demands.

In a vibrant democratic republic, do these groups have a place? The answer is yes — they have the right to be, to thrive, to live their lives as they see fit. Do they have the right to demand that others in their group or outside follow these norms, and the answer is simple – No. When it is a conflict between the rights of a group and the right of an individual – the right of the individual citizen has to be paramount. And, this needs to be the case whether we are speaking of a Muslim woman’s right to alimony or a Hindu’s right to eat beef, or a gay couple to cohabit without fear or an academic’s right to question historical figures. Will there be people and groups objecting to these — definitely. But, the question is whose side does the Government of India come down on – and the answer is simple – the individual citizen.

Why are rights important? Simply because without that freedom to think, to be, to achieve, to soar, we will miss all the goals we have set for ourselves — as individuals and as a nation. The Government of India represents us, the people. And, it acts in our interests. A core part of those interests is guaranteeing these freedoms. And the starting point of guaranteeing those freedoms is informing and educating people about their rights and duties as citizens. This part of nation-building has been ignored for the better part of three decades. Maybe a renewed focus on this would help.

This government, by the sheer dint of its numbers, is in a position to make a difference in this arena. It needs to look at rights in a holistic manner and look at how the rights of individual citizens can be enhanced and protected. And in protecting the rights of the individual, the Government of India will also be fulfilling the remaining promises – Justice, Liberty and Equality.

Dec 242014
My column in the DNA on the 13th of November :

2014 is the anniversary of two, primarily, European events, that had worldwide repercussions. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the war that was supposed to end all wars, and the 25th anniversary of the fall of theBerlin Wall – the event that was supposed to lead to unprecedented peace and goodwill the world over. Alas, neither event lived up to the great expectations that the world at large held out.

100 years ago, various European countries decided to seal the fate of the world and establish the boundaries of their individual power. The resulting war, engulfed Europe, dragged in her colonies, brought the United States of America out of a self-imposed isolation from the international stage, and changed the nature of the Nation-state forever. It also changed the nature of warfare, which moved away from set battlefields, to being fought everywhere – land, sea and, for the first time ever, in such large numbers, the air. The battles that were fought – became more organised, with more fire power, and a greater ability to kill. This war began the mass use of chemical warfare (mustard gas), and was the most lethal war that humanity had known. The war, also called the Great War, cost almost 16 million lives, of which just under half were civilian casualties. The First World War also wrought major changes in the nature of geopolitics. It made the United States a world player; it strengthened the status of the British Empire as the pre-eminent power in the world; it catalysed the unravelling of the Ottoman Empire, stirred the nationalistic aspirations of the colonies to a higher level, and allowed the Communists to take charge in Russia, which then became the Soviet Union. The events that led to the fall of the Berlin wall, had seeds in actions undertaken almost 60 years earlier.

The United States of America and Great Britain entered into an unwritten partnership of sorts, after the end of the First World War. This partnership has lasted, through thick and thin, through ups and downs, and rapidly changing geopolitical equations, to manoeuver the course of international affairs for the better part of the next century. While Great Britain, with her Empire, was the elder partner in the years that preceded the Second World War, the leadership position moved to the United States by the end of the 1940’s. Be it the war against Communism, the war against drugs or the war against terror, just to name a few, the British-American combination has held, even in the face of disapproval of the rest of the world.

The fall of the Ottoman Caliphate, led to the creation of a number of states in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. Each little potentate in the region made a bid for power and control over their own territory. Countries were carved out without any logic of language, culture or shared history, and the resultant mess still impacts international affairs today. One of the most controversial decisions of this era, was the non-implementation of the Balfour Declaration that provided for the creation of Israel. That decision got implemented only in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the death of 6 million Jewish people in concentration camps. It also, placed the new state of Israel in a geography of immature states that collectively wanted the destruction of the Jewish State .

Nationalistic aspirations and the desire for independence, by the colonies of the Imperial European States gained momentum in this era. This was the time when Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Bhagat Singh, Mohd Ali Jinnah, BR Ambedkar – made their mark on the Indian freedom movement in rapid succession. It was the time when cries of ‘azaadi’ led young men and women to court arrest and even be ready to lay down their lives for a greater cause. It took a good quarter of a century more for nations and people to gain their independence.

And the most potent and immediate fallout of the first world war was the Russian Revolution in 1917 that polarised the world on the basis of governmental systems. When the Soviet Union came into existence, it stood in direct opposition to the values held by the dominant ideology – Imperialism and Capitalism. It was perceived as being a nation that was led by the interests of the workers and peasants, and promised an egalitarian state where people would live together in peace and harmony. Like most idealistic positions, this too was fiction. The Soviet Union was governed by the Communist Party that concentrated all powers in its hands. Neither peasants nor workers had a say. Protest was quelled without mercy and all decisions were centralised. At the end of the Second World War the Soviets expanded the sphere of control all the way to Germany in the West and China and North Korea in the East, and directly intervened in the fate of these States, first as allies and then as the overlord.

The Berlin Wall was built to prevent people from East Berlin – which was Communist and controlled by the Soviets, from escaping to West Berlin – which was controlled by the West and perceived as being freer. It was a wall built to prevent freedom. But, freedom is an idea and cannot be stopped by walls, or bullets. People’s innate desire to be allowed to lead their lives without interference takes over and protests, and it was this protest that allowed ordinary people to pull down a wall built by an Imperial Power – for, despite all its protestations of being egalitarian, the Soviet Union was also Imperialist.

Today, when we look back at the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is important for us to remember that history is not a snapshot. Rather it is a set of events that have repercussions for many, many decades. The former Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai is supposed to have said, in the 1970’s, “too early to tell” as a response to a question on the impact of the French Revolution that took place in 1789 (many have offered different interpretations of this statement, but this version is apt). While the fall of the Berlin wall was the manifestation of the desire of citizens for freedom, the impact of the fall is yet being measured

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.