Apr 222014

My column, in last week’s DNA

In the last three days there have been two instances of suppression of expression due to ‘hurt’ sentiments and political beliefs. The first was the independent publisher Navayana that is focused on literary works based on caste from an anti-caste perspective. They decided not to publish the English translation of Tamizh writer Joe D’Cruz’s book Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (The Ocean Ringed World). Considered by many to be a modern epic, the novel tells the story of Parathavar fishermen in Tamil Nadu. On the face of it, a story based on the lives of fishermen that delves into their history and culture would be an ideal topic for a publishing house that gives a platform for fiction, poetry, non fiction and graphic novels by anti-caste voices. However, Joe D’Cruz came out in support of BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and that was enough for the translator, V Geetha, to withdraw consent for her translation to be published. In her letter to the publishing house she states “given D’ Cruz’s insistent and clear-cut support for Narendra Modi, I cannot bring myself to allow my translation to be published.” And so, a novel that should find a wider audience is sacrificed at the altar of personal sentiments. The second incident is that of the newspaper The Hindu that put out an internal circular instructing its employees not to consume non-vegetarian food in the office canteen as it causes ‘discomfort to the majority of the employees who are vegetarian’. In both cases it can be argued, that private organisations have the right to choose who they publish, what they decide as dress code and what they allow into their canteen. However, this is less about private organisations and more about the society and the increasing intolerance towards diversity in tastes, views and political leanings.

James Madison, the fourth President of the United States of America, had a very interesting observation about free speech and its curtailment. He said “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” And, that is precisely what has been taking place in India. Be it non vegetarian food or books that ‘cause offense’, be it women’s rights in terms of wearing western clothes, or carrying a mobile, wearing a veil or going to a pub, be it a song in a film or a play that questions sacred cows, the creeping intolerance resulting in restrictions to freedoms bodes ill for all of us.

A recently released report by the Hoot.org’s Free Speech Hub shows how censorship has crept in. The report states that in the first three months of 2014, there have been 52 instances of censorship across the length and breadth of India. The petitioners, says the report, cuts across society — “courts, student organizations, state governments, publishing houses, the Lok Sabha Secretariat, the Central Board of Film Certification, a lawyers’ association, Hindu groups including the Shiv Sena, the RSS and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Tamil groups and individual industrialists; they all moved to exercise various forms of censorship”. What is more is that the censorship cuts across media, platforms and forms of expression — books, Facebook posts, films and plays have all been at the receiving end of offended sensibilities.There have been 52 acts of censorship in the last 90 days — a record that a democratic republic should not be proud of. In fact, if anything, we should hang our heads in shame that there have been so many instances of violations of free speech and expression — where ‘hurt sentiments’ have triumphed over freedoms.

The year started with Penguin losing its nerve and withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. This was in response to a court case brought by an aggrieved individual. Rather than wait for the verdict and fight for the right to express, Penguin bought peace by withdrawing the book from the market. This was followed by the Kala Ghoda arts festival in Mumbai withdrawing a play Ali J based loosely on the life of Jinnah, after threats on a right wing website. In neither case did the State ask for censorship — this was voluntary.

There are four sources of restrictions of freedoms. The first is the State — and this is the one that we get to see the most. If the State, that is supposed to guarantee our freedoms, restricts it, then there is a problem for all of us. The second form is organisational — all organisations have a code of conduct and we accept those codes as a part of our everyday life. But, if that code descends into discrimination — not employing people of a certain community and women, having a discriminatory attitude towards the LGBT community — then it is definitely a restriction of individual freedoms. The third is societal — societies own dos and don’ts. The reason there is an uproar over the actions of khap panchayats or fatwas issued by mullahs, or restrictions by building societies, is that they impinge on individual freedoms. And the last is self censorship — the fear that you may step on toes, and those toes will retaliate with violence. More often than not, it is the last that is the most worrisome. If we start curtailing our expression of the truth for fear, then it is a slippery slope from where pulling back will be very difficult.

If we have to leave a better country for future generations that fear has to go. It is as Rabindranath Tagore said “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…. into that haven of freedom, my father, let my country awake”. When there is a choice between the rights of the majority, and the freedom of the individual, the freedom of the individual will have to triumph. If we, as a nation, cannot guarantee that freedom, it is dark times indeed for the society and the nation.

Mar 212013

An edited version of this appears in the Lokmat Times

The United Kingdom has been reeling under the impact of scandal after scandal to hit the news industry, especially the role of news in tapping phones to get scoops.  An official Inquiry was set up headed by Justice Leveson to look into this and amongst the recommendations that they made was that bloggers and users of twitter facing the same rules as the main stream media. The Inquiry recommended that the law be enforced against the online community to avoid a drop in the high standards of journalism practised by the mainstream media.  This is kind of ironic, given that the Inquiry was set up to deal with the impact of consistent rogue behaviour by the Mainstream Media in the United Kingdom. Currently the British Parliament is debating whether to bring in a regulator for bloggers who carry news & editorial content, and whether to impose higher fines on those who do not comply.

Index on Censorship has this to say on the debate

the Royal Charter’s loose definition of a ‘relevant publisher’ as a ‘website containing news-related material’ means blogs could be regulated under this new law as well. This will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on everyday people’s web use.

“Bloggers could find themselves subject to exemplary damages in court, due to the fact that they were not part of a regulator that was not intended for them in the first place. This mess of legislation has been thrown together with alarming haste: there’s little doubt we’ll repent for a while to come.”

Given that much of India’s IT laws are influenced by those in the UK, the Indian on-line community needs to start preemptive action to ensure that such laws are not passed in India. Already there are issues with the IT Act that curb freedom of expression. A regulator would just clamp down on the diversity that the net allows. There are a million flowers that bloom here, and a million opinions that are expressed – many of them cater to a fraction of the audience commanded by main stream media, with little or no financial backing and an inability to access high quality legal help. There are also practical issues – how do you regulate millions of websites. Also, if you are not registered with a regulator, can you not discuss news or editorialize? And is a regulated on-line world real time ?

In a Democracy there will always be views that will make some people uncomfortable. Yet it is this discomfort that allows Democracy to thrive. There are today, sites that look at news specific to gender issues that attack patriarchy; sites that look at Dalit and Tribal issues that attack caste practises; right wing sites that put forth their world view and attack the liberal ones; left wing sites that promote their ideology and attack everyone else – these are all independent perspectives. They have the right to be expressed.  News media on the other hand is supposed to report and disseminate information. It is Mainstream Media that has strayed into the world of opinion and opinion making, the online world has not strayed into news.  Also, if bloggers ought to be regualated, what about microbloggers . More of us get more traction on twitter than anywhere else. More views are shared, more dogma expressed & broken, more exchanges of ideas and ideals than anywhere else – also more that could be considered libelous by the powers that be. I have this vision of each nation creating their own version of Weibo, where sophisticated filters, million of watchers and absolute regulation rule. In china’s case, it is a communist nation and it makes no apologies for censorship. What excuse do Democracies have –  protecting the existing  power structure ?

Finally, the world has changed. The centralized power and information structure held by a few is dispersing. The net allows for anyone to be a publisher from anywhere. How do you regulate freedom? And, if you try and regulate it, is it still freedom ?

Lokmat Column - 21st March - Regulator for Bloggers

Jan 012013

A few days ago, I didn’t know there was a rapper called Yo Yo Honey Singh (no, seriously) Hardly surprising given that the main form of music that i consume is Hindustani Classical Vocal.  Yet, today i know more about him than i need to.

In brief, Yo Yo Honey Singh is a punjabi rapper, supposedly popular, done some Bollywood numbers. He has written and sung some grossly offensive lyrics, where he raps about women in (im)purely sexual terms, often violently sexual terms. Not surprisingly, women, men and activist groups  are outraged.  One policeman in UP was so outraged that he filed a FIR against the rapper.

At one level there is the absolute bad taste and obscenity of the lyrics, at the other end is the concept of Free Speech. It is next to impossible to legislate bad taste. Obscenity can be legislated but it is a slippery slope. You find Honey Singh’s lyrics offensive; I find swear words that suggest incest with sister, daughter & mother offensive; someone else finds girls showing their legs offensive; yet others find homosexuality offensive; there are those who find casual sex offensive; yet other who find live in relationships offensive. There are people who find paintings offensive, yet others who find depiction of Gods and Prophets offensive; others find books offensive, and there are those who find music videos offensive. Unfortunately you cannot just have the things you find offensive banned. In a democracy, either everyone demands to get things banned are accepted, or there are no bans.

On Yo Yo Honey Singh and his alleged lyrics (alleged, because his lawyers claim that they are not written by him) the excuse used is that it promotes misogyny and ‘bad’ behavior towards women. I could give you the academic arguments – No message is that strong as to have such a powerful impact on its audiences; that audiences consume a plethora of messages from a multitude of media and choose which medium and messages to accept and which to reject; but this is not my classroom 😀 I could give you the strawman argument – where were you when Kolaveri went viral; did you laugh at that famous chamatkar balatkar speech in 3 idiots ; did you dance to jumma chumma de de – but that is neither here nor there.

The list of films and TV shows that are misogynistic and encourage ‘bad’ behavior towards women are too many to be listed. Domestic Violence, Marital Rape, Sexual harassment,second class status are par for the course. And, why do they succeed – because they reflect society. Every time media tries to create content that is not regressive, not misogynistic, it fails. A few years ago a channel had created a show that featured a female protagonist who fought for women’s issues. Her back story was that she had survived rape and rebuilt her life to fight injustice (in the courts) against women. The show flopped. Post show research revealed a very interesting attitude. The audience feedback was ‘aurat ghar ke bahar jayegi, toh balatkar to hona hi hai’.

Lonavala Market 8The fact remains that our  societies are deeply misogynistic. And that is going to take time to change. Atleast two more generations, if not more. Given the misogynistic nature of society – the State has to bear a greater burden in ensuring that equality for women does not remain a paper provision. They have to provide for basic security. Both within the household and outside it. The System has  to modify its processes and procedures, sensitize its employees – from elected officials to cops on the beat and be more accountable to the people. It is time the system came down heavily on non Constitutional bodies like the Caste Panchayats from impinging on women’s freedoms.  The government needs to move the courts to proactively protect women’s rights from organized religion.

The State, the System and Society have been failing on most counts vis-a-vis women and women’s rights. Other interests are more important. Caste, Community, Vote Banks and the rest have succeeded in tethering women’s rights.

In the scheme of things issues like Item Numbers and Honey Singh are great diversionary tactics – we can discuss freedoms and obscenity; objectification and misogyny till kingdom come. But neither the rapper nor the dancer cause rape or sexual harassment. That is the product of a society that kills its daughters, that burns its daughters-in-laws; that traffics its wives. A society that values stupid machismo, where honour means beheading your sister for daring to find happiness, and where culture means covering up the woman incase the man gets tempted. It is the product of a system of policing that makes women feel incredibly unsafe; of political parties that choose Misogynistic Pigs (with all due apologies to all the pigs in the world) to represent them.

Discussing Honey Singh or Item Girls, diverts our anger from the things that need to be changed. it diverts our anger to easily achievable things – shutting down a new year concert or filling airtime with outrage on “Item” numbers. I am not saying outrage is wrong – by all means outrage – it is a free country and outrage is good for the soul 😀 but, in this constantly moving target of outrage scenario, focus on change is lost. And, unless there is focus on  systemic change – women are going to remain unsafe.

It really is not about Honey Singh… it is about taking the System to task and ensuring they deliver.
Aug 202012

My Column in Today’s DNA

Chaos theory is that branch of mathematics that looks at how random results arise from supposedly ‘normal’ events. The most popular representation of this is the Butterfly effect. The basic premise is “a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon, and a hurricane hits India”, essentially an event in one part of the world has terrible repercussions in another. In a globally linked world the butterfly effect is becoming more and more common.

Nothing can explain the butterfly effect better than the last ten days in India. In South Mumbai, a crowd of Muslim men gathered to protest atrocities against Muslims in Burma (approximately 3,000 kms away) and Kokrajhar, Assam (about 2,000 kms away). They had been shown doctored pictures and MMSes lifted from social media to help get them ‘charged’ up. Some of these pictures were a decade old, came from other countries, referred to other ethnic/religious groups, had been debunked multiple times – but none of these mattered. What mattered was the brutality in these pictures that was circulated, and the irresponsible and incendiary speeches that whipped up violence. The crowd became a mob with OB vans, vehicles and property being destroyed. The violence in Mumbai resonated through social media, with the word Muslim being used as an Adjective, Adverb and a religious descriptor. Did it add to the tensions on the ground – unlikely? Did it polarise the universe that inhabits social media and discusses politics and current affairs? Yes.

Bangalore, about 3,000 kms away from Kokrajhar, saw another sort of Butterfly effect. Random SMSes were sent to families in the northeast, warning them of attacks on their children and loved ones who lived, studied and worked in the rest of India. Panicked families began calling back their loved ones. A combination of these SMSes and news of ‘threats’ going viral in the real world led people to leave Bangalore. There have been smaller numbers leaving cities like Pune, Chennai, Vadodara and Mumbai – but Bangalore has faced the worst impact. Various state governments and the central government are making the right noises in terms of reassuring citizens but rumour carried rapidly by unfiltered media has had a powerful impact in creating a sense of insecurity.

It is at times like this you get to see two very different sorts of leadership qualities in both social media & mainstream media. There is the leadership that seeks to reassure and calm. And there is that which wants to create a narrative of victimhood and fear – watch out ‘they’ will take over your lives. Both exist and both are a reflection on the real world. Technology — be it broadcast or social media — has not created these attitudes, at best it allows these attitudes to be transmitted without filters to millions of desktops, mobile phones and TV sets.

Not surprisingly, calls have begun to have greater curbs on social media. Bulk SMSes have already been restricted. There is talk of monitoring social media sites. There are rumours of censorship. But it is neither social media nor mobile phones that are causing panic. People are. It is not the media that is spreading hate. People are. Most who are rioting don’t use social media – someone is downloading material, replicating it, at times morphing it and distributing it with only one express purpose: fermenting trouble. And there is a very good reason for this. From the time of Independence, there has been no cost, no penalty associated with polarising communities, instigating violence and causing death and destruction. In fact the converse is true — people who have done this have not only gotten away scot free but are ‘respectable’ members of the political class. Foot soldiers have been punished but those are the casualties of war.

India is such a complex nation, that even our butterfly effect is multi-layered – distance (event that take place elsewhere), and time (unconnected events in the past). Policies of not ensuring the rule of law, of pandering to religious fundamentalists, of making excuses for law breakers in the name of caste, community, religion, have come back to bite India hard, where it hurts. This is not a social media issue; this is a real world Rule of law problem. If you live in India, the laws of the land apply to you — it doesn’t matter if you sit at a computer and instigate people to cause violence or stand in front of a crowd and egg them to destroy. Both are criminal. The solution is not censorship of social media, or indeed banning gatherings, but punishment of those who break the law – without bias, without exception. Break the peace, go to jail has to be the mantra, going forward.

Jun 112012

My column in today’s DNA


A utopian society is an ideal one, which is represented by a perfect balance of happy citizens, a responsible state, a cohesive society – where everyone lives happily ever after. In a Utopian society, there is no coercion, no control; there is a place for everyone and everyone knows their place. All ideas co-exist. There is discussion without rancour. There is little or no crime, and war and illness have no place. It is, for all intents and purposes, an ideal society. Literature and epics allude to Utopian kingdoms in the distant past. But, it tends to be more in the realm of fiction than reality.

The direct opposite of a utopian society is a dystopian one. It is a society marked by utter repression and control, in which suspicion and coercion are the norms. A dystopian society is one in which the State or a ruling oligarchy takes away the rights of its citizens for ‘their own good’. Rewards in such a society are few, and punishment swift and lethal. Authors and movie directors have successfully depicted a dystopian future in which there is total censorship, mind control, obedience – where humans are enslaved by technology, where women are mere chattel. Books such as George Orwell’s 1984, Robert Harris’ Fatherland, Margret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World all describe a dystopian future as do Films like Terminator, Running Man, Blade Runner. Amongst the more powerful works in a not so nice, not so distant future is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Last week marked the death of Bradbury who brought to life a society in which books are illegal. Fahrenheit 451, the title, refers to the temperature at which paper catches fire and burns. What is most gripping about the book is the premise of a society that is so overwhelmed by television and short attention spans that books are seen as a threat to public safety and happiness. New ideas that are communicated by books are perceived, in this society, as being dangerous and offensive to various minority groups and are burnt. There are two parts to the novel – both equally valid. The first part is those of us, the people, who consume mass media and whose world view is exclusively shaped by it, and the second is the State that uses this to its own advantage. While the story is an indictment of censorship, it is also an indictment of mass perceptions and mass hysteria. It is a call to reach beyond the accepted norm and pause and ask basic questions. Mass Media is not God, nor is it infallible, nor is it without its own agenda. Good citizenship is not just questioning the Government or political parties – it is also questioning the media that we consume.

Of all the books on a dystopian future, Fahrenheit 451 cuts closest to the bone because books, rather ideas, have been censored in the distant and not so distant past, and in our present. The ancient Chinese (and the modern ones) banned books. Germany under the Nazis used to make a bonfire of books written by Jewish authors. Iran, under Khomeni, passed a death sentence on Salman Rushdie for writing Satanic Verses. The Government of India has an abysmal record on kowtowing to religious extremists of all hues and shades and banning books. It doesn’t take a tremendous leap of faith the believe that a future society can come into being where every dissenting voice is silenced, where every new idea is suppressed and books become the target of mob ire. Henrich Heine had aptly predicted that where they burn books, they will end in burning human beings, and his books were amongst the first to burn in Nazi Germany.

A story like Fahrenheit 451 resonates especially today where we are bombarded by highly sophisticated propaganda by all sides. But ultimately, the take away from the book – is not the death of ideas, but the fact that ideas can never die. As long as there are people willing to think and question, the spread of ideas will not stop. Brave, ordinary citizens from time immemorial have risked life and limb to save books, to pass on ideas to bypass censorship. They have fought against the might of the monarch, of the State, of the Party and of organised Religion. And, they have prevailed. It is possibly why the idea of anonymous masked people defacing websites as a protest against court orders blocking specific sites is so disconcerting. Through out history freedoms have not been won by those lurking in the shadows of anonymity, but people who have had the courage of conviction to openly add their name to dissent. Technology and modernity do not change that. And finally, the thing to remember is that Guy Fawkes – whose mask has become the symbol of the modern cyber protest – was never ever Anonymous.