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.

Sep 082014

My column in the dna, last week


There are milestones and there are millstones. The former help you in terms of direction, the latter become a weight around your neck dragging you down. Often, the same event is both. And, a 100-day target, in a cranky democratic republic like ours, definitely counts as being both. However, given that this Government, like the last one, has given itself a 100-day target to showcase its achievements, and since their opponents are using the same to ask ‘what achievements’ — it is only natural that the rest of us (including the media) looks at the 100-day milestone. A word of caution here — it is too early to judge achievements, that will take at least a year, if not more. However, what can be looked at, and evaluated, are broad policy outlines.

The Good 100 days 

Focus on sanitation: The single most neglected area in India, sanitation, has been brought out from the shadows that it has lurked in, to the forefront of conversation. Given that more homes in India have TV sets than toilets, and given that the lack of toilets and adequate sanitation lead to a variety of issues from diseases to sexual assaults, the Narendra Modi-led government in general, and Modi in particular, have done a good job in getting this talked about. What would be good is if, in addition to building toilets, there is a certain emphasis on training people to use toilets (as opposed to the world outside), and understanding basic hygiene.

Make sons accountable: For this columnist, the single most interesting portion of thePrime Minister’s Independence Day speech was him saying “Parents ask their daughters hundreds of questions, but has any parent ever dared to ask their son where he is going, why he is going out, who his friends are?” This was in the context of the growing violence against women – especially sexual violence. The focus on personal and parental responsibility was timely. In a society where it is the woman who has to bear the brunt of rape — both as an act of sexual violence, and in its aftermath of being judged by society — this was a welcome statement.

Calling off talks with Pakistan: While it is important to talk to Pakistan, it is equally important that the powers in Pakistan understand that they cannot arbitrarily break all norms of civilised behaviour, all rules of bilateral understanding, and still expect that India behaves as though nothing untoward has taken place. It is essential that the message that India is displeased is conveyed, and calling off the talks is a good way of getting the message across.

Scrapping the Empowered Group of Ministers: One would assume that a minister is empowered to take decisions. Therefore, to have an empowered group of ministers to take the same decisions that an individual minister is supposed to make is inexplicable. Why would you need a group to take a decision that a single individual would make? The Prime Minister’s decision to scrap the EGoM, hopefully, would mean greater ownership and accountability for individual ministers, as well as hurrying up the decision-making process.

The not-so-good 100 days
Scrapping the Gadgil report on the Western Ghats
: While development is vital for India, it cannot be at the expense of our natural heritage. This is something that we hold in trust for future generations, and we cannot destroy it in the name of development. It is imperative that the Narendra Modi government reconsiders its decision on not just scrapping the Gadgil report, but also the way fragile ecosystems are conserved. While there will be tremendous corporate pressure on the government, it needs to remember that if the ecological balance is disturbed, no one will make profits. China is paying the price of its development sans ecological perspective, India need not do the same. Being environment friendly, acting at one with nature, is as much a part of our civilisational ethos as language or ‘culture’.

Governmental silence: The Government of India is not just the government of its supporters but of all the people of India. While the party may feel persecuted by, real or imagined, left-liberal domination of the media, it still needs to communicate. Reading ministry press releases is neither interesting nor illuminative. The government’s silence looks less like strategy and more like petulance. In fact, often it appears about as communicative as UPA II. So advice to the government and ministers is — stop sulking, and start communicating. And no, Twitter and Facebook accounts are not enough. Your communication needs to be more inclusive and interactive.
Part-time defence minister: We have Pakistan to the west; China to the north; and the armed forces of India with rapidly aging equipment. There are issues of recruitments, corruption, infrastructure and more plaguing the armed forces. One would think it required someone who gives full time attention to these, rather than someone who juggles another ministry, especially one as taxing as Finance.

Price rise: It is hurting. When staple food becomes a luxury, when basic vegetables become unaffordable, and when the response is the same as the earlier government, then you have a problem on your hands. This government has no more been able to put a lid on inflation, than the previous government had. And, it’s method of communicating this has been as effective as the last government.

The current Government of India looks more decisive than the previous one. It has made the correct noises on a whole range of issues from Indian manufacturing to boosting tourism, from health care to education, from smart cities to cleaning up rivers. But, right now these are just words. To be able to evaluate the impact of these, these policies need to be implemented and progress needs to be monitored over a substantial time frame. For now, all that can be said is that it is a good start. But, unless the aam janta gets to see very rapid changes and benefits, their disenchantment will be equally rapid.

Aug 032014

Last week’s column for the DNA

The horrors of child sex abuse can be offset by a few simple but essential measures

There are many brutal things that one reads as a part of our news consumption – passenger airlines shot out of the sky in conflict zones; children killed in the escalating warfare between the Israeli government and Hamas; young schoolgoing girls kidnapped in Nigeria by fundamentalist terror groups; children dying of malnutrition; systematic violence against women; ethnic cleansing in Iraq and Syria; targeted violence against religious minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh – and the spontaneous thought is ‘thank heaven, it is not here’; thank the stars that we bring up our children in a relatively safer society. But that feeling of relative safety, security and a better tomorrow for the next generation gets shattered when we read about horrific child rape cases, that are increasingly featured in the media.

Last week, most of us reading or watching the news came across the story of the 6 year-old in an upscale Bangalore school who was raped by her skating teacher. As more and more details of the story emerged, the sense of horror and terror increased. The girl was allegedly raped by two staff members; one of the staff members, who was later arrested,  had child pornography depicting  kids in uniform being raped. There may have been other cases of child sex abuse in the same school that are still being investigated by the authorities. The school had outsourced the skating teacher’s function to an outside agency,  absolving themselves of responsibility. The school in question, as well as other private schools, also tried to get parents to sign a disclaimer that absolved the institutions of any responsibility for incidents that took place on premises or at school organised events.

This is not the first child sex abuse case to hit the headlines, nor will it be the last. Just last year we were shocked by the story of a little boy who was raped by school bus attendants. A six month old child who was raped; a three year-old abducted from home, raped and thrown away into the bushes. The horrors seem never ending and relentless. And, what makes it worse is that it is just the tip of the iceberg – stories that are reported as opposed to incidents that have occurred.

Child sex abuse is not a new phenomenon. There were always men, and sometimes women, who indulged their carnal desires with children. Not so long ago, it was believed that sex with a prepubescent girl would cure men suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. Children would be kidnapped, purchased and sold to men suffering from such transmittable diseases. The STD would not be cured, but the girls would be infected. It is not just false belief or superstition that drives such behaviour, but also baser instincts.

Children, today, are growing up in a far more complex and sexualised world than earlier generations. They are also exposed to images and behaviour that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Morality has changed, values have changed, and yet educators, the government and other bodies would rather cling onto modes of behaviour and deterrence that is better suited for a century earlier. These powers are seemingly taking an ostrich-like approach to the whole issue instead of taking concrete steps and measures that not just prevent such occurrences but also punish the offenders.

What is needed to keep our children safe? The first is a national level campaign educating parents, teachers and citizens in general about the dangers of child sex abuse. Creating an awareness that such a problem exists and steps that can be taken to counter it are essential. The solution is not to keep children at home – in many cases the home is as dangerous a place as outside. In many cases the case of sexual assault begins at home, by people who are supposed to keep the child safe. Simultaneously, making the children  understand that the world is not safe. That there are people who can touch and harm them in ways that are beyond their comprehension. Children need to be made aware of the dangers from such predators.

The second, and this is a slightly more controversial measure, is to start sex education classes. There are a number of social and cultural norms that will challenged by this – but the purpose of sex education is not to make sex more attractive. As anyone who has gone through a sex education programme will tell you, it is most likely to put off youngsters  and push the age of experimentation by a few years. If children cannot, for whatever cultural reason, go through these programmes, parents can perhaps take their place. So that they are best able to communicate to the children the issues at hand.  In a world where the local paanwallah can give you a memory card loaded with films for an amount as low as Rs50, the system cannot cope with the kind of content that is being disseminated. Porn is legally banned in India, anyone caught downloading it is theoretically breaking the law. But, when people can access this kind of content through a very different mode of file sharing – memory sticks and pen drives – control becomes difficult.

And finally the authorities need to be both more sensitive and sensible. The job of the authority is not to preserve culture, that is the role of family and society. Their job is to deliver governance and keep citizens, especially the most vulnerable in our society, safe. They need to be put through an education programme that helps them handle situations like this with sensitivity. This would include elected representatives at the central, state and local levels; the police force; the judiciary; administrators and educators.

The problem of child sex abuse is not going away anytime soon. The sooner we, as a society and people are geared to combat it — leaving aside our preconceived notions — the more likely are children to grow up in a safer world.

Jun 122014

An edited version of this appeared in today’s dna

Until a few weeks ago, most of us had a barely passing familiarity with Baduan in Uttar Pradesh.  Around 200 kms and less than a 4 hour drive from the national capital, Delhi – the area hit the headlines after a particularly brutal rape and murder of two teenaged girls.  It is an old story, told again with callous violence and viciousness. Two cousins – some accounts put them at 12 and 15, others at 14 and 15 – had to attend to nature’s call. They had no toilet in their house and they went into the fields to relieve themselves. They never returned home. Their bodies were found hanging, with their own dupattas, from a mango tree. They had been raped, strangled and strung up like the spoils from a shikaar. 2 young men from a neighbouring village, and two police officers are believed to be the culprits.

This is not the first rape in India, and it is unlikely to be the last.  A report by PRS Legislative in 2011, looked at the abysmal state of women’s safety in India. According to the report there were 23,582 rapes in India – almost 65 rapes on a daily basis and around 3 every hour. But, most experts believe that the number of rapes is underreported. There are a number of reasons for this – the starting point of which is the social stigma assigned to the victim of the rape, and the perception of her having lost her honour.  Rather than being seen as a survivor of a heinous crime, she is seen as the provoker of the crime. And, her gender is enough to stigmatise her for life. Different views are put forward – maybe she was dressed provocatively, maybe she led the boys on, maybe she had ‘loose’ morals, maybe she said no but meant yes. We have all heard these comments from people who should know better – politicians, policemen, ‘elders’ of the community and the like.

At the core of the debate on women’s safety lie 3 main issues. The first is the availability of safe spaces – sanitation within the house or rather the lack of it or street lighting or the lack of it, both indicate the lack of safe spaces. The second is the lack of spaces where the two sexes can meet socially on an equal footing – schools, colleges, employment, and social occasions. And the third problem is a age old problem of the distinctions in social hierarchies and the social acceptance of the rapist and the social boycott of the victim.

The one thing your realise when you travel the length and breadth of India – visiting small hamlets and villages, is the lack of sanitation. There are few public toilets that are usable, even on state or national highways. Those that do exist make you fear attack from scorpions and snakes, not to mention the fact that they have doors that don’t shut and windows that give your full view of the world, and the world a view of you –without any means of securing your privacy. Schools and colleges – public spaces where both genders congregate – show a similar problem.  Toilets, and the privacy to use them, are such an important facet of safety and we don’t discuss this problem enough. The norm is to use the world at large as a public toilet – apart from issues of health and hygiene that crop up – there is also the very grave issue of safety. The first thing to do is to address this. Young girls, even if they lived in the most secure state in the universe, should have the right to perform their bodily functions in relative privacy. This is factor that most of us, living in relative middle class comfort in cities, take for granted. Associated with this is the issue of darkness. Unless you have electricity our towns and villages are going to be in dark. And darkness encourages the breach of law.

Where boys and girls grow up together, studying together, sharing playtime – and understanding and respecting differences there tends to be a natural evolution of gender sensitisation. On the other hand when girls and boys are segregated and social intercourse is considered taboo, you have scenarios where stereotypes and older mindsets are perpetuated. The second important factor to help build a safer world for women is creation of spaces where they are not just considered to be equal, but also where their  individuality and personal preferences are respected.   The creation of these spaces needs to be backed by education not just of young boys and girls, but also their parents, teachers, elders in the community, and administration.  Police reforms and Judicial reforms would help, but unless society as a whole is in synch with the need for social reform that prevents young men from seeing young women as prey for the taking – no amount of police on the street or stringent punishment is going to help.

And lastly, there is a problem social hierarchies and what is considered acceptable behaviour. While caste is a factor as is class, there is a third problem, and that is the unwillingness of those who wield power to bring about change. Caste and class reform may take generations and women’s safety cannot be held in abeyance till that is achieved.  And, this is where the Indian State needs to step in. With the recent changes in law rape trials are speedier and more stringent. We have seen the effects of this in both the Nirbhaya and the Shakti Mills rape case – due process was followed and the guilty were punished. This needs to extend to the smallest hamlet in India. Women will be safer, if the system punished the guilty – without fear or favour of powerful local interests.  However,  as long as the guilty walk around with their heads held high and their chests puffed up with pride, and the victims cower in their houses in shame – nothing will change.