Apr 042013

My Tehelka Blog on the calls to pardon Sanjay Dutt

Ajmal Kasab had just turned 21 when he and his fellow band of terrorists attacked India on 26 November 2008. He was 18, when he began his descent into crime and terror.

The youngest unnamed accused in the horrific Delhi gangrape case was just a shade under 18, when he participated, willingly, in the rape and murder of a young physiotherapist. He was supposedly the most brutal of all the rapists on the bus, that fateful night. While the system calls him a ‘juvenile’ and in all likelihood will set him free, there is general revulsion at the thought of someone like him being free to walk around to commit the same crime again.

Both Kasab and the unnamed juvenile were born in poor families, grew up in a world where others took to petty and not-so-petty crimes, and were exposed to influences that could lead them astray – yet most people do not use their age, their background or reduced circumstances as an excuse for their horrific behavior.

Sanjay Dutt was 33 years old when the Mumbai Police discovered that “the actor had acquired AK-56s from Dawood Ibrahim’s brother Anees Ibrahim, and had even had one destroyed after the serial blasts in Bombay that left 257 people dead.”

Yet it seems like a large part of the film and political fraternity are calling for him to be pardoned. Here is a man who willingly took possession of arms that would be used against his fellow citizens. He tried to cover this up, and yet people are calling for his pardon. There is a very sophisticated publicity exercise in place that wants to make Dutt seem like a poor little lost boy, entrapped by circumstances and an unwilling participant in an escapade that went wrong. The truth is different. He was a grown up, who knew what he was doing, and kept quiet when a single phone call (even an anonymous one) could have saved over 250 lives.

So, what makes Sanjay Dutt special?

Born to Bollywood nobility – his mother was Nargis, father Sunil Dutt – brought up in the lap of privilege and wealth, Sanjay Dutt could have been anyone. He was given a dream film debut by his father in the film Rocky, he worked with the biggest directors in Bollywood, his friends were the A-list in tinsel town, fans loved him, the box office welcomed him and he had the world at his feet. You would think that a man born into such a background and who achieved success would do something useful and meaningful with his life. He didn’t. His early career in Bollywood was marked by absences, late coming and general bad behavior. So much so that he began losing out roles to relatively unknown actors (Sanjay Dutt was the first choice for the film Hero, that later propelled Jackie Shroff to stardom. The story goes that Subhash Ghai was so put off with the unprofessional behavior of Sanjay Dutt that he had him replaced). All this changed with the 1993 Mumbai blasts and the subsequent arrest of Sanjay Dutt under TADA.

Unlike the West where people, even stars, are penalised for their bad behavior, India seems to love its bad boys. Robert Downie Jr, Mel Gibson, and a host of others have lost roles, lost endorsements when they got embroiled in controversy. Mel Gibson for being a drunk racist, Downie Jr for a drug habit that led him to serve jail time – there was punishment beyond what the legal system mandated. There was ostracisation and a loss in earnings. But over here, the moment a star gets into trouble, he becomes more salable. Sanjay Dutt got better roles after his arrest,  and he is not the only one. It is almost as though advertisers and film financiers believe that sleaze will sell.

Today, when people who should know better are appealing the Governor to pardon Sanjay Dutt, they need to understand that they are giving their blessing to delinquency, to irresponsibility, to acting in an anti-social manner and a support of terror.

“He is a nice man” goes the refrain. How many nice people do you know who store automatic weapons and grenades capable of causing carnage? Then there is the refrain that says he was too young. At 33? When leaders like Digvijaya Singh put out statements that say, “Sanjay Dutt is not a criminal, he is not a terrorist. Sanjay Dutt, at a young age, in the atmosphere of that time, thought that perhaps the way Sunil Dutt had been raising his voice against communalism and favoured the minorities, then perhaps he could be attacked,” they are making excuses for terror.

What do you say to all those people who are minorities, or favour minority rights and would never think of going down the path of violence or terror? Indeed, what do you tell people whose family members have been arrested and convicted for terror – that it is excusable because they thought they were in danger? Is this the same approach to dealing with Maoists who believe that the only way they can get heard by the State is by committing acts of terror?

The last excuse is that Nargis and Sunil Dutt were patriots and deserve better. The head of the Press Council of India and former Supreme Court judge Markanday Katju says, on why Sanjay Dutt deserves a pardon: “His parents Sunil Dutt and Nargis worked for the good of society and the nation. Sunil Dutt and Nargis often went to border areas to give moral support to our brave jawans and did other social work for the society.”

This is an easy statement to agree with. Sunil Dutt and Nargis Dutt did deserve better, and their son let them down. Not the system. It is because he is their son that he is only facing just 5 years in prison, not a lifetime. Imagine if an ordinary boy named Sanjay Dutt, whose parents were not popular film stars, had been found with the weapons cache. Would the outcry be the same?

Jan 142013

Illustration: Zaheer Alam Kidvai

This is a story from the Mahabharata, that like many from from that epic , this too has lessons for the modern age.

Dronacharya the guru to the Kuru Princes – the 100 Kauravas and the 5 Pandavas – and assorted nobility in the region, decides to test his students in their prowess in archery. Archers, in that era, were considered the most accomplished of warriors, and he who was the best archer, was considered the best warrior. On the day of the test Drona takes the students to the forest, where across the river hangs a wooden bird from a tree.The test is two fold. First the archer has to take aim and describe what he sees; and the second is to shoot the target. And the target is the eye of the bird.

The first student describes the bird, the branch on which it is hung, the leaves surrounding the bird, the thread on which it dangles, the details of the bird and so on. He is disqualified. Seeing him flunk the test the rest of them begin to add more and more details. They take aim and describe in detail all that they see- a wide angle shot of the forest, the trees, the leaves on the trees, the blades of grass on the ground, the flowers on the shrubs, the fruits, the birds, the bees and the rest. Very involved and very detailed. To their great surprise they all fail the first part and are not allowed to go forward to second part. Finally, it is Arjun’s turn. The teacher asks him, ‘what do you see’… and Arjun answers with single minded focus- “I see the eye of the bird”. He passes the first stage of the test and allowed to shoot – and he hits the target.

The lesson from this tale is an important one for management, media and civil society, indeed for any aspect of life. If you have to succeed there has to be focus. Other things maybe more beautiful, more attention worthy -but ultimately they distract. Any successful practitioner of management (or war) will tell you – that attention needs to focused on the goal. All goals maybe equally worthy – but only one can be achieved by you. Which is your eye of the bird ?

In the last three weeks following the Delhi Gang Rape, there has been tremendous reasons for all right thinking people to outrage. Law and Order, Government response, Public Apathy, Misogyny, Status of women in society, publicity hungry souls trying to latch on to the bandwagon by making outrageous statements on the issue. The question is what do you focus on, what all do you fight? If you woke up tomorrow morning and one of the benevolent God’s had wished away all misogyny, all discrimination, all movie songs & scenes – would violence against women, including sexual violence, end?

Main Stream Media and now, unfortunately, Social Media – work on the mode of Outrage of the Day. Each tries to feed off the other, each wants to set and dominate the agenda . Every day, to get eyeballs and attention, the pitch is raised higher. The vocal chords shriller, and the outrage more raw. It is as much about the issue, as it is about seeking attention. People are crawling out of the woodwork to make outrageous statements. Those statements generate outrage. That outrage attracts defense. The defense attracts a counterpoint. And just as you think that some understanding will be reached – the focus of outrage changes. People, who were relatively localized a few weeks ago, are suddenly becoming national figures – Abhijeet Mukherjee is possibly a household name.

When outrage overwhelms focus and one jumps to the next outrage induced high , the issue at hand gets left behind, forgotten and abandoned in the quest for the next outrage fix. It is very easy to change the agenda. It is even easier to whip up mob sentiment. But, that is counter productive and damaging. To solve violence against women, indeed any problem, there needs to focus. Absolute and Total focus. It is very easy to go into butterfly mode and flit from outrage to outrage. Which is issue that makes you burn internally the most – that anger, that rage – keep it close within you and focus it to make the change that you can. Don’t dissipate that anger on every issue. There are going to be many. Focus on the eye of the bird – see that and no other.

Nov 252012

from this week i begin blogging on Tehelkablog ….

the first of these is on the social media war between the Hamas and the Israel Defense Force (IDF)

The Middle East crisis is as old as history. Different people, different kingdoms, different issues and different cultures have been at it for millennia. The latest edition of the conflict dates back to 1947 – the year Palestine was divided into Jewish and Arab Areas. The following year Israel was born – giving the Jewish people a home where they can be secure and live without persecution after two thousand years.  The Arab states attacked the fledgling Jewish state almost immediately, and the war for the tiny strip of land has been on since then. There have been skirmishes, battles, and wars ever since. But, in addition to the physical war, there has always been a war to impact perception.At the core have been two sets of rights – the right of Israel and Israelis to exist and the right of the Palestinian people for a homeland. Both the State of Israel and the PLO spent time, energy and effort to build up their case, to down play the violence and to exaggerate the victimhood. Usually this was done by talking to Governments, friendly journalists and the like. But, now in an era of ubiquitous social media – they can talk to not just to all of them but also all of us.

do check out this excellent video by Nina Paley on the Israel/Palestine conflict

The blog 

If last year was the year when the ‘revolution’ was tweeted live, this year it is the turn of the war. The battle is not just for strips of land or even the need to stop violence or to live in peace — rather it is for the hearts and minds of millions on social media — who through their own spontaneous response to words and images will create a wave of buzz that swings public opinion. Or so, goes the theory.

In the last few weeks, the relationship between Israel and Hamas has been hotting up. Formal hostilities began on 14 November but prior to that, Israel has been bombing Gaza, in retaliation for the Hamas bombing Israel, which in turn was because of Israel blockading Gaza, which in turn was for Hamas… As they say on Facebook — it is complicated.

There is one level at which the war is going on where the cost is measured in lives; and there is another one going on where it is measured in terms of social media advantage. Both the Israel Defence Force and the Alqassam Brigades have been slugging it out in cyberspace. Both twitter handles have been giving a ball by ball bomb by bomb account of the war. Each is trying to tell its story to the world without the benefit of intermediaries. From independent to embedded journalists covering a war, to Armies giving you a rings side view of the hostilities directly — reporting of wars has changed.

Also present is a certain level of macho posturing. There is nothing like war to elevate the testosterone level all around.

The entire exchange between Israel Defence Force and the Alqassam Brigades is available on every platform, every media, and on every screen. Social media warriors armed with smartphones, datacards, and tablets are trying to dominate the narrative and tell their side of the story. It is not about the truth, rather their version of the truth.

Both sides are going for the jugular vis-à-vis their tweets, blogs and their call to their supporters. But this is not just aimed at the converted, but also the neutral observer. The communication has a certain excitement at the number of missiles being fired from one place to the other, a breathless awe at a missile being stopped. There are powerful words and powerful hashtags – #gazaunderattack, #warcrimes  (AlQassam Brigades) #Israelunderfire, #pillarofdefence (IDF), that are allowing us to follow the war. On the face of it the AlqassamBrigades has been luckier in its choice of tags – those are being used far more, and are getting more people to read the Hamas perspective.



With the kind of messages one gets to see, it is more and  more difficult to discern who the good guys are and who are not. When we had the filter of the Main Stream Media –be it private or state run –you went with their biases. Now suddenly, you are handling well-honed propaganda, about a region you know little about – except the basics – and the information overload is phenomenal. Do you outrage at Israelis killed by Hamas missiles, or Palestinians killed by Israeli missiles? In death they look rather similar.

The idea on both sides is to convert the passive supporter into an active one – and allowing their narrative to dominate – but there is a danger to this. The social media animal is a fickle one. S/he is rather like a adrenalin junkie that surfs from wave (outrage)to wave (outrage) – finding the next big wave so as to speak. Apart from a few committed people who will stick to the cause, the larger public will move to the next breaking story soon. Also, how do you top live death or live bombings, in terms of excitement? Presenting their case directly to the people – sans filters – is a great idea, but how do you prevent acute boredom? One bomb is pretty much like another bomb – especially when it is not falling on you.


Apr 042012

Not the best of waking up in the morning. the jaw hitting the floor in slow motion. The article read, before drinking the first cup of Kaapi only to realise that the alarm was raised over next to nothing.

Is this good reporting – i don’t know. The only thing i know is that two army units had a practise session on the day when the COAS went to court.Do they normally play ‘soldier soldier’ – I hope so. Are they suppose to ? – well, we have rehearsals before a shoot, so i presume that any large unit attempting something complex would have rehearsals. Are they supposed to inform others, presumably yes -so that people and units don’t trip over each other …. does all this  warrant front page with a headline that scares the sleep out of your eyes – I don’t know.

Maybe the good editor of IE would like to check out the story of the boy who cried wolf … or maybe their calendars have all been hacked and their internal system clock tells them it is April 1st. Maybe it is curiosity that has gone awry ….and maybe they thought that scoop is spelt as s’coup. or maybe the way they thought they will get some visiblity in the social and main stream media is to become the story themselves.

And finally, 

Surprisingly, First Post that is known to play fast and loose with stories – went to the defence of IE. It had an inexplicable space filler called Moral of Army ‘coup’ outrage: Twitter is for twits , little understanding two things

  • a lot of its own popularity is also due to  twitter and tweeple linking to stories published on first post. if firstpost doesn’t want people to do that then they should just say so.
  • it wasn’t tweeple who put out a panicky 3 line head line & full front page story it is the esteemed media that did.

While i appreciate that there is honour amongst all sorts of professional groupings, including thieves, there is no point shooting citizens who are rightfully appalled by the break down of institutions, the corrosion of morals and the subverting of the 4th estate. Put your houses in order, before raising fingers against us – after all we are the people 😀

And yes, on an average day I trust a politician more than I trust the media.