Apr 212013

My blog for Tehelka

When RahIllustration: Samia Singhul Gandhi addressed the CII conference, those who oppose him and his party, got #PappuCII (stupid) to trend on Twitter. A few days later when Narendra Modi addressed the FICCI conference, Congress supporters on Twitter got #Feku (someone who makes tall claims) to trend. (Hashtags are a useful way of classifying and searching for data on the internet. Twitter’s hashtags are explained here) You would think that this little tu tu mein mein would be the end of the matter. A bit of playground fun and humour by over-enthusiastic supporters on both sides, who are willing to rain on the other party. But no, this was just the beginning. The mainstream media –TV and print – jumped onto the bandwagon, at first by the use of the hashtags – either deliberately or inadvertently – and then by devoting space and time to the so called “Twitter wars”. Which is all fine in itself, after all it is their space and their time and they can fill it with anything they want. But for one problem – they make the issue seem bigger than it is, and more important that it should be.

Everyone on Twitter does not have the humour of a 13-year-old on the playground, busy dreaming up names for authority figures. What you have is a small, vocal, motivated, active and dedicated minority on both sides, who thrive on polarising the issue. The type for whom the dictum ‘if you aren’t for us, you are against us’ holds true. The real life equivalent of people on the streets taking out a morcha and shouting hai hai. The only reason it is interesting is because you see this on your screens wherever you are, it is in English, and journalists and influencers of the mainstream media are on the same platform.

While the mainstream media is a closed clique, Twitter can be an echo chamber – and it is this echo that makes events seem more important than they are. However, to give it its due, Twitter also allows more diverse voices to echo, more diverse opinion to gain shape. The echo can become noise, all sides screaming simultaneously, or agitating against the other, but it is by no means the only expression on the medium. The noise is possibly a fraction of the conversations that take place across the spectrum on a daily basis. But the mainstream media tends to reduce issues to a yes or no, oppose or support. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that instead of looking at diversity and plurality of views – even within the so called left or right online – the focus is on those who choose to polarise. This is also pretty much the way the real world is covered.

Despite the fractious last four years in politics, legislations have been passed, committees have met, work has taken place, and representatives across parties in Parliament and in state legislatures, have contributed to this. Yet, all that is seen is the dissent, the walk-outs, the screaming at each other in TV studios, the grandstanding, the nautanki– essentially sound byte politics. In a broadcast world where sound bytes rule, it is hardly surprising that Twitter is the chosen medium. Everything is reduced to 140 characters – that is great for headlines, great for fuelling more conflict, and great for projecting a world that is intrinsically polarised. That polarised world does not exist outside the TV studios and those who get hashtags to trend. News channels are happy because they get instant conflict ridden content; those who trend hashtags are happy because their view is presented as the only world view. And as always, the middle ground is left out. Most of the world is rather fuzzy in its choices, with neither committed party members nor haters.

The fact that Mr Gandhi & Mr Modi are talking to the people on vision and issues, and how they see the world is a great start. After a long time we are hearing content beyond caste, community and magic wands. What ought to be discussed is not the antics of activist supporters on social media, but the policy and vision of the two individuals. In focusing on the trivial and the banal, the really important is left out. Messrs Gandhi and Modi, whether we like them or not, are two individuals whose vision is going to shape public policy and the direction India takes both internally and on the world stage, depending on whose alliance comes to power in 2014. It is time that that vision is discussed beyond Twitter.

Apr 042013

My Tehelka Column on the anti rape bill

And it comes to pass. The Anti-rape Bill aka the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2013 was passed this evening in Parliament by a voice vote. A total of 168 Members of Parliament (out of house strength of 545 MPs), who bothered to be present, voted to give India a law that is tough on rape and sexual assault. It replaces the Ordinance that was promulgated by the President earlier this year. Stalking and voyeurism are crimes, longer jail sentences for convicted rapists (20 years to natural life, and in the rarest of rare cases, death), there are longer sentences for acid attacks (10 years), the age of consent has been raised to 18; disrobing a woman (against her will) is now a criminal offence; and policemen will be charged if they refuse to file FIRs.  All in all, while there are many areas that still need to be addressed, this is a start. At least the Government and Parliament have recognised that women’s safety is a major issue and that there needs to be deterrence against sexual violence that has become increasingly commonplace.

In January, when protestors took to the streets in Delhi to express their acute displeasure at the lack of basic safety for women, politicians of all hues and shades promised to do something. When the time came to do something – as basic as be present for a discussion and vote on this Bill – just under  a third of them turned up to debate and vote. Amongst those absent was the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi.

At times it is difficult to tell what is worse, Members of Parliament staying away from debate or those turning up to work. It is evident that unlike the first Parliament where there were towering giants, who exerted moral authority, this Parliament has political dwarves, who will not know morality if they tripped on it. Many justify the most absurd sexism by saying they represent the people’s biases. Lalu Prasad Yadav, for example, in a serious debate to curtail rape,  pondered on the proximity of the sexes in big cities. He observed the culture of hugging members of the opposite sex, “Hum Bihar ke logon mein, hummein, himmat nahi hoti hai kisi mahila se haath milane ke liye” (we from Bihar, including me, don’t have the courage to shake a woman’s  hand). Obviously, neither rape nor sexual assault involves the shaking of hands and there are enough people, in Bihar, who may not shake hands – but definitely rape. And Lalu Yadav was not the only one attacking modernity. Putting the onus of rape on what is termed ‘modernity’ is the easiest thing to do. Flog modernity, insist ‘our’ culture has no rape, and blame clothes, mobiles and other things as encouraging violence against women.

Sharad Yadav of  JD (U) (again from Bihar) had various issues with certain provisions of the Bill, especially those that dealt with stalking and voyeurism. According to him, all men stalk and that stalking is a part and parcel of the courtship process. His fear was that a strong anti-stalking law would be at odds with romancing. And, while Mr Yadav was describing as “natural’ the process of stalking, our esteemed Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde was grinning from ear to ear in appreciation. Other Parliamentarians were guffawing their appreciation. It was like eavesdropping on boys’ hostel mess, where teenagers are cracking jokes about women and laughing about it. It makes one wonder, how the women in the House feel about this entirely sexist setup that they work in.

Women MP’s such as Meena Pal of JD (U) pointed out that ‘revealing’ women’s clothing is not the cause of rape, and women who are fully clothed are also subjected to rape. But, in a house dominated by dinosaurs dependent on vote banks, sensible voices get drowned out by the sheer silliness of grandstanding leaders. It is almost as though they are auditioning for Comedy Central, rather than debating in Parliament.

There is a problem in India. And that problem is in the way Indians see women. The best laws (and this is not the best law) are not going to help unless attitudes towards women start changing. That change begins at home, in how mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters are treated. It begins outside in how you treat classmates, strangers, other women. That change begins by not blaming Honey Singh or Item Numbers, clothing or television for the attitudes towards women. It begins by admitting that there is a problem. And the problem is that Indians, especially Indian leaders,  make too many excuses for rapists. ‘She was raped because adults hug each other; she was raped because of the clothes she wore; she was raped because children as young as 14 are dancing to item numbers’ – these were part of the dialogue in Parliament today.  There was not one person who stood up to say ‘She was raped because she was a woman. And, the man thought it was ok to rape her’. This casualness with which men rape needs to be broken, and that can only happen if apologists for rapists stop making excuses for criminals.

Mar 132013

Google News

25th February headlines and story links via Google News – India Edition

Google News is my landing page for news and opinion, and has been for the best part of the last decade. It acts as an aggregator of news from local, regional, national and global sources, and provides it to the user in an easy to read format. Google News, in its own words, has this to say about its offering :

In the last ten years, Google News has grown to 72 editions in 30 languages, and now draws from more than 50,000 news sources. The technology also powers Google’s news search. Together, they connect 1 billion unique users a week to news content.

Google uses a number of parameters to decide which news ends up on the landing page. These include number of stories (volume) on a given topic; number of words; importance of a news organisation/agency – all these are par for the course – obviously an international paper like New York Times filing a story will rank higher than a local newspaper in Dhule putting out the same story. But, what is also important is the weightage given to audience feedback. Which stories do we click on, which do we choose.

What struck me when I saw the list of news articles in the Google News India landing page, was the absence of certain stories.

a) The drought in Maharashtra – one of the worst droughts in the State, 16 districts impacted. Unprecedented migration from impacted areas to cities. Many places are water starved. It is almost as if no one cares. Not news agencies, newspapers or newsreaders. A human tragedy, that is compounded by the lack of awareness.

b) Bhandara Rapes – three sisters between the ages of 6 and 11 were lured away with the promise of food. Raped. Murdered. And, their bodies dumped in a well. What is striking is that much of the news on this crime is acquired from foreign news agencies, most newspapers neither have reporters in the area, nor the resources to send reporters there. Needless to say, the story has died. It is as though poor children in rural India do not matter.

c) Canning Violence – Canning is a little village in West Bengal that has been devastated by violence. A 100 people descend on a locality and destroy everything, and there isn’t a peep about it. You don’t know if it is gang violence, communal violence, an alien invasion – you know nothing about this event. News channels that gave the protests in Delhi and the violence at Azad Maidanl in Mumbai blanket coverage – are conspicous by their silence

d) Shahbagh Protests – next door in Bangladesh, young men and women are protesting to bring war criminals to book. They are also calling for the banning of the far right Jamaat Party that was, allegedly, complicit in the war crimes. While bloggers and individuals have covered the news on social media, there has been little coverage in the Main Stream Media. Indian news channels who sent their reporters to Libya and Egypt, are nowhere to be seen.

As far as news is concerned, there are media centers – Mumbai and Delhi – Cricket and Bollywood, Sex & Sleaze, the West and what it finds interesting – and media peripheries – the poor and hungry, the marginalised and dispossessed, the Rest of India, the Rest of the world. There are people and events that matter, and there are people and events that don’t.

And, you really cannot blame news channels and news agencies – readers have shown no interest in these stories. In a world of 24 hour news, instant updates, images and words flashed around the world in an instant – it is very likely that certain incidents will never be considered newsworthy by either the news companies or audiences. At the same time, there will be those which are flogged to death. There are topics that are ‘glamorous” – for example terrorism or the threat of terrorism is newsworthy. Thousands of acres of rainforest are destroyed and millions of minutes of airtime is consumed discussing this topic. On the other hand, the impact due to climate change on the most marginal communities, and the most vulnerable demographics – women, children, elderly – is relegated to more niche media. There are illnesses like ‘bird flu‘ that are attractive and take up a disproportionate percentage of news discussions, newspaper coverage and reader mindspace, while deaths due to malnutrition is ignored. Audiences tend to look for the more sensational. Also the more frightening the news, the more likely are people to watch.

What can be done ? Well, there is no magic wand to change audience attitudes. But as networked citizens and media professionals, maybe the solution is to keep talking about issues not present in the mainstream, till someone listens. It isn’t that there isn’t coverage – it is just that it has not been picked up and blown up the story. It is up to concerned individuals to keep stories alive, to bring them to the notice of the world at large. In a networked world, that is possible .

(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)

Feb 162013

My blog for Tehelka on English

Photo: Garima Jain

Students waiting for their English classes in Indore Photo: Ishan Tankha

There was a time when very little English was used by Bollywood. What little was in the form of expletives – Dharemendra flaring his nostrils and casting blazing looks at the bad guys as he rasped “you bloody bastard”, or the heroine giving drop dead looks to the hero as she screeched “you idiot, you stupid” at him. There was the occasional “I love you” especially if the film was about young urban love birds. And, there were the comedy pieces aimed at poking gentle fun at the galleries and their penchant for speaking in a foreign tongue. The most famous, of course, was Amitabh Bachchan in this masterful scene in Namak Halal

English was, even twenty five years ago, a very formal language used by the elite for conducting their lives. Schools that had the mother tongue as the medium of instruction were still popular, and in many cities – elite schools (for example Bal Mohan Vidya Mandir and Parle Tilak Vidyalaya were both not just elite Marathi schools in Mumbai but elite schools).

Bollywood reflected society, which may have been comfortable using English for business or transactional purposes – but by and large used the mother tongue at home or for conversation amongst friends. But, the post liberalization years saw a sea change in the rate at which English was absorbed. Parents, who saw their economic status rise with the new liberalized economy also wanted social mobility, and they saw English as a way to achieve it. English medium schools bloomed and blossomed across the length and breadth of India. And continue to do so. Schools that have the mother tongue as the medium of instruction have seen declining enrollments. Elite schools that taught in the mother tongue are no longer the top choice for parents, to survive many have started an English medium wing. Today’s Bollywood, as well are regional film industries are very happy using English in dialogues, and in songs. They are sure it is not just the elite who will understand it, but a large chunk of the masses. Just go back and hear the Tamil song Kolaveri to see how Tamlish (Tamil + English) works.

The focus on English has led to dividends of a different nature. Social mobility of a different sort. Where ever you go on the outskirts of the big cities – with giant buildings that house the outsourcing industry – you will see young men and women hanging out, speaking to each other in foreign accented English. In food courts in malls, you will see middle aged women having involved conversations in English with a smattering of Hindi or their mother tongue. As India – especially Indian cities become more multi lingual, English is becoming the link language across social classes.

The language spoken in India has little to do with the Queen or the Empire, rather English has become a uniquely Indian language with our own nuances and quirks built into it. We very happily prepone meetings, slam opponents, get rapped on our knuckles (like school kids) by the judiciary, go to our native place, respectfully beseech someone for an appointment, and remain their ever obliging servant. We also hangout with bros, find our peer group of both sexes to be dudes, and are very comfortable high fiving when we are happy. We touch base, sckedule our meetings (as opposed to schedule), negotiate in the ball park of a few crores, and try to become a part of the big league. The language is a mixture of Victorian, American street talk, and baseball terms – with a smattering of Hindi.

To think of English as a foreign language is living with your head buried deep in the sand. English, is now officially Indian – more Inglish than English. They came, they conquered, they left – and we have taken their language as compensation – and made it our own. Macauly will probably roll in his grave, if he saw what we did to his language. And, there can be no better revenge than that.

The thing to do, to make English more popular is do what the British have done. Burn Wren and Martin. Free up the language from those dreadful rules of construction that makes it humorless, starched alien tongue from a different era. Let the high level entropy of India flow through the language. After all, there will be no purists, who have political ambitions, who can beat you up for making the language more popular, more fun and more relevant.

With almost 255 million Indians speaking English (Just under a quarter of the population), about 6.5 crore people speak it as their primary (or first language), we do so not because of linguistic pride or force – but because of the belief (of those who educated us) that it will bring a better tomorrow. It is a language that is spawning its own unique pop culture within India – in terms of books, music, movies, expressions and more. It is no longer a big city, elite family phenomenon. Everyone wants to learn English.

It is no longer politically expedient to be anti English in campaigns or threaten to shut down English schools. Voters react badly when they see their ‘better’ future being threatened, and English is seen as a part of the better future. It is a language that has no basis in India, not a part of caste and class. Everyone learns to speak it in the same way, and in many ways it is an equalizer.

So, let us not wail about Macauly and the cry that we are colonized because we are communicating in English, rather let us celebrate our assimilation of one more culture and making it uniquely our own.

Feb 082013

My blog for Tehelka

Photo: facebook.com/kamalhaasan.theofficialpage

Photo: facebook.com/kamalhaasan.theofficialpage

When stars collide, there is a tremendous amount of destruction, energy release and new beginnings. It is the law of nature.

When maverick superstar – actor, director, producer, dancer, iconoclast – Kamal Haasan, got on the wrong side of the Tamil Nadu State Chief Minister, Puratchi Thalaivi Dr Jayalalitha Jayaraman – it had implications beyond a normal spat. At stake, is the future of the 100 crore film Vishwaroopam, and release in the key market of Tamil Nadu. Some Muslim organisations in Tamil Nadu, have been protesting against the release of the film, which they claim offends them. The State of Tamil Nadu, instead of backing Kamal Haasan and his right to free expression, has been throwing its might behind preventing the film from releasing.

Kamal Haasan feels targeted and lashed back.

“When MF Hussain can do it, Kamal Haasan will do it…

I am fed up. I am an artiste. After that, I will have to seek a secular state for my stay… Secular state from Kashmir to Kerala, excluding Tamil Nadu… Tamil Nadu wants me out”

Presumably he meant a state where an artist could exhibit his/her artistry without any threats of violence – either to the artist, or the art or the venue. So here is a glance at the 27 other states where he could live – and their record on upholding artistic freedom

  1. Jammu and Kashmir – Between the Government blocking mobile phones and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – that can severely curtail civil liberties there isn’t much scope for freedom. Furthermore, it is a State where local writers who call for a ban on literature festivals and opposition leaders, like Geelani, question the need for cinema theaters and declare it being against Muslim culture
  2. Himachal Pradesh – Banned the film Traffic Signal, because the word kinnar was used to describe eunuchs. People from Kinnaur took objection to that. HP had banned the film Kohram, a decade earlier, because the villain shared a name with the Chief Minister
  3. Uttarakhand – Banned the film Jodhaa Akbar, following protests by Rajput Groups, and it took an order from an apex court to reverse that.
  4. Punjab – Sikh groups in Punjab agitated over Son of Sardar, threatening to prevent its release. In 2011, the Prakash Jha film Aarakshan was banned by the State Government because they thought it would lead to trouble. The Mahila Congress protested against OMG saying it was against Hindu Gods.
  5. Haryana – Home to the khap panchayats. Enough said.
  6. Delhi/NCR – They may not ban films here, but the Central Government sits here. Do you really, as an unapologetic creative person want to be so close to the seat of power ? This is the place from which Emergency was imposed.
  7. Rajasthan – There are khaps in Rajasthan too, who believe that the world can be sorted out by banning girls from using mobile phones, set women – they believe to be witches, on fire. Jodhaa Akbar faced a ban here, Zubeida was banned in just one city – Jodhpur – because it offended the erstwhile Royal family.
  8. Uttar Pradesh – UP is an equal opportunities protest state – every group protests here, effectively. If they spent the time that they spent protesting on fruitful things, the State GDP would go up. Films in trouble – Jodhaa Akbar – for offending Rajputs, , Aarakshan & Aaja Nachle – for offending Dalits, Hindu groups had an issue with the film Shudra the Rising, and now Vishwaroopam is in trouble for offending Muslims.
  9. Bihar -The Bihar and Jharkhand Motion Pictures Association (BJMPA), in a dispute with the Mumbai based film Federation banned movies starring Bhojpuri Actor Ravi Kishan. Additionally movies such as Aarakshan have run afoul of groups, and some panchayats have just banned ‘obscene songs and film’.
  10. Jharkhand -An under the radar state, but Aarakshan faced a ban here. Like Bihar, it too banned films starring Ravi Kishan.
  11. Sikkim – Doesn’t seem to be any ban on any film in the state. Though a film called Sikkim (a documentary) made by Satyajit Raj was banned for many decades.
  12. West Bengal – Kamal Haasan ji, do you really want to run away from a state run by Jaya Amma to a state run by Mamata didi ? Seriously ? Oh, yes they ban films and free speech here too.
  13. Assam – Apart from ULFA wanting a ban on Hindi films, there have been sporadic demands to ban specific films. For example, the Bodos wanted the film Tango Charlie banned because they objected to the depiction of their community; there were calls to ban Jism because it starred a porn star.
  14. Manipur – Bollywood films are banned in the state to maintain cultural integrity.
  15. Meghalaya – Seems slightly more open, though the The DaVinci Code was banned here.
  16. Tripura – Doesn’t seem to have banned a film yet. At least none that shows up on Google.
  17. Mizoram – Generally chilled out, but moved the center to ban The Da Vinci Code.
  18. Nagaland – Generally chilled out, but banned The Da Vinci Code.
  19. Arunachal Pradesh – Doesn’t seem to be any ban on any film.
  20. Odisha – The last time a film got taken off here was when the ABVP had issues with the Isha Koppikar and Amrita Arora starrer Girlfriend. They were worried about the impact of the film on ‘morality’.
  21. Chhattisgarh – There don’t seem to be any films banned, but the State of Chattisgarh had some serious issues with citizens exhibiting freedoms. Case in point being Binayak Sen.
  22. Madhya Pradesh – Despite being the largest state in India, it manages to just be under the radar. Yes, they do ban films here – but rather more quietly. It was one of the states that saw a flurry of activity against artist MF Hussain, including a bounty of 20,000 Euros for chopping off his hands.
  23. GujaratParzania, Fanaa, Chand Bujh Gaya have had serious issues in the state from various organisations. At various points of time, to maintain law and order, bans on films, and plays have been imposed. Plus, it is a dry state.
  24. Maharashtra – The home of the Shiv Sena and the MNS. The state is soft on groups that want to prohibit freedom of expression. have vandalised libraries, dug up pitches, attacks icons, threatens to prevent movies from being released. Movies like Deshdrohi have been banned because they may cause trouble. The film Bombay could not be released, after censor certification, until Shiv Sena demanded cuts were made. Most of it may be posturing, but the losses made are real.
  25. Karnataka – Kannadiga sentiments were hurt with Singham, and release in the state was held up until an offending dialogue was removed. Plus, every time there are issues with Tamil Nadu on the Cauvery water issue, Tamil films get banned.
  26. Andhra Pradesh – Films such as Aarakshan and The Da Vinci Code have been banned to prevent ‘sentiments from being hurt’. But, the bigger fight is not on Hindi or Hollywood films but Telugu films. Cameraman Gangatho Rambabu invited the ire of Telangana activists, another film A Woman in Brahminism was the focal point of protests calling for its ban.
  27. KeralaThe Da Vinci Code was banned in the state. But, in the four southern states and Maharashtra, the link between political parties, film stars, film and TV unions is so strong that censorship works differently. Actor Nithya Menon faced a ban from the Kerala Film Producers Association after refusing to meet producers who went to meet her on a shoot floor. Also accusations of blasphemy, by rising power of extreme right wing Muslim parties, have devastating consequences on not just Freedom of Speech but Freedom.
  28. Goa – Land of the beaches, and beach parties – not so free when it comes to films. The Da Vinci Code was banned in the state, and the local Congress party wanted a ban on Kyaa Super Kool Hain Hum.

In short, Kamal Haasan could live in Tripura or Arunachal Pradesh – the question to be asked is if Tamil films have a market there. Or if the market in these States is big enough to support a Kamal Haasan film. The better thing to do is to stay and fight. Despotism has to be challenged, and the challenge cannot be outsourced.