A word of thanks

by Ritwik on February 23, 2014

Thank you all for making our public meeting on ‘Justice, Human Rights and Media Trials’ organized under the banner of the Campaign for Khurshid Anwar a big success with your enthusiastic and active participation in large numbers. The large Press Club of India lawns were full, with many extra chairs added and several people standing at the back.  Special thanks to Saeed Naqvi, Seema Mustafa, Anusha Rizvi, Poornima Joshi, Sheeba Aslam Fehmi, Suman Keshari and Apoorvanand for speaking at the event and to Manisha Sethi for moderating the discussion.

We wish to thank all those who posed questions for their thought provoking and relevant comments.

We will shortly be uploading videos and photos of the event on our blog and Facebook page.

We would also like to thank several friends from the North East for attending the meeting and posing a question, and wholeheartedly welcome their call for justice for all parties involved in this struggle. We firmly believe that phenomena like media trials are dangerous precisely because they usurp the power of the courts by contravening established procedures. Doing so is most dangerous to the rights of women, minorites, tribals and Dalits.

On Tehelka’s rumoured shut down

by Ritwik on January 6, 2014

Rumours abound that Tehelka magazine is about to shut down. Strange coincidence that the rise of Tehelka triggered and accompanied the fall in fortunes of the BJP, and today when the BJP is in its strongest position ever, Tehelka is on the verge of closure.

The impending shut down, if it happens, would be painful not only for Tehelka’s employees but also for discerning readers who will lose a magazine which gave its reporters (mostly youngish voices) the freedom to do interesting stories. Tehelka has some terrific stories to its credit. Apart from Operation West End, I can immediately recall match fixing in Cricket, Babu Bajrangi’s exposure, drug addiction in Punjab and several others.

Caravan, Open, Outlook, Frontline, to name a few, are all bigger magazines with some degree of purportedly serious content. But Tehelka is (was?) different. It gave the widest scope to investigative journalism. In that sense it was probably unique, apart from being a competently produced, well-written magazine which managed to not always read like a propaganda rag.

It’ll be missed.


some context – this story in India Today

A discussion on trial by media and its ethical limits

by Ritwik on December 27, 2013

Saturday Talk

Campaign for Khurshid Anwar


A discussion on TV reporting and its ethical limits in the background of Khurshid Anwar’s media trial and his subsequent suicide.

It will be an open forum.

Prominent journalists will be participating in the discussion.

Time: 4 pm

On  28/12/13

Venue: Press Club of India.

For details contact: Sunanda Dikshit (9810906482)




Some Background:

Khurshid Anwar was Executive Director of Institute for Social Democracy, a New Delhi based NGO. He allegedly committed suicide on the morning of 18 December following allegations that charged him with raping a fellow activist on the night of 12 September. The allegations first surfaced on Facebook, and then in a CD prepared in the office of the well-known activist and right-wing sympathizer, Madhu Kishwar.

Kishwar admits that she shot the footage which appears on the CD, but claims that she had no role in its distribution, which has been going on since the last week of September in several towns of North India. Dr Anwar had repeatedly asked those charging him to file an FIR and subject the complainant to a medical test, however this wasn’t done for a long three months.

The absence of inquiry by any competent authority did not deter those attacking Anwar on Facebook. Ultimately the matter reached some unsavoury TV channels, such as the notorious India TV (edited by known BJP insider Rajat Sharma). On the night of 17 December, Sharma, Kishwar and a few others including left-wing women’s activist Kavita Krishnan appeared on a hour long show broadcast in prime time (9pm – 10pm) on India TV, the content of which was slanted in a manner extremely derogatory to Khurshid Anwar.

The next morning, apparently pushed to the brink by the public shaming and vilification, Dr Anwar jumped to death from the roof of his residence building in New Delhi’s Vasant Kunj Area.

Born in Allahabad in 1958, Anwar received his Ph.D in Urdu Literature  from New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he was an activist with the All India Students Federation, the student wing of the Communist Party of India. Anwar was an atheist and a lifelong leftist and was a well known figure in activist circles in Delhi.

Over a long career as a grassroots activist, Anwar pioneered the concept of training volunteers in issues of communal harmony, secularism and related areas. He has trained thousands of volunteers to uphold these ideals in public spaces in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and other countries.

He was a fierce critic of communalism, particularly of the Muslim variety. In 2013, he wrote a series of opinion articles in the respected Hindi daily Jansatta, sharply attacking Wahabbism. He received many death threats over these articles.

His NGO, Institue for Social Democracy, was one of the spearheads of the Nirbhaya anti-rape protests in Delhi in 2012-13. His was the only organization in the country to observe Dec 16 as a holiday in memory of Nirbhaya’s struggle.

this is the kind of lazy, blinkered reportage

by Ritwik on July 9, 2013

which is the norm in the West when it comes to reporting India and is becoming the norm in India, particularly among commentators who see themselves as liberals but who have a less than perfunctory understanding of any non-Western cultural or philosophical tradition.


Note sweeping, idiotic statements like “That conflict born in the sixth century before Christ — the clash between Buddhist rationalism and Hindu mysticism, ritual and caste — percolated through the millenniums.”

As if both ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Buddhism’ [both isms are by the way recent constructs made by westerners] are monolithic entities with all of Buddhism being ‘rational’ [um, Tibetan Buddhism?] and all of Hinduism being ‘mystic’ [um, nyaya or sankhya or for that matter the philosophical part of Advaita Vedanta?]

Mannequin Lingerie Ban in Mumbai – It’s about controlling women, not men

by Ritwik on May 29, 2013


The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has decided that lingerie bearing mannequins are akin to “sex toys” and their public display is “embarrassing” to women. Furthermore, according to the Shiv Sena controlled BMC,  such mannequins provoke men into sexual crimes against women.

A few observations:

While the BMC is trying to spin this move as a means to control men by removing from sight a ‘provocative’ object, it should be more than clear that the real attempt is to control women’s sexuality. The argument is eerily similar to one adopted by apologists for the burqa or by those advocating “traditional”, “decent”, “appropriate” dress for women – don’t provoke men, because if a women does, then the sexual harassment shes faces is, if not justified, at least causally linked to her mode of dress and her “behaviour”.

In an article published under the byline of “FP Staff”, the news website firstpost.com has asked the BMC to cut the men some slack. Much digital ink has been spilled in proving how the mere sight of lingerie, particularly on mannequins does not excite men into sexual violence. While this is true, the story only takes the claims of the BMC at face value and tries to refute them. But the action of the BMC cuts deeper, and needs to be understood as a step against women’s freedom and only peripherally against men’s (presumed) desire to get their sexual kicks off lingerie-clad mannequins.

The political and religious right has long been terrified of the appearance in public of any activities related to love, sex and individual choice. We can recount valentine’s day vandalism, the actions of the Sri Ram Sene in Mangalore where they attacked women in pubs and at parties, demands for ban on sex toys, frequent demands for censorship of films, support for curfews on women, exhortations to women to not forget their “Indian culture” and numerous other instances.

Coming as it does from the same political stable, the mannequin lingerie ban in Mumbai should be seen as yet another attempt to somehow efface sexuality, particularly, female sexuality, from the domain of everyday sights and sounds. This move is, thus, part of a larger political project which is inextricably opposed to liberal modernity as characterized by free choice of the individual.

Of course, the proponents of this political project will gladly take the technological side of modernity – they are particularly fascinated by guns and tanks and the like – but the individual freedoms side of modernity – upon which liberal democracy is based – is for them extremely cumbersome, as it necessarily involves questioning of tradition and continually altering or even rejecting past practices and prejudices.

This fear of individual freedoms is precisely why secularism means “India first” (=hyper nationalism) to the tall leaders of such ideologies. This is why their focus in multi-million dollar campaigns led by American PR agencies is on “development” – as they dream of imparting to India the gleaming external gloss of modernity, but at the same time they want a a highly hierarchical, ordered, mechanical, hedonistic and gender-unjust society.

Nandy Controversy – Not isolated but part of a worrying pattern

by Ritwik on January 27, 2013

Were Ashis Nandy’s comments justified? Clearly not. His statement was loose, sweeping and unfortunate. But isn’t freedom of speech precisely the freedom to say what others consider stupid or objectionable? Clearly the idea of FREEDOM of speech is not restricted to saying only what is palatable to the other.

My right to free speech is precisely my right to question you, object to your views and state what I think, without fear of suppression or physical retribution.

But is the State and its organs like political parties at all interested in upholding this constitutional principle? The recent incidents of banning Kamal Hassan’s film Vishwaroopam by some states and the hounding of political psychologist Ashish Nandy are part of a pattern where the “sentiments” of one or the other community are “hurt” by artists, intellectuals and common citizens. Let’s consider some examples:

– Preventing Salman Rushdie from speaking at last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival

– Banning of Prakash Jha’s film Aarakshan [the ban was subsequently revoked by the Supreme Court]

– Vetting of Da Vinci Code by “representatives” of the Christian faith

– Hounding MF Hussian by registering hundreds of cases against him in various parts of the country

– Jailing of a professor in Bengal for forwarding an SMS which lampooned the CM

– Registration of FIRs against a young girl in Maharashtra for an “objectionable” Facebook status about Bal Thackeray

No group or identity [whether Hindus, Muslims, Dalits, Christians, OBCs etc etc] seem to be immune from this widespread malady of ultra sensitive sentiments, injury to which results in threats of violence, rioting and strikes. Repeatedly we see the sight of the police and political parties bowing down to such narrow interests and failing to uphold the right to free speech.

Nandy and Gadkari – A study in contrast

Things become even more ridiculous when we consider that Nitin Gadkari’s public statements threatening government servants have so far resulted in … precisely nothing.  Here is a former national president of the main opposition party, publicly threatening Income Tax officials that if they investigate his wrongdoings, they will have to face retribution when his party comes to power. There seems to be no imminent threat to Mr Gadkari’s liberty. In contrast, an academic’s loose comments have attracted non-bailable provisions of the law!

Legal Hopscotch

We have enacted laws such as Domestic Violence Prevention Act, SC/ST (atrocities) prevention act and others under which non-bailable warrants can be issued for the most trivial occurances which can be spun as “offences”. Even more worryingly, these acts upturn the principles of natural justice by waiving the right of the accused to be presumed innocent until proven guilty – various provisions in these acts, ipso facto, assume the guilt of the accused and the burden of proof is transferred to the accused to prove his/her innocence. This dangerous pattern can also be seen in other legislation such as AFSPA, UAPA etc.

Next, the implementation of these laws remains extremely patchy, uneven and selective. Since Ashis Nandy is famous and well-connected, the investigating officer in this case has conveniently proceeded on leave and Nandy has safely made his way to Delhi. Somebody less prominent would be muzzled much more harshly.

Role of Civil Society

But what about the role of intellectuals? Too often we witness deafening silence from prominent intellectuals when the sentiments hurt are those of what are considered weaker sections of society [eg: dalits, scheduled tribes, OBCs, muslims, women]

Those who are genuinely concerned about the receding space for free expression in this country, will have to reflect upon their own role in letting things get to this stage,  every time they have chosen to remain silent because the “offender” is high-caste/male/upper class/right-wing and the “offended” are low-caste/female/minority/tribal.

Delhi gangrape case – protest at India gate!

by Ritwik on December 19, 2012

Please join protest against lack of safety, particularly for women, in Delhi. India Gate, 5pm, 19 December 2012.


On demands of castration and death sentences:

Its a reflection of the helplessness felt by even our “upper classes” (on fb) due to our remote and inaccessible judicial and political system that they are reduced to demanding castrations, capital punishment etc. Situation is not helped by utterly irresponsible statements of buffoons like Arnab Goswami and the entire bjp leadership. Rape, sadly, becomes the window through which we can glimpse the latent authoritarian tendencies of the great Indian middle class.

In spite of our (very justifiable) anger, let us keep mob mentality in check!


Rape is one (extreme) manifestation of a sick society that fundamentally doesn’t treat women as equal. Please ponder over selective (women-only) curfews at St Stephen’s, Miranda House and LSR, for example. What’s the logic in locking up the victim?

Please also ask yourself – how often it is that “respectable” members of our society, including parents, judge girls and women by their clothing, habits (smoking, drinking, partying) and lifestyle?

Rape is not isolated from all these things.


The “solution” is not in having even tougher laws. The solution lies in better implementation of law and most crucially, in every citizen feeling empowered to approach the courts.

The courts are remote even for our upper class elite, not to speak of the poor, marginalized and migrants.

Lack of an accessible judicial system underlies all our problems from rape to naxalism.

Corruption, Cash Transfer and Crony Capitalism

by Ritwik on October 22, 2012

Continuing with its born-again “reformist” zeal, the Government of India has announced that subsidy amount on cooking gas shall now be directly transferred to beneficiaries’ bank accounts. This is in contrast to the present situation where all cooking gas cylinders sold for non-commercial purposes are made available at a subsidized amount. However, with the government now capping the number of subsidized cylinders to six per family per year, some mechanism is no doubt required to ensure that people can’t avail of subsidy on more than the designated number. Capping the number of cylinders, and that to a small number like 6, is a silly move, but as many have dwelt upon it I shall not waste time in repeating well known points.

The government and its cheerleaders [mostly belonging to business/technocrat/economics backgrounds] have hailed this “pilot project” as a landmark step against inefficiency and corruption. They are no doubt awaiting the “success” of this initiative so that direct cash transfers can replace the existing “inefficient” subsidy regime in food, fuel and perhaps healthcare and schooling as well.

Whether or not direct cash transfers meaningfully improve efficiency in delivery of public services is a hotly contested topic. My instinct says that it may not prove very successful in India, especially if extended to healthcare and schooling. However, I am not particularly fussed about the kind of administrative regime the government puts into place to improve the lot of the poor and the dispossessed, as long as it gets it done within a reasonable time frame. That is not to say I support phasing out of subsidy and phasing in of direct cash transfers per se, but some intelligent, and preferably decentralized combination thereof is not ideological anathema to me.

But beyond the basic concept of direct cash transfer, there does exist the attendant problem of how it is sought to be executed, on the basis of biometrically-linked identity cards. I am against any compulsory citizen identification programme, particularly if it is bio-metric  as I don’t believe in the eternal-ness of the State which philosophically underpins such ideas. The Aadhar cards become compulsory “by the back door” as soon as you link critical food and fuel subsidies to them.

The second issue that I would like to highlight, which is perhaps more topical than the problem with id cards, is of how the government, the industry and sections of the policy-making apparatus want us to characterize and understand corruption. The narrative runs something like this: since middlemen [including government officials] will be eliminated through cash transfers, people will get the real benefit of what the government spends on subsidy. It will not be “siphoned-off” by greasy bureaucrats.

We may all have loved office, office and certainly the bribes demanded by a small-time [or big-time] babu to get essential stuff done are insidious and frustrating, but to conceive of corruption primarily in these terms would be a grave folly.

What is to be noted is that there has been no action or policy step on large scale looting of public resources, which is catapulting our big-boy industrialists to the “world stage”. The rocketing wealth of Ambani, Tata, Jindal et al, with which they are making splashy acquisitions, owes less to entrepreneurial brilliance [assuming that some degree of entrepreneurial competence does play a part] and more to precious, often- exhaustible natural resources [like land, coal and other minerals or spectrum] being allotted for the use of large corporations at throwaway prices and without any kind of transparent process.

Reform and liberalization have come to stand for ridiculously large profit making by a select group of top-level politicians, armed forces officers, bureaucrats and especially corporations. This is what report after CAG report has talked about – on 2G spectrum, coal etc

The finance ministry is full of imported ideas and much zeal on curbing “corruption” on part of  small time middlemen and government officials by dubious methods like direct cash transfers. If it comes off, then it shall certainly be worthy of applause.

However, we wait in vain for any real initiative on the critical political-economic issues responsible for the mind-boggling scale of corruption. Some of these issues are: electoral reform [with an aim at reducing influence of money in politics, especially to reduce money as a barrier to common citizens to join politics], media reform, national land, water and forest policies, policies on coal and other precious mineral resources, transparency in defence acquisition etc

The government had made a promising beginning by talking about GAAR [general anti-avoidance rules] with respect to the Vodafone case. The multinational behemoth acquired the Indian company Hutchison Essar Telecom in Mauritius, thereby avoiding billions of Dollars in taxes. Alas, one of the first steps taken by Mr Chidambaram on resuming charge of the finance ministry was to ditch GAAR.

This does suggest the direction the battle against corruption will take.


Out of mind, out of sight

by Ritwik on September 24, 2012

A glance through several popular newspapers reveals how neglected the North Eastern parts of India remain in the mainstream press. The flash floods in Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam which have killed dozens and displaced thousands so far, with 20+ districts affected, barely find a mention in the inside pages of our national dailies.

(Each of the following newspapers is Delhi edition dated 24 Sep 2012)

The Hindu ran no story on the floods although it did have a PTI picture on page 13

Times of India has a story tucked into page 11, while the front page featured “municipal school gives way to property tax centre” and “Chinese sperm donors get a helping hand from machine”

Mail Today ran a story at the bottom of page 10

The Indian Express ran the story on page 6, while one of the stories on the front page talked about Arun Shourie coming out in support of the PM on diesel prices.

Interestingly, the Hindi paper of the Express group, Jansatta was the only newspaper I saw which had the story as its main lead on the front page, where it emphatically belongs given the number of people killed and affected. This does bring up interesting questions about the differences in editorial vision between the Hindi and English newspapers of the  Express group.

Would such a disaster in say Delhi, Maharashtra, UP, Tamil Nadu not merit much more media coverage in our national dailies?

The cost of 28 seats – analysis of the Congress performance in UP

by Ritwik on March 7, 2012

As per the results announced by the Election Commission of India on its website, the Congress party has finished fourth with a tally of just 28 seats in the 403 member Uttar Pradesh assembly.  This does not represent a significant improvement over the 22 seats the party bagged in 2007. Also to be noted is the fact that in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress won 22 parliamentary seats, and was leading in 95 assembly segments.

Differentiated Voting

As has been proved time and time again, the voter thinks differently about state and national elections. Take the case of  Gujarat, where Narendra Modi holds a vice like grip in the assembly yet the Congress manages to win between 10-14 Lok Sabha seats out of the 26 in the state.

Before we turn to the main topic of this post, let us pause to reflect on how the media, and many “pundits”, in their quest for a snazzy news byte, don’t seem to take this differentiated voting pattern into account when it comes to state and national level elections. Hence, headlines about “is the Gandhi family on the wane?” or “is UP politics now like Tamil Nadu where regional parties will dominate” etc. Of course, admitting that the voter thinks differently about national and state elections would lead them to tacitly admitting the following:

a) the voter is not entirely swayed by caste, community or emotional considerations. These play a part, as do a myriad other factors

b) the voter has a sense of her area, her state and her country and each of these play into her voting choices.

Perhaps many in our media and amongst our intelligentsia are not willing to admit the above.

The cost of 28 seats

Anyway, now that the Congress has managed just 28 seats, in spite of a pre-poll alliance with Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal which was expected to help both parties in western UP (it didn’t – Ajit Singh got one seat less than 2007), and in spite of the tireless campaigning by Rahul Gandhi, let us look at the cost that these 28 seats have extracted from the Congress and its UPA government:

1) Censorship of films

Congress MP, chairman of National Commission for Scheduled Castes and former Mayawati-aide PL Punia led the chorus in demanding a ban on Prakash Jha’s film “Aarakshan” (starring Amitabh Bacchan, Saif Ali Khan, Manoj Bajpai and others). This was before anybody had seen the film, which is good as most of this (utterly unwatchable) film isn’t about reservation but about the hold of tuition centers over our education system.

Given the slippery slope nature of populist politics, as soon as Punia started campaigning against this film on TV, Mayawati who had been content to look at it with a benign gaze, was forced to swing into action and ban it forthwith. This was followed by a ban in a few other states.

Prakash Jha successfully appealed against this ban in the Supreme Court.

The Congress party and the UPA government lost image, especially amongst the influential middle classes, but the party “leadership” kept quiet (an art it has mastered) hoping that Punia will help the party gain dalit votes.

2) Censorship of writers

The Congress governments at the Centre and in Rajasthan jointly enacted a great farce to deny Salman Rushdie a chance to speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival, even through video conferencing. It should be noted that:

– Rushdie holds a person of Indian origin card, so he doesn’t need a visa to enter the country or travel to any part of India.

– He has visited the country many times in the past, even after the infamous fatwa.

–  He has already spoken at the Jaipur Literature Fest in 2007.

What is worse is that the district administration didn’t legally stop Rushdie from entering, but that the Rajashtan police said it could not guarantee his security and that of the event, were he to go and speak at the litfest. An official directive can be challenged in court, but what do you do when the government shirks its responsibility and looks the other way?

This gambit was expected to help the Congress garner muslim votes in UP.

3) Reservation for Muslim OBCs

The logic of this move continues to elude me. Many Muslim communities are already listed as OBC, and are thus eligible for benefits within the 27% earmarked for OBCs in government jobs and educational institutions. It is not as if there is intense competition for OBC seats, as most remain vacant due to the lack of suitable candidates.

In this scenario, what could possibly be gained by earmarking a quota within quota for Muslim OBCs, given they already are the beneficiaires of a quota that is not even filled?!

That didn’t stop the Congress party from making this its flagship promise in the UP elections, with not one but two senior party leaders and union ministers (Salman Khurshid and Beni Prasad Verma) running afoul of the election commission in their haste to announce ever-increasing quotas for Muslim OBCs.

For the record, Mr. Khurshid’s wife Lousie stood fifth in the Farrukhabad assembly constituency. The Congress lost all 5 assembly segments falling within Mr. Verma’s Gonda Parliamentary constituency.

4) Unseemly attacks on the Election Commission

See above. Congress ministers were heard mumbling about how the election commission is getting too big for its boots. How once the assembly polls are over, the power to pull up violators of the model code of conduct shall be taken away from the Election Commission and vested in our courts, which are known worldwide for the fair, speedy and inexpensive justice they dispense.

5) Threats of President’s Rule

Chatterbox Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh announced midway through the election process that in the case of a hung assembly, the Congress shall not consider a tie up with the Samajwadi Party but rather impose President’s rule.

The people got the message, and ensured that the SP gets a full majority. Dr. Manmohan Singh can continue devoting his attention to blaming American NGOs for nuclear protests and the like. The people of UP have ensured that his government, which is already embattled on all sides, would not have to worry about the additional responsibility of running UP by proxy.

But Digvijay Singh’s threat, voiced subsequently by other senior Congress leaders as well, added to the increasingly arrogant image that the party is regaining (after the relative lull of the 90s and 00s) (See: Kapil Sibal’s efforts to censor the internet, attempts to deny Anna Hazare the right to protest etc)

6) Batla House encounter flip-flop

The mass of theories and counter theories regarding the Batla House encounter in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar is enough to give anybody a headache. A dwelling occupied by a few Muslim youths was attacked by a team of the Delhi police led by the late Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma, who ostensibly lost his life in the encounter. Sharma was subsequently awarded the Ashok Chakra, India’s highest peacetime gallantry award. Note that this award is given by the Home Ministry, which was under Shivraj Patil at the time, who is a known loyalist of the Gandhi family. In addition, Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit herself attended Sharma’s memorial service.

Over the years, there has been intense speculation about the genuineness of the encounter. The Supreme Court has dismissed a petititon filed to review the conclusions of the police. The home ministry, controlled by the Congress, has repeatedly refused to relook the matter.

This has not stopped Digvijay Singh from questioning the genuineness of the encounter on multiple fora. He has contradicted the line of his own government, doubtless hoping for a few muslim votes.

Salman Khurshid, union law minister, went a step further, saying at an election meeting recently that Sonia Gandhi “burst into tears” when he told her about the encounter. If this is indeed the case, then the voter can be forgiven for asking, why did she not tell her home ministry to reopen the case?

How could the Congress party believe that this charade will help them gain even one vote, rather than losing many, is beyond my comprehension.


Rahul Gandhi, and his expensive foreign trained image consultants, tried to project Congress as a party of change, of hope, of decisive action in UP. I leave it to the wisdom of the reader to decide whether any of the above is consistent with the image that was sought to be projected. It appears to me that the actions of the party in the last couple of years have rather been populist, oppurtunistic and given to the worst kind of sectarian and votebank politics.

The voter, alas, is neither a fool nor a statistic on an Excel spreadsheet.


6 Things To Like About The Jaipur Literature Festival 2012

by Ritwik on January 24, 2012

1. Accessibility – in spite of heavy police presence outside the festival venue due to the Salman Rushdie affair, the atmosphere at the festival was relaxed and convivial [maybe not so for the beleaguered organizers!]. JLF is a great platform to interact with writers, publishers and other book lovers. I wonder if those who are casually panning the organizers know of other literary events in India which are designed in such a manner that even celebrated writers are easily accessible to every visitor.

2. (Relative) Lack of Hierarchy – To the best of my knowledge, no event apart from the opening had any reservation of seats.  If you are not on time for an event, no matter who you are, you better stand at the back. Similarly the writers’ lounge had no separate enclosure for ‘star’ writers.

3. Variety – Every time slot had a carefully curated set of events,  with at least one serious literary event and one somewhat less than serious one taking place at the same time. Visitors of all hues and literary tastes could find themselves constantly engaged.

4. Organization – There were a few glitches, but on the whole the event was superbly organized with good use of technology to speed things up. Remarkably, only one session began late during the 3 days I was at the festival, and that was because Anthony Grayling’s flight had got delayed. To ensure that each session begins and ends on time, with 4 concurrent sessions over 5 full days, is no mean achievement. Large crowds were managed very efficiently, and there were always plenty of volunteers around to help people.

5. Not in Delhi – Delhi hosts a ridiculously disproportionate number of cultural events as compared to other North Indian cities. This festival is a boon for the people of Jaipur and Rajasthan, especially for students. Of course, it is a boon for the state government as well, when it is not busy applying fascism 101.

6. Price – you can’t beat free!

1 lakh people came together for Lokpal? Think again

by Ritwik on December 29, 2011

As the government heaves a sigh of relief and the media makes merry over the sparse crowds seen at Anna Hazare’s latest fast, let us try and go beyond the obvious and look at the Lokpal tangle with a little more clarity.

I have been struck by the complete absence from recent commentary of the reasons for the public support enjoyed by India Against Corruption in August. The huge crowds that were seen at  Ramlila Maidan at that time had not assembled just to protest corruption  and to demand an anti-corruption ombudsman.

Let us not forget that the central government and its agencies had clamped a set of unfair restrictions on the right to assembly and peaceful protest. These included bizarre mandates such as a limit on the number of cars and two-wheelers which could be parked at the protest venue, apart from seeking to limit the number of protesters, as if protests happen by invitation and rsvp.

Following the midnight crackdown on the followers of Ramdev, the government’s high-handed attitude which saw the preventive arrest of Anna Hazare led to great public consternation and resentment. The crowds that gathered in Ramlila Maidan were asserting their right to protest far more than they were uniting against corruption. This is not new. The Indian public has a long history of punishing those who seek to usurp democracy. Even a leader of Indira Gandhi’s stature lost her own Lok Sabha seat due to the excesses of the emergency.

However, this painfully obvious fact was ignored by the much vaunted strategists of ‘Team Anna’ who allowed themselves to believe that the vast crowds were a result of the topicality of Lokpal and Anna Hazare’s magnetism, not to speak of their own skillful organization.

After defusing the crisis in August by passing a meaningless ‘Sense of the House’ resolution the Government  got time to retrace its steps and put its house in order. Having burnt its fingers, the Government learned its lesson from the Anna arrest fiasco and got cracking on taking the wind out of the Lokpal sail through legislative jugglery and good old political drama. The Congress party is a past master at political maneuvering and this is once again in evidence given the sort of Lokpal Bill they have introduced in parliament. Importantly, they did not try and prevent Anna or his team from protesting. By allowing people to protest freely, the Government removed the major cause of people’s anger in August.

The final Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill 2011 introduced by the Government in parliament exhibits the following features –

– It successfully divides the opposition by introducing provision of reservation for minority communities in the proposed Lokpal. Reservations have become a holy cow of Indian politics, with no party daring to bell the cat on this score. The BJP has found itself in all kinds of difficulty by opposing reservation for minorities. Most other parties have to preserve and trumpet their “secular credentials” and hence cannot oppose minority reservation. Thus the government has successfully driven a wedge between the BJP and its NDA partners.

– The bill militates against the federal structure of the Union by mandating each state to have a Lokayukta on the lines of the central Lokpal, thereby taking away the autonomy of states to make their own laws. This is especially piquant as several states like Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Delhi already have Lokayuktas in place through state-level legislation. As such it may be difficult even for UPA partners like Trinamool Congress to pass such a bill. The government wouldn’t be too upset with this scenario – I think the best case scenario for the government [and also for the country] would be if the Lokpal goes into permanent cold storage due to the lack of political consensus.

– The Lokpal as proposed will be little more than yet another body in the vast maze of commissions that already exist in this country. It will make no real difference as far as reducing corruption and penalizing the corrupt goes.  The system will continue to work in the ‘show me the man and I’ll show you the rule’ style that we are are all accustomed to. A few more retired bureaucrats and other eminent citizen types shall gain the benefits of lal-batti etc.

However this does not mean that Team Anna’s Jan Lokpal Bill should be adopted. That is a remedy worse than the cure. The Jan lokpal bill envisages the creation of a super authority which would not be accountable to the people or their elected representatives. That is a recipe for fascism. As has been said, “the way to hell is paved with good intentions” and unfortunately the Jan Lokpal bill is a prime example.

The government has played its cards in a very canny manner. If the Lokpal bill is passed, we will  see a toothless and largely decorative body which will make much noise but business shall go on as usual – somewhat like the minorities, human rights and sundry noise-making but ultimately toothless commissions that we’ve legislated into existence in the last three decades. At the same time, the Congress party and UPA government would be able to claim that they have worked towards tackling corruption.

If, on the other hand, the Lokpal bill is not passed due to a lack of political consensus, the government can palm off blame to the opposition and lose nothing in the process, as nobody in the political class wants any kind of Lokpal in the first place.