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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
by Ritwik on December 9, 2011
From this NDTV report on the recommendations made by the parliamentary committee on the Lokpal:
On the role of CBI and CVC vis-a-vis Lokpal, the report recommends a five-stage mechanism. In the first stage, a complaint must be received by the Lokpal who would hold a preliminary inquiry in stage 2. If a case is made out, it would be referred to CBI in stage 3 which will investigate independently of the Lokpal or ministries. In stage 4, the case would go to the Directorate of Prosecution which will be under the superintendence of Lokpal. In the 5th and last stage, the case would go to a special judge or a Lokpal Judge.
There goes any chance of the Lokpal actually doing any good whatsoever. In true Indian way, it has been “managed” …
Maybe not such a bad thing, as the idea of the Lokpal, particularly the so-called “Jan Lokpal” variety, seems to be a cure worse than the disease.
by Ritwik on October 26, 2011
Update: The donation page lists a number of methods you can use to help Wikileaks. Unfortunately it isn’t as easy as clicking once in Paypal. That’s the point. If it were, it wouldn’t be so important to donate ;)
From the wikileaks donation page
Censorship, like everything else in the West, has been privatized.
As a result of exposing U.S. embassies from around the world, five major US financial institutions, VISA, MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union and the Bank of America, have tried to economically strangle WikiLeaks The attack has blocked over 95% of our donations, costing tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. The attack is entirely political. In fact, in the only formal review to occur, the US Treasury found that there were no lawful grounds to add WikiLeaks to financial blockade .
Your donations are vital to pay for our fight against this and other kinds of censorship, for Wikileaks’ projects, staff, servers and protective infrastructure. We are entirely supported by the general public.
I for one can’t think of a better way of spending my money this Diwali.
by Ritwik on October 22, 2011
Watch this brilliant and informative video about facebook’s frightening data practices:
“1200 pages? No KGB or CIA ever had that much information on a normal citizen”
[click on the small "cc" button on the bottom right to see English subtitles]
by Ritwik on October 22, 2011
Please sign and circulate this petition against the removal of AK Ramanuja’s beautiful essay “300 Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts” from the history syllabus of the University of Delhi due to pressure mounted by right wing zealots:
You can access the full text of the essay here: http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft3j49n8h7&chunk.id=d0e1254