by Ritwik on November 13, 2016
The Government of India’s recent decision to demonetize high denomination notes has resulted in widespread controversy. Most people seemed to welcome the move in the beginning, buying the government’s rhetoric that it will punish those with ‘black’ (untaxed) money, disrupt the flow of money to terrorists and prove a major step against counterfeit currency. As time goes by, there is rising frustration as it becomes increasingly apparent that the government hasn’t done its homework on this – the whole operation has been set in motion in a hasty and unplanned manner, with banks running out of (valid) notes, ATMs unable to dispense the redesigned high denomination notes, etc.
This is quite apart from the matter that this move is like a sledgehammer being used to kill a fly – at the cost of a load of inconvenience for virtually everyone in the country, the move might unearth some black money hoarded in the form of cash by small and medium traders, as the salaried do not have ‘black’ money and the very rich exercise the various options available to not keep it in the form of cash. As explained by Prabhat Patnaik, it is naive to think of black money in terms of a hoard of cash under the mattress – the corrupt are much more sophisticated, especially with the options unlocked by today’s globalized economy.
Nevertheless, it will prove to be an error for the opposition to walk into PM Modi’s trap by appearing to be wholly against this initiative. Modi is a consummate politician (that description exhausts his skill set) and it would be folly for the opposition to imagine that by attacking demonetization wholesale, they can cause a significant dent to his popularity:
1. If (most of) the opposition criticizes demonetization, they can easily be branded as being upset as their black money has become unusable. This has already begun.
2. The common people will put up with a considerable amount of (temporary) inconvenience if they feel that it is for the end of punishing violators, and toward nation building in general. Modi knows this, and is cynically using this sentiment for his own political ends.
3. Modi revels in painting himself as a lone crusader against the established order. This is ironical from a career politician, but he has successfully used this tactic multiple times in Gujarat, and against the old guard (Advani, etc.) in the BJP. If the opposition unitedly attacks demonetization, Modi is going to pretend that they want to stop him from doing good for the country, but he won’t be deterred etc etc. Like all demagogues, he pulls this off due to the personal connection which he establishes with voters through his fiery speeches – it is Modi that addresses them, not the PM and not a BJP politician.
4. In the absence of any real economic reforms or any real growth in employment, the people want ‘big ticket’ moves. They want to feel that something is being done, and would go to quite extraordinary lengths to believe that things like demonetization and ‘surgical strikes’ have been effective, far beyond their actual impact. This is a deep issue, and is not unique to India, with reverberations being seen across the globe. The people are tired of incrementalism, and want flashy moves, hence Modi, Trump, Brexit – phenomena that play upon this sentiment and repackage routine action (surgical strike) and desperation (demonetization, fencing the border with Mexico) as once-in-a-lifetime initiatives.
In light of the above, the opposition’s response to demonetization has to be nuanced. As the Congress and AAP are doing, party volunteers must visibly and proactively help the common people standing in queues. The intent of the move must be warmly and very publicly welcomed. It needs to be hammered home that while common people are suffering, rich friends of the BJP/Modi are getting away, as this action does not touch them in any way. Kerjiwal, one of the smartest politicians around, seems to have grasped this and is responding accordingly.
It must be understood that Modi’s (and BJP’s) political strategy is usually one of blitzkrieg – keep moving fast, create one controversy after another (in just the last few months – Bhopal encounter, JNU (Najeeb), booking Nandini Sundar and others for ‘murder’, NDTV ban), to keep the opposition guessing and busy, and at all times engage in ceaseless self publicity. Effective response needs to be along similar lines, and must rupture the notion that Modi’s actions are in the ‘national’ interest, since they are not.
by Ritwik on December 7, 2015
The Delhi Government’s announcement that odd and even numbered private cars will be allowed to ply only on alternate days on Delhi roads from January 2016 has attracted much commentary, more or less evenly divided between those who want to give the proposal a shot and those who believe it is unworkable given Delhi’s creaky public transport system.
I briefly examine some political dimensions of the decision as well as some other policy measures which need to be put in place as part of a concerted plan to fight air pollution in Delhi, which is today far in excess of levels considered dangerous for human populations.
The Delhi government move is sharply political and is consistent with party leader Arvind Kejriwal’s ostensible long term plan (in 2024?) to portray himself as the most viable alternative to Narendra Modi and other national leaders.
(1) It makes the Delhi Government look decisive and creative. Everybody agrees that Delhi’s pollution levels, having gone off the charts, need to be controlled but there has been no action on this front in the last several years (the last significant initiative was mandatory conversion of buses to CNG which happened not because of government initiative but due to court order.)
This decisiveness makes for a nice contrast with the dithering (charitably called ‘creative incrementalism’) of the Modi government on every significant issue. Quite simply the Modi government at the centre has so far shown no ability to take and stick to tough decisions, of whatever variety.
Kejriwal, in contrast, is showing the guts to stick his neck out on a decision which can potentially backfire. Voters like political leaders who are seen to be taking risks when necessary.
(2) The move helps Kejriwal’s main constituency of the poor, especially his solid support base among auto and taxi drivers in Delhi.
More importantly, at an emotional level, the poor are sure to be happy that for once the onus of development and ecological protection is not entirely on their shoulders but has been done in a manner which hurts middle class interests most of all.
Rather than the economic benefit, which is not likely to be large, which this move will lend the poor by creating greater demand for cheap privately operated last mile transport facilities, it is this emotional dimension which will help shore up Kerjiwal’s already high stock among the poor
(3) Any failure to implement the policy at the ground level will at least partially be due to the understaffed Delhi Police, which is under the control of the central government and with which Kejriwal already has a perpetual running feud. It will give another handle for Kejriwal to convince his voters that his genuine intentions and creative solutions are being frustrated by the Delhi police at the behest of an uncaring central government.
(4) Given that one of the ‘reforms’ ushered in by the Modi government is abolition of most environmental laws and policies, in a bid to boost manufacturing and mining activity, this move positions Kejriwal and AAP as entities that are concerned about the environmental impact of ‘development’ and who are willing to do something about it.
Other policy measures are required
Whether or not the odd/even car rule succeeds on the ground, a range of other measures are required to fight air pollution in Delhi.
Some suggestions which the government could look into:
(1) Massive upgrade of the bus system. This is already on the government’s agenda. Apart from increasing the size of the DTC bus fleet, the efficiency of its operations needs to be greatly improved. In recent years it is not unusual to wait half an hour for a bus on a specific route, only to be greeted by three buses on that route arriving simultaneously. I am not sure why this level of inefficiency has become standard in DTC but it needs to go.
(2) Private bus operators will probably need to be brought back to augment the government bus system. To address security concerns the government can consider appointing bus marshals (mentioned in AAP’s election manifesto) on private buses as well.
(3) Delhi has an abysmally low number of autos as compared to other metro cities of the country due to a broken permit system. That needs to be fixed asap and lakhs of new autos need to be introduced. While this may temporarily anger AAP’s auto driver constituency, creating lakhs of new earning opportunities in the city can only be a good thing.
(4) A comprehensive action plan needs to put in place to completely phase out diesel – at least from the transportation sector – over a number of years. Penal taxes should be imposed on all diesel vehicles, especially new ones. Heavy incentives should be provided to convert as many vehicles as possible to CNG.
(5) Heavy incentives should be provided to the purchase of electric and hybrid vehicles. It was mentioned somewhere on Twitter that one such incentive could be to waive the odd/even rule for electric and hybrid vehicles.
(6) Diesel gensets, which cause both noxious fumes and noise, need to be totally phased out. Government needs to augment the power generation capacity and incentivise alternative means of private electricity generation/storage, along with introducing heavy taxation on the sale of diesel gensets.
(7) Large parts of the city, especially the trans-Yamuna area, still have abysmally low number of trees. This needs to be redressed urgently.
(8) Finally, to improve air quality in Delhi the government must act in concert with the governments of the various NCR territories like NOIDA, Faridabad, Gurgaon, Manesar, Neemarana etc. As many as possible of the above steps should be encouraged in the NCR too, including the odd/even rule if it shows signs of success in Delhi.
There is a political opportunity in this for Kejriwal. In trying to take other state governments along, he will present himself as a contrast to Modi’s go it alone approach (which has been a spectacular failure thus far). In addition, he can try and work with Akhilesh Yadav’s government in UP for appreciable improvements in NOIDA and Greater NOIDA, and can politically capitalise on any hesitation on the part of the BJP government in Haryana.
Note: 1. edited 8 Dec 2o15 to include electric “and hybrid” vehicles as the earlier formulation seemed to exclude the class of hybrid vehicles.
by Ritwik on December 10, 2014
NDTV discussion hosted by Ravish Kumar in which I participated. The topic was the suspension of services of Uber and other taxi aggregators in light of allegations that an Uber driver raped a passenger.
(screengrabs by Neelakshi Tewari)
Link to the full video
by Ritwik on November 8, 2014
As many of you will know, a ‘Kiss of Love’ event has been planned in Delhi today. It starts at 4pm at Jhandewalaan, at the Delhi headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the ideological mentor of the BJP and other organizations such as ABVP and VHP which collectively comprise the so called ‘sangh parivar’.
This has been organized in light of the similar event in Kochi, Kerala, which was organized against ‘moral policing’ that has seen a sharp increase with the victory of the Narendra Modi led BJP in the general elections in the country held in May.
A journalist with DNA newspaper, Mumbai asked me a series of questions about the event, and I think putting up the questions along with my answers might serve some purpose, as these questions are by no means unique and regularly come up in the public discourse in India over matters of love, sex and free expression in general. Of course, I am not attributing these views to the journalist in question – she was only doing her job in articulating precisely the concerns which many have with respect to such demonstrations.
Q. Do you support the ‘kiss of love’ event? and if so, why?
Absolutely. It has my wholehearted support. I believe it is an excellent initiative and many more such initiatives should be taken up, all across the country and particularly in areas where such things as choosing one’s own partner, which are taken for granted in any modern society, are still huge battles (i.e., almost every Indian family, totally including almost the entire upwardly mobile, ‘educated’ middle class)
To me one of the most important measures of the health and happiness of a society is the freedom accorded to people to love freely, and choose their partners freely (of whatever gender and sexual persuasion).
Recently we have had a setback in India when the Supreme Court struck down the forward looking judgement of the Delhi High Court de-criminalizing Homosexuality. Many who had felt empowered to come out of the closet in light of the HC verdict have now had to face oppression after the SC verdict re-criminalized a completely natural sexual impulse. This battle has now been taken up again in the Supreme Court, and one hopes the Court will set aside its earlier verdict.
Q. Do you think this demonstration will serve some purpose, or it is only being organized by Delhi youth to be ‘cool’ after similar demonstrations were organized in Kochi and Calcutta?
I think it is crucial for people, especially the young, all over the country to assert their right to their bodies, to choosing their own partners and their sexual orientation. it is deeply shameful that we still witness ‘honour killings’ where the ‘crime’ is nothing but cohabiting with the person you love.
It is crucial in light of the fact that the ruling national party, the BJP, made ‘love jihad’ its main campaign slogan in recent by-elections. Love Jihad is the notion that members of the Muslim community are ‘luring’ Hindu women to marry them so as to change the latter’s religion and produce Muslim children, ultimately culminating the ‘islamization’ of India.
The fact that such absurd fears have become mainstream enough to be taken up by major national parties shows how close India is to slipping into an even more un-free, almost theocratic condition not dissimilar to the situation that exists in Pakistan after the rule of the dictator Zia ul Haq.
Q. Aren’t there ‘more important’ things that should engage the attention of the youth?
As I say above, all those who value freedom, and wish for India to remain a free society (a society in which enclaves of freedom – such as universities and some urban spaces – have been created and there has historically been the push, since independence, of modernizing more spaces) must support initiatives like Kiss of Love, to counter the poisonous, socially divisive propaganda of the Love Jihad variety.
As the experience of countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and many others demonstrates, societies which had become relatively free and open in the Sixties and the early Seventies, have slipped into soul crushing fanaticism and un-freedom after the religious Right (of which the RSS is a prime example in India) engineered a massive reaction against all kinds of progressive tendencies.
These societies, and others like them, have consequently seen the obliteration of liberal, leftist and socialist thought and social practice, all in the name of ‘pride’, ‘hurt sentiments’, ‘authentic traditions’ etc. India seems to be on the brink of something similar, where the historically open and plural nature of the society is being sought to be radically re-engineered from within.
In a nutshell, one can’t be complacent about freedoms and rights. These must be fought for and vigorously defended.
Q. Many who support the idea of freedom of choice – in abstraction – are saying that this is the wrong way to protest. India is a conservative country which frowns upon ‘public displays of affection’. Why choose such a mode of protest which may be offensive to many?
The modes of protest chosen by movements like ‘Kiss of Love’ are very useful in that they are exposing the structural hypocrisies of the authorities and political parties. It is notable that the Kiss of Love event in Kerala was not allowed to go on by the police, who have historically shown little inclination to act against violent thugs who have raided bars, night clubs, hotels and other such establishments where ‘immoral activities’, i.e., people indulging in sexual acts out of choice, rather than our glorious, animal-trading ‘arranged marriage’ tradition, have been going on.
Violent activists who have attacked couples on Valentines Day, often in a well orchestrated manner with television cameras in tow, have acted with impunity with no regard for the law or its consequences.
However those deciding to kiss on the streets, were apprehended in advance. This in a state (Kerala) ruled by the Congress, which claims to inherit a liberal tradition!
In light of this, the mode of protest chosen for ‘kiss of love’ is effective, and it exposes hypocrisies which we as a society are highly comfortable with.
by Ritwik on November 2, 2014
This post is prompted by the points made by Mario Da Penha (Twitter handle: @mlechchha) in a series of tweets, now compiled here, critiquing historian Romila Thapar’s approach to the notion of questioning of authority in a recent speech entitled “To question or not to question: that is the question”.
De Penha is troubled that Thapar basically turns the idea of questioning those in authority into an academic exercise, and in his tweets cites the case of the sufi Sarmad, who, as per De Penha, was an authentic and vital challenger to authority without taking recourse to the Enlightenment tradition.
De Penha believes that he is pointing out a major flaw in the discourse of intellectuals, who as per him, privilege the ‘lettered’, ‘Rational’ (with a capital R) enlightenment discourse over other modes of protest and interrogation.
These points, as far as I am concerned, appear to be (largely) trivially true, but where they are substantive, they are false and dangerous.
That is, it is undoubtedly true that there are many different modes and styles of interrogation of established authority and social structures. It is also undoubtedly true that different such modes have been used through the ages, in different societies, to highlight the need for social change.
However, De Penha (and many others today) seem to think that all such different modes of protest can be usefully bunched together on one plane. The idea that different types of questioning can be analyzed and graded for effectiveness is disclaimed.
The intentions of questioners, whatever these might be and howsoever they might be determined, are applauded. But their methods are not subjected to sufficient critical scrutiny, barring a consequentialist analysis in terms of “success”.
It is my submission that a ‘Rational’ critique is more substantive, powerful and effective, than other modes of critique. I doubt Romila Thapar, or other intellectuals, would deny that mystics and poets have usefully critiqued social ills. However, by definition, a rational critique offers up three features that may be missing in other critiques –
– a framework for analysis: on what grounds, precisely, is a present system being challenged? This requires an idea of what is desirable, and why that is so.
– a replicable, universalizable, systematic approach: based upon the framework of analysis, actions can be subjected to critical scrutiny irrespective of the contingent factors (of time and space and personality) that surround them. This is in contrast to all protest and questioning getting restricted to the local and the temporally instant.
– an alternative: a rational critique, being framework based, requires and facilitates the articulation of alternative systems and in this sense, gives a path of progress, a sense of purpose to those who want change.
Some further points:
I see no reason why such a rational approach as outlined above needs to be particularly identified with the European Enlightenment or with European or Western or modern discourse as such. There are very important and particular things about the Enlightenment and modern scientific rationality, such as individualism and the idea of disenchantment, but analytic discourse per se is not a monopoly of the European Enlightenment.
It has often happened that the critical ideas brought out poetically by mystics such as Sarmad, who De Penha refers to, are taken up later by systematic philosophers and theorists. When this happens, the ideas of poets and mystics and other ‘alternative’ styles of protest are invested with the features I have outlined above and thus acquire greater potentiality. That is to be lauded, but we may miss out on such things if we, knowingly or unknowingly, insist that all criticality is on the same plane.
PS. I am indebted to Aaditya Dar (@AadityaDar) for bringing Da Penha’s tweets to my attention.
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 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.
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
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?]
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.
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.