Sanjiv Bhatt's Lost Rebellion

Sanjiv Bhatt with wife Shweta

There is a school of thought about fighting the system from within. It rarely works. The system eats you before you can even bring out your fork or finger it.

There is also the halo-giri, where it is assumed that the fight is being done for honour. One such instance is now before us.

Suspended Gujarat IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt’s wife Shweta on Friday announced that she will contest the State Assembly elections on a Congress ticket against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi from Maninagar constituency in the city.

This is most certainly not a decision she took on her own. She has the backing of her husband, who in turn is backed by the Congress now. I emphasise ‘now’ because he did depose before the Nanavati Commission against Narendra Modi when he, Bhatt, was part of the IPS cadre in Gujarat and wrote to the Supreme Court indicting Modi for complicity. He was suspended.

Shweta Bhatt says:

“We have moved far away from democracy in Gujarat and to restore it, everyone has to do whatever they can. Fighting election against Modi is the logical step in our quest for democracy and to curb anti-democratic forces.”

Electoral democracy means people going to vote and whoever wins is accepted. So Gujarat is a democracy in that limited sense. She could have chosen a word like secularism. Or even dictatorship. But, these are loaded terms and can apply to the party she is now with. By pitting his wife against Modi, he has lost the moral spine of a real dissenter. He stands bare, as one more opportunist willing to sleep with the enemy’s enemy.

Despite some obfuscation and delay on his part, Sanjiv Bhatt did offer a little hope for those who do believe the chief minister owes responsibility for what happens in the state he governs. In a state where Modi is master, the Congress has had no major role to play and, therefore, prove. It knows Modi will win. It does not matter whether they put up a lamp-post against him or Sanjiv Bhatt’s wife. That should concern the officer and gentleman. It will in no way help diminish the crimes he has been fighting against. If anything, he has placed himself in an awkward position where his wife losing could well be used by the Congress as evidence of martyrdom, of having suffered because her husband is a hounded creature.

Well, that is not the case. And Bhatt is probably doing this to keep his options open. A quid pro quo cannot be ruled out, with the Congress promising a Rajya Sabha seat or other goodies. These are political gains.

Modi must be happier than usual. The man who ‘took him on’ on a matter of principle is now playing ball on another court. 

(c) Farzana Versey


Ram, Modi, Zakia: An Uneven Battle

Does anyone remember the ten questions Ram Jethmalani posed to Rajiv Gandhi for a while? Did it make a dent in the Congress Party? He appears to be on a warpath with his own party, the BJP, now. People these days have shorter memory spans and even shorter loyalties, and are in a hurry to pronounce the end of political parties.

Futile Gadkari vs Jethmalani. Pic: India Today

Mr Jethmalani wrote a letter to the BJP president, Nitin Gadkari, which was probably meant for everyone but him:

“I am convinced that you are firmly set on the path of suicide and you are determined to drag the whole party with you. ‘Vinash kal vipreet buddhi (when one is set to be doomed he loses his mind)’ is an old maxim.”

He does not seem to realise that at this juncture the BJP cannot afford to make major changes. Gadkari’s involvement in financial skulduggery will become one more case of a politician benefiting from his position. How far will such discoveries take anyone? Which party can come out clean?

Who is supporting Jethmalani? Yashvant Sinha and Shatrughan Sinha. Both are not considered crucial to the party, and have been sidelined in the past. Jethmalani’s own affiliations have not been constant. While it is a good thing to raise questions about one’s own party, he has in fact committed hara kiri, for he suggests that one individual (Gadkari) is capable of bringing a party that boasts of being disciplined and without any ego issues down.

He cannot deny that while fighting for the truth, his stand is also egotistic. There is no reason to be part of cliques within a party or to prop up one person against the other. If being a Parliamentarian is of no consequence to him, then why hanker after positions of power?

“Politicians are not going to solve the problems of the world. Politicians are a class to which I plead guilty... My only extenuating circumstance is that I am more of a lawyer and very much less of a politician and I am not, therefore, a successful politician in the normal sense of the word.”

In a system of electoral governance, politicians are supposed to run the country. They are often ably assisted by lawyers in managing to hoodwink the public. Being an unsuccessful politician does seem to work better for politicking.

There are many problems in the world and people do try what is within their capacity to solve them. Is that always for the best for everyone? Perhaps, not. Since Mr. Jethmalani has the world’s concerns on his mind, he should address something closer home. How about taking up the case of Zakia Jafri?

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The fight continues for Zakia Jafri. Pic: Firstpost

Is Narendra Modi off the hook? I am a bit surprised at the reportage. What does a headline like ‘Zakia can’t contest Modi clean chit now’ (Times of India) mean?

As The Hindu reports:

A metropolitan court here on Tuesday ordered that Zakia Jafri, whose husband and senior Congress leader Ehsaan Jafri was killed in the 2002 Gujarat riots, had lost the right to file her protest petition challenging the against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The court stated Ms. Jafri had failed to file the petition despite repeated orders.

  • This has merely been announced in a local court.
  • Her lawyer is going to appeal to the apex court, so the rush to exonerate is a bit disingenuous.
  • The Special Investigative Team (SIT) had given a clean chit on the CM. It is not the court or the final authority. Besides, why was she given an incomplete report?
  • If she failed to appear before the court within the stipulated time, it still does not prove that Mr Modi is not culpable.
  • What about the delays necessititated by transfers of police officers in Gujarat? What about the SIT’s own obfuscations?
  • If Zakia Jafri cannot file a protest petition against the SIT report, she can file another petition. Court cases are known to drag on and it is obvious that delays take place when either the petitioner or respondent is not co-operative or available, or due to judicial delays. 

To push the envelope, even if facetiously, if "lapse of time" is a reason, then it would be prudent to ask certian political parties to stop being obsessive about what the past Muslim conquerors did and use it to beat the present Muslims with. A great deal of time has lapsed.  

Clean chit, Modi? Pic: Times of India

Let me repeat what I wrote after the SIT report (do try and read the whole piece Trial and Terror of the Gujarat Riots Verdict, too):

"The Supreme Court-appointed special investigation team (SIT) on Wednesday gave a clean chit to chief minister Narendra Modi on allegations of his involvement in the 2002 riots. In its final report submitted to the metropolitan court, the SIT has filed a closure summary against Modi and 62 others accused by Zakia Jafri, widow of slain Congress MP Ehsan Jafri.

"The SC had asked SIT to probe Jafris allegation that the Gulbarg Society massacre in which 67 people were killed, was the result of a larger conspiracy. But the probe agency, headed by former CBI chief R K Raghavan, concluded it could not find any prosecutable evidence against the accused."

This effectively means that if the government was not involved, then someone else was. Why has that angle not been investigated? Will the Modi government and the honourable Supreme Court order a probe, for the report does mention that people were burnt alive? How did it happen? Or did it not happen? Did Gulberg Society just disappear? There has to be other “prosecutable evidence”. Whose job is it to find out – the victims, the NGOs or the intelligence agencies?

On what basis is the government gloating? This shows the utter lack of any ethics. I am not big on the politics of remorse and of demanding apologies, for it is the easy way out. However, will Narendra Modi even consider stepping down as chief minister?

What I cannot understand is why so much effort is being expended on helping Modi - or calling it a "boost for elections" - when come December and it will be a cakewalk for him.


Jest Married

Weddings are probably occasions when people have every right to indulge in all their fantasies.

Around this time of the year, whenever I pass the Marine Drive stretch dotted with gymkhanas, there is opulence staring in the face. Elephants, apsaras, fountains, havelis…I once even saw a terracotta Venus lying in repose. How I wish they had a David standing over her. In bright daylight, all these decorations look forlorn, if not ridiculous. They are like discarded courtesans from another era. At night, with lights on, bedecked guests, music, they take on a respectable sheen.

It is not right to question anyone’s idea of a wedding. However, when I read about this, I was stupefied.I'll skip the names although they were on the front page:

One of the biggest weddings in the city in recent years saw...the son of city realtor tying the knot with the daughter of a business tycoon. The four-day wedding bash, rumoured to have cost around Rs 50 crore (over $5 million), attracted over 6,000 guests, including an A-list of celebrities ranging from industrialists and builders to film stars and politicians…

The celebrations spilled over to the next day with a bingo night and an array of games, with eye-popping prizes for the winners: Mercedes, BMWs, Audis, paid foreign and domestic holidays, besides other expensive gifts.

Almost all the guests were well-heeled. I find this rather downmarket. Affluent people carrying away keys to cars, envelopes with tickets to places they’ve been to several times. I would feel terribly insulted.

It is good to have games and fun. Take-away gifts have also become mandatory. This is just so much tosh. Avarice seems to afflict the elite more than anyone else. It is not just greed for money; it is greed for one-upmanship, for power, for acceptance. But, how would a big name feel driving a BMW won in a game of bingo at a wedding? Or, what is one of them is spotted at the airport to catch a flight and someone from those 6000 guests is present and smiles knowingly at the ticket that was won and is being used?

That is the reason I call it downmarket. If you imagine for a moment that such gifts might be passed on to the less fortunate, who do you think those would be? What will the staff do with fancy cars? Besides, many will have to ‘respect the sentiments’ of the giver and keep the gifts. It is all hogwash because they would in all likelihood be backbiting about the host’s déclassé showing off.

 For all the poshness, there are other areas where the hosts reveal chinks:

The menu was multidimensional: Indian, continental, Punjabi, Rajasthani, south Indian, Italian, Chinese et al. “In short, from dhokla-patra to noodles-pasta, there was everything to suit the taste buds of the distinguished gathering,” a family friend said.

Distinguished people do not attend wedding to eat. Distinguished people might be quite discerning and appreciate one sort of cuisine, instead of biting into dhoklas between bites of dimsums while a plate with quivering sphagetii waits for their attention, all to be washed down with robust Punjabi lassi or is it South Indian rasam?

This is not about one wedding. It has become standard fare, with different stalls set up s though you are at some buffet in a restaurant. With so many guests, it might be impossible to have a sit-down dinner. So, why don’t they just have bearers go around with finger food? Then it does not matter that patra is popped in straight after canapés.

Perhaps, the dinner spread from all regions and countries can be packed and given away as prize on some bingo night. 

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Update on Nov 30:

In another context, extremely progressive and gratifying report about wedding vows to protect girl child that I shall reproduce in full:

JAIPUR: After the saat phera and agni sakhshi, health department authorities in Jhunjhunu will make the newly weds take an "official" vow.

Stung by the increasing cases of female feticide, couples will have to sign an affidavit after completing the customary seven rounds proclaiming that they would not possess any bias towards the girl child. They will have to take an oath that the bride will never undergo sex determination test. This was decided four days after bodies of two new born girls were found at separate locations in Jhunjhunju. The sex ratio of males to females is the lowest in this district in the state.

Jhunjhunu's deputy chief medical and health officer Dr Pradeep Singh told TOI, for the first time in the state, such a scheme is being launched under "Save the Girl Child" project."To raise awareness against female feticide and infanticide, we have termed it the eighth vow of marriage. We have printed about 3,000 affidavits which will be handed over to newly weds during the marriage ceremony in the district," said Singh.

The affidavit reads: "We take the eighth pledge that the bride will not undergo sex determination test. We will do our best to save the girl child and also raise awareness among others." The affidavit will be authorised by the minister of state for health Dr Rajkumar Sharma and signed by the couple. 


Aamir Khan's Khap Panchayat

What happened? A man is killed after appearing on 'Satyamev Jayate


Is there a limit as to how far reality shows can and should expose the participants? When people are willing to have cameras placed in hospital rooms to capture their battle for survival, or even impending death, how valid is the query?

I have consistently questioned the ethics of Aamir Khan's show 'Satyamev Jayate'. The host had begun to believe he was a messiah, riding on lachrymose glands. One thought, disgusting as it was, this is where it would end: Sunday mornings of chicken soup for the soul, followed by the main course of 'this is life' shrugging.

Unfortunately, the attitude remains one of arrogant consciousness.

Abdul Hakim eloped with Mehawish in 2010 against family opposition. The difference in status was the reason cited. The khap panchayat issued a death edict. Adoli village in Bulandshahar district of Uttar Pradesh became more than a dot on the map of India.

On Thursday, Hakim was on his way to get medicines for his pregnant wife; five men pumped bullets into him. Was this a family dispute or honour killing?

Had they not appeared on the TV show would they be saved? Other people are indeed killed even when they don't appear on television. Yet, when a case is highlighted and ordinary people are transformed into media-propped bravehearts, then the irresponsibility of the medium ought to be questioned.

Aamir Khan, upon hearing the news, said: "It was completely their choice. In fact, when I met the couple before our show, they expressed the fear of being killed. They were already getting threatening calls."

Why, then, did he not dissuade them, since the purpose of the show was to help society? Or, wasn't it? 'Satyamev Jayate' was catering to voyeurism, not conscience. It had a clear agenda to mimic soaps, but make it sound realistic. Is that why their faces were not blurred nor their names changed?

One notices this sort of 'authenticity' increasingly creeping into the electronic media. Real people are like us or those around us. It is about being a bystander at an accident site, or even a neighbour of someone who commits suicide. We become part of contemporary events, some of which are deliberately exaggerated.

The manner in which such shows sit in judgement is a form of khap panchayat. They too issue diktats and use the vulnerability of those who suffer. Abdul Hakim was a casual labourer. How did he benefit? Was he desperate to appear on TV.

One would think there'd be some introspection. Instead, Aamir Khan said: "Disturbing and unfortunate incident. Will speak to the government authorities in UP to help and ensure the family is safe. The culprits must be brought to the book. The case is registered on the basis of right facts."

How does he know? If he has the clout to talk to the government, then why not talk about the role of such TV shows?

The case is registered, we know. Now, it is time for 'talaash'.


Cowasjee: The Cantankerous Conscience

When a country mourns for a critic saying, “Pakistan has lost its conscience”, it is truly a tribute. How many of us Indians can say the same about our columnists? It is not that we lack in people who take on the system. Ardeshir Cowasjee who died yesterday was working in a confined space, so his razor-like comments about the government, the people – “an uncultured people” he had told me – stood out more sharply against this backdrop.

Cowasjee may have been an outsider because of his wealth, his religion, his special position, but he was also a Pakistani in spirit. He felt its pain probably more than its so-called proponents. He also benefited a bit from the very system he critiqued. There were awards and a fine place at the high table of many a ruler.

That did not stop him from taking those same rulers on. His columns trace contemporary happenings with a sure-fire knowledge of what happened in the past.

In the summer of 2007, after my manuscript for the book was complete, I decided to make what turned out to be the last trip and the only one with the book in mind.

We were sitting at my friend Rafi’s house – a sprinkling of artists and people from the entertainment industry. I had met most of them before. In the covered area of the terrace, a television was on. Somebody was interviewing Cowasjee, a shawl draped over his shoulder. He used harmless cuss words liberally; I was quite shocked. The rest, accustomed to it, reacted in two distinct ways – “wow, what a man” and “too much noise”.

The truth lay somewhere in-between. Courage does sound like noise if it is over-done or if it is unpalatable.

I called him up as soon as I returned from Islamabad, where I had gone. His personal assistant was a lady with a clipped British accent. I spelled out my reasons, which were not conveyed simply because he had entered the room and taken the phone. “Yes?” he asked in a raspy voice. Tired of repeating my honourable motives, I just said, “I want to meet you. My name is FV. From India. And I don’t have too much time. Is tomorrow okay?”

“Lunch,” he said.

“No. I need to talk.”

“My dear, I can do many things together.”

I started laughing. He interjected, “You think I am joking?”

“I believe you.”

I took the car from the hotel. Bath Island was the destination. There were security guards. Once inside, I realised the gentility of the home and the man with warm crinkly eyes and deadpan humour. He was wearing shorts but a kerchief was folded carefully and tucked into his shirt pocket. He was a man of leisure. The valet brought in a tray. He poured the Campari in a glass. For some reason, he did not offer it to me. I had orange juice.

This man was taking his time and I was worried he’d want lunch and then a nap and I’d end up with food and little else. “Can we begin?”


“I’ve got questions to ask…”

“It is all meaningless.” Then, realising that I had a higher purpose, he said, “What do you want to know?”

It had been a few minutes and all I could gauge was that he was certainly not what people might imagine him to be. We spoke as though it were a conversation – little things interspersed with big issues.  There was a peace rally that day, and he thought it would be just a lot of chatter.

There was a view that he himself was elitist. The same can be said about other liberals, who cater to a limited audience. Their arrogance about changing the world stood out in stark contrast with his genuine cynicism coupled with self-deprecation. He also said that if anyone asked him, he would say he is Indian. "Because when I was born there was no Pakistan."

Later, he took me on a tour of his house. It was no less than walking through history. Faiz on one wall; his mother’s portrait, his wife’s portrait on another. A model of a ship, his family business. Statues of ancestors. Sculptures.

I had taken a book of poems for him. Most people who are deeply analytical don’t care about poetry. I had written about this exchange before and it bears repetition.

“I know you don’t like poetry,” I said.

“Who told you?”

“I think so.”

“How can you think?”

“By reading you.”

“Why do you read me?”

“Many people do.”

“Yes. Don’t know why.”

“Why are you so rude?”

“You think so?”

“Well, yes…”

“Then you are rude also for telling me I am rude.”

He surprised me by asking me why I had not signed the book.  Since he asked, I wrote one long inscription…very poetic…

He presented me with two books: Military Inc. and a book of paintings.

Post-lunch, we walked towards the French windows. The light was late-afternoon beautiful, casting long shadows. I asked if I could take some photographs. He was more than happy and beckoning one of his guards, he put his arm over my shoulder and told him to take a picture. “Just don’t show my legs,” he instructed.

As he was escorting me to the door, he asked my driver, “Namaaz ke liye kidhar gaya tha?”

Ahmed mentioned a mosque a distance away.

Idharse tumhara Khuda ko awaaz nahin jaata kya?

Later Ahmed told me, “Achcha aadmi hai lekin iss um’r mein Khuda ko bhool gaya.

But, for all his religious fervour, he understood the spirit of Cowasjee. A man who showed the light, but also the lengthening shadows, both of which he too was a part of.



The Politics of Hanging Kasab

A Final Goodbye to 26/11?   
The Politics of Hanging Kasab 
by Farzana Versey
Counterpunch, November 22

They dug a pit right there and buried him. They wanted no trouble. When people in charge of running a nation get worried about a terrorist who has been in their custody for four years and was on death row, it is time to pause.

The Government of India, in a quiet operation, hanged 25-year-old Ajmal Kasab at 7.30 am in Yerwada jail, Pune, on Wednesday, November 21, and interred him in the ground beneath.

Operation Code X is being hailed as a neat surgical act. What were the Indian government’s fears that it sneaked him out at the dead of night from Mumbai? Pakistan is in denial about their man. Other terrorist groups that did not offer him any assistance are heralding him as a hero for their own benefit, like Pakistan’s Taliban that has threatened, “If they don’t return his body to us or his family we will capture Indians and will not return their bodies.” This is for the benefit of the Pakistan government. The failure of Indian intelligence agencies transformed Kasab into a cult figure of hate.

He could not be just another dead man, so his last words, “Allah kasam maaf karna aisi galati dobara nahi hogi” (I swear on god, forgive me, this mistake will not be committed again) are being played out in a loop. References to his penance have taken precedence. Now that the crime has been punished, it is time to look at the hereafter. Will he go to heaven and get those 72 virgins as promised to shaheeds? No one seems to realise that the crucial aspect of any fidayeen operation is to aspire to martyrdom, Kasab showed no signs of it. He was not overtly religious or patriotic. It makes holes in the quilted mindset.

People forget to pose a pertinent query: Is Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde being honest when he says that neither Prime Minister Manmohan Singh nor Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi was aware of the date and venue of the hanging and got to know about it on TV? This is pretty much how the handlers of the attack got to know what was happening – they too watched it on TV and accordingly updated their boys.

The message is shrewd. Create the impression that ministries function independently, and clear the stacks for Indo-Pak placebo dialogues at the top level.

When the Indian office sent a letter to the Pakistan government, it was not accepted. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said that since it was an “inevitable event” a fax message was sent to the Pakistan Foreign Office. “There is no other way of communicating (the event). Though the message was not accepted we fulfilled our obligations.”

Who did they owe this obligation to and what was the urgency?


On Sunday November 18, a crowd of two million converged to bid farewell to a man who symbolised the dark face of Mumbai. For them, he was the godfather-messiah. His message, pared to the bones, was simple: Lay off.

The whole country watched stupefied and not with a little awe at this kind of tribute. More than anyone else, it was the opposing parties and politicians of other hues who envied the last rites of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. The rightwing could well swell up its ranks. It might be difficult for those who like quick-fix analyses to accept that many in the crowd truly believed in him. Many of those who were not present also believed in him. For, he played on their baser instincts, reflected their prejudices. India is today a parochially partitioned nation held together with the adhesive of pluralistic tolerance.

The more sophisticated politicians would have noted this support. Despite his appeal to the rustic and lumpen classes, Thackeray was as much Mumbai as the Gateway of India and the Taj Hotel. The latter would have been in the news in a few days for another anniversary of the November 26, 2008 attacks.

What could be better than to stem the popularity the Shiv Sena leader managed to convey in those televised moments as the funeral pyre burned than to regurgitate the other televised memories of the fire in a five-star hotel?

This was the winning round for the Congress Party. It did not kill one man, and it most certainly did not kill terrorism with it. But it did kill the possibility of some rightwing groups getting ahead. It will keep people quiet, while effectively diverting their attention from the big funeral. Kasab was a pawn of Pakistan; he became a pawn of India. 


Foetus and Feminism: What about the other Savitas?

Words like “pro-choice” did not even occur to her as they forced an iron rod into her vagina and, together with the blood, remnants of an unborn human being seeped out. She wept a little for the lost child and much more for the scalded part that was essential to her job. Shanno was a sex worker. The brothel owner could not afford her ‘wares’ to be mothers. Shanno had opted for survival on sleaze street. Brothels are secular, so she followed all faiths. No one would justify or hold back her abortion on the basis of religion.

Savita Halappanavar’s death due to negligence at the University Hospital Galway in Ireland has become a global issue largely due to that. A 17-week-old foetus is considered risky for termination of pregnancy. Unfortunately, she was miscarrying and in the state of unbearable pain asked the doctors to abort the baby. The reply they gave her has become a whip-mantra: “This is a Catholic country.”

Is it news that the Catholic Church is against abortion? Savita’s family is justifiably incensed; the denial of her right to terminate the pregnancy is a crime for which they ought to get justice. However, would there be such international outrage had the doctors cited medical reasons for their refusal to abort? Indian politicians who pay scant respect for women’s health and welfare have urged the external affairs minister to intervene and order an enquiry into this case. A report states that 12 women die every day in India due to unsafe termination of pregnancy.

Jodie Jacobson wrote in RH Reality Check

“Someone's daughter, wife, friend, perhaps sister is now dead. Why? Because a non-viable fetus was more important than her life. Because she was left to suffer for days on end in service of an ideological stance and religion she did not share. Because a wanted pregnancy went horribly wrong, and, because as must now be clear, there are people who don't care about the lives of women.”

If it is an ideological stance, would the lawmakers in Ireland even consider this example based on a religion Savita “did not share”? Some foreign newspapers have carried stories with large pictures of Savita and her family at her wedding, including a dance video of a private function. The motive seems to be to pit one culture against another, or at least to highlight that an ‘outsider’ had to suffer because of these laws. Last month, the first private abortion clinic opened in Belfast amidst protests. Why did it take this long for such a medical service to be available when it is public knowledge that women travel to England for abortion? Do activists believe one case will lead to a re-examination of the country’s archaic laws?

Every religion talks about the value of life. That they do not value the quality of life, are misogynistic, and follow a wholly patriarchal notion should make us wary about using their programmed responses to falsify the reasoning. In fact, most social norms too consider abortion as the last resort. How many women, even among the educated, take an individual decision to abort?


Let us digress and expand on the idea of choice.  By applying the argument that a ‘woman’s body is her own’ – an obvious fact – the onus shifts entirely on women. Where abortion or childbirth is concerned, this amounts to being the sole caregiver or guilt-ridden slave of chauvinistic tripe. Just as the Pill did not really empower women but made her accountable for her ‘freedom’, the womb has been desexualised as a pre-birth nanny.

Contemporary feminist literature, especially about sexuality, while apparently busting myths ends up as a Hallmark card celebration of feminine body parts. Take this: “I experienced some of the 'thoughts' of the uterus myself”, from Naomi Wolf’s ‘Vagina: A New Biography’.  Imbuing the sexual organs with emotions demotes physicality as a natural state. The woman becomes an addendum to the part: “Your vagina makes you a goddess. Or rather, ‘The Goddess’.”

A review in The Guardian had taken on Wolf by recounting her description of “a ‘bodyworker’ who attempts, through massage, to re-engage sexually traumatised women and who, Wolf relates in the book with a straight face, once saw an image of the Virgin Mary in a vagina”.

This is a concept that the male module employs effectively to worship women as divine pleasure-givers whose own contentment is essentially to procreate. It appears that female sexuality can only be sanctified as motherhood. It is not easy to discard the psychological baggage, the subliminal conditioning of creating that which is in God’s image. When an Indian intimate cleansing product was advertised as satiating the male, some women activists had raised objections using the convenient hitch of its ‘fairness’ claims. While owning up to the right to pleasure, I had written then that they seemed to look upon it as an individual activity. This too amounts to a quasi-virginal Madonna state.

The supposedly more open western society is also not immune to this. When Demi Moore posed in the buff in an advanced stage of pregnancy for Vanity Fair, she was legitimising pop culture through maternity. Angelina Jolie goes a step further by a public forsaking of the crutch of cohabitation to become the ‘adopted’ mother.

Where choice is concerned, there can be extremes. If widows could use the frozen sperm of the spouse because the couple were seen as “together”, according to Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, 1990, then at the other end a foetus born to a brain-dead woman was kept alive because it had the right to live. Savita might well have been saved had medical assistance opted to do so.  

It is not only Ireland that has to think. We forget that in many parts of the world foetuses are discarded because they are female and infants are thrown in garbage bins because they are viewed as burdens. By some weird logic, this is justified as a choice by a society that has no respect for human dignity and for women.  It is the low self-esteem choice to be chauvinistic.


Published in CounterPunch


Wailers and vultures

‘With Bal Thackeray on Life Support, Mumbai braces for violence’. The New York Times in its “Notes from the world’s largest democracy” just could not let go of the opportunity.

But, then, this is what the Indian media has been doing. They positioned their OB vans, and how dare those Shiv Sainiks who had gathered near Matoshree, the Shiv Sena leader’s residence, come in the way of their ‘job’. Their job is not to wait for someone to die. Whenever that is to happen, they will know.

Some of them have complained about being hurt in scuffles. This is what happens when there are crowds. The SS has done far worse, with the people, with media-persons. But in the 90s news channels and their prominent anchors were not celebrities. The people who were beaten, whose offices destroyed were not important people in their scheme of things. What a strange coincidence that Nikhil Wagle, among the few who stood up to Bal Thackeray, is today part of one of these tosh news channels.

I have absolutely no sympathy for Thackeray the politician, and it does not even need to be emphasised. If you’ve been around during the 1992-93 riots, you would know, especially if you went where it mattered. Nor am I one of those “oh, it does not change anything only because s/he is dead/ailing”, although I would accord some respect to privacy. And at least I would not think it terribly funny to pun on his name or crack lame jokes. This is to be expected from people who get their information on timelines and find it easy to just lump along with any smart-ass.

Where were all these people when he was well and thriving? Hitting out at someone who is in a weak situation reveals the weakness of the people commenting. Does anyone recall the grand interviews Balasaheb gave to the media? You should watch some to get an idea about how deferential the media was. To see them today screeching about how his legacy is about violence is a tad bit amusing, not to mention that it states the obvious.

Regarding all this talk about how the sainiks have/will behave and what business they have to converge at his place, did anyone ask why Amitabh Bachchan landed up there? Lest anyone forgets or does not know, Mr. B holds a Sunday durbar at his residence. He comes out to greet his fans. The cops are required. He does this because he wants to reciprocate their love or some such thing. Well, then Mr. Thackeray has his supporters. The police force is needed to handle the situation.

And what exactly is the situation? Why does the media indulge in pre-empt strikes about “violence”? Yes, the sainiks can get excitable and agitated. Think about what happens down South when film stars and politicians have died. There are mass suicides.

Some shops did stay shut. Public transport was slow. Who put the germ of the idea that “something might happen” in the minds of these people? Even if some sainiks did go around asking people to down shutters, the snowballing effect is all thanks to the media and social networking sites.

The worst possible aspect is that they are using Muslim shoulders to fire their empty guns. As always, such ‘protective’ instinct is counterproductive.

There is the violence of the street. And the violence of using the possibility of such violence for one's benefit.


The Retiring Writer

How can a writer retire? Is there an age limit, an “until such time” proviso in an unwritten contract? Will there be a toast to the end of the day, a little gift for “services rendered”, and then post-retirement blues?

When Philip Roth’s plans to stop writing came to public notice a few days ago, it was sourced from an interview he gave a French magazine a month earlier.  It might well have gone unnoticed.  The Guardian piece that highlighted it started in a rather amusing manner, that “the US novelist widely regarded as America's best hope of ending a 20 year drought without a winner of the Nobel prize for literature, has said that he is calling it a day”.

I wonder if this is crucial. There is the constant battle about the Nobel Literature Prize being Euro-centric. But the award is given for a body of work and not a specific novel, so it would not interfere with any accolades that might come his way.

When I think of retirement, images that flash before me are of a bent figure, shuffling through the streets, sunning himself in the park, watching the birds, reading, a sense of loss spread across his face, as he gets up and returns home to a dog that does not bark or a cat that is too lazy to peer into his eyes. He fixes himself a drink, the wine stains of last night, of many nights, still there on the table linen.

There is nothing to return to.

Am I suggesting that a full life necessarily entails concrete work? For many people even today, writing is not considered concrete work. That people put in hours each day and even nights into it does not register as work. It is perceived as self-indulgence, the result of overactive steroids or the manic meandering thoughts of an insomniac.

There is nothing real that a writer has – non-fiction writing too has to deal with reconstructing reality to an extent. No technical tools and implements (pen and paper do not count), no blueprints (a broad framework is different), no office (unless you also have a day job), no Friday dressing (you write at anytime, wearing anything). The writer could be that bent figure, shuffling in the street, reading, walking back. For, a sense of loss is the writer’s gain. A vacuum cries to be filled.

That is the reason I cannot understand why Roth made an announcement at all. Nemesis, written in 2010, will be his last book. Did Nemesis have anything to do with it, like the last lover, the last morsel, the last nightmare?

He is 79, and he said that he wanted to read books, his own and those of others. I don’t see how that intervenes in the process of writing, although one may not to read for long durations.

His other comment was more intriguing:

"I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing. And I thought it was rather successful. At the end of his life, the boxer Joe Louis said: 'I did the best I could with what I had.' This is exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had."

How did he measure his success? It would seem it is according to the standards he set for himself rather than how the world honoured him. It is bad enough that most of the world thinks writers are wasting time (and occasionally theirs!), but if after decades of writing a man of the calibre of Roth has to contemplate the possibility it has little to do with words and more to do with a state of mind.

How many people in other professions think they have wasted their time? They would probably think they made a bad choice of job. Would Roth think he would have been a better doctor or teacher if he has not thought he was successful?

“I did the best I could with what I had.”

This might apply to a boxer who trains for hours every day, competes with another who has done the same, follows rules, and the victory or failure is about a few punches. This is learned and limited. Writing is not. You do not have anything to begin with, except language, which everyone else has. How you use it, what inspires you, what shackles you, how you arrange the ideas, how you deliberately decide to fall into disarray because that is what you are conveying…these are your possessions, what you “have”.

And you cannot do the best with it, because it is not static. You are not driving along a straight road, or with a map. Even the most disciplined writer can only claim to work regular hours, write a certain number of words, but will not be tied down in such a way that a turn in the lane won’t be taken.

I see Roth’s interview as writing. He is expressing his thoughts. They are his words; they reveal something about how he feels. Had it been fiction, it could well be a character who says, “Enough is enough! I no longer feel this fanaticism to write that I have experienced in my life”, as he has done.

Not many writers feel as strongly as he seems to. He cannot retire. It is too weak a word for a fanatic. He is probably making up little stories as he tries to get the cat to look at him and the dog to bark and the wine stains to disappear. Not all words are written down.

© Farzana Versey


Raja vs Rakhi: Digvijay Singh's Sexism

What makes a senior political leader use the example of a woman from the entertainment industry to hit out at a political opponent? Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh is known to shoot his mouth off. However, his statement, "Arvind Kejriwal is like Rakhi Sawant. They both try and expose but with no substance" is senseless, besides being in poor taste. 

The latest news is that he says she is welcome to slap a defamation case against him where she is seeking Rs. 50 crore in damages. This is just so arrogant. 

It is not surprising that much of mainstream media will not take up for Rakhi. She is not in the top league, and started her career as an item girl performing to titillating dance numbers, which is what heroines do today. She has been called drama queen, attention seeker and several other names, even as she was used by these same media channels to spice up their programmes.

It is to her credit that while she superficially reinvented herself – better clothes, better shows – she essentially remained grounded and, in some ways, coarse. I liked her before she got legitimised by Karan Johar on his talk show ‘Koffee with Karan’, and everyone suddenly started taking up for her being oh-so-frank when she made the famous comment, “Jo Bhagwan nahin deta woh doctor de sakta hai” (what god does not give the doctor can) regarding her several cosmetic surgeries.

Most times, she is cannily self-deprecatory. Like getting excited about designer clothes. She knows that she can afford them now, but she is also aware that whatever she wears will be seen as ‘cheap’. The same slit gowns, the same clutches, the same limited edition baubles that a top star might wear, and promote after being paid for by the sponsor, will be seen as favours done to her.

This is the sad state of our perceptions, of how we view people, especially women.

What Digvijay Singh has done is in the same league. However, like the others, he felt the need to use her name, a name that has become a symbol. There are many who expose, but he could think only of her. Or, he was too afraid to name Vidya Balan or Kareena Kapoor. The analogy was about Arvind Kejriwal exposing people’s names without any merit or substance to his accusations.

How does Rakhi Sawant exposing herself come into the picture? She is revealing her own assets, not anybody else’s. Besides, on what basis does he say she has no substance? This is her substance. This is what has made her, at least partially, what she is. This is her bread and butter. This is what people pay to see. This is how the respectable media exploits her.

She has written letters to the Mumbai Police Commissioner and the Maharashtra Home Secretary against Digvijay Singh. CNN-IBN published her letter, but not before stating:

“Here's the full text of the letter written by Rakhi Sawant, which has been reproduced in its entirety with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors”

So what? It goes without saying she has not drafted it. This works for the English-educated, Oxford-flashing mob to bring down the ‘vernies’.

Even if Rakhi Sawant is a drama queen, she is way better than these microphone queens who think they can change the world. Oh, not just that. They think they are in charge of the world.

Rakhi's letter raises a few important points:

“…outraging modesty of a woman/female, charges of passing lewd remarks and eve teasing, abusing, mischief, passing defamatory remake and false statement and rumour etc…”

Some may think the reaction is exaggerated. It is time to at least address these issues. 
  • Outraging of modesty can be verbal.
  • What he said is lewd.
  • I don’t like the term eve teasing, but such comments do amount to harassment of a woman.
  • It is abusive.
  • It is mischievous, for it immediately grabs attention
  • It is defamatory.
  • It is false because Digvijay Singh does not know her, and there is no reason to drag her name in.

I do understand that she has not been advised too well, though, for there is no relation established between her and Kejriwal nor is it about her gender.

It is also possible that she will renege on her own position and retract the case. But, then, so do politicians. Mr. Singh said he was "an old fan".

The same hierarchy prevails here, too. The lumpen politician passing sexist remarks is immediately pulled up, but a posh Raja Digvijay Singh will get a bemused reaction. He has chosen a target who even feminists would not feel comfortable standing up for.

The whole “objectification of body” argument will be raked up. She has paid to get that body with her money. And she did not ask a politician to objectify her with his comments. 

(c) Farzana Versey


Who's afraid of Hindutva?

Hinduism could probably be the most nuanced religion if only the Hindus left it alone. A political leader is carping about how Bollywood denigrates the religion. Films in India are essentially ‘socio-myth’, therefore, characters are inspired by an existing template.

We are celebrating Diwali now, a festival that heralds the return of Lord Ram to Ayodhya after his banwas. Hindutva parties conveniently see his exile as banishment of their beliefs by the marauding colonisers. The resurgence to uphold purity of the faith is mere varnish; the subtext is fear of appeasement. Babar haunts the saffron brigade, not the Indian Muslim.

Sushma Swaraj’s whimper of a war cry is an annexure to this paranoia. The Bharatiya Janata Party leader deliberately picked on a soft target: “I came to know about the attack on Hindu beliefs in two recent movies, Oh my God and Student of the Year. In the latter, there are references to Radha not knowing how to dance and being invited to the dance floor to learn dancing. Why is it that the ‘attack’ was only on Hindu beliefs and on names like Sita, Radha and Kaushalya?”

For the uninitiated, a few mythological details:

• Radha did dance in Lord Krishna’s ras leela.

• Meera lived with her husband, but declared, “I have already given up my life to my beloved Lord Krishna.”

• Sita had to walk through fire (agni pariksha) to prove her purity after being kidnapped by Ravana.

• Durga is depicted with weapons and devotees may offer her wine and then drink it as an offering, as suggested in the ‘Devi-mahatmyam’.

• Draupadi was married to the Pandavas (five brothers) and they gambled her in a game of dice, after which an attempt was made to disrobe her.

There are varied ways to react to these and see them as symbolic messages, or to critique them as scholars and feminists have done. It is not to question the religion, but to understand the validity of such totems. Interestingly, while the right-wing groups pay obeisance to such symbols, they follow a monotheistic paradigm. In Hinduism, there is no finality of a Supreme Being. The concept of avatars (forms) itself disabuses any such thought. The moral policing by saffron parties degrades women using contemporary yardsticks, but expects them to display ancient probity. Rather conveniently, they use terms from another faith to justify their cussed stance: love jihad, fatwa, Talibanisation.

But they never raise the issue about pornographic DVDs shot by a sadhu using young kids against the backdrop of the Varanasi ghats, selling them to foreigners who crave perverse exotica in a holy place, or when Madonna sang Sanskrit shlokas in one of her albums. Has any Hindutva leader ever spoken out against tantric practices that often sexually exploit the vulnerable? Ministers have been blatantly projected as religious icons even as they indulge in hate speech, and that seems all right. Does such mimicking of deities ascertain virtue? The idea of virtue is itself devoid of a framework.

This does not appear to be important. Politicians are only interested in a quid pro quo to claim how “other religions” are spared the stereotypes and the tolerant Hindu suffers. Since joyful imagery is sanctified in temple sculptures and several texts, they cannot take a moral high ground. So, they shift the battle elsewhere. Mollification of minorities is fertile soil to plant seeds of fear in.

The Danish cartoons and films portraying the Holy Prophet (pbuh), deemed blasphemous, are cited as evidence. While the reactions to them have indeed been extreme, these depictions were not as innocent as names of Bollywood characters. Some years ago, there was an outcry against former cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin for signing his name, which is also the Holy Prophet’s (pbuh) name, on a pair of Nike shoes he was endorsing. That reaction was obstreperous and many of us spoke against it.

Has Hindutva displayed sensitivity towards marginalised groups? The allegations by a young man against an internationally-renowned individual — thought to be the embodiment of piety —for sexually abusing him died down, but films are questioned for being regressive. Gay activist Ashok Row Kavi, in an open letter to the former RSS chief K Sudarshan, had written: “Homosexuals were never stoned to death or even persecuted in Hindu India or even in the worst days of Aurangzeb, the Mughal bigot. It is only with the advent of the British, during their brutal Raj, that homosexuality was criminalised.”

In the late 1980s, Roop Kanwar followed the tradition of proving her morality and jumped into her husband’s funeral pyre. Ministers continue to blame women for rape and, strangely, mythology is brought out to showcase virtue. Symbolism is not about decadence, but worship of the divinity in human form. The propagators of Hindutva do not quite comprehend these subtleties. Those who talk about their great respect for ‘mother earth’ abuse her all the time. Flashing trishuls and demolishing and excavating sites is rape of history, no different from what the colonisers did.

This is what Subramaniam Swamy said: “To protect secularism, gender equality we should ensure that no district has Muslim majority unless they accept ancestors as Hindus.”

Did they consult their ‘siblings’ before going on rath yatras? They want Muslims to adopt Hindu names. Will the Brahmins opt for Kshatriya and Shudra names or permit the latter to use their names and enter temples?

If I were to change my name — one has not denied Hindu ancestry — how will the Hindutvawadis explain to me the misogyny of the khap panchayats, or why riots are engineered in Muslim majority areas and young men arrested without a warrant? Can I also demand that Bollywood must stop showing Muslim smugglers and misinterpreting Indian Islamic culture because it would, should, hurt my Hindu ancestry?

Superficial co-opting reveals a phobia about one’s own people. No Taliban module is needed. Hindutva is completely self-reliant in, and stimulated by, its insecurity.

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Published in The Express Tribune


Sunday ka Funda

"If men are habitations of God, we should fall at their feet
But we should leave alone their habits and goals
Fire is good to drive away cold
But you must not tie it up
And carry it around in a cloth."

- Sant Tukaram

There are different ways to celebrate festivals. Poems, music convey those sentiments better than most dhamakas. Here, it is about giving yourself up to god...the happiness that comes with giving yourself to something is unspeakable...

This song is from a little-known film Parinay. The visuals in this clip somehow take away from the beauty of the words and music. I like the straightforward tone in the beat. Nothing against the deities, but to enjoy it best you might need to shut your eyes, as you would if you try to look straight at the sun...

Happy Diwali!

Suraj ki garmee:

- - -

I had posted this earlier, but somehow this song and thoughts recurred to me again.


Blurred Lines and American Votes

Barack Obama has not won. He just defeated the traditionally bad guy, like burning the symbolic Old Man year after year to herald a new beginning that would arrive anyway.

We had been saturated with analyses in the run-up, and the ones after the elections are not much different, except perhaps for the trivia and the jokes. For example, the one about Ann Romney heaving a sigh of relief that now she wouldn’t have to live in a smaller house.

Indeed, Mitt Romney was too rich for his own good. He could have been Donald Trump. In fact, he could have been so many things.  Even Sarah Palin, if one goes by his performance in the discussion on foreign policy. Or, at least, how the debate was perceived.

In an incisive piece in the form of a note to the Republicans asking them to cheer up because they’ve just elected a moderate Republican, William Saletan wrote in Slate:

“Remember how Democrats ridiculed George W. Bush’s troop surge in Iraq? Obama copied it in Afghanistan. He escalated the drone program, killing off al-Qaida’s leaders. He sent SEAL Team 6 into Pakistan to get Osama Bin Laden. He teamed up with NATO to take down Muammar Qaddafi. He reneged on his pledge to close Guantanamo Bay. He put together a globally enforced regime of sanctions that is bringing Iran’s economy to its knees. That’s why Romney had nothing to say in last month’s foreign policy debate. No sensible Republican president would have done things differently.”

The good thing about the American system is that it has two political parties. For those of us who have to deal with so many conflicting choices, this appears focused. The debates also tend to reveal a level of transparency. The ‘no more than two terms’ rule is also great.

However, what happens when the lines get blurred between the two major parties? Would people not have other options – independents are, well, independent? Aren’t the debates essentially reality TV, and a charade for the most part? Do people really decide based on banter?

President Obama has talked about finishing his work: “the best is yet to come”. While it is true that no political leader can complete the work, it does also imply an element of failure. It may be attributed to circumstantial factors, stubbornness or an attitude of trying to please some or please too many. This sort of optimism is a straw to hang on to when the winds are harsh.

Romney in his concession speech said:

“The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can't risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people's work. And we citizens also have to rise to the occasion. We look to our teachers and professors. We count on you not just to teach, but to inspire our children with a passion for learning and discovery.”

Think of the months when the two leaders were flinging accusations at each other, of the lies that were tabulated, and of the humongous amount of money spent to prop up much-raking instead of anything concrete and you know that the people vote for what they think is their belief. It is this belief that will bring them out to celebrate, to stand up for what is good, to protest and to occupy, to get beaten up. Because, casting their vote is only the start of the battle. Promises do not ensure rights. For those, it is an ongoing fight.

© Farzana Versey