Where are the sparrows?

It is easy to run down television, but aren't we overdoing its impact on children?

Does it convey a dumbing down if children between three and four can recall names of brands and TV channels, but do not recognise a sparrow?

TOI reporting on the survey conducted by Podar Institute across a few schools in Mumbai started with this statement:

“Parents often pride themselves on their children’s skills but a recent survey might leave many embarrassed."

Many parents these days push their children on TV reality shows. One might question some of them, and even the intent to be in the public eye, but it is essentially to showcase the talent they think their kids possess.

Before such shows, children invariably were asked to perform before visitors - “Beta, recite that poem...show aunty that dance...tell uncle how you will save your sister with karate chops..." (How many children are asked to show skills in mathematics or history?) TV shows have given a wider platform to these same performances. While I do get pretty disgusted watching people so young make adult moves, tell off-colour jokes, is it not a fact that in real life this would be seen as 'older than her/his age'?

The survey sample was 2000 — 500 each from the 3/4 year and fe/male gender bracket. It also concentrated on a fairly uniform socio-economic background. The director of the institute observed:

“Children learn many things from watching television, especially commercials. Brands are not something parents or schools teach, but kids automatically absorb the information because it comes from a very colourful medium.”

I would extend the argument to iconic people and events as brands. The images of Gandhi are 'colourful' — his clothes, glasses, spinning wheel, and his quick gait. I recall a cousin dressing up as Tagore for a fancy dress competition and another as Indira Gandhi, much as one sees them on some reality shows. What, then, makes the latter bad? Some kids talk about events, and although I vehemently oppose children being used to make a point about religion or terrorism, one may surmise that they are not unaware of things around them.

The absorption is based on observation. If 85 per cent could name brands of chocolate, is it only due to the onslaught of televised images? There is no doubt that a story related to the product makes it easy to remember, but what child of an earlier generation would not tell you about the same, and even of other products? Perhaps, if a survey was conducted in those days, the results may not have been too different. I clearly recall Kiss Me toffees and Cadbury's.

90% could identity fast-food joints and names of powdered energy drinks. Is it because of the electronic media or more access? More families are eating out and the family dinner is about where to eat as much as what to eat. Energy drinks on TV work in tandem with how parents force them down kids. Again, Bournvita, Horlick's and Ovaltine have always been used to lure children to have milk.

The input has a lot to do with availability. Tigers are exotic, so everyone was aware about them. The reason probably only 20% could recognise sparrows is because they are not as visible as they used to be. This is borne out by the fact that crows scored better with 70%.

This same principal applies to fruits. Kiwis, bananas, pears, pineapples were known; only 12% could spot chikoos.

There is too much concern about the influence of consumerism. Children do not think about that. If they’d see butterflies, they’d still chase them. If we want to give the butterfly a brand name and they recall that, it does not denude the wonder they feel for it.

© Farzana Versey


Firing from Sunil Tripathi’s shoulders

They found his body in a river. He might have been any 22-year-old, but in the past ten days his face and name became the cause of social media speculation. To analyse it as mere online dysfunctional behaviour would be superficial. It reveals deep-seated prejudices.

Sunil Tripathi, a student of Brown University in the US, went missing on March 16, after he quit his studies. He had left behind his wallet and cellphone in his dorm room.  His parents started a search, using every possible avenue, most prominently a Facebook page and YouTube videos. His photograph became familiar.

A month later, on April 16, the bomb blasts happened in Boston at the Marathon. Of the two men in the blurred images, one resembled Sunil, whose face had brought out so much sympathy from strangers. It got linked to the blasts by virtue of the vague similarity, and his disappearance. Devious mischief-makers projected this as a case of 'Hindu terror'.

When it was confirmed that the two attackers were Chechens, and Muslim, there was counter-jubilation. Sunil's unfortunate death at such a young age got transformed into martyrdom. The medical coroner said that there was no evidence of foul play.

There is every reason to believe it, for he had no connection with the Chechen brothers and had made no overt attempts that would reveal where he was. An accident, a mugging gone wrong are possibilities. He was also depressed.

His death and the blasts are far removed and yet in public memory they will be seen together.

Rather surprisingly, it isn't just by outsiders. The Independent reports

“The family of Mr Tripathi, who was studying philosophy, said they were trying to seize on last week’s negative publicity and use it in their efforts to trace the young man."

I can understand the situation. But, will anyone say the Tripathis did not care for the victims of the Boston blasts? Or that they are not concerned about terrorism? Of course, they are. They live in the country. Sunil was getting a good education. Their attempt to use the negative publicity could be attributed to desperation.

In fact, except for that one statement, they have shown amazing grace. In a statement where they thanked the public for their support, they also added:

“Take care of one another. Be gentle, be compassionate. Be open to letting someone in when it is you who is faltering. Lend your hand. We need it. The world needs it."

This has not happened among the rabid Hindu rightwing. For them, it became an occasion to bait Islamists, and everyone was seen as such only because of the faith they were born into or pursued. Those who had not even mentioned Sunil were taunted as supporters of terrorism. There is just so much insecurity that no one cares about those who die because of terrorism, wherever they are. To assume that one billion people are terrorists is absurd. To assume that all of these one million support acts of terror is vile. To convey that except for those belonging to the faith of the terrorists, everyone is a natural victim reveals a truly superior delusional mindset.

One might recall the denial about Dhiren Barot, Al Qaida’s “first Hindu operative”. I had written then:

The Barot episode brings the prejudices even more sharply to the fore. The British Indians are distancing themselves from his Hindu origins. The message being that it is only "those Muslims" who indulge in terrorist activities. This is a curious denial of contemporary history, for Indian Muslims have been systematically put to test due to Hindu radicalism. And it has not been done by militant organisations, but by the State establishment in places like Gujarat.

Using a young man's death to gain sympathy for a cause is as bad as those who implicated him. However, the “editors of the Reddit social-news forum apologised for what they said turned into a 'witch-hunt'."

What sort of hunt is on now? It is disturbing because instead of putting matters to rest, as Sunil Tripathi's parents have done — and they should have been granted the privacy to mourn — the web world is not going to let it go. They know little about Chechnya, and the fact that two bomb blasts in Pakistan, one in Peshawar and another in Karachi, were carried out by Chechens. So much for pan-Islamism, Muslim brotherhood and uniformity.

In India, we do know that there is Hindutva terror, either by what people like to call 'fringe elements' or by organised groups, and in rare cases elements within the state machinery.

It most certainly is not to the extent of fundamentalist jihad, and the primary reason is that Hinduism is not practised in as many regions in the world as Islam is. Fanatic Islamists end up as enemies of their own people. Where does the Al Qaida operate from? Where is the Taliban concentrated in? The Hezbollah? What has happened to the Arab nations that strove for democracy? The rebels ended up electing religious leaders.

Where does the anti-kafir stand figure in all of this? We just read about the minaret destroyed in Syria. Mosques are bombed. I don't care much about buildings, although their sanctity lies in what they offer to the devotees, like any other place of worship. But why are people who pray to the same god targeted? This is not collateral damage, for they are planned attacks.

As long as this will be ignored to give forum to an archetype, it will bring out just how inhumane social discourse has become where death become theatre. The baggage of bigotry spares no innocents.

The tragedy of Sunil Tripathi is that he got caught up between other deaths before dying. 

© Farzana Versey



Sunday ka Funda

...“ghayal kiya re mora jigar..."

Shamshad Begum had 'died' so often by rumours of her demise that when early this week she passed on I could merely think of one word that truly encapsulated her for me: the 'other'.

As a youngster, whenever her songs were played and people at home seemed to enjoy them, I would think about all those who mimicked her by holding their noses. The top notes of her voice are indeed nasal, but if you just wait and get drawn into the depth you can trace the plaintiveness that suggests walking the razor's edge.

She rarely sang for the female lead. She became the voice of the other woman, in more ways than the typical one. There was a challenge in the way she sang, saucy and irreverent. “Duniya hai mere peechhe, lekin main tere peechhe (the world is after me, but I chase/long for you)" or "Kaheen pe nigaahein, kaheen pe nishana (the eye looks one way, but aims darts another elsewhere)"

This quality shone in this 'Mughal-e-Azam' qawwali. I watched it a few years ago in its tarted-up colour version and was blown over by the fact that Lata Mangeshkar may sound like the nightingale, but Shamshad Begum at least in this one recognised the battle. Prince Salim had pitted the slave woman and the courtesan against each other. You can sense the hunger in Shamshad Begum's voice, wonderfully enacted by Nigar Sultana. There was a complacency in the Madhubala-Lata combination that relied only on lyrics.

Since the prince could not decide, he presented Nigar with the flower and Madhubala with a thorn. Her riposte is now part of 'dialogue' lore when she said, “Kaanton ko murjhane ka khauf nahin (thorns don't have to fear withering)".

She was the heroine. But I can sense the edginess in Shamshad Begum that would have crushed the rose even before it could die.


Who is a bad politician, Mr. Salman Khurshid?

When politicians do some introspection, they are planning to quit their party, or have got wind of being thrown out, or they have decided that a little bit of self-whipping adds a tragic edge to their persona, besides being trumpeted as “plain-speak”.

On Sunday, while addressing bureaucrats on Civil Services Day, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid elaborated on the subject of 'Civil Services: Fit for the Future?' It was a ridiculously-worded subject, to begin with. Does it mean the services are unfit now, or that they will take over the future?

Let us take his words:

"We can make a civil servant fit but the big question is that how do we get fit politicians? It's my opinion that the electoral system we have is actually inclined to find the worst people for politics. Good people stay away from politics.”

The electoral system does not find politicians; it elects what is on offer. It is political parties that recruit members and then, depending on sycophancy, nepotism and, in rare cases, performance, they manage to get a ticket to political heaven.

As usual, the media started discussing the straightforward Mr. Khurshid, who is not quite the perfect politician himself. It turned out to be a smart move, then, for the FM. He was not critiquing political parties that are the root cause of the problem; he used an amorphous idea of politics with the good-bad moral masala to it. If good people are so important, then why are the ones that are proven to be bad allowed to remain in politics and hold important positions? We have criminals who are granted tickets and even contest from behind bars.

Besides, how does one define good people? Are they capable, are they honest, are they team players, are they individualistic? All these questions apply to any profession. Politics is not even seen as profession. You have businessmen, lawyers, doctors, journalists, film stars, armymen being welcomed. One does not appear to need any qualification other than to “serve the people”. Take a look at how portfolios are handed out. Does the industries minister know a thing about industries? Or, the civil aviation, education, environment ministers? These, as the others, would benefit from some knowledge, if not specialisation. Instead, those who are qualified end up in the Planning Commission or such mindless ‘bodies’.

I also have a problem with this ‘good people’ optimism that is floating around. It is clearly an attempt to get hold of the youth/citizens’ groups, assuming that because they are out in the streets fighting for a cause, their heart is in the right place. Goodness, apparently, is about such ‘heartfelt’ expressions.  

Mr. Khurshid chose a non-political platform, and would not dare name the bad politicians. His words were essentially to co-opt the bureaucrats:

"We stopped trusting each other. Both politicians and civil servants can make mistakes but now every mistake is seen as corruption. We need role models in civil servants and politicians for national renaissance.”

There! All those files and scams are now nothing about “good people”, but how every mistake by bureaucrats and politicians gets magnified as corruption. We do not need role models; we need people who can do their job. We do not need a renaissance; we need to clear the garbage.

There was a point when the minister seemed to have become a priest:

He said the idea of 'committed bureaucracy' in some states with civil servants owing allegiance to a particular party was an unwelcome thing and advised bureaucrats to say no to signing files under political pressure. When asked by a secretary-level officer in the audience that he would pay the price since there would be ten other bureaucrats ready to take his place and sign the file, Khurshid said: "Those ten civil servants will not be remembered in history...only that one will be remembered."

For the information on the ‘good’ minister, bureaucrats have a history of being independently corrupt. Mantralaya, and its equivalents in the states and the Centre, is the first stop for businessmen and others who want to get their work done. The “chai-paani” (a little bribe) phrase starts at the peon level and the “kaam ho jaayega” (the work will be done) is the final nod from the boss. This is where files do the good old in-out.

If it is a big ticket passing of orders, it needs government approval.  It does not matter to the bureaucrat who is in power, but who will make him powerful enough or be ignorant enough to ignore what happens. Mr. Khurshid wanted to make the civil servants feel empowered, but putting the onus on a ‘committed bureaucracy’ is like asking a guy to carry a condom in a whorehouse. It is only about saving one’s skin.

As regards history remembering a bureaucrat, the minister might like to take the names of a few. He will find that their achievements are about what they did for which leader. Perhaps, this whole exercise was to prop up one bureaucrat who became a politician and history will certainly remember – our dear Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh.

PS: It is worth noting that there is no Politicians Day.

© Farzana Versey


The Times...it isn't a-changin'...

Like most things in life, The Times of India has been a habit. It is easy to break, but I never felt the need to give it the 'kick'. There was a time, not too long ago, when it made one sound above it all to state that you read the paper because of R.K. Laxman's cartoons. It was a bit like some insisting they read Playboy for the articles.

TOI has completed 175 years. It talks about being young at heart. It has provided me enough boo-boos to pick on; it has educated me about society divas I did not know existed; it has reduced the sanctity of the masthead and of its front page by selling it to advertisers. The only thing that can be said is that it is upfront about it.

Going through today's edition from the archives I found some gems I'd like to share with some observations:

This was the front page on what was undoubtedly the most significant event after Partition. TOI even then loved showing off about being on top of the heap - just above the masthead. However, instead of its now cautious "allegedly", it mentioned in clear words that the assassin was a Maratha from Poona. It also gave Jinnah's words importance. But I doubt if it would really bother today if Czechoslovakia (new name notwithstanding) expressed regret.

I know there are many naysayers, but had India and Pakistan not continued to be so obsessed with each other as problems, outside forces would have just had to lay off. I find Jinnah's statement pragmatic.

The Emergency has only been spoken of as "the dark chapter" in India's history, mainly because of its clampdown on newspapers. If we think about it without 'freedom of speech' in mind, then just how many literate Indians were there that constituted the reading public affected by it? And Indira Gandhi was right in at least one fact - that India is one of the most relaxed in terms of freedom of expression. Of course, I do not condone the Emergency, but from this quote we can see that 'objectivity' is still not evident in the newspapers and now the electronic media. Reportage continues to tilt and have agendas.

TOI has started one more of its weird 'innovative' ways to separate news from opinion. All op-ed pieces have started to use the first person in small letters. It is not 'I', but 'i'.

i'm not not sure whether it is to convey that the writing is more important than the writer. That won't happen. The mugshot, the byline and bottomline (where you find new professions and of course "bestselling authors") remove all doubt that self-effacement is not in sight. 

Yet, as i said, the TOI tries to amuse whenever it can. Aren't we amused?


Human interest exhibits

It is always heartwarming to discover that a human interest story manages to result in some concrete action - there are people willing to help, many anonymously. 

So, where is the problem? 

A 17-month-old infant from Agartala was born with a head too large “with a 30-inch circumference, is at least three inches bigger than a football", as reports state. 

Runa's father is a daily wage worker, and treatment for hydrocephalus - fluid retention in the skull - is not fool-proof. The newspaper carried the story under its Times Impact, which I have issues with. How would it assume an impact? Does it not amount to autosuggestion, and emotional blackmail? All help will be diverted through the newspaper. Does this qualify as reportage? 

A day later, the paper announced:

“Besides numerous calls and email queries from around the world, a dozen people have offered to help in her treatment, some even from Canada and London. Foreign media, too, has contacted TOI to produce a documentary on little Runa’s life."

As I said, the fact that people come forward is always a positive step. But what exactly would a 17-month-old's life story mean? This is nothing but using the child as an exhibit, no different from how some people around her might look upon her as a monstrosity. 

She cannot move. So, what can be said about her other than that? I would understand if this offer was after a successful surgery, to document the growth chart. 

It isn't the first time. Many human interest stories start with great promise, and then become mere machines for exploitation.


PS: I have deliberately filtered the photograph.


Regurgitating Jihad: Boston Marathon

Is she dead? Injured? Her limbs blown off? I will never know. I knew her only as a pseudonym. She often spoke about training for the marathon. She was, from all accounts, rather fit “for my age”. I did not know how old or young she was. I only discovered the tremendous effort she put in for something that gave her so much joy, such a sense of achievement.

Stray exchanges revealed that she was a nurse of Pakistani origin. However, I felt her constant assertion of her American nationality a bit overarching. There was a touch of insecurity, and I know how it feels.

Take any attack and the first word on everyone’s lips – and that probably constitutes most non-Americans too – is jihadi. Miles away, my first thought was not one of sympathy, but “Hope it is not a Muslim” on hearing about the Boston Marathon bomb blasts. Paranoia is dehumanising us, instead of making us more sensitive. I was shocked that President Barack Obama was berated for not calling it a “terrorist attack”.  The same people who demand the use of the catchphrase refer to the many more trigger-happy young kids and racists as gunmen and almost always there is an attempt to understand their behaviour in terms of “mental instability”.

It is not a very healthy attitude when only due to one’s origins we wait for the insiders to voice our thoughts and heave a sigh of relief. I usually do not hold back, but even when I openly give another perspective, I am always aware that I will be judged not dispassionately for what I say, but for ‘who’ I am.

And so when I read Glenn Greenwald write in The Guardian that a day after the April 15 Boston attack, “42 people were killed and more than 250 injured by a series of car bombs, the enduring result of the US invasion and destruction of that country”, I thought more people would understand. Greenwald by virtue of not being a Muslim is quite above any suspicion or agenda. There will most certainly be people who might castigate him, but he will not be seen as someone who is paid by terrorists.

Here are some salient points from his piece and my reaction to them:

“The widespread compassion for yesterday's victims and the intense anger over the attacks was obviously authentic and thus good to witness. But it was really hard not to find oneself wishing that just a fraction of that compassion and anger be devoted to attacks that the US perpetrates rather than suffers. These are exactly the kinds of horrific, civilian-slaughtering attacks that the US has been bringing to countries in the Muslim world over and over and over again for the last decade, with very little attention paid. Somehow the deep compassion and anger felt in the US when it is attacked never translates to understanding the effects of our own aggression against others.”

I am not too sure if empathy is the solution, as the tweet he reproduces reveals. How can it when the immediate reaction is to hark back to 9/11, without even trying to comprehend the difference in the reasons and manner in which the attacks were carried out? 

It would be expecting too much for the large majority of Americans to be concerned about Yemen or Iraq just as Iraqis and Yemenis would not empathise with America; for most of them, their contact is with US forces sent to protect them.  It is not incumbent upon the citizens to rationalise. This is the job of the government, and political expediency demands creating a fear psychosis. None of the countries the US has intervened in has benefited from its democratic ideals.

“The rush, one might say the eagerness, to conclude that the attackers were Muslim was palpable and unseemly, even without any real evidence. The New York Post quickly claimed that the prime suspect was a Saudi national (while also inaccurately reporting that 12 people had been confirmed dead)…Anti-Muslim bigots like Pam Geller predictably announced that this was ‘Jihad in America’.”

The victims of this so-called jihad are largely Muslims. I do not know what sort of religiosity would make them target their own places of worship, their own people. This is proof that their ideology is to use the name of a faith, much as others use the patriotic card to whip up xenophobic sentiments. It is, indeed, the job of investigators to question people, but getting hold of a Saudi national immediately and then making it public does convey that it wasn’t about investigations; rather, it does seem more like a gotcha moment. Osama bin Laden is dead. The Al Qaeda is not a unified group anymore. I do not need to emphasise again that George Bush was quite friendly with the House of Saud and Osama was himself a tactical weapon of the CIA during the Russian war in Afghanistan.

“Recall that on the day of the 2011 Oslo massacre by a right-wing, Muslim-hating extremist, the New York Times spent virtually the entire day strongly suggesting in its headlines that an Islamic extremist group was responsible, a claim other major news outlets (including the BBC and Washington Post) then repeated as fact. The same thing happened with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.…in US political discourse, "terrorism" has no real meaning other than: violence perpetrated by Muslims against the west. The reason there was such confusion and uncertainty about whether this was "terrorism" is because there is no clear and consistently applied definition of the term. At this point, it's little more than a term of emotionally manipulative propaganda.”

I have often wondered why this does not qualify as a conspiracy against a community when so many conspiracy theories prevail. The Atlantic Wire mentioned the Boston Police Department's final press conference where Dan Bidondi, a radio host for InfoWars, asked:

“Why were the loud speakers telling people in the audience to be calm moments before the bombs went off? Is this another false flag staged attack to take our civil liberties and promote homeland security while sticking their hands down our pants on the streets?”

To further quote from the piece on what a "false flag" attack is:

“The term then expanded to mean any scenario under which a military attack was undertaken by a person or organization pretending to be something else. What the questioner was asking, then, was: Did the United States government orchestrate this attack, pretending to be a terrorist organization of some sort, in order to justify expanded security powers?”

I would understand if the manipulative machinery projected the view about “devices found”, “threat perception”, “intelligence reports”, or even conducted a mock exercise. I very much doubt if the US government would endanger the lives of its people to actually organise an attack. It will most likely want to create fear among the citizens, and that should be enough to grant it the privilege to use its security powers. It has used 9/11 as a propaganda ploy, and this has worked because the United States was not accustomed to being attacked on this scale.

Does a nation go on the offensive against countries where the perpetrators could be without any evidence? The runners are innocent and so are the villagers who live under threat of drones. The point is no one should be stuck on empathy. We cannot feel the pain. And, for all his genuinely balanced opinion, Greenwald too when speaking about ethnic groups feeling alienated added, “even though leading Muslim-American groups such as CAIR harshly condemned the attack (as they always do) and urged support for the victims, including blood donations”.

This is the problem. You have to state it loud and clear. Stand on the soapbox and declare that your heart is clean and you care. It would be so much better, and convey the true spirit of America, if these people were not boxed into a group, and instead seen as US citizens like any other. Here, it sounds as though they are being granted the magnanimity of being ‘like us’, and not ‘like them’.  

© Farzana Versey


Sunday ka Funda

(From a Zen Fable)

Provided he makes and wins an argument about Buddhism with those who live there, any wandering monk can remain in a Zen temple. If he is defeated, he has to move on.

In a temple in the northern part of Japan two brother monks were dwelling together. The elder one was learned, but the younger one was stupid and had but one eye.

A wandering monk came and asked for lodging, properly challenging them to a debate about the sublime teaching. The elder brother, tired that day from much studying, told the younger one to take his place. "Go and request the dialogue in silence," he cautioned.

So the young monk and the stranger went to the shrine and sat down.

Shortly afterwards the traveler rose and went in to the elder brother and said: "Your young brother is a wonderful fellow. He defeated me."

"Relate the dialogue to me," said the elder one.

"Well," explained the traveler, "first I held up one finger, representing Buddha, the enlightened one. So he held up two fingers, signifying Buddha and his teaching. I held up three fingers, representing Buddha, his teaching, and his followers, living the harmonious life. Then he shook his clenched fist in my face, indicating that all three come from one realization. Thus he won and so I have no right to remain here." With this, the traveler left.

"Where is that fellow?" asked the younger one, running in to his elder brother.

"I understand you won the debate."

"Won nothing. I'm going to beat him up."

"Tell me the subject of the debate," asked the elder one.

"Why, the minute he saw me he held up one finger, insulting me by insinuating that I have only one eye. Since he was a stranger I thought I would be polite to him, so I held up two fingers, congratulating him that he has two eyes. Then the impolite wretch held up three fingers, suggesting that between us we only have three eyes. So I got mad and started to punch him, but he ran out and that ended it!"

The Jew Wears Plastic

"When the movie Jurassic Park was shown in Israel, it was condemned by some Orthodox rabbis because it accepted evolution and because it taught that dinosaurs lived a hundred million years ago--when, as is plainly stated at every Rosh Hashonhan and every Jewish wedding ceremony, the Universe is less than 6,000 years old."

- Carl Sagan

How come no one is disturbed, frightened, alerted by a man on an aircraft all wrapped up in plastic?

In an increasingly xenophobic world, one can only marvel that the gentleman in the picture managed to travel without incident. From reports, it emerges that he belongs to the Israeli priestly class:

According to Haaretz: “Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, the leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community in Israel, published a halakhic ruling in the past stipulating that Cohens mustn’t fly... because they are prohibited from flying over a cemetery.“

Later, Rabbi Eliashiv found a solution to this issue, ruling that wrapping oneself in thick plastic bags while the plane crossed over the cemetery is permissible.”Indeed, there seems to be some precedent for holy men attempting to travel in plastic bags to and from Israel.

- Aren't there security concerns?

- What if there is air turbulence and he is asked to take off his new garment?

- How does one identify his status and motives?

- Will this leniency be extended to other religious considerations?

The report says that since he made it to his destination, it is likely there was a hole in the plastic for him to breathe.

Now, would that hole not be adequate enough to permit defilement? I also wonder how plastic, the defiler of Nature, is seen as a protector. Besides, should not people of god who are marketing the Maker on earth be accepting of death, which will finally give them an audience with her/him?

While one respects people's beliefs, where does one draw the line in terms of social space?


Will Tytler get away again?

The re-opening of the case yesterday against Congress leader Jagdish Tytler for his role in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots could prove to be a boon for the party. Just when it has to deal with those pesky Wikileaks revelations about Rajiv Gandhi's middleman role in procuring fighter jets, it can flash the Delhi Court order as serious intent to seek justice.

Tytler, along with Sajjan Kumar and H.K.L.Bhagat, was largely responsible for what happened in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination by her security guards, who happened to be Sikh.

What followed was not only genocide, but complete misuse of power. It has been typical of governments to target innocents when they fail to deal with a group's demands or aspirations. It was no different in the case of Sikhs. It was, anyway, the Centre's misguided attitude that resulted in Operation Bluestar. And even if the then prime minister was killed because of disaffection, it had nothing to do with the community, and most certainly not the way a ruling party uses the system to decimate it's citizens.

If it got its ministers and the police to do its bidding then, it continued having a hold on the Central Bureau of Investigation. Therefore, the mere reopening of the case against Tytler, who was exonerated, ought to raise more questions than to result in jubilation.

The Delhi High Court cannot possibly serve as the final stop. It has directed the CBI, which will have to clear its own mischief (what we politely refer to as error of omission) first. Not only did it claim he had no role once, but twice - in 2007 when its closure report was rejected and in 2009.

Three murders and the absence of key witnesses in court (they had moved to America) does not prove innocence. Yet, the Congress let him contest from New Delhi, the city of his crime. Why was he not answerable? There are many ministers from various parties who have a criminal record, but this somehow becomes public knowledge. In Tytler's case, the knowledge itself is brushed away, clearly revealing a tony old boys' protective ring.

He had even talked about his emotional incarceration: “It is very difficult to explain what I am going through. Nobody understands that. But after 22 years of fighting false charges, I am thankful to god. I knew from the very beginning that the affidavit was full of lies. Why else would somebody file an affidavit 22 years after the incident happened. I was not even in Delhi on the day of the first incident and was in a TV studio on the second day. But the media hyped that conspiracy to such a level that it dragged on for so long.”

The CBI had said he was not in the gurdwara, where the three men were killed, but in Teen Murti Bhavan, which happens to be in Delhi. And what was he doing in a TV studio the next day? Why was he not helping to quell the mobs?

There are many images that have stayed, whether in the media or through stories related. Of people being beaten up. Of local bullies being paid to kill. Of people fleeing. Of men throwing off their turbans and cutting their hair. Or women and children that remained in camps. Waiting. Justice became a matter of survival. Food. Clothes. Shelter.

I still cannot get over the fact that despite this horrendous black mark, Rajiv Gandhi - the one who explained the murderous rampage as “when a big tree falls the earth shakes" - took over as prime minister in what has been called a ‘sympathy wave'. No sympathy for the hundreds dead.

The police seemed to follow political instructions, but there was this photograph of Kiran Bedi, lathi in hand, fighting a mob. Was she the lone rebel?

In later years, as Director General of Police, K.P.S.Gill took charge of dealing with terrorism in Punjab. I still remember a senior media person writing after Gill's infamous bottom-patting of a woman IAS officer that this should not result in any serious punishment as the ‘supercop' was a national asset.

One must also realise that no group is above political expediency. The 2004 photograph of Tytler is one such example. As Union Minister of State he was honoured with a 'siropa' by Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee President Prahlad Singh Chandok at a function.

It only shows that those holding positions of authority can forget and be co-opted easily with the promise of a few sops. The ordinary people need to raise their voices. Closure must not wipe out history.

(c) Farzana Versey


Queen of Suburbia or Barbaria: Margaret Thatcher?

With her portrait. Pic: The Telegraph

She came closest to being monarchy, so it is only apt that they promise her a funeral no less than Lady Diana’s.  Britons are terribly excited about her last rites, and many seem to convey that it is to make sure she is finally buried.

Her death at 87 should have been a regular and, one may say, redundant R.I.P. Instead, there has been a fusillade of anger, impossible to temper with the accolades. 

She was quite rightly loathed for the things she did. However, given the lapse of time and the fact that the British government continues to be one of the nations that supports war and uses its Hague privilege for not entirely ethical reasons, has her death become a reason for regurgitation of liberal angst?

Morrisey, the former Smiths singer, was among the first to get started:

"Every move she made was charged by negativity; she destroyed the British manufacturing industry, she hated the miners, she hated the arts, she hated the Irish Freedom Fighters and allowed them to die, she hated the English poor and did nothing at all to help them, she hated Greenpeace and environmental protectionists, she was the only European political leader who opposed a ban on the Ivory Trade, she had no wit and no warmth and even her own Cabinet booted her out…When the young Argentinian boys aboard The Belgrano had suffered a most appalling and unjust death, Thatcher gave the thumbs up sign for the British press. Iron? No. Barbaric? Yes.”

Had it been somebody else, perhaps even Di, people might have questioned Morrisey’s misogyny.  He got lucky simply because Maggie Thatcher liked being the only man in the cabinet.  What is considered a shocking statement is being replayed in a loop. She had said, infamously, “The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.”

The Queen and the queen. Pic: Mirror

Somewhere, the ire over issues has got mixed up with a matter of class.  The Grocer’s Daughter sounds like the title of a 19th century novel about a queen of suburbia; she cannot afford to be the Iron Lady, much less be conferred with the title of Baroness by a reigning monarch who did not even like her and who she appeared to have despised in equal measure.  If she is anti-feminism, then the queen is equally culpable.

Morrisey reveals his own chinks when he says:

"She hated feminists even though it was largely due to the progression of the women's movement that the British people allowed themselves to accept that a Prime Minister could actually be female. But because of Thatcher, there will never again be another woman in power in British politics, and rather than opening that particular door for other women, she closed it.”

This is a problem not just about Britain, but in societies across the globe, varied cultures notwithstanding. While the role of the feminist movement is hugely important in making women understand their potential and seek out opportunities to realise them, it is a delusion to believe that all women benefit equally. They do not, and the struggles continue. It is disingenuous to imagine that only because of one dictatorial woman’s policies, British society will not accept another woman at the helm. It does not speak too well about such a society if women have to open doors (kind of mimicking chivalry) for other women rather than this being civilisational evolution. Are male leaders who have displayed a propensity for the very things that Ms. Thatcher did expected to help the cause of their gender?

Iron Lady or war monger? Pic: Mirror

Why treat the professional public sphere as a harem? Why don’t male leaders bring about this change in attitude and leave the space open for women as their right and not something they are granting them?  Feminism is, ideally, not about sops, although one agrees that certain laws need to ensure that women are not victimised by a largely patriarchal mindset. When French President, the late François Mitterrand described Thatcher’s features as the "eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe", he was performing a typical masculine ritual – of using a compliment as a weapon. Monroe, at least in the public imagination, stood for little more than sex appeal; Caligula’s warrior status is the stuff of legend. Had he stuck to the latter piece, it might have reduced him in some way.

This is echoed in Morrisey, when he states:

“Thatcher is remembered as The Iron Lady only because she possessed completely negative traits such as persistent stubbornness and a determined refusal to listen to others.”

How many male leaders listen to others? Why is this expected of women? Why does the moniker ‘Iron lady’ convey negative traits in women and the same iron looks good on a man on a mission with stubborn determination?

It is rather disconcerting that there wasn’t, and isn’t, much analysis of how Margaret Thatcher, despite all her flaws, was given the sexist treatment. Feminists are, therefore, doing precisely what men have done, which is why despite my own stand against her policies – in as much as I am aware of them and can comprehend their impact – I find myself asking these questions.

A few days ago U.S. President Barack Obama was accused of being sexist because he said that Kamala Harris is the “best looking Attorney General we have ever had”.  It was after listing her other qualities, and many saw it as reducing her stature. It was probably unnecessary, but at times we do tend to become too self-conscious. And, curiously, we believe such public expressions are not ‘gentlemanly’, which is really a posh version of machismo.  

I’d pay more attention to what Obama said in his tribute to Thatcher: “She stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.” This statement sounds so last summer. Must the glass ceiling example still prevail in public discourse and that too for a future generation?  

More than a caricature. The Guardian

In 2010, Margaret Thatcher was declared the most important role model and influential woman in the world in a survey by YouGov and AOL UK; it had a limited sample of 2000 respondents.

How do we measure influence? Can influence in one field cross all barriers? Does political influence translate into social influence? Does social influence coalesce seamlessly into psychological influence?

Is being a role model gender-specific? If it is so, then would the influence of men in the same field be measured differently? Would Thatcher’s male counterparts be considered more influential or less, and on what grounds? Since there was a clear gender orientation to the survey, she was in competition with other women. Her closest competitor was Florence Nightingale! Who would think about a nurse going around with a lantern to heal wounded soldiers as a contemporary inspiration?  Or was she a reminder of wars and therefore fresh again in memory?

The most revealing part of the survey was the question: who would they swap their lives with? Thatcher who won the top position was not someone they would want to be. Isn’t that what role models are about? Most women said they would like to exchange places with J.K.Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series.

Does it figure then that a woman who is not worthy of emulation and has not inspired or encouraged or had a deep impact is the one people want to be? Or possibly Thatcher had too much baggage for anyone to carry. 

On April 17, if she does indeed get a funeral similar to the paparazzi princess, it is safe to assume that many might see this as the last nail in the coffin, an insult she deserved.

(c) Farzana Versey