Sunday ka Funda

You go out for a meal and take a picture and post it. What are you really telling the world? You drive and capture the streets, the clouds, sunsets. Are any of these new to those who see them? You meet friends and one of the most important takeaways from this "wonderful evening" is to pose for a selfie, after taking picture of tea and snacks and of the interesting tree in the compound.

I can't say all of this is a recent phenomenon. I have done much of this, although I believe that taking a photograph of a meal you share with somebody is an intrusion into their space as much as yours. The same is true of wanting to capture any and every meeting.

This is not a judgment, for I am aware that I'd be guilty at some point in time of all of these. It points out to the utter isolation, so much so that even real interactions seem legitimate only when they are virtualised.

Like this very normal view of the balcony and from it. It is a wry comment on what we have become, the bareness of the room only highlighting disengagement with reality:


Sunday ka Funda

Much as I detest crass ambitiousness – whether it be in the professional sphere, or the one-upmanship of social interactions, not to speak about the more damaging one of close personal relationships – I find some kinds of politically correct and syrupy assertions to the contrary examples of stepping on toes. They convey that by not doing so, someone will benefit from the munificence. It gives them a higher place to function from.

When this becomes cultural, it results in supremacist ideology. A slightly different view is expressed thus:

“Politeness is organized indifference.”
― Paul Valéry

The idea behind much indifference is also supremacist – it can afford to ignore others by faking concern or shielding real intent. 


The cement man: A R Antulay

The perennial brat

A. R. Antulay reminded me of the cartoon character Dennis the Menace. He looked like the brat that popular tales about him in the media reported. His death only brings to the fore the realisation that in his last years his life was fairly invisible.

He was the first victim-villain of an exposé. Long before sting operations, there was Arun Shourie. In the 80s, he, backed by the owner of Indian Express, went all out to unravel what came to be known as the Cement Scandal. All constructions of that period, with peeling plasters and shaky banisters, are attributed to one man. Antulay was the kickbacks man. He gave out-of-turn permits for more cement to builders who then 'donated' to the Indira Gandhi Pratishthan he had set up. To even a casual observer, it would be evident that you cannot start a trust in the name of the prime minister and get away with it unless the PM knows about it.

Cemented ties: with Indira Gandhi

Ramnath Goenka detested Indira Gandhi. Unlike media owners today, he did have an ideological reason. Arun Shourie was to be his hitman. In a series, he built up his case. It became a sensational piece of journalism in the truest sense of exposing the chief minister. The courts pronounced him guilty for the extortion of Rs. 30 crore. It sounds like peanuts today, but was a huge amount then. He, a barrister from Lincoln's Inn, could not defend himself. He probably knew that his only defence was that he was a 'loyalist', a word that encompasses all the flaws of chamchagiri but also possesses a kernel of genuine loyalty.

In Maharshtra, as one from the Konkan region he knew the terrain. It was his territory. But he would only be remembered as the man who gave cement a bad name, and of course as the man Shourie vanquished.

But he was not quite done. A little after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, he was back in the news. Unfortunately, even as he spoke out those words — “I said a man like Karkare is born among millions... Who pushed him into the trap of death? Who sent him there to be killed by the Pakistanis?’’ — I had a queasy feeling that he would be used.

Suddenly, Muslim leaders came out of the woodwork; maulanas stood up for him. That is what bothered me. To question something ought to be a part of democracy and civil society. Antulay had never been a Muslim leader. So, for him to be anointed the “Muslim messiah”, even though he had mentioned Pakistan terrorists, was reducing the argument to the lowest common denominator which we as a society are so good at doing.

Why did he speak out? “Nobody spoke. But I did. I said so because it has been found that a number of things are pushed under the carpet in the name of a state subject. A federal agency is being made... I said it at an opportune moment as a reminder of duty.’’

Many people want to know about Hemant Karkare. Many people were interested that the probe into the Malegaon blasts must not stop. Some wondered about bad timing. If anything, that was the only time to talk.

Antulay was planning to resign. He said so: “I am a self-respecting person... forget the resignation. That is a very simple thing. I had resigned from chief ministership of Maharashtra...when 100% of Congress MLAs were with me.’’ Asked about clarifications, he said, “A clarification is sought when something is hidden.”

I thought then, that whatever be his agenda if any, he should at least stick by his decision. He copped out, instead, with the take-home package of "too err is human" from the UPA-1 PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh for his rebellion. Antulay forgot all about what was pushed under the carpet. He returned to that wonderful portfolio of Minority Affairs Minister, the totem to beat all totems,

Was he an extortionist or a contortionist? A victim or a villain? Or will Antulay now be just the grey of a RIP?


The Scarf at Saarc

Some might find it cool, the swagger and the scarf. But all these leaders at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu look like characters in a Bollywood film. They could be part of the rugged terrain, as dacoits. Or, village chiefs ready to extract their pound of flesh from the poor. Or, perhaps they are the rustic version of Men in Black or The Godfather. They could also be members of an extended family that has come together for a wedding, hiding the bad blood between them for public appearance.

Indeed, none of these South Asian leaders has a benign demeanour, at least in this photograph. It is, I suppose, an occupational hazard, but they do have to travel with baggage that is very heavy.


The Taj Mahal's People

Politicians have always hankered after the Taj Mahal, and so it was not surprising that the man known more for his hate speeches than his politics now wants the Taj property to be handed over to the Waqf Board. Nobody will take this seriously, but the responses to Urban Development and Minority Affairs Minister of Uttar Pradesh Azam Khan reveal the desperate need for others to claim it too. It used to be a temple, they say. But, unlike the Babri Masjid, nobody will demolish it because it is a cash cow and the most recognisable monument of India and among those of the world.

The Imam of the Lucknow Eidgah said, “We should be allowed to offer prayers at the Taj Mahal five times a day. We have handed over a memorandum to the chief minister and he has taken it positively.”

Absolutely not. The Taj or any heritage sites suffer the worst due to human intervention. Also, there will be huge logistic and security problems. The one-off music festivals are a bad idea too, but at least they don’t happen everyday. (Here is an old piece on the auctioning of the Taj and other political ideas.)

I am not terribly enamoured of the Taj, but I do believe it makes for some great pictures (as well as some awful ones). The ones that use people are no less than a prayer:

We have all come across such moments and it would fall into the category of stereotype except that photographer Steve McCurry has saved it (obviously so designed) with cropping. The effect is amazing. Just the reflection and perspective can be upside-down, much as how the subject would view it. Meeting of man and monument.  

* * *

The next three photographs are all by Raghu Rai, who creates interesting images. He also stages them. 

Above is an extension of the urban folklore – an everyday scene in the forefront instead of the tourist brochure. What’s particularly noteworthy is that the Taj does not stand out in brilliance against the seemingly ordinary but appears to become part of the tale.

                  * * *

This one looks old Hindi cinema, probably of the 50’s and 60’s. It is obviously staged. I might even call it exploitative, and not for its physicality. The woman’s expression does not belie any torment or ecstasy. She is as stoic as the monument. The pot she carries has no meaning except cosmetic. It is a striking picture because it conveys the human as stone. (She could be a replication of a statue.)

* * *

Superb. There are two ways to read this. Viewed from the crowded cityscape perspective, the Taj is not all that big…it appears here as though an army of protestors is marching towards the palace. Or it could be seen as the shining white light in the area of darkness, the diva sometimes, and the knight sometimes. Finally, it is the reality of the poet... 

“taj ik zinda tasavvur hai kisi shaayar ka
iska afsana haqeeqat ke siva kuchh bhi nahi
iske aaghosh mein aakar ye gumaan hota hai
zindagi jaise muhabbat ke siva kuchh bhi nahi”


Rampal, Ramdev and Political Complicity

He is a criminal. And a godman. He operates from a fortress that he calls an ashram. And his followers are armed. This man should have been arrested long ago. But in India godmen, even the charlatans, not only survive but thrive.

The often-exaggerated reporting on television was this time quite accurate, at least in the scenes they showed us. It did look like a war zone. Sant Rampal began to call himself a saint inspired by Sant Kabir and as happens often managed to attract a crowd of people to believe in him.

There are no checks on such people, and even their crimes are not treated with seriousness. He has been charged with the murder of a villager by one of his devotees, and he has avoided attending court after 40 summons. He is still free. What powers does he possess that no police force, no intelligence agency, no government can find him and put him behind bars?

On Tuesday, cops surrounded the Satlok Ashram, but could do little. Because this despicable 'godman' has transformed his followers into an armed militia. They threw acid and petrol bombs at the police. Worse, they used human shields, including women and children. Bodies were found; seven of his followers are dead, cause not yet ascertained. Rampal is safe.

Some devotees who came out said they had been forced to stay inside; others, almost 2000, put up a brave front and protested on behalf of their guru even as the cops used batons and water cannons.

In all this, the police started beating up the journalists. At some point the news story altered a bit and the focus was on the media being attacked. Nobody knows why this happened. Were there some higher orders to divert attention?

As it turns out, it was the local people of Haryana who forced the authorities to stop water and power to the ashram. But knowing how powerful the ashram is, they would be well-equipped or provisions could be arranged. It is a well laid out high security den that has its secret entrances and exits.

After the violence, fresh charges have been filed by the Haryana Police:

The case has been filed under Sections 121 (waging, or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war, against the Government of India), 121A (conspiring to commit certain offences against the state) and 122 (Collecting arms etc. With the intention of waging war against the Govt of India).

Besides, the cases have also been slapped against the accused under Sections 123 (concealing with intent to facilitate design to wage war) and other charges that include attempt to murder, assault and under various Sections of the Arms Act, police said.

This looks good on paper. But, how did the devotees get an audience with Home Minister Rajnath Singh and also the President of India?

Rampal supporters demanded a CBI probe into allegations of his role in a murder conspiracy. A team of five of his supporters also met President Pranab Mukherjee and submitted a memo seeking a CBI probe. The Union home ministry has so far decided not to intervene, but is closely monitoring events.

Do victims of violence during riots have such access to political leaders?

All this is extremely dangerous because people like Rampal set up a second-rung establishment. 'Baba's Commandos' take direct inspiration from the RSS; they are called the Rashtriya Samaj Sewa Samiti (RSSS). This is how planned it is:

RSSS functions like an army battalion, which is divided into several companies and platoons. Each company and platoon is headed by trained commanders. These days, they assemble every morning and evening to be briefed about their routine for the entire day. Armed with pistols, RSSS's quick reaction team patrol the ashram round the clock. Its intelligence wing is closely monitoring the movement of police in adjoining Barwala and Hisar towns and instantly provides information to their headquarter in the ashram.

There are some 4000 young people in this army that guards the 12-acre property. Do they have a licence for those guns? It is surprising that there has been no big exposé on this.

We have become accustomed to soft power centres that do well because the political power centre might benefit in some manner. Think of Chandraswami, Asaram Bapu, Swami Nityanand, not to speak of the politically active Adityanaths. Ashrams are often dens of money stashing and vice. These are social crimes that feed off the public. Why are they protected?

Just as the Rampal tense situation continues, we are left to ponder over why the new government has decided to provide Z-category security to that other charlatan, Baba Ramdev. 40 CRPF personnel will provide him cover wherever he goes.

Who has threatened him? Have there been any checks? If Z-security is all about vanity, then why is Ramdev, a yogi, granted such vanity even as he must not seek it too? This man has a cure for everything, from AIDS and cancer to homosexuality. What is he vulnerable to?

He is a friend of the BJP who is allowed to often speak on behalf of the government. Nobody in the government questions him or his motives.

We saw him in action during the street protests and his escape wearing a salwaar-kameez. He had audaciously claimed when he was externed after his tamasha at the Ramilla Grounds (the pavilion air-conditioned for his common man comfort): “Today is the blackest day in history. We will observe black day all over India. The fast is not over."

He could see his history as India's history because he has the backing of leaders who believe in a convoluted history. Unfortunately, where such 'spiritual' leaders are concerned, all political parties either fall for their claims or use those claims to cover up their own. Nobody is serious about putting an end to their antics. (Read The Republic of Ramdev and the comments.)

It isn't as simple as bad godmen. It is about bolstered-by-politicians godmen.

With the threat these Babas pose to us, all Indians should get Z-security as protection against them.


[Update: News comes in that Rampal has been arrested. BJP spokespersons are using this as evidence of how they've been quick to end the reign of a "Congress baba". There will be political oneupmanship, and once again this diversion will take away from the blatant abuse of illegal power.]


The Problem with Political Tags: A Rejoinder to Pervez Hoodbhoy

Trapped between Arundhati Roy and Malala, I squirm at the labels.  

How does believing that icons are vulnerable to capitalistic co-opting make me or anybody a communist? The purpose of this piece is, therefore, not so much about Malala Yousafzai as about how she and other issues serve to pigeonhole people. Pervez Hoodbhoy is a respected academic and liberal commentator. He recently wrote an article titled, "Why does Malala Yusufzai’s Nobel bother so many on the Left?"

While quoting from my 2013 piece, he refers to me as a "left-wing author and activist". When did this happen? I do not have a problem aligning with left-wing thought, but I cannot claim to be left-wing simply because I have had no real engagement with the Left politically or in any tangible manner. Also, the word activist should be used judiciously. Indeed, I worked with two NGOs, and many of my earlier feature pieces could be deemed activist in nature. But, again, ethically one does not deserve these appellations.

Labelling is not unlike name-calling, especially if it is aimed at specific individuals. Apportioning tags to groups is less irksome because the name represents an idea that is manifested in the group in some manner. I am guilty of referring to supporters of the rightwing as "Sanghis", and my explanation is that by default they adhere to the RSS philosophy. If one were revolted by it, one would not imbibe the wine in new bottle, so to speak.

Digression aside, I have interacted with Hoodbhoy several times, and met him in Islamabad. He features rather prominently in my book in the section on rebels, including Ahmed Faraz and Ardheshir Cowasjee. His being in it is as normal as my featuring him there. If it reveals his liberalism, then why should it not reveal mine?

He says I "lashed out" at Malala for not realising that she was a victim of child labour even as she spoke about it. I am surprised at such hyperbolic expression from him that reduces my detailed analysis, whether you agree or disagree, to an outburst. His anger against my "leftist" views comes out thus:

"But hang on a bit! This “kid” and “cocooned marionette” did not achieve world-wide admiration for opposing US-led wars or child labour or for a thousand and one other such good-and-great things. The bullet that smashed through her skull came because she opposed the Pakistani Taliban’s edict that all education for girls must end forever in the Swat valley after 15 September 2009, and her vigorous campaign for every girl child’s right to education."

If child labour was of no consequence, why did he point out my "lashing out" at her for it? There were schools in Swat; there are schools in Swat. Why does it always have to be a bullet that awakens Pakistanis?

The dismissal of opposition to the US-led war as among the "thousand and one other such good-and-great things" is disappointing. The worst form of terrorism that common people face has been after US intervention. It does not mean there was no terrorism before, but it was confined to marked areas; it did not spill out into the urban streets as it has in its present form. Hoodbhoy knows all this and more. Has he forgotten? Not quite.

He starts by mentioning Arundhati Roy, and her rather tame and obfuscating quote on Malala after the Nobel. Why anybody would interview her on this subject beats me. Having hemmed and hawed, she manages a few things. Hoodbhoy says, "For one who has championed people's causes everywhere so wonderfully well, these shallow, patronizing remarks were disappointing."

Only disappointing.

It is rather uncomfortable for me to share the page with Roy, even if it is on the subject of Malala. This is the problem with labelling. We end up with people we may not want to have any truck with who enjoy the perks of basking in titular titles.  The supra Maoists, supra Ambedkarites, supra Islamists, supra Media who use all these labels to their advantage knowing well that these labels will not stick. There is a pecking order even in labels.

Public conscience seems to belong to those who gatecrash into causes and do with them what the urban intelligentsia does with Malala — ride on it, but ensuring that they are not left to hold the baby. Their left-leaning is to get a nod from the imperialist sub-sect that looks after the intellectual 'exile'. They come late to the party, and reiterate what has already been said. That is typical capitalist behaviour of doing a recce before investing.

Then, there are the neat halves as exemplified in Hoodbhoy’s quotes that need to be rebutted:

"Unsurprisingly leftist critiques of Malala’s Nobel have been eagerly seized upon by right-wingers ... In the weeks after she was shot, several students at my university told me they see Malala Yousafzai as Malala ‘Dramazai’, an ‘Illuminati Psy Op’, and a willing tool of the West who is out to badmouth Pakistan..."

If it is wrong to blame the holy scripts for fundamentalist inspiration, then why is it so easy to apportion blame on the Left? If the Talibs are not reading the Quran before hitting their next target, then why would they be reading Marx or Chomsky? The few non-standard views I have read have not called her names or doubted that she was shot at. However, it is not really about whether "the West is out to badmouth Pakistan" but the West choosing heroes convenient to it.

If right-wingers in Pakistan are reading Leftist works, then what are right-wingers in India doing that they seize upon the liberals in Pakistan to justify their stand? The moment a Tarek Fatah (Canadian Pakistani writer and "liberal activist") posts a link to the Hoodbhoy piece, Hindutva proponents find an opportunity to gloat. Their other hero is Taslima Nasreen who has absolutely no compunction about being hosted by the right-wing in India and keeping pretty much silent on the atrocities committed by them in the country she chooses to live in, and live off.


The discovery of Nehru

On Nehru's birth anniversary, the idea is not to take away from the majesty of the individual, but to bring into focus the dilemmas that human beings who are forced to be what they are not face.

As he could not give them the loin cloth ethnicity that would give them something to talk about, I suspect Nehru used the buzzword 'industrialisation' to make the British feel that they had done a good job of tutoring the natives. He had no agenda for industrialisation (except socialism!) and he was mighty afraid of the spectre he had created and also envious of those who could do so. Therefore, while Gandhi, who had no interest in the subject, happily partook of the hospitality of the Birlas, Nehru the angel of industrialisation stayed away.

It couldn't have been probity. It was contempt for the Marwari community that had the money and the business acumen to take India towards the unholy grail.

It may be difficult to digest the image of Nehru as a communalist, but in a larger sense he was. In that he was aware of where he came from and from where others did. The doyen of the Parsi community, J R D Tata, had an uneasy relationship with him. If Nehru knew his Mozart, had been to Cambridge and used his silverware with a flourish, so did most Parsis. They built an empire, believed in philanthropy and did not think it necessary to hide their westernised thinking. Nehru did not like that.

The final blow came when Firoze Gandhi, no mean parliamentarian himself, swept his daughter off her feet. The father never forgave that. Had he not strictly forbidden Indira during her childhood from reading fairytales?

With Muslims, there was talk of his 'Islamic flavour' and political amity, but when it came to brasstacks, things were different. In 1937, he rejected Jinnah's proposal for a Congress-Muslim League coalition saying that there were only two parties in India - the Congress and the
British. Many believe this was when Pakistan was born.

Another example of his parochialism is evident in his sending his widowed sister Vijayalakshmi's suitor, Syed Hussein, off on an ambassadorial assignment, thus putting an end to the romance. But on the poor man's death Nehru, the public romantic, did not forget to build a mausoleum in his memory. To be fair, he did look after Sheikh Abdullah's family when the latter was in prison, which made the Sheikh weep uncontrollably on the platform where the dead Nehru lay.

Millions may have followed his funeral procession and his popularity in life may been unprecedented, but it is also true that security guards hid behind the bushes of his house and the kitchens of his prospective hosts were examined before he could taste a morsel. His populism put him at risk.

Later in life, he was besotted with "the old Hindu idea that there is a divine essence in the world". His Will stated that his ashes be strewn over the Ganges. It may not have been a religious gesture, but two days before his death he had written about the "concept of dharma".

History judges people in many ways. One is to judge them by their last words. In which case Nehru saw to it that if the divine essence went out of the grasp of his family, divine wrath would turn upon the country. The architect laid the foundation in the form of a magic carpet. He could pull the rug from under our feet anytime he wished.

Did Nehru, then, also believe in voodoo tricks?


[This was published in Mid-day, November 13, 1996]


Also: Nehru, Ambedkar and a cartoon


Sterilisation or Sexism: The Opportunistic Battle for Primetime

One did not realise this was about competition, that too of the superficial kind. The celebrated anchor moving on to the sterilisation deaths in Chhatisgarh said, "Now to our next. This should be the first story across news channels..." Amazing. Why did he then choose to feature it after the 'girls not allowed in AMU library' and 'Abhishek Manu Singhvi spending Rs 5 crore on laptops' stories?

Are news items about what comes first, and if so who is in a position to judge others when they themselves do not follow the rules of conscience? Do the issues matter or not in this oneupmanship?

What happened in those sterilisation camps is really the sad state of affairs in our health sector. Hopping mad is not a solution, neither is demanding quick-fix action or primetime space. Indeed, dissemination of such news is important if only to make people aware that they cannot be confined to the la-la-land of full HD, but live in a larger world. One hopes such news also reaches those not leading such an existence, potential victims who need to be alerted.

According to this Guardian report, between 2013-2014 four million operations were performed; in a nine-year period between 2003-12, 1,434 people died due to such surgeries.

On November 8, some women were forced to attend the camps:

More than 80 women underwent surgery for laparoscopic tubectomies at a free government-run camp in the central state of Chhattisgarh on Saturday. About 60 fell ill shortly afterwards, officials said. At least 14 were in a very serious condition by Wednesday and the death toll was expected to rise.

Force is one of the factors that make it difficult to stem the problem. Reminds me of the horrible Turkman Gate surgeries helmed politically by Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency. More than meeting targets, it was an assertion of power as it continues to be in some form.

India has to control its population. No question about it. The government cannot target the rich and the middle class, and perhaps due to education and a better living standard the "another hand to work" argument does not apply here, although the gender disparity is no less among these classes. So, invariably the poor are targeted. They are offered a small compensation, which they may or may not get.

Health workers are supposed to meet targets, and this results in a race, ignoring the health status of the women and whether they will be in a position to undergo the operation. The onus is on the women to control the population. This aspect is not addressed with enough seriousness, given that women are malnourished anyway and hardly in a position to demand a child. Childbirth is not easy for those who are expected to ensure that a boy child is born, or else they would have to bear the consequences.

This needs intervention, more than forced sterilisation. We cannot blame it on patriarchy and sit back to watch.

* * *

Talking about patriarchy and sexism Zameeruddin Shah, the Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), got himself into trouble for saying that if the main library was opened up for women then four times more men would visit it. The Times of India read "attract" to mean attraction between the sexes. It was an alarmist report. However, the response to it is no less alarmist.

The V-C saying more young men would visit if women were allowed implies they would do so because of them. I don't think there can be any dispute over this. It does not mean that AMU as an insitute of learning is backward; it just means that the V-C made an uncalled for comment. There was bound to be a reaction.

National Front of Indian Women general secretary Annie Raja said, “This shows the diseased mindset of the V-C. He is not fit to sit in that position. They should address the question of infrastructure rather than stopping girls. The library is meant for all students.”

Mr. Shah clarified:

“The issue of permitting undergraduate girls will have to wait until we create necessary extra space. Once the infrastructural issues are resolved and arrangements for safe transport for girls are made, we would certainly have no objection in permitting these girls have access to the central library. We are not at all sexist. We want women's empowerment and certainly don’t want to segregate our girls."

Many universities in India come up with weird rules, whether it is for what women should wear, whether they should be allowed to carry mobile phones, speak to men, be segregated. These incidents get widely reported, and nothing comes out of it, absolutely nothing. Each time a sexist remark is uttered, you will see the people who ought to be punished on TV justifying what they said. Those who would have been forgotten end up as newsmakers. Unless such news ensure that action is taken against the perpetrators, it just adds to the imbecility of discourse.

A different sort of alarmism comes from TV-dinner analysts. Another celebrated anchor said: "Systematic campaign to demonise Muslims ( &liberals). AMU VC comments in bad taste maybe, but blown into Islamic medievalism by media."

Oafs circumambulate their lives, and drive their opinions. AMU has students from all communities and faculty from all communities. The V-C is a former armyman and his faith ought to be of no consequence if he has said something that is cause for pause. One gets the intent quite clearly when "liberals" are deviously tagged along with "Muslims", conveying that the libs suffer a similar fate when they take up the Muslim cause.

If such people want to hit out at the BJP, then they should learn to aim and not use the shoulders of Muslims to fire the gun. The HRD minister Smriti Irani did jump in to respond to the V-C's remarks by saying it hurt her and agitated her. It is a political ploy, there is no doubt about it. But, did she speak about AMU being medieval, or Muslims and Islam being medieval? Even had she done so, she is a politician. What are these self-labeled opportunistic liberals?

They have a nice coterie to protect them. Suddenly, with the magnanimous gestures so typical of majoritarianism — "some of the most intelligent/progressive people we know are from AMU" — adding to the noise, it was about how AMU was a grand institute that was being slaughtered, when sterilisation deaths should have been given more attention. (In doing so, they did not realise that they had fed the frenzy, to begin with.) The media was blamed, often by other media persons. It has stopped being funny. This is just competitiveness for space. The fence sitters are always poised in such a way that they fall on the cushioned grass where they are butt-safe.

What I would like to hear about is how the Chhattisgarh deaths are about medieval practices of modern medicine that India continues to use. This should be drummed into our heads, and it does not mean we need to ignore sexism elsewhere for it.


Does not abuse of these women count?

Only because the police force represents the establishment, should we ignore how some cops, especially female, are treated by civilians? In Bareillly, Uttar Pradesh, men have been calling up the police stations and harassing women cops with sexually provocative comments.

This reveals a certain cockiness, besides a problem with attitude. It does not help that this report refers to the men as "desperate romeos" and the sexual harassment they indulge in as "dirty talk".

A frustrated police department has now blocked the SIM cards of 90 mobile phone owners. In October alone, more than 1,738 such calls were made. Many among those, knowing full well that the calls were being recorded, spoke such obscenity that the women cops were forced to run to their seniors for help.

Why does the report make these female cops sound like 'damsels in distress'? They have a legitimate right to complain about abuse at the workplace, whether it is by their colleagues or callers. Had a male policeman been threatened, he too might have approached his seniors.

The CO (Circle Officer) added that there were occasions when the woman cop would just hand the phone over to a male colleague, but the intrepid caller would roundly abuse the male cop, too, and threaten him with dire consequences.

Clearly, the Indian media may talk about using terms like "survivor" instead of "victim" for those who've suffered sexual violence, but has no concept of how to respect the rights of women without such sound bite crutches.


Should the fight against 'love jihad' be restricted to Hindu-Muslim alliances? Why are moderate Hindus and liberals not taking up intercaste 'honour' crimes?

Those news items are relegated to inside pages and rarely get any prominence, that too only if there is a hook to make them saleable. Meanwhile, incidents such as these continue to take place:

A Vijayawada-based man was arrested for allegedly raping his teenaged daughter over several months as punishment for having an affair with a youth from a different caste, after the victim and her mother approached the police...

"Initially, his intention was to punish her with that cruel deed. Subsequently, he developed an interest in her and went on repeating the same for almost a year", said PI (Nunna rural) Vara Prasad, who is probing the case.

A Appa Rao started out with vengeance, revenge against another caste person. There were no political ideologies involved, which is often the case. Do they matter less if there is no 'love jihad'-like catchphrase attached to them? Is there any sympathy for his teenage daughter, about her future and the love she lost?

If the Sanghis are hanging on to the phrase to demonise it, those battling against it have also made it into a business franchise. As there is a steady stream at the doors to partake of it, they realise it makes little sense to diversify into what stares them in the face by the same perpetrators — caste divisiveness and anti-Dalit sentiments. Should someone find an appropriate title, maybe our concerned liberals might join the bandwagon.


Also my piece on love, jihad and politics


The invitation Modi did not get...

Of Bukhari, politics and politicians

"Should we invite him? Say, do you want us to invite the prime minister? If not, what are we debating?" Tariq Bukhari, whatever be his other qualities or lack of them, nailed it on all the TV discussions I surfed through.

His brother Syed Ahmed Bukhari, Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid, recently named his 19-year-old son Shaban Bukhari as his successor. There is to be an initiation ceremony to anoint him the 'Naib Imam'. Invitations have been sent out. Narendra Modi has not received one, although some other BJP members have. Political leaders from other parties as well as foreign leaders have been invited. Nawaz Sharif is one of them.

This whole package has led to a most juvenile debate — from the use of the coronation to the nationalism of Muslims. There is something cussed about how everybody plays politics to the detriment of how to deal with the immediate.

Recently, there were communal riots in Delhi's Trilokpuri. Should Muslims not address this as well? Instead of doing so, Ahmed Bukhari explained his reluctance to invite the PM thus:

“Muslims of India do not recognise Narendra Modi as their leader, hence the invite has not been sent. He may have been elected the PM, but the Muslims of India do not accept him. Narendra Modi should first tender apology for the Gujarat riots.”

Let me get this out of the way. Bukhari has no locus standi in the community. He is seen by Muslims as the head of a mosque whose primary job is as moon-sighter during Ramzan. Outside of the Chandni Chowk area he is persona non grata. Indeed, he does meet politicians and they do try to woo him to support their candidate. This works at the symbolic level of secularism.

Unlike the Shankaracharyas and certainly the RSS/VHP remote controlling organisations, there is little by way of Muslim leadership that can speak with any authority on the community. Bukhari does not even have the febrile impact of, say, the Deoband seminary in Uttar Pradesh. In that sense, he is non-controversial simply because he is irrelevant.

Having said that, I fail to understand why Kamal Farooqui of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board was screeching about how Modi is everybody's prime minister and he respects the office. In that case, he was also the chief minister of Gujarat and people could justify everything as respect for that office.

Even more unfortunate is how one invitation has again raised the question about where Muslim allegiance lies. I do not blame Bukhari for this because as I have taken pains to point out he is not in a position to decide or influence. But why are those in power even bringing up the loyalty card? Why is it not assumed, as in the case of the majority community?

The Congress Party's Renuka Chowdhary called Bukhari a social reformer. That is her problem, not that of Muslims in India. Besides, to be charitable, we have very many people in power who are hailed as reformers in full-page ads when all they have done is added varnish to derelict structures.

My first thought when I saw a clip was: what if Bukhari had not made a comment on the PM? Would it be considered just one of those occasions where a name is left out? BJP members are appearing on TV to express anger over this deliberate omission is akin to wrangling for an invite. Some have even said that if anybody attends it would be an insult to 1.2 billion Indians and display a lack of self respect.

Is the invite to Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif a reason for the bluster? Pakistan has fired along the LoC so anybody being friendly with the leadership is anti-national goes the argument. Track II developments have not stopped. If India is serious, why is it permitting such initiatives? Why did we offer Diwali sweets to their border forces, which they declined? Why do we continue to watch their TV serials and why are their actors and singers such an intrinsic part of our pop culture?

These questions are not about alarmism, but a genuine need to understand why we resort to such passive-aggressive moves. Detente cannot be carried out in studios; it requires leaders. And pragmatism happens to be the core of politics. What we see is not that; it is pussy-footing.

Modi did invite Sharif for his oath-taking ceremony. When this was pointed out, a BJP spokesperson was livid: "What kind of arrogance is this to compare." That says it all. It is a display of arrogance that prompts such a statement. The PM's function had all the pomp and pageantry of a coronation, so for the party members to remember democracy now when some fellow will be anointed in a mosque is disingenuous.

It is also galling when they ask why people do not recall other riots. We do. Today is the anniversary of the 1984 massacre of Sikhs under a Congress regime. The PM has announced a Rs. 5 lakh compensation to the next of kin for the over 3000 killed. It is good, although late and rather obviously a point scoring move. However, if this is the precedent, will we see similar announcements for the 1993 Mumbai riots, 2002 Gujarat riots, 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, and a host of others?

Should the monetary exchange buy justice? That would be most unfortunate.

It is also time for the establishment to grow up and stop using the public to achieve its ends whenever elections loom ahead. There is too much of a price innocent people have to pay to 'earn' sympathy gestures.

If Ahmed Bukhari, or anybody else, incites people to violence and bigotry pull him up, arrest him, try him. Just do not use every occasion to flash your prejudices and give even more legitimacy to a non-entity.

End note: Just wondering what would have been the reaction had this been a khatna (circumcision) ceremony of Bukhari's son/nephew/grandson and not an anointment.


Flanagan's Wake

I like Richard Flanagan already. He has won this year’s Booker Prize for ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ that I have not read. I have read nothing by him, but following the award the search has yielded some wonderful insights.

Of course, I like him for saying that he is “ashamed to be Australian” because of the environmental policies of the government. But, what is more interesting is how he gets into the mind of another real person. A good writer does not only create characers out of thin air. S/he can make the most simple reality appear profound or mystical or mythical.

Flanagan has done it with David Walsh that I now know so much about Walsh and so little about Flanagan. This he manages to do without any self-effacing sophistry. In fact, he pushes the boundaries of language to create something out of somebody. In the essay for The New Yorker, he wrote:

Attempting to describe Boltanski’s devil is like trying to pick up mercury with a pair of pliers. At fifty-one, Walsh has the manner of a boy pharaoh and the accent of a working-class Tasmanian who grew up in Glenorchy, one of the poorest suburbs of the poorest state in the Australian federation. His silver hair is sometimes rocker-length long, sometimes short. Walsh talks in torrents or not at all. He jerks, he scratches, and his pigeon-toed gait is so pronounced that he bobs as he walks. He is alternately charming, bullying, or silent. As he looks away, he laughs.

This comes somewhere in the beginning, so it has to be tantalising. Flanagan certainly knows about a good way to grab attention. From his subject as arriviste, to his perversities, his enterpreneurship of the arts and his inner demons, it is a sheer treat.

Walsh’s favorite novel is “Crime and Punishment,” and conversations with him can sometimes feel like talking to the deranged narrator of Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground”: possessed, but rarely less than compelling. His obsessive desire to explain makes his thoughts sometimes seem to proceed algorithmically. Though the condition has never been diagnosed, Walsh and those around him believe that he has Asperger’s. It would explain his extraordinary gift with numbers, but it is hard to know where the condition ends and bad manners start. Walsh’s rudeness is legendary. “Let’s face it,” a close friend told me. “David can be a complete cunt. But he is also the kindest and most generous man you will meet.” Walsh funds a major tennis tournament, the Moorilla Hobart International, as well as Hobart’s MOFO music festival. There are also many and ongoing private kindnesses: kids he sponsors at Hobart’s Quaker school, support of several families, and friends he constantly helps. Pointing out that Walsh has always spent more than he has earned, Ranogajec said, “David was never motivated by money.”

I doubt if the idea behind the Booker Prize is to make you fall in love with a person the writer writes about, but here you have it. I am in love with David Walsh and I couldn’t be bothered about finding out anything more than I know about him through Richard Flanagan.


Sunday ka Funda

Sometimes, soundtracks make you cry. Sometimes, simple words do. Sometimes, your thoughts find mirror images. From one of my favourite movies.

Yu Shu Lien: The Green Destiny Sword. You're giving it to Sir Te.
Li Mu Bai: I am. He has always been our greatest protector.
Yu Shu Lien: I don't understand. How can you part with it? It's been with you a long time.
Li Mu Bai: Too many men have died at its edge. It may look pure..., but only because blood washes so easily from its blade.


Line of Uncontrol

The shells that came in. Pic: Reuters

There is tension on the border again. For the past one week. India will not talk with Pakistan. Everybody knows this standoff won’t last. Cannot.

What is shocking, however, is the tone. Civilians have been killed, and nobody seems concerned about that. It is all about flexing muscles. The PM woke up from his slumber – and these days it includes giving automaton high-maintenance speeches at election rallies (his terrain) for assembly polls in Maharashtra – to get into I’m ok, you’re ok mode. “We have responded with courage to ceasefire violations,” he said, “Everything will be fine soon.”

How soon is soon, how fine is fine? Who is he talking to – the general junta, his party members, the armed forces, the opposition, Pakistan? This is what he should be telling those who are vulnerable.

I watched one TV debate and all I could hear was the anchor blabber about pulverizing Pakistan, as though the all of Pakistan and its government were sitting at the Line of Control.

Defence Minister Arun Jaitley said:

“India is a responsible state. It is never an aggressor. But at the same time, it has a paramount duty to defend its people and its territory. Our Armed Forces particularly the Army and the BSF in this case have only one option – that is to respond adequately and defend our territory and our people.”

It begs the question: Why did they not do so when the first incursion and shelling took place? How did it reach those civilian areas? We have not shied away from aggression, so we don’t need this halo effect now. The minister further added:

“If Pakistan persists with this adventurism, our forces will make the cost of this adventurism unaffordable.”

What is the measure of affordability? We do know that Pakistan is a nuclear power and it has got aid and the ability to generate money. If it is about making it unaffordable in socio-political terms, then we are dealing with a nation that has suffered defeat a few times.

Some views suggest that Nawaz Sharif wants to divert attention from local issues; others suggest that Modi is using this to gain points for the polls.

Across the border, the Pakistan People’s Party has a court jester in the form of its patron-in-chief Bilawal Bhutto.

Last month he had said, “I will take back Kashmir, all of it, and I will not leave behind a single inch of it because it belongs to Pakistan”, provoking titters from Kashmiris. Now he says, “Another attack on LoC. Seems India adopting Israel model vs Pakistan. Modi must realise we can retaliate unlike his victims from Gujarat.”

Not only is this juvenile, it is vicious. This punk is using victims to further the cause of his adrenaline. Those displaced in the Gujarat riots are indeed in no position to respond simply because this is not a movie. Real lives are different. He might like to talk to those in Baluchistan, Waziristan and even Karachi. He is not in power, but if this is the only way forward for him then he has already lost it.

I have not read the Pakistani papers, but it is bound to be a blame game.

This has continued for too long – the rabble-rousing on TV and social media, the verbal duel between politicians, and the inability to protect our borders, which is how civilians get killed. Why don’t we examine that?

No leader or army person has a right to place the lives of innocents at risk to further their macho political machinations and greed. Jammu and Kashmir is barely getting back on its feet after the floods, crops, trees have been flattened and these people are talking about bulldozing. 

It might help a great deal if the media is told to shut up. We do not need opinions of ill-informed news anchors who drool over the possibility of war. The border areas are not your studio nor our living room.   I have been cynical about staged 'aman ki asha' projects, but if I had to choose between peace and war, it will be peace by a long shot. Whether it is with Pakistan or Timbuktu.


Holy cows and cartoons

India loves cows, the temple variety not the ones left with festering wounds to forage in garbage dumps. The new government is serious about cow protection. As I said, we love cows, some worship them.

So, when a cow knocks on the door of an elite space club should it be considered insulting? According to the Indian worldview, the cow should have the right to be there, was in fact born to be there. Why, then, did some demand an apology from the New York Times for this cartoon in response to the Mars Orbiter Mission?

Do we consider the farmer and the beast any less when compared with our space missions? If so, then this is cause for serious concern. India is largely a rural country and agriculture continues to be its mainstay. How does it convey the image of a backward society when this is what feeds us as well as a few importing countries?

The farmer is not being obsequious about entering the elite club; he is assertive. The cow too is rather saucy and sanguine. It is the westerners reading the news who seem to be worried and shocked. They look backward because they have not come out of their cocoons to keep in touch with the world to see how far others have progressed, far enough for India to be the only one to succeed in its Mars Mission at the first attempt.

We anoint a scientific operation with a Sanskritised, almost mythified, name like Mangalyaan, we pretty much treat it as some sort of divine intervention, and then we project our insecurities on others. Strangely, I hear that Malayalis objected to it most on social media because many of ISRO’s scientists are Malayali. What does this tell us about our parochialism? It is natural to feel proud of one’s own, but let us not see a slight where there seems to be none.

The farmer and the cow are as much images of India as the camel and the bedouin are of the Middle East, in fact more so. It does not mean we have nothing else. If anything, this is a paean to the India of the majority – the villager. It is true that the farmer did not send the mission into space but scientists may come from rural backgrounds. Have we forgotten the euphoria upon the success of the mission? The most telling picture was of women scientists with flowers in their hair jubilating.

If we have a problem with the cartoon, then why not with this impression of what is Indian womanhood from a certain perspective? That too is a stereotype, where the lab-coat is seen as elite privilege.

After being pressurised, the newspaper apologised. Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor, said:

“The intent of the cartoonist, Heng Kim Song, was to highlight how space exploration is no longer the exclusive domain of rich, Western countries. Mr Heng, who is based in Singapore, uses images and text - often in a provocative way - to make observations about international affairs. We apologise to readers who were offended by the choice of images in this cartoon.” He further added that the cartoonist “was in no way trying to impugn India, its government or its citizens”.

India is too vast; the people are too many and disparate. That leaves the government. This mission did not happen overnight after Narendra Modi came to power, so it is not the success of the present government at all. But I see this more as NYT trying to still play host to the PM after his NRI-slavering visit. The Indian authorities might see in this censorship of a kind an opportunity to use as precedent whenever we are faced with some truth even if it is not, or should not be, inconvenient.

We’ve got the apology from NYT (and it is always great to see NYT apologise, for different reasons), but are we going to hide the farmers from us? Will cows be placed on pedestals behind walls? Why can’t we own up to what is ours?


The Dumbing Down of Debate — Of Bhagwat, Jayalalitha and a news anchor

Why are we a part of so much noise?

Sometime last month, a friend from Pakistan sent me a text message after a long gap of non-communication. He began by asking why I had not written anything on azadi and inquilab, the public protests of Imran Khan's party. I did subsequently post something, but the fact is that unlike earlier I did not feel the need to time it.

Part of the timing thing is, of course, old journalistic habit of commenting on an event or doing a follow up feature story. It wasn't mere deadlines I was meeting; thoughts were racing through my mind and wouldn't rest until they were put down. The mental race continues.

However, I have begun to wonder and ponder. There are many reasons for it, but here are a few.

I was trying to locate an old column of mine after Jayalaithaa's arrest. Not only did I recall where it was published around the time when the case first got in the news, I remembered the picture that was used as well. While rummaging through the piles, I stopped. What was I doing and why? Did I want to scan the piece and put it up? What would it achieve? Did I want to use bits of it? Both were possibilities, and although my views are not dated I am conscious that despite the long articles written now, what registers most are stray sentences. Like some others, I do have a few of such sentences that can be highlighted. But, it is tidbits that seem to overwhelm — the number of the Tamil Nadu CM's domestic staff, what she ate, drank, wore. Would one want to break the linkages, the ingrained cohesiveness? Would one want 'light' readers to snigger about what they register as pop psychology, the calling out of which is another pop fad?

In any event, I gave up the search. Along the way, I found several pieces. One of them was on the RSS, another mentioned Mohan Bhagwat, who is in the news today because as chief of the Hindutva organisation he managed to get direct entry into national TV as Doordarshan telecast his speech live. If he has said pretty much the same things on earlier occasions, why should what happens now surprise me at all? Nothing has changed. If anything, it is the public secularists who are claiming their pound of flesh by revealing how fearful they are when they cannot even critique this kowtowing to a non-party organisation and drag in religious heads of other communities that do not — and thankfully so — have the standing to be so propped up.

It is the political wayfarers who find sustenance in such liberal rabble-rousing. In the process they ignore that history was no different. Perhaps, the ignoring is willful: It is about grabbing a spot in the sun. It is about a whoa moment holding on to the crutch of a meme to make a point that skims only the crust and lacks the drive, patience and integrity to probe the crux.

One would understand had such testosterone response been from novices. Why do seasoned analysts too join in the dirge of "We are going downhill" when all this has happened before, and not in ancient times? It has happened before our eyes in the 80s, 90s and the 2000s. The RSS speeches are the same.

What we should be doing is to keep our antenna up and raise our voices instead of looking like frightened deer before headlights. There is a horrible fallout of this: the guys in the front are getting hit. The mastermind is safe. For example, Doordarshan gets blamed for the Bhagwat speech when we know that the national channel follows government diktats. Besides that, attention is diverted from similar rightwing nonsense from previous regimes. It is one reason you rarely hear about the 1992-93 riots. This bothers me a lot.

Everybody likes a good fight, to be able to nurse wounds and egos, knowing well that in this junk-food version of news things come cheap and don't last long. And that is such a convenient thing for them. There is no fealty expected in the long run, no commitment.

During the PM's trip to the US, the way the word Modi was used revealed how indebted many in the media are to the new government and its head. A play on the name became less pun and more about building the cult.

Following an altercation between a media person and the rightwing cheerleaders, an industrialist close to the PM reportedly conveyed a message that Modi regretted what had happened. This is what should concern us more, that a businessman is acting as the conduit between a PM and a journalist.

Those holding forth have little or no experience in or about the media, just as the neo-experts are not experts at all. Journalistic space has been taken over by rightwing think-tanks or liberals with too many books and a lot of dust in their shelves. All that is debated is not news. Trivia and gossip too are discussed, and they have a place. But in the enthusiasm to legitimise the trivia or the addenda, opponents are getting more importance. Which is what they want and what they probably incited. Worse, the serious is getting reduced to the level of the frivolous, with its own version of flouncy bouncy analyses.


Fake Feminism and the Alamuddin-Clooney marriage

A few months ago, somebody sent me a YouTube link to "the woman they say George Clooney is getting married to". Amal Alamuddin was discussing human rights. The feminist who forwarded it could have just sent the link, perhaps adding the subject of the discussion. It intrigued me that the 'connection' of the subject needed to be mentioned at all.

You are probably thinking what I asked myself too: would I have really been interested in watching the clip otherwise? To be honest, less so with as much immediacy. I did not know anything about her, and it is stupid to pretend otherwise. She lives and works in London, and as a legal luminary she is not — or was not — a subject of pop culture, which is what is fed globally.

I did not expect her not to be good, but she was indeed impressive and somebody I could trust with opinions. It did not mean I would forget who she was betrothed to. These were not antagonistic realities, and could run parallel without either jousting the other for space.

Amal and George are now married. They seem happy and look good together. That would have been my views on what has now become a celebrity wedding.

However, the link sender I mentioned at the beginning has found an echo in this headline:

'Internationally acclaimed barrister Amal Alamuddin marries an actor'

If the idea was to laud her, it falls pathetically flat to a discerning observer. Mentioning the two by their professions is stating the obvious. The motive here is to show her as superseding him, which is the trope patriarchal notions thrive on — of the spouse as competitor, a threat who needs to be envied and therefore tamed.

There is a good deal of undercurrent here. The taming might be almost invisible. The article that goes with the headline concurs with Clooney's earlier observation that he was "marrying up". I have serious issues with such social mobility, and one is aware of how women are often accused of "getting a good catch" or relying on the "sugar daddy".

This is particularly galling if you consider that the man may genuinely think she is too good for him, but in the popular imagination it strikes one as him legitimising her superiority, and therefore acceptable to those holding forth. It is quite likely that this site is doing what the man believes is okay. They have his tacit approval.

Little is known of Amal’s earlier relationships (we assume she was climbing that corporate ladder and smashing glass ceilings) but she’s tying the knot with an actor, whose name is George Clooney, we’re told.

They are desexualising her as somebody who cannot have a personal life because she was busy proving herself. Would they ever day that about a man? Any man?

We only hope he doesn’t hold her back from conquering the world. We think this George Clooney fellow has scored big time.

Were they interested in her before this? Have they written about her earlier, and in such flattering terms, which would be deservedly so? And by suggesting that he might hold her back, they are playing into such an old stereotype that ends up reducing her to a puppet who can be held back.

They are only now scrounging for her pictures because of who she is with. It might have helped if there was honesty rather than facile attempts at pseudo feminism that doles out crumbs by way of cheesy headlines to prop up what does not need props. Or quoting Julia Roberts praising her for her to be seen as a legitimately accomplished person.

Cheap parody and sophomore trickery can't take you very far as feminists or humanists. It just can't take you much further than your celebrity-assigned blinkers.

Sunday ka Funda

There is no such thing as paranoia. Your worst fears can come true at any moment.
— Hunter S. Thompson