Tuesday, October 31, 2017


And #MeToo, and #MeToo and #MeToo…

(Published on October 21, 2017 in Business Standard)

When Nirbhaya was dying in a Delhi hospital in 2012, India saw huge, anguished citizens’ protests. A rattled United Progressive Alliance administration clamped down on the protests. Many people didn’t see the point of them. I found myself at loggerheads with a friend who dismissed them as faddish, politically engineered, or, at best, betraying the classist-urbanist pique of a usually apathetic citizenry. He thought they had no real traction. 

I was shocked and infuriated by his blindness to the potential of the moment—everyone was paying attention, everyone was talking about it. This young woman’s brutalisation was opening a massive, crucial conversation on sexual assault and gender injustice. I couldn’t understand how any intelligent liberal man could not stand with the protests. How could he allow an opportunity for action to get lost in analysis and academic critique? How could someone with close women friends shoot us down? I took it personally. It was incredibly disheartening.

Many people found reasons to trivialise and discredit the protests. But the fact that the conversation had begun was huge. Gender justice—relegated to tiresome ranting from ‘angry feminists’—suddenly had the country’s attention. Patriarchy featured on prime time television and in newspaper headlines. Sexism began to be called out in homes, offices, politics, religion, policy, relationships, industries, and public spaces. It got national headspace. The international press was all over it. The Justice Verma Committee worked hard to strengthen anti-rape laws, expand women’s rights, make efforts to improve women’s safety, sensitise the police force, and increase the punishment for gender violence. 

The fact that television channels lamented, some weeks after the event, that things still hadn’t changed, was an excellent indicator of our abysmal apprehension of how endemic sexism is. Educated, developed, progressive societies all over the world are still steeped in gender injustice; India’s journey towards gender equality is on a long, long road, made up mostly of potholes. Nirbhaya drew men into women’s incessant talk about gender injustice and male violence. They were outraged; they stood for equality; they were allies. But these well-meaning men still have no idea how deep the problem runs.

After Nirbhaya, I was talking to another liberal, progressive male friend. I related to him my own experience of being assaulted by someone I knew, who pinned me against the wall, slapped and bit me, screamed ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’ into my face me, tried to lock the room, threw me across the bed, and was stopped only by the arrival of a much bigger man. I told him about my long dark months of rage, disgust, contempt, and depression thereafter, and my conflicting desires to not be intimidated into avoiding this man, as well as to never set eyes on him again. I told my friend that this man’s friends proffered a thousand justifications for his behaviour—he was drunk, he’s not like that, these things happen, he’s sorry—and that the assaulter himself told me that my anger was ‘negative’, and that I should let it go.

My friend was horrified, but when I said that this kind of thing is rampant, he didn’t believe me. I said that the most privileged, sheltered, empowered women get harassed, assaulted, raped, and abused, at home or at work or on the street, by men they know well, as well as by strangers, to say nothing of more vulnerable women. He said that wasn’t possible—not the women we know. You know them, I said. He wanted names. I said they weren’t mine to give.

Today those names are all over Facebook and Twitter, thanks to the #MeToo hashtag this past week, which revived an old call for solidarity for people who have suffered sexual harassment and violence. Pretty much every woman I know put out a #MeToo hashtag—by itself, or accompanied by a story that makes you want to cry with rage and punch something.

I see liberal men shocked at the flood of #MeToo on their timelines, men who rail against these terrible things, but who haven’t had the slightest idea how many of their friends and family have suffered under their noses, nor how much. There’s derision of the hashtag too, of course, but I see some men tentatively beginning to acknowledge their responsibility, and reframing the problem as a male problem rather than as ‘women’s issues’. They are realising that society is so pervasively geared to the rights, empowerment, and justice of men, that sexual oppression and gender injustice are invisible to them. They are beginning to acknowledge that a liberal man, themselves included, can be as sexist as the next man. They are worrying about workplace harassment and domestic violence and the etiquette of sexual attraction and flirtation. 

These men are the very tiny tip of a frightening iceberg of work that needs doing.
If you’re one of these men, good on you, but remember that you aren’t doing us a favour. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The political weather is turning: BJP gets the chills

The BJP has squandered its massive mandate and is playing a blame game

(Published on October 7, 2017 in Business Standard)

The weather in Delhi is finally turning, as is public opinion in India. The bluster and gloating are gone. Three and a half years into the Modi government, those who never liked the BJP are furious and openly derisive. Those who wanted to give it a chance have lost patience, and are openly derisive. Traders and shop owners, core BJP constituents, practically spit their disappointment, and are openly derisive. Social media is openly derisive. Even the shouty trolls have gone quiet.

On Dussehra, Prime Minister Modi provided the perfect visual metaphor for why this is so: He raised a bow to shoot an arrow into the effigy of Ravan, failed twice, then just threw the arrow a lame couple of feet. A grand set-up for an embarrassing flop. The cartoons just draw themselves.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) seems to have squandered its massive political mandate. Rampaging all over the electoral map off a springboard of public opinion made of similar disappointment and derision aimed at the UPA, it set itself up as a soaring, decisive doer. But the perception was more PR than substance, and the government’s least controversial achievement has been to prove that. It has punctured its own overinflated image with a spectacular set of unforced errors.

Nobody forced the government to promise us Rs 15 lakh each, then snigger that that was just election gimmickry. Nobody forced Modi to wear a wildly expensive suit monogrammed with his own name. Nobody forced the BJP to use photoshop and fake images to manufacture fake credit. Nobody put a gun to its head to appoint prehistoric sexist moralists to states and certification boards and universities.

Nobody forced its silence over horrific lynchings of Muslims and Dalits, making beef the huge livelihood-destroying issue that it now is. The government decided to drape Mohammad Akhlaq’s murderer in the tricolour. No one forced it to treat protesting students like criminals, or threaten Pakistan on national television. Nobody made it force Aadhaar down the throats of unwilling citizens. Nobody told it to jettison a competent RBI governor. Nobody forced it to start dictating citizens’ dinner plates, culture, dress, religious, and sexual habits. Nobody made it turn nationalism into a bigot’s weapon. Nobody asked it to trample science under superstition and religion, or turn institutes of learning into Hindutva finishing schools. 

Nobody asked it to force digital transactions on a nation where bank access, data connectivity, and electricity are partial at best. Nobody asked it to force-feed children rewritten textbooks filled with lies. Nobody pressured it into massaging data repackaging old schemes with new names as never-before misrepresenting their impact and effect.
And the Prime Minister is solely and wholly responsible for the unnecessary, cruelly incompetent bullet in India’s economic heart that was demonetisation. He is responsible for rolling out GST in the cumbersome, chaotic manner that is oppressing many businesses.

Having first successfully discredited and marginalised its critics, the government is now blaming the sour national mood on ‘panic’ spread by ‘pessimists’. It blames citizens for not creating their own jobs. It is trying to find scapegoats. But it has only itself to blame for dragging the country into an economic quagmire, poisoning social relations, infecting administration with religion, and snuffing out talent and progress with regressive orthodoxy and destructive hubris.

The truth is that this government is made of people with a talent deficit and an ego surplus, peddling a tiny-minded vision consisting of vainglorious dreams built on sand, hot air, empty gestures, and overlarge statues. It’s like a shaky, tinsel-draped billboard on poles stuck in the mud, advertising a five-star hotel. The words that stick to it are ‘jumla’ and ‘feku’. A skilled actor and clever lighting can only take a useless script so far—the play is still lousy.

Today, servile television channels masquerading as news keep huge farmers’ protests off the air and hammer at the opposition; people are working harder at fewer jobs to afford less; and people wish their daughters could grow up elsewhere. Meanwhile, crony capitalism is thriving. Is it any wonder that even those voters who ignore or approve of the BJP’s vile Hindutva agenda, are fed up with its economic incompetence? Is it a surprise that consumer confidence has crashed? People look at the endless boastful claims, then look around them, and see the disconnect. 

You can, as they say, fool all of the people some of the time; and some of the people all of the time; but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. The last government was deeply flawed, smug, and infuriatingly corrupt, but on a steadily progressive path. This one inspires only international editorials warning of regressiveness and illiberality.

Yes, the weather is turning. We can all agree to blame the climate.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

What about 2019?

We need an Opposition with a clear vision

(Published on September 23, 2017 in Business Standard)

In the merry storm of democracy, political winners and losers trade places constantly by design. It’s such a busy two-way street that it’s creepy when traffic suddenly goes one way. Seeing the country one-sidedly in Bharatiya Janata Party hands makes you miss the annoying days of coalition politics, not so long ago, when decision-making was fraught, but then again, nobody got too big for their boots. 

The thrust and parry of gaining and retaining power takes up so much national headspace that we often forget about the power of vision. In 2014 the United Progressive Alliance failed to articulate a vision, or no longer had one. The BJP has vision in spades. It is of a Hindu chauvinist nation that privileges religion, reactionary cultural values, and national pride via material prosperity and loud Hindu cheering. While many voters related to this and still do, many others flocked to its promises of development and no corruption, thinking that these could be cherry-picked from the larger vision. 

They can’t. Buy one BJP development, get one RSS control freak problem free. Development mainly spends its time inspecting our underwear and censoring art, breathing down our data, lecturing us about lifestyles and morals, reducing education and media to propaganda, destroying the economy, glorifying anti-intellectualism, propping up shabby right-wing icons to erase established national figures, sacralising tradition and military to replace debate with nervous compliance, throwing individual rights under a homogenous social bus, and forcing all this with legislation—or force, if need be.

Some promises were insincere ploys; others, like jobs and economic growth, are unravelling scarily. Corruption has disappeared only from the front pages of newspapers. Hatred and fake news run high. Disillusioned voters are now waking up to the toxicity of the BJP vision. But the question is, understandably, Who else? There is no articulated alternative out there today, just shades of same-same.

Many regional parties hold their ground, but the only pan-Indian opposition party is stuck in the quicksand of public opinion as a dinosaur steered by a loser. The BJP wiped any memory of any good the UPA government did, by relentlessly reminding us of its infuriating second-term record of inefficiency and corruption. It so successfully mainstreamed a portrait of Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi as a debauch and idiot that, between noise and peer pressure, it’s now uncool to point out that he is neither.

(The BJP itself is aware that he is neither. When Rahul made a smart move recently by speaking to less brainwashed audiences and media in the US, and got positive press and social media feedback for it, the Indian government reacted by sending an army of spokespeople into television studios to freshen up the paint on the duffer-loser cutout. If he’s a joke to them, it’s not a funny one.)

Today, social media is savaging the once unassailable Prime Minister and his pushy, incompetent government. There has never been a greater opportunity, and need, for an Opposition to go on the offensive. Yet the Congress has failed to step up, and Rahul is still seen as a malingerer in political purgatory, mocked for his presence and pilloried for his absences. If the party is to fight back, it has to rectify three great weaknesses: It needs to rethink, rebuild, and recommit to a coherent, articulate vision; find a leader who can and wants to lead with the energy of a startup captain; and fix its crappy communications strategy. It cannot look like the Congress of 2013.

But forget the Congress. Whichever the party, whatever the coalition, whoever its head, India needs a viable opposition. Voters deserve one. Democracy requires one. We need an alternative that people want, not just an anti-vote.

As a citizen I know the vision I want to vote for. I want a party that overtly stands for the Constitution of India—that emulsifier that holds together all our various differences and stands by each individual Indian. Today, it’s just a piece of paper they use to swear in bigots. I want an Opposition that isn’t BJP Lite, that will make the Constitution their mission, and run a countrywide campaign to publicise it and remind Indians of their rights and responsibilities. I want a party that will weave into every specific promise, the democratic, egalitarian, just, humanistic, inclusive, pluralistic, secular values that we give to ourselves in that document. I want a party that puts health, education, jobs, and law enforcement at the top of its agenda. A party that takes on corruption like it means it, builds itself through merit and expertise, thinks out of the box, and never forgets that it is in power to serve, not rule. That party would stand strongly and clearly in opposition to what we’ve got now. 

That party would give the BJP a scare in 2019.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Gauri Lankesh and the culture of impunity

The hallmark of this Rashtra is, and will be, impunity, from top to bottom

(Published on September 09, 2017 in Business Standard)

Last Tuesday was a terrible, difficult night, when news broke that outspoken Kannadiga journalist Gauri Lankesh had been murdered in Bengaluru. Lankesh was not in a conflict zone, or a riot, or a hostage crisis, or in any of the other dangerous situations that journalists often encounter. She was doing what working people do—coming home in the evening, parking, maybe fiddling with keys, maybe looking forward to some food and rest. It was in this most banal of urban commuter moments that she was executed at point blank range.

The impunity of the act is shocking. Should it have been so easy?

Everyone is at pains to stress that we do not know, yet, who killed this fiercely anti-RSS, anti-Hindutva, secular, liberal journalist-activist and publisher. This is true.

But we do know that on social media, the people who howled with glee and gloated over her death seemed to belong entirely to one side of the political spectrum. We do know that the BJP has not issued a clear, strong condemnation of it, saying instead that liberals are entitled to be upset, but what about RSS workers in Kerala? We do know that there is a concerted effort to float the idea that the comrades themselves did it. BJP MLA Jeevaraj has gone so far as to say that if Lankesh hadn’t written about the RSS, she might have been alive today—a pretzel of a statement that both openly threatens dissidence, and takes credit for what the RSS and the BJP are assiduously denying. We do know that Lankesh’s brother Indrajit, who claims both that she was never threatened, and that it was Naxalites who threatened her, aspires to join the BJP.

We do know that this woman fit, to a tee, the description of those who are constantly vilified by right wing forces, including by self-declared journalists and media channels who serve as government public relations retainers.

I was grief-stricken and sleepless for much of Tuesday night, and enraged thereafter—and I didn’t even know Gauri Lankesh. Her family, friends, and colleagues will bear this trauma forever. Whether they knew her or not, many journalists and writers, also struggling with shock and grief, feel a coldness on their own necks. Yet, nothing disperses the chill of fear like the warmth of anger, and Lankesh’s murder has infuriated the press corps, sparking protests all over the country, and spurring many journalists to rededicate themselves to the integrity and courage that the profession demands. One can only hope that this anger will translate into the kind of united effort that is increasingly going to be necessary to defend freedom of expression and democracy.

There has been much heated argument on the question of ‘balance’ in these polarised times. Should firebrand activist Shehla Rashid have asked the Republic reporter to ‘get out’ at the Press Club protest? Are protests over Lankesh’s death meaningless unless protesters have also spoken for slain RSS workers? Should the debate be focused on the Karnataka government’s pursuit of justice, and not on the long-standing and far-reaching effects of social engineering? Is shutting down hate-mongering social media handles compatible with free speech?

I submit that this is now a smokescreen of hair-splitting, and that we are long past splitting hairs. We will, in time, see justice for Gauri Lankesh—or we won’t, as we didn’t in the similar execution-style murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and MM Kalburgi. There will be more fear, more executions. There will be endless sickening finessing and justification and deflection to so-called liberal hypocrisy. There will be more discrediting of media and more lies popularised on Whatsapp.

I submit that we are not ‘in danger of becoming’ a Hindu Rashtra, the dearest dream of the RSS-BJP combine. We are there. Today, right now, we are a baby Hindu Rashtra taking its first messy, unsteady steps. This is what it looks like. Nurtured by hard-core supporters, but also by fence-sitters, the naive, and the wilfully blind, it will very soon lose its baby dimples to become much bigger, much stronger, and much, much uglier.

The hallmark of this Rashtra is, and will be, impunity—from top to bottom, from government policy to street murder. You see it already in the clumsy attempt to force-feed us Aadhaar; in demonetisation; in lynchings; in interference into cultural and personal freedoms. You see it already in the vilification of minorities, in the brazen rubbish being fed to children as history, in the unabashed propaganda sent out as ‘general knowledge’, and in the welding together of state and religion. Here’s a prediction: You will see it in changes to the Constitution of India.

Indian democracy is in the fight of its life. And if you think this is alarmist nonsense, you are helping it happen.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Puttaswamy vs Union of India: The power of one

The right to privacy judgment reinstates the individual as VIP 

(Published on August 26, 2017 in Business Standard)

On Thursday, August 24, a nine-judge Supreme Court bench delivered a unanimous verdict upholding privacy as a fundamental right intrinsic to Article 21, the right to life and personal liberty. You cannot possibly overstate the importance of this judgment. If you don’t like detail, just eyeball its magnitude by counting the number of pages it took up in your Friday morning newspaper. I counted eight pages in mine.

Sounds nuts, right? It’s 2017. Do you have the slightest doubt that privacy is fundamental to living your life in peace? And yet, until now it has never been legally spelled out, even as privacy is being battered by governments and corporations who see leverage and money in ever more access to your personal life. 

Hearing Justice K S Puttaswamy’s petition for a fundamental right to privacy was made urgent by another Supreme Court petition challenging the government’s attempt to forcibly link PAN and Aadhaar numbers. The petitioners argued that collecting, sharing, selling, or using biodata, mandatorily and without consent, violates bodily integrity, informational self-determination, and personal autonomy. They were barred from arguing on grounds of privacy, because the government insisted that there is no such thing, and that the 9-judge bench hearing that matter should first come to a decision.

In fact the government took an obnoxious anti-people, anti-rights legal stand, arguing that the idea of privacy is bogus, that the Constitution deliberately left it out, that Indians don’t need privacy because they tell their life stories within five minutes to strangers on a train, that the poor don’t care about privacy and are too backward to deserve it, that it’s an elitist concern, that it impedes transparency and social justice. It argued that making privacy a fundamental right would open a flood of litigation.

Damn straight it will.

This judgment is, of course, a much-needed boost for those challenging Aadhaar while the government and its cheerleaders sing loud hosannas to an intrusive data raj in the name of prosperity and national security. Keep your eye on those hearings, good people, if you oppose legal sanction for state surveillance and non-consensual data access. 

But Justice K S Puttaswamy (Retd) vs Union of India is not a judgment so much as a legal earthquake. It explicitly overturns the infamous 1976 ADM Jabalpur ruling which allowed Articles 20 and 21 to be suspended in a situation of Emergency. (Historical frisson: Justice Chandrachud fils overturned Justice Chandrachud père). It places sexual orientation in the realm of privacy, eloquently shredding the illiberal reasoning in the Koushal vs Naz Foundation ruling which junked LGBTQ rights. It is now probable that LGBTQ Indians will win an absolutely foundational victory.

The judgment touches on many things that liberal-minded Indians have been growling about—what we eat and wear, who we love, what we say to whom, what we are forced to do in schools. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to support challenges to such momentous things as the beef ban, and those who would impose social vetoes on food or thought and expression, and would force religious compliance, social homogeneity, and brute nationalism. 

It is, in sum, a clear, elegant, and rousing reaffirmation of India’s best liberal, rights-based, pluralist, Constitutional values. It comprehensively rejects majoritarianism, restrains the state from overreach and impunity, and reinstates the individual as the autonomous building block of national life, with a “right to be let alone”. 

The judgment dropped on India like one of those faraway mega-tonne bombs that isn’t heard so much as felt as a blast wave. It isn’t yet law; it merely sets the ground for law that the government must now pass. Its contours will continue to evolve on a case-by-case basis. Like all fundamental rights, it is subject to reasonable restrictions, which will be much debated. But for hundreds of millions of Indians, Thursday August 24 was a great day.

Days like this are rare at a time when justice can be so perverted that a state prepares for shutdown and puts the army on standby in the face of bullying threats because an alleged rapist might be pronounced guilty. It was a day when Twitter felt like a warm bath of endorphins, and right wing trolls were too flattened to fling faeces. The government did made a contemptible spectacle of itself, trying to claim credit for what it brazenly opposed, but that’s all right, we all needed a good laugh.

The euphoria that this judgement produced, the goosebumps and lightness, is how citizens want to feel—validated, free, joyous, and hopeful about India.  

And it proved the power of a single person with initiative. I’d like to envelop 91-year-old Justice K S Puttaswamy (Retd) in my arms, and give him the hug of his life.    

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Kiran Nagarkar, a perfect storm

Brilliant, inspirational, inexplicably underrated.

(Published on August 12, 2017 in Business Standard)

Kiran Nagarkar’s novel Saat Sakkam Trechalis, written in Marathi, won the HN Apte award for best debut novel in 1974. Forty-three years later, the novel is being re-released in an English translation titled Seven Sixes are Forty Three. The room was reasonably full, but nowhere nearly as full as it should have been for a literary supernova. 

Literary supernova, you say? Kiran who, again? 

The evening was unpleasantly monsoon-sticky, but I—and maybe Nagarkar himself—would chalk up the middling attendance to his being, by my lights—and perhaps also by his—the most underrated and overlooked writer in the tiny hothouse world of English-language Indian novelists. He has never been appreciated fully or widely enough, and his lousy luck with the influential Indian literary establishment must have been at its lousiest when his masterpiece novel, Cuckold, was published in the same year that Arundhati Roy blew every other literary name and event out of the water by winning the Booker for The God of Small Things.

I will say upfront that I am an ardent fan of Nagarkar, and have been from the moment I read Cuckold all those years ago. It blew my mind. And it bombed in the market. “I consider it an absolute classic,” he told an interviewer in 2015. “If nobody agrees with that, it is too bad.” Does that sound like arrogance? I think it’s simple self-recognition, and you know it's real when an author remains sure of his ability and achievement despite being widely ill-received (one critic, on hearing of the English translation of Saat Sakkam Trechalis asked, Shouldn’t it be translated into Marathi first?). I don’t think Nagarkar is above being upset by ill-will and lack of recognition, but I suspect that he remains grounded in the certainty of his superpower, which is the ability to inhabit and express every shade of human feeling and expression from the most rarefied exaltation to the filthiest gutter low.

He has said that he would love to receive an award every day; yet, when he once got notification about an award, he forwarded it to someone else—and inadvertently back to the sender—darkly mocking it as spam. (I can’t now recall which award it was; Nagarkar has won a Sahitya Akademi Award for Cuckold, and an Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, which is Germany’s highest tribute to individuals). 

That frictional cohabitation of self-belief and self-doubt is only one of the many multitudes he contains—he strikes me as both controlled and wild, both prim and bawdy, wild with both grief and joy, both depressive and high-spirited prankster, mannered and savage, earnest as well as ironic, both elegant and potty-mouthed, self-possessed and adrift, a bon vivant as well as an ascetic, capable of both exaltation and desecration, tragic and comic both. 

It is, of course, his gift. He’s a Rabelaisian rampage on legs, a walking carnival, at once blaze and blackness. It’s as if someone stuffed into his thin, tall, stork-like frame a cosmic storm—as if, if he opened his mouth, you would see all the terrifying universes.   

I wondered what a writer like Nagarkar would want to do, about a national historical moment he is so sad and angry about—a moment in which, forget literary criticism, people like him might well be demonised as immoral blasphemers, a moment in which the exciting potential of literature, history, science, education, and human behaviour is all being trimmed and harnessed into the service of a narrow, controlling politics. I asked him if he had an answer to what one can do about that.

He had only one answer: I don’t know, but don’t give up. 

I got from that event exactly what I needed just at that moment: a bit of hope and a bit of inspiration. The hope that many people are individually multitudinous and recognise that things are not simply black and white; that many, many people resonate to the freedom of their own loves and griefs, made or unmade autonomously, regardless of circumstance. Not everyone can express it all the way Kiran Nagarkar can, but they defend it by living it.

And the inspiration of a soft-spoken 75-year-old (on stage alongside the steely, ballsy 90-year-old Nayantara Sehgal), still filled with fire and fury and love and cackling laughter, refusing—absolutely refusing—to give in or give up.

Life is generous, like that. It throws all kinds of horror at you, but also the things you need to get through it.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

PG-13 nation

No adults please, we’re proud Indians

(Published today in Business Standard)

Another day, another state. The Opposition alliance stands shell-shocked at the altar as Nitish Kumar runs in slo-mo through tulip fields, hair streaming prettily, into the arms of his old flame the BJP. Much has been forgiven and forgotten. As @atti_cus observed on Twitter, Nitish suddenly remembered that Lalu is corrupt, and suddenly forgot that Modi is communal. With Bihar in the bag, the Opposition alliance in shreds, and a friendly President at the head of the Republic, things are looking bright and shiny for the BJP and Sangh Parivar in their relentless quest to turn India into a PG-13 country with a mean streak.

Besides cynically using soldiers on the border, besides tacitly-approved lynching, besides failing to make any economic headway, besides creating communal tinderboxes, besides trying to get everyone to accept Hindi as the national language, the thing that most irritates Indians is the way in which we are being culturally infantilised and sanitised.

Fully grown Indians are being nannied by patriarchal relics like Pahlaj Nihalani at the Central Board of Film Certification, who upholds his loopy version of family values by, for example, saving ladies from themselves. The CBFC refused to certify Lipstick Under My Burqa on the following grounds: “The story is lady oriented, their fantasy about life. There are continuous sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society, hence film refused [sic to all of that].” The Film Certification Appellate Tribunal overturned the decision, and the film is currently in theatres, but my god, should the arts be at the mercy of people like Nihalani?

We’re being supervised by people like Dinanath Batra, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh educator and educational activist who advocates post-truth textbooks that re-design history in alignment with the Sangh’s views. He’s willing to junk scholarship and academic integrity wholesale, in favour of propaganda. Kids really don’t need to know too much about Nehru or Tagore. Manmohan Singh’s public apology about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi should be removed because it was only put there to make the Congress look good—plus, it automatically makes everyone’s eyeballs swivel to where Mr Modi stands, not being contrite about the 2002 Gujarat riots. Kids don’t need to know that Hindu society didn’t treat women well, or that Mughal rulers could be benevolent, or that the destruction of the Babri Masjid helped the BJP grow. And why not tell the kids that Maharana Pratap, not emperor Akbar, won the legendary battle of Haldighati? Truth is entirely expendable in the all-consuming quest to somehow, by whatever means possible, feel proud.

We’re being administered by a central government whose opinion of Indians is that we are too poor and socially backward to deserve a fundamental right to privacy, and should instead be proud and happy to let proud and happy businesses exploit our data. This is not only the very definition of paternalism, but also at sharp and confusing odds with the same government’s insistence on our mega-global-super-greatness.

We’re being ordered, by our courts, to love and respect India—or, since that’s not enforceable, being ordered to put on ritualistic displays of such love and respect by standing for the anthem and singing patriotic songs and installing flagpoles and bits of military hardware in universities.

Confident countries that believe in themselves don’t feel the need to regulate citizens in this pathological fashion. It is the ferment of plurality, dissent, individuality, and liberty that fosters creativity, innovation, betterment, and excellence. It’s the feeling of being free, and treated fairly, that makes people feel they have a stake in their country. That feeling, of having skin in the game, is the definition of patriotism, and it is earned, not legislated.

The Sangh seems tormented by self-esteem that is not just low, but infected and seeping. How terrible this unquenchable thirst for cultural validation, a thirst so great that you’d think that the Hindu right has been a tiny muzzled minority since Independence. They now have the political and possibly even the cultural majority. Why, then, are they still hankering to be included by the despised left-leaning media? Pride typically manifests in calmly and confidently going about normal life, so why are they spending their time insisting on red-eyed, frothy-mouthed assertions of pride? If their worldview is so self-evident, why are they having to force people into their way of life? Why so much bluster?

The Sangh stayed largely aloof from the freedom struggle. It may be that its own preferences are for structure and instruction over freedom. Its version of freedom may be the freedom to be culturally restrictive. But you can boss around fully grown adults for only so long before they turn around and start giving you lip.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Being liberal in #NewIndia

Don’t let the right wing yank your chain.

(Published on July 15, 2017 in Business Standard)

There was a moment, in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Amarnath yatris in Jammu & Kashmir, when it seemed as if social harmony in India might be in serious trouble. But of course, it was just one more piece of kindling tucked into what is already a raging conflagration.

On Twitter the next day, the right was aquiver with rage—but over liberals, not over the attack. It spent its time accusing people of not condemning the incident, as if individuals have the same duties as political spokespeople. Political PR channels thought the most trenchant question was: Where is the award wapsi gang?

You’d think that liberals would recognise this kind of baiting as designed to distract, and ignore it. But liberals are widely painted as hypocrites, and the charge of hypocrisy sparks a reflexive indignation in those good liberals who hold to principle, not party. It makes people who don’t need to prove a thing, spend their time proving things.

So liberals lined up for inspection by denouncing the attack not just from the heart, but scrupulously, as if lives lost are not clearly saddening. The heartfelt #NotInMyName campaign against lynch mobs, which attracted significant crowds, coverage, and right wing ire at their spontaneous protest in June, came out again to protest the attack in J&K. Good for them, but I would like to think that they didn’t do so under pressure to stave off the charge of hypocrisy. A terrorist attack is not in anyone’s name.

Amid the rubble and smoke on social media, too few people focused on the only consequential issue: investigating and questioning the security failure.

Well, dear liberals, that’s a mug’s game. Why are we allowing ourselves to become entirely reactive, squashed into tiny-minded terms set by people whose first and last recourse is whataboutery?

The liberal heart—by and large, let me not presume to speak for all—sticks up for things like non-violence, peace, diversity, freedom, and inclusiveness. It’s kind of a given that we don’t want anybody to be beaten up, murdered, or exiled, to be terrified, to live as second-class citizens, to perpetrate or be subjected to violence, to be discriminated against, to be oppressed by poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and illness. It’s a given that we see freedom, rationality, and constitutional rights as a good.

Why, then, are we constantly giving in to the pressure to display these beliefs constantly in any way other than living them by refraining from violence and hate? There is no need to jump when some anonymous troll snaps his or her fingers. We should feel free to engage out of choice, or to not engage at all. We should stop worrying that our beliefs will be worth less if we stop polishing them up for people who spit on them anyway. Liberal politics is live and let live, though comment is free. How you live serves as a much better track record than your timeline.

It is Hindutva, by definition, that seeks to exclude, dominate, censor, and interfere in private citizens’ lives. It is Hindutva that demands homogeneity, conservatism, obedience, deference to authority, censorship, and patriotic one-upmanship, in the name of aggressive nationalism. It is Hindutva that wants to drag us into the public square, and place on us the burden of proving that we belong. That politics—which bows to the state without respecting the Constitution—is too busy tending to its psychic wounds by justifying violence, to feel compelled to condemn violence. Hindutva’s political leaders, who do have a public duty to be seen and heard, say nothing, or make hateful statements—yet somehow, it is liberals who feel pushed on to the back foot.

Time spent being defensive about what we do not do, rather than on simply doing what we do, is time straight down the cosmic toilet. A healthy liberal society spends its waking time working, playing, keeping house, loving, innovating, expressing itself, learning, staying healthy, respecting rights and the law, holding power accountable, and meeting its friends. It does not spend its time trying to persuade heckling strangers that it isn’t murdering Hindus, or getting paid by Italians, or working for ISIS. It just lives and lets live. 

That doesn’t mean ceding vocal public space. It just means that it’s time to step back from the toxic paranoia, gas-lighting and straight up lies on social media, stop being manipulated and provoked. It’s time to take a breath, and refocus on the issues nobody wants us to focus on: unemployment, economic and agricultural crises, the destruction of our institutions, the death spiral in education, the shredding of our social fabric, the slow choking of diversity, and the rapid sacralisation of the state. 

I’m not saying we can’t get online to poke a few bears, just for fun. But we should choose to.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A response to Swapan Dasgupta's Times of India blog

(Published on July 2, 2017 in NDTV Opinion)

Swapan Dasgupta has an extraordinary blog piece in this morning's The Times Of India. In it, he lists the philosophical and temperamental sins of liberals who, to use his word, "flaunted" Not In My Name placards at the protests organised across India on Thursday against the recent cluster of lynchings that have sickened India and the world. The violence has mostly been in the context of people transporting cattle, or people suspected of eating beef, neither of which is illegal. The victims have been mostly Dalit or Muslim.

Dasgupta frames this anti-lynching protest as an expression of aesthetic more than moral outrage. This is presumably because "aesthetic" can be dismissed as a slighter, more frivolous philosophical obsession, confined to those few rich enough to have time and space for such minor preoccupations. 

After spending half his time quite reasonably agreeing that in addition to political violence, there is, in fact, much ugliness and violence in Indian civic society, Dasgupta presents two major arguments for why protesting this ugly lawlessness, and the Prime Minister's silence, is self-defeating. 

His first argument is that the protest displayed politically-coloured "selective indignation". Dasgupta cites the protesters' silence on the lynching of Kashmiri police officer Ayub Pandith in Srinagar just a few days earlier, the inference being that liberals don't mind murderous mobs as long as they are Muslim. This is just factually incorrect. Either Dasgupta wasn't there, or he wasn't listening, because Ayub Pandith was mentioned several times on stage. And there were certainly politics there, but they were entirely personal. I'm pretty sure it's normal for people to have political opinions. It's very helpful at the ballot box.

More broadly, Dasgupta accuses the protesters of repeatedly invoking "the beef controversy", as if this constitutes needless overreach in a protest against killing people for eating or being associated with beef. He says the murder of a teenaged Muslim boy on a train in Haryana is a reflection of popular mentality, not of politics - as though no BJP leader has ever enabled and encouraged this mentality by demonising Muslims as aliens to India, as Hindu-murderers, and as a community Hindus can never live with (Exhibit A: Chief Minister of UP Adityanath, appointed by PM Modi); as though no BJP political figure has ever legitimised the murder of an innocent Muslim by draping the corpse of his murderer in the tricolour (Exhibit B: Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma); as though no BJP leaders have ever attended meetings where people were exhorted to kill Muslims (Exhibit C: A Sangh meeting in Agra in 2016 attended by several BJP leaders); as though there is no such thing as Hindutva-affiliated groups in Uttar Pradesh running camps to arm and train children to hate and kill Muslims.

But citizens join the dots for themselves, whether or not they are particularly political animals, and many of us don't like what we see. Politically-obligated entities like Dasgupta much prefer the fiction that all dots are isolated incidents that do not amount to a pattern. This is his political task, as an ardent supporter of the BJP, and that too is perfectly transparent to citizens.

His second argument is the "generous measure of social condescension" he witnessed - not at the protest, but on social media chatter - which indicates, to him, that liberals are more concerned about lunching than lynching (I paraphrase). He says that the protesters represent a "rootless cosmopolitanism" which attempts to use the Constitution to sanction beef-eating in the face of common decency, since "the prohibition on beef carries a large measure of social sanction." To make this argument, he has to brush aside the BJP's brazen doublespeak on beef in the Northeast and Kerala with a low-volume "some states apart", and completely ignore the inconvenient fact that if social sanction were sacrosanct, we would not have laws against sati, gender violence, rape, and child labour.

Somehow he determines that all of this anti-murder protesting is aimed at fostering Hindu self-flagellation. This beats me, though not in the Hindu self-flagellating way. Stripped to the bone, his argument is that a confident Hindu would be radiant with understanding about the mob's feelings, rather than whining about murder. That if liberals weren't so culturally out of it, and had a "more evolved sense of rootedness", they wouldn't think the lynchings displayed a lack of humanity.

Dasgupta's piece would be inane, but unremarkable, if it stayed in this region, limiting itself to right wing cant and the journalistic equivalent of poking snails with a stick to see if he can hassle them into retreating into their shells. 

But he goes further, bookending his piece with an attempt to frame the anti-lynching protest as treachery. His opening quote about aesthetics is from a Le Carré novel, spoken by a British intelligence officer turned Soviet mole, explaining why he betrayed his country: '"It was," Haydon replied unhesitatingly, "an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so ugly."' Dasgupta's ending sentence is: "India may be imperfect, but it isn't so ugly as to warrant emotional treachery."

This is such a wonderfully whacked-out thing to say that, in another social climate, it would get a big laugh, but in today's climate of unthinking hyper-nationalism and political pseudo-nationalism, it is far more pernicious. For a Rajya Sabha member to gently, gently draw a link between liberals and treason, is nothing short of gentle, gentle incitement. It's disappointing at best, and wilfully irresponsible at worst. Swapan Dasgupta knows very well that the greatest fight in India today is the fight over who does and does not belong in India, and under what conditions, and that those who do not enjoy what he calls "social sanction" are  vulnerable to the mob.

There are many such isolated instances of the Indian right wing painting liberals as traitors, either directly or by insinuation. All of us, right, left, and centre, can join the dots.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Walk the talk on cow terrorism, Mr Modi

Lynchings do not defame India, they shame it.

(Published on July 1, 2017 in Business Standard) 

On Wednesday evening, thousands of ordinary Indians put on their shoes, maybe grabbed an umbrella against monsoon rains, and walked out of their houses, carrying placards and wearing black armbands. In a dozen cities and towns across the country, they peacefully protested against murderous mob hate, and the government’s silence.

On Thursday morning the Prime Minister finally found it in him to comment on cow terrorists, after nearly a year and two dozen lynchings. He said that the violence saddened him, and that killing people in the name of gau bhakti is unacceptable.

Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. But while the perceived causal link might gratify #NotInMyName protesters, we would do well to put the PM’s reaction in perspective.

First, Mr Modi’s single past admonition to gau rakshaks had no discernible impact. Either he doesn’t have the clout everyone thinks he has, or he hasn’t really meant it. Talk is cheap, meaningful action quite another thing. Second, Mr Modi is more likely to be eyeing Dalit voters in the upcoming Gujarat elections, than a few thousand marginal libtards. Third, his popularity has largely withstood domestic criticism, so the protests may not have moved him—though the government is tetchy about international press, so it could be that merciless coverage of his silence in the New York Times, the BBC, the Guardian, The Economist, the Washington Post have stung him into speaking.

And what did he actually say? I am unconvinced by what many are calling a firm, sincere speech. He said that the Mahatma wouldn’t approve, and also that nobody talked more about cow protection than the Mahatma, which strikes me as conveniently fork-tongued. He didn’t mention the lynching victims, not even 16-year-old Junaid whose recent murder galvanised the protests. He wondered what we have become, but let the question hang. (The answer is: a society where hate and violence can proceed with impunity, because it is constantly excused and justified in the fraudulent name of public sentiment.)

He played the angsty philosopher, not the steely administrator. It was deja vu all over again—and there was, of course, the supreme irony of beholding the ideology that backslaps Nathuram Godse, shoot from Mahatma Gandhi’s shoulder. As various Twitter wags have pointed out, the Mahatma might have shot back, Not in my name.

Unless the BJP seriously follows up on law enforcement—no small task—and on a rhetorical makeover, this will just be an instance of making the right noises to pacify critics while winking at the hate-mongers.

I hope for, but don’t expect, any change in BJP politics. Just hours before Mr Modi’s speech another man was lynched near Ranchi, and there will no doubt be more killings because, as The Telegraph’s Friday front page so eloquently showed, we aren’t supposed to kill in Gandhi’s India, but then we live in Modi’s India. We have to hope that the PM means business this time, but until we see a serious systemic effort to curb violence, Mr Modi is not walking the talk.

What is important, and heartening, about the #NotInMyName protests, is that finally citizens stepped up to fill a shameful moral vacuum. They found their moral compass and stuck to it, despite a truly stupid effort—predictably from the Right, but also from many others—to scorn and discredit the protest. What’s to scorn—the assertion that lynching is horrifying and must stop? The refusal to accept or ignore tides of blood? Does the fact that only a few thousand people protested make the protest ridiculous, or is it an ugly comment on our society? What does it say about India that a protest against murder is controversial?

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Rakesh Sinha, whose repeated nightly appearances on various news channels is one of the abiding mysteries of our times, claimed that the protests were a Pakistani ISI-created effort to defame India; Rajya Sabha member Swapan Dasgupta suggested that it was a case of sour grapes because the protestors no longer enjoy the fruits of Congress power. I know I’m supposed to use words, but I think an eye-roll each will do.

A Huffington Post editor wrote that focusing on beef and Muslims only helps Hindutva, to which I’d respond that it is possible to be so over-clever and over-tactical that you can lose sight of certain simple truths. In this case: Killing people and terrorising minorities is illegal, anti-Constitutional, and morally maggoty, and this country’s government has been complicit in its silence, its inaction, and its rhetoric.

I hope that there will be many more such citizen protests, most of all by rejecting hate and sticking up for each others’ constitutional rights in our daily lives. It matters, when constitutional values face marginalisation, not to let volume and numbers make you second-guess your true North. Because that is how a country loses itself.