Monday, May 29, 2017

Three years of Modi have taken us back to the 1940s

And not in a good way

(Published on May 20, 2017 in Business Standard)

Flashback to 1950: After three years of care, consideration, erudition, eloquence, conflict, and consensus, the Constituent Assembly has hammered out a national document spelling out an inclusive, pluralistic vision of India. We celebrate this Constitution on January 26, 1950, our first Republic Day. The monster job of governing India takes shape slowly and painfully—through poverty, famine, rioting, war, and strangulating red tape, through losses, blunders, and heartbreak—but we are on our way. Fresh from the extraordinary traumas of colonialism, we have committed to life as a sovereign, democratic (and, later, secular) republic, pledged to justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Those days must have been both so heady and nervy—the exhilaration of freedom, the excitement of beginning to create something new of our own. 

Today, the euphoria and struggle of those first decades in which the bones of the Republic were forged, are forgotten. Parts of India remain shamefully backward and undeveloped, but much of it has entered the 21st century. My generation—midnight’s grandchildren—remembers booking long-distance phone calls that the operator might connect within a day or two—an hour or two if you booked the ‘lightning’ service; our children have never known a world without the internet and smartphones. The information and communications revolution changed the world, and India, beyond recognition. We still face numbing poverty, famine, rioting, war, and red tape, but we have also seen dizzying change.

We are empowered enough to know what we’re missing; ambitious about our own aspirations; brimming with creative energy; and out of patience with the corruption, self-interestedness, and inefficiency of the political class and bureaucracy. We came to the point where a long-suffering people, rightly fed up with political misdemeanour and negligence, wrongly voted in a man they hoped would free them from new chains of corruption and inefficiency, and change their fortunes.

Why wrongly? The Modi wave that swept the 2014 general elections expressed a groundswell of hope. It ignited a flare of excitement after years of cynical sameness. Maybe, thought many voters, he will finally free us to create, progress, improve. The problem is that those who elected this man overestimated his competence, and ignored—or liked—the fact that in his shadow we would let in a long serpent’s tail of entities, people, organisations, and ideas, that directly challenge the India that India signed up for. The Sangh Parivar is now also in power by proxy. 

Three years in, hopeful excitement stands taxidermised in wooden acronyms and hashtags—3Ts, #StandUpIndia, #StartUpIndia #Cashless #LessCash India—dry monuments to economic disappointment. But that’s the good part, the part that may yet turn around. The worse part is that much of the hope now stands turned to horror as we watch the fabric of our society, already so ragged, being deliberately cut to pieces by homegrown terrorists posing as nationalists or religious and cultural guardians, and by bigots mainstreaming bigotry into education. 

Over three years of the Modi government we have, like the proverbial frogs, congratulated ourselves on the balminess of our pond, failed to acknowledge the upward creeping temperature, and are now unable to admit that we are being boiled alive. We’ve been unable, or unwilling, to be vigilant about how the government and its proxies are changing the character of India. We have accepted public relations as fact, kept our heads down instead of risking our interests, and allowed militant chauvinism to define love of country. We have failed to safeguard our founding ideals, failed to aspire to the best version of ourselves. We have failed to defend our stake in a valuable idea.

And so now, three years later, we are back in a version of the 1940s, debating the idea of India, but not only in the assemblies of the people. We are being forced to debate it with knives and stones in the streets. We’re being forced to debate it in our kitchens and on our restaurant menus. We are having to debate it in our love lives and wardrobes and movie theatres. We are being forced to debate it in our universities, and in the arts and letters. We are being forced to challenge it in court.

Nationhood is always a work in progress, an endless accommodation between conflicting ideas, an endless tweaking in order to build. But three years into the Modi government, it’s the blueprint that is changing. Our founding ideals are up for grabs.

There are those who are grabbing them to trash them. It’s up to the rest of us to grab them back.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Aadhaar: My body, my rights

The bad news is, it’s not just about the Aadhaar-PAN linkage.

(Published on May 6, 2017 in Business Standard)

‘Dear Govt.. Can i have my left hand back please.. Need to scratch my head.’ (sic)

This one tweet beautifully mocked two arguments made in the Supreme Court by Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi. The AG said that a) citizens do not have an absolute right over their bodies, and therefore can be compelled to give their fingerprints and iris scans to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI); and and b) that you “cannot import conceptions of privacy” into India, because, he said, on a train in this country, people will tell you their life stories within five minutes.

The facileness of these statements is breathtaking, even from a government as super-nosy as this one.

A vigorous anti-Aadhaar campaign is being conducted by people driven by precisely those two ideas: Bodily integrity, and privacy. They represent a very large number of Indians who value their bodily integrity and autonomy, and privacy, very much indeed. We value it because we’re free adults—a fact that escapes the tiny-minded officials who constantly censor our books and movies, and tell us, among other things, whom to love and where, and what to eat and why.

The case in the Supreme Court will determine whether or not taxpayers must mandatorily link their Aadhaar numbers with their PAN cards in order to pay their taxes. Petitioners challenging the government’s order say it can’t be made mandatory since Aadhaar is a purely voluntary system, targeting subsidy beneficiaries. The arguments have been rivetingly live-tweeted for days. The Centre refused to allow arguments based on the idea of privacy, since the court is separately deciding whether Indians have a fundamental right to privacy. The petitioners therefore argued for informational self-determination and bodily integrity, saying that you cannot extend the doctrine of Eminent Domain to the body, nor coerce people into parting with their most personal, irreplaceable, unchangeable data.

The Aadhaar-PAN linkage is a matter of tax law. On most days I would rather stab myself repeatedly in the heart than think about tax law. But I am riveted, because it scares me to to death that we have to argue tax law in terms of our fundamental constitutional and bodily rights, and that we’ve gotten to this point so awfully fast. The question of linking Aadhaar with PAN numbers is only the tip of a very large conceptual iceberg. As the petitioners’ advocate Shyam Divan put it, “If we fail here, the impact it could have on civil liberties in the country could be huge.”

The impunity of the government, and its assumptions, are staggering. How dare a democratically-elected government treat its citizens with such contempt that it can argue that they have no right to privacy? How dare it treat its citizens’ bodies as commodities that can be sold to private companies? How dare it perpetrate such a colossal bait-and-switch, advertising a purely voluntary subsidy targeting mechanism, and delivering something that coerces people into letting it into all parts of their lives—and sneaking these coercive laws in on the back of the Finance Bill? How dare it brand honest critics of Aadhaar as anti-nationals with something to hide, even as it draws shrouds of opacity over political funding, and renders the Right to Information toothless?

It is my view, and that of many other Indians, that the central government is systematically eroding constitutional liberties and working to institutionalise the dreary, joyless, regimented, unequal societal order beloved of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It is my view that everything it says and does springs from the assumptions of majoritarianism, and that it does not understand or like individual rights. It is my view that it has an uneasy relationship with choice and freedom, preferring structure and predictability. It is my view that it has an intrusive, micromanaging attitude that treats citizens like sheep to be supervised, herded, and monetised. 

But even if you take a less sinister view of things—the best view, in fact—the way that Aadhaar is being shoved into all the nooks and crannies of a citizen’s life suggests, as the petitioners’ advocate Arvind Datar put it, that the whole project “is like building a bridge and then looking for a river. It is hunting for problems to make itself relevant.”

Choice and consent are at the heart of self-determination and dignity. Many Indians recognising the coercive nature of Aadhaar are waking up to the full import, meaning, and emergent need of that famous feminist and human rights cry: My body, my rights. (Better late than never.) The government wants to remove choice and consent in the matter of the Aadhaar-PAN link. It may sound like a silly detail, but it will set the tone for many of our civil liberties.

They are currently in the hands of the court.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Missing the forest for the trees

We could all use a little forest bathing 

(Published on April 22, 2017 in Business Standard)

The world’s public relations act conceals tragedy and sordidness—diseased bodies under sharp clothes, loneliness and bigotry behind bright smiles, terrified children cowering beneath adult self-possession, unhappiness underlying the perfect life, inequality behind shiny GDP figures. Our lives are plastered with messages suggesting that if only we would shop more, things would get better. We’d forget the Syrian kids with foam drying on their lips whose short lives were quite literally a game of Russian roulette. We’d forget the idiots who immediately ask why you’re only concerned about Syria when kids are dying in India. 

Sometimes the public relations act is desperation. The Tamil farmers who have been protesting in Delhi for almost 40 days are trying increasingly dramatic measures to get the Centre’s attention. They have sat in protest in 43ÂșC; they have festooned their protest with skulls; they have shaved their hair; they have symbolically placed grass and live mice and dead snakes in their mouths; they have stripped naked at South Block and rolled on the ground; they have had a man in a Modi mask and jacket whip them; next up, they’re planning to stagger around in torn clothes to make the point that they’re losing their minds in this difficult, seemingly impossible struggle to get the attention of the man who never forgets a birthday.

Sometimes the public relations act has the ominous feel of a disastrous finale. US President Donald Trump is eyeball to eyeball with North Korean President Kim Jong Un—a sight that would be riveting for the hairdos alone, but has the added attraction of China strapping on its armour, and the possibility of a nuclear confrontation at the end of which everyone dies, leaving the earth empty and silent except for the sound of pro-Sonu Nigam and anti-Sonu Nigam twitter feeds relentlessly trolling each other until the end of eternity.

It can all seem irretrievably dysfunctional. And when the world is going to hell, the only thing left to do is forest bathing. 

Forest bathing comes from the idea that spending some time amongst trees, immersing yourself in their presence as you might immerse yourself in a warm bath (or a cool one depending on what relief you need), does the soul a world of good. It’s a poetic thought, and, happily, it is one of the few poetic thoughts that doesn’t disappoint when translated into reality. 

I’ve been lucky enough to forest bathe three times in the last few weeks. The forests were all very different, from the sprawling tiger territory of Corbett National Park to the lush ‘sholas' that stand like islands in the Nilgiri Mountains; but all of them, without a doubt, had a calming effect. According to Wikipedia it all has to do with breathing in phytoncides, or wood essential oils, but according to me, looking at the insanely complex beauty of trees, and soaking in their greenness, is enough to lower your blood pressure. (One theory is our subconscious biology reads the colour green as an indication that there’s enough water and warmth for things to grow, and therefore to eat, and therefore one can relax.)

Of course forests can be scary, metaphors for mysterious, confusing, frightening situations. Children’s books are filled with the foreboding of dark and twisty forests inhabited by witches and spirits, and the fear of wandering lost forever, or getting eaten by wolves. That’s the forest of fearful paranormal imaginings.

But there’s the other, more real, more benignly magical forest—the woods that wash you in quiet, whose beauty and patterns and sounds are atavistically familiar and soothing. Sheltering canopies, the scent of resin, the rustle of the wind, dappled sunlight on the forest floor, the busy, focussed activity of little creatures going about their lives—and above all the trees, those silent standing watcher-citizens. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise trees, as Peter Wohlleben does in The Hidden Life of Trees, in which he posits that trees have friends; scream when in pain; have roles and personalities; talk to each other through what he calls the ‘woodwide web’ made of roots and electrical signals; and learn through their lives.

To be fair, the most committed forest bather might want to go home when darkness falls, because the dark brings out fearful imaginings. But we were designed to live in the natural world, in comforting herds. Returning to the city is a shocking measure of how far we have pushed that world. Perhaps that explains why we are so horrible to one another.

No wonder that we benefit from forest bathing, and sometimes crave it. If you haven’t tried it, do—while there are still forests left.