Archive for February, 2021

The major distractions of humans today

Hindu theology speaks of Shada Ripu or the six vices. These are:

1) Kama: lust; 2) Krodha: anger 3) Lobha: greed; 4) Moha: delusion/attachment; 5) Mada: arrogance; 6) Matsarya: jealousy.

I will illustrate these enemies of humankind in a subsequent blog and explain how we can try to curb them. Today, I intend to highlight how these emotions are fuelled by the major present-day distractions that put paid to one’s peace of mind.

Media (print/electronic)

I often wonder about our great-grandmothers/grandfathers and their ancestors who never had to wake up to the morning newspaper. My great-grandfather was an agriculturist who woke up by 4.30 AM to visit his fields early in the morning. He never had the irresistible desire many of us have to rush for the newspaper first thing in the morning, sometimes without even completing our morning ablutions. And what do we get as our morning dose? A murder here, an abduction there and a diatribe against some action or inaction of the government of the day. A maelstrom of emotions is generated in the next thirty to forty minutes, composed generally of a mix of anger and greed.

The early morning practice in my childhood years was to tune in to All India Radio (AIR) at 6 AM (those overcome by nostalgia can listen to the AIR signature tune here). Devotional music on AIR was followed by half an hour of old Hindi film songs on Radio Ceylon. The Hindi news read out to us by Devaki Nandan Pandey or Indu Wahi at 8 AM was dry and factual, without any sensational tidbits. Listening to the radio is now passé: the Indian TV scene underwent a sea change after the 1982 Asian Games. Doordarshan dominated the early years, till the advent of NDTV and a host of private channels from the 1990s onwards. What we get on TV today 24 by 7 is the same mishmash of nonsense parading as information, aimed at titillating our senses and exciting lust, anger, greed and envy. As the day progresses, every absurd event is brought to us by breathless reporters, many of whom have had no grounding in the basics of economics and politics, leave alone news coverage. And then there are the interminable soap operas to keep viewers in a state of perpetual stupefaction.

Time wasted: two to four hours a day.

Internet/email

This phenomenon came alive only in the mid-1990s in a significant way. Over time, search engines of Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have given humans access to a huge load of information. While much of this material is useful, we also suffer from an overload of data, more marked at times like the current COVID crisis. People tend to explore, for example, for reasons for symptoms they seem to be experiencing and possible remedies for the same. They are then exposed to a variety of cures, many propagated by charlatans and fake healers. Ditto for those who fall for tips on stock market winners from motley investment gurus. The urge to keep checking for emails is itself an addictive pastime, as is the habit of aimless browsing of pornography and game sites.

Time wasted: anywhere from one to five hours a day.

Facebook/Instagram/YouTube

It is, however, the offspring of the internet, the applications designed to involve people as participants, which have truly revolutionised and trivialised internet usage. Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are social networking sites that provide space for the narcissist and the voyeur. The aim is to expand one’s ability to reach out to a wide audience, many of whom have no direct or proximate link with the entity they follow; in fact, the follower and followed may well be located in different continents. Facebook and Instagram allow users to share stories of their last holiday in Corfu or Nice or their latest revelry in an upmarket restaurant in New York or Paris. The old Onida ad heading of “neighbours’ envy, owners’ pride” was never truer than today. A prime cause of the feeling of worthlessness in people can be traced to this ready mechanism of comparison. YouTube started off well with access to plenty of audio-visual content, especially music from the past, and useful hacks to deal with the variety of confusing modern equipment we seem to have surrounded ourselves with. However, it has also fallen prey to the consumerist ethic. Of late, India has developed its models of Kim Kardashians, who flaunt their daily life on channels developed by them, which yield the presenters a handsome return based on the number of subscriptions they are able to secure. While some of these channels restrict themselves to domestic matters like the daily life in an urban flat, they also provide the opportunity to flaunt the ability to purchase items that are just a dream for the majority of viewers. A number of these channel managers have, in a short space of time, developed cult followings, enabling them to peddle a variety of goods and services online and even to dabble in promoting superstitious trends: Lobha, Moha, Mada and Matsarya are in full view on these YouTube channels.

Time wasted: Two to four hours a day

Twitter

            This application arrived somewhat later in the internet world, but has caught on like wildfire. This is probably because of the limited content of 280 characters that can be put out on a single tweet. Even persons not too confident of their writing skills can comfortably type out the twenty five or fewer words needed in a message. What this has led to is an explosion in the number of Twitter accounts over the years. In particular, Twitter (and Facebook) have become the social media tools favoured by political parties/movements and politicians, because of their extensive reach out to huge populations. Some recent developments on Twitter have set the political classes in different countries atwitter. A trend that is particularly noticeable in recent years with the advent of populist politicians in a number of countries has been the emergence of trolls, bots and fake accounts. IT cells of populist parties rely on these mechanisms to unleash a barrage of criticism, often bordering on or openly abusive, to dampen potential dissenters. Even otherwise, the advent of Twitter has seen a coarsening of language and an end to meaningful dialogue. The result is a stream of hatred, born of anger and delusion. Positions have hardened on all sides of the political and social spectrum, as the boundaries of civility and decent language have crumbled under this onslaught. Twitter is also a facile time-waster: it takes little effort to keep scrolling on one’s Twitter handle to keep abreast of the latest tweet.

Time wasted: Anywhere from two to eight hours at all hours of the day and night

WhatsApp (WA)

WA, which was meant to be an improvement on the short message service (SMS) in vogue since the 1980s, has acquired a life and momentum of its own. Its features include sending of audio-visual messages, a task which was cumbersome or not feasible earlier. But WA has also amplified the human characteristic to spread gossip like wildfire and has contributed, through paranoid reactions in recipient populations, to appalling actions like lynchings and other acts of violence. Its group features have also enabled groupings with similar worldviews to come together on a single platform, secure in the knowledge that they share a common ideology with their fellow beings. Ironically, this has also helped contribute to the systematic brainwashing of significant sections of the so-called “thinking” classes on issues relating to religion, race and perceived economic and social grievances. In the absence of responsible forwarding of information, which they have verified to be true, by members of WA groups, the basest instincts of group members have been activated, linked to their fears and insecurities. WA, because of its easy access on mobile phones, is seen at all times of day and night by its users.

Time wasted: Two to ten hours, depending on the reasons for usage

            The human race, with a finite period of existence between its first and last breath, thus spends a large part of its waking hours engaged in one or more of the distractions mentioned above. Marshall McLuhan referred to the medium being the message (or massage). The medium today is almost entirely the mobile phone, with the me(a)ssage catering to the different aspirations, fears and anxieties of increasingly rootless earthlings. Have we not seen the face of the student/office goer on her/his way to study/work, immersed in a mobile phone? Reading has now become a luxury, with the inundation of the mind, through the eyes and ears, by a continuous stream of audio-visual material. This has implications, not necessarily pleasant to visualise, for citizens of liberal democracies across the globe who are being subjected to a relentless barrage of “alternative truths”, which they have no inclination to question or critically examine.

            At an individual level, what can we do about this insane movement towards uniformity of thoughts and attitudes? At a personal level, I have eschewed the reading of newspapers (two years now) and accessing TV, especially news, channels (three years now). Although still maintaining a Facebook account, I almost never open it. YouTube is limited to listening to old Hindi film songs and viewing some classic movies of yesteryears. I have severely restricted surfing on the internet, except to download articles of interest or for research purposes. I try to resist, not always successfully, the temptation to go through my incoming emails, though I plan to confine this activity to just half an hour every afternoon, with a break on the tw0-day weekend. I plan to limit WA use to downloading links for Zoom meetings (where these are not sent on email) and am trying to take a break for days at a time from Twitter. In any case, I plan not to respond (react?) to others’ tweets. Will these actions help me control the six emotions I mentioned at the start of this blog? I certainly hope so and I hope you find me an easier human being to deal with the next time we interact. 

Opposition In Residence

(James Hacker, Minister in Her Majesty’s Government: “The Opposition aren’t the opposition…They’re only the opposition in exile. The Civil Service is the opposition in residence.” – Yes Minister, Antony Jay & Jonathan Lynn)

Politicians in India, at least from Indira Gandhi onwards, have, notwithstanding their pious public utterances, always veered in favour of a “committed bureaucracy”, faithfully executing the dictates of the party in power. The general public, therefore, has this mistaken impression that civil servants mindlessly toe the line of their political masters (I don’t dare use the feminine equivalent). This is not quite the whole truth, at least in the three decades when I was in service from 1980 onwards. Not that we did not have our share of those who were ready to oblige the political executive for a mess of pottage. But there were sections of the civil service that did their utmost to ensure that their political bosses did not get their way in issues that reeked of impropriety or financial wrongdoing.

I have written earlier on the tactics that can be employed to forestall patently illegal requests from the political class (see here). These include (a) let us see, “Parkalam” in Tamil and “Baghoon sangto” in Marathi; (b) making oneself scarce; (c) sending the file into orbit; (d) setting up a committee; (e) recording one’s views on file; (f) asking for written orders; and (g) asking/getting  ready for a transfer. These distracting tactics are not necessarily a reflection of bureaucratic ego or of an innate desire to take no decisions. Mostly, they are intended to give time for reflection on the proposed course of action or to make the vexed issue irrelevant with the passage of time.

Apart from the bureaucratic bulwark against impetuous, risky decision making, there are even more crucial checks and balances in a functioning democracy which are intended to check autocratic tendencies in the political executive. Brute majorities in the Lok Sabha (think India 1971/1984/2019) tend to invest a sense of infallibility in the minds of the majority party leaders. It is easily forgotten that democracy is not just the exercise of their electoral rights by citizens at five year intervals but also the giving of voice to their hopes and aspirations in the interregnum between elections. Four institutions play major roles in this theatre of democracy: legislatures, the judiciary, media and civil society.

Central and state legislatures are the first check on arbitrary executive actions. Even where the opposition is in truncated numbers, its voice can be powerful when its representatives speak fearlessly on issues of public importance. In the Nehru-Indira heyday, politicians like Minoo Masani, Piloo Mody, Nath Pai, Madhu Dandavate, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jyotirmoy Basu commanded respect with their scathing denunciations of ruling party actions, couched always in parliamentary language. House committees were dreaded by bureaucrats for their interrogation of executive actions. Parliamentary debates, reported fully by the print media, gave citizens an idea of what their leaders were up to. Bills went through discussions in select committees before they were put to vote. Ordinances were resorted to as a last, emergency option only when the House was unlikely to convene in a reasonable time period. That these vital functions of the legislature have been given the go-by in recent months and years is a cause for concern. Important bills are either subject to inadequate legislative scrutiny or are rushed through as money bills, obviating the need for passage by the Upper House – abrogation of Article 370, passage of the CCA and farm bills are prime examples of legislative bulldozing. Ordinances are now the new flavour, with the COVID pandemic providing a ready excuse to bypass legislatures.

The courts are the main support of citizens against arbitrary executive actions backed by pliant legislatures. While the seal of approval given by the highest court of the land in the early years of our democracy to preventive detention and sedition laws caused unease in liberal minds, the court did qualify the exercise of such sweeping powers by the state in a number of landmark judgments. The enunciation of the principle of “basic structure of the Constitution” in the 1973 Kesavananda Bharati case had reassured the public that the judiciary would safeguard the Constitution against executive encroachment. That the Supreme Court went against this principle in the 1976 ADM Jabalpur case was a setback to personal freedoms, though the court corrected its position in this case forty years later. With the Supreme Court entertaining public interest litigations (PILs) and taking suo motu cognisance of issues of vital public importance, the next few decades saw a phase of judicial activism that seemed to bode well for a healthy democracy where the judiciary kept the executive in check. This trend has, unfortunately, gone into reverse gear in recent times with a number of executive and legislative actions yet to go on the anvil of judicial scrutiny. Prominent among these are the electoral bonds issue, demonetisation, the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, the CAA law and the three farm laws. More worryingly, the Supreme Court (and many High Courts) are yet to pronounce on executive actions that have impinged on basic freedoms of citizens: the large number of pending habeas corpus petitions, the internet restrictions in Jammu & Kashmir and the incarceration and denial of bail in many cases involving civil society activists, journalists and intellectuals.

The media, both print and electronic, has largely abdicated its role as guardian of the qui vive. During the 1975-77 Emergency, it crawled when merely asked to bend: now it is, with notable exceptions, ready to lend its services for dissemination of inaccurate, sensational news and take partisan positions on issues of public importance. The spread of digital and social media has mitigated this one-sided view somewhat but, with the likely introduction of curbs on such independent media, the prospects for free and frank expression of points of view appear dim.

Finally then, it is left to civil society, especially those in its ranks who cherish the values enshrined in the Constitution, to raise the flag for the fundamental rights listed in Part III of the Constitution. When all other avenues to secure timely justice and redress of grievances seem to be foreclosed, sections of civil society have resorted to the satyagraha route propounded by Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom struggle. This was vividly illustrated in the two mass movements — the anti-CAA and the farmers’ protests — over the past year. As the Mahatma was to emphasise in his experiments with satyagraha, it is based on an inviolable relationship between the means and ends, with its essence in the purity of means, totally non-violent in nature, adopted by a pure person, as also in the constant quest of this person to purify her/himself through self-examination. The satyagraha effort can be undermined and brought to a close because of external “Chauri Chaura” events, such as civil disturbances (riots/violence) or natural occurrences (COVID), as witnessed in recent times.

Mutual tolerance and respect for institutions are the hallmarks of true democrats. A democrat at heart is aware that (s)he holds the position of power for only as long as the people wish and that there has to be space for opposing viewpoints in a functioning democracy. Equally, other political formations have to be given due regard and the space to function freely. But even more important is the recognition of the inviolability of institutions meant to safeguard democracy. It is these institutions that, as the checks and balances in a democratic society, act as the real “opposition” in keeping the executive under control. As in the case of charity, democracy too begins at home.