Archive for the ‘human interest’ Category

Jeenaa Yahaan Marnaa Yahaan

(The full forms of the acronyms used in this blog are given at the end for easy reference)

Like a pesky earworm, the words of songs from Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker keep reverberating in my ears nowadays when I sit down to pen my blogs. If it was Jaane Kahaan Gaye Voh Din that resonated with me when I wrote my last blog, the present blog brought to mind that priceless masterpiece Jeenaa Yahaan Marnaa Yahaan. Lest my reader think that I am engulfed in maudlin sentimentality, let me emphasise that there is a logic to the use of these titles. My last blog reflected my dismay at the state of affairs in India’s district/police administration. The present blog focuses on the issue uppermost in the minds of most, if not all, of India’s 1.3 plus billion inhabitants. Yes, I refer to the CAA-NPR-NRIC triad, which has occasioned intense but non-violent protests on a scale not seen for many years.

Thanks to the wisdom and humanity of the politicians at the helm of India’s governance in the years after her independence, India went in for a liberal interpretation of citizenship, based on the jus soli principle, i.e, birth in India after 26 January 1950 was deemed to qualify one for Indian citizenship. The first blow to this principle came in 1987 in the wake of the Assam Accord. From 1 July 1987, birth in India was not a sufficient condition for citizenship: one parent also had to be a citizen of India by birth. This meant a move towards the concept of jus sanguinis in defining citizenship, with descent, rather than birth alone, being the defining criterion for citizenship. The second, and far more telling, move towards a more constricted definition of citizenship came with the 2003 Act. Not only was one parent required to be a citizen of India, there was the additional stipulation that, at the time of birth, the other parent should not have been an “illegal migrant” (defined as a foreigner who entered India without valid documents or who, with valid documents, overstayed in India beyond the permitted period). It is instructive to note that the 1987 and 2003 changes in the definition of “citizenship by birth” in the 1955 Act, as well as the 2003 Rules seemed to enjoy a broad consensus across the political spectrum. Not only did the previous UPA government go along with all these provisions, it even toyed with the idea of the NPR followed by the NRIC before carrying out the NPR exercise in 2010 and then dropping the idea of the NRIC in favour of the Aadhaar exercise.

It is the third move in 2019 to amend the 1955 Act that has finally set the cat among the pigeons. Efforts since 2016 to amend the 1955 Act to provide fast track access to Indian citizenship to “persecuted” persons belonging to specific countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan) had been stymied by the inability to get the legislation through the Rajya Sabha; support from non-BJP parties, which either did not understand the implications of the legislation or chose to support it out of their own political calculations saw it enacted within the space of three days in December 2019.

A reading of the CAA reveals nothing about granting fast track citizenship to “persecuted” minorities from the three countries in our neighbourhood. While this view may have been put forth in the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the CAB, its absence in the CAA is puzzling. Even if the word “persecuted” finds its way into the Rules to be enacted to give effect to the CAA, determining whether or not a claimant for Indian citizenship has indeed  been persecuted in his/her former country will be very difficult. There is also the issue of the claims of refugees from other countries in the neighbourhood – Shias/Ahmadiyyas from Pakistan, Tamils from Sri Lanka, Rohingyas from Myanmar – which will fall through the sieve. Not only, therefore, are there serious issues relating to the CAA violating the principles of equality and secularism (parts of the inviolable basic structure of the Constitution of India), there is also the moral indefensibility of a statute that seeks to pick and choose who among the residents of India’s neighbouring countries is eligible for Indian citizenship. In any case, the process had already commenced from 2015: in a set of four notifications issued quietly between September 2015 and September 2016 under the 1955 Act, illegal migrants from the religious communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan now covered under the CAA had already been exempted “from the adverse penal consequences of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946 and rules or notifications made thereunder” (as stated in the same Statement of Objects and Reasons at the time of introduction of the CAB in Parliament). These notifications exempted such classes of “illegal immigrants” from prosecution and also provided for their obtaining long-term visas  to stay in India. A government that wanted to favour specific groups from certain countries could well have exercised its existing powers on a case by case basis without highlighting the exclusion of India’s largest minority religion.

It, therefore, appears that the BJP wanted to ensure that the NRC process in Assam does not affect the large number of Hindus who had been declared “illegal immigrants” under that exercise. In the process, the government and the party ruling at the centre ended up with a double whammy. The indigenous people of Assam have made it clear for over forty years that they are opposed to migration from across the international border, irrespective of the religion of the migrant. Even the exclusion of tribal and Inner Permit line areas in the North East from the ambit of CAA has not assuaged feelings, especially in Upper Assam. At the same time, the exclusion of Muslims from the CAA has occasioned a different sort of apprehension in India’s largest minority. This is linked to the feeling among Indian Muslims that they have been at the receiving end of many events over the past five years – the beef ban and consequent lynching of Muslim dairy farmers, the love jihad crusade of Hindu vigilante groups, the opposition to the performance of namaaz in public places and, in general, a vitiated level of public discourse which questions the loyalty to India of the Muslim community.

Brutus may have seen the tide in the affairs of men, taken at the flood, leading on to fortune. Unfortunately, for the central government, the tide has come in at a rather inopportune time. The CAB was on the anvil from 2016. Had it been passed at that time, when the NPR and NRIC were nowhere on the horizon, the three issues may not have been linked together. There are also various events since the middle of 2019 which have heightened the sense of insecurity in Indian Muslims. The abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution of India and the virtual shutdown of Kashmir since August 2019 followed by the Supreme Court decision in the Ayodhya matter had already caused deep unease in the community. The reports of human suffering occasioned by the Assam NRC as lakhs of people ran from pillar to post to establish their rights to Indian citizenship were compounded by the belligerent statements from those at the highest levels of the central government that the NRC would be extended to the entire country, coupled with accounts of detention centres coming up in different parts of the country. These developments, linked with the CAA’s specific exclusion of Muslims, raised fears that the CAA-NPR-NRIC combination could see substantial segments of the Muslim community losing their Indian citizenship.

While the central government has been reiterating that the CAA is intended only to enable those from the three neighbouring countries get fast track citizenship, the NPR-NRIC provisions (enunciated in the 2003 Rules), which allow for a government functionary at a fairly junior level to raise doubts about the citizenship status of a person, give cause for apprehensions. As of date, there is still no clarity as to what documents, if any, will be required to establish one’s citizenship. In a country where birth registration systems have been notoriously lax in the past (though improving now), proving the fact of one’s birth in India could prove well-nigh impossible, more so if the standard documents, such as passports and voter identity cards, are not acceptable as proof of citizenship.

This is not the place to raise all the issues relating to the difficulties in proving one’s citizenship. Suffice to say that, post-1991, the Indian populace was getting used to not having to stand in queues for every facility, a feature of the forty years prior to 1991 for getting access to milk, kerosene, landline telephones and LPG connections. This habit was revived in the post-demonetisation phase from November 2016, when every resident of India stood for hours in queues to be able to draw cash from banks. One certainly hopes and prays that the NPR-NRIC exercise, wherever implemented, does not lead to interminable queues in front of tahsil and municipal offices as people seek to prove their Indian citizenship. Political parties and governments have their own reasons for carrying through this onerous exercise. The aam aurat/aadmi just wants to carry on with the business of daily life and securing her/his roti, kapda and makaan. For her/him, what is relevant is this line sung by Mukesh:

 

जीना यहाँ मरना यहाँ इसके सिवा जाना कहाँ

 

1955 Act: Citizenship Act, 1955

2003 Act: Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003

2003 Rules: Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003

BJP: Bharatiya Janata Party

CAA: Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019

CAB: Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019

NRC: National Register of Citizens

NRIC: National Register of Indian Citizens

NPR: National Population Register

UPA: United Progressive Alliance

 

Jaane Kahaan Gaye Voh Din

What particularly disturbed me about the recent events linked to the anti-CAA protests in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi was the numerous reports of the high-handed behaviour of the police force with students and the public  as well as their studied inaction when armed goons were given a free run of the JNU in the heart of New Delhi. Even if they had indeed been subjected to assault and grave provocation in UP (as they claim), there was no case for the police to vandalise residential dwellings and intimidate family members of those who may have been protesting on the streets. It is a laid down maxim of law and order maintenance that only so much force should be used as is required to bring the situation under control. Nor was there any justification for the use of unchecked violence by the guardians of law and order within the precincts of two reputed institutions of higher learning. But the evidence on record seems to indicate a police force intent on “teaching a lesson” to anti-CAA protesters and instilling fear in students in India’s premier universities.

As someone who has often been on the streets in his district days handling crowds (and mobs), I often wonder how a district officer (executive magistrate or police) can so easily forget his/her relationship with the local people. An officer posted in a district (or city) is in a fiduciary position with respect to the entire population in his/her jurisdiction. That is to say, a relationship of trust must exist between the government functionary and those s(he) serves. Nothing can be more satisfying (and, indeed, gratifying) to go back to an area one has served in two or three decades ago and run into people who remember one affectionately. What this requires, above all, is a deep commitment to the people one serves. Even when some of them are angry and hell bent on destructive activities, the effort should always be to resolve the immediate situation as peacefully as possible (use of force being a last resort) and, thereafter, rebuild the citadel of trust and mutual existence.

Maintaining a peaceful atmosphere in an area requires the officer to abide by the glorious words enunciated in the Preamble to the Constitution of India which highlight the eternal principles of “justice, liberty, equality and fraternity” and the word “secular”, which has been debased in the present day. Contrary to what right-wing moralists think, “secular” means an equal respect for all religions and religious practices with the full right being given to all to follow whatever beliefs they held. The District Magistrate (DM) and the Superintendent of Police (SP) are present at occasions of all religions / sects / communities, not merely to maintain law and order but equally to share in the sentiments of the members of all communities. In my time as a DM, I participated in activities on the occasions of Ambedkar Jayanti, Shivaji Jayanti, Ganapati festival, Ramzan Id and Bakrid, apart from the Urs of local saints.

This close relationship with people of different communities had its dividends when external events threatened to derail amity between these communities. Apart from formal Peace Committee meetings at district and taluka headquarters, there was also an outreach by the district administration to leaders and opinion makers in various political outfits and religious denominations to gauge the mood in different sections of the public, as also to send across the message that a close watch was being kept on activities likely to be detrimental to the maintenance of law and order.

Which is where I am aghast at the turn of events over the past six weeks, in Delhi and even more so in UP. Independent reports seem to indicate that the police at the thana level were operating on the direct orders of their political overlords, with little control by district officers. Barring one or two instances, there was no interaction of senior district officers like the DM and SP with the media; in fact, there was little evidence of their presence at the scenes of action. Nor were the Police Commissioner (CP) of Delhi or his senior officers to be seen handling the situation at JNU: the absence of arrests after three weeks tells its own tale.

What is increasingly worrisome is the sluggish response of the law and order machinery to open challenges to its authority. In the case of the agitations against the CAA, the intelligence outfits ought to have been aware of the unease in sections of the public. Surely, additional force could have been mustered to deal with the developing situation. Were any efforts made by the district administration to engage with local leaders to work out a method for peaceful expression of the feelings of those aggrieved?

I also find it difficult to believe that the district administration cannot, through impartial but strict policing of a developing situation, control the negative fallout. Lists of history sheeters, rowdies and known troublemakers are available with every DM and SP. The standard practice before festivals and before likely outbreaks of violence is to take preventive action under the Criminal Procedure Code, local Police Acts and, where absolutely necessary, even invoke the National Security Act. Generally, even-handed action is initiated against such elements in different communities to ensure that vested political interests are not able to assemble armies of such elements.

The pernicious influence of tawdry politics on the police and executive magistracy was already visible to me two decades ago, when I returned to district governance after a ten-year hiatus. Transfers of even taluka officials were being managed from state headquarters (in a supposedly progressive state like Maharashtra) and district and sub-district officers had developed close relationships with Ministers and MLAs. But it has been an article of faith for me (and many of my colleagues in the IAS and IPS) that firm, principled leadership of the DM and SP (and, where applicable, the CP and police officers under him) can enable control of volatile situations even in troubled times like those we see today.

It is here that I note with dismay the almost total abdication of their duties by the magistracy and police in the unfortunate occurrences in UP, Delhi and Karnataka since mid-December 2019. Where the police and district administration should have tactfully handled inflamed public opinion and let it release steam, they adopted strong-arm tactics. That a tactful approach worked in all those states where the police were not under pressure from the government of the day only proves the point. Where the police should have stepped in firmly (in JNU) when cognizable offences under the Indian Penal Code were being committed, they chose to look the other way, so much so that not one attacker has been arrested so far. The brazen shooting incident in Jamia in the full presence of the Delhi Police on Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary stands mute testimony to the utter collapse of policing in Delhi.

A healthy democratic system is critically dependent on effective, impartial institutions that are committed to upholding the rule of law. Often, this requires officers to take actions that are not to the liking of those in power, even if the consequences for these officers are not pleasant. But the recent instances where the police have overreacted, in UP and Delhi (Jamia), and have been wilfully inactive (JNU) point to a deeper malaise where the administrative leadership is virtually non-existent. Such a situation is hardly likely to inspire citizen confidence in its police. It is not as though in riots in the past, the district administration and the police were not partisan or sectarian in their approach. But in comparison with the present day, we may well be left feeling nostalgic for even a flawed administration of the past, humming Raj Kapoor’s line “जाने कहाँ गए वह दिन”.

 

 

 

Bhasha on…regardless!

India’s Home Minister recently added tadka to the khichdi that comprises the languages of India when he emphasised the importance of Hindi as a unifying force in India. An issue that has exercised us Bharatiyas since the days of Potti Sriramulu and Lal Bahadur Shastri got a fresh lease of life more than half a century later. How could my Tamil friends take this challenge lying down, not to mention other assorted political formations? So we had our latest edition of the Tower of Babel, with every print columnist, channel news anchor and self-declared expert weighing in on both sides of the language divide. Many joules of heat and lumens of light later, the issue remains unresolved, with all parties adamant on their respective stands till “death do us part”. Let me, therefore, offer my humble two-bit solution to the imbroglio.

I must clarify at the outset that I am a truly hybrid product of India’s first post-independence generation. Having settled in the north for livelihood purposes, my parents favoured the usual English-medium education schools as our passport to a comfortable future. English became the lingua franca of communication with family and friends. The second language, Hindi, was learnt with difficulty. It would be unfair to blame the pedagogy of the teachers, our mindsets were probably more to blame. Of the third language, Sanskrit, the less said the better. What we learnt by rote we vomited on to our answer sheets, till we were delivered from it after the eighth grade.

In such a milieu, one’s mother tongue suffers. Far away from Tamil Nadu, with no access to learning aids, one acquired enough spoken skills to pass muster in then Madras and Madras state (now Chennai and Tamil Nadu). Reading and writing abilities in the language were minimal, with the resultant lack of exposure to the rich heritage of Tamil literature. Determined not to repeat this mistake in Maharashtra, the state where I have spent most of the last four decades, I focused on my language skills, through extensive reading, writing and speaking in Marathi. My ego is boosted from time to time by the astonished looks I get from people with whom I interact in fluent Marathi. A recent extended sojourn in Bengaluru has also seen me acquire a smattering of Kannada.

The point I am trying to drive home is that proficiency in a language has a lot to do with one’s eagerness to immerse oneself in a language and its literature, apart from the need for effective survival in the new environment. Not being posted only in Mumbai, interacting with the public over fifteen years in field postings and making file notings in Marathi enabled me to reach my present comfort levels in Marathi.

Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari), as Chief Minister of Madras province, stirred up a hornet’s nest when he introduced Hindi in the province in 1937. The Hindi Prachar Sabhas in Madras were quite popular and made their students quite proficient in the language. My mother is a prime example of a person with excellent command over Hindi, although her school education was in the Tamil and English languages (mea culpa: many of my school Hindi essays, which met with the wholehearted approval of my Hindi teachers, were composed by her). What was significant about this in a state which has unequivocally repudiated Hindi since 1966 was the enthusiasm exhibited by Tamil boys and girls to learn a language which those of them who were not going to move northwards were not going to use to any great extent. The unexpected spinoff came when hordes of Tamilians flooded Delhi in the aftermath of independence to man positions in the Central Secretariat of the Government of India: they could put their Hindi to good use while living and working in Delhi.

The criticality of language has been underscored in the past three decades by the waves of inter-state migration. Sardarjis speaking fluent Tamil, Odiyas conversing comfortably in Kannada and Marwari shopkeepers conducting their business in the language of whichever state they are based in no longer surprise us. Earning one’s livelihood and living peaceably with the local populace require an adaptation to varied languages and cultures.

Of course, Hindi will never lose its soft power, thanks to Bollywood. Salman Khan’s appeal extends to his fans in Bengaluru and Bhubaneswar as much as his Mumbai base. Young boys with barely any acquaintance with Hindi spouting his Hindi dialogues indicate that there is no fundamental mind block to learning any language provided one gets some dividends from it – aesthetic satisfaction, social integration and/or a secure livelihood.

And yet, language (and the presumption that one among the many is being given a favoured status) will continue to rouse passions. To keep tempers in check, I suggest we stick to a two-language formula (English and the local language), with each non-Hindi state having the option to add Hindi (or any other language listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India) as a third language. The Central Government can undertake correspondence with a state in Hindi or English, as per the wish of that state.

In the ultimate analysis, let us be realistic. A person who migrates for employment from her home state to another state will necessarily need to learn the language of the state migrated to so that she can function effectively. What we need is states offering courses, both online and offline, to encourage people from other states to learn their languages. A state offering attractive investment and employment opportunities will automatically see a rise in demand for its language courses. Let states compete to attract the largest number of Indians (and non-Indians) learning their language, reading their literature, viewing their movies and settling on their soil. Spreading one’s soft power is a surefire path to success rather than forcing people to learn languages against their wishes.

 

Lessons from an Indian Humphrey Appleby

These are increasingly difficult times for the civil services in India. As if sending a former Coal Secretary to jail wasn’t enough, sleuths have now zeroed in on former senior Finance Ministry officials and a former national airline head. With our penchant for digging into every official deal and the tendency for any prosecution to drag on for eternity, civil servants are left wondering whether they will be able to enjoy their pensions in peace. This is a particularly appropriate time to be penning this blog in the interregnum between two political regimes. Mark Antony’s words “The evil that men do lives after them…” will be giving innumerable civil servants sleepless nights as they agonise over whether a change of government may mean facing charges of wrongful decisions made during the tenure of the previous regime. Although one cannot alter the past, here are some thumb rules for civil servants to avoid the treacherous trap of hasty, ill-thought out decision making that can boomerang on them in the months and years to come. I humbly dedicate these rules to that master of bureaucratic aphorisms, Sir Humphrey Appleby.

Rule 1:  Avoid discretionary decisions like the plague

Whenever scarce resources – spectrum, coal/oil blocks, private universities, primary schools – are to be allocated, go in for a transparent bidding process, with clear technical specifications and financial parameters. The same applies to procurement of any product ranging from foodstuffs to aircraft.

Rule 2: Record on file and keep copies

When Rule 1 is departed from, record your views/objections clearly on file for posterity. Point out the risks inherent in a discretionary policy and insist on transparent norms. If these are not forthcoming, ask for a transfer from that department. Where decisions are taken, even on a rational, transparent basis, keep a scanned copy of the relevant notings with you even after you leave that post: nemesis normally takes anywhere from three to ten years to catch up, given the ponderous ways of the three Cs (CAG, CVC and CBI).

Rule 3: Prevaricate, obfuscate and procrastinate

This Rule, and Rules 4 to 6, are meant for those who are not keen to follow in the footsteps of Ashok Khemka, with the number of transfers far outstripping the number of years of service. Start off by recommending the setting up of an inter-departmental committee with extensive terms of reference. This should buy you time either till the end of your tenure in the department or till your Mantri gets moved in a cabinet reshuffle.

Rule 4: Send the file into orbit

This tactic is especially recommended in the last few days of the financial year and just before the model code of conduct for elections kicks in. To get that annoying Mantri off your back, record some innocuous opinion and seek the views of your bureaucratic counterparts in other departments. Select those of your colleagues who have mountains of files pending with them or mark the file to the Finance Department, which is guaranteed to be swamped with files. Once April 1 dawns or elections are announced, you can regretfully plead lack of funds or falling afoul of the model code of conduct for your continued inaction.

Rule 5: Make the file and yourself scarce

Mantris are especially prone to pressure you when the hour for announcement of elections is well-nigh or even in the short interregnum between the change of governments (the latter may seem unusual but has happened to me). Ensconce yourself in some colleague’s room with firm instructions to your PA to stonewall all queries about your whereabouts even under pain of torture. If the bloodhounds are set to sniff you out, abandon ship, shut your mobile and flee homewards. No one can expect you to attend office at 10 PM, especially if you can swear that the keys to the locked steel almirah in your office are with your colleague who lives at the other end of the city.

Rule 6: Parkalam (let us see)

Civil servants must imbibe that seasoned politician, K. Kamaraj’s phrase “Parkalam” from their early days in service. The Marathi variant of this is “Baghoon sangto”, drilled into me by innumerable senior civil servants and (surprise! surprise!) politicians. Its English version would be “let me see and then tell you”. Having committed to no time frame, who can say when the telling will come? After two or three rounds of this ruse, the pestering politician will give up, knowing that this civil servant has no intention of doing his/her work. At the same time, since no offence has been given, the politician finds it difficult to complain to the powers that be.

Rule 7: A politician is…a politician!

Caveat emptor is the best course of action when a politician assures you that s(he) will stand by you on the decision you have taken. At the end of the day, the civil servant stands alone: even his/her civil service colleagues, while offering lip sympathy, can and will do little to rescue him/her when the chips are down. The politician has the resources to withstand a long drawn out legal process, something which will break any honest civil servant. More importantly, the politician can avail of the services of the best lawyers to stay out of prison (at least in 99 percent of the cases). Don’t believe me? Who spent time in the jug in the Mumbai Adarsh housing case, the politician or the civil servant? Who is currently serving time in the coal “scam” cases? Certainly not the former Coal Minister but rather the former Coal Secretary and his bureaucratic deputies. Also, a civil servant should never forget that a politician thrives on legal tangles: a legacy from British times, when most Indian politicians spent considerable time in courts (and jails). A spell in prison acts as a magic potion for a politician and enhances his/her political appeal, a reason why politicians keep referring to the “will of the people” rather than to the “rule of law”. Nor has one yet come across an instance where the family of a politician has actually starved because of the incarceration of that politician. Contrast this with the lot of the honest civil servant: his/her family is reduced to penury if his/her pension is withheld. Unlike politicians, the honest civil servant also stands the risk of being shunned in social circles. So, the golden rule when dealing with politicians is: smile politely and then apply Rules 1 to 6 above to stay out of trouble.

Good luck to all my fellow civil servants and may we never have to meet in any Central Jail!!

The Importance of Being Irreverent

Irreverent:

A lack of respect for people or things that are generally taken seriously (Oxford English Dictionary)

Not showing the expected respect for official, important, or holy things (Cambridge Dictionary)

We live in truly dystopian times. Times when an M.F. Husain is exiled from his country for his art, a Wendy Doniger has her book pulped for apparently blasphemous content, a Perumal Murugan is hounded out of his town by outraged religious-caste groups and a Gauri Lankesh pays for her writings with her life. Apart from these, we have had valuable manuscripts in a research institute in Pune destroyed because of the apparently derogatory reference to a major historical figure and violent protests against a movie which depicted a queen who was only a figment of a poet’s imagination. That all this has happened in the past couple of decades is a sorry testimony to the depletion of a sense of proportion in a country where the population has thrived on a rich diet of multicultural jokes and where poking fun at communities and important public figures has been a staple component of Indian democracy.

These developments are hard to stomach for many of us who were reared on community jokes and developed a capacity to extract a good laugh out of any situation. We started young and at home: my father would keep us kids in splits with his imitations of office colleagues, relatives and prominent politicians. The school environment was equally refreshing: we played football with our principal, an Irish brother complete in his cassock, and revelled in his one-liners and his ability to wake up a somnolent noontime classroom by sweeping all our geometry boxes off our tables.

But our irreverence was well and truly honed by the atmosphere at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. Rags like Kooler Talk and Spice indulged in sly satire and societies like the Wodehouse Society exposed an entire generation to how humour could be gently used to expose the asininity and foibles of the nobs of British society. Direct action was also forthcoming, as when tomatoes were hurled in protest at the participants in a fashion show and when that parliamentarian par excellence, Piloo Mody, was pelted with pieces of chapati when he entered the college mess prior to a late evening session with college students. Our riotousness continued during our post-graduation phase in the Delhi School of Economics: the male members of the class turned up in lungis for a morning class in econometrics. Unfazed by this, the venerable Professor continued as if nothing had happened. Our PG class also started SPOSIDS (Society for the Preservation Of Sanity In Delhi School) to counter what we saw as a curriculum that was out of touch with the real world.

This refusal to take life seriously was maintained after entering the portals of the hallowed Indian Administrative Service (IAS). The targets were politicians and pompous senior officers who took themselves a bit too seriously. Peccadilloes of officers and politicians were the staple at gatherings of younger officers. Along with this there was a certain scepticism about the zeal shown by the powers that be for their pet programmes. It was recognised that politicians were in the game for continued access to power and the bureaucracy for the collateral benefits of glory, perks and prestige, and, increasingly, rentier income. Since flippant notings on musty files were frowned upon, gossip sessions over innumerable cups of canteen chai with one’s colleagues and bosses provided opportunities to laugh over the shenanigans of ministers and other politicians.

Having grown up in and been exposed to such an environment throughout one’s student and working life, I feel a deep sense of sadness today on seeing the barrage of hatred and abuse that accompanies any attempt at humour. Like Irish and Russian jokes, we had our existence enlivened by gentle barbs at Sardarjis, Bengalis, Parsis and Malayalis. Cut to the present and, if we are fortunate not to be lynched electronically or physically, we can look forward to a court summons from distant Guwahati or Bhubaneswar: if you don’t believe me, see what Abhijit Iyer-Mitra had to face for his admittedly silly comments on a particular state and its religious icons.

The quality of irreverence is a sine qua non for a healthy democracy. Go back to the middle ages and you have astronomers facing the threat of the stake for venturing to claim that the earth moved around the sun, refuting Ptolemaic wisdom. Christian Europe moved through the Reformation to the Enlightenment only because of a questioning attitude to life. Soviet Russia and its satellites were toppled by the growing irreverence of their citizens, who were heartily sick of the ideological diet that they had been fed for between forty to seventy years. And Indian democracy has been immeasurably enriched by the likes of Shankar, Laxman and Abu, who exposed the foibles and failings of politicians with their cartoons — Pandit Nehru invited Shankar to make fun of him. Contrast this with China or North Korea, where a hearty laugh has probably not been heard for decades.

So what has gone wrong in India? Why have we started taking ourselves so seriously? The demise of humour was heralded, ironically, at a time when the Indian economy seemed to have finally cast off its somnolence and started to acquire some dynamism. Growth was booming, the middle-class Indian had started to extend his/her reach to distant Silicon Valley and women were (at least in urban settings) increasingly asserting their independence. Patriarchal attitudes were, however, not going to accept defeat so easily. The threatened Indian male ego retreated into the world of religious chauvinism and misogyny to protect its position. Liberalism and gender equality were seen as threats to the existing traditional order. Established social norms were slow to adapt to the changed economic environment. The situation was exacerbated by a growing divide between groups — educational, digital and economic.

A moribund education system has seen a young population going through school and college without receiving “education” as such, if by education one means the ability to use reason and employ critical and analytical thinking to assess issues. A crucial reason for this has been the gradual demise of liberal education, grounded in the realities of society. Add to this the preponderance of technical and management courses with multiple-choice questions and you have a generation which cannot present cogent arguments in essay form. With most jobs not requiring analytical abilities and with the WhatsApp-Twitter era in full swing, pithy bytes are more popular than lengthy written discourses. It is easier to spew vituperative bile when one has only 260 characters to play around with.

While one may understand, even if not stomach, the growing expression of intolerance by India’s “educated” classes, what causes more dismay are the responses of institutions charged with protecting the right to freedom of expression. The highest court of the land refused to stay the arrest of a journalist by the Odisha government. Granted, this person shoots off his mouth intemperately, but forty days in the jug for a minor misdemeanour was rather harsh. As if that was not enough,  the Indian government (run by whichever party is in power in any state) tends to throw the rule book at any dissenter. If the charge of criminal defamation fails to stick, the government moves on to imposing the far graver charge of sedition. When even this accusation seems flimsy and liable to rejection by the courts, governments take recourse to the sledgehammer of the National Security Act, as experienced recently by a Manipuri journalist,  whose only crime was to refer disparagingly to the Chief Minister. Of course, as a last resort, governments can use the draconian provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) which enables long periods of incarceration of the accused while the wheels of justice grind agonizingly slowly.

All these developments over the past two decades have seen censorship (both by the self and by others in authority) cast its ominous dark shadow over the democratic landscape. It takes threats from just a few crazed fanatics for an author to stop writing, a filmmaker to rewrite a script, a university to withdraw a teaching assignment to a reputed scholar or a journalist or a dissenter to face assault culminating in murder.

The attack on perceived “irreverence” has adverse implications for creativity, with deleterious consequences for the development of the economy and society. Newton, Darwin and Einstein would never have made their path breaking discoveries if they had been nervously looking over their shoulders all the time for potential assailants. More critically, it contributes to damaging the delicate framework of checks and balances that are the bulwark of a democratic society, leading to irreparable damage to institutions. If civil servants cannot freely give dissenting opinions, police officers cannot crack down on offenders, judges cannot give judgments unpalatable to the political bosses of the day and academics cannot critically examine the policies of the government, that day is not far when a sheep like, adoring population is persuaded to jettison democracy for the charms of an all-powerful leader. We must let that prescient lawmaker, B.R. Ambedkar, have the final words “in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”.

 

 

Revisiting Old Favourites

In the summer of 1975, I was a typical middle-class college student: apolitical, though not unaware of political events, immersed in college activities and casting fleeting glances at the road ahead in life. The Emergency was a turning point for me and many others. After the initial shock, we witnessed the arrests of many activists, including prominent members of the current ruling elite, on the Delhi University campus, and got used to boring fare in the daily newspapers. Slowly, frustration started setting in — fear of speaking out because of rumours of police informers prowling around the campus, being incessantly subjected to glowing accounts of the achievements of the government, including the heir-apparent, and the reports, as 1976 wearily dragged on, of demolitions in Old Delhi and forced sterilisations, most markedly in the Hindi belt. The announcement of elections in January 1977 came as a relief, followed by joy when Congress party stalwarts deserted an obviously  sinking ship and euphoria on the morning of 20 March 1977 when Indira Gandhi’s party was given marching orders by the people of India.

I am not, though, soliloquising on those momentous days, but rather on three books that strongly attracted me during the Emergency and its aftermath: George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon. The Emergency era, with its midnight arrests, glorification of the leader and breathless media  accounts of remarkable economic achievements, was drawn straight from the scripts of  these three classics. Post-1980, although India went through its multiple convulsions, these books, while occupying pride of place on my bookshelf, gathered dust as the Fukuyama liberal democracy era seemed to indicate that we were moving to more hopeful times.

Not any more, though. 1984 has been replicated in the scenario of recent years. Big Brother, in the shape of the Great Leader, beams at us from giant-size hoardings, full-page newspaper advertisements and from television screens, in country after country. Media reports are full of government’s achievements in the financial, economic, social and foreign policy spheres. The television screens scream shrilly at us when exposing dastardly “anti-national” conspiracies, with news anchors frothing at the mouth and their coiffured hair popping up a la Kishore Kumar in the Hindi film Padosan. And with the daily cacophony of alleged attacks by disaffected elements, including migrants, minorities and liberals, that day is not far when we will be treated to public displays of captured enemy soldiers.

Darkness At Noon has its echoes in the recent midnight drama at the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) headquarters in New Delhi. That the government saw fit to undertake a coup against a senior police functionary under cover of darkness is alarming; that it posted ham-handed, heavy-footed sleuths to snoop on him the next day betrays a paranoia that would have done Stalin proud. The pattern is the same elsewhere in the world: a senior Interpol representative vanishes in China, a journalist is strangled and dismembered in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul and journalists and liberal thinkers are summarily despatched in countries like Russia and India. Concentration camps and Gulags may have become passé but detention camps have come to stay in the world’s largest democracies, India and the USA, all set to house “migrants” from neighbouring countries.

Animal Farm is, of course, a perennial favourite in describing politics of any hue. Every politician promising change morphs into the image of his/her predecessor: the “oppressed” imitate their oppressors in every single case. Even more telling is the popularity of fake news, reminiscent of “Four legs good, two legs bad” metamorphosing into “Four legs good, two legs better”. History is rewritten so that the dumb animals can no longer remember their initial revolt against the tyrannical Farmer Jones.

Where then does it look as though humanity is collectively headed to? Hopefully not the terrifying society envisioned in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which the United States of America becomes an authoritarian theocracy, with the regulation of thought and speech at every step and selected women serving as reproductive vessels for a fast-vanishing elite. For me, the mind-numbing moment in the novel came when the central character, June, is suddenly informed at a shopping counter that she can no longer draw money from her bank accounts. Flashback to 8 PM on 8 November 2016 when over one billion citizens were summarily informed that in four hours’ time, currency of particular large denominations held by them would become worthless and they would have to approach their bank branches as beggars to release even limited amounts of their own money. Even though the Supreme Court has not accepted the mandatory linking of bank accounts to Aadhaar numbers, the fact remains that 99 percent of Indians have been compelled to link their bank accounts with their Aadhaar numbers. I shudder at the thought of a future dictator arbitrarily and unilaterally deciding at the stroke of the midnight hour to freeze all bank accounts and gain complete control over the finances, and other actions, of his/her country’s inhabitants. Should that ever occur, our venerated poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore’s famous line in Gitanjali will have to be modified to “Into that hell of unfreedom, my Father, let my country  not awake.”

 

Why!!!… Loiter!!!

The Age of Aquarius was a pop song in vogue in my college days. Expressing the angst of the hippie world, it also refers to an age of great upheaval. Such an age seems to have arrived in India circa 2018, as far as gender equality and uprooting traditional sexual identities are concerned. The Supreme Court has played the lead role in this denouement: decriminalisation of same-sex relations and adultery, triple talaq, Sabarimala temple entry for women in the 10-50 age group have been some of its landmark judgments in recent months. The latest bombs to shake Indian society and polity have been the #MeToo accounts of women of sexual predation by influential male figures in areas ranging from journalism to advertising and entertainment, which is now threatening to spill over to other areas like academia and politics.

By any standards, the promise of equality in the Preamble to the Constitution of India seems to have bypassed an overwhelming majority of Indian women, in terms of access to education, employment, decision-making powers and, shamefully, even to the right to life. Even in the very sectors, like journalism, academia and entertainment, where we have been trumpeting the achievements of women, sexism and patriarchal attitudes are rampant, as recent disclosures by aggrieved women make amply clear. The top floors in politics, the bureaucracy and the corporate boardroom are still the exclusive preserve of the old boys’ club, with the occasional token genuflections to the odd woman. In the bureaucracy, which I am familiar with, it is only the southern states — Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka — which have seen women at the helm of the civil service and the police forces (the odd exception from the north notwithstanding). Even a supposedly socially aware state like Maharashtra has passed up opportunities in the past to promote a woman to the top job in the bureaucracy.

Which is why three articles, in as many days, by a well-known college contemporary of mine, raised my hackles. Titled Limitations of the #MeToo campaign in India, If harassment was open secret, why the conspiracy of silence? and Guild can’t tell Akbar not to move court, they sought to respectively hint at a class bias (English and social media based), an open conspiracy of silence of the victims and others, including male colleagues in the know of things, and the suggestion that the person at the centre of the furore was sought to be denied his legal rights. When a former journalist and a current Member of Parliament comes out with all guns blazing, it brings into question the motives behind the heavy artillery shelling and whether palatable explanations for a gullible middle class are being trotted out.

My former college contemporary being, like me, an upper middle class, Hindu male, can never really comprehend what it means to be a woman in her late teens or early twenties who encounters a celebrity. Many of them were setting foot in the relatively unknown universe of print journalism. In one sense they were seeking to fly at a time when the environment was generally adverse, whether at the workplace or even in the larger social world. Reporting humiliating experiences of inappropriate behaviour by a powerful, reputed person who could spell finis to their careers would either not be believed (or be casually dismissed), as they often were, with the collateral damage that conservative families would dissuade these women from continuing to do what they wished to do. With no directions on handling sexual harassment complaints in place till 1997 and even these (the Vishakha guidelines) being openly ignored by the organisations they worked in, no avenue for redress was open. More importantly, the point that most people, especially males, miss is that inappropriate contact, as detailed in most of the accounts published till now, would have been well-nigh impossible to prove in a court of law in the absence of witnesses and with the financial and institutional might of the person they sought to arraign being deployed against them.

It was not till social media provided the avenue for catharsis that women, from different age groups and backgrounds, felt emboldened to come out in the open and share their mind-numbing outrage with others who went through similar experiences. To now accuse them of elitism and class bias smacks of downright cynicism. Every social movement has to have a beginning. Whether it is the Arab Spring or the #MeToo upsurge, the wellsprings generally lie in the educated, articulate middle class. This anger will then spread to the hinterland from its hitherto metropolitan roots: those who think that this is a passing moment, soon to be forgotten, are mistaken.

What occasions real sadness are the attitudes of patriarchy and misogyny displayed by sections of the “enlightened “ class (both women and men) in response to the recent events, all the more so at  a juncture when girls (and women) from different states and different walks of life are trying to carve out their distinctive identities, separate from father or husband. Even in a gender-skewed state like Haryana, the number of girls who have acquired laurels in sports ranging from wrestling to shooting is heartening, not to mention examples like Dutee Chand and Hima Das, who come from modest backgrounds. Women are also now increasingly entering the hitherto largely male preserves like the armed forces and the upper echelons of the police force. The social environment still militates against their advancement — witnessed in the recent assault on girls in a residential school in Bihar and the rape in Haryana of a young girl on her way to tuition classes.

It is equally infuriating to note that not a word is uttered about responsible, decent, courteous behaviour on the part of males, despite more than adequate evidence over the years of their misdeeds, both in private and public settings. We are talking about saving and educating daughters (Beti Bachao Beti Padhao) without thinking of the concomitant measures that need to be taken to educate and discipline boys to become caring, compassionate men who respect women. Ultimately, we need to shed the patriarchal mindset (prevalent in both sexes) that the woman is responsible for her harassment. Regardless of what she wears, what she drinks or eats and who she goes out with at what time, a woman is entitled to all the freedoms granted to her male counterparts by the Constitution of India. Else we will end up with an Uttar Pradesh-like scenario, where the anti-Romeo squads in effect become anti-Romeo & Juliet squads, given the rampant misogyny prevalent in both vigilantes and the local police.

Before I conclude this blog, I must explain my rather cryptic title, which has been shamelessly borrowed from a book by three researchers Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. The book deals with the limited access of women to public spaces, unless they have a specific purpose for being outside the home, like shopping, picking up children from school, etc. Otherwise, they are expected to be accompanied by a male to protect them from the prurient male gaze. When did you last see a group of women chatting at a street corner, drinking cutting chai and eating crisp pakodas? Contrast this with scene right outside my balcony where, from six in the morning, I am witness to groups of men, young and old, drinking tea at the local bakery and exchanging aimless banter. When women can loiter where they want at any time of their choosing, whether at midnight or at 5 AM, without irksome male attention, I can truly say that the India of my dreams has arrived.