Archive for the ‘political economy’ Category

The Four Sins of the Delhi Police

One dislikes passing judgment on others, mindful of the Biblical saying “judge not lest ye be judged”. And yet a time comes when it is difficult to be dispassionate, particularly when there is organised violence aimed at creating fear and poisoning relations between India’s two largest religious communities. What makes the recent horror in North-East Delhi totally unforgivable, especially for those of us who have served in one of the two All India Services (IAS/IPS), is the complete abdication of its statutory duties by the Delhi Police. The events of the last week of February 2020 were the tragic denouement of a sequence of happenings over the past two months, as the Delhi Police slipped deeper and deeper into the mire of partisanship and extremely unprofessional functioning, when one was left wondering if the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) were applicable in the National Capital Region of Delhi. We can list the four instances, culminating in the recent violence, when the Delhi Police gave short shrift to the criminal laws of the land and, indeed, to the very Constitution they are sworn to uphold.

It all started with the entry of the police into the Jamia campus on 15 December 2019. Even presuming grave provocation from the students, the videos of the library assault (not denied or controverted officially) point to a mentality in the guardians of law and order of “teaching a lesson” to students. All the canons of law and order maintenance enshrined in India’s criminal laws do not permit the police to use force to an extent greater than is needed to restore normalcy. The videos show helmeted policemen using lathis on students sitting in the library, who were certainly not engaged in any violent act. Even if they were wanted for any previous transgressions of the law, they could have been arrested following the usual procedure. By this one irresponsible action, the Delhi Police set off a chain reaction that has since reverberated across University campuses throughout the country.

The second instance of police apathy was even more inexcusable. The JNU was invaded by gangs of armed thugs on the evening of 5 January 2020. The same police which raided the Jamia Campus without any request from the Jamia authorities decided to stay put at the JNU gate even when there was enough evidence (on social and electronic media) that cognizable offences involving danger to life and property were being committed within the campus. What makes the entire episode ludicrous is the fact that, two months after the incident, no FIRs have been registered against a single goon who indulged in violence and vandalism; instead, the only FIRs that have been lodged have been against the victims of the assault.

Act 3 of this sordid drama took place in late January/early February 2020 during the elections to the Delhi Assembly. Three violations of the Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct, two by elected Members of Parliament (one of them a Minister in the Government of India) and one by a BJP candidate, merited action under the IPC. But even though all three of them were slapped with limited campaign bans by the Election Commission, the Delhi Police did not invoke Sections 153A/295A of the IPC, which would have served as a salutary reminder to politicians not to resort to incendiary campaigning to win votes. The failure of the Delhi Police to rein in the political class when they were presented with a golden opportunity laid the seeds for the bitter harvest that followed in the last week of February.

The final nail in the coffin was hammered in when Kapil Mishra, the same local politician indicted earlier by the Election Commission (and who lost the elections) decided to refurbish his standing by giving an ultimatum to the anti-CAA/NPR protesters in N-E Delhi to remove their blockage of public spaces, failing which the threat of direct action was given. The resultant outbreak of violence spiraled into full-fledged arson and murder. It is here that the conduct of the Delhi Police comes in for the most criticism. With protests across the city over the past two months, the police should have been alert to nip any violence in the bud. Preventive action against criminal elements, presumably taken during the elections, should have been continued with thereafter, given the ongoing protests. Delhi’s borders with neighbouring states, especially UP, should have been sealed to prevent infiltration of outsiders. But what was damningly on view over three days was the inaction (at best) and complicity (at worst) of the police. Given the fate of all postmortems into riots in India, one is doubtful whether the truth will emerge in the future. But intrepid young journalists have captured on camera roving gangs indulging in assault and arson. That the violence ceased once there was a show of force is a clear indication that it was a case of “too little, too late” as far as the Delhi Police was concerned.

Three basic lessons in law and order maintenance were ignored by the Delhi Police:

  • Making it clear from the outset that the police is in control: At no stage should politicians, their henchmen and anti-social elements get the feeling that they can operate in violation of the law. The JNU incident had already infused confidence in some groups that the police would not act against them, even when they indulged in violence. Strong preventive action under the CrPC and the local police laws, externment from Delhi of certain criminal elements and, where required, use of draconian laws like the National Security Act would have sent a clear message to those intent on disturbing the public peace.
  • Zero tolerance for offences posing a threat to person and property: From my own experience, I can aver that unless incidents of assault and arson are dealt with firmly and promptly, they tend to snowball into a free for all between members of different communities. Lathi charges are normally enough to cool down even impetuous hotheads; however, on occasions, stronger action, such as police firing, may be required to restore order in a short timeframe and reduce casualties.
  • Leading from the spot: By far the most crucial element in law and order policing is the quality of leadership. The leader must inspire confidence in his/her force by being on the street. DMs and SPs in the districts and Police Commissioners / Joint and Addl. Commissioners must be in the thick of the fray. It was inexcusable that senior police officers from the Police Commissioner downwards were not visible till Day 3 of the disturbances in even one of the many videos shot from the scenes of arson and assault. A leaderless police force then took the path of least resistance since there was no one in authority to spur it to action.

The Delhi Police has suffered serious damage to its image and self-esteem. A new Commissioner has taken charge. It is now time for the Delhi Police to assert its authority and make it clear that it will not tolerate violations of the law from any quarter. It is also time for all governments, including the central government, which supervises the Delhi Police, to act on the 2006 directions of the Supreme Court in the Prakash Singh case, aimed at professionalising the police and insulating them from political interference. Above all, it is time for my fellow colleagues in the two All-India Services charged with the maintenance of law and public order to reaffirm their complete faith in and loyalty to the Constitution of India and rise above all sectarian considerations in discharging their duties honestly and diligently.

(The edited version of this blog is carried in the 5 March 2020 edition of the Deccan Herald)

 

 

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.

 

We don’t need Chowkidars

On my innumerable trips from Pune to Aurangabad and vice versa, I have sometimes taken a detour off the highway to the village of Shani Shinganapur. Located in the district of Ahmednagar, this village is home to a highly venerated temple of Shani, the planet-god who evokes immense fear in devout Hindus and whose propitiation is considered essential to progress in life. But what marks out this village, apart from the recent decision to admit women to the shrine, is the fact that there are no doors to houses in the village. This is based on a popular myth that anyone committing theft in the village is visited with the direst of consequences by Shani Maharaj.

Unfortunately, those committing theft/dacoity elsewhere in the country do not seem to fear adverse results for their actions, which is why the institution of chowkidars (guards) is a well-established one in every rural and urban habitation, right from the days of the British Raj. This hallowed heritage is now sought to be appropriated by the members of the political party ruling the country. Visit the Twitter website and you will see that ruling party functionaries, from the Prime Minister downwards, have prefixed “Chowkidar” to their names. Not content with this gesture, the Prime Minister has invited all fellow citizens of India to take the following pledge and join the Chowkidari movement: “As a citizen who loves India, I shall do my best to defeat corruption, dirt, poverty and terrorism and help create a new India which is strong, secure and prosperous.”

While dirt, poverty and terrorism have deep-rooted causes which are beyond the competencies of a chowkidar, the chord that is sought to be struck with the common citizen relates presumably to that old bugbear: corruption. Fair enough, except that here we are dealing with white-collar crime, not its blue-collar or no-collar versions, which would cover, say, a factory worker stealing some goods from the workplace or a petty burglar forcing his entry into a house, both of which the chowkidar is eminently equipped to handle. “Corruption” in its modern Indian avatar relates to the propensity of the dispenser of a scarce commodity (whether a good or service) to extract economic rent for making available the commodity at a price higher than its stated official or market price. If the followers of the Chowkidar movement really mean to remove corruption, they must eschew the noxious habits of mamool or lanjam, those lubricants which grease the wheels of public service delivery. Since it would be highly optimistic to predict a dramatic sea-change in attitudes in a public inured to years of petty (and mighty) corruption, maybe we should see what those in power have done over the past many years to cut corruption at its roots. The results, sadly, are dismal.

Let us start with the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act. Enacted on the first day of 2014, the Lokpal is just now being appointed after five years, that too after the Government of India received a rap on the knuckles from the Supreme Court. To date, most states have not appointed Lokayuktas; in those which have, there is no news of any major effort to prosecute wrongdoing by those in power, barring Karnataka, which has, in the past, seen a sitting Chief Minister being unseated based on a Lokayukta indictment. Given the past record, the provisions in the 2013 Act for Inquiry Wings and Special Courts do not give much cause for cheer, being a case of more old wine in recycled bottles. The list of failed or partial prosecutions over the past decade give no reason for sudden optimism, be it the CWG scam, the Adarsh imbroglio, the 2G prosecution or even the coal scam. In the last-named case, the only ones to go behind bars on a technicality in the Prevention of Corruption Act (which has since been repealed but which, alas, could not help them) are hapless officers who were manning the Coal Ministry in Delhi at the relevant time. Whether telecom or coal, the judicial verdict seems to have been that the politicians in charge were innocent. Having spent thirty years in government, including in a key economic ministry in the Government of India, I find this conclusion very difficult to swallow. My pessimistic forecast is that we will continue to see years of inconclusive investigations, interminable court proceedings and unsatisfactory convictions.

Changes in rules and procedures governing the allocation of scarce resources, including natural resources, are again conspicuous by their absence. If governments at the centre and the states were serious about checking corruption, especially at the highest political levels, what is needed is the removal of all decision-making powers on procurements and allocations (ranging from coal/oil-gas blocks, defence equipment and spectrum to schools, private universities and food supplies) from the Ministries at the centre and the states and a grim determination to clamp down on political interference in such decisions. State governments are even more prone to this evil. The February 2019 decision of the Supreme Court striking down the award of tenders in 2016 by the Government of Maharashtra for Take Home rations for supplementary nutrition to pregnant/nursing mothers and children under three years of age is a glaring instance where the same firms/entities continue to be favoured regardless of the regime in power.

The present ruling dispensation, despite its protestations about curbing corruption, has taken no steps in this direction. Merely keeping power brokers away from the corridors of North/South Block and Shastri Bhavan is not enough; there are enough meeting places elsewhere in the world. The electoral bonds scheme introduced in 2018 provides a fertile breeding ground for corruption, with identities of both donors and donees (political parties) remaining anonymous. Rupee-laden suitcases or even bank transfers are no longer required; a transfer from an offshore account, with anonymity guaranteed, for favours rendered will do the trick.

Ease of doing business rolls glibly off the tongues of politicians and policy-makers in the India of 2019. Visit a Regional Transport Office (RTO) in any state for a driving licence or a municipality for a building permission and you will be struck by the ease with which business is done in these offices. Portia’s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice on the quality of mercy could apply just as well to corruption as to the quality of mercy: “…It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…”  Amendments in 2018 to the Prevention of Corruption Act provide for complaints by a person, who is compelled to give “undue advantage”, within seven days of giving such undue advantage. While we are yet to see how this provision works in practice, it is debatable if this will induce bribe-givers to come forward to report bribes, given that they will have to go through the subsequent legal chakravyuha of proving that they were indeed compelled to offer the bribe. In any case, unless processes for licences and permits are time bound with limited areas for discretion and with clearly stated reasons for refusal, removal of petty corruption will remain a pipe dream.

I am not condoning the present state of affairs. All I wish to aver is that unless there is utmost respect for the rule of law and the fear of prompt retribution, corruption is not going to wither away. Doing away with corruption does not require chowkidars, it requires honest thanedars and conscientious nyaya-devatas who will prosecute offenders and deliver timely justice. Till that day dawns, the citizen should use the most effective weapon available to her: she should remorselessly vote out the corrupt politician and hold the government of the day to account. The conventional saying “यथा राजा तथा प्रजा” has to be stood on its head in India of 2019. It should now read “यथा प्रजा तथा राजा”: as are the citizens, so will be the rulers. People get the governments they deserve: if they want a straightforward, corruption-free existence, they must put their political representatives on notice.

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”.

 

 

Running with the Hares, Hunting with the Hounds – A Dangerous Game

I know it has become a pastime, especially among those sympathetic to or following the present ruling dispensation, to lay the blame for all India’s ills at the door of the Indian National Congress and its presiding deities, the Nehru-Gandhi family. We may pass over the apparent errors of India’s first Prime Minister, including his neglect of primary education and agriculture and his obsession with the public sector, not to mention his disastrous tryst with the Chinese, relying on incompetent advisers. But what, even for true-blue liberals, is not so forgettable are the errors of commission and omission over the last forty years, which have landed the country in crisis after crisis. In trying to be all things to all people, the Congress has been withering away, in the best traditions of Marx’s Communist state.

Let us start with its missteps in Punjab in the late 1970s/early 1980s, followed by the Shah Bano-Ram Janmabhoomi fiascos of the 1980s. Catering to what it thought were specific constituencies, the Congress played with fire and, as expected, sustained severe burns. It forfeited the support of the Sikhs after the storming of the Golden Temple and the pogrom of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 and alienated moderate Muslims with its anti-woman stance in the Shah Bano case. It then provided oxygen to a weakened BJP by opening the locks of the Ram Temple, followed by a spell of masterly inaction when the Babri Masjid was being demolished. The electorate rightly banished it to the boondocks for eight years, till its return in 2004.

But this blog is not about the past; it is about how the Congress party refuses to learn from its past mistakes. Four recent incidents highlight its continued bumbling and raise serious doubts in the mind of the swing voter about the capabilities of this party to govern the country for the next five years. After managing to secure power in three Hindi heartland states, one would have hoped that the new broom would sweep clean. But there seems to be no effort (at least not in public view) or intention to implement the rule of law in dealing with vigilante rowdyism. Following up on the prosecution of lynchers would have sent a clear message to those who indulged in murder under previous ruling regimes. Not only was this not done, there was the recent incident of film personality Naseeruddin Shah being prevented from participating in the Ajmer Literature Festival. The Chief Minister tweeted weakly about his commitment to the rule of law. But there was no firm police action to make it clear to the protesting hoodlums that their nonsense would not be tolerated. Added to this is the continued ambivalence of the new Congress governments on the “beef ban”. The Rajasthan government seems to have gone further. Newspaper reports speak of its efforts to felicitate those who shelter cows; there is no discussion on reviving the cattle industry and restoring the livelihoods of millions from the minority and disadvantaged communities, while guaranteeing protection to the cow, if the intention was to assuage majority community feelings as well.

The approach to the Sabarimala issue highlights a similar lack of conviction. The party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru is not able to come out with unequivocal support for the right of women to worship at the shrine even after a Supreme Court judgement. Nor is it able to provide a public forum for a reasoned discussion on possible solutions. Caught between the Scylla of belief and the Charybdis of the rule of law, the party has surrendered its moral authority to regressive religious forces. In the process, it has ensured that it will gain the support of neither the pro-changers (especially its women segments) or the conservative no-changers.

A strong enunciation of its belief in the right to equality of all humans by the Congress would have gone down well with the liberal intelligentsia and India’s largest minority community as regards the hasty attempts by the present central government to introduce the Citizenship Amendment Bill. This travesty of a legislation which seeks to confer inferior status on a particular community should have been roundly condemned and public opinion should have been built up against it. Instead, the Congress Party chose to boycott the vote in the Lok Sabha instead of voting against it: yet another opportunity lost to reiterate its clear support for minorities.

Most laughable has been the denunciation of the sedition provisions in India’s criminal laws by a spokesperson of the Congress party, who has also been Law Minister in the previous UPA government. Congress governments of the past have never been chary of using this execrable provision. Sedition cases are now being lodged against students, intellectuals and journalists. Congress governments never tried to do away with this colonial anachronism. In fact, they introduced even more draconian legislation that hit at the liberty of the individual. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) was first passed during Congress rule and most amendments stiffening its provisions have been enacted by Congress governments. It has been used against social activists rather than terrorists and seems designed more to stifle freedom of expression and association rather than tackle terrorism. For the Congress party to shed crocodile tears when these laws are misused by police under the present ruling dispensation represents the height of hypocrisy.

Nor has there been any real commitment to administrative, judicial or police reforms on the part of the Congress party. The Reports of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission were ignored by the very Congress government that set it up. India’s governance systems are hamstrung by outmoded management structures and criminal justice (and police) reforms are not even on the horizon. No party, including the Congress, has shown any enthusiasm for the institutions of the Lokpal and Lokayukta, raising serious questions about their commitment to eradicate corruption.

There appears to be no realisation that a political party needs a base of committed voters. This requires the articulation of a clear ideology and adherence to a set of specific principles. These ideological positions also attract an adequate mass of swing voters who are not committed to any specific party but vote on the basis of the programmes that a particular party espouses. Given its past mistakes and the absence of committed cadres, it is little wonder that the Congress party has had a virtual no-show in a number of states in the last general elections. Subsequent disenchantment with the BJP may have yielded seats to the Congress in a number of states, but it should not be forgotten that it could not retain power in the state of Karnataka on its own strength. Even today, the loyalty of its legislators in Karnataka remains suspect, compelling its party managers to resort to resorts to keep the flock together.

Cobbling together a mirage of coalitions is not the route to political power for the Congress. Too many of the players in the political parties that make a great show of unity today have gone through the experiences of unhappy (and uneasy) past cohabitations. Nor have any of these parties inspired confidence in the public regarding the values they stand for. The animals in India’s Animal Farm may then decide to continue with Farmer Jones rather than opt for Napoleon if, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Why the Congress needs younger legs (and minds) — if it wants to make a fight of 2019

Just when I thought that I could give two cheers for the victory of the Congress Party in the recent general elections to the state assemblies in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Rajasthan came the blow to my solar plexus. Two cheers because, frankly, the Congress Party has done very little to enthuse me (and many other middle class voters) in the last ten years. But the very fact that there was some challenge to a monolithic party which is yet to deliver on its promises, and the infusion of some variety between the centre and the states, was a welcome change. And then, the GOP of India’s independence committed its usual error — it picked the oldest man for the top job in two of the three states (MP and Rajasthan) where it barely scraped home past the halfway mark, with some help from others. It did not draw a lesson from the ambiguous mandate it got from the electorate, which probably reflected their scepticism about the same old wine being recycled in new bottles, given that the CM favourites in these two states had made no bones of their keenness to secure the numero uno post.

Why am I not particularly thrilled that the younger men in these two states (Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot) were not picked as CMs, especially when both of them have done stints in UPA-II as Central Ministers and have clean reputations? Four reasons come to mind:

  • The legacy of the old guard: Congress politicians who entered politics in the times of Indira Gandhi carry outdated socialist baggage with them. The pre-1991 Congress politician belonged to the “crony socialism” era, when the government micro-managed public enterprises while maintaining a cosy relationship with favoured private sector businessmen. The MP CM also carries with him his past association with the Emergency caucus and the alleged association (not so far conclusively proved) with the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi.
  • A statist mindset of Nehruvian vintage: Almost no Congressman (or woman) has shed their fondness for the tight economic embrace of the state. This was patently visible to me during my days in a key economic Ministry in Delhi in the early 1990s, when the Minister had to be cajoled to sign any file that contemplated opening up the sector to competition. It almost always took calls from either the Finance Ministry or the PMO to get him to sign on the dotted line. Once the liberalisation glasnost eased up after 1993-94, it was back to pre-1991 business as usual. The only difference was that new avenues for extraction of economic rent were explored and developed, especially in the natural resource and infrastructure sectors. Although it has to be said that the NDA interregnum (1998-2004) saw more positive measures being taken on the infrastructure front, the attractiveness of the “economic rent extraction” method never diminished. The coal sector is a prime example of this approach, with former bureaucrats even today paying the price for implementing the absurd policies of their days. Aided by a suspicious public that looked askance at every government decision in the chaotic days of UPA-II, economic reforms were virtually doomed. Add to this the decisions to guarantee the rights to food, rural employment and education, all of which had to be implemented by the same moribund government machinery in the states, with no clear idea of where the money was to come from and it is little wonder that the government wrote its own epitaph in the days leading up to 2014.
  • The absence of fresh thinking: Nothing characterises an antediluvian mindset more than the recourse to the same tired shibboleths of the past when confronted with problems. Governments of today (centre and states) are falling over themselves to waive farm loans. Apart from the cruel reality that no one has carefully computed the budget implications, such ‘band-aid’ solutions do not really go to the heart of the farmer’s distress. There is no talk of major investments in rural infrastructure, whether irrigation, storage, farm-to-consumer chains or comprehensive crop insurance, nor does one see major policy thrusts aimed at these. Lack of employment opportunities, especially for the teeming millions of the under-30s, imperils future economic and social stability. Education (both school and post-school) and health care are in a shambles in a number of states, with two of the three states referred to above sharing a seat with countries from sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean.
  • Lack of commitment to thoroughgoing reforms: Along with all other political formations, the Congress has no firm ideas on or commitment to crucial reforms in the realm of institutions — electoral reforms, judicial (including especially criminal justice) reforms, reforms in the administrative structure and, most crucially, in devolution of financial and administrative powers to elected urban and rural local bodies. The result has been increasing criminalisation of politics and society, continuing poor public service delivery and growing public disenchantment with the idea of liberal democracy itself.

I do not discount the fact that you can be old in age but young in mind (disclosure: I am past sixty years myself). As a good example, I can refer to that gentle bureaucrat-turned-politician, Dr. Manmohan Singh who, at almost sixty, reinvented himself from a Nehruvian socialist to a liberaliser and carried on with his new avatar when he was past seventy. But then we have only a few philosopher-kings: dyed-in-the-wool politicians are hardly going to reinvent themselves in the later stages of their lives. More crucially, I feel they stifle whatever talent exists in their political parties: this talent then either resigns itself, like Prince Charles, to a very late accession to the throne or makes a beeline for other parties. The real losers are the people of India: they are denied the benefits that innovative thinking and dynamic action could bring to their lives.

Where the Congress party is concerned, I see few options before it. Either it bloods its younger elements and places them in positions of leadership or it faces irrelevance in the near future. Younger leaders should forcefully stake their claims to responsible leadership and, if denied, should examine the possibilities of striking out on coalitions of their own. My generation of school and college-going cricket lovers venerated the likes of Pataudi, Borde, Viswanath and Gavaskar. But we would hardly ask them to face the Australian quicks of today: we leave that to the current generation of cricketers — Kohli, Pujara, Rahane, et al. Politicians, like bureaucrats, should gracefully bow out at the ripe age of 65. The law of diminishing returns sets in with a vengeance thereafter, with geriatric politicians completely out of tune with the needs and aspirations of their constituents, whether farmers, students or young professionals. Unfortunately, these vain efforts to secure political immortality come at a huge cost to the nation.

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.