Archive for the ‘political economy’ Category

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.

Cutting to the chase

ये दाग़ दाग़ उजाला, ये शब-गज़ीदा सहर

वो इन्तज़ार था जिस का, ये वो सहर तो नहीं  “

This feeble blemished light, this dawn mangled by night,

This is not the morning we had all so longed for” (Faiz Ahmed Faiz)

 

Three incontrovertible facts emerge from the latest bovine related lynching in India’s lynch district of Alwar:

  • Rakbar Khan was in the dairy profession
  • Rakbar Khan was murdered on the night of 20/21 July 2018 within the boundaries of Alwar district
  • Rakbar Khan leaves behind a large family with no visible means of support.

I find it necessary to state the above facts because I am never sure nowadays when fiction will rear its Hydra-like head, especially with Twitter trolls on the prowl. There is a numbing sensation of déjà vu, as yet another bovine-related lynching enters the statistics. Notwithstanding the Supreme Court admonitions, the pious statements of union government ministers and the incessant analysis on TV and in print media, we, as a people, seem to be asserting that lynching is our birthright.

Why am I less than sanguine that things will change for the better? Six reasons inform my pessimism:

  • The role of the police is getting more and more questionable, especially in states like Rajasthan. One Gagandeep Singh in Uttarakhand does not a summer make. Sometime before the latest lynching, we were informed that the Rajasthan police have found no evidence against six of the alleged perpetrators of the Pehlu Khan lynching, although they were named by him before his death. It is also puzzling why the statement of the dying person was not recorded before a Magistrate under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code. If no evidence of actual commission of the offence is made out against the accused, there is every likelihood that they may be acquitted. Final result: one murder, zero conviction.
  • Apologists for the accused, in states from Rajasthan to Jharkhand, claim that those accused/convicted were not actually part of the lynch mob but were innocent bystanders. If the police discount both dying statements of the deceased and video evidence, there is no way anyone can be convicted. Even where the local police, as in the Kathua (Jammu) and Ramgarh (Jharkhand) cases, carries out a thorough investigation, justice is sought to be delayed by the demand for the investigation to be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
  • A mindset has been encouraged in the general public that any apprehension in their minds about the commission of an unlawful act, especially related to cattle, justifies lynching. This has been exacerbated by the mindless enactment of laws in state after state outlawing the sale of beef. Regulations on cattle trade were also sought to be stupidly enforced but withdrawn once there was public outcry and judicial intervention. My friend Harsh Mander has pointed out that the Meo Muslim community in the Mewat region of Haryana have traditionally been in the dairy trade. The virtual pogrom against members of this community when they seek to acquire and transport cattle would seem to be a vicious campaign to deny them their livelihood. Add a potent mixture of love jihad to this and murderous mobs can acquire nationwide licence to kill.
  • Any effort to painstakingly put together data on lynching incidents, relating to causes, community background of the victims and actual convictions, is immediately dismissed by apologists of the ruling establishment as partisan. The latest to face this ire has been the IndiaSpend site for its documentation of the frequency of lynchings since 2010.
  • Well-meaning advice to the government on tackling this menace suffers from the same attribution of motives. Former civil servants are allegedly supporters of the previous ruling dispensation (never mind that they suffered under them) or are peeved because they were denied the loaves and fishes of office after retirement (never mind that no evidence of any such link is given in even one individual case). The feeling is that a lie, if repeated often enough, will be deemed to be the truth by the public.
  • Finally, the actions and statements of prominent members of the ruling party over the past four years have emboldened those who feel their actions are beyond the pale of law. Bland statements by the Prime Minister and Union Ministers on the law taking its course have cut no ice with the rank and file, who continue to issue irresponsible statements without being reined in by their leaders. The latest culprits are a Minister in the Jharkhand government and a senior ruling party functionary in the same state (in the Swami Agnivesh assault case) and a Union Minister (after the latest Alwar lynching).

I am not (as yet) a subscriber to conspiracy theories or to deep, hidden motives behind the actions of politicians who are not thinking beyond the next elections. But, as a citizen of the great Indian experiment in democracy and as an active participant in public service for over three decades, I feel I must stand up for the basic values and ideals that motivated me and my colleagues in the civil services to give of our best to the people of India during our careers. After seeing how things have evolved over the recent past and how justice has more often than not been denied to those at the receiving end of violence and injustice, I am firmly of the view that we must now come to the point. Justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done. With this objective, I offer my own two bits on what needs to be done to restore faith of the families of lynch victims in the rule of law:

  • Lynching, that is mob violence directed against a person or persons, needs to be codified in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The issue is too grave and urgent to leave it to states to pass their own legislations. It needs to be specified that all persons comprising the crowd at a lynching site will be deemed to have acted with a common intention (as defined in Section 34 of the IPC) and will, as abettors, be liable for the same punishment as the actual perpetrators (presuming that culpability of the latter can be established in a mob situation). All such persons should be liable for the same punishment as prescribed in the IPC for causing death, grievous hurt, etc.
  • Sections 217 to 223 of the IPC must be rigorously invoked against police personnel who try to save perpetrators of lynching offences by doctoring/falsifying First Information Reports, deliberately destroying evidence, etc. Needless to say, police personnel who are present at the site of a lynching and do not use all the resources at their disposal for prevention of the lynching (which they are authorised to by law) should, in addition to the punishment for public servants mentioned above, also be culpable for the offence committed and punished accordingly. Removal of such elements from the police force would also send out a very strong message.
  • Section 51 of the Bombay Police Act, 1951 empowers the District Magistrate to fix compensation payable to affected parties in cases where unlawful assemblies result in death/serious injuries to persons. The compensation amount can be recovered from all inhabitants in a particular area or from specific classes of persons. Forcible recovery methods, as in case of land revenue arrears, can be employed to realise this compensation amount. Such a measure will not only discourage public participation in such offences but may also help in advance intimation being given to the police by parties who do not wish to be held liable. In the present case in Alwar, such compensation would provide much needed succour to a poor family which has lost its breadwinner.
  • Administrative responsibility must be fixed for such acts, especially where they recur in a particular area. In the present case, there are good grounds for seeking the resignation of the Rajasthan Home Minister under whose watch a series of incidents, which have shocked the conscience of all right-thinking citizens, have taken place over the past couple of years and whose police have not been able to convincingly bring to a final conclusion even one case of lynching thus far. More than just administrative responsibility, a case is also made out for the ruling party to take action against its Union Minister who has tried to draw a parallel between the spate of lynchings and attempts to defame the Prime Minister. The utterances of the Jharkhand Minister, who sought to deflect the seriousness of the assault on Swami Agnivesh by commenting on his character and antecedents, are equally reprehensible. Such statements by responsible state functionaries, who have sworn to function in accordance with the Constitution of India, reduce the sanctity of the rule of law.

Democracy is always a tender plant that needs to be nurtured carefully. The responsibility for its nurture falls most on those entrusted by the people of this country with ensuring their safety and security. The time is past for delivering homilies. Justice, in accordance with the rule of law, has to be delivered speedily and efficiently. Let not the present ruling dispensation go down in history as one which destroyed the people’s faith in democracy and the rule of law.