Sunday, February 25, 2007

Women and Bollywood Masala

I enjoy watching Bollywood Masala movies now and then, not always the arty types which have overt and covert social and political messages embedded within them. But recently I did watch a typical Bollywood masala movie with songs, dances, action and all the works and found myself what picture of society it was painting – for after all, all media does after all say some thing. The story was of typical with a hero, a heroine – the hero, the son of a humble taxi driver and the heroine, the only daughter of an under world don. Then there is the brother of the heroine, a colorless man whose only identity is that of being the friend of another baddie and whose girl friend, the heroine initially is as the movie starts.

As usually happens, once when the heroine alone, some goons come and try and molesting her at which point of course, the hero steps in and rescues and the girl changes her affiliation in the only independent decision I observed he making in the entire movie. After that through out the whole two to three hour long movie, the girl was no more than a chess piece pawn between the father, father in law to be the husband to be and the brother, all of who are connected through underworld business ties and want to cement it through a marriage of convenience.

Although the whole of society is not criminal as the characters in this movie are, large segment of agrarian, and rural India are feudal and mainstream Bollywood movies of the pre multiplex era reflect that ethos and spirit. In fact, though I have not studied the phenomena seriously, I think that it is possible to distinguish between movies made in the multiplex era (the multiplex audience is more urbane, more accepting, if not also more forgiving) and those made before.

In the Masala movies, I just watched, made at least a decade and a half ago, the heroine is less than a play thing. The older men around her decide whom she will marry , when she will marry , what clothes she will wear , the kid of society he should come from , what kind of language he should speak her views on any thing are of little concern , they are of no concern at all. The few times, she tries to express any opinion, regarding her preferences in so far as marriage goes, she is bluntly told to shut up.

The setting of the movie is in a college and the heroine and he heroine are in college, in fact class mates. But it is not clear why they are in college at all, unless it is to give credibility to the fact that they are young. While the hero as the taxi driver’s son displays middle class ambitions of upward mobility, and it is talked about that he will eventually get a job in a tea estate after graduation, it is not clear at all as to why the girl should be in college at all, unless it is to train her up as some kind of a hostess for underworld parties. If Tagore’s “Where the Mind is without Fear……” is the ideal, there is a long way to go for the heroine of this movie and her mind. At another level, the Producer, the Director and the voluptuous heroine ensure that there are lots to” see” in terms of the actress being a pleasing eye candy.

But these images may be on their way out. As the revenue streams of he multiplexes dictate what Bollywood produces, the days of the cat calling front benchers may be waning. Not because men (or women) have changed but perhaps today’s generation may prefer the bold and the unconventional women of Salaam Namastee or KANK than simply dumb candy floss.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Seek Power, do not Snatch it

The Indian Express reports that Mulayam Singh Yadav, addressing an election rally has claimed that he would not beg for power but actually snatch it. With this statement having been made and recorded, all pretence that politics is matter of” serving” people has come to an end. Ironical though that so feudal a statement has come from some one who professes the politics of samajwad and looks up on Jaya Prakash Narayan as a mentor and who in turn looked to Gandhiji as his mentor. The very thought of Gandhiji snatching political power makes the stomach churn, albeit he had a lot of charisma and moral authority which he fully exploited for his ends.

Till recently, there was this game of pretence at least that people played – politics was all about service to the poor and the marginalized and positions of power and majorities in the parliament and state assemblies were needed only because a certain pro poor ideology needed to be pushed, that people wanted to be ministers, not because they provided perks and power but because they were the vehicles of serving the people.

Look at the context. The rally is a Dalit rally and the Dalit Passi community is being provoked or taunted, if you will to come and snatch the power that has eluded them thus far and make a grab for it. What is being preached here is social exclusion, not social inclusion, the politics of revenge and not reconciliation. In such a game, in such a power quest, service for the whole community, the whole citizenry, the whole of society is not even an ideal to be envisioned, let alone pursued through practical initiatives with some hope of realization.

Oppression of the Dalits is a social reality, no doubt but is snatching power the way or the solution. I can think of two examples that come to mind. One if of George Orwell’s famous book –Animal Farm. The animals are oppressed by the farmers, decide that they will one day overthrow the human masters who enslave them and so they do; but soon enough they develop their own pecking order and hierarchy and a new form of oppression begins.

The other example is of the dictatorship of the proletariat that began with the writings of Marx and Engels and was brought to some practice through the Russian revolution and the several satellite revolutions that followed, including of course the peasant revolution of the Maoists. In all these, the old oppressor class was over thrown but not to produce an egalitarian society but another oppressive one. In fact , hitherto , power might have been held by one class of people , after the supposed revolutions, power devolved in the name of democratic centralism to one single person – be it Mao , Lenin or Stalin or Ceausescu or several lesser lights.

Having looked at all this, I would rather opt for the South African way. Nelson Mandela stepped out after a life time in prison, took power and developed and fathered an inclusive society in which there was a place for all. He did not preach the rhetoric of revenge and violence, rather that of truth and reconciliation. Nelson Mandela certainly sought power but he did not snatch power. Snatching power is always dispossessing and self serving; seeking power still has at least the glimmer of serving a larger constituency than your own. That to me is all the difference. The difference that I discern as a Christian.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Pataudi's Plight : The game of Religious stereo typing

Nawab Mansur Ali Khan of Pataudi, the former Indian cricket captain, and husband of Actress, Sharmila Tagore is in trouble. Some Muslim clerics have got together and decided that he is no longer a Muslim as he consumes liquor and also has acted in films. Having decided thus, they issued a statement to that effect. The matter was grave enough to ensure that Pataudi had to approach another senior cleric, the Shahar Qazi of Bhopal to nullify the edict and issue another one to the effect that Pataudi indeed is a Muslim in good standing. The bane of contention behind all this is a raft of religious properties worth hundreds of crores in and around Bhopal and a couple of properties located in Saudi Arabia. Pataudi is the chairman of the Bhopal based trust that manages these properties and if it could be convincingly proved that he was no longer a Muslim, it would be easy quickly remove him and replace him.

While looking into the complaint against Pataudi made by a little known organization, the All-India Muslim Tyohar Committee, the Shahar Qazi of Bhopal ruled though a fatwa that the committee has no religious standing and no authority to ‘excommunicate’ any Muslim. In doing so, the Qazi has touched up on a core issue – can a bunch of people get together and after some deliberation decides that so and so is not a Muslim or a Hindu or a Christian or what ever? Is that possible or desirable? What criteria should they use? If Pataudi were to grow a beard and appear for photographs wearing a skull cap at the doorstep of a mosque, would he have become a better Muslim?

Fundamentalists of all shades find it expedient to track the externals to determine whether a man or woman is religious. Very few bother to measure character or true godliness because that is too nebulous. So if you participate in Surya Namaskar or recite Vande Mataram you are a good Hindu, if you are circumcised and eat halal meat, you are a true Muslim, if you wear a turban and an iron bangle, you are a Sikh. Of course if you wear a crucifix around your neck, you are a Christian! How simple! In communal riots, a man’s best friend or his worst enemy can be his penis, depending on whether he is circumcised or not and depending on the composition of the mob who is pulling his pants off at the time!

This emphasis on external posturing has led to a situation where even the common man has become more concerned about the symbolism of religion than its substance. So it is more expedient to wear “symbols of faith” on your sleeve than actually profess any faith. So British Airways gets into a soup because check-in clerk Nadia Eweida came wearing a crucifix at work and in Europe, Muslims allege a witch hunt because the head scarf is banned in several public offices. Across the Atlantic, the Sikhs are upset because the Canadian authorities in rural Quebec are not sympathetic to their children coming to school wearing a Kirpan. It is a sad occassion indeed when we have so lost the ability to discern inner holiness that we resort to labelling and libeling men and women through external characterisics that they do or do not possess!

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Tax Exemption for "Guru" - The Message

The Uttar Pradesh government has recently made Mani Ratnam’s film” Guru” Tax Free. By exempting this film from entertainment tax and making the price of tickets cheaper, it has made it possible for more people to see the film than would otherwise have. In fact in recent times, most films starring Amitabh Bacchan or his son have been made tax free. Although the exemption in most cases are made on political considerations of one kind or the other, in the context of Guru, the ethical implications of the move set against the main message of Guru Bhai are worth some thought.

Typically movies are exempted from entertainment tax when they bring to the table apart from healthy entertainment, some ethical values that the government would like to see diffused. Some of the movies that have worthily enjoyed this exemption in various states in the last few years are Swades, Black, Lagaan and Rang De Basanti. Few would venture to argue about these films and their artistic merit.

Guru is supposedly loosely base on the life of a prominent industrialist of recent times. Abhisekh Bacchan as Guru Bhai, the protagonist begins his career in Turkey working for Shell. From there on, he steadily ascends the corporate ladder, eventually, he comes back home where he wants to be his own boss. He marries his friend's sister Sujatha (Aishwarya Rai) so that he can use the dowry as his capital. Soon he moves to Mumbai, the ever-happening place where he reaches pinnacles of materialism while steadily slipping in his ethics and morals. His friend of previous generation and a well-wisher, Manikdas Gupta (Mithun Charkavarty) finds Guru's means of acquiring power and money abominable.

The moral of the movie, one might say is that it is OK to manipulate everything for one’s own success and material gain. By endorsing a movie which has this message as a backdrop, is the Uttar Pradesh government trying to say that this is the way to go? That in these days of 8 or 9 or 10 percent economic growth, success is also that matters and the means is damned? It would seem so and the irony of a movie promoting capitalist at its crassest being rewarded by a government purporting itself to be socialist in its ideals and inspiration can not be missed.

Ratan Tata was recently interviewed on CNN-IBN in the after glow of the Tata Group’s acquiring of Corus. In a telling observation on corporate governance, he remarks to Rajdeep Sardesai that “There is always a view among some segments of the industrial community that they are above the law and that they can manage the environment.” Ratan Tata agrees in the interview that it is still possible in India to” cut corners and get away; if you need, you can peddle influence with politicians, or influence someone, bribe someone”.

Well , any one who lives in India knows that life is all about managing the environment through whatever means and Guru Bhai will show you how if you go and watch the movie in U.P where the tickets have just got cheaper. But it is unfortunate that the ethic of unscrupulousness is the direction that the state government seems to be endorsing by its gesture of exempting the movie from entertainment tax.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Appeal, Appeal and Appeal Again.....

Many years ago, a portion of our office was rented out to a firm of architects. The office was small then and it was thought that renting out the surplus area and make some money was a good idea. But some years later as the expanded and the need was felt for more space, the firm of architects refused to vacate. Inevitably litigation followed in the local District Court, where after years of hearings, adjournments and affidavits, a judgement was passed in our favour. But barely had the ink dried on the paper, that the lawyers – ours and the architect’s were rushing to the high court- we to prevent the high court from staying the eviction order and theirs to do just the opposite. It would seem that judgements have lost all their sanctity. If you lose one case, there is always another court or tribunal to appeal to and though you pay through your nose to keep the lawyers filing one petition after another, the battle is kept alive.

With this kind of a litigation ridden culture, I do not know how any dispute can ever be resolved. When I was naïve, I used to think that ultimately all petitions finally ended up in the Supreme Court if all other appeal routes were exhausted and the verdict of the Supreme Court was ultimately binding. But now I know better. As soon as one party loses, there is a rash of lawyers wanting to file a review petition so that the matter can be heard by a different judge. If the original judgement was by a single judge, then the appeal may be to constitute a three judge bench, then five, seven, nine, eleven and finally even a thirteen judge bench and at each stage, one can hope for a reversal of fortunes.

Recently the Cauvery water tribunal gave its verdict on the distribution of waters. It is obviously that water is a limited commodity and the best that the tribunal could do was to try and ensure some sort of equity so that all the riparian states received some quantity of water. It was obviously not possible for the tribunal to amplify the amount of water in the Cauvery, so that all states could get water according to their requirements. Unfortunately that level of statesmanship seems not to be present in our political leadership. Shortly after the verdict was out, Deputy Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa said that Karnataka would file a petition before the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal seeking review of its verdict on water sharing. The familiar cycle has begun.

This is not the only instance. Manu Sharma was recently convicted of the murder of Jessica Lal by the Delhi High Court after he was acquitted by a lower court and a retrial was ordered after public outcry. In the midst of all the background noise generated by the high court taking note of the hostile witnesses in the case Manu Sharma has quietly appealed to the Supreme Court challenging his conviction by the High Court. Again, some months ago, Shibu Soren became the first sitting cabinet minister to be convicted of murder and asked to resign. He has appealed to the High Court challenging his sentence of life imprisonment. Navjot Sidhu , who was convicted of a road rage incident by the Punjab and Haryana High Court appealed to the Supreme Court , got his conviction stayed and is back in the electoral fray from Amritsar , barely weeks after he resigned as MP. And so the show goes on –get convicted, appeal, pay the lawyers and get on with your life……

Monday, February 5, 2007

Treaties of Sagauli and Sinchula – Dismantling our Colonial Past

Sagauli is a small town railway station that I pass by on my way to Raxaul, the town on the Indian border town bordering the Nepalese town of Birganj. Sagauli is a railway junction on the Delhi – Muzaffarpur route and basically nothing more. Yet a treaty signed here as far back with subsequent modifications still determines the character of the relationship between India and Nepal and even the nature of India’s geography. On May 15, 1815, General Ochterlony (after whom the monument in the Kolkata Maidan is named) compelled the Gurkha leader Amar Singh Thapa, to surrender the fort of Malaon. And finally on November 28 1815, the Gurkhas signed the treaty of Sagauli. As per the treaty the Nepalese gave up their claims to places in the lowlands along the southern frontier, gave away Garhwal and Kumaon on the west of Nepal to the British and also withdrew from Sikkim.

Amazing that because of a battle fought in an obscure town, Sikkim gained a political identity, Garhwal and Kumaon became part of British India and today are part of India. But India’s colonial past casts a very long shadow and is not likely to go away soon. But those parts of it that tread on the foreign policies of our neighboring countries, we are beginning to revisit and that is a good thing. Admittedly, not all of this is out of charity. The Maoists in Nepal and the previous Nepali governments had taken the issue of abrogation of the treaty, signed on July 31, 1950, to New Delhi stating Nepal as an "unequal" one. India finally had also agreed to consider Nepal's request for reviewing the treaty, and the foreign secretaries of Nepal and India were assigned the task of handing the review.

Perhaps taking the cue from the Nepalese demand, India has moved pro actively to revise a similar treaty that was in operation with Bhutan which required that the country to be “guided” in the conduct of its foreign policy by the wisdom of the Indian government. Mrs. Indira Gandhi used this proviso to good effect when she ensured that after India , Bhutan was the only the second country to recognize the political entity of Bangladesh when the Pakistani Army’s surrender in the East had just occurred and the dust had yet to settle.

The dust on the Indo – Bhutan treaty is almost as old as the treaty of Sagauli. The first treaty concluded between British India and Bhutan—the Treaty of Sinchula was in 1865, and this was followed by the Treaty of Punakha dating back to 1903. The current treaty governing relations between the two countries dates back to 1949. But now ,India and Bhutan have "reviewed" and decided to "upgrade" the August 1949 treaty and the new agreement will reflect, according to Indian foreign ministry officials, "the contemporary nature of the India-Bhutan relationship" and lay the foundation for its future development. It is good that we are adapting to the changing geo political realities in the world and are beginning to abandon the Raj approach to our neighbors

Sunday, February 4, 2007

A Flawed Rationale for Rough Justice ?

Is there a connection between the rough justice handed out in encounters by the police routinely and the peoples’ courts of the Maoists and the fact that in main stream courts, it takes forever to fill positions of vacant judges, there is a huge backlog of cases leading to prioritization of cases which need to be disposed off speedily and which can be kept waiting and the fact that when a trial eventually takes place, many of the witnesses have turned hostile. The net result is that when after traveling such a winding trail, a trial does get completed; the conviction rate is as low as an abysmal 5 percent.

So what are the police to do? There is always pressure on them to perform and it takes a lot of effort to even apprehend, let alone arrest, some one who is evenly remotely a celebrity or well heeled, be it from the world of politics or crime or even terrorism. And then what happens as we find documented in case after case, the witnesses are bought off or frightened to death and in court, the witness retracts the statement that they had made before the police and on the foundations of which the prosecution had painstakingly built its case. The fact that in high profile cases, the criminal lawyers engaged by the defense are far more glamorous than the dowdy and under paid public prosecutor also plays a part in determining the direction in which the case goes.

Although the attention of the media has brought out many recent instances of witnesses turning hostile in court, the instances of course are many and most will remain forever. The many instances of politicians like Sajjan Kumar , who were accused of active involvement in the anti Sikh riots of 1984 and were subsequently acquitted after a protracted trial is one of the more prominent instances of witnesses turning hostile inspire of the fact that the entire involvement was in full public view and conviction should have been a technicality.

Of course in the last week, the Delhi High Court has been conducting hearings to enquire into the circumstances in which the witnesses in the Jessica Lal case had turned hostile. Thirty-one of the 101 witnesses in the case who retracted from their police statement during the murder trial in the Jessica Lal case had to explain their conduct in the High Court and the Court clearly indicated that at least one witness , Shayan Munshi was under Manu Sharma’s influence. Of course Manu Sharma has been convicted of the murder after another media battle.

There are so many murders and crimes happening all over the country. How many can the media take note of and seek redress through public outcry? The media correspondents who matter are after all based in the big cities. What of the others? Till the judicial system is reformed and rid of its arcane vestiges , the rough and ready judgments in encounters – true or false will continue as will the instant decisions made in the Naxalite Peoples’ Courts.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Education Preserving Elitism ?

Delhi’s (and India's) public schools are actually private schools. Getting access there is no less a achievement than tackling the IIT’s JEE. Perhaps no where is this more true than in the Nation's capital , where even getting your child into a kindergarten class is so nightmarish that they are governed by court directives and the admissions process is monitored by the Delhi High Court. We have none of the elite schools like Doon , Scindia and Mayo and their kind. The public schools here at best can boast of a modest pedigree. Although some schools are better known than others, the history of most of the other "public schools" in the National Capital dates back to no more than a few decades. This means that most of these are institutions of the post independence era and could be reasonably expected to be shaped by the egalitarian edge that gilded the first decades of independence India.

Such sadly is not the case. While the truly elitist institutions have literally priced themselves out of the common man's reach including perhaps some chunk of India's burgeoning middle class and the nouveau rich , the wanna be institutions in the city , money making institutions as they largely are or have become , can not afford to be too pricey. Bu they can afford and do afford the luxury of being choosy with in the basket of choices they are provided with, thereby fostering a false elitism.

In Delhi, we have a plethora of schools by the name of "Model Senior Secondary School", Happy….. School. St. …. Academy, ….. Convent School and others like them. They are the local neighborhood schools , from whom perhaps , no one has too many expectations. But then there are other schools with some kind of bloodline and ideology from whom one does have expectations. Often all these schools are supposedly charitable institutions and have been allotted land at confessional rates for the “public good”. But public schools almost invariably – be they meritorious or mediocre, practice inbreeding by restricting the crop of students they will admit. For instance, last year a daughter of a police constable was denied admission to a school in its higher classes simply because the girl's English wasn't good enough. This school and its many siblings are known not just for its glamour but also its ideology and one would have thought that it would open its doors to those hitherto deprived of a good English language education but earnestly striving for one.

While following guidelines of the High Court Ganguly Committee, the schools have a discretionary twenty points. This combined with other factors like marks allotted for siblings already studying and for parents who are already alumni of the schools in question and the neighborhood system wherein residents of geographical areas in proximity to the school alone are given preference , all add up to preserve the status quo of the privileged as usually the best schools are usually located in a particular part of town. These are again the areas where typically the influential and the advantaged live. By default then , although the Delhi High Court’s intentions might be noble in not wanting the children to be stressed out through interviews and the like, our school managements will always find a way to defeat the fundamental purpose of education by enabling mediocre schools to provide mediocre education to the vast majority while the favored few enjoy the spoils of a vastly superior education.