Monday, July 30, 2007

There is a certain family that I have known for years. They have been my friends and mentors for ever and have typically provided me some of the most practical advice at various stages of my life. Although they have lived away from their native land practically all their life, I still thought them as some what clannish – you know the sort of people who will be friendly to all and largely helpful but at the end of the day will herd together leaving others out in the cold ?

Then one day I got a mail telling me about the upcoming wedding of their daughter. The invitation was expected but the details of the wedding were not. The daughter, who I did not expect would marry any one from outside her caste, creed and language for there was little possibility of her parents arranging a match outside those boundaries had done just that. The groom was some one from another state , naturally spoke another language and if caste equations were to be looked at was from another caste. He was educated in the US , chose to come back to India and took up a relatively unglamorous job. For the career choices he had made and other related reasons, he wasn’t on the best of terms with his family. Not the likeliest of mates that you would choose for your only daughter but the parents and the daughter collectively felt that this was the right choice.

Every day we read stories of people who choose to stay in the confines of their comfort zones an it is therefore heartwarming to know that people exist , who quietly , without making a fuss or splash are breaking out of such shackles and setting worthy examples to follow. Choosing neither to be lured by the allure of money or comfort and ease, they are breaking unfamiliar ground and are willing to take the risks and the headaches that are involved in treading an area where social support is inadequate at best , non existent at worst.

So much of the status quo around us is warranted in the name of religion , culture, convention and tradition. So much of that keeps us divided as a nation is justified on the basis of convenience. You hang out with , form ghettos with and marry and set up families and eventually communities with your on kind because it is easy. It is convenient. It is simple. It is pragmatic. And so we have ethnic, linguistic, religious, and tribal and all manner of cliques and the cliques become more important than our foundational humanness.

There is innate nobility in all cultures and languages that can not be negated. We should not lose it , in fact we should make every effort to conserve it and preserve it. It is said that of the 6000 languages in existence in the world , one disappears every fortnight . That is a pity because every two weeks we are losing a bit of the beauty of language and literature of a culture that God created to be prosper and flourish.

We are established in families, societies and communities and the commonality that brings about certain stability and an amount of settled ness in our lives is certainly a great help. But if those identities become cages and shackles , if they prevent us from embracing, engaging and adopting another language, another culture, another way of life that is different from our own , then we has lost a pound to gain a penny. There is verse from the Bible that says “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things”. To me one of the noblest traits that one can possess is the ability to discern beauty in a culture that is different from one’s own and the courage to embrace it unmindful of the inconvenience and the discomfort.

Culture : A Bond or a Bondage

Then one day I got a mail telling me about the upcoming wedding of their daughter. The invitation was expected but the details of the wedding were not. The daughter, who I did not expect would marry any one from outside her caste, creed and language for there was little possibility of her parents arranging a match outside those boundaries had done just that. The groom was some one from another state , naturally spoke another language and if caste equations were to be looked at was from another caste. He was educated in the US , chose to come back to India and took up a relatively unglamorous job. For the career choices he had made and other related reasons, he wasn’t on the best of terms with his family. Not the likeliest of mates that you would choose for your only daughter but the parents and the daughter collectively felt that this was the right choice.

Every day we read stories of people who choose to stay in the confines of their comfort zones an it is therefore heartwarming to know that people exist , who quietly , without making a fuss or splash are breaking out of such shackles and setting worthy examples to follow. Choosing neither to be lured by the allure of money or comfort and ease, they are breaking unfamiliar ground and are willing to take the risks and the headaches that are involved in treading an area where social support is inadequate at best , non existent at worst.

So much of the status quo around us is warranted in the name of religion , culture, convention and tradition. So much of that keeps us divided as a nation is justified on the basis of convenience. You hang out with , form ghettos with and marry and set up families and eventually communities with your on kind because it is easy. It is convenient. It is simple. It is pragmatic. And so we have ethnic, linguistic, religious, and tribal and all manner of cliques and the cliques become more important than our foundational humanness.

There is innate nobility in all cultures and languages that can not be negated. We should not lose it , in fact we should make every effort to conserve it and preserve it. It is said that of the 6000 languages in existence in the world , one disappears every fortnight . That is a pity because every two weeks we are losing a bit of the beauty of language and literature of a culture that God created to be prosper and flourish.

We are established in families, societies and communities and the commonality that brings about certain stability and an amount of settled ness in our lives is certainly a great help. But if those identities become cages and shackles , if they prevent us from embracing, engaging and adopting another language, another culture, another way of life that is different from our own , then we has lost a pound to gain a penny. There is verse from the Bible that says “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things”. To me one of the noblest traits that one can possess is the ability to discern beauty in a culture that is different from one’s own and the courage to embrace it unmindful of the inconvenience and the discomfort

How Many Roads to God ?

In a country where the talk of Christians attempting to proselyte and then convert never dies out and each day , it seems one more state enacts a Freedom of Religion Act(Uttarakhand is the latest!) Mark Tully arguably one of India’s most loved journalists and a confessed Indophile has spoken openly about his spiritual and inner journey. In the semi auto biographical book, India’s unending Journey, he talks of studying to be a priest in the Anglican Church where he was taught that the only way to understand God and know Him was through Jesus Christ and his position today as a pluralist. In fact at the book release , he mentions that the reason he wrote this book is that when he was young, he was taught that Christianity was the only way to God. But living in India has taught him that there are other ways to God as well and that it has changed him radically.

To me this piece of news says at least two things. Firstly Christianity is not all or only about conversion. Compare Mark Tully’s “luck as he calls it in his interview to Sekar Gupta and the “fate” of Salan Rushdie. Sir Mark walks out of the Anglican Church and in fact the Christian fold altogether and the Queen, the Head of the Church of England awards him a knighthood. The officially secular government of India(the UK is not officially secular) offers him a Padma Bhushan. Mark Tully’s luck is enviable , compared to the situation of Salman Rushdie loathed in several countries for writing a few stray verses in a book that few of the angry men in beards would have read. Imagine his fate if Rushdie had found and written about the virtues of pluralism as plainly as Mark Tully and remarked candidly in a chat that perhaps Islam was one of many faiths that had germinated in the other wise barren middle eastern soil.

The other thing this piece of news this tells me is that it is possible today for a Christian , and some one studying to be a priest no less, to declare that it is his conviction that there are other ways to God and walk out and still get accolades and honor. This is increasingly becoming difficult for say Hindus. With the Freedom of religion Acts in force, in an increasing number of states , it is no longer possible to write a book , announce a Press Conference and say that he or she is not a Hindu without going through a host of formalities and affidavits. But it would seem that for all its zeal and emphasis on conversion as bandied about in general , it would seem as if the church in general dos not care too much as to who comes and goes and who goes and why they have lost the beliefs they were born with. 4

So a question for the church. Does it really believe any more that Jesus and Christianity are the only way to God and Tully is mistaken that God can be found in many ways and places ….in the cathedrals and basilicas as well as the ghats of Benares ? if so, should not the church look around and field a person of the stature of Mark Tully, not to confront him, but to engage him in a dialogue and discourse to find out how Mark’s view evolved the way they did ? Or is as Hindutva votaries claim that is that the money and energy of the church is all directed to the vulnerable segments of our society as their souls are more easily harvested, their serene baptismal faces more photogenic than ever ? Is it as they say, the church has lost the intellectual moorings to talk to opinion makers and thinkers like Mark Tully? But some times, I fear the worst. That no one in the church is clear as such as to what they believe. If so, the Christian faith should just take a bold step and rid itself of the bogey of conversion by reinventing itself --- as an Art of Living Club. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar teaches Sudarshan Kriya. The church can teach cross Kriya. No more. No less.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Governance : The Drill of Delay

Girija Soni received a cheque of Rs.1, 40,000 from the Madhya Pradesh government for the treatment of heart disease. She should be considered lucky on many counts. She was a poor woman who had applied to the government for help and had been favored with can be considered a significant sum to help her out with her treatment. There was only thing that spoilt the day. By the time, she received her cheque, she was dead. This was not the case of the cheque reaching a little late because of some postal delay. By the time cheque reached, Girija Soni had been dead for over thirty three years. The same article cites the instance of one Rakesh, who had been admitted to Bhopal’s cancer hospital for treatment. Ramrati, his mother too had approached the authorities for financial help in her case, it took the government over six-months to provide the money. By that time Rakesh was dead.

Then there is the story of Kawalzia came to the small town of Bispohar Bazar in the eastern district of Siddharthnagar, some 250 km from Lucknow, with her mother last month on a visitor's visa but decided to get married to her cousin Shamshad Ahmad. However, with lethargic bureaucratic ways coming in the way of a visa extension, Kawalzia has been told by the Indian authorities to leave Bispohar Bazar latest by Monday, failing which she would be deported. The Times of India reports blithely that Siddharthnagar police chief P K Srivastava said the proper procedures would have to be followed. "We cannot help it. We must follow the entire drill and carefully verify the marriage before submitting a report. All that is bound to take time," Srivastava said.

These are the stories that we can identify with which is why every encounter with the government is a moment of dread because delays – of smaller or bigger magnitudes are almost inevitable. But what of the other delays that we read of and which affect not one or two families (though in a welfare state set up, even that is unforgivable)? Reflecting rules of business inherited from colonial times that are wrapped up in opacity, the government trusts no one and suspects every one. The government like Caesar’s wife is meant to be above suspicion but is not as skeleton after Skelton keeps tumbling from the cupboard.

But since Caesar’s wife cant be probed Caesar taking shelter under systems and rules of procedure rather than the public good. The efficacy of a government – the measure of its governance ought to be measured (and usually is) by its impact on the public welfare. But in India, governance is not about welfare of the people – it is all about the (“i) being dotted the right way and the “(t) being crossed the right way and by the right people in he right sequence. And as indefatigable keeper of the Law, the bureaucracy tells us in the words of P.K.Srivastava, the Police Superintendent of Siddharthnagar “All these things take time”. Srivstava may be heading a district named after Gautama Buddha but compassion apparently hasn’t yet penetrated the police dictionary.

The Bible teaches about the necessity of law in a society to regulate society and to device norms that are beneficial to all and the common good can be pursued. But while describing God, he is described as the God of all grace whose mercy and compassion if need be overrides every law that might have been made. Law in our society we see plenty of. But in a society where the government rules as the mai baap, democracy not withstanding, people like Kawalzia and Shamshad Ahmed and every common man and woman would yearn to taste a bit of grace.

Gandhi: An icon in History's dustbin

Every time a famous person passes away, I hear the familiar phrase “An era has come to an end”. May be yes, when such things happen, an era does come to an end. Celebrities who live long and illustrious lives often represent the aspirations and ideals of a generation and when they die, some thing of that time does pass into oblivion. Still the phrase has become a bit of a clichĂ©, one has to admit. But I did feel that an era had indeed passed when I read in CNN-IBN that the British government doesn't think that Gandhiji is historically not relevant any more. A new national curriculum prepared for British secondary schools has recommended dropping of Mahatma Gandhi, among others, from a list of key historical figures recommended for teaching.

Albert Einstein paying tribute to Mahatma Gandhi had said” Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood. Years later Gandhi was the person deemed as the Person of the 20th Century by Time Magazine. Einstein was right. A generation has come today in India and else where which scarcely believes that he existed or if he did exist that he has any thing to say to us today. And so slowly, the recollection of him is being rubbed out so that an age arises which will know nothing of his heroic contribution to the practice of ethical resistance and non violence through Satyagraha. And this truly is the end of an era for certain.

The Bible recounts the story of Joseph, who was kidnapped into Egypt, served as a slave and then eventually rose to be the Prime Minister of Egypt. At a time when the nation was under threat of seven consecutive years of famine, using God given wisdom and superb organizational skills, he was able to store and distribute food through out Egypt and its neighbors. Yet when the famine days were over and the victory was won and a new generation and a new king arose, they knew nothing of their history. For a while, it looked all was fine and all that history was irrelevant but in reality, without knowledge of the past and ignorant of its value in the present, their future was that of doom and destruction.

Questions have been raised in the past that Gandhi’s ideals were going to work only in the context of relatively genteel governments like the one the British provided or in the US civil rights movement where there was some desire to maintain a rule of law and basic fairness. Would it have worked against the Stalinist regime of the Soviet Union or the Nazi regime of Hitler? We don’t know for certain of course. There is always room for speculation that they might not have. Leaders like Netaji were possibly of the same or similar opinion – that they would either not work or take a very long time. How the Taliban might would have reacted to his non violence or may be the Naxalites? The fascist ideology fellow travelers that finally plotted and killed Gandhi provide us some clues of course of course about the kind of reaction that he aroused.

But then was Gandhi only a votary of non violence, a quaint but out dated idea whose time has come and gone? He was far more; at the least, he was a great mobilize of people, of a caliber that perhaps we may never see in a long while. A mediocre lawyer at best, he was able to get giants, aristocrats and commoners alike to take a relook at their lives and get them to undertake a costly and life long paradigm shift the likes of which are rarely seen. Besides he was an institution builder, a quasi spiritual leader an ethical conscience keeper and many other things beside. His Dandi march is considered one of the epic movements in civilization which connected with millions across of all of society.

It is possible to disagree with every thing that Gandhi thought and taught and still probably have to accept that Gandhi was an iconic figure. Such people will need to be understood and reevaluated in the context of the times they lived in and the times we live in , the audience they addressed and the audience before us today, the social realities and complexities today and then. All that is true. In 2007, we are evaluating the uprising of 1857 and so why not also apprise afresh Gandhi, who was born not too long after in 1869. Reassessing some one’s work, contribution and teaching from time to time is not only desirable but probably necessary. Declaring suo moto that some one is historically irrelevant is probably not

Friday, July 13, 2007

Tax for the Idiot Channel

It looks like that the UPA government is developing dementia. It can’t remember any more if it supports a free market economy or a socialist one. The so called mixed economy on which many of us grew up was some thing we all thought was well and truly over but it looks as if it is not so. Whey else otherwise, the government have the sudden brain wave of imposing an annual recurring fee from the owner of every television set – Rs. 500 for each color set and Rs.200 for each black and white set.

And this is only one of the many measures being contemplated by the UPA government to pump money into the supposedly autonomous Prasar Bharati so that they can perform their public service broadcasting role better. Interestingly enough, the money thus collected is not going to increase radio and Doordarshan coverage in the villages or increase the quality of programming. Rather, it is going to help the government pay Part of the money raised will go into providing government pay scales and other benefits for the 38,000-odd Prasar Bharati employees. Sources said the license fee plan alone could raise an estimated Rs 23,871 crore.

The average middle class person and above typically does not watch Doordarsahan or listen to All India Radio. For the others who do, may be in the rural areas where cable television has not penetrated and where terrestrial television is still the norm, the bets are that the typical viewer and radio listener has a life style far lower down the ladder compared to the Prasar Bahrain bureaucrat. How ethical is it then that he or she should subsidize the life of government bureaucrats and program staff which even today have a large dollop of programs that could have come out of the stables of the Soviet era propaganda department.

It is probably time to question several things. One is that in a socialist style Robin Hood style economy, which is obsolete any way, the poor are subsidized by the rich. Here we have a situation where the poor and that is typically the profile of the person who watches Prasar Bharati programs who will be paying for the upkeep of government TV and programming staff. It has been reported in the context of these proposed taxes that the revenue of Prasar Bharati is about Rs.1, 500 crores per year and the operating costs are about Rs3,000 crores. It has also 38,000 employees.

Another good question to ask is to why the government funded broadcaster should be running so many channels if no body watches them ? If at all, in a large and complex country like India , a need is felt to have a platform from where the government feels the need to reach out to the entire population at times of National crisis or emergencies , it could at the most manage one news channel to communicate with the nation. The rest of the entertainment channels, sports channels , and regional language channels which don’t attract any advertising could just be shut down. Even in the private sector, even among those channels which are not free to Air, no channel is surviving on subscriber fees alone. Why should things be any different here ?

Witness the recent incident involving Dayanidhi Maran where Sun TV published a poll that angered the Tamil Nadu chief minister and that subsequently led to the exit of Maran in the cabinet. In all this battle for viewer ship , there were three players – Sun TV , Raj TV, and the about to be formed Kalaignar TV. DD Tamil was not a player of any magnitude in the game for whose viewer ship , any body was keen to fight any wars and battles. In the private sector, if a particular industry bleeds for long , it either shuts down or if it has assets of its own, it gets acquired or merged with some other. The old style nationalization wherein sick companies are acquired by the government and run with the tax payer’s money does not happen even in states like West Bengal any more. May be that the government should tax the high end television purchaser, the kind of television which gets reflected in the Annual Information Return- the folks who buy high end plasma televisions or the LCD sets. Those purchasers too may complain but at least such a policy is at least consistent with the Robin Hood government’s Aam Aami policy. Making a dhaba owner with a banged up black and white TV or a cheap Chinese set pay a recurring tax is not good welfare. Or may be even good politics.

The New Blue Star

Lal Masjid has become Pakistan’s Akal Takht of the 80s, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the Bhindaranwale and the Musharraf campaign to cleanse the mosque, today’s Operation Blue Star. The question is that Operation Blue Star was a well documented event that has many lessons that could be learnt from it. One wonders though, if any one is. It is eminently macho that arm generals should holler out blood curdling howls. So Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf told Islamists besieged at an Islamabad mosque to surrender or face being killed.’ They should not prolong. They should surrender and hand over their weapons, otherwise they risk being killed,' Musharraf told reporters in his first public comment on the confrontation.

India ’s leader at the time of the Operation Blue Star, Mrs. Indira Gandhi was often described as the only man in the cabinet. Bu she was a woman after all and so she was perhaps more discreet in her challenge to Sant Bhindaranwale and his cohorts holed up inside the Golden Temple but her generals went n and did pretty much what Musharraf’s generals were doing, using copy book military textbook strategies to take on fanatics driven more by passion and vision than by tactics or territory. A few months after the siege, Mrs. Gandhi was dead shot by her body guards who cared more about heir faith than her person. Pakistan’s President Musharraf has already escaped one rocket attack hours after the Lal Masjid siege. Is any one in Pakistan listening at all or is that it has been a long time since a head of state died in office there?

India has its share of hawks who would say that the jackboot is the solution to every problem that the country has be it floods in Rajasthan, or communal riots in Aligarh, insurgency in Manipur or the Naxalites in Chattisgarh. There is little attempt to understand, why these movements arose, why they continue to thrive and prosper, what ideological props they possess and why they hold appeal here. Instead, the thinking of the establishment is that the army can go any where, do any thing, kill and suppress any one--- veni, vidi, vici in the true style of Julius Caesar. Well the truth is that it is an incomplete truth. Army boots and flag marches can bully people into submission for a time, for a season but not for ever. Popular movements and beliefs can not be subdued easily… or else there would be no shriveled up monarch in Nepal, no moth eaten Pakistan and no hemorrhaging democracy in Sri Lanka, no to mention India’s own numerous bleeding spots.

There is a lot of talk in India about winning over the hearts and minds of discontented people but no attempt is made to listen to the beating of the heart. Army doctors going and tending to wounds that other soldiers have inflicted or repairing huts and mosques and temples can feel the throbbing pulse but not the bleeding heart. When that effort is made and attempts made to listen, one can have some very pleasantly unexpected results. In a recent development, The Asom Sahitya Sabha, the apex literary body of Assam, has urged the ULFA and other insurgent groups to give up their demand for secession and sit for unconditional talks with the government. President of the literary body Kanak Sen Deka told reporters that the Asam Sahitya Sabha did not support any secessionist activities and was of the firm opinion that Assam was an integral part of India. The Sabha said the allegation made by secessionist organizations that colonial rule was imposed on Assam through the Constitution was only a conspiracy detrimental to Assam's interest. Moderate voices like this which speak with authority and credibility and challenge the voices of violence, no matter where it comes from are to be welcomed. Amongst Muslims, among Hindus, among Christians, among every one. For instance , many of us would find the policies , programs and ideologies of the leftists in India archaic. But given the fact that there is a leftist space in the political sphere and that space has to be occupied by some one, who you would rather prefer – Sitaram Yechury and the sedate Prakash Karat or some masked underground comrade screaming lal salaam as he kidnaps you for ransom or hold you on trial in a Peoples’ Court. It is time that we encourage the State to think in terms of policies ands initiatives that are not derived form the Mosaic eye for eye policy but encourage moderate and peace loving voices to rise, speak up and isolate violence as is beginning to happen in Assam. Or else a long and silent night will soon descend accompanying an unending winter.

The Citizen and The Activist : Who is a Nationalist ?

The congress spokesperson Abhisekh Spokesperson, Abhisekh Manu Singhvi seems to have run out of his wits or arguments or both. For, in trying to mount an attack on Bhairon Singh Sekhawat’s candidature for President, he made a patently absurd statement. That in 1942 when the Quit India Movement was on, Sekhawat, instead of joining the freedom movement, joined the police force to earn a living. As long as the Congress talks about the involvement or the non involvement of the RSS in the freedom movement there may be some sort of a fig leaf of an ideological cover , though the elections for the presidency are all about upholding the constitution as it exists today an not about what the past might have held. That Sekhawat has done in his role as Vice President and earlier as Chief Minister of Rajasthan fairly eminently.

But by making this patently absurdly statement, the Congress has raised the question that requires some pondering – what constitutes patriotism, what constitutes love for the nation, what is responsible citizenship. Abhisekh Singhvi, having running out of ammunition might have been trying to make an under the belt attack on Sekhawat, but these questions arise. By saying that in 1947, Sekhawat joined the police when the Quit India Movement was on, what is he trying to say? That the whole country then should have abandoned their jobs, functions and roles and gathered on the streets doing hartal and contributed to social anarchy? Would that have been a helpful contribution to the freedom movement?

When doctors keep vigil in the hospitals , police fight crime and maintain social order, farmers toil in the fields and workers labor in factories, then are they doing some thing constructive or not ? do their efforts contribute to a nation’s economic, social and political progress and evolution or not? or to serve the nation one has to join some political party – and that too the right political party – (not any one mind, you ) and then block highways and train tracks, may be loot a few shops and make incendiary speeches to make the point that one is serving the nation and performing public service. Those who man telephone exchanges, air traffic controls, post offices, railway stations and numerous other utilities and in the process, also earn a living honorably for themselves, it would seem are not serving the nation, they are serving the devil.

Let us face it, a big mass of the so called national leaders who led the Quit India Movement had deep pockets or had backers like G.D.Birla who had such pockets. Without such silent backers who made their money doing jobs that Mr. Singhvi so disdains, no movement would have lasted. And those who did quit their jobs and hit the streets to agitate and run riot, often lived their lives out in penury after the Quit India movement had run its course, India had won its independence and the British had left.

While the leaders of the day jostled for their chairs and portfolios, no body gave a damn for the poor worker. Often they had to go back to school or college to make up for the years they had lost and the leaders of the day did not even create a fast track option for those who had sacrificed their years to get an education, get employed and get back on their feet. There was no Freedom Fighter’s Administration in India like the Veteran’s Administration in India to look after their interests. That meant that for bulk of the people who were participants in the Quit India Movement there was little option but to live off their relatives in abject dependence or off measly pensions and tamra patras which often had to be obtained by greasing palms. While honest, upright political national leaders are important and are an asset to any nation, the contribution of the sincere and silent worker, be it a post man or a police man is not to be disdained. Unfortunately, Mr. Singhvi has done just that.

The Stigma of Labels

For years, we have labeled our fellow country men. Post partition, the Muslim has always been the traitor with his body in India and his soul in Pakistan. And if he had a long henna dyed beard; he cut a more sinister figure. For most of the 80s, the Sikhs were terrorists with a turbaned scalp. The Christians were out there only to seduce and harvest your souls and set up a Christian home land with its ethos and currency firmly pegged to the dollar by seceding from India at some point. To the liberal Indian, the saffron tilak sporting Hindu was probably a member of the Bajrang Dal with the welfare of cows on his lips and the murder of Muslims in his heart. Thus we have divided and thus we have classified.

Then there are the ethnic boxes the chinky eyed North Easterners, the dark Madrasis, the wily Malayali, the lazy Bengali, the money hungry Marwari and so on – we have boxes and labels for every one and every one fits—or so we think. We judge and evaluate people on the basis of these labels we have pasted on them and if need be, we crucify people based on those stereotyped pictures and some times very unjustly. In the political boundaries of the country it happens all the time and so subliminally that we do not even notice them for what they are. The Santa Banta jokes are good fun to share in parties but what does it say about the community it portrays? As dumb clods, right?

Some times the genie escapes out of the box we have locked him in and it gives the nation sleepless nights as it did Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently. When after the involvement of two Indian doctors in the Glasgow airport car bomb attack, it looks that the whole nation might be labeled. Although the UK does not have a system like the US where the State Department after thorough interpretation and analysis of the information available to it can recommend to the President to label a particular nation a terrorist state that is by itself, more discouraging than encouraging. Formal labels can be removed- as for instance Libya, once a terrorist state in American eyes but now no longer. But who is to remove the stigma and the shame that no one formally pasted? They tend to stick and stay on longer than one would wish.

Even as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced ominous background checks on doctors, particularly the ones choosing to enter the National Health Service and it was ominously clear as to what kind of background would be particularly taken up for screening, Manmohan Singh invoked his own Sikh identity to say that as a Sikh, he had seen the trauma of labeling any community or country (as a terrorist)…true enough. He went on to say that “Terrorists are terrorists. They have no particular religion or community. Labels are best avoided because if you do that you create a new set of grievances.” Also true enough. Except that all these messages sound a bit pedantic considering the amount of labeling and classification of communities that goes on in our own country.

Next month is Independence Day. When the Prime Minister is required to give us a speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort. I guess that is the closest we have to a State of the Union speech spiked with lots of populism. May be in his speech this year, he can remind us all of what he has been telling the world. That labeling and classifying a human being is wrong. It does more harm than help. Always. Every time.

Life in the Shadow of Terror

In my childhood, we lived in the shadow of the cold war. Today we live in the shadow of terror. In retrospect, the former was better. There was a communist group of countries led by the Soviet Union and there was a Capitalist group led by the Americans. Always seemingly at loggerheads. With India propped up in the middle as a non aligned nation , though in reality , we were titled a bit towards the Soviet camp what with the Indo-Soviet treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. But although the Cold War was very real and very frightening at one level, it did not touch the lives of ordinary people like us in India. We understood more of the Cold War through the novels of Eric Ambler and John le Carre than through any thing we saw or experienced.

Out of the shadows of the Cold War emerged the whiff of religious fundamentalism and terrorism which has today expanded into a bigger mushroom cloud than any one of the doomsday prophets of the cold era ever imagined. And the worst thing is that while the chess moves of the Soviets and the Americans were played out in the lawns of the Kremlin or the White House, terrorism could be staring at us across every innocuous bend or street corner as the victims of 7/11 whose first anniversary we commemorate found to their horror. Or as the victims of 9/11 found earlier. Or as the victims of the Bali bombings, tourists frolicking on the beach found to their horror. As the pictures emerging from the stand off at Lal Masjid in Islamabad show. Terrorism has encircled the globe and from the vantage point of today, it seems that it has changed our life forever.

A year ago, when I was pick pocketed and lost my mobile handset , my biggest priority was not to go and look for the handset or any thing like that but to hot foot it to the police station to lodge an FIR. The intent was to ensure that the loss of the SIM card was entered on official records at the earliest opportunity. I had head and read of several occasions when stolen SIM cards had been used to make calls and even if the legitimate owner of the card was eventually often cleared, the stress and harassment along the way was huge.

Boarding a flight had always included security checks though of course, now the lines are longer and the frisking more rough and stringent. But even other every day pleasures - train journeys, bus journeys and shopping in the mall or in even in the neighborhood discount market is fraught with unexpected dangers and uncertainties for which there can be never be ever some thing called a fool proof security.

The manner in which we have to move around with and identity proof makes it look that we are not actually living in a democracy but in a distorted police state. You want to buy a car – you need a car. The police want to know who is buying it for it could be used as a car bomb. You want to rent a house – the police want to know who is going to live there for it could be terrorist safe houses. You want an internet connection – the police want your IP address in case you are communicating with the Al Quaida or some thing. And if you are a student or some thing and do not have an internet connection, be prepared to prove your identity every time you visit a cyber cafĂ©.

The sad fact about life today is that the carefree times of yester years seem to be all but gone. Every man and man and woman is suspect, every piece of luggage is suspect, every one who looks different, speaks different and prays different is suspect, and so you crane your neck around every bend and curve, fearful of every one and trustful of no one. The age of the simple joys of life are over for the time, or so it seems from the window where I stand.

A Loss of Privacy

I recently got a mailer from my bank in a nice sleek envelope. Inside it was an invitation. An interesting kind of invitation. It invited me to register my phone for the “Do not call” option to guard against tele marketing calls, which the mailer said was a “facility” being extended by my bank. The letter explicitly said that only the phone that I registered on the form would be inoculated against attacks from tele marketers; any other phone that I might possess could be and possibly would be used by the Bank to offer their products , almost none of which I would ever use.

However I am amazed at the vocabulary of the mailer I received which assumes that intrusion into my private space is the bank’s right and my personal privacy is a privilege. In normal parlance it is like saying that kicking the door open and walking into my home is the norm and if I actually want some one to ring the bell and then wait for me to answer it , then I should fill up forms and let people know. When you put it this away, one can only be aghast at the low levels of sensitivity that we have in society today and the courtesy breach that has occurred along the way. One could be in funeral or lying on a sick bed or be in some other difficult situation and there is a brash, uncouth voice on the phone selling you some pre approved loan or an offer to transfer your credit card balance. These kinds of callers seem to take no cognizance of the fact that a typical client if he needed any of their products, would not be sitting and waiting passively for some phone call, they would walk over to the bank and obtain information in far more exhaustive detail than a phone call can provide.

Earlier, some weeks ago the British Television channel, ITV went ahead and aired an extremely controversial documentary about the crash which killed Diana, Princess of Wales despite pleas from her sons to refrain as the film contained extremely disturbing pictures. One showed Diana receiving oxygen from a French doctor as she lies dying, although her face is obscured. Other pictures include the wrecked Mercedes and a view through the back of an ambulance in which the Princess was treated. Although after massive public outcry, the film was some what edited, Diana: The Witnesses in the Tunnel was still aired. The Princes' private secretary Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton publicly said that "It is their mother's last moments on earth and it's an invasion of her privacy. They are chipping away what little dignity there is in death" but no one cared. Business and TRP ratings were more important than privacy and dignity.

In India too, the media had gone overboard on several sensitive occasions. I remember when the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan and a couple of years earlier, Dhirubhai Ambani lay dying , the television coverage was almost like a ball by ball commentary of who came , who went , who cried , who wept and who said what and all that trivia. I wonder how the mourners felt having a microphone thrust into their faces as they walked past grieving and mourning. A few weeks ago, major concerns were raised at the height of the Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan, the media, particularly the electronic media came under the scrutiny of the Supreme court the media a has a vital role to play and there should not be any occasion for a grievance that because of any irresponsible coverage by the media tension/violence has escalated and has led to destruction of property and/or loss of lives or causing of injuries.”

The burgeoning of telecom and media in recent years has certainly revolutionized our lives but these bugs and viruses that invaded our privacy and done so beyond the limits of all decorum have also multiplied. Just think of it – a decade or so ago, there was just one state operated telecom company and they brought out fat telephone directories every other year listing out not only every one’s telephone number but also their street address.

These directories were free available to any one and every one and yet hardly any one got junk mail or intrusive calls because of them. Unlisted phone numbers were few and far between and were mostly for the celebrities. Today with so many operators around and people switching operators at their whim and fancy, telephone directories are all but gone. And yet every one seems to have every one’s number and the tele marketers along with the data mining companies probably know more about ourselves, our debts, bank balance, the kind of credit card we have and how much we owe on them, the kinds of loans we need or might want and endless other things, which we ourselves might not be aware of. The thought is horrifying as much as the reality of the fact that today privacy is a privilege available but to a rare few even if we are no Princess Diana but just an
anonymous mass of population.

Education : A Rock and a Hard Place

I recently came across an article by Arindam Chowdhury that talked about the pressure that parents put on their children to get high marks when that is not absolutely necessary. He talks about many students have performed hopelessly in school and yet went on to do well in their lives. True such examples exist and they are by no means rare. Besides as one moves on in life, your high school or college grades become more and more irrelevant. People begin to look more at what one has done in one’s career, what have been the accomplishments and contributions to one’s employer, to society and to the nation; these become more and more important. A gold medal earned decades ago in some college sports meet or university examination may provide one with a slight edge and a few brownie points and that is about it. All these aspects are true and are worth their consideration but Arindam Chaudhary insults the intelligence of many if not most parents , when he assumes that because the have not been educated in his plush IIPMs , they need to be educated on this point.

Arindam Chowdhury says that Indian parents are obsessed with getting high marks and percentages for their children. I don’t quite agree. Yes parents are concerned and worried about the marks that their children get and this is not unreasonable because most doors in higher education seem to open only when either has loads of cash to buy seats in private institutions or ring in high percentages.

Yes, many parents want their kids to get into IITs or the IIMs or these elite institutions because that is the only way they know to ensure that their kids will have some prospect of a bright future. If being a janitor or a cobbler or a bus driver in India was able to earn enough to live comfortably if not luxuriously, most parents would spare themselves and their children too of the torture and the agony of being a part of a rat race that one would so desperately love to avoid.

Middle class parents (and those are the ones who are the most fearful and obsessed) don’t often have the luxury of offering their children second chances. And so they are forced to put all their eggs in one heavily over loaded but time tested basket in spite of the fears and the insecurities that the basket will spill over. I remember my own childhood. I so badly wanted to be a journalist or a broadcaster. But in those days of socialist India with only the dour All India Radio and Doordarshan ruling the air waves and careers in the media notoriously unstable, my father deterred and guided me along the safe middle class pasture of medicine. I resented it then, I did not understand but I do understand today the compulsions of a middle class parent and their fears.

Arindam Chaudhary has got many things right. Yes, education is not about getting 90%. It’s about being a great son, daughter, wife, husband, mother or father… It’s about reading books and becoming more cultured. It’s about being a positive influence in the society. It’s about being constructively employed and creatively spending your energies. It’s about the will to achieve and succeed. Chaudhary rounds off his piece by saying that he gave all this nice advice when he went to see the Principal of the SriRamSchool about his son’s admission. And he is happy that the school has apparently taken his advice and that it is giving his son freedom to nurture his creative and human instincts. One thing Arindam has neglected to say however. It is that those parents who send their sons and daughters to SriRamSchool and its like often have trapeze nets in place to break the fall if the nicely composed fairy tale goes awry. But most of India doesn’t send their children to SriRamSchool. And they don’t have trapeze nets in case some thing goes wrong. Hence the worry, the obsession, the rat race and the fatigue that goes with it. Unfortunately Arindam Chaudhary never got that bit right

Politics without Borders

When a couple of years ago, Sonia Gandhi became active in Congress Politics a few years ago and it began to look that she might become the future Prime Minister, all kinds of mayhem happened. The Congress split because a few who believed that Indian citizens of foreign origin should not occupy that post walked out to form the Nationalist Congress Party. It is another matter that now that platform has been abandoned. Then of course, the UPA came into power and for a while it looked that many peoples’ worst fears might become reality. I still remember Sushma Swaraj coming on television to share with viewers the mourning rituals she would go through of sleeping on the floor, cutting of her hair and easing gram and all, the day Sonia took oath. But of course that never happened and today all that looks a bit distant to us today.

But some where else in the world, perhaps some thing more bizarre is happening. Alberto Fujimori, two term president of Peru with a not too particularly distinguished record and who is currently under house arrest in Chile will run for a seat in the Japanese Parliamentary elections due later this month. He actually speaks of returning to the presidency in Peru too. Fujimori said in a telephonic interview “I will run as a proportional representational candidate for the People's New Party to work for Asian diplomacy, on the North Korea problem and for the safety of the Japanese public," Fujimori said in a conversation put on speakerphone so the audience in Tokyo could hear it. Kamei said he wanted Fujimori — who holds Japanese citizenship — to put "his knowledge, rich experience and reputation" to use in Japan.

Well this is interesting and I have not heard anything like this before in recent times. The closest illustration that can be thought of is perhaps that of the British monarch being the Head of State in countries of Australia, Canada and the like but then those countries have a long historical connection with the UK. But there is no parallel to this that some one who has held office as Head of State in one country contesting elections for a Parliamentary seat in another country in another continent and with possible political ambitions in Japan too after two terms of office in Peru. Up till now we have heard of the globalization of the economy with goods moving across borders free of tariffs and taxes but it would now look that we are beginning to see the stirrings of a phenomenon where citizenship becomes a relative concept and people cross borders and boundaries at will.

From an Indian perspective, there are several interesting points. A Japanese Political Party is prepared to welcome into their fold and offer a Parliamentary seat to some one who is not exactly a political elder statesman but is actually in disgrace and under house arrest n a third country. Fujimori said he had accepted the request to run for the People's New Party in the upper house elections in a talk with party chief Shizuka Kamei. The Party seems to feel that even such a man has some thing to offer to the country and they are happy to use the fact that Fujimori is of Japanese origins and holds a dual Japanese citizenship to put to good use.
Sonia Gandhi by any yardstick has always had a more sober public profile than Alberto Fujimori who has an array of charges lined up against him in Peru apart from the one for which he is already under arrest in Chile. Yet he is able to sit and dream of returning as President in Peru and sitting as a Parliamentarian in Japan. Now I am no Congress man or any thing but I am just wondering at the irony of Sonia Gandhi. Here is a lady who has basically lived in India all her life since she got married, has certainly conducted herself with dignity and certainly has a more acceptable public profile than Fujimori and yet finds her political life impeded at every step. Borderless politics has arrived in the world where you can contest for the Presidency in one country and sit in the Parliament of another. May be we in India need to start adopting it in small doses by to begin with getting rid of the xenophobia that we have inherited

Road Rage: A Fast Track to Death

Delhi ’s ex chief minister, Sahib Singh Verma is the latest in a fairly long line politicians who have died in road accidents in recent years. Off hand, I can recall Madhav Rao Scindia, Rajesh Pilot, Lok Sabha Speaker Balayogi, Haryana Minister, O.P.Jindal and former President Giani Zail Singh. Then of course there are many, many more who sustain injuries and there names are too numerous to recount. However Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee is a name one can recall from very recent times.

It makes me wonder why is it that politicians are so vulnerable to accidents and collisions. Do they have some particular kind of death wish that bewitches them? Or is it that they are happening all the time and to every body – it is just that we get to hear about them only when a celebrity, particularly a politician passes away this way. Or is that their lives and tragically their deaths represent the collective wish of the times – wanting to be every where and all at once at the very same time and because that elusive quality called omniscience is reserved only to deity, the closest one can grasp that impossible gift is by revving up faster, faster and even more faster --- a morbid distortion of the Olympic motto -Citius, Altius, Fortius" (faster, higher, stronger).

Except that Baron Pierre de Coubertin , the Father of the Olympic Movement had a different scenario in mind as he wrote up this immortal motto. His creed was” "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." That final bit – that participating in life – be it in an election or in a sport or in any thing else at all is not necessarily about winning but about having taken part and fought well has been all but forgotten. While the Baron’s creed was certainly a call to leave unnecessary mediocrity far behind and pursue excellence, the cut throat dog eat dog chase of speed and achievement was not what he had in mind.

But by no means am I saying that it is the politicians alone who have the ambition and the hurry and the desire to be omniscient. There is always a Salman Khan or an Alistair Pereira or the trucker on the other side on the other side of the road, also in a tearing hurry to get some where. He too has his ambitions, plans and dreams and visions of omnificence. The politician and his convoy. The trucker and his tired bones, coming from difference sides of the fence clash, collide and self destruct.

The road rage phenomena which is increasing in India is a fast track to death and destruction. Road rage is scary. Why do seemingly normal people succumb to such antisocial hostile behavior? Hostile behavior like screaming abuse, fist shaking, making obscene gestures, flashing lights, tailgating, getting out of one’s vehicle to another person's vehicle and banging, knocking on the windows and yelling insults. Such hostility only invokes more terrible hostility. And violence always begets violence.

In India, the main causes of road rage are drivers who drive in the wrong direction (64%), drivers who jump queues (61%), people who honk too much (57%) and aggressive driving (57%). Another significant cause of annoyance for Indian drivers is “traffic light jumpers” (51%). And in a dubious distinction for the national capital, Delhi was ranked highest for having the most number of ‘worst drivers’. “Indians who have driven in other cities were asked which city they think has the worst drivers. Top of the list is Delhi, selected by 32%. Bangalore comes in second place with 16% and in third place is Kolkata (12%),”

How do we remain gentle amidst this kind of hostility and violence? By reminding ourselves that we live in a world that still needs civil and courteous behavior. A wave, a smile, a bit of generosity and chivalry on your part, will bond good drivers together and create role models. There are of course other means too. Leaving homes twenty minutes earlier makes all the difference to our nerves when we are caught in heavy traffic. If we are being tailgated, we can change lanes and allow the person to pass. If someone wants to pass, slow down and let them do so. If someone makes obscene gestured, don't return them. Stay behind the person who is angry at all costs (they can do less damage if we are behind them) If necessary, we can always pull off the road or take an exit and let them go on by. Some one has to give in and allow life to flow. Or else, today’s death will be tonight’s breaking news and tomorrow’s headline as Sahib Singh Verma’s unfortunate accident was.

Will Food Shortages Return ?

The other day I was in a board meeting of a reputed educational institution which is doing well and has expansion plans in mind. The plans were presented for new buildings and then the time frame. When some members questioned the lengthy time frame, the explanation provided was that that the land being purchased was agricultural land and that there were several procedural formalities involved in converting agricultural land into non agricultural use.

Agriculture has come into the news in several ways and for several reasons in the last months – be it in the context of the agitation at Singur or Nandigram or Amitabh Bacchan posing as a farmer , first in U.P and then in Maharashtra or in the manner in which agricultural land is routinely acquired in the name of infrastructure projects. Typically agitations have been launched when this has happened but this has largely focused on the perceived injustice to the farmers in terms of the compensation paid for the land or the rehabilitation package promised to the displaced farmers but not delivered. Medha Patkar has been among the people who have agitated along these lines.

While the manner in which farmers are treated when land is acquired is certainly an issue, there is also a need to examine the whole matter of acquiring agricultural land in other contexts. The farm sector sustains nearly two-thirds of the country's billion-plus people - but millions of rural households are in distress due to declining agricultural productivity and low wages. Indian agriculture has been in steady decline after an era of high productivity in the 1970s. There are no more areas to be brought under cultivation, so the limitation of land is there. But the basic thing is that productivity is not increasing, while the population is increasing, and that is what is creating an imbalance between availability and demand

For the last couple of years now, India has been importing food, a phenomena that had disappeared with M.S.Swaminathan’s Green Revolution. The 60s when India was dependant on food imports and the consumer on serpentine ration cards seems a long away but it may not be long before those days are back. While improving infrastructure – roads, highways and expressways etc are important and they would require acquiring land , there needs to be a re look at how agricultural yield can be increased and land under cultivation can be increased. Typically fallow land needs to be revisited to see if they can be reclaimed for agriculture. 417. While probably nothing can be done to increase the size of land holdings since the notion of population control is all but forgotten, increasing mechanization, investment in irrigation infrastructure a policy regulating cash crops that are often grown for short term profits at the cost of long term food security needs to be regulated.

The emergence of private buyers of food grains as against the erstwhile monopoly of the Food Corporation of India Mandis has been heralded as an unmitigated boom. But while these private wholesalers score in terms of service and often offer better prices, they are leading to a phenomenon where farmers by compromising house hold food security are selling off their entire harvest because of the attractive prices offered. But these retailers will offer these food grains for sale in attractive retail malls in the cities leading to a migration of food grains from the villages where they were grown to the mega cities where they would be consumed.

As we continue to be bedazzled by the spectacular economic growth of the past years, let us also recognize that over the years , the fuel the needs of the industrial economy, agricultural land has been diverted for other requirements related to establishment of industries, need of educational institutions and other myriad needs. But some where, we need to stop in our tracks and ask – by neglecting the reforms in the agricultural sector and focusing only on industrial reforms, are we bringing back the specter of famine and food shortages, which are not too distant a memory?

Religious Leaders: The Unaccountable Power Centers

When the Protestant Church of North India Bishop of Delhi, Karam Masih started deciding as the chairman of the St. Stephen’s College’s supreme council, the manner in which the college should be run and deciding on the subject of quotas and Dalit Christians, it got me thinking about the power that religious leaders wield and how they ought to be chosen. In such a sensitive subject as this, where in even fully state funded institutions, like the IITs and IIMs, the government has to tread cautiously. The Bishop how ever with out any visible effort to build consensus or consult any one made his decision as if the college was his private feudal estate. As Ramachandra Guha, the historian asks pertinently, “It is important to note here that while St Stephen's was founded by Christians; it is funded by the state. According to the Union ministry of education, fully 95 per cent of the expenses of the college are met by the University Grants Commission. Why should a college that draws so heavily on the public exchequer be allowed to choose 40 per cent of its students from 2 per cent of the country's population?”

The position of religious leaders in a secular state is ambiguous. At one level, they are no more than private citizens; at another level , as the recent controversy surrounding the head of the Dera Saccha Sauda indicates, religious leaders have a lot of clout and influence … possibly in many instances they have more authority than political leaders. In most instances, the leaders are unelected. In case of the older institutions like the various mutts, the leadership is inherited but more common these days are the god men who seem to have sprung up and acquired a following almost overnight.

Many of the religious heads in the country head huge empires worth crores, many of them by virtue of their office alone and not because of any management merit they might possess. Most religious leaders in India hold office at the tip of a very narrow support base and yet their decisions and actions be it Baba Ram Rahim Singh dressing up and aping Guru Gobind Singh or A Bishop with months to go before his retirement suddenly dispensing wisdom on reservation and quotas.

Mahants and Bishops and Imams and the like may preside over the fortunes of prestigious institutions set up by religious trusts only because of the religious office they hold. In case of the educational institutions, the religious clergy may preside over the fortunes of institutions into which they might themselves be unfit to gain admission had they been in the positions of students in these institutions. The clergy preside over several institutions and their valuable properties and make key policy decisions, often without any demonstrable skills or training to do so

Unelected leaders, be it in religion or politics are a bane. But typically political despots are more easily overthrown than religious leaders who wield a more mystic and other worldly grip on their followers. The gurudwara reform movement of the Akalis was launched in the early twentieth century to free up gurudwaras from the clutches of despotic mahants. The Christian reformation in Europe happened for similar reasons as did several reform movements within India itself, be it the Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission and several others. But religious despotism and stranglehold like weeds seem to keep coming back in every generation.

In most situations, there is little that can be done. It is indeed a pity that Institutions and ashrams and establishments that most professionally managed set ups would hire experienced managers to run are managed by religious figure heads that may be well versed in rites and rituals but know little else. In India often , politics and religion seem to be the last refuge of the scoundrel and the ones who fit nowhere are the ones often the most blinded like in Hans Christian Anderson’s “ The Emperor’s new Clothes” be it cloaked in dummy robes of a Guru or a Bishop carrying a miter and cassock.

Mean while as the constituency of the Church of North India elects a successor in a democratic manner to the retiring Karam Masih, it is to be hoped that they will elect some one who is appropriately clothed with the robes of dignity, wisdom and godliness, some one who the secular world does not disdain as semi literate and unworthy of arbitrating in complex matters. The country is need of good and godly religious leaders, who are genuine conscience keepers for the nation and not paper mache versions of the typical politicians we see every day. May be the Christian community , typically understood to be progressive will show the way and elect some one we can all look up to as the personification of what a religious leader ought to be