Friday, December 12, 2008

Techie Husbands and the Dowry Index

When reading up about a home loan, some time back, I noticed one common piece of advice all around; that a housing loan was a long term product and ought not to make decisions and choices merely by looking at the economic climate of the time. Over the 15-20 time period horizon over which a home loan usually operates, lots of things would happen; politically and economically.

And sure enough, in the couple of years that have passed by, Home loans first kept going down and every body wanted a floating rate of interest , then they started going up and up and up , and now they seem to be coming down again, albeit, a lot slower than many of us would have liked.

Some thing that lasts longer than houses and flats or at least is meant to traditionally are marriages and it seems that they are guided in the same manner insofar as the marriage alliance market is concerned. According to a report in the Hindustan Times, the current economic meltdown has not spared the matrimonial market and the “Dowry Index”. According to the report, the most sought after husbands in the country are no longer the folks in the IT sector; the tide it would seems has turned against them and the eternal favorites – the civil services are back in the reckoning at the top of the pile.

Some thing that is unfortunate though is that the insidious business of giving dowry is not going away with the more “modern” professions, only their positions in the hierarchy is shifting. One could have had the right to expect that the newer professions would come unencumbered with the baggage that some of the older professions have and would be socially progressive and gender sensitive. But that has not unfortunately happened. Like any newly listed company at the Stock Exchange, the emerging professions have found their place in the sun and have acquired a value that they now demand on the matrimonial market.

Sadly though the fact that the newly created professions are gender neutral in many ways hasn’t done any thing to dent the pernicious dowry system. Sangeeta Gupta, VP, Nasscom, had said in 205 that in the software industry, the male to female ratio is 76:24. However, by 2007, this ratio was likely to be 65:35. The trend is likely to continue and in fact gain momentum. But IT industry sources have also claimed the larger numbers of women in the sector not withstanding “gender relations have been largely ignored in studies of offshore software development. Much of the labour process is highly labour-intensive and is seen to breed a ‘masculine culture‘ as technical skill is intimately entwined with masculinity.”

What makes the story particularly unpalatable is the fact that in the older and more “established” professions, women were typically not expected to join in as employees – the Railways, the Armed Forces and the old school corporate would be a good example. But in the “new generation” professions, no such legacy exists and women and men work and are employed on relatively level playing fields. But that sadly has done nothing for the dowry system which carries on unaffected with the dowry index going up and down incorporating and imitating the vagaries of the economy into the unrelenting demands of society.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Faith Journey of Chand Muhammad

Why do people convert and what are the foul motivations of those who do is a question that comes up for frequent speculation. So while people are still frothing at the mouth at the recent conversion to Islam of former Deputy Chief Minister of Haryana, Chander Mohan, the answer is worth investigating. It has all the ingredients of a pot boiler. Bhajan Lal, the wily former chief minister has perhaps done the smart and politically correct thing by distancing himself from his son and his conversion by disowning him from the family.

But jokes apart, the story of Chander Mohan, the eldest son of former Haryana Chief Minister, Bhajan Lal is worth recounting for a reason. Chander Mohan was already married and had two children when he got to know a lady by the name of Anuradha Bali, a former Deputy Advocate General in Punjab. After an acquaintance of about five years, they landed up at a TV station on December 7th to announce that they had both converted to Islam and had subsequently got married according to Islamic law. Chander Mohan had become Chand Muhammad and Anuradha Bali had become Mrs. Fiza.

The story of Chand Muhammad and Fiza who have developed faith in Allah in rather odd circumstances explain the more common and earthy reasons for conversion that most people have…..the inducements and enticements are there for all to see and examine….. reasons that are beyond control and regulation by any Freedom of Religion Act enacted any where in the country.

If only we would get politics out of the way, we would soon recognize that just as few conversions are for spiritual reasons, few are also at the other extreme for crass political reasons. There was of course a time when all or most conversions happened because of purely pious reasons. There was also a time when a lot of conversions happened because of purely political reasons – possibly in the middle ages. But today the reasons for an apparent change in one’s faith and belief are far simpler and therefore paradoxically more complex to interpret. The journey from Mohan to Muhammad has got shorter; even more brazen but not much simpler to understand.

The sad thing about conversions today is that the individual story behind each conversion – with all its motives, drama, pain, anguish as well as ecstasy are completely concealed. It is presented as a conspiracy full of social and political intrigue, funded exclusively by American dollars or Middle Eastern petro dollars. Well this is not to say that these kind of monetary incentives and tools do not exist or have no influence at all. But in every conversion of every individual, genuine or not, driven by love of lucre or not, caused by inducement or fraud or not, there is a human element, which is no longer considered of any value; for we are so busy chasing the foreign hand – or is it the hidden hand?

Whether the reasons for a conversion are the most sublime or the crassest, it is, was and will bean individual phenomena. Whether it is to gain a new wife, a new job or a new identity, who is to define an inducement? And for those interested, we can now follow the faith journey of Fiza and Chand Muhammad to observe if they become the new pillars of Islamic piety.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Ayodha, Dec 6th

I was in Mathura on the 6th of December, 1992 when I heard the news of the Babri Masjid was being demolished and the first thought was if there would be rioting and firing and all these disturbances that they are usually associated. After all the Krishna Janma Bhumi was next on the list of shrines to be recovered.

Sixteen years have passed by since that day. Days then were not marked as 9/11 and 26/11 or else 6/12 would have been legend by now, as a day not just black marked for all the things that the day has any way come to be associated with but also as the day when a section of our own people literally took hammer and tongs and smashed a piece of our own heritage and history.

The towering Bamian Buddhas in Afghanistan were also similarly destroyed in March 2001. These giant statues had been standing since about the 5th century AD and had withstood ravages of time and invasions through the centuries. Then one fine morning, the Taliban leadership decided that these images were not in consonance with the spirit of Islam and off they went. The way Khaleid Husseini describes the statues in his book The Kite Runner where he talks about how he went picnicking there as a child with his father and then the giant vacuum in the hillside that appeared when he read on the news that the statues had been demolished.

This post is not about fundamentalism or terrorism or communal divides or any thing like that which it could be. It is simply about the way in which we view our history and culture and the way we seem to presume that with a few blows of the hammer, we can shape or alter our history and our legacy. No one knows conclusively as to who really had constructed the mosque – Babur or his commander or any one else, but does it matter? Just as no one knows the exact spot where Ram was born or Krishna was born but do they matter, they are venerated any way, so the mosque that was destroyed on the 6th of December was part of our past.

Similar thoughts could be said of the attack on the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. May be those involved were foreign nationals or not , the picture is still muddled on that point but the fact here is that when the Taj Mahal Hotel was built in 906, there was of course only one country – India. The hotel – a potent, very visible symbol of Indian nationalistic pride and entrepreneurship, was once considered the finest hotel in Asia and was the first building to be electrified in the country. The damage to the building s, antiques, library and other memorabilia are still being assessed but it is safe enough to say that though the hotel may be repaired and reconstructed, there is no question of restoring it to its former glory.

India has no shortage of history and historical monuments. Every day, in some corner of the country some monument, some artifact is being damaged, destroyed, or encroached up on, because we have neither the money, nor it would seem the historical consciousness, to preserve and keep them to bequeath them to a future generation.

But December the 6th is a day to weep as the day when some of our own people decided that the unpalatable parts of our history – where we have lost sovereignty, lost political power and been subjugated –and all the monuments and symbols associated with them do not deserve a life ; they deserve to be physically annihilated. On the 6th of December in Ayodha, a bunch of Hindus destroyed a Muslim monument. In March 2001, a bunch of Muslims having learnt their lesson well it would seem from Ayodha, blew up the Bamian Buddhas. May be there was a direct connection between the two- may be there was not. But on both occasions, an immense piece of our heritage was lost and like Humpty Dumpty, all the world’s efforts and archaeologists can never ever bring them back to life again.

Bhopal, Dec 3rd

Rachel Carlason wrote her epic book called “Silent Spring” in 1962. The book exposed the hazards of the pesticide DDT, eloquently questioned humanity’s faith in technological progress and helped set the stage for the environmental movement. It is reckoned that Silent Spring was to the environmental movement, what Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to slavery or “To Kill a Mockingbird” was to racial discrimination.

In rural communities where household food security is always an issue, increasing the productivity of the land has always been an issue. The Green revolution of the late sixties and seventies ushered in an era where India became able to feed its own people after centuries of famine and deprivation. In the immediate post independence era, India depended so heavily on PL 480 food imports from the United States that it was often termed a “ship to mouth “ existence as food grains were freighted out barely after the ships had docked. The Green Revolution changed all that … for a time.

In the West, where food security hasn’t been an issue in large measure since the Irish potato famines of the 19th century, the emergence of the environmental lobby did not create any immediate difficulties; perhaps was even welcome. But in india, barely having overcome food shortages a decade ago and still living off he Public Distribution System – (ill the early nineties, the ration card was the unique identity document of Indians – not the PAN card or the voter ID), an inevitable clash of paradigms resulted.

The agronomists (not unjustifiably) were focussed on consolidating the gains of the green revolution and busy spreading the message of hybrid seeds and the increased use of pesticides and fertilizer, coupled with lesser dependence on monsoon irrigation and increased dependence on dams and canals for irrigation. The fledgling environmental movement was saying what could be construed to be just the opposite – talking of soil degradation, the menace of pesticides, the many dangers of big dams and the human as well as the economic and environmental causes involved.

Then Bhopal happened – on Dec 3rd 1984, when leaks from a pesticide plant in Bhopal killed many thousands …. 3000 immediately according to Wikipedia followed by many more in the months and years to come. Shortly thereafter in 1986, the Chernobyl, nuclear plant disaster happened and environmental concerns became big ticket.

Bhopal was a seminal event not just because it signalled the beginning of the time when environmental concerns began to be taken seriously but also because it was with the agitation to demand compensation from the owners of the pesticide plant –Union Carbide, that militant NGO activism became known. Hitherto, NGO activism did happen, but it was more of the peaceable, some what docile Gandhian variety. It was the many activists who came together around Bhopal who provided NGO work, till now part volunteerism and philanthropic and part academic, an edge that was if not quite violent, certainly very confrontational with the State. It would be many of these very same groups, that would later form the core of the anti globalization movement.

Many of the issues associated with the Bhopal gas leakage tragedy have never been resolved, and never will be. India has had many more tragedies; questionably more complex, if not bigger. Even many of the doctrinal issues will remain unresolved. Have the agricultural scientists with their obsession with high yields and more crops won? Or have the environmentalists with their own fad for all things organic – suicidal fad agronomists will say; for India is now a billion plus and with land under agricultural yielding place to airports, houses and malls, increasing productivity is about the only way out. These issues will continue to debate in the foreseeable future till one or the other lobby decisively wins; and that is unlikely to be any time soon. And till that happens, Bhopal will continue to be invoked. In that sense, Bhopal is yesterday’s story. It is also tomorrow’s.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Bhopal, Dec 3rd .......

Rachel Spring wrote her epic book called “Silent Spring” in 1962. The book exposed the hazards of the pesticide DDT, eloquently questioned humanity’s faith in technological progress and helped set the stage for the environmental movement. It is reckoned that Silent Spring was to the environmental movement, what Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to slavery or “To Kill a Mockingbird” was to racial discrimination.

In rural communities where household food security is always an issue, increasing the productivity of the land has always been an issue. The Green revolution of the late sixties and seventies ushered in an era where India became able to feed its own people after centuries of famine and deprivation. In the immediate post independence era, India depended so heavily on PL 480 food imports from the United States that it was often termed a “ship to mouth “ existence as food grains were freighted out barely after the ships had docked. The Green Revolution changed all that … for a time.

In the West, where food security hasn’t been an issue in large measure since the Irish potato famines of the 19th century, the emergence of the environmental lobby did not create any immediate difficulties; perhaps was even welcome. But in india, barely having overcome food shortages a decade ago and still living off he Public Distribution System – (ill the early nineties, the ration card was the unique identity document of Indians – not the PAN card or the voter ID), an inevitable clash of paradigms resulted.

The agronomists (not unjustifiably) were focussed on consolidating the gains of the green revolution and busy spreading the message of hybrid seeds and the increased use of pesticides and fertilizer, coupled with lesser dependence on monsoon irrigation and increased dependence on dams and canals for irrigation. The fledgling environmental movement was saying what could be construed to be just the opposite – talking of soil degradation, the menace of pesticides, the many dangers of big dams and the human as well as the economic and environmental causes involved.

Then Bhopal happened – on Dec 3rd 1984, when leaks from a pesticide plant in Bhopal killed many thousands …. 3000 immediately according to Wikipedia followed by many more in the months and years to come. Shortly thereafter in 1986, the Chernobyl, nuclear plant disaster happened and environmental concerns became big ticket.

Bhopal was a seminal event not just because it signalled the beginning of the time when environmental concerns began to be taken seriously but also because it was with the agitation to demand compensation from the owners of the pesticide plant –Union Carbide, that militant NGO activism became known. Hitherto, NGO activism did happen, but it was more of the peaceable, some what docile Gandhian variety. It was the many activists who came together around Bhopal who provided NGO work, till now part volunteerism and philanthropic and part academic, an edge that was if not quite violent, certainly very confrontational with the State. It would be many of these very same groups, that would later form the core of the anti globalization movement.

Many of the issues associated with the Bhopal gas leakage tragedy have never been resolved, and never will be. India has had many more tragedies; questionably more complex, if not bigger. Even many of the doctrinal issues will remain unresolved. Have the agricultural scientists with their obsession with high yields and more crops won? Or have the environmentalists with their own fad for all things organic – suicidal fad agronomists will say; for India is now a billion plus and with land under agricultural yielding place to airports, houses and malls, increasing productivity is about the only way out. These issues will continue to debate in the foreseeable future till one or the other lobby decisively wins; and that is unlikely to be any time soon. And till that happens, Bhopal will continue to be invoked. In that sense, Bhopal is yesterday’s story. It is also tomorrow’s.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sounds of Silence

One of the things that stand out a bit starkly is the relative silence of the minority groups in condemning the recent anarchy in Mumbai. This is not to say that Muslim and Christian or other minority groups have stayed silent necessarily, but if they did speak up and condemn all that happened, the voices were perhaps not that loud enough.

By not speaking out at moments of national mourning and grief – if mourning is the word, they run the risk of marginalisation and being labeled as sectarian – which of course some but not all are. While being concerned about the fate and welfare of your own people is important, it is unhealthy if that happens or appears to happen at the expense of a larger concern and identification with one’s fellow human beings and citizens.

After all, terror is no respecter of faith or ethnicity or any of the recognised markers of identity – at last count 44 Muslims were killed and 35 injured in last week’s Mumbai blasts. Of course this piece isn’t about Muslims alone; it is merely a handy example from a context where all leads uncovered so far are leading to people who claim to be acting inspired by that particular faith and that of course is unfortunate.

Should minorities be in particular being asked to proclaim their solidarity by being loud and vocal? Is that a healthy thing to ask for or expect? Probably not. But perhaps eminently desirable; partly because the voices that were decrying the events at Kandmahal and Batla House were loud and vociferous and suddenly when those voices become quiet in the face of an equally colossal tragedy, if not more, the silence looks deafening.

But this is not about Mumbai and how to react to that either. It is merely to amplify the human identity that we fundamentally share and pay lip service to and ever so often love to forget

t is merely to amplify the human identity that we fundamentally share and pay lip service to and ever so often love to forget.

And so Hindus who speak up only when Hindu terrorist groupings are unearthed and seek to justify them as cultural terrorists count. So do Christian leaders who lament only when one of their flocks is in trouble in Orissa or else where. As do militants from the North East who find a common religious faith not good enough and called Bandhs at the slightest perceived slights to their ethnic (and only their) ethnic pride. Silence is also cruel when North Indians react only when one of their own is lynched or killed. And of course it is cruel when Maharasthrians only worry about their own home grown Marathi manoos.

Is it wrong to care about your own and air your own slights? No, of course not. Especially when it is a matter of minorities, in insensitive times, if you don’t care about your own, may be no one will. But there is a problem if we all suddenly start retreating into our fortresses and peep out of the ramparts looking out through our spy glasses for just our own kind. For then, we have to conclude that we are not just short sighted but truly blind!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Proud to be Indian....

Airtel has a new jingle. “Proud to be Indian”is the by line … followed a little later by the fine print …” Proud by Bharati”. The advert sounded good to hear till the other day. But now it kind of jars in the ear. Not that I am not proud to be an Indian any more- make no mistake, I still am but there is some thing of an embarrassment that is pricking me since the Mumbai incidents of the last few days.

The jingle talks about harnessing the power of a billion people but some times it looks like a fitting illustration of the Biblical “Sheep without a shepherd”. Actually at last count, we were 1.2 billion people and growing but it would seem that all those numbers don’t count for much. If people and we are not talking of straying fishermen clad in a loin cloth here; but people with the most evil of intentions setting sail in a boat or a ship, landing casually on the coast and then spreading themselves across the city and spread mayhem.

Law abiding citizens face a million harassments every day and they have learnt to take it all in their stride. Be it a family outing with a movie in the multiplex, or a shopping trip to the mall or boarding a flight in the airport , you need to be prepared to be frisked, empty out your luggage, not carry this or not carry that and be subjected to a hundred inconveniences every day. And people have got used to it over time. And yet any blooming terrorist – doesn’t matter what their ideology is or from where what accent they speak Hindustani in, can just saunter across without as much as a by your leave…. And no body stops them, forget about stopping them… no one even notices that they are there.

We make a lot of noise about illegal Bangladeshi migrants in the country. This is not to say that they should be condoned or nothing ought to be done about them. But what comparison is a large bunch of illiterate and unskilled refuges from Bangladesh or else where who are here because they would be starving in their home land or may be even executed or imprisoned in their home land – like say refugees from Myanmar compared to the bunch of ideologically committed killers. People from the poorer neighbors who are making a living cleaning our toilets or washing our dishes are hounded out like cattle and deported while those who kill and murder our people and vandalize our heritage – (those who do not know the history of how the Taj Mahal Hotel came to be built ought to read that up in Wikipedia) can simply saunter into our coast as if on a cruise and try to wipe it off the map.

Of course there are elements to be proud of in all this and the press and television channels have done the right thing by paying tribute to the many unsung heroes of Mumbai. But the irony is that the real irony is that the real heroes will remain unsung – after the Last Post has resonated out and the mourning and funerals are over, the unsung will be required to retreat into their conventional silence. And those people we really need to be proud of, the ones who don’t give press conferences; whom television channels don’t interview will once again disappear into the proud woodwork. Proud to be Indian – yes; proud to be Bharatiya, yes – but proud of the right people —- like the memorial to the Unknown Soldier; we need a way to honor the unknown citizens of all hues – the ones who really make us proud to be an Indian

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Faith at the Stock Exchange : The Dharma Index

Although only close to two percent of Indians invest in stocks the sensex occupies awesome media and public space. It ups and downs are reported across the length and breadth of the country and over numerous television channels and news papers. It is as if the sensex does not merely mirror the economic health of the nation but its numerous intangible complexities too.

If mathematical tools are indeed so useful that they can calculate just about anything, then they can perhaps measure something as nebulous as morality and righteousness? Well it appears that they can and sometime earlier this year, a tool appeared under the auspices of the venerable financial news powerhouse Dow Jones & Company. The company has launched new “dharma indexes” to track the stocks of companies that observe the values of dharma-based religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

The principle of dharma contains precepts relevant to good conduct, but also the implicit requirement of mindfulness about the sources of wealth — and therefore responsible investing,” says Nitesg Gor, the CEO OF Dharma Investments, a private equity firm that is partnering Dow Jones in rolling out the index. Shorn of CEO speak, it really means that Dow Jones is now capable of measuring a company’s ethics and moral conduct and will accordingly enable it to advise its clients to invest in companies that uphold high ethical and moral standards. Implicit of course is the assumption that ethical business practices translate in to good business returns in the long run; if not in the short run. Remember that neither Dow Jones, nor Dharma Investments nor their clients are into philanthropy!

The Dharma index is no joke. Review committees of religious leaders and scholars will screen companies’ environmental policies, corporate governance, labour relations and human rights, among other measure. By upholding the premise of dharma, companies will demonstrate conscientious practices about the groundwork of wealth and in turn support equally conscious investing.

While Shariah based indices and investment practices have been around for a while, largely stemming out of roots in the Islamic banking, they are somewhat easier to implement, since Islamic law is codified and therefore relatively black and white in its interpretation. But codifying and then tracking righteousness and the concept of ethical duty in a dry, mechanical way and making business decisions would be an interesting path to follow.

May be one day some one will replicate and customize this tool for nations to use and mirror themselves against a code. Rating agencies like Standard and Poor would then regulate Indian notions like rajdharma and raajneeti and Ram Rajya and then rate them from time to time with regular reviews and assessments. In a world and time that measures the GNP and GDP and of late, the human development index; this would be a fascinating development in a very materialistic world.
The closest tool there is today that resembles any thing like the Dharma Index, is Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index, which acknowledges that it takes a lot more than wealth to create and generate happiness and has been measuring the happiness of its people for years even though it has never become really popular.

As a parting shot, if India, the nation that is – and not just the entity often called India inc. were to be assessed on the Dharma index, where would it find a place ? On the higher echelons or the lower? Furthermore, every day here we find news that the Sensex is plummeting new depths. Would it be true of the state of Dharma in the country too, were the Dharma index to track it?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Leprosy : The shadow lingers

One of the hallmarks of a developing and progressive society is the degree to which it is inclusive – inclusive of minorities, marginalized and other vulnerable sections of society who may normally not expect to find a place under the sun. Such a place of equality is what the Indian constitution guarantees in Article 14(equality) and Article 15(no discrimination)

It is this provision that one takes shelter under to fight for one’s rights; whether it be gay activists, or those who are fighting discrimination against one’s HIV status. And yet, in the gargantuan labyrinths of the Indian states, discrimination is in built in to our laws itself; effectively legitimizing them.

Usually it is assumed that the law is ahead of times when it comes to social legislation for it is understood that while society has many obscurantist and divisive influences, law makers at least in theory are above such influences and will enact laws that are progressive and inclusive. That was how laws that made Sati illegal or raised the age of marriage got into the statute books ; not because society as such was ready for them but because legislators of the time thought beyond their times and into an equitable future.

So what is one to make of the recent Supreme Court ruling that those leprosy patients cannot contest a civic election or hold municipal office in Orissa state? The case was brought to court by two men who were elected to a civic body in Orissa in 2003, but were later disqualified as they had leprosy. The Orissa Municipal Act of 1950 bars people suffering from tuberculosis or leprosy from holding such posts. “The legislature in its wisdom has thought it fit to retain such provisions in the statute in order to eliminate the danger of the disease being transmitted to other people from the person affected,” Supreme Court judges CK Thakker and DK Jain said in their ruling,

In the colonial era, the central government passed the Lepers Act of 1898, which provided legal provision for forcible confinement of leprosy sufferers in India. A hundred and more years have passed by ; politically India is an independent state, has become a signatory to the UN resolution which says discrimination against leprosy patients must be ended. Medically, leprosy is detected early and thanks to a multi drug regime, cured early too. And yet a few years short of the second decade of the 21st century, piles of archaic legislation keep those who happened to have contracted leprosy at some point on the margins of society.

The Life Insurance Corporation Act of 1956, which specifies a higher premium to the leprosy-affected, is one such law. The Special Marriage Act, Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act 1939, The Hindu Marriage Act, 1956 or the India Divorce Act, 1869, all have provisions for divorce on the grounds of a partner suffering from incurable and virulent leprosy. Similarly, the Juvenile Justice Care and Protection Act 2000 says a child found to be affected by leprosy should be dealt with separately.

A leprosy patient cannot stand for local body or panchayat elections in states like Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.This prohibition extends to tuberculosis patients in Orissa’s Panchayati Raj Act. Further, if a member of local office contracts tuberculosis or leprosy during his/her tenure he/she may be declared ineligible for the job. While there are heaps of organizations fighting for the rights of those who are HIV positive, and there is pressure to constantly enact laws that are sensitive to some one who is HIV positive. There is a ringing silence when it comes to the rights of those who are being victimized for having once contracted a disease that is now completely curable.

Mahatma Gandhi, in his life time had made tending to leprosy patients and bandaging to their wounds as a personal initiative in his mission to create a society that was inclusive. Sixty years after his death, the work of fighting stigma and discrimination in alls spheres of course continues; but more pertinently in leprosy; the battle is even against an insensitive State and the laws it has kept on the books; not only sanctioning discrimination; but actually making it legal. And that feels worse !

Friday, November 7, 2008

"Uncle Sam" ki Jai

One of the things that should be appreciated about the American system of democracy is the manner in which they are able to things to a closure. During the election campaign, they campaigned viciously and arguably as shabbily as one could with no holds barred. But within hours of the results being announced, McCain had made a very graceful speech conceding defeat and pledging full support to the man who would now be “ my president”. No further bitching or griping or whining but a simple acceptance that he and his campaign had done their best to win but that best wasn’t good enough; and now it was time to put all that behind and get back to normal living. The victorious candidate was just as magnanimous in victory – no gloating and abuse and no vindictiveness ; once in office. Of course all of this is as much a matter of the nature of the personalities involved as much of the electoral system and conventions that have evolved over two centuries of democratic evolution.

It can be argued that if the United States took that long to evolve its conventions, that much of time should surely be allowed to India too to get where the American system has got and there may be some logic in that argument too. But it would be nicer if countries did not to choose to reinvent the wheel and crystallized some conventions on the fast track. After every election in India, there is so much of bickering, grumbling and vendetta that could be avoided. Reviews reversals of the previous regime’s policies, usually for petty reasons , some times after crores of Rupees have been spent are hardly a good use of the tax payer’s money !

Political parties in India seem to have so much of venom reserved for each other ; that one wonders at the depravity of it all….. There is Mamata Banerjee throwing a spanner at West Bengal’s industrialization ; not because she cares a damn for farmers or agriculture( if the Trinamool Congress has got any policy document on agriculture or land use, it has still to be seen !) but because if industrialization had picked up , it would have meant that that Left Front government would have notched up some successes. Or look at the politics of the Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena, trying to occupy the space vacated by Bal Thackeray, who has now more or less fully retired and trying to ensure that cousin Uddhav doesn’t get to succeed. Or the abominable incident that happened the other day – if you don’t like your opponent or ideological opposite - , just spit on his face and humiliate him as strongly and as badly as you can.

The one thing to learn from the American election campaigns perhaps is the whole idea of “closure”. There may be a time in the heat and the dust of the campaign trail, when on the odd occasion, there is a hit below the belt. But the bulk of the campaign is fought around the articulation of issues – the well conducted debates, the knowledge and the erudition of the candidates, the background and the credibility of their aides and advisors. Witness the outrage for instance at the fact of Sarah Palin’s ignorance of the fact that Africa is a continent and not a country ! Who cares what politicians here know or don’t know !

But coming back to closure, when the last ballot has been cast and the results are out , the once bitter rivals were able to put rivalry behind themselves, agree that differences still remain and will remain, but come to remember that the nation is bigger than all of them and pledge to work together, putting minimal hurdles in governance. We fall a bit short there. For even as we revv up our lungs to yell full throated “ Bharat Mata ki Jai”, we are busy gathering up our bricks… for the next round of bickering and brick batting. There is a time to break down .. and we know that well, but there is also a time to build up… and we haven’t quite got there yet…..

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Red : The other color of terror

The news that the convoy of Buddhadev Bhattacharya, the West Bengal chief minister escaped being mined and that naxalites are the ones being accused, will draw attention to Left wing terrorism once again. Although left wing terrorism and insurgency affects large pieces of the country, it has never had the kind of visibility that it needs to have, mostly because their terror is wielded largely in rural India where television cameras don’t whir.

This violence of course shows the level of fragmentation in the leftist movement within india over the decades and the “establishment” left – those who get to speak in parliament or the state assembly and become ministers and the others. The establishment leftists ride those white ambassadors, go to television studios and give press conferences and in states like West Bengal and Kerala, run industrial establishments that can give any traditional capitalist a run for their money.

The contradictions that are becoming evident between the ultra left and the left (ironically there was a time when the CPI (M) itself was considered ultra left!) will add another twist to the convoluted history of the communist movement of India. The Communist Party in India was founded in Kanpur on December 25, 1925 in the midst of an anti-colonial struggle which attempted changed India’s political landscape in a fundamental way. It placed on the agenda the creation of a state power of workers and peasants by workers and peasants to end all forms of oppression and exploitation.

The policies of the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Part of India (Maoist) and most other fragments of the communist movement that began 80 years ago is today a far cry from the revolutionary rhetoric posted in their web sites. The largest communist groups today are fine tuning their political positions to come to power just like any other bourgeoisie party that they supposedly have contempt for. The many fragments of the underground communists – supposedly allied to Maoist ideologies of various shades have only one thing in common – their penchant for violence.

Left wing violence( not calling it terrorism) is probably the oldest form of organized ideology terrorism that exists in India with its roots in the pre independence and immediate post independence era when BT Ranadive had launched an armed struggle in Telengana in the period around 1948-50. This was subsequently called off and Ranadive accused of “adventurism” but subsequently rehabilitated.

The next major bout of violence is now the subject of folklore and inserted the word”Naxalite” in the Indian political lexicon. It also was the first instance when insurgency and terror was successfully tackled by equally tough counter insurgency measures and state repression. State repression thought not new by this time – (it was always in use in the troubled North East), had matured enough.

Yet Naxalites were never completely wiped out, not quite. The Naxalite terror now extends to a dozen States, affecting 509 police stations. For the first time naxal activity has been recorded in two police stations in Haryana. The menace has spread to nearly 40 per cent of the country’s geographical area with the affected population going up to 35 per cent. Areas in many States, which looked too obscure to fall for naxal influence, are today witnessing naxal activity.

Although the cousins of the Naxalites in Nepal, the Maoists have been won over to the ballot, the Indian Maoists have so far resisted this – partly because they see the example of the main line communists which did join parliamentary politics and what they see of left front politics is not too inspiring or different from the bourgeoisie parties which they had sought to uproot.

Further more the government’s own response of treating this only as a law and order problem hasn’t helped very much, as it only made the Naxalites dig in their heels deeper and go further underground. One does not know where the left wing insurgents would be placed in the spectrum between cultural nationalists and plain terrorists given that this classification is religion based and the Naxalites are of course atheistic in their ideology. However, whatever it may be, given that this has been around much longer than most other forms of terror and insurgency, it wont get lost in the current melee where we seem to have time for only right wing terrorism and nothing else.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

I the Nationalist ; You the Terrorist

The Bharatiya Janata Party president has condemned the hype around the Sadhvi Pragya Singh saying that some one like her was a “cultural nationalist “and not a terrorist. There it seems is a difference and I am trying to break the code. It is a bit convoluted really ….. If you are my kind of person and you kill or maim the kind of people I dislike, then you are a buddy and you are a flag waving nationalist. But if you look different kind of name and look different or worse – dress different and speak a different kind of language, then you are my mortal enemy.

This kind of labeling can get very confusing, for before using the right wording and vocabulary is important before I can place any one. Not only that, once done, people need to constantly be aware of what ideology, people are currently professing and adjust the label accordingly to avoid becoming out of date. To quote just an instance, “nationalists” of yester year like Chagan Bhujbal or Narayan Rane or Shankar Singh Waghela are today not to be mistaken for being one but rather are pseudo secularists today. These changes happen so frequently that one can not always keep track unless one makes the effort. And using the right term could be every thing – terrorists after all deserve death by hanging, and cultural nationalists in all probability an amnesty, immunity from arrest and possibly some award of recognition.

One of the difficulties of electoral politics and democracy even is the divisiveness that the whole exercise brings. And as the elections approach closer, more the name calling and the polarization between religions, states, communities and languages. These then become symbolized based through these nomenclatures and semantics. And so it goes on, though the scars will linger long after the original provocation has come and gone.

And what to make of those who are not even nationalists – those who espouse a base kind of sub nationalism that looks base but obviously has a mass base of a kind that was waiting to be exploited. What would you call the ones lynching their own people because they speak a different language and celebrate a different festival? We protested when a couple of years ago, those who spoke Bengali were indiscriminately chased out and deported without as much a by your leave – particularly Bengalis who were of Muslim – and except for the left front government in West Bengal, the rest of the nation looked on askance. A generation ago it was the South Indians who were similarly the victims.

Although L.K. Advani, the Prime Ministerial aspirant has today said that it is not the role of the police to look at the pedigree of an accused, he could be just acting have is part as the leader of the opposition and elder statesman. Others certainly aren’t so circumspect and the Hindu Maha Sabha and the Shiv Sena have rallied around the cultural nationalist and it is not very different from the various Jammats coming together in the name of Muslim solidarity. While the posturing of both groups of people is unfortunate, it is at least possible to understand the ghetto like thinking of the minority muslim community. But it would appear now that the majority community – not withstanding their huge numbers are just as insecure and juvenile in their responses in classifying different classes of citizens differently.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

JNU Elections : Somethig to be learnt here

don’t think that the Lyngdoh commission had Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in mind when they put together the guidelines to manage university elections in the country. The much larger Delhi University certainly, and definitely the many universities of North India known for violent student unrest like Lucknow or Aligarh may be. But by putting in umbrella restrictions across the board, the commission’s dragnet has pulled in the elections of JNU, which although unabashedly elitist in character, were at least conducted in a manner that elections ought to be conducted any where- with reasoned debates and discussions and eminent speakers and thinkers pitching in for their respective ideologies and then of course- finally the vote.

Of course one could wonder what use debates on climate change or gender based budgeting or neo colonialism might be on a university campus where arguments ought to be about clean toilets or the quality of the mess food. But by raising issues in a campus election that are well above the narrow university or hostel interests, these elections having teaching us about what elections really ought to be – not quite forgetting the local muhalla politics, but very clearly recognizing that there is a bigger world out there and the concerns of that bigger world matter in our little world even if we don’t quite see that bigger world and don’t quite understand all that there is to understand about what goes on in it.

That education is important for all of us. For so often our elections are dominated by the pettiest of issues and the larger sense of connectedness, of belonging to a shared world, competing for shared resources and sharing a shared fortune escape us; for they are never discussed; never debated, never conversed; except in the paneled world of academics. And if at all, at any point, the common man gets to know that there is indeed a world outside his or her immediate domestic concerns, it is at election time, when people turn up, if not exactly at their door step, at least in the their neighborhood, and make speeches in which potentially at least, issues of global or national import can touched on.

I have never been enamored of the numerous street corner meetings that the CPI (M) and its partners routinely organizes all over Kolkata. The sound system is loud and crackly, the chairs are rickety and the seating and the crowds spill over out into the streets. But one thing the leftists have done – they have ensured through their dull, dowdy and yet well prepared speeches that even the casual passer by pausing for a few minutes is exposed to a grounding of world affairs that he on his own might never have got.

Admittedly the world view presented is biased and there is a lot more to be said on practically any subject than what the comrades present; but a kind of political education is beginning to happen. The speech and the conversation in these discourses isn’t about the shortage of rice in the ration shop alone though this too would be taken up. It is of course up to the other parties now to counter the leftist world view with other ways of looking at the world and how well they take up the cudgels and make use of this opportunity and that is a different matter. But an election based on rational argument and debate, rather than the battle of a bunch of goons and hoodlums is JNU’s contribution to India’s culture of elections… And that relatively important contribution is worth preserving; if only because the commodity is so scarce.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A ride to the moon

Last week, I was on my way to Champa, a small sized town in Chattisgarh. After I reached Raipur, my host told me that we would be staying over in Raipur for the night and then proceed in the morning. In the morning , I was presented two options ; either to travel via the highway via Bilaspur and face massive traffic jams or take unpaved roads through villages and have a relatively traffic free ride. The foot note was that the highway wasn’t great either – it was paved but in large chunks, there were potholes. There is no chance of them being repaired any time soon, while we were travelling, election dates in Chattisgarh were announced, the Model code of conduct kicked in and ensured that every thing and every one froze in its tracks.

The purpose of my visit was to examine a civil society initiative which has been working together with initiatives such and the government’s National Rural Health Mission, the World Bank funded Chattisgarh District Poverty Reduction Project and others to improve the quality of life in the area. Here we aren’t talking of quality life as in having access to credit cards, ATMs, broadband connections, mobile phone connectivity and all that. Champa and the district of Janjgir-Champa are known for deep-rooted social inequities and political realities which work towards extensive exploitation of tribal labor. Wage rates are low and differentiated between men and women. Even in agriculturally advanced areas, immigration keeps the wage rates depressed. Widespread incidence of bonded labor has been reported.

We were discussing all this stuff and the World Bank estimate that 80% of India’s 1.1 billion people live on less than $2 a day, meaning more than one-third of the world’s poor live here. One in three Indians lives on less than $1 a day, meaning they qualify as extremely poor. It was then that the news of our having launched the Chandrayyaan, India’s first unmanned space shuttle to the moon was launched to be greeted with hysteria and joy approaching the second round of nuclear explosions at Pokhran conducted by the NDA government. India Today’s Raj Chengappa compared the satellite to a comet and the sound of its rocket engines to the music of a Rock Band. The Times of India shrieked that Obama had stopped breathing in the middle of his campaign to take note and say that the launch was a wake up call for America and that from now on the US would have to sweat to retain its commanding leading the space arena. We read all that and then craned our necks out in to the star lit village night wondering if we would get a glimpse of the yaan as it swung by.

But this is not a matter of expending money on what one might say are India’s chronically deprived underbelly. Even as I write, the press is reporting about hoe the soldiers in Siachen are being issued old and even torn clothing because new one’s haven’t been procured and the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report to parliament reveals that most of India’s submarine fleet is at the moment incapacitated and in the event of a war today, the Indian Navy is unlikely to be able to afford any protection to the country’s shores. With serious slippages in the induction plan, the navy is left with an ageing fleet with more than 50 percent of submarines having completed 75 percent of their operational life and some already outliving their maximum service life.

Well, from the point of view of scientific advancement, it may be very well and good to send a mission to the moon – not just an unmanned vehicle but even a manned vehicle. But what ought to be a nation’s supreme priority? Would it not be to ensure that its citizens live well, eat well and that it is capable enough to defend its borders and look after is soldiers who are deployed on is frontiers? In many ways unfortunately, the way we make political decisions on national spending is often dictated by emotion as if exploding a few bombs or sending up a man on the moon would make us world power. But the real indicator of a world power is not in this external symbolism but in how wealthy and happy and secure its citizens are – and it is to that end that we should be spending our resources.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Out to grab a billon votes

The agency Janagraha’s One Billion Votes campaign is timely. In particular it attempts to address the apathy that many middle class urban people demonstrate towards their civic duties and responsibilities while assuming naively that things would always work. The task is ambitious and labor intensive for the Jaago Re campaign does not merely educate the youth abut their fundamental duty as citizens to vote but also facilitates the process. Interested voters can actually enroll their names on line and then take a print out and submit the form to the local election office and Jagoo Re promises to track the applicant’s details till his or her name appears on the electoral rolls eventually.

The campaign has evolved from last year when it began airing advertisements on television provoking debates on the kind of politicians that should run the country and in what way they should be equipped in terms of education, experience and commitment. In a country where candidates are voted in either because of their personal charisma or their party affiliation, these were and are indeed path breaking questions and relevant across the country and not just the urban constituency where Janagraha is primarily engaged.

The advertisement now airing on television, challenges the youth to be involved in the decision making processes that go into shaping the manner in which the country is governed and begin doing that by not using the public holiday declared on election day to take in a movie or catch up with friends, but first do what is required – go and vote. The imagery use is strong : if one election day, you haven’t chosen to go and cast your vote and are instead doing other things, then you are asleep and need a wake up call is a strong one.

Hopefully the campaign will evolve further as Janagraha’s vision is much more than herding the electorate to the polling station, though that is a very important. Swati Ramanathan, the co founder of Janagraha states that a central tenet of their vision of democracy is that the electorate should not merely elect their representative but also remain engaged with them in the post election scenario and work to make elected representatives accountable and answerable on a long term basis.

How this is achieved will be an object of interest to many ; after all a major reason for the apathy of many towards the electoral process is that irrespective of who is elected, there is no institutional and formalized mechanism to enforce accountability from the elected representative. Once elected, the chasm between the electorate and the politician invariably widens to the point the electorate has little access to the one he or she has elected. Possibly these concerns will find expression in Janagraha’s other efforts in advocacy ; another of their thesis is that India’s ddemocratic institutions and processes are out-dated and do not adequately reflect the progressive needs of India of the 21st century, Janaagraha’s advocacy efforts are focused on structural reforms. For scalable, sustainable change most of the reforms require institutional change backed by appropriate statutes, policies and procedures.

While this campaign caters to the entire nation, certain services of the website will initially be available for those residing in the top 35 Indian cities and towns (7 Metros and 28 Class 1 towns), which account for 30% of the urban population. Going forward these services will be made available across the country in a phased manner.

The partnership with Tata Tea will facilitate the process and provide all the necessary support needed for the mammoth project. It is a perfect example of corporate-public partnership aimed at bringing about meaningful change in the society and possibly will model a meaningful kismet connection between a corporate entity, civil society and the common man.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Waking up to Tata Tea

As elections begin appearing on the horizon, two socially relevant advertisements are being aired on television. Both are sponsored by Tata Tea and are a good blend of brand promotion and social content. In one of them, a candidate seeking votes approaches a home in the typical loud and boisterous style. He is asked by the young man in the house to explain his qualifications, area of competence and work experience. The politician guffaws loudly walks out asking if he was being interviewed for a job as in the background, the young man counters that indeed he was foe the politician was in the running for the biggest job of them all… the job of wanting to run a whole nation.

There is another one. In this, it is election day and a bunch of young people are hanging around making plans; no not about elections or voting or any thing like that. They are planning some thing else. They are planning to go to a movie; making the most of the public holiday that election day is. When a bunch of activists go up to them and ask them to have some tea and wake up, one of the girls perks up to say “I am not sleeping, OK? The deftly delivered punch line is “election ke din, agar aap vote nahin de rahein hain, to aap so rahein hain”.

Tata Tea’s partnership with the group Jaago Re is worth recounting. As indeed is the extremely noteworthy mission of registering and motivating one billion people or the whole of India’s adult population to vote and helping them to do so with practical tips and help. The creatively produced film is so refreshing because it makes social advertising so different from the normal patronizing messages from celebrities that we are so used to – remember Shahrukh Khan or Amitabh hectoring reluctant parents to take their kids to the immunization booth for their polio drops as the UNICEF logo hovers in the background?

The reputation and production levels of government sponsored (mostly) social messages and advertisements was such that in the days, when they were aired before the commencement of movies in cinema halls (in the pre television era mostly), people would try and time their entry into the halls after they were over. Dull and dowdy and extremely preachy in tone, they would talk down at the audience in an extremely patronizing and moralizing tone and probably put off even those inclined to listen.

By establishing and building on the link between waking up to one’s social responsibilities and waking up in the morning to a cup of Tea – (Tata Tea of course !), the commercial brand is introduced unobtrusively into the message without it ever appearing to be forced or artificial. In fact, in the film, those who are found to be oblivious of their social responsibilities as citizens of the country are deemed to be sleeping and in dire need of a cup of tea so that they can wake up and begin shouldering their duties as citizens, in the first instance by exercising their right and duty to vote! Tata Tea incidentally has produced other films with a similar mix – notably one dealing with poor road construction and another dealing with the meance of pan stains in public buildings and offices. Watch them and enjoy with a sip of Tata Tea !

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Death by Delay : The Clogged Legal System

The news that Justice Mohapatra probing the Kandmahal disturbances in Orissa has said up front that his enquiry would take a year or more even before he has started on the job is disturbing. Of course it is the norm in India for justice to crawl at the pace of a snail and for verdicts to be delivered at a glacial pace but in this instance; none can be blamed if they begin to suspect that here is a case where a kind of verdict has been delivered even before it has begun. For who knows what the political landscape will look like in a year’s time? General Elections would have been held by then and a new government would have come into power.

Is that what the Navin Patnaik government counting on? Hoping that the typical delays of Commissions of Enquiry coupled with a changed political climate would render the findings of the commission toothless? After all, the instances where enquiries have lingered are legion. The first Justice Nanavati Commission that probed the 1984 anti Sikh riots submitted its report in 2005 after 10 extensions. This was obviously years after the event when many key figures were dead or in oblivion. The Nanavati commission appointed to probe the Godhra train accident asked for 12 extensions and submitted its report six years after the accident, just weeks ago. The Liberhan commission has notched up 16 years of existence and earlier this month was given its 47th extension. There is no assurance that this would be the last.

Of course it is easy enough to exploit loopholes in the legal system, when in any case it is drowning and choking under inherent systemic flaws. The Supreme Court Registry reports that at the end of August 2008, close to 48,000 cases were awaiting a verdict from the highest court in the land. As on Jan 31, 2007, a total of 40,243 civil and criminal cases were pending there and according to statistics, the no. of such cases was around 29,000 in the start of the year 2006.

Further, as you go down the ladder, the situation gets more and more alarming. Available data shows that a total of 3,991,251 cases (3,287,037 civil cases and 704,214 criminal cases) were still pending in 21 high courts of the country till Dec 31, 2006. Pendency in subordinate courts had increased from 2.04 lakh in 1999 to 2.57 lakh in 2005. In 2006, the figure has slightly come down to 2.49 lakh. According to a rough and ready calculation, at the current speed, the lower courts, may take 124 years for clearing the cases, currently pending.

As legal education takes root in the country, it is only to be expected that litigation will slowly increase and it therefore important to ensure that alternate dispute resolution mechanisms be looked at and popularized. Some of course like the lok adalats and the consumer courts have gained some currency but their full potential is yet to be realized; a few others like arbitration have never been very popular except among corporate disputes. Many other traditional methods of arbitration and dispute resolution are outmoded and increasingly out of date. The typical reaction – to increase the number of courts, judges et al is only a partial solution as this route will only keep increasing the burden on the tax payer and the exchequer. Till that time, and till an alternate dispute resolution mechanism comes together, justice delayed will continue to be justice denied – whether it is in a politically motivated enquiry commission or the pettiest of cases in the small causes court.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Monsters in the Mind

Since wars begin in the minds of men…, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” – So begins the loftily worded preamble of UNESCO in defence of its mandate to further the cause of education and culture around the world. And perhaps justifiably so…. any one who has read the latest India Today issue peeping into the minds of terrorists, Zia ur Rehman, Sauquib and Muhammad Shakeel can find it to be quite a terrifying read.

The three are a chilling example indeed of how war or terror – whatever be its ultimate expression does indeed begin in the minds of humans. But the worrying thing is that the armaments necessary for such a battle are not readily available in the country and so this decisive battlefield may be getting conceded by default. If the mind is the decisive battlefield where things happen, then some attention needs to be paid to the mind of the Indian people and its health.

But what has the mnd got to do with rising fanaticism and one of the most visible manifestation of which is terror ? has got to do with the matter of terrorism, you might ask. Well look at this : According to a study on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in children and adolescents affected by the communal violence in Gujarat, conducted in February 2006 by mental health professionals belonging to the Psychiatry Department of B J Medical College and Civil Hospital, Ahmedabad, close to five percent of the 255 interviewed showed signs of the disorder even four years after the riots; 9.4 per cent suffered from depression.

The genesis of the study in itself points to a problem that has up till now been more or less ignored. According to Dr G K Vankar, head of the psychiatry department at the Civil Hospital and the principal author of the study, the research was done on the request of the non-government organisation Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). The organisation’s staff, who works with the riot-affected, felt that several children had become “rebellious”, says Vankar. “The children were not obeying their mothers, they were not studying,” he adds.

How far of a journey is from the pain and the traumatic scars of the riots to the jihadi uncovered by India Today? Not very long it would seem “We’re all equals in the jihad for Allah, but I was associated longer with the Allah ke bande (men of God). He was happy with the way things were happening. A handful of Allah ke bande were able to paralyse the economic life of such a big country by targeting metros and nothing much could be done about it. We gave back what we were getting from them,” Shakeel says.

Could we have done any thing to retard the spread of hatred and fanaticism ? May be , if you see that a lot of indoctrintation and brain washing happens in a context where the mind is often unble to make discerning judgements and think for itself, allowing one to implant alien ideas and giving them a welcoming home

If we consider that nearly two third of persons with known mental disorders never seek help from health professionals, that is a large number. Most others utilize the services of other agencies and resort to harmful practices and keep on visiting faith healers and delay the treatment till the condition deteriorates which compels them to seek the treatment from established institutions. Stigma, discrimination and neglect prevent care and treatment reaching people.

7 percent of Indians, or around 7 crore people, suffer from mental disorder in one or the other form, but the healthcare facilities are woefully inadequate. Describing the situation as serious rights issue, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has taken up the matter with the Medical Council of India (MCI).

Well with psychiatric conditions and mental illnesses slowly creeping up the statistical ladder, it is good that that the Human Rights Commission is taking cognizance of the fact. One only hopes that it will do more than talk to the generally somnolent Medical Council and find some more active players to take note of this monster in the mind.

The views expressed in this post ar

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Miley Sur...... Mera Tumhara

I still remember the public service advertisement that Doordarshan once aired (miley sur mera tumhara…) kind. Such advertisements still air of course except that I like many millions don’t want watch Doordarshan any more or listen to All India Radio any more. Most of these advertisements were rather staid and dowdy and there was not much to commend them. Except of course the message itself. In those innocent days, we used to laugh at them and try to take a break when they came on. But I miss them now and miss them horribly. Growing up sneering at those famous “unity in diversity” advertisements and social studies lessons, any time and every time I came across them, I realize what a purpose they served and perhaps silently and unobtrusively, even in the midst of seeming derision, these messages served to knit the heart of the country together.

Perhaps those who listened and imbibed those messages inspite of every thing had managed to keep the country around and united all these years. Those advertisements came to mind again after I heard of Harbhajan Singh being censured by first the Sikhs and then the Hindus for his act of “glorifying” Ravana through his actions on a television dance show recently. It made me stop and think as to how thin the walls of tolerance are in our country today. Of course the morality brigade on Valentine’s day has always been there but preoccupied these days by our following the increasing intolerance towards Muslims and Christians, we have forgotten the chilling fact, that these days it is not enough any more to be a Hindu alone in this supposedly tolerant of other Hindu beliefs, Hindu majority secular country. No – indeed you have to be a particular kind of Hindu.

This is no defense for Harbhajan Singh and Mona Singh and their conduct. Personally I would say that shows like Ek Khiladi Ek Hasina suck any way and ought to be condemned to death for their crassness any how, whether or not the duo purported to be Ravana and Sita jamming on stage. But, Ravana has been glorified before – by Periyar Ramasway of the Dravida Kazakham in anti brahminical protests and who saw Ram as a literary and religious symbol of bigoted racism and saw the tragedy of Ravana and Sita as symbolic of the plight of the millions of Dravidians in India who were stripped off their Dravidian (Tamil) language and victimised by the caste system as Shudras (lower castes) and Panchamas (outcast - untouchables).

Even concluding that Periyar was an unconventional man and an iconoclast, it speaks of the tolerance of the times that he was able to speak and talk and write thus. Besides Periyar, even in the main stream of Hindu thought Ravana was and is eulogized in places and even this year he was honoured and praised in Allahabad as a learned Brahmin following a tradition that reports say go back at last 500 years.

For that matter, you have to be a particular kind of Muslim too to count as one. Zia Ur Rehman, one of the terrorists nabbed from Jamia Nagar and interviewed by India Today. Zia spits at hi father’s conventional piety and says that he (his father) does not know Jihad for Allah and that he would happily plant a bomb in the market where his mother buys her daily provisions because she would get a fast track to jannat that way. Peering into the mind of the young jihadists caught in Delhi is a scary thing, for what you get there is not only a particular brand of religion that they practice but also a brand that refuses to acknowledge that there is any place in the sun for any thing that is not just like them and their way of life. Scary isn’t it?

Miley Sur, Mera Tumhara the advertisement or even the song might be passé, but I guess that the relevancy of the song is probably more today then when it was first composed and sung. For even as I write and you read, almost every thing around us is all set to divide, fragment and fracture that reclusive “unity in diversity” that we once so much took for granted.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Fading Glory: Moving On and Rocking On

Saurabh Ganguly’s decision to retire from all forms of international cricket reminds me of the late Vijay Merchant, a renowned cricketer of his time and the time he chose to retire – at the peak of his career. When asked by a reporter as to “Why” Merchant turned around and told the reporter that the reason was precisely that – he wanted people to speculate constantly as to “Why”, why did Merchant retire, and not go on till the point when people began asking the question Why Not”- why is this man Merchant carrying on endlessly, when he so obviously has passed his prime?

Vijay Merchant obviously had a point but it seems when applied to Ganguly, every thing is not quite black or white- every thing is a shade of grey and looking around it seems that both sets of questions – “why” and “why not” are being asked. Did he retire too early or too late? When is it ever the right time to retire? Is there any? Should one go on for ever or if not for ever, for as long as one can, if one is clear about what will be possible and what will not be?

Taking the topic of retirement beyond Saurabh Ganguly to the common man, the discomfort of retirement today is magnified by the fact that whereas life expectancy across most sections of society has increased astoundingly, the skills that one brings to the table typically gets obsolete far more rapidly. So what is one to do? one wants to work for as long as on can, both for fulfillment, pleasure as well as the sheer necessity of earning a living for the long years that one has now to live and without the definitive assurance of any support or assistance from one’s children as was the expectation in the old days.

One can of course choose not to retire and continue on in oblivion driven and motivated by created urges provided one has the resources to do so. Dev Anand would be a suitable example. In the fifties and sixties, he was part of the trinity of Hindi Film heroes including Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and himself. Today Raj Kapoor is dead, Dilip Kumar is retired but Dev Anand at 86 has just started his new film Chargesheet and post that, he has already thought through the subject of his new film after that based on Pandit Ravi Shankar. In many ways Dev Anand has grown irrelevant as hardly any ones watches his films any more and one never knows when his film is released and where. And yet Dev Anand goes on and he has said many times over that he has no plans to retire from film making. Ever. Period.

In the end perhaps, may be we should not be talking of retirement but of retooling, of moving on into new and more relevant things … but not fading out into oblivion. Today’s generation does not value age or experience much … and yet the discernment that age brings, that experience brings, can never be replicated through case studies and lecture notes. After all life can not be simulated… it has to be lived in real time… and so be it Saurabh Ganguly or Dev Anand or the common man… We sooner or later need to vacate wherever we are now and yet as we move on… we can still ensure that we still Rock On……

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Tears are Salty

Gulzar’s then well received film “Namkeen” was released way back in 1982. The film has a cast of woman characters and the lead is Waheeda Rehman, a spectacled old lady led into manual labor by the vagaries of her husband, a sarangi player who is insatiably addicted to alcohol and the rural theatre of nautanki and though not explicitly stated, to the debauched life that such artistes were generally understood to be attracted to.

There is certain helplessness, hopelessness and a sense of doom about the manner in which the three daughters of Waheeda – Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi and Kiran Vairale carry themselves that is jarring. . Because of course, if women are really the burden they are shown to be in the film and as their own mother understands them to be, then no amount of legislation will effectively deal with the matter of women’s’ empowerment.

Waheeda’s constant lament about the “burden” of three daughters also grates for it is really a matter of how those three women who otherwise come through as extremely capable and competent have been socialized by their own mother. In her prime, Waheeda herself used to perform in Nautankis with the quick silver name of Jugnu. Undoubtedly, a burnt and singed Waheeda kept the girls in a quasi purdah and away from the beckoning arms of the nautanki arc lights but did she really succeed? Of course not.

All three daughters are maimed by this mania- Shabana very literally as the girl who can write exquisitely beautiful poetry but cannot speak, the spunky Kiran Vairale, who is the picture of docile obedience and dogged rebellion at the same time and of course Sharmila, the text book woman of sacrifice but whose sacrifice not only leaves her own life incomplete but also avails little in the context of the family she struggles to protect.

The story of Namkeen could have been a lot different if the notions of sacrifice – especially meaningless sacrifice and almost always by women had not been so prevalent. The matter of sacrifice – just how important is this or the survival of a family, a society? a society that is entirely sold over to the notion of self satisfaction is of course a matter of concern but is a society that is morbidly crucifying itself, particularly the woman are, just how healthy is that ? Is it a virtual replay of the notion of Sati- then an incineration of the body and today a casting out to the ashes of one’s emotions – a more repetitive act? - is after all a woman’s happiness in particular a trifling thing and can be and should be and is some thing that can be and is something to be glossed over? Come to think of it, just how prevalent is the notion of self giving, self effaces effacing sacrifice today? Or is something that was prevalent in the 80s of the last century and then quietly disappeared like a silent mist?

Unfortunately in society there are no grey areas for behavioral norms - all conduct and more so for women has to be interpreted in black or white although most of life is actually grey and the movie indicates that the taste of life and its inevitable tears is neither sweet nor sour… it is simply salty.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rock On : There is a price to chasing a dream

In the closing frames of the film “Rock On”, a lilting melody wafts through as the credits flash by …”kuch to arzoo kijiye… phir dekhiye, phir dekhiye………” the screen shows how the guitarist Joe (Arjun Rampal) starts a business of identifying new musical talent and his wife (Shahana Goswami) till now involved in the business of selling fish and entirely frustrated by it finally leaves the job. The other characters in the film too begin to pursue their dreams and passions that they had identified in their younger years but had then chosen to bury it deep as they left the carefree years of their youth behind….

But pursuing one’s dreams and passions is not as easy obviously or else every one would be doing it all the time and there would be no need for exhortations to this end. Indeed the biggest graveyard in the world would not be found in any cemetery but in the arena of dreams turned to ashes, passions buried deep and desires ruthlessly cut down to size before they matured enough to bear fruit.

In the film itself, Farhan Akhtar gives up his role as the lead vocalist and settles into the stressed but predictable and materially comfortable life of an investment banker. Arjun Rampal, who stays a guitarist doesn’t fare as well and he and his wife are able to make ends meet – not because his musical passion pays off but because his wife begins a business of supplying fish to Mumbai’s big and happening parties- she detests the work and the manner of people she has to deal with and the way she has to conduct the business ; but in the end – because Joe is a wonderful guitarist but a terrible sense of career, it is her job that puts food on their table.

The secret of a successful passion chase is persistence. Indeed life as such is about persistence ; but persistence is rather a hollow word when the battle that you are fighting is one that you are fighting alone. In Farhan Akhtar’s case, his father’s intense disapproval of his son’s career as a musician makes him don the conventional role of a banker and a similar lack of support from his family ensures that Purab Kohli ends up as an assistant in his father’s jewellery shop.

Life as the makers of “Rock On” seem keen to emphasize is about second chances all right but it is also about getting the right kind of support to ensure that one is able to capitalize on the chances that come one’s way. Without that support – be it from peers as it happens in the film or be it from any other source, one may get any number of chances in life but they will never get us any where at all.

Most of us do not need to be told to Rock On. We want to; we would love to; we want to spend our life rocking…. It is just that many of us have been stopped in our tracks by blows that have left us lame and crippled…. And now no second chance or second wind is enough to convince us that chasing our passions is a good idea at all…..

Saturday, September 20, 2008

How our policmen live and work.....

The death of the Delhi Police special cell officer, Inspector Mohan Chand in an encounter operation on Sunday should be interesting to reflect on for it demonstrates the often thankless conditions the police forces often work under. Of course this short piece is no paean in any way to the functioning of the Indian police. After all, the Police Act of 1861, the bible for the Indian police, is still a colonial legislation designed to create a “politically useful” force. After Independence, the power went into the hands of politicians and in spite of some attempts at reform, not much has changed.

But look at this. Inspector Mohan Chand was a highly decorated officer in the Delhi Police and in a stint of close to 13 years, he was responsible for the arrest of 85 terrorists who had been tracked down by him and had been decorated gallantry awards ten times. Yet shortly after his death of bullet wounds in the stomach – and we will come to that – the political boss of the Delhi Police, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil said that “We will do whatever we can to pay homage to him on behalf of the entire country,”

Generally speaking, it seems that the country didn’t take too much care of the police man when he was alive though. Although portly politicians walk around with all kinds of security – Y,Z, Z plus and what not, police encounter parties which foray into real time danger as they deal with terrorists and other criminal elements seem to do so without adequate backup. Admittedly, the battle on the front lines has to be fought lean and mean and there is no doubt about that, but adequate medical and infra structural help ought to be at hand. The injured Mohan Chand was rushed to the Holy Family Hospital in nearby Okhla and although the doctors there surely would have done their best, the Holy Family is not really a trauma centre equipped or staffed to deal with terrorist inflicted wounds.

The Indian Express recently covered the work situation of a constable in the Delhi Police and their salaries. Some salient features of how the government takes care of them when they are alive and at work – “Salaries of constables are comparable only with semi-skilled workers, though their work is much more complicated and risky. But still the common man mistrusts them, and their own senior officers deal strictly with them.” A beat constable often has to patrol alone at night, armed with only a baton: he stands with two other constables at police pickets and flags down speeding vehicles with only the ‘protection’ of a police barricade…..

The job doesn’t pay well either ; not even after the recent pay commission recommendations which have seen the pay of a constable rise from a scale of Rs 3050-4590 to Rs 3200-4900, not a princely sum of a raise considering the squabbles going on in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy among both the administrative, police and the defence services.

So guess that for Shivraj Patel and the government if they are sincere about doing whatever they can for the likes of the late inspector Mohan Chand, the wok is cut out. Poor image in the public perception, long and unsatisfactory work conditions, poor pay and morale… the issues are endless. Going by the current minster’s record, there may not be much to expect, but it may be worthwhile to watch and see if institutionally, the government moves to make life more bearable for our overworked police force.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Apathy, Activism and the Line in Between

The Christian community has typically been used to living a fairly sheltered and secluded life. The community has been largely till recently been spared the social ostracism that even elite and urbane Muslims have faced in times of communal violence and the poorer sections of the community have till recently been spared the violence that has so regularly lashed the Muslims. The result is a very obvious one: the Christian community has often lacked the institutional mechanism to deal with targeted attacks on the community it is still fumbling to press the right buttons, and apart from the response of human rights activists and bodies of clergy, the lay person’s response has been lukewarm. Indeed the Christian community is perhaps full of people guided by apathy.

Traditionally the Muslim response has been clergy driven and the over riding slogan has been that of “Islam in danger.” Whether Islam was in danger or not at these times, the power of the clergy probably was and that red flag provided certain shrillness to the protests that were driven by a sense of urgency. In contrast, the appropriate Christian response might have been that “Christianity is in danger” but mercifully, the resistance has not taken that route and it is good that it has been this way. The worst possible way to counter fundamentalism of one kind is to replace it with fundamentalism of another kind.

The Christian response to this kind of violence has thus far to be commended for not losing the moral high ground by also resorting to violence. This is especially so because in spite of the largely measured responses from the Christian clergy, in a volatile environment, there is always the danger of some lunatic fringe element shooting off some loose canon.

On the other hand, a better and more effective answer to rising tides of fundamentalism of any shade would be to try and enlarge the space of secular and liberal ideologies and by speaking up against all forms of communalism and sectarian and ethnic or region based violence – whether it affects one’s particular community or language group or not this time round. If it has, this time around… never mind this - there is always another time.

If one disagrees with this thesis, one need not look very far away for evidence. One will remember in that in the not too distant past, the Shiv Sena had as its target the Udipi restaurants dotting the Mumbai landscape. In fact, the Shiv Sena really came of age as a lumpen organization, out to vanquish the South Indians from the city’s landscape. Of course, once the Sena had carved out its identity, it promptly forgot the South Indians and more than a generation later, the Generation X Sena – has begun inventing itself by venting itself on the North Indians - the Biharis and the UP wallahs.

Martin Niemöller, the Nazi era, Christian theologian had it right, when he explained the dangers of looking out only for one’s own. His quote of war time Germany explaining the apathy of many in his generation concerned just with getting on with their lives… “First they came for the Jews…..” has become a lodestar for engagement with wider, liberal elements of civil society whose boundaries are wider than one’s own. Niemoller’s words were later elaborated ….

When Hitler attacked the Jews I was not a Jew, therefore I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned. Then Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church — and there was nobody left to be concerned.”

In a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-lingual country like India, this prophecy could be fulfilled faster than one thinks. Those who sit back today, unaffected by the plight of any one else’s but their own, comforted in their ghettos could find their security shattered very soon. At the end of the day, when all our identities are stripped down to the bone; there is only one question that remains to be asked ; one that remains to be answered… are you an inclusive person—embracing every one and their culture and belief or are you an exclusive person, with your world shrinking by the day.. as you leave out more and more and more people out of the fold because they are different …. Or are you just plain apathetic … that worst sin of all? For even an excluvist person can perhaps be won over by reasoning or argument …. but an apathetic person can pass through life unmoved by all things and every thing… till his own life is shattered by a glass pane.