Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Preparing for Sunset

As a child, I used to read a Russian folk tale which went something like this. A reasonably wealthy family was living with their young son when their elderly parents came to live them as they were getting on in years. They elderly parents couldn’t quite cope with the life style of their children and besides they were in frail health. The father’s hands would tremble as he ate and often he would dribble his soup on the expensive table linen.

The mother didn’t see well and she would drop crumbs or break expensive crockery. So after some deliberation, the couple decided that the old couple would not any more eat at the family table – they would eat in a corner of the kitchen using a tin plate and a spoon. One Sunday morning, after the couple had come back from visiting some friends, they saw their young child busy carving some thing with his pen knife in his room. The child wouldn’t reveal much except to say that he was working on a very important project. After much coaxing though, he finally let on. He was working on a present for his parents- a tin plate and spoons so that he could look after them the way he was observing his elderly grand parents being treated.

The story is in itself pretty poignant without any further commentary. But I was reminded of it afresh after in read of the sorry plight of a mother who was driven out by her two sons literally onto the streets so that they could sell the house and pocket the money for themselves. It finally took the intervention of the court and a newly passed law, the Domestic Violence Act to get her a shelter under her own roof.

Sita Yadav, the lady in question is lucky that she had access to the courts and a sympathetic magistrate as well as a conducive law – had the Domestic Violence Act on her side. The law wasn’t around evena few years earlier and probably in that scenario, Mrs. Yadav would probably have been rendered penurious by the prolonged civil litigation. But more than that, keeping the Russian folk tale of my childhood in mind, I think of Mrs. Yadav’s sons and wonder how much money they would need that they needed to drive their mother destitute and seek solace from a magistrate’s court.

One of the plights of the senior citizens of today is that either they have children who live too far away to be of much help leading to stress and discomfort all around as guilt, duty and expectations all end up in an unpleasant cocktail. Given the scenario that we seem to be facing – the Delhi newspapers are full of elderly people murdered either by their domestic help in the fortunate situation where they have a roof and the money to pay for servants – or as in the case of Sita Yadav, literally stripped naked of her property and assets by her own kin.

Whether those who are elderly can now be reconditioned to accept the social realities they are confronted with is a difficult question to answer. But what is certain is that those who are in their middle decades and have the shadow of old age and retirement hovering around need to make preparations. It may be a difficult to digest that in the land of Shravan Kumar and Dashrath –Ram, filial piety is one on the wane but that is what the evidence seems to indicate.

Although the void of the Shravan Kumars will take a long time to fill, the way forward seems to be new initiatives to serve the senior citizens in the changed context of today. A couple of initiatives worth mentioning are those of the Dignity Foundation whose initiatives like the Dignity Helpline and the Loneliness Mitigation Project are worth mentioning. Similarly the Harmony of the Ambanis is worth mentioning and of course Helpage.

With the newspapers likely to increasingly capture stories of the Sita Yadav, it is time for every one to begin preparing for the sunset years and start recognizing the work of foundations like Dignity, Harmony and the others and getting acquainted with what they do and how they do it, so that they get better at it.

The Games We Play

The suspension of the Indian Hockey Federation by the Indian Olympic Association will raise many questions about reviving hockey – supposedly India’s national game and once the one discipline where India could be assured of a medal. This happened after the International Hockey Federation advised the India’s Olympic body to take over management of the country’s hockey after a bribery scandal plunged the game into crisis.

A larger question will go unanswered in the midst of all this murky ruckus; the question of how many games we as a country ought to play. That focus will help in allocating scarce resources on a select few instead of investing in every game under the sun and ending up mediocre in practically all of them. At the moment the Indian Olympic Association is the classic show case of India’s famous “Unity in Diversity” slogan and the Association recognizes every thing from Atya Patya, Ten Pin Bowling and Thang Ta. Check out the IOA’s web site for a whole lot more games that the Association supposedly supports. Of course, none of these games are Olympic sports and will ever be in the foreseeable future but no one cares.

Apart from all these obscure games, of course India plays all the better known ones – Basketball, Baseball, Volleyball, Ice Hockey, Throwball - you name it and we play it and play it mostly terribly. Even in those games, where we have some modest success, like tennis or chess or perhaps badminton, there would be perhaps one or two players or one or two athletes who hold the flag in a country of India’ size and population. And they usually have discovered long ago that they will gain little from the somnolent and ineffective sports federations that preside over them like deities in a pantheon. Remember the cynical, sneering, pan chewing official running Women’s’ hockey portrayed in Chak de India? The film maker had to have picked up his cues some where!

No nation in the world plays as many sports disciplines as we do with official blessings and perhaps as poorly as we do. Whereas at one level sports is a pastime and recreation and any one can play any thing, professional sports is a different game altogether. Since sports is never ever going to be a strategic concern in a country like India, it will always be at the bottom of the pile in the budget allocated to the larger social sector. One would assume therefore that the little piece of cake that is available would be used judiciously. But that does not appear to be the case.

India’s sports policy is fairly recent having been drafted in 2001. However the policy does not address this issue and if any thing , in an attempt to be all things to all people, talks of broad basing sports. Of course some aspects of broad basing are pretty good – like making opportunities available to a wider section of the population ; encouraging traditional sports and so on. But the policy ought to have drawn a line some where but it hasn’t and the day may nor be far off when playing kancha (marbles) and lattu(spinning top). The pits to which sports administration has fallen as revealed in the hockey scandal should make us think a bit. Of course it is no one’s case that hockey should be axed but it may be a time to introspect as to which games enjoy official patronage and budgetary support. It is better to be involved with fewer sports, allot them more money out of the little that will be available and then manage their administration better. It is time for a newer and more achievable sports policy perhaps !

Monday, April 28, 2008

Shrinking Childhood

There used to be a popular song with the words “Bachpan Ke Din Bhula Na Dena” which many of us loved to hum. That song, evoking nostalgia and angst for times and experiences of a long gone childhood may soon be rendered irrelevant for childhood is shrinking and doing so very rapidly.

According to a study carried out by in the UK by the publishing giant, Random House, childhood in today’s age ends usually by the age of 13. The study indicates that by this age, most of the adult behavioral patterns have already set in and the innocence that has always been associated with childhood has been killed.

Of course, a study conducted in the UK need not and probably in its entirety cannot apply to the Indian context, but the trends are revealing and certainly in metropolitan India, children are exposed to many of the same pressures as those in the West. The Random House study – possibly examining childhood from the perspective of a marketer – to gauge the size of the children’s book market has claimed that some of the factors responsible are media and marketing hype as well as busy parents who leave decision making to children when they are just not ready to make them.

The dwindling period of childhood is a cause for alarm, not just in a nice, fairy tale romantic sense, but as a lamentation. A good and wholesome childhood is the lodestone of a secure and productive adulthood. The time of childhood, particularly the time of adolescence is a time of formation, ripening and maturing.

But though Random House conducted its study in affluent UK, childhood has been shrinking for all sorts of other reasons in different situations around the world, including of course India. The reasons could be spin offs related to politics or poverty and often the two are inter connected : child soldiers biting real bullets instead of toyguns, trafficked children, street children – basically an child really who is thrust into the adult world before their time have lost a tranquil piece of their life

Maybe child care organizations ought to be taking note and reinvent themselves. Ever since its founding, institutions like UNICEF and others have taken the stage of life called “childhood” for granted and worked to make this stage of life a safe and healthy and productive experience – and so the emphasis on health care, education, child rights, etc., which has helped to ensure that this phase of childhood that every individual has necessarily to go through is a safe passage where bodies and minds are molded so that the end product is a socially conscious, humane and responsible adult.

But is it that today the ground is shifting below their feet and the priority today for these institutions is to fight the battle on the ground and ensure that childhood survives as an institution socially first and fore most. The many battles that are being fought today – to provide them with education, health care, recreation and human rights to name a few only hold some relevance if children remain children.

Why for instance worry about issues like child labor if there are increasingly fewer children to begin with? The battle against child labor in India as well as other developing countries is that children have a right to an education and recreation and these rights of theirs are being violated if the children are having to work in factories or workshops. But it is no one’s case that adults are to be exempted from work, and so if children of ten, eleven, twelve years old are metamorphosing, not into gawky adolescents that we all know about but rather into awkward looking mini adults who display albeit in a morphed form, all the attributes of an adult, then the case against child labor, child rights, special courts to deal with child crime, correctional homes, and lots of other edifices begin to crumble.

The whole child rights framework is derived from the fact that children exist and have special needs and rights and the responsibility of the State in particular and all in general is to work to ensure that those rights are observed and respected. But what if there comes a time when you have no more children left any more – only tiny infants and then dwarfed, Frankensten-like mini adults with limited skills, aptitude, and education because of a fast tracked evolution? Clearly we see the beginnings of a complex problem here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Those Days and These Days

Two books that I have been reading lately ;both written by the well known Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay –Those Days and its sequel First Light have made me wonder whether it is at all possible or even desirable to remove the influence of those two supposed banes of India – religion and caste from the political process. Will it work? After all, religion is the lodestar of society – any society and never in human history has the effect of religion in particular, ever disappeared from day to day life.

The nineteenth century was the time in recent Indian history when reason and rationality tried to overcome the barriers posed by obscurantist religion and caste driven practices. At that time people thought that it might actually happen –that religion would be banished to the uttermost ends of the earth and its attendant manifestation like caste would also soon disappear. Rationalists of the likes of Henry Vivian Derozio (the bi centennial of his birth was recently celebrated on April 18th), John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune as well as reformers from India like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishvar Chandra Vidyasagar and others tried to turn the established order on its head and a large part of that meant challenging the established religious order and ridding its over arching influence on society and politics.

Did they succeed ? The location of Derozio’s grave in Kolkata gives some pointers. When he died at the age of 22 of cholera in 1831, he was buried not inside the cemetery which was considered sacred ground but just outside the cemetery walls as an unbeliever. The grave still stands and its location is now even more prominent – the main cemetery now is walled off leaving Derozio’s grave on the pavement crowded out by innumerable Kolkata pedestrians. Derozio and his colleagues – be they reformers or rationalist brought about unparallel changes in their times but there are lessons to be learnt from those times as indeed there are lessons to be leant for these times.

Hopping to more modern times , Jawaharlal Nehru was one who earnestly and passionately wanted a political order that was above the dictates of caste and creed and through out his long innings as a leader both before and after independence, he sought to lay its foundations, often by battling it out with other conservative ideas. But as in the nineteenth century ; so too in the twentieth century – Nehru’s charisma in his time ; the same as the charisma of the nineteenth century aristocracy in their time ensured that their thoughts reigned for a time and then after they were gone ; caste and religion based politics slowly gained re entry and even have come to occupy centre stage. The communist parties are supposed to be above caste, class and religion but this commitment perhaps is as best seen in the uppermost echelons. And as for the Dravidian parties, every one knows how after the old guard passes on, there would be very little left of Periyar’s (again charisma driven) legacy of rationalism.

Religion is too deeply etched on the human psyche ; and for any one to pretend that politics or any other social activity can be carried out by ignoring this interface is sheer naiveté. The experience of Swami Vivekananda and his turn around is a case in point. An avowed agnostic and rationalist with little to with matters of religion, an encounter with the illiterate and rustic Ramakrishna Paramhansa changed his destiny and the contour of Indian society at the turn of the century exactly a hundred years ago.

Politics in India cannot be ever divorced from issues of religion and caste. It wasn’t then in Those Days and it isn’t possible These Days. What history teaches us though is that it can be harnessed and controlled so that the forces of fanaticism, bigotry and intolerance do not ever hold sway. That much is possible. That much is what a man of Mahatma Gandhi’s stature was able to achieve. We may expect no more than this or we live in a fool’s paradise.

India's Lonely Honeymooners

It kind of sounds crazy that a Bollywood film should inspire thoughts on alternate sexuality. But it happens. While watching the film, Honeymoon Travels late at night on a DVD, some thing resonated. Watching Vikram Chatwal, the suave NRI and Karan Khanna come to terms with their sexuality on their honey moon as they tell their aghast wives that they are gay; I could not help but remember the normal notions and stereotypes that we have created around them and how distanced they are from the real thing.

Vikram and Karan are fundamentally decent people and not some ogres; they in the movie sound genuinely bewildered, confused and perplexed by the deal that life(first) and society(subsequently) have dealt them and genuinely want to do the right thing by their wives, by their family and by the established norms of society, which is why they got into this jam of getting married to a woman when they are gay in their orientation. The pain and agony of Karan, the small town simpleton who does not even understand the concept of being gay but tries hard to understand and rationalize his attraction towards another man is heart wrenching.
And of course being gay and lesbian is a relatively straight forward thing ; sexuality after all is a many splendoured thing and the typical man and woman will live and die without knowing and seeing even the tip of the archetypal iceberg of this thing called alternate sexuality- so many are its manifestations and so complex its expression.

If there is an are where the media in the Western media in particular have muddied the waters for us in India real bad, it is in attempting to script only the titillating bits of the story – of chronicling celebrities who are gay – be it Alexander the Great or Oscar Wilde or many other contemporary figures. By trivializing alternate expressions of sexuality into the realm of speculation and spice, it has glossed over many other angles.

If the spot light is not on celebrities , it is on only particular kinds of behavior; the constant discussion on gay marriages and whether they should be permitted or not – which countries have permitted them and which have not have obfuscated the fact that marriage is in any case not only about sex and that their sex life is not the only thing on the mind of any one – be it straight or gay. The rampant stigmatization of any one even thought or perceived to be “different” in main stream society can lead to a situation where such men and women find companionship only among their own – a fact that is hardly discussed or talked about.

Those who are gay have some breathing space – at least in the cities , if you move in the right circles, you know the gay bars and that sort of thing, but for the others, the tunnel is darker. A cross dresser, a bi sexual – as most gays in India are, a eunuch or transgendered ( not necessarily the same), live on the edge of a more slippery and darker abyss. A picture of ridicule, abhorrence and disdain, they live not even on the fringes of society, but outside it – obscured by their own initiation rites, customs, hierarchy , festivals – a deeply rooted counter culture if there was one.

I wonder what the prescription is for a country of India’s complexity but I suppose it has to begin with a more cogent understanding that sex and sexuality are different things altogether and whereas sex will always be an explosive issue in a supposedly conservative society, expressions and articulations of alternate sexuality and its destigmtization are the sine qua non of a humane society. Funny is it not , that we are so busy ferreting out the minorities and the marginalized in our midst that we have ignored the most despised, the most stigmatized, the most marginalized of them all ? They may not be hankering for reservations and quotas but they unfailingly need and deserve our acceptance !

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Increasing Communication – Declining Communion

An interesting article from the British paper, The Guardian caught my attention recently. It bemoaned the fact that a large number of post offices were closing in the British country side, particularly inconveniencing the elderly for who the post office was more than a place to buy stamps and post letters; in deprived urban areas, post offices are banks for local people and crucial sources of benefits. In rural villages that have lost schools and every other shop, it is often the last local service left standing. The post office is the last community hub left.

India’s villages haven’t got there yet, but our towns probably have. We don’t have any more community hubs left any more and a sense of community in the bigger cities is all but gone, surrounded as we are by walled houses, often enclosed by high gates and fences and manned by dogs and security guards. In fact the one thing to be said for slums is that because of their forced deprivation of space and privacy, they have to create communities to manage their clutter and chaos.

As in many other cases when environments change rapidly, the elderly are perhaps the most affected. In the area where I live, in the parks that still fortunately still survive in some numbers. They throng the neighborhood parks in the evenings and some times in the early mornings but though they have the companionship of their peers, they appear lonely. The young are missing as they are busy with their own pursuits; some times grand children are to be seen, but this strange bonding is often the bonding of the bizarre – the grand parents are stand in baby sitters for their sons and daughters and baby sitting is the chore that they often perform as a retainer ship for their board and lodge.

The younger lot often has set up shop in platforms like Facebook or Orkut. There is a community for folks who live in my community to meet up on line or Orkut and Facebook and BigAdda and all the rest. Whether the online communities will really amount to any thing, I suppose only time will tell, the research is too young yet for us to have any clear findings on which to base conclusions.

Coming back to the closing post offices, one of the key reasons cited for their closing is the fact that due to the ease and cost of sending e mails, no one or virtually no one in the UK is writing conventional letters, sticking stamps on them and then trundling along to the post office to post them. For some, real time communication is every thing and instant messaging has begun replacing e mail which is slowly becoming pass̩. Similarly another key revenue stream for the Post Office, the greeting card business in the holiday season Рwith people sending fewer and fewer Greeting Cards.

I do not know how many of us still have old letters – papers yellowing with age and fragile; but billowing with emotions and over flowing with the fragrance of friends, love and laughter. Although I too have moved with many others to the electronic era and write few letters myself, there is still the sense of mourning at the passing of an era that I at one time have known and loved. There are letters that on a given day I might still take out and read – letters with a hand writing, some smudged ink and perhaps a fraying envelope but encased lie within words that inspired and encouraged and conveyed hugs and embraces that physical distanced dis allowed but an envelope with a stamp and a heavy footed post mark could still convey.

Can a print out of an e mail do that or an emoticon on an IM? Sure they have their uses and are fast, reliable and robust for business communication. But outside of Business, though e mail is not going to go away any time soon if ever, I am sure that an e mail print devoid of signatures, distinctive hand writing styles, words and letters can never replace the sense of communion and community and friendship that can really nurture on life’s long and often lonely journey.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Food or Fuel : The Choice

I grew up hearing stories about the Bengal Famine of 1943-45, hearing about them from my mother about how close to four million people died due to what was essentially a man made tragedy as food grains were diverted by the British Indian Government to feed the Allied Armies and the war effort, putting civilian lives at a much lower priority. My mother recounts stories of how food was scarce but unavailable as the prevailing shortages and black marketing and hoarding made it unaffordable for most of the farmers who actually grew the food in the first place. Wealthy families who could afford to still buy would often cook a little extra, running soup kitchens of a kind for those who turned up at their doors.

Hearing and reading about the food riots in various parts of the world makes one wonder if the man made famines are coming back to haunt us again. Food riots have already been reported in Haiti, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Mozambique, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Bolivia and Indonesia. India thus far has been spared because the country has been self sufficient in food but the impact sooner or later will be felt here too no doubt with inflation making food grains inaccessible to many, especially those out of the ambit of the revamped public distribution system or the various employment guarantee schemes.

But what is worrying now is not that food shortages are happening but the reasons why they are happening and the fact that unlike the famine victims of the 1940s, who were largely ignorant of the causes as well as ignorant of the way, they could protest, today’s generation is empowered enough to make their voice heard but not necessarily knowledgeable enough to reverse powerful processes that seem driven by irreversible policy imperatives

Here is the grim scenario of how the post modern Frankenstein is playing out :

Briefing media persons in New Delhi on Wednesday, the director-general of UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Jacques Diouf said: “World food prices have risen 45% in the last nine months and there are serious shortages of rice, wheat and maize.” He singled out bio-fuel programme as one of the major contributing factor to the global price rise as it has caused diversion of farmland from food to fuel crops and the prices of bio-fuels which scaled up in tandem with the prices of fossil fuels in turn affected the food prices.”

Now with the prices of crude oil consistently rising and trading for long at prices of over at one hundred dollars a barrel, it is imperative to look for alternative beyond fossil fuels. And the search for an alternative seems to have zeroed in on bio fuels wherein farmers once enticed by cash crops to abandon staples are now being enticed to grow food product but use them not for food but to produce fuel. And so farmers in several parts of the world including the USA have increasingly switched to producing corn for the purposes of producing ethanol. This has obviously reduced the area available for cultivation for crops like wheat and diversion of corn from the market place to the refinery. Climate change over the years has also begun to affect farm yields.

In India, the government has mandated the blending of ten percent ethanol in all petrol to be marketed from October. Apart from technical issues (Germany has scrapped a similar program finding it unviable); there is the question of where this ethanol is going to come from. If it is going to come from domestic sources, then it would mean that in India too, land would come from that part of the agricultural land that is currently being used for growing food grains. This along with the fact that increasingly needs for infrastructure are being met by acquiring agricultural land (West Bengal being a well known case in point) means that food grain production in India will decline. India’s food grain production could fall 11 million tonnes short of the target of 220 million tones according to the pre budget economic survey presented before the budget.

Caught between the need to feed its people and the need for energy to transport people and goods, it seems that not just India but just the world itself is caught between a rock and a hard place. The tragedy is that in earlier days, thought the effects of famine were colossal, they were localized and temporary and with the right kind of political will, they could be handled in part, because if parts of the world had food shortages, there were other parts of the world that had surpluses and imports or food aid could be arranged. The news this time round is that the shortages of food could be global and there simply may not be enough food any where in the world that is available for import. That the whole world could be headed for a chronic and slow famine with some of the environmental tinkering that we have done apparently irreversible in the short haul at least is a grim thought.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Voices We Ignore

The people of Majuli are angry. For years, their land , the world’s largest riverine island is having its land mass eroded by the Brahmaputra and no one is doing any thing about it. Not even the Prime Minister who represents Assam in the Rajya Sabha. And Majuli is not just another back water island; apart from being home to over two lakh people, it is also the heart and soul of Assamese culture and arts. In other wise violence prone Assam, if the agitation has remained peaceful, it can probably be attributed to the fact that the leadership of the movement so far has stayed with the Satradhikars—heads of traditional Vaishnavite Satras which are based in Majuli.

Part of the hurt and anger stems from the fact that they feel ignored. The religious heads have been agitating for long, but all that they get is promises that are not kept. Apparently the Prime Minister has promised to visit at least three times ever since he took office but he chose to cancel the trips at the last minute. More should be read into the hurt of the Vaishnvite leaders of Majuli than is being perhaps read. For the Prime Minister’s repeated cancellations of his trip seem to be sending out a message that peaceful methods of conveying one’s demands are fruitless and go unheeded. It is true that the erosion of land by the Brahmaputra and other rivers like the Ganga is a complex problem and there may be no ready answers available.

But that does not negate the importance of a country’s leaders standing by its people. After cyclones, floods and earthquakes when leaders visit , it is not that they go with any lasting solutions. But even those visits, some looking pretty hypocritical in fact; still lend a bit of the healing touch that is sorely needed at those times.

By ignoring peaceful protests like the one emanating from Majuli, the nation is sending out a very sad message that to be noticed and heard ; one has to be aggressive and violent. Throw a few bombs and grenades; kill some innocent people and it will become a “law and order” problem at the very least and police, para military and army boots will com trampling down to make sure thing are in order. Be persistent – may be for decades and you will feted and invited for talks.

Witness for instance how the government is bending over backwards to negotiate with the NSCN factions , strtching the Indian constitution to the very limits of its elasticity so that the Naga demands can be solved. Or just look at the situation in Siachin where over Rs 60 million is spent every day to protect the territorial integrity of India – a glacier and a place where as was famously put once, not a blade of glass grows. Yet it is de rigeour for defense ministers to pay a visit there at least once in their tenure. But ask for the state to take to take some interest in a place where people actually live and not only that a place that is a virtual cultural treasure house fit for consideration as a world heritage site and suddenly no one has any time to visit and only a few measly crores is available as a grant.. It is a pity , is it not.

One cannot but connect the protest of the Vaishnavite seers without also reflecting on the changing trajectory of the Tibetan resistance. For decades, the Dalai Lama led the Tibetan resistance movement with an emphasis on non violence but the movement got no where. Now with the Dalai Lama ageing and no solution in sight, the Tibetan Youth Congress and other newer groupings have no use for the path of non violence. Before the peaceful Vaishnavite movement takes that route, we should take cognizance of a voice that we seem not to hear.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Shadows Series IV : A Counter Culture of Courage

When Madhavi Kapoor wanted to sell her flat in Pune and found that her efforts were being thwarted because her buyer was a Muslim, she did some thing unusual. Instead of humming and hawing to her buyer and fobbing him off with vague answers and then identifying another buyer, she took on the housing society head on. Her reasoning is impeccable: She had given her word to the Muslim family in question and so would not back out and further more, after coming to know of the reasons of the housing society’s objections, she became more adamant.

As she puts it, it became a matter of principle. So much so that the lady has promised to keep an eye on the situation and is prepared t move the National Human Rights Commission if she finds her buyers being harassed on account of their religion.Madhavi Kapoor is no human rights activist which is why her act deserves to be highlighted more. Most people, especially from the majority community would choose to duck and dodge rather than get involved. The flat is in a good location, other buyers can be found, so why alienate members of one’s own community – in this case, not just the religious community but even the Sindhi community. The unnamed Muslim family can be called lucky because Mrs. Kapoor did not hang Martin Neimoller’s well known quote as a tapestry on a wall.

“… They first came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew….”

When faced with uncomfortable situations which do not directly affect one’ own life and comforts very few can expect to find some one like Mrs. Kapoor who stood up and made a stink. Most of us will react in one of three ways, and not one of them is of any meaningful help.

Apathy is the most common reaction. There is so much going on, life is so crowded that there seems little point in burdening yourself more by taking on more and choosing to get involved. The conscience can be coaxed into somnolence by the simple logic that this is the business of some one else – the politicians, the law enforcement people, the activists, some body, any body but not ours. From traffic accidents to genocides, this is the commonest response of them all.

The next and the most visible response is aggression. This is what Mrs. Madhavi Kapoor as well as the housing society management displayed through her active involvement and advocacy on behalf of the Bohra Muslim buyers of her property did; thought the word aggression typically has negative connotations of violence for us. But aggression and advocacy when carried out in the ambit of the law is great and what makes Mrs. Kapoor’s response nobler is that while most of us will stir ourselves out of our apathy.

But the most chilling response that we can construct is that of acquiescence. Though on the face, apathy and acquiescence might both look alike, acquiescence is far more sinister. Apathy makes you look the other way when you could do better but acquiescence makes you an active participant in a perverse act, be it in so flaccid a gesture as a participant in a rabble or the one who says “Aye” as a degenerate and retrograde resolution is carried by the show of hands as probably happened in the Pune housing society.

With the culture of apathy being the prevailing theme, displaying daring and courage is really living by a lonely counter culture that merits accolades and appreciation at every turn. May be the Godfrey Philips Bravery awards which have a grouping for recognizing and honoring those who have involved themselves in acts of social courage will take note of Madhavi Kapoor’s act. We will always need many more of them to display a different kind of aggression – one that declines to acquiesce and accept what is unjust and wrong.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Shadows Series III - Paradigms of Power

Recently the pet dog of the Police Commissioner of Delhi got lost. The dog- a 12 year old Daschund went missing last Saturday and sent the establishment into a tizzy. But Toto is one lucky thing for its master wields a lot of power and so the police establishment swung into action to find and restore the pet to its delighted owner, who had announced a reward of Rs10,000( out of the Commissioner’s own pocket) for the dog.

Looking at the time available to the Station House Officer of the Nizamuddin Police Station and others to track the dog, one could perhaps safely assume that Delhi is a crime free city where the police find diversion in looking for lost pets but the facts are that Delhi is not just the political capital of the country but also the Crime capital of the nation too. “3,244 criminal cases - including 467 murders, 581 rapes, 1764 dacoity and other heinous crimes - were registered in the city during the 2007 .During the last year, the capital also emerged more bloodthirsty compared to 2006 when 462 murders had taken place” .

Further, according to the National Human Rights Commission, the capital records the maximum number of cases of missing children. In India more than 44,000 children of all ages go missing annually and Delhi has topped the list with 6.7 percent of the total cases. I The NHRC report goes onto say that of the missing children, only about 80 percent are eventually traced. Given the pay hike given to the “public servants” so that they can serve bettter, it is possible now that senior bureaucrats will now cultivate more exotic and extravagant pets which if lost can be tracked.

But this is not a reflection on dogs or police commissioners or the pay commission- but on power. Power on the face of it has nothing shadowy about it – if you have it, you flaunt it- if you don’t , you moan sitting in a corner and cringe before those who have it. One would have you believe that if you don’t parade it, you don’t have it. And lest there be any doubt, you display it blatantly - be it in the red beacon on your car or the gun toting security guards by your side or the slap that an MLA administers on a hapless commoner.

It looks graceless when people with the power which only their position gives them use it so coarsely – whether it be by slapping a liftman or using the hapless, over worked people under you to look for a missing pet ( for a report on the working conditions of the Delhi Police look here) or raping a woman or through in any of the innumerable ways in which we demonstrate our power, not to lift up the weak but to further crush those who are already trampled.

There is a sad anachronism about the society we live in that people who are paid hefty salaries to serve exhibit raw muscle power at its most base or use it for various forms of gratification. Anachronistic because grand old men like the late Baba Amte who died recently, at the ripe age of 92, felt the call to serve and with problems of the spine which rendered him bed ridden and problems of the heart which a broken pace maker could not repair used to trundle through Anandwan in a bullock cart. The sad paradigm of power is that the truly powerful seem to be frail of body like broken reeds like Gandhiji or Baba Amte or Nanaji Deshmush or Mother Teresa while their shadows flaunt a caricature of power through golden cages of glitzy cars or the grandeur of Lutyen’s bungalows displaying vain glory in the guise of the emperor’s new clothes as in Hans Christen Anderson. Truely Gandhiji in his loin cloth was far better clothed than those in resplendent robes of office unaware of their nakedness.