Archive | Politics and Government RSS feed for this section

Four on Friday: Hazare Khwaishein Aisi

19 Aug

I HAD not planned to devote an entire post to Kisan Baburao Hazare or Anna (older brother) Hazare, as he is more commonly known, but with his arrest earlier this week (a major misstep by the government) and the subsequent widespread protests in different Indian cities making news in the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and more, there is too much to share.

A rally against corruption which took place in Freedom Park, Bangalore on 9 April 2011. Courtesy Pushkar V.

A rally against corruption which took place in Freedom Park, Bangalore on 9 April 2011. Courtesy Pushkar V.

1. First, Anna Hazare is not a modern-day Gandhi, so please stop comparing them. As A.G. Noorani explains painstakingly in this Frontline article, the father of modern India would not have condoned  satyagraha in a functioning democracy. Patrick French writes eloquently in the UK’s Telegraph (one assumes that a careless editor titled the op-ed):

Now Hazare has cornered the government by raising the pitch of the argument, just two days after India’s 64th independence day. A fast unto death is a touchy subject in India because of the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, who used the tactic against the British. One thing successive viceroys and prime ministers particularly feared was the popular uprising that would quickly follow if he died on their watch. The viceroy Lord Wavell wrote in his diary in 1944 that if Gandhi were to die in prison: “I might go down to the readers of two thousand years hence with the same reputation as Pontius Pilate.” Many in India are calling the present events “the second freedom struggle”, since the government is relying on quasi-colonial laws to maintain order and restrict freedom of protest. There is the obvious irony of Congress being the party that used these techniques against the British. The reality, though, is that Anna Hazare is an imitation of Gandhi, pursuing a different agenda.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta elucidates in The Indian Express:

The morality of fasting unto death for a political cause in a constitutional democracy has always been a tricky issue. There is something deeply coercive about fasting unto death. When it is tied to an unparalleled moral eminence, as it is in the case of Anna Hazare, it amounts to blackmail. There may be circumstances, where the tyranny of government is so oppressive, or the moral cause at stake so vital that some such method of protest is called for. But in a functioning constitutional democracy, not having one’s preferred institutional solution to a problem accepted, does not constitute a sufficient reason for the exercise of such coercive moral power.

Prabhat Patnaik (one of my favorite thinkers and a great teacher) demolishes this notion that Hazare is somehow a modern-day Gandhi in The Telegraph (Calcutta):

To call Anna Hazare the 21st-century Gandhi, as some have started doing, is pure hyperbole, but many would see a similarity in their methods — in particular, in their resorting to fasts to achieve their objectives. This, however, is erroneous. Indeed, the fact that so many people consider Anna Hazare’s method to be similar to Gandhiji’s only indicates how little contemporary India remembers or understands Gandhiji.

Gandhiji undertook 17 fasts in all, of which three were major fasts-unto-death. All these three had the objective of uniting people against violence, rather than extracting specific concessions from the colonial State.

And:

In short, Gandhiji’s fasts-unto-death were never a binary affair, with himself and the colonial State as adversaries, to extract specific concessions. He did not, for instance, go on a fast-unto-death to demand the withdrawal of the salt tax; he launched instead a movement against it. And at no stage did Gandhiji ever consider going on a fast-unto-death to demand India’s independence; instead he launched movement after movement for achieving it. Indeed Gandhiji would have considered a fast-unto-death to enforce a particular demand even upon the colonial State, or to extract a particular concession from it, an act not of non-violence but of violence.

Anna Hazare on 5 April 2011 giving an interview to a TV channel. Courtesy Deepankar Raj

Anna Hazare on 5 April 2011 giving an interview to a TV channel. Courtesy Deepankar Raj

2. The protests around the Jan Lokpal Bill are not equivalent to the Arab Spring. Paul Beckett makes this point convincingly in his Wall Street Journal India Real Time blog post, so I’ll just borrow his words:

While those in the Arab Spring for the most part are pushing for a complete overhaul—a revolution—in how they are governed, those taking to the streets in Delhi are not. Indeed, their demands by the standards of international protests are almost embarrassingly modest and narrow.

And:

Perhaps there is another layer being added now—a broader discussion about the proper relationship between government and civil society. But both sides are playing within fairly well-defined rules and within a system that can tolerate, and gain from, dissent.

3. The Lokpal Bill is troubling and overarching and won’t solve the country’s problems anyway. The first cautious note (well, the first that I heard, anyway) was from Shuddhabrata Sengupta in Kafila, appropriately titled, “At the Risk of Heresy, Why I am not Celebrating with Anna Hazare.” The reigning media view back in early April—when this piece was posted—was one of blind faith in Hazare and his bill. (Thankfully, now the notes of caution are numerous and widespread; though they are seemingly ignored by the swelling crowds outside Tihar Jail.)

Sengupta writes:

The outcome of the ‘Anna Hazare’ phenomenon allows the ruling  Congress to appear gracious (by bending to Anna Hazar’s will) and the BJP to appear pious (by cozying up to the Anna Hazare initiative) and a full spectrum of NGO and  ‘civil society’ worthies to appear, as always, even holier than they already are.

Most importantly, it enables the current ruling elite to have just stage managed its own triumph, by crafting a ‘sensitive’ response (ably deployed by Kapil Sibal) to a television media conjured popular upsurge. Meanwhile, the electronic media, by and large, have played their part by offering us the masquerade of a ‘revolution’ that ends up making the state even more powerful than it was before this so called ‘revolution’ began. Some people in the corridors of power must be delighted at the smoothness and economy with which all this has been achieved. Hosni Mubarak should have taken a few lessons from the Indian ruling class about how to have your cake and eat it too on Tahrir Square.

After all, “Nothing serves power better than the spectacle of resistance.” Bhanu Mehta writes:

But the general premises that underlie the various drafts border on being daft. They amount to an unparalleled concentration of power in one institution that will literally be able to summon any institution and command any kind of police, judicial and investigative power. Power, divided in a democracy, can often be alibi for evading responsibility. But it is also a guarantee that the system is not at the mercy of a few good men. Having concentrated immense power, it then displays extraordinary faith in the virtue of those who will wield this power. Why do we think this institution will be incorruptible? The answer seems to be that the selection mechanism will somehow ensure a superior quality of guardians. Why? Because the selection committee, in addition to the usual virtuous judges, will have, as one draft very reassuringly put it, two of the “most recent Magsaysay Award Winners”. Then there is no sense of jurisdiction and limits. It is not going to look at corruption only. It can even look into “wasteful” expenditure. They can, potentially usurp all policy prerogatives of democratic governments. So many accountability institutions, in the name of accountability, are not distinguishing between policy issues and corruption. They are perpetuating the myth that government can function without any discretionary judgment.

But the demand is premised on an idea that non-elected institutions that do not involve politicians are somehow the only ones that can be trusted. This assumption is false. Institutions of all kinds have succeeded and failed. But the premise of so much accountability discourse is not just contempt of politicians, but contempt of representative democracy.

Adivasis from the Narmada Valley. Courtesy Joe Athialy

Adivasis from the Narmada Valley. Courtesy Joe Athialy

4. Rallying behind the Lokpal Bill is easy, makes us feel better about ourselves, and allows us to absolve ourselves from doing something that can actually make a difference. In yesterday’s New York Times, Open magazine editor Manu Joseph began his “Letter from India” like this:

The best thing about Indian politicians is that they make you feel you are a better person. Not surprisingly, Indians often derive their moral confidence not through the discomfort of examining their own actions, but from regarding themselves as decent folks looted by corrupt, villainous politicians.

This is at the heart of a self-righteous middle-class uprising against political corruption.

In the Hindustan Times, Samar Halarnkar is “not Anna Hazare”:

This is a protest, not a revolution. I sense a lack of emotional proportion and a troubling hypocrisy from a middle class that refuses to get as moved to action by graver things, such as the murder of female children, child labour in homes, hotels and factories, or poverty outside our car windows.

There is excitable talk now of the constitutional right to protest, but this is not something we like to give to Kashmiris, or bother too much when it is snatched from tribals or others on the margins of middle-India’s imagination.

Irom Sharmila. Courtesy Prachatai

Irom Sharmila. Courtesy Prachatai

Both Halarnkar and French compare the vast amounts of media attention given to Hazare with the meager newsprint devoted to Irom Sharmila, the courageous Manipuri woman who has been fasting for more than a decade to protest the Armed Forces Special Powers Act imposed in Manipur and much of the Northeast since 1980. (Click here for an excellent primer by Shoma Chaudhury in Tehelka on Irom Sharmila.)

It is easy, and convenient, and costs nothing to “support” the Lokpal Bill: sign an online petition, join a Facebook group, maybe even go out on the streets to protest corruption. Everybody is anti-corruption, even Bollywood’s beautiful people (except Mahesh Bhatt), after all, and you’re just along for the ride. But try raising the devastating farmer suicides, or the draconian laws in the Northeast, or the rampaging violence in Kashmir, and no one pays much attention. Certainly nothing like the Lokpal phenomenon.

I want to end with words from one of my favorite people, the journalist P. Sainath, who raises uncomfortable questions—his specialty—in this Hindu column:

The 1990s saw marketing whiz kids at the largest English daily in the world steal a term then in vogue among sexually discriminated minorities: PLUs—or People Like Us. Media content would henceforth be for People Like Us. This served advertisers’ needs and also helped shut out unwanted content. As the daily advised its reporters: dying farmers don’t buy newspapers. South Mumbaikars do. So the suicide deaths of a couple of fashion models in that city grabbed more space in days than those of over 40,000 farmers in Maharashtra did in a decade.

February 2011 saw one of the largest rallies staged in Delhi in years. Lakhs of workers from nine central trade unions—including the Congress party’s INTUC—hit the streets to protest against rising food prices and unemployment. This was many times bigger than the very modest numbers at Anna Hazare’s fast and larger than Ramdev’s rollicking ‘yoga camp.’ These were workers and unions not linked to the state. Not market-driven. Not corporate-funded. And expressing clearly the interests and values of their members. In fact, fitting some classic definitions of ‘civil society.’ The rally was covered by the BBC, Reuters and AFP but was mostly invisible in mainstream Indian media except when attacked for creating traffic jams.

Do we only care when something happens to People Like Us? Can we rise above the confinements of class and caste and connect with someone like Irom Sharmila, fighting a quiet, difficult and unglamorous fight that is unlikely to be resolved in a burst of televised drama? If we are looking for traces of Gandhi in modern-day heroes, we could do worse than Sharmila, who “responded to extreme violence with extreme peace.”

Small-Town Papers in Big League

21 Jul

IN the world of American journalism, doom and gloom are the visitors who have overstayed their welcome so long they look like they’re here to stay. In the past week, PBS eliminated 21 staff positions, the San Diego Union Tribune is considering going on the block, and just today the Chicago Tribune announced it will begin printing the Chicago Sun-Timesa move that will shed 400 jobs.

But a recently released “data visualization” from the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, a representation of the growth and decline of 140,000 newspapers from the first U.S. newspaper, Boston’s Publick Occurrences in 1690, all the way to 2010, shows that community newspapers are surprisingly healthy, with local weeklies at last count numbering more than 7,500. Community papers are defined as those with less than 30,000 in circulation, and community and rural newspapers are used interchangeably in this study.

Reading-Room of the Boston Public Library, an engraving drawn by J. J. Harley and printed January 1871 in Every Saturday, a weekly newspaper published in Boston by James Osgood & Company.

The reading room of the Boston Public Library, an engraving drawn by J. J. Harley and printed January 1871 in Every Saturday, a weekly newspaper published in Boston by James Osgood & Co.

The interactive map shows the geographic spread of printing presses westward over the centuries; it’s accompanied by short summaries of each significant new phase in the newspaper industry and is peppered with fun facts. For instance:

  • A year’s subscription to the Missouri Gazette, which was, in 1808, the first newspaper to be printed west of the Mississippi River, could originally be paid for in cash or vegetables.
  • When the Free Staters were battling pro-slavery forces in Kansas in 1856, the Herald of Freedom in Lawrence melted down its type to make cannon balls for the Free Stater side. The printers called each cannon fired a “new edition” of the paper.
  • In 1890, with a booming immigrant population, at least 18 languages were represented in U.S. papers, including 97 German language dailies in 1892.
  • And as young men deserted the newsrooms for the trenches in World War II, women made up the numbers (though when the men returned, some 8,000 women temps were laid off).

The story of the spread of rural papers is also a story of the frontier, a boundary that shifted ever westward as new towns were built. Printers rushed to establish papers in these young towns, as was the case, the authors write, “in the sleepy town of Denver, Colorado — then called Cherry Creek — where not one but two printers raced to publish the pioneering paper. Accounts of the [1859] ‘Battle of the Newspapers’ have it that William N. Byers’ Rocky Mountain News beat out the journeyman printer Jack Merrick’s Cherry Creek Pioneer by a mere 20 minutes.” (The Rocky Mountain News sadly closed its doors in 2009, marking the end of Colorado’s oldest business.)

Read the rest of this post on the Investigative Fund blog, where it first appeared. 

Four on Friday: The India Files

24 Jun

FOUR tidbits from the homeland this week.

1. Coke Studio has come to India! For those of you new to Coke Studio, it began in Pakistan four years ago, as a television show sponsored by Coca-Cola featuring live music and collaborations between Pakistani folk, eastern, classical, and contemporary musicians. It has become a runaway hit, and there is nothing quite like it in the region.

From the melodies in Pashto and Dari to the pop compositions of Strings and Ali Zafar, from the sweet voices of Zeb and Haniya to the gravelly Garaj Baras rendition by Ali Azmat and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and the irresistibly foot-tapping Chambey di Booti (Jugni) by Arif Lohar and Meesha Shafi, Coke Studio Pakistan enchants and delights. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know what the lyrics mean or what that instrument is called, it draws you in and doesn’t let you go.

Noori in Coke Studio Pakistan

Noori in Coke Studio Pakistan

In a behind-the-scenes Newsline interview, Coke Studio Pakistan’s producer, Rohail Hyatt talks about the show’s beginnings and what he hopes to achieve with it. Hyatt laments the fading out of traditional music and said he hopes the music show will provide a new platform for dying musical languages. He adds that Coke Studio isn’t “a commercial platform, it’s become commercial because people have liked it, but it was never meant to be. We have never succumbed to the pressures like, ‘Oh God, there are so many fans now that we have to cater to the public taste.’ In fact, it’s even more experimental this time.”

Asked about Coca-Cola taking the show to India, Hyatt is hopeful. “From what I am seeing and hearing, India is also trying to reinvent itself. Trying to totally steer away from Bollywood. Just look at the palette they have in terms of raw talent. Music is part of their philosophy. With a palette like that, you could paint a very interesting picture.”

It’s true that Indian radio stations play Bollywood beats obsessively, and it’s only in recent years that non-movie songs by Rabbi Shergill, Kailash Kher and others have made it to FM. As composer-singer Shankar Mahadevan—who featured in the first episode—told NDTV, “Bollywood is huge, I admit, but isn’t our country huge too?”

As someone who only discovered Coke Studio earlier this year, I didn’t have quite as long to wait for Coca-Cola to bring their venture to India. Perhaps that’s why I don’t share the skepticism of long-time fans when Coke Studio India, officially known as Coke Studio@MTV, debuted in India last Friday at 7 p.m. on the popular music channel. The blog Kafila pronounced, “The unanimous verdict is that Coke Studio India (first aired on the Friday that went by) is no match for Coke Studio Pakistan.”

But Coke Studio Pakistan is mature, and in its fourth season, having produced more than 80 songs; Coke Studio@MTV is six tunes old—an infant in comparison. It’s true, the Indian show could lose the flashing strobe lights and nightclub-like atmosphere, and there’s a lot out there apart from drums and catchy beats, but I for one enjoyed the debut and am looking forward to more. (Watch the first six episodes here.)

The second show is tonight. I, for one, am holding back on the criticism and am cheering with all my might. As much as MTV channel head Aditya Swamy says, “We are not at all worried about TRPs. All we want is to promote pure music [and] youngsters to enjoy the sound of various regions of India,” I am in no hurry to lose a genuine attempt to foster dialogue between India’s diverse musicians to low ratings and an indifferent audience.

Upma as prepared by Top Chef winner Floyd Cardoz

Upma as prepared by Top Chef winner Floyd Cardoz

2. Speaking of success stories, I was buoyed to learn of Indian chef Floyd Cardoz taking home the top prize in the 2011 season of the reality show Top Chef Masters. Top Chef—my favorite cooking show—is a competition among chefs featuring unusual challenges. Past episodes have featured cook-outs on the beach, with the chefs catching the seafood they will serve; cooking with no utensils; cooking with whatever ingredients are on board a ferry; cooking meals reminiscent of their childhoods; cooking healthy versions of the favorite meals of contestants on The Biggest Loser, a weight-loss reality show; creating their own restaurants; and more.

Fellow Mumbaikar Floyd Cardoz won for his preparation of the South Indian upma (as part of a three-course meal that also included a rice-crusted snapper in fennel-laced broth and a reinterpreted version of a beef stew called rendang). Not my first choice at an Udipi restaurant, but still so exciting! Cardoz’s $100,000 grand prize will be donated to the Young Scientist Cancer Research Fund in memory of his father, who died of cancer. After his win, Cardoz tweeted, “Woke up with a hangover. that’s what a magnum of Dom does to you when you celebrate a #TopChefMasters win. I welcome this headache anytime.”

Cardoz, recently of the Indo-French restaurant Tabla, which shut its doors last December, is the new chef of the forthcoming Danny Meyer seafood restaurant in Battery Park, North End Grill. Am looking forward to trying it out!

Meanwhile, here’s his recipe for upma if Top Chef inspired you to give it a try:

Wild Mushroom Upma Polenta with Kokum & Coconut Milk

Four servings

Ingredients

2 cups cream of wheat
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons shallots
1 tablespoon ginger
1 tablespoon chillies
3 cups chicken stock
3 cups coconut milk
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cilantro, as garnish
Pea shoots, as garnish
Mushrooms
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 cup oyster mushrooms
1/2 cup Maitake
1/2 cup king oyster mushrooms
2 shallots
1 chilli pepper
1 knob ginger
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup white port
1 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

Directions
1. Heat oil and cream of wheat and toast for 10 minutes on low heat. Remove from pan
2. Heat oil mixture then add mustard seeds and whisk until seeds pop. Add cumin and reserve
3. Heat pan. Add spice oil and butter. Add shallots, ginger, chillies, and cook for 2-4 minutes. Add cream of wheat and cook for 3-4 minutes. Add stock and coconut milk. Mix and cook. Simmer
4. Should be smooth.

Directions for mushrooms
1. Heat oil in sauté pan. Add mushrooms and cook with lightly coloured sear
2. Add butter, shallots, ginger and chilli
3. Deglaze with white port
4. Season with salt and pepper and cilantro.

3. You’ve probably heard of “coyotes” who bring Mexican undocumented immigrants across the border to the United States for hefty sums; in India, the coyotes are called “linemen” and they’re not much different. So says Scott Carney in the new issue of Foreign Policy, in his excellent story, “Fortress India.” In it, Carney describes a “Berlin Wall” that is being constructed by India on its border with Bangladesh, to keep its northern neighbors out. The wall has been in existence since the late 1980s, and is close to completion—the final section will be completed in 2012.

Shockingly—or perhaps, not so shockingly—the Indian Border Security Force guarding the wall has notched up nearly 1,000 killings since 2000, roughly two per week. Carney writes:

In India, the 25-year-old border fence — finally expected to be completed next year at a cost of $1.2 billion — is celebrated as a panacea for a whole range of national neuroses: Islamist terrorism, illegal immigrants stealing Indian jobs, the refugee crisis that could ensue should a climate catastrophe ravage South Asia. But for Bangladeshis, the fence has come to embody the irrational fears of a neighbor that is jealously guarding its newfound wealth even as their own country remains mired in poverty. The barrier is a physical reminder of just how much has come between two once-friendly countries with a common history and culture — and how much blood one side is willing to shed to keep them apart.

And with climate change wreaking havoc on ecologically sensitive Bangladesh, things are expected to get a lot worse.

Situated on a delta and crisscrossed by 54 swollen rivers, Bangladesh factors prominently in nearly every worst-case climate-change scenario. The 1-meter sea-level rise predicted by some widely used scientific models would submerge almost 20 percent of the country. The slow creep of seawater into Bangladesh’s rivers caused by global-warming-induced flooding, upriver dams in India, and reduced glacial melt from the Himalayas is already turning much of the country’s fertile land into saline desert, upending its precarious agricultural economy. Studies commissioned by the U.S. Defense Department and almost a dozen other security agencies warn that if Bangladesh is hit by the kind of Hurricane Katrina-grade storm that climate change is likely to make more frequent, it would be a “threat multiplier,” sending ripples of instability across the globe: new opportunities for terrorist networks, conflicts over basic human essentials like access to food and water, and of course millions of refugees. And it’s no secret where the uprooted Bangladeshis would go first. Bangladesh shares a border with only two countries: the democratic republic of India and the military dictatorship of Burma. Which would you choose?

The migrants will continue to come, and many will die—unnecessarily—at the hands of trigger-happy soldiers. Since liberalization of its economy in the 1990s, India has been keen to imitate the United States’ worst habits: McDonald’s; privatization to the detriment of the population; the workings of its newspaper industry, now foundering badly. In this, too, the U.S. example has not been a successful one. Criminalizing immigrants, erecting fences, xenophobic attitudes: none of this has worked. It’s time to find another path.

The Beautiful and the Damned by Siddhartha Deb

The Beautiful and the Damned by Siddhartha Deb

4. Finally, we are seeing India’s new Internet laws in motion, in the recent lawsuit for “grave harassment and injury” that businessman and Bollywood dabbler Arindam Chaudhuri has launched against journalist Siddhartha Deb, the publishers of The Caravan, which published Deb’s profile of Chaudhuri, Penguin, which is publishing Deb’s forthcoming book, The Beautiful and the Damned, of which the Chaudhuri chapter forms a part, and, bizarrely, Google India.

Check out my previous post about the broad, vaguely worded and regressive new law. I hope to write more on this issue later, so I will keep it short here. Please do read Deb’s profile of Chaudhuri: it’s exceedingly well-written, incisive and even-handed (apologies for the formatting; The Caravan was forced to remove the article from their website by the Assam court, where the suit was filed), and Chaudhuri’s fulminating rebuttal—where he praises the new Internet rules, and which was published in a magazine that he owns—here. The Caravan promises to keep readers updated on the progress of the case. In their editorial on the issue, they say that they intend to “fight this suit because we believe that we must defend the right of journalists to report on controversial subjects or persons without undue fear of legal intimidation from powerful entities or organisations that seek to insulate themselves from criticism.” Amen.

Four on Friday

13 May Saravana Bhavan at 26th and Lex

THIS is a new format of blog post that I am trying out—to post four links, or highlight four interesting news items, or show you four photographs I really like, and so on—for Friday afternoons, when the yawns come frequently, the sun is shining outside so why are you stuck inside, and the brain cells are mushy. They might be a random collection or might share a common thread—I haven’t decided yet. Continue reading

Watch This Movie!

11 May A still from Nero's Guests

NERO’S GUESTS: The Age of Inequality is being shown at CUNY tomorrow at 7 p.m. Continue reading

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29 other followers