Tag Archives: india

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.


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.


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.”

Four on Friday: The Men Choose

3 Jun

SO this week I was wondering what I’d do my weekly four-things-I-want-to-share-with-the-world post about, and the answer landed in my inbox. (Actually, it pinged me via Facebook, but inbox sounds better.) A friend—a male friend—sent me something (that has by now no doubt made its way around the world a couple dozen times) and said he thought I’d like to see it. The following day, another friend, also a guy, found me on Gmail chat and sent me a link to a podcast he thought I should write about on this blog. The men in my life seemed to be choosing this moment (well, three out of four of them anyway) to tell me about cool/interesting/weird things they wanted me to know about, so why not take advantage of it? So here’s my first reader-generated blog post.

1. If I were to start in strictly chronological order, this would have to go first. My friend Hasnain emailed me an article more than a month ago and I meant to write about it then (and I have the draft to prove it) but somehow it never got written. (A weekend trip to the Catskills may have gotten in the way.) It came back into my life through this fresh BBC post. From my incomplete draft:

April has not been a good month to be a blogger in India [May wasn’t much better and June is not looking so good either]. On April 11, the Department of Information Technology greatly tightened the rules governing Internet speech laws in the country, adding many broad and vaguely defined instances in which the government could shut down your website. A few days later, the U.S.-based watchdog organization Freedom House released its report on Freedom on the Net in India, and we didn’t do so well. Though India has no substantial political censorship, according to the report, bloggers and online users have been arrested in the past year, and our press freedom status is only “partly free.”

Many of the new “rules” stand out. Amongst the tidbits of personal information that can be collected from you, the Internet user, are  “physical, physiological and mental health condition,” and, most bewilderingly, “sexual orientation.” Seriously? It’s not clear whether giving out this information is mandatory or not, but given that it can be handed over to the government for a number of reasons, it’s troubling, at best.

Canadian media artist runran, who took this photograph, says that Internet speeds in Pushkar, India, are akin to paint drying

Canadian media artist runran, who took this photograph, says that Internet speeds in Pushkar, India, are akin to paint drying

Even more disturbing is this rule, which prohibits Internet users from displaying or hosting information that “is grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever; harm[s] minors in any way” or “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states, or or public order or causes incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence or prevents investigation of any offence or is insulting any other nation.”

From the BBC post:

The onus on host websites to remove objectionable content is a cause for concern to Mahesh Murthy who runs Pinstorm, a digital marketing agency in Mumbai which manages clients’ online brand presence.

“Any individual can write to us and say that piece of content offends us and without any recourse we have to take it down,” he says.

“This gives us an extremely onerous responsibility to be able to police every bit of content before it goes out,” adds Mr Murthy.

The new guidelines are, in part, a response to the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, planned with the help of cell phones and anonymous email addresses. And other governments have similarly restrictive rules. But India’s record in using vague laws to go after its political opponents is not reassuring anyone.

2. The Facebook pinger, my friend Zed, sent me this Guardian article with British author V.S. Naipaul’s inflammatory remarks. In an interview with the Royal Geographic Society this week, he claimed that he considers no female writer his match. You’ve no doubt read or heard of this piece, which has been causing so much furor in the UK and here in the United States, already, but here are some choice bits:

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of [Jane] Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

And also:

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.

But the part that spawned a mini-series of follow-ups was his claim to be able to tell work written by a man as opposed to a woman from a short sample:

He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

The Guardian humorously decided to query its readers to find out who among us can claim the same perspicacity as the Nobel Laureate with their “Naipaul test.” (Through sheer guesswork, I scored five out of 10.) The UK’s Telegraph also devised a similar test, though with five samples only. (In that one, I only guessed one correctly, and ironically, I guessed that the excerpt by Naipaul himself had been written by a woman. Wonder what Naipaul would make of that.)

Naipaul has been given enough publicity in the past week, what with his reconciliation—after a period of 15 years—with Paul Theroux over the weekend, and now this. This Wall Street Journal blog had the right idea, when it published an interview with Jennifer Egan, the 2011 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad (which, coincidentally, I just finished reading this past weekend), in which she said:

He may feel like he’s dealt a difficult and painful blow to women, but he makes himself look silly and outdated. And honestly, pretty vain.

Read this 1998 interview Naipaul gave to The New Yorker for an insightful portrait of the author.

UPDATE: I just came across this piece in the Indian newspaper Mint (where I’ve published several travelogues over the years) by Supriya Nair, which impressed me so much that I’m tempted to quote it in full. But that’s bad blogger etiquette, so here are the bits I liked best:

[Y]ou’ve probably seen these charts that came out earlier this year, which ran some numbers on how many women writers were reviewed in America’s top literary magazines — and how many women reviewers wrote for these publications. In some of the Anglophone world’s most liberal, forward-thinking — indeed, downright groundbreaking — publications, the imbalance on these counts isn’t small. In fact, it’s shocking.

Go look at those charts again. I’ll wait.

So, as you can see, women writers have bigger things to worry about other than VS Naipaul not liking their feminine sensibilities. (I mean, what next? Gay writers too caught up in unimportant things like sexuality? Japanese writers write too much about Japan? Derek Walcott just not understanding the West Indies? I’m agog, Naipaul. Agog!)

But — are they really bigger things? When I read Naipaul’s reported statements, after I laughed at him as you laugh at Internet trolls, I couldn’t help but think of the literary establishment responsible for the negligible importance given to women writers and reviewers, as the VIDA numbers demonstrate. VS Naipaul is a Nobel Laureate, read, reviewed and debated extensively — not to mention celebrated — in the pages of global opinion-makers like Harper’s Magazine (number of male reviewers in 2010: 27. Number of female reviewers: 7). And The New York Review of Books (number of male authors reviewed in 2010: 306. Number of female authors reviewed: 59). The New Yorker (male reviewers: 29. Female reviewers: 8).

Go read the full post here.

3. My friend Irfan (sometime Gmail chatter and full-time Canadian resident) sent me a link to this CBC podcast the other day, with this endorsement:

I was just amazed at this woman’s strength, courage, determination and vision.
The odds were heavily stacked against her. The environment, very hostile. Her demographic, a woman in a male dominated society.
She has a great vision to rebuild her country especially the weakest and most vulnerable…the women and children of Afghanistan.
I couldn’t help but admire her guts and her resolve.
She is winning in a society where the best of men hv failed.

How could I not listen? The interview was conducted on CBC’s The Current, with Anna Maria Tremonti, and the interviewee was Afghanistan’s first female deputy speaker of Parliament, Fawzia Koofi. The segment begins and ends with a letter Koofi reads to her preadolescent girls in case she is killed. At the time she wrote these letters, she was receiving death threats regularly. Happily, she survived to publish a memoir, Letters to My Daughters, and to garner enough support in Afghanistan that she is thinking of running in the presidential elections in her country.

Letter to my Daughters by Fawzia Koofi

Letter to my Daughters by Fawzia Koofi

Koofi was the 19th of 23 children, born to the second of her father’s seven wives. In the interview, she says, “My mother didn’t want me to be alive because she wanted me to be a son” so as not to disappoint her husband, Koofi’s father. So they put the newborn out in the sun to die.”I think for a woman, being a woman is a vulnerability sometimes,” she says.

But Koofi survived her first day, and has overcome numerous obstacles since. She was the first in her family to be educated. Her father, who was a Member of Parliament, was killed by mujahideen when she was a toddler. She had to fight with her brothers to be allowed to stand in election. Her stepbrothers would tear down her election posters when they saw them plastered on walls in public. They didn’t want their sister’s face to be displayed in public. “It’s like ownership,” Koofi said. But Koofi was already working by that time, and was financially independent, and so she prevailed. Now, she says proudly, in the last elections where she won a second term, all her brothers stood by her and supported her, putting up the previously reviled posters up in nearby villages to help her campaign efforts.

Now, at age 35, Koofi is a single parent (her husband died in 2003), a Member of Parliament, and a passionate activist for democracy and for human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan. She is the kind of role model she found in Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India when Koofi was a child.

In an interview she gave to Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, she said: “I want to tell to the world, as a woman who has lived through all the situations, that women can make a difference. I want to show how strong Afghan women are.”

Spanish Class; courtesy cappex.com

Spanish Class; courtesy cappex.com

4. The final piece of this Four on Friday post comes from my husband, Jatin, who has just begun learning Spanish. Yesterday he came home from his Spanish class with a fascinating bit of information that he knew I would enjoy: in most countries where Spanish is the native language, most women don’t take their husbands names when they marry (I didn’t take my husband’s surname when we married). Not only that, when they have children, the kids’ last names come from both parents’ last names. As About.com explains it, “If Juan López Marcos marries María Covas Callas, their child would end up with a name such as Mario López Covas.”

I’ve always thought that children should have the names of both their parents—and am delighted to know that the Spanish (thanks to an Arabic influence) have been following this democratic custom for decades and maybe even centuries.

Trafficking in Bodies

25 May
Mumbai taxis; courtesy Tom Spender

Mumbai taxis; courtesy Tom Spender

THIS post is a tribute to all those who lost their lives in senseless traffic accidents, in Mumbai, in New York, on any street anywhere in the world where a driver is speeding, perhaps under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or text message, perhaps for no reason at all, and hits a person, or two, or another car, and a body hits the pavement, and it’s too late to do anything but call for the ambulance, which in peak traffic time can take too long to arrive, so the crowd of bystanders puts the injured person in a cab and rushes him off to the closest hospital, and the cops arrive on the scene, and the driver who so unthinkingly hurtled down that street just minutes before is now shaken and shivering and looking at a life forever changed and marked, and the person bleeding his life away on the pockmarked road wasn’t doing anything different, just crossing the road like every other day of his life, and perhaps he wasn’t paying as much attention as he should, just like the driver, but he didn’t think that would mean he would end up dead, and his wife widowed and his children orphaned, all because he didn’t think to look left and right before crossing the street, and the driver didn’t think he’d actually hit anyone, because of course he has perfect control of the car and sometimes he sped up a little when he was in a hurry but he had never hurt anyone before and how had this happened in a split second, and that little girl who was in the car that passed on the other side, she shrieked and held her hands over her eyes, but she will never forget that thud as the body hit the ground, and the way the hood of the car is now misshapen, and the horrible tangle of limbs that shows that they are broken. Continue reading

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