Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sedition and the Roy

Let me begin with putting my cards on the table -- I disagree with virtually everything that Arundhati Roy says or writes. I find her views infantile and polemical with no attempt at deeper analysis. She has no knowledge or understanding of context. Her 20,000 word diatribes are verbose and content-less. She criticises state sponsored schemes like Salwa Judum (and indeed she should) and defends the Naxals but has nothing to say about all the innocent people they kill regularly by blowing up railway tracks or buses or members of the police forces, including those not involved in anti-Naxal activities. Her most egregious, not to say outrageous statement was to blame the 26/11 massacre on Government policy towards Muslims in India. Not a word about the fact that it was engineered by the ISI in the friendly country across the border, nor the fact that those carrying out the attack were not Indian Muslims taking revenge on the state, but Pakistanis trained and brain washed in camps across the border. Her most recent claim was that Kashmir never acceded to India, ignoring the fact that Maharaja Hari Singh signed the instrument of accession. If this is not legally valid, as she seemed to imply, then neither was the accession of all the princely states or Hyderabad. Are we planning to undo those? She finds much that is wrong with Indian policy in Kashmir (regrettably here she is right) but finds nothing wrong with sharing the dias with Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Geelani is not just a separatist leader -- there are many in Kashmir. He is amongst the most morally and intellectually corrupt leaders of that movement. He incites young impressionable men to go and throw stones at the security forces thereby running the risk of facing a bullet. He, on the other hand, and in fear of his life stays safely indoors, unwilling to risk life and limb. His jihad involves sacrificing lives other than his own. He takes money for his 'cause' from Pakistan and yet, when he fell ill with cancer, got the Indian Government to pay for all his medical expenses in Delhi. (An average citizen of India, on the other hand, needs to depends on our notoriously ill equipped, ill managed and indifferent Government General Hospitals). And this is the man Ms. Roy sees fit to join common cause with.

And yet, is her speech worthy of a case of sedition being slapped on her? I am astounded that there has been so much discussion about this issue in the media. A couple of posts earlier, I wrote about China. Do we want to be like them? Are we like them? Do we want to put behind bars every person who says things that is against the official Government line? The BJP has of course gone overboard in asking for the death penalty for such people. But the BJP, far from becoming a mainstream right wing party, continues on its path of fascism. Does it mean P. Chidambaram must rise to the bait every time Arun Jaitley taunts him with being 'soft'? Does he or the UPA Government have no self confidence that they need to make common cause with the BJP? Where was the need to ask the Delhi Police to investigate? The Supreme Court has already ruled that freedom of speech, enshrined in our much beloved constitution by our founding fathers is not to be proscribed, except in cases where there is actual threat of war or rebellion to overthrow the Government, "Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section".

Ms. Roy's statement(s) deserves indifference, not action under sedition laws. A mature democracy cannot afford to be sidetracked by irrelevant, uninformed and infantile criticism. Even the statements of Mr Geelani (a far more dangerous and contemptible person) deserve to be ignored. As I believe they have been this time. I hope this sense continues to prevail in the future and we will be spared the pathetic 'Pity the nation...' statement of our erstwhile Booker Prize winner. It is this pitiful nation that allows her the freedom to utter whatever drivel she takes a shine to.

Update:Classic Roy! Check out the last para.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Magical Moments

At Railway Stations. From Nanopolitan.(Did they get the idea from the last scene in Slumdog Millionnare?)

The Nobel Committee Speaks up

Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Prize Committee explains why they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Evil Empire

It is painful to call one of the most economically successful countries in the world an evil empire. But consider this
...freedom, equality, and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism constitute the basic structural framework of modern governance. A "modernization" bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives humans of their rights, corrodes human nature, and destroys human dignity. Where will China head in the 21st century? Continue a "modernization" under this kind of authoritarian rule? Or recognize universal values, assimilate into the mainstream civilization, and build a democratic political system? This is a major decision that cannot be avoided.
Thus speaks the apparently infamous Charter 08 penned largely by Liu Xiaobo (the 2010 Nobel peace prize winner) and signed by, by now, thousands of people. The complete text of the charter is here. It calls for more freedom and an end to single party rule in China. And for this, a document, nobody in India, Western Europe or the Americas would glance twice at for subversive ideology, the Chinese Goverment has jailed Liu Xiaobo for 11 years! Perhaps I have a small mind that cannot grasp big ideas -- but a 11 year jail sentence for penning this Charter? The perfidy and viciousness of the Chinese Government does not stop here. The New York Times reports
The wife of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, was allowed to meet with her husband on Sunday at the prison in northeastern China where he is serving an 11-year sentence, but she was then escorted back to Beijing and placed under house arrest, a human rights group said...
Even private parties are not safe
On Friday night, the police detained 20 bloggers, lawyers and academics who gathered for a celebratory banquet at a private room in a Beijing restaurant. By Sunday night, 10 guests had been released, according to a prominent activist, Zhang Zuhua, another of Charter ’08’s main authors. Three were given eight days in detention for disturbing the peace, and seven have been escorted out of Beijing, Mr. Zhang said.
To me, these are the classic signs of an evil empire -- a powerful one, capable of doing great damage, to itself, to its people and eventually to the world. And yet, is China unique in this? Aren't there other countries equally intolerant of dissent? Then why does China get all the flak?

One of the favourite positions of the left liberal Indian establishment is to point out that we, or rather the Indian Governmemt is equally intolerant of dissenting opinions. They point to our practice of meeting unarmed protesters (or armed only with stones) with live ammunition, in Kashmir, the North East and elsewhere. And indeed, our policy (if indeed we have a coherent one) in this regard is seriously condemnable. But to compare Indian attitudes to dissenting opinions to the Chinese one, is to my mind, unadulterated balderdash. Government policy, not just in Kashmir but on everything from the economy to the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme faces daily and virulent criticism, not just in the mainstream press but also in gadfly magazines like Tehelka. And while there are occasional half-hearted attempts to harass such agencies, nobody seriously tries to throttle free expression any more. Sixty three years of a free press (and a bad 2 years of emergency) has meant that dissent is firmly entrenched in the Indian psyche and a Government can only interfere with it at its own peril. Include opinions in non anonymous blogs and you see an even more extreme and at times hysterical level of criticism. I think a comparison with China is laughable and just plain odious. At the same time, strong publicly expressed public opinion has meant that frequently the Government is forced to take cognisance, whether on Kashmir or on the Right to Information Act or on the Commonwealth Games or on a hundred other subjects.

Th other issue is about China's unique position. After all, countries like Burma (Myanmar), North Korea, or even the tin-pot desert kingdoms living off their oil, aren't exactly epitomes of democratic governance. In fact to my mind, they are worse. China today has made enormous progress, in eliminating poverty, improving education and the material wealth of its people, in its infrastructure. Its economy is a challenge to the rest of the world, which is beating a path to its door, to do business with it. And that is what makes China so much more dangerous, than those countries I mention above. In their need to do business with China, virtually all countries from the US to India are willing to overlook China's by now abysmal record of human rights. China has the potential for setting the agenda with other countries, on its own terms, and that bodes ill for the future.

Update: If you think I am prejudiced about China, maybe this Op-Ed by Paul Krugman will convince you. He is talking of the Japan China 'tiff' but the idea is the same. If I am prejudiced, then at least I am in good company.

Update 2: The Pakistan Government has come out in strong support of the Chinese position on the Nobel Prize. How does the Government of Pakistan manage to be on the wrong side every instance? And amusingly, the only Indian newspaper to report on this is the Hindu :-)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Toilet Training

Now that the noise (and noise it was) about our (un)preparedness for the Commonwealth Games has gone down, with news desks even predicting sone ki bauchar (rain of gold (medals)), I want to come back to a statement Lalit Bhanot, the Organising Committee spokesperson made, implying that Indian hygiene levels were in some sense inferior to those of Westerners. The wrath of a million or more Indians descended on his head, with Salman Rushdie, whose ghost permanently hangs around the Gateway of India, suggesting that he be spanked. Even the venerable New York Times which usually ignores all games where the US is not involved felt called upon to comment on it.

I would like to take a somewhat different perspective on this issue. I don't mean to imply that Indians are generally less hygiene conscious -- far from it -- though it is true that we have double standards as far as private and public cleanliness issues go. A person who would not dream of leaving even a shred of paper on his floor in his own house, will willingly sweep all the detritus out on the road and sometimes in front of his neighbour's house, or throw garbage on the road without thinking twice. Homes in India are regularly swept and swabbed daily (sometimes twice!), bathrooms are cleaned with gallons of water being poured all over. Most Indians in fact have a holier than thou approach towards these issues, particularly with regard to the West. We use water, they use toilet paper, how clean is that? -- is the common refrain. (Some Indians, after a stint in the West take to the Western way, considering it to be somewhat less messy. I even know a colleague who claims they have toilet trained their child to use water in Indian toilets and paper in Western toilet -- I think I am missing something here...).

But to return to my point. While the Bhanot statement was frankly stupid, there is an element of truth in it. Most Indian bathrooms, except the more modern ones, and despite the use of liberal quantities of water, would not appear clean to a Western eye. And the reason is precisely the use of water -- or rather the difference between a dry and a wet bathroom. Western bathrooms have a separate area (usually on one side) for a bath/shower. The rest of the bathroom is dry, and frequently does not even have a water outlet. In India, essentially the whole bathroom is a 'wet' area. A full scale bath/shower/bucket wash involves the liberal splashing of water in all directions, making the whole bathroom wet. (This is not helped by the fact that most Indian bathrooms are designed to have a bath area in the centre rather than a shielded off area to one side). The net result of all this is a generally higher humidity level causing mold and fungus to grow around cracks and crevices, to say nothing of water stains from the use of hard water. Most of these are tough to clean or even to prevent. Moreover, old Indian bathrooms had cement floors which are impossible to keep clean. In fact, this is the main reason why people are always asked to take off their shoes before entering a bathroom -- the danger of leaving muddy footprints, which would never happen if the bathroom were kept dry in the first place.

Overall, the idea of a dry bathroom is contrary to the Indian concept of a bathroom where liberal usage of water is considered the norm. Fortunately this is changing albeit slowly, and modern apartments do try and keep a separate area for a shower complete with shower curtain.

None of this excuses the fact that our use of public facilities is totally atrocious. We believe we have almost a right to pollute any and every public space -- assuming that there is always 'someone' to clean up after us. I am of the firm view that this attitude harks back to our old caste system. There always was someone to clean up after us, at least for the upper classes, and we continue in that mode. Which suggests that it will be a long time before these attitudes change.