Monday, October 26, 2015

The intolerance debate and the game of pretence. Why is a 5000-year heritage under threat?

Suddenly last week our country reverberated with voices of wisdom. Arun Jaitley's was the clearest when he spoke of "extremely disturbing trends" of intolerance and vandalism. That was precisely what victims of intolerance, social workers, newspaper editorialists, writers, artists and other segments of the powerless have been talking about for at least six months. During those months, Jaitley and fellow policy makers had dismissed them with denials and accusations of ulterior motives.

So why the sudden change of stance? The answer is that there is no change of stance. Note that Jaitley's righteous indignation was not over the murders, the lynchings, and the hate speeches that have been mocking our civilisation, but over cricket. Lynchings are of course "unfortunate". But Shiv Sena vandals barging into BCCI offices called for condemnation at a specially called press conference by the most important cabinet minister.

A charade seems to be under way in Delhi. When Jaitley was asked about intolerance and vandalism by his own party's ranking leaders, his response showed indulgence towards the leaders. He said: "The party president called the three gentlemen [the hate speech specialists]. He very firmly told them that their statements are not appreciated by the party at all. They have been put on notice. Therefore I am sure they will correct themselves".

In fact nobody was put on notice by anybody. Within hours of Jaitley's assurance, the three gentlemen corrected, not themselves, but Jaitley. Sanjeev Balyan said he had met Amit Shah for an appointment "fixed many days ago". Sakshi Maharaj said: "I am a five-time MP. To say that I was reprimanded or scolded is not responsible reporting". Sangeet Som, who had warned of Hindu retaliation in the context of the Dadri lynching uproar said: "There is no question of reprimand. Reprimanding happens when you have done something wrong. He [Shah] is our chief and I meet him regularly".

This is not the language of gentlemen who have been very firmly put on notice. These are words of determined men who are confident that they have backing from above. These are words carrying the warning that they will continue doing what they have been doing. Arun Jaitley's concern about his beloved cricket will continue, too, because the gentlemen of the Shiv Sena have threatened more action.

The really disturbing trend is that a game of pretence appears to be on. While the establishment puts out news that it is for tolerance, it does nothing to check the demagogues of intolerance. In a move typical of the game of pretence, Panchjanya publishes an article saying that the Dadri lynching would not have happened without provocation and that the Vedas mandate the killing of those who slaughter cows. (Only those who are ignorant of the Vedas will put it that way). After publishing the essay justifying lynching, the editor says the writer was only expressing his independent views. In Himachal Pradesh a driver was lynched and in Jammu & Kashmir another was burned with petrol, mobs in both cases expressing their independent views no doubt.

The truth is that intolerance in the name of religion and attendant violence have become the dominant features of life in our country. This is so damaging to India, internally and in terms of its standing in the world, that the President had to caution against communalism twice in a fortnight. Reminding the country that Indian civilisation had survived for 5000 years chiefly because of its tolerance and by accepting dissent, he said: "Humanism and pluralism should never be abandoned".

There is no indication that the President's words have gone home. Even the tattoo of a goddess on an Australian's body is enough, according to official patriots of the day, to see Indian culture under threat. Spokesmen of the BJP said the party had nothing to do with that episode. Of course it did not; no BJP office issued instructions that foreigners with goddess tattoos should be attacked. This is where the game of pretence has to end. Without instructions, an atmosphere of intolerance and vandalism has grown in the country, leaving communal zealots free to kill and attack with immunity. It is this atmosphere that is diminishing India and, if not corrected in time, may well dismantle India.

In his criticism of the Supreme Court decision to retain the power to appoint judges, Arun Jaitley said, correctly, that democracy would be in danger if it came under the tyranny of the unelected. It is facing greater danger under the tyranny of the elected.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Too many authors, too many patriots? No problem. Black paint helps meet any challenge

Perhaps we need not work ourselves into a fluster over Shiv Sena's black-paint abhishek of Sudheendra Kularni. Perhaps it was a pre-arranged operation by the two parties, with the collaboration of former Pakistan Minister Kasuri and the publisher of his autobiography. Perhaps it was a script that panned out exactly as the players wanted -- to the benefit of every participant.

Consider the facts of life, literary and political. Both fields have become complicated with too much competition. The book market has become so crowded that selling even good books has become a problem. So we can imagine what it is to sell autobiographies, the mighty domes through which politicians and generals justify their actions and glorify their names. You need a special kind of genius to sell bubbling ego.

The situation is the same in politics. There are too many parties around, all of them insisting on serving the country. When America has in effect only two parties and Britain only three (two-and-a-half, to be precise), India has 1760 registered parties. With so many recognised patriots determined to work for the development of the country, it is easy to get lost in the crowd. Again, you need a special kind of genius to convince voters that your patriotism is better than the patriotism of other patriots.

The challenge is to invent ways to forcibly attract public attention. Unfortunately everyone cannot be a Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin group of companies, who thinks up the weirdest publicity ideas to sell his products and carries them out himself. Minister Kasuri cannot bungee-jump from the top of the Kutb Minar as Branson jumped off the top of a Las Vegas hotel to celebrate Virgin Atlantic's first flight to America. Can even the new-gen Thackeray drive a tank along Marine Drive as Branson did in New York's Fifth Avenue to publicise a new cola drink he had introduced?

Lacking Branson-style chutzpah, our writers, politicians and their backers need to invent other means to sell their wares. And we have to admit that, by modern marketing principles, consecration by black paint is an effective procedure. To see the brilliance of the idea, we only have to look at how every participant gained. The Kasuri book could not have dreamed of a more dramatic blast of publicity. His publisher must be giggling all the way to the bank, even if he has to pay commission to the other players who made it all possible.

The Shiv Sena gained by becoming the cynosure of all eyes for a dazzling moment. Bal Thackeray had succeeded because his preliminary objective was economic, not communal: He set out to oust South Indians from Bombay so that middleclass jobs would go to local Maharashtrians. It was when that movement ran out of steam that he turned to a communal platform, with demonstrative symbolism against Pakistan as a headline-grabber.

If that took the Shiv Sena forward a little, it was because of the stature Bal Thackeray had managed to achieve and the marketplace politics of BJP interlocuters like Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde. With all of them gone and with Uddhav Thackeray never achieving stature, it has been an uphill task for the Shiv Sena. The Kasuri book gave them a golden opportunity. They would have invested not more than Rs 1250, the cost of one liter of Asian paint. And look at the dividend they got in terms of not only publicity but also of some badly needed clout.

Perhaps the biggest gainer was Kulkarni himself. First of all, the painted face gave him a gush of energy as he spoke animatedly before the cameras. He looked inspired as never before. More importantly, like the Shiv Sena, Kulkarni too was at a loose end. Much of his life was spent chasing some goal he did not quite seem to know; hence the somersaults he performed during his career. He started out as a communist, committed enough to become a member of the Marxist Party. Then he switched to the other extreme and joined BJP. Then he left the BJP too. Three years later he rejoined the BJP. In the course of all this toing and froing, he also spent an interlude in Tihar in the 2011 cash-for-votes scam. A busy man by any account, but still chasing that final goal of importance and influence and perhaps a bit of power thrown in. That tin of paint has pushed him to centre stage. The journey ahead should now be easier.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Dog, man's best friend, has turned into a problem. Others control it with laws. Why can't we?

We can understand the controversy over beef; it is a subject intertwined with spirituality, faith and nowadays fanatic intolerance. But dogs? In no culture is the dog an object of canonical homage. Yet dogs arouse human passions other animals don't. Is this because they often show loyalty and intelligence that are rare in the animal kingdom? Dogs' faithfulness to their masters is matched by owners' devotion to their dogs. At one end we have Queen Elizabeth proudly strolling with her pet Corgis saying "my Corgis are family". At the other extreme we have old men and old women in many countries who, though homeless themselves, live with a dozen, sometime two and three dozen, dogs each. Love of dogs is a great leveller.

But the romantic, man's-best-friend image of dogs has taken a beating in recent years. In India this is the result of the stray dogs population increasing perilously. There are said to be 35 million strays in India. In Delhi there are 3.1 lakh and 500 dog-bite cases are reported every day.

These are alarming figures in a country where rules about maintaining dogs are inadequate and their enforcement incompetent. Even the owners of pets have it easy in our country because law-makers are one-sided partisans like Maneka Gandhi. For them protection of animal rights supersedes protection of human rights. Therefore they dismiss it as a minor offence if a pet does not wear a metal tag displaying its licence details; in London the owner of such a dog will have to pay a fine as high as £ 5000. In New York City owners walk their dogs with special paper bags in hand -- to scoop up from the footpath their pets' poop. Many cities have laws that hold owners accountable if their dogs' barking creates a nuisance in public places.

The challenge posed by stray-dogs is altogether different. The compulsion to scavenge and survive on their own take many strays back to the instincts of dogs in the wild. If there is no garbage dump with enough food, a stray can run into a house and attack a child playing on the verandah. Many gruesome incidents of this kind have been reported, with photographs, in Kerala, hence the rise of public opinion in that state in favour of drastic action.

Many countries have resorted to drastic action while many others have experimented with other means. In a single incident in China recently 45,000 dogs were beaten to death. In Serbia 40,000 were killed in one go, in Rio de Janeiro 30,000. In Coimbatore two weeks ago 50 strays were found poisoned; there were 100,000 dog-bite cases in Tamil Nadu last year.

Most cities in the West strongly encourage neutering (castrating) strays with a view to reducing their numbers. Some municipalities in England add a surcharge to the license-fee of even pet dogs that are not neutered. Jaipur is often cited as an example to follow in this regard. Beginning 1994 NGOs and local authorities joined hands for a programme to sterilise and vaccinate all bitches. As a result, officials say, the stray population came down by 28 percent and the number of rabies cases became negligible. More than 3000 dogs are sterilised every year. The programme succeeded, say experts, because the sterilisation was done on a large scale. "Unless 70 percent dogs in an area are sterilised, the population will keep growing", said the chairman of the Animal Welfare Board.

Emotionalism plays tricks with us. The latest US Agriculture Department figures show that India remains the world's largest beef exporter (though, in America, beef includes buffalo as well). At the same time angry protests drowned the suggestion that we should develop dog farms, like poultry farms, to export dogs to China and Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Polynesia and Vietnam where the meat is prized.

That leaves Mahatma Gandhi as our court of appeal. In 1926 textile king Ambalal Sarabhai killed some 60 dogs roaming in his mill premises in Ahmedabad. In remorse he went to Gandhi who approved of his action. In repeated writings in Young India, he advocated a municipal bylaw authorising the destruction of unowned dogs. "There should be no stray dog", he said, "even as we have no stray cattle".

Maneka Gandhi said that the ratio of dog bites would go up with killing of dogs. When a police officer asked her about the scientific validity of that claim, she responded by getting angry.

Who should we follow - Maneka Gandhi or Mahatma Gandhi?

Monday, October 5, 2015

As IS terror grows, Russia bombs Syrian targets; the world is changing -- at India's doorsteps

When 10 million Bangladeshis poured into India to escape from the brutalities of Pakistan's army, war followed. When 12 million Syrians were uprooted and 4 million of them fled across unwelcome borders to get into Europe, a good number perishing in the seas on the way, no liberation war broke out because too many players were working at cross purposes. But with the rise and rise of the Islamic State, its barbarous beheadings and proclaimed goal of conquering the globe, the dynamics are changing. Last week Russia began aerial bombardment of Syrian targets, its first military intervention outside the old Soviet territory in 35 years. Earlier, to underline the importance of Russia's new putsch, Vladimir Putin addressed the UN for the first time in a decade and asked for a UN-backed coalition to fight IS terror. The world is changing. Where does India stand in this shifting scenario?

President Bashar Al-Assad, Syria's ruthless dictator, would have been thrown out along with Egypt's Mubarak and Libya's Gaddafi when Arab masses rose against their tyrants in 2011. But he survived because Iran backed him. Because Shiite Iran backed him, Sunni Saudi Arabia opposed him. Because Saudis opposed him, America opposed him. Because America opposed him, Russia backed him. Because the people opposed all of them, the IS gained strength.

The growth of Taliban and then of the IS was the direct consequence of flawed US policies. Never able to grasp the nuances of local forces at play, America helped build up Osama bin Laden himself in its anxiety to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. That short-term goal was achieved, but the price paid was horrendous as the collapse of New York's twin towers showed.

Learning nothing, the erratic George Bush launched the Iraq war on false pretences. Again the immediate aims were met -- US oil companies got control of Iraqi oil and Saddam Hussain was disposed of. But at what cost? Today Iraqi oil is the main income source of IS, fetching $ 8 to 10 million a month. More ominously, terrorism has grown as an ideology, making it a religious duty for many. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani put it best when he told the UN that America's two wars in the region gave "terrorists an excuse for the justification of their crimes".

Rouhani played a part in preparing the region for change. He recalibrated Iran's civil nuclear programme and thereby won the support of Barack Obama who was till then the main campaigner for sanctions against Iran. Obama began negotiations with Iran despite open opposition from long-term ally, Saudi Arabia. After that, it was not too difficult for America to realise that perhaps Iran's stand on Syria was also worth a second look.

Two factors helped change the US position. First, it was clear that even as Iran supported Assad, it had worked out plans to hold territory and influence events if Assad fell. In other words, Iran's support to Assad was tactical, not ideological. Russia's approach was the same -- that getting rid of Assad could wait because getting rid of IS terrorism was the first priority. Secondly, US policies were not producing the desired results. In fact they were counterproductive. A $ 500 million programme to train and equip rebels against Assad got stuck because many of the rebels passed on US supplied tanks and weapons to IS in return for safe passage out of the war zone.

Against this context Russia's military move appeared brilliantly timed and politically astute. Two years ago Obama was so antagonistic to Russia that he cancelled a meeting with Putin saying that there was nothing to discuss. In UN last week, he talked with Putin at length. Putin followed up quickly by ordering aerial bombardment of Syrian targets. Russian ground troops have reached Syria and an airbase has been set up.

Russia strengthened its political stand by declaring that its primary aim was to block IS fundamentalists. No one dared oppose this position since many Muslim countries themselves have been shaken by the extremism of the IS. Putin's intervention was successful enough to make the US concede that perhaps Assad could be allowed to stay on as an interim measure while the IS threat was tackled as the immediate priority.

Russia's entry has made Syria the focus of big power attention. China has stepped in, too, sending aerial equipment in support of Russia's air fleet. A Chinese naval vessel has also entered Syrian waters.

Where does India stand in this shifting scenario?