Monday, February 29, 2016

The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions -- Like Reservations. But Where's Hell These Days?

For the crying babies of Haryana, the promise of milk was not enough. They kept crying violently for the actual delivery of their elixir. The inexperienced state government was too scared to do anything, bringing Delhi into the picture. Originally meant to ensure social justice, reservations have become too hot even for Delhi to handle, for Haryana's Jats inspired Rajasthan's Rajputs to go on the war path. When Jats and Rajputs rise, can Marathas be far behind? Looming over them all are of course the Patidars of Gujarat, now thinking about the futility of being peaceful. What a mess.

The Rajputs saw the Jats' violence as worthy of emulation. One of their leaders said: "Look at the Jats. They created such chaos that the Government had to respond. We will do the same if our demands are not met". Fortunately they have suspended plans to agitate simultaneously in many states. But for how long?

A ruling party MP from Gujarat said: "If Jats get reservation, so should Patidars". The jailing of Hardik Patel on sedition charges has not discouraged them. At least 350 Patels are on fast. Some leaders have denounced the state government's negative response and said the authorities are "inviting Naxalism in the state". Four buses were set on fire by angry mobs in the last few days.

Sections of Muslims have now started asking for reservations. In the south Brahmins, as a minority community, have also been demanding reservations. Where is this all-consuming movement leading us? To heaven, say the protagonists. Or could it be to hell? Let no one dismiss the latter possibility out of hand. There is a strong strain of logic in support of hell as a desirable destination. A mind not to be changed by place or time/ My mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven/... Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

Hell can also be seen through a coldly scientific prism. Internet aficionados got a view of this a year ago when a professor at the University of Arizona released what a student wrote in answer to the question: Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat). Those who have already seen this on the net may yet have another read if only to savour the profundity of it all. One student answered:

First we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So we need to know the rate at which souls are moving into Hell and the rate at which they are leaving. We can safely assume that once a soul gets into Hell, it will not leave. Therefore no souls are leaving. As for how many souls are entering Hell, let's look at the different religions that exist in the world today.

Most of these religions state that if you are not a member of that religion, you will go to Hell. Since there are more than one religion and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all souls go to Hell. With birth and death rates being what they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially. Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyle's Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand proportionately as souls are added.

This gives two possibilities. If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose. Or, if Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over.

So which is it? If we accept the postulate given to me by Teresa that "it will be a cold day in Hell before I love you", and take into account that last night she told me she loved me, then I am sure Hell is exothermic and has already frozen over. It follows that Hell is not accepting any more souls and is therefore extinct".

Or, depending on our definitions of nationalism, we can say Hell has relocated itself in Syria, in JNU, in television chat shows, in the citadels of the political party we dislike. It's always the other guy who is in the wrong.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Things that should never happen in a country are happening in India. Duty loses its meaning

Yaksha asked: "What is ignorance?" Yudhishtira replied: "Not knowing one's duty". That was a perfect answer in the days of Sanatana Dharma when good was good, bad was bad and all were agreed on what was duty. Sanatata Dharma is no longer practised in our country. So what is good is bad for some, what some see as duty is seen by others as abuse of duty. As a result, things that should never happen in a civilised nation -- and has never happened in India before -- are happening now.

A lawyer shouted slogans inside a court that was in session in the Supreme Court. No doubt he considered it his duty to violate his professional oath. Some two dozen lawyers inside the High Court premises in Delhi attacked students and journalists. Despite nationwide condemnation, the same lawyers repeated their violence the next day, this time throwing stones even at the eminent lawyers deputed by the Supreme Court to report on the situation. No doubt these lawyers considered it their duty to behave like street rowdies. On both days of violence, the police decided that their duty was to do nothing. Lawyers and policemen turned political partisans in what was obviously a planned ideological showdown. In today's India Yudhishtira would not have got away with his generic reference to duty.

Out country is in turmoil. Headlines are all about disturbances and violence, lynchings and suicides, about politicians speaking without restraint; one MLA, after belabouring a student outside the court premises in Delhi, said that it would be proper to kill anyone who mouthed "anti-national" slogans. The word "national" has become, like duty, a freewheeling term, its meaning changing with the politics of the user. Outfits with differing definitions of patriotism, such as Maoists, Kashmiri separatists, Bhajrang Dal and Hindu Parishat have entered the fray with menacing moves.

Extremism often scares its own children. Three leaders of the Hindutva student union, ABVP, have resigned from their union posts in Jawaharlal Nehru University in protest against the Government's policy of "oppression" against students. Their letter said: "Every day we see people assemble at the front gate of JNU with the Indian flag to beat up students. This is hooliganism, not nationalism".

JNU turning into a war zone is a blow to higher education in India. The basic role of universities is to develop the spirit of inquiry in young minds, to foster dissent and debate. But things have been moving in the opposite direction in our universities lately. Ugly controversies, triggered by political interference, marked the recent history of the Madras Institute of Technology, Punjab University, Banares Hindu University and even Shantiniketan. Sedition charges are freely employed to silence critics. As the Supreme Court put it: "Something extraordinary is going on in this country".

The real tragedy is that we cannot discuss these issues in a rational and mature way. Partisan politics does not welcome reasoning; a lone lawyer who supported JNU students was surrounded, beaten up and thrown out of the court compound by the activist lawyers. How then can reason prevail? British novelist Julian Barnes once said that "the greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably". He was not dubbed anti-national in his country. We are different, we honour manufactured nationalism. And we enforce it without mercy.

A healthy mixture of nationalism and mercy would have cleansed our penal code by removing, or at least amending the colonial era law on sedition. Britain itself abolished it in 2009. But both the Congress and the BJP want to keep it in the statute books because it provides an easy way to shackle inconvenient people. As we fight and attack one another and turn universities into battlegrounds and courtrooms into slogan-shouters' arenas, we jeopardise our plans to progress economically. A disunited people cannot provide the environment for progress, economic or otherwise. The world wonders about our efforts to become a global powerhouse.

Yaksha asked: What enemy is invincible? What is the incurable disease? What sort of man is noble and what sort ignoble? Yudhishtira answered: Anger is the invincible enemy. Covetousness is the incurable disease. He is noble who desires the wellbeing of all creatures, and he is ignoble who is without mercy.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The fall of a state that was once a world model; Kerala VIPs face the fury of a woman scorned

To coin a new phrase, Whither Kerala?

For the first time in history a woman of colourful reputation, backed by a jail term, has become the fulcrum of power in the state, holding the chief minister, several ministers, MLAs and police bosses to ransom. To understand the enormity of this achievement, we must remember that the present chief minister, Oommen Chandy, is the shrewdest political manipulator Kerala has ever seen. He plotted the ouster of the influential K.Karunakaran and of the popular A.K.Antony from chief ministership, thus clearing the way to his own rise to the top. He also subdued his alliance partners K.M.Mani and Kunjalikutty, masters of machinations in their own right, the moment they showed signs of asserting themselves. Such a genius of intrigue being upstaged by a charming cheat?

But Sarita Nair is no ordinary woman. A B.Com graduate and mother of two, she dances and a film or two featuring her are in the works. She began life with a bank job which she used to take loan seekers for a ride. Articulate, intelligent and bold to a fault, she seems ready for a fight whoever the adversary. She was made for politics.

But she went into business. With a partner (now in jail for, among other things, killing his wife), she floated a company to provide solar energy to all kinds of enterprises. Finding shortcuts through political influence was the preferred modus operandi of the company. Chief Minister Chandy was one of her early contacts and she used the link to line up some big deals. When the bubble burst she said vast sums of money were paid to VIPs while some VIPs tried to exploit her as a woman.

In the initial stages Sarita never made any charges against Oommen Chandy himself. But he must have been rattled within. He made two uncharacteristic mistakes. The first was to say that he did not know Sarita Nair and never met her. In no time photographs appeared on screens and in newspapers showing Sarita whispering things into the ears of the Chief Minister. Subsequently Chandy said he might have seen her two or three times. Against published and telecast evidence, the Chief Minister sounded like telling untruths. In the eyes of the public, he lost.

His second mistake was another untruth. Commentators started saying that Chandy was reaping what he had sowed when he used the ISRO spy case of 1994 against K.Karunakaran. Chandy challenged the media to cite a single instance of his attacking Karunakaran over the ISRO case. In no time, the channels showed a young Oommen Chandy softly but in strong words saying that the ISRO case had so badly damaged Karunakaran's and the Congress's reputation that his continuance in office would be fatal for the party. When the news clip was brought to his attention, he smiled and brazened it out by denying any link between 'then' and 'now'. In the eyes of the public, he lost heavily.

Sarita Nair, having initially "protected" the Chief Minister, later turned against him because, she said, there was no sign of his returning to her, as promised, the money she had paid to his nominees at various times. Indicating that there was some truth in her claims, a couple of the Chief Minister's close personal aides had to abruptly leave their jobs in the early stages of the scandal. Now, openly and directly, Sarita said she had paid a bribe of Rs 1.9 crore to the Chief Minister's personal representative in Delhi. Denials by party spokesmen filled the air. Then, before a jungle of television cameras, raising her finger as well as her voice, Sarita challenged the Chief Minister (without mentioning his name) to file an FIR against her. People were stunned.

In the last week or so the master tactician in Oommen Chandy seems to have recovered. Vigilance and police reports have come out exposing "conspirators" behind Sarita Nair. The needle of suspicion points to government leaders, primarily because some of the ministers are known for corruption. But counter disclosures help fill the air with confusion, giving the Chandy group some breathing space.

The real tragedy is Kerala's. Till a decade ago the "Kerala model" was internationally lauded for its achievements in the social sector. The state's educational advancement and village-covering health services were the envy of others. All that is gone. Now money rules. Perhaps Kerala will fare better if Sarita Nair becomes the next Chief Minister. It certainly will not fare worse.

Monday, February 8, 2016

News TV Has Offensive Ways & Film-Star Anchors. Luckily This Anchor Tells Unfolding History

Indian news television demeans India. It has tribal characteristics that are eccentric and, more often, offensive. Only in India do news anchors outshout their guests. Only in India do channels crowd the little screen with so many different elements -- multiple layers of headlines on screen top, then the main picture and a subsidiary picture splitting the screen, more headlines further below, a trailing line of spot news at screen bottom plus logos and sponsor's name and, not to be missed, the talking head of the channel's anchor hero popping up now and again, all simultaneously flashing and jumping for attention. One ridiculous channel even has a line of fire raging across the middle of the screen to indicate that burning issues are being debated. Is this what made US Vice President-turned environmentalist Al Gore say: The idiot box judges news by the maxim -- if it bleeds, it leads; if it thinks, it stinks?

This kind of journalism assumes that viewers are morons who will believe anything they are told. Responsible journalism is just the opposite. In print or television, nothing is more precious than trust -- the trust readers/viewers place in the providers of news and comments. The trust is earned through respect for the reader/viewer. In pre-independence India, the judicious prudence of C.Y.Chintamani was so patent that even the power-wielders he criticised would wait eagerly for his editorials which sometimes extended from one day to the next. In the early decades of independence Sham Lal's erudite integrity was so influential that his weekly column, Life and Letters, could make or mar a book.

For comparable cases in television journalism, we must go West. Walter Cronkite, CBS anchor in the 1960s and 70s, was known as "the most trusted man in America". BBC's Richard Dimbleby was celebrated for his running commentary on historic events such as Churchill's funeral. When he was in charge of the microphone, it was said, people felt "they were in safe hands". If the Cronkite-Dimbleby standards had inspired our nascent news television, we would have taken quick steps to maturity. Instead, we followed Fox News style of sensationalism.

This wide-angle view might help us see Barkha Dutt's India in perspective. Ms. Dutt's book This Unquiet Land: Stories from India's Fault Lines cannot be separated from the work that has made her the signature face of India's news television. But she has risen above the quick-fix cheapness of Indian news television and given us a treatise that is as much a summing up of our "uncaring, unequal society" as the case diary of a daring journalist.

She opens with an anecdote to show that "nothing, no matter how crazy, would stop me in my efforts to get a good story". That is so with all good journalists. In print few tomtom it. In TV, too, foot soldiers of ability provide foundational reporting without staking big claims -- Pallavi Ghosh, Arunima, Bhavtosh, Suhasini Haidar to mention a few random examples. But in India anchors are film stars. Ms. Dutt is so well endowed with qualities of leadership and enterprise that her zeal for chasing stories could have been left for viewers to see for themselves and admire.

Ditto with some of the achievements she highlights. True, she carried the Kargil story into the homes of India. But wasn't that really the impact of television? It certainly wasn't comparable to the feat of W.H.Russell whose words-only account of the Crimean War in the 1850s was effective enough to inspire Florence Nightingale to take to battlefield nursing as her life's mission.

The celebrity Ms. Dutt is, she really has no need for name-dropping, no need to tell us how she met Narendra Modi casually at the "wedding of the son of my friend Shobhana Bhartia, the well-liked owner of the Hindustan Times", or how Nawaz Sharif "invited me to the Delhi Taj Mansingh Hotel to have a cup of tea with him". For that matter, she could have avoided justifying her tryst with lobbyist Niira Radia's influence-peddling in Delhi. The more we try to justify some messy situations, the messier they become.

That said, Ms. Dutt's is a timely book. As a feminist and virtual participant in current history, she has used her unique position to paint a realistic picture of India and its wellknown and unknown newsmakers. She writes with courage and candour, above all, without partisanship in an age of sickening partisanship. She is talented and skillful and she has written an honest book. Read it.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Great deal of sound and fury over Bose papers, but no real information. Is history bunk?

So, did Netaji die in that air crash or not? After the high drama over the release of the Bose papers, we still do not know. Actually the confusion has become more confounding. Those who swear by the air crash theory are as categorical as those who say he died a natural death in India in the 1980s.

Politics colours every bit of the Bose story. It is known that some files marked "Whereabouts of Subhas Chandra Bose" disappeared from the Internal Security Division's desks in the 1970s. One known as Nehru's master file on Bose was destroyed during Indira Gandhi's rule. It is no secret that Nehru's intelligence agencies kept watch on Bose's relatives. Why would they do such things unless they believed that Bose was alive and could be plotting to unseat the Government?

Several inquiry commissions looked into the Bose mystery. Some were cover-up jobs. Some brought out inconvenient details which were never followed up. For example, when a sanyasi known as Gumnami Baba died in his Faizabad retreat in the 1980s, his belongings packed in 24 trunks were kept in the Faridabad treasury. Why is there no official information about this?

Justice M.K.Mukherjee, head of one of the inquiry commissions, had seen 40 trunks with the sanyasi's belongings. These included documents about the freedom struggle, books in Bengali as well as English, and old photographs of Bose family members. Justice Mukherjee said the handwritings of the sanyasi and Bose "matched perfectly" as certified by B.Lal, director of the National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Science. Off the record, he said, "I am one-hundred percent sure that [the sanyasi] was Netaji". But his official report said Netaji died in the air crash; the government's non-cooperative attitude, he said, had prevented him from gathering evidence. Morarji Desai, as Prime Minister, once said that Bose was not dead, "he has taken sanyas". But he would say nothing more. All governments played politics over Bose.

In the current round of the game, a new angle has been added -- that it was the Indian National Army that brought about the end of the empire by encouraging mutiny in the regular armed forces of India and thereby scaring the colonial rulers out of their wits; this fact is underplayed in order to give credit to the Gandhi-Nehru-Patel group, and therefore history must be rewritten to give Bose due credit.

No one ever denied the importance of the INA in the freedom struggle. Its heroism did cut into the morale of the regular forces. But that became a factor in British decision-making because Clement Attlee was the Prime Minister there. He was a social worker before he joined the Labour Party. If Winston Churchill, the unwavering imperialist, were the Prime Minister, the INA survivors and regular troops who showed any interest in them would have been summarily dealt with.

India won independence with the sacrifice of millions of people and the leadership of many groups. Gandhian ideas contributed as much as Netaji's military approach. We should be grateful that the formation of government was on the basis of the Gandhi-Nehru-Patel group's ideas. Netaji's concept was that free India should have a dictatorship for at least 20 years.

The rewrite-history school must also consider how warm Gandhi-Nehru were to the INA and how Patel would take a different line only in the matter of discipline in the armed forces. Gandhi, an opponent of Bose in the Congress movement, was now unstinting in his praise of Bose's courage and patriotism. Nehru put on his lawyer's robes to defend the INA heroes on trial in the Red Fort. Patel shared their admiration for INA soldiers, but disapproved of the famous 1946 naval mutiny in which young Indian sailors rose in revolt against their British superiors in as many as 78 ships.

The Sardar's view was that mutiny was indiscipline and should in no circumstances be encouraged. He was so uncompromising that he took objection to Bombay's Free Press Journal giving detailed daily coverage to the naval mutiny, electrifying readers. Free Press owner S.Sadanand even gave jobs to two ring leaders of the mutiny. Sardar Patel punished Sadanand, a lifelong freedom fighter, by refusing to give him government clearances to start what would have been an Indian-owned international news agency to counter western inroads through Reuters and AP. Should we now rewrite history to show Sardar Patel as a supporter of British forces in India? Or should we repeat with Henry Ford that history is bunk?