Nov 26, 2009

It Was A Wednesday...

when a bunch of unknown 20-somethings held an entire nation to ransom and slapped us all out of our collective slumber. Shockingly, there was nothing we could do except live in disbelief, and post that, in denial. And today, exactly twelve moths later, we continue to be as befuddled and as helpless as we were on that dark and unforgettable night.

The night of 26/11.

The 60 hours of sheer terror. The shrieks of our souls. The death of our liberties.

Mumbai - and India - will never, never be the same again.

Today, let us take a moment from our lives and selves and remember.

Remember the mother who caressed her brave son's forehead as he lay in a tricolour-adorned coffin, prepared for his final departure from a nation that will forever be indebted to his 31 years of service to her. Remember Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan.

Remember the man who smilingly put duty above self, even as his wife and their two little sons were charred beyond recognition in an inferno that turned his world to ashes. Remember Karambir Kang.

Remember the men who fearlessly ventured out into a dark and dreadful night and took bullets in their chest, only to stop those bullets finding other innocent targets. Remember Hemant Karkare, Ashok Kamte and Vijay Salaskar.

Remember the lone braveheart who shielded an indebted nation from the crazed bullets of a frenzied beast, and captured one of them alive for the entire world to shame. Remember Tukaram Ombale.

Remember the little child whose world was taken from him without his knowing it, who still thinks his parents wait for him in a distant land, whose two-year-old heart could not understand how his life will never be the same again. Remember baby Moshe.

Remember the many lives that were placed on a precipice of danger simply to ensure the rest of us could breathe easier, those who put courage and grit to test and placed service before self, those who toiled relentlessly sans water or food to ensure the same for a billion other unknown people. Remember the NSG, the firefighters and the Mumbai Police. Remember the chefs, concierges and other staff at Taj, Oberoi and Leopold. Remember the announcers, porters and other staff at CST.

Remember the innocent persons who were indiscriminately mauled and butchered in a naked display of mindless violence, those who had no reason to die the way they did, those who were caught and killed in someone else's war. Remember the blood that painted a grotesque imagery on walls and flesh left to rot on the floors. Remember the screams of the victims, the pleas of their loved ones, the nightmares of those who waited, that dreaded phone call informing of grave injury or grim death. Remember the unspeakable pain of never seeing a loved one again, the unimaginable pain of lighting a funeral pyre. Remember the 189 dead and 329 injured of 26/11.

Remember the oily netas and babus who circled like vultures over the slain bodies, feeding their perverse fetish for the 'chair' from the blood that flowed on Mumbai's streets. Remember that they stay protected with the best security the nation can provide, while the very citizens they are elected to serve are exterminated like pests. Remember that not one of these 'powerful' people had the balls to venture out of the air-conditioned luxury of their hideyholes to witness the gory spectacle being played out. Remember that they could not provide our policemen and forces with even the basic necessities of combat - a weapon and bulletproof gear - and left them at the mercy of blood-thirsty AK47s.

Last of all, remember Ajmal Amir Kasab. Remember a boy turned into a beast, a mercenary on a cold-blooded mission of unfettered violence. Remember how a simple teenager was lured into a world that taught him nothing but hatred for others. Remember how this gun-toting horror casually target-practiced on innocent men and women and children, without the slightest regard to a human life. Remember that Kasab will be hanged to his death, but there are many more Kasabs still out there, waiting for their turn on this dangerously misguided journey to eternal damnation. We need to kill the terror and not merely the individual terrorist.

The capture of Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone surviving terrorist of the 10-strong contingent that wrecked havoc on our very psyches, was a monumental instance amongst all the madness that prevailed. It has now turned into a mockery of our judicial system, and a reminder of how worthless our lives have become. At last count, an unbelievable 31 crore of government funds have been spent away to allow this 21-year-old to live out his whims and vagaries. He needs to be kept safe for all the vital information he can provide, no doubt on that. But why should that come at the expense of taxpayers' hard-earned money and due to an unnecessarily long-drawn trial? It has been a year since he was taken into custody, and the least we can do for the memory of 26/11 is to mete out the punishment Kasab deserves.

Incidentally, as TOI reminds me, today is also the day the Indian Constitution was officially adopted by our sovereign democratic republican government. The 26/11 incident remains an unseemly blot on the very ethos of this great document - liberty, equality and fraternity. It is an insult of the highest order to the founders of our freedom and our Constitution that today we are divided on every aspect imaginable - colour, caste, race, religion, gender, language, lifestyle and choices. And not just divided. We abhor, loathe, detest each other for the very diversity that we were once so proud of. We do not hesitate to hurt or even kill those who we see as even slightly different from us. We unleash terror in the name of god, disrupt any attempt at free thinking, disallow others their very basic right to choose their individual and unique way of living. As a nation so divided and a society so flawed, what chance do we then have at protecting ourselves from external forces that wish us ill? The enemy is within. The enemy is us. And the terror is far from over yet.

A year ago, there was immense outpouring of outrage and much dismay at the rotten 'system'. We grieved, we were horrified, we were very very angry. We ranted at being repeatedly betrayed by the very system meant to guarantee a safe day out and a sound night's sleep to each one of us. We felt a vulnerability we had never felt before, even though we have had a blood-splattered history of unspeakable oppression behind us. No place seemed to be safe enough anymore, no person or group or community could be spared. We shed tears and screamed abuses. We sat through candlelight vigils and gathered for peaceful protests. And then, we once more turned our backs on the 'system' and holidayed when we should have stayed back and voted for our futures.

Terror is not a partisan project. It is a national challenge. It is a question the terrorists have asked us. It is an answer the world expects from us. It is the ultimate test of how potent our anger is, of how we are a people of action and not words, of how there is much more to us than hysteria and jingoism. It is our reminder to never forget and not simply move on. Not this time. Never again.

26/11 is truly a wake-up call - not just for our porous security system, but a stark reminder of a disconnect between the average Indian and the India as a nation. That is the lesson we should have learnt last year. Neverthesless, we still can learn it. We need to fight for the right of every Indian to live with dignity. We need to fight against being taken for granted at every step - by the system, by the political clout, by each other, and by ourselves.

We need to ensure that we kindle a flame in our minds and hearts, not at India Gate or Jantar Mantar or the Gateway of India. The battle needs to be won in our own lives before it can be won across our borders. And who better than our all-encompassing, inclusive and pluralistic democracy to win it? We let down ourselves on 26/11, and we now need to truly convince ourselves that we mean it when we say "never again". That will be our true tribute to the martyrs and victims of 26/11, and a lesson for those who continue to harbour a thought of aiming for our soul again.

With the years, our memories will fade and our cries will silence out. We will move on to that which is less horrific and more comforting. We will, as we always invariably do, adjust. But it should never happen without constructive reforms in the very 'system' we have begin to loathe. We need to secure our nation. No, we needed that yesterday. Today, we need to meet our own eyes in the mirror, to acknowledge that deep down we know the fault lies within. We need to rise above our own ineptitude and bring the change we wish upon ourselves. We need to unite as a nation - a nation of individuals who are different yet whose hearts beat together. We must see each other as human first and Indian next, and nothing else thereafter. Only then we shall have truly moved on.

Aug 15, 2009

India - Temptress, Enchantress, Seductress

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward into ever-widening thought and action -
Into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake.

This is indeed India! She is the land of dreams and romance, of stories and songs. She shows us fabulous wealth and abject poverty, splendour and despair, palaces and hovels in equal measure. She is draped in myth and mysticism, studded with faith and belief, caressed by the seas and the sands. She is the country of a billion people and a hundred tongues, home to thousand cultures and traditions, steeped in the history of an eternity. She is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech. She is the one country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for her own and others, for the lettered and the ignorant, for the wise and the foolish, for the rich and the poor.

India has never been the claim of any one group or community. She has been looted, plundered, enslaved and abused countless times, yet like a phoenix she manages to rise again and again miraculously. She is a nation that has seen many empires rise and fall - the Hindu kings, the Mughals, the British. A nation dotted with the signs and symbols of a glorious past at every step, she revels in being the cradle of ancient civilisation and prides in having borne the first footprints of art. She is the land of saints and scientists, of warriors and world leaders, of fields and enterprises, of the brave and the brilliant.

India is a multitude of feelings to a multitude of people. For some she is noisy, chaotic and overwhelming. For others she is mildly distressing in parts and mostly beyond any sort of rational analysis. For yet others she is all the things one may seek to keep out of their life. But I love India for precisely that reason - we live simple and boring routine lives, yet the air around us is electrified with the spirit of those very mundane lives we live. There is chaos in the calm, and serenity in the rush all around, but we all fit in effortlessly and seamlessly.

India is where Punjab dances in sheer abandon and laughs an equally boisterous guffaw. India is where the tameez and tehzeeb of UP would never let a guest leave hungry. India is where the intellectual Bengal comes together at an adda session to discuss everything from the Sensex to sandesh. India is where dreams are born and nurtured in the studios of Mumbai and the schools of Kerala. India is where a million colours come alive in kaleidoscopic Rajasthan and narrate the tales of valour. India is where the mellifluous Carnatic melody meets the divine rhythm of Hindustani music. India is redolent in the sandalwood of Karnataka and the apples of Himachal. India is where the sweetness of Gujarat blends with the rustic charm of MP so seamlessly they appear as one. India is where the gaeity of Goa and the sobriety of Haryana coexist in unfalliable harmony. India is where the kangris of Kashmir warm the bosom of Tsmil Nadu across thousands of miles. India is where the grace of Odissi and the poise of Kuchipudi are a sight to behold, while the lilting strains from the far East reach every heart and brighten every smile. India is where tradition embraces modernity, where religion and science intertwine, where festive cheer and sombre emotions live in sync.

India is lavish weddings and melancholic funerals. India is determined progress and persevering faith. India protests against injustice and applauds achievements on her streets. India endures scorching noons and freezing nights to toil towards a better tomorrow. She sits as one among the many who come to make themselves heard. A nation of contrasts, she lives in palatial bungalows and shabby slums, she avers a myriad cusswords and a million prayers, she plays cricket and politics with equal dexterity. India is the largest and strongest middle-class, the most number of youth and children, the fastest developing economy and the most capable workforce. She is the deprived and the nouveau rich, the elite and the wannabes, the glamorous and the earthy, the aam janta and the yuppy youngsters. She is where many worlds collide in the trains and buses, where many stories are woven in backyards and under trees, where tempers run short and teleserials long, where drama unfolds more on the streets than on the screen. India is where fact truly is stranger than fiction.

But India is not just this. She is much more. She is just like any other nation, and yet not like them. She is a conurbation where cricket and cinema reign, where commercial success can come through leisure pursuits too. Her people are volatile and articulate, and topics from global warming to the price of arhar daal are discussed threadbare over steaming cups of chai. She is more a living person than a nation, a person with varied interests and mellow moods. One simply needs to lose their self in the myriad hues, flavours and aromas of India. Her citizens exhibit a great joie de vivre firmly entrenched in intellectual vitality and an unrivalled spirit.

India remains an enigma; she continues to mystify novices and to rouse lasting nostalgia in the minds of those who have lived there. India not only openly shows all aspects of life, she also demands to act continually. She expects one and all to stretch their street wisdom to the extreme. Compare her to a fantasy park in which the theme is not a fable but all that life is and necessitates. For those who want life itself to be an adventure, India is the fantasyland to visit. Simply walking her streets has the pleasure of being in a place that is the consequence of continual human activity. And because life there demands perpetual activity, her streets change all the time - constant reflections of human understanding, perception, talents and limits. Where she demands too much of her citizens, or her citizens demand too much of their country, it shows in clear consequences. Her appeal is that she openly shows not only how we fail, but also how we cope and how proud we can be in doing so. While it may be easy to cover up the dark side and emphasize the great and good with much glitter, India balances herself between the dark and the bright, the wrong and right. If that is not attractive, I am yet to witness what is.

India is a proud nation and her pride is rooted in the totality of aspects she so clearly presents. Pride lies in the Indians feeling that, in the end, showing it all will be the basis of a sustainable nation, rather that emphasizing only one side of what Indianness is. Pride lies in the fact that India needs to be made each day; a lot does not work, but another lot does. At night too her streets do not show the sleepy quietness that is typical of sundown; they have a life of their own, and a constant passion for living it to the fullest. In India, life truly goes on in its entire miscellany. A restful night after a hard day’s work is what all seem to want. Trouble is kept far away; India believes trouble itself is trouble enough.

The spell cast upon the world by India is impossible to express in words. You must live her - intuit her, caress her, savour her, sense her - in her entirety. Only then shall you begin to comprehend her beauty, her appeal, her charisma, her charm. I can say that, for India lives in me, and I in her.

All pictures courtesy: Google Image Search

Jul 3, 2009

The Colours of Love, Hope and Freedom

... are these:

"The Constitution of India recognises, protects and celebrates diversity. To stigmatise or to criminalise homosexuals only on account of their sexual orientation would be against the constitutional morality."

The profoundness of this statement could be felt on Thursday - the day India took a giant (albeit belated) step towards true globalisation with the Delhi High Court delivering a historic judgment to amend a 149-year-old colonial law. The draconian law in question was Section 377 of the IPC that criminalises private consensual sex between adults of the same sex.

The biggest victory yet for gay rights and a major milestone in the country's social evolution, this historical step has made India the 127th country in the world to take the guilt out of homosexuality.

While all seemed well and Delhi was awash in rainbow colours of pride and hope, religious leaders across the nation instantly leaped on to the 'faith', 'morality' and 'God's will' bandwagon that they are so fond of hitching across national sensibilities. It was no surprise at all to hear them scream hoarse about how homosexuality is against the word of God. From the Crusades to the Holocaust, from the Partition to the Taliban, from 9/11 to Naroda Pattiya, the 'word of God' has been invoked to justify the most horrendous crimes against humanity. Of course, there are plenty of other convenient reasons too - gender, race, language, colour, land, water, oil, and the like. We have never yet found it difficult to explain why we hate each other. Homosexuality is just one more reason on the list, and currently carries the most brownie points.

People are very inclined to set moral standards for others. No surprises there. And we can very well say it for everyone - including ourselves. We love dispensing advise, and love to see it being acted upon even more. No harm there, I say. Everyone is free to preach/advise to others what they feel is right. Trouble begins when we begin to believe what we do/say/eat/drink/wear is right, and therefore should be adopted en masse without further ado. And when we coerce people into that adoption, covertly or overtly.

Now let us for a moment throw reason out the window and pretend that homosexuality is a sin. If that were the case, then God must punish these sinners in his/her/its own way - by making them boil in scalding oil in hell, or turning them into lizards in their next birth (though I fail to understand what exactly is wrong with being a lizard), or whatever is proscribed by the religious texts. Who are we mere mortals to act on his/her/its behalf? Let humans do what they will, and let God do what he/she/it must. Like the inimitable Robert Frost so wisely said, "I hold it to be the inalienable right of anybody to go to hell in his/her own way."

Now, by the same logic, we can let other sins like theft, deceit, greed, rape and murder go unpunished. But we don't, citing the reason that these are horrendous crimes against humans and should be punished in a fitting way in order to curb them. How come here the 'word of God' is never preached? Why, with a rape ever two minutes in Delhi, has a religious leader never come out on the street to condemn how maligning a woman's dignity through force is against God's will? Why, with Dalits and supposedly 'backward' classes being denied of a respectful existence, do religions not preach how every human is a creation of the same God who wouldn't have created a human worth being looked down upon merely on account of his/her name or profession?

Then, there are the eternal bigots who deem anything and everything that does not suit their misguided (or, heavens forbid, very calculated) agendas as being 'against Indian culture'. I, like many of us out there, have begun to find this tirade boring and repetitive now. Say, it has lost its charm after a series of recurring (and rapid) utterances. So much so, that next time they do come up with something that really IS against Indian culture, they'll be paid no heed. Just like that fabled boy who screamed 'wolf' everytime he wanted to make his presence felt.

I fail to understand how a law that was introduced by British colonial invaders can even be seen in the context of Indian culture, whether acceptable or otherwise. Section 377 has nothing - I repeat, nothing - to do with Hinduism (which for all means and purposes is used interchangeably with Indian culture today) or Islam or Christianity or any other religion. The irony truly is that while the Britons have changed their corresponding legislations, we in India are still clinging on to it for dear life. How, if homosexuality is a Western import, does it find a mention in that most ancient works of Indian literature (and culture) - the Kamasutra? How have figurines describing homosexuality, bisexuality and even transgendered humans etched themselves into the walls of Khajuraho? As far as my understanding goes, neither of these comes from the West. Surprise, surprise!

What really IS a part of Indian culture is its inclusiveness. We have witnessed all manners of people coming to India - the Aryans, the Mughals, the Britons - and India has taken each and every one of them into her fold. India has always taken the best out of those who came to her - art, music, cuisine, lifestyle. When we found the British cuisine too bland for our tastes and rejected it (unlike the spicier and tastier Mughal cuisine which typifies India in the West), why not similarly shun unpalatable laws?

Also, the absurd notion that homosexuality exists only in humans (and that too the 'elite', whatever that means). As a matter of fact, homosexual and bisexual behaviour has been studied and proved, with documented evidence, in several species of birds and animals, including penguins. Moreover, there is almost unanimous medical and psychiatric opinion that homosexuality is not a disease or a disorder but is simply another expression of human sexuality.

And finally, the stereotype that homosexuals are paedophiles, do drugs and have AIDS. That, more than anything else, sounded extremely dangerous to me because it comes not from religiously- or politically-motivated people, but educated and sane individuals like you and me. I'll just say that like every engineer is not a unromantic nerd and every straight man does not lech at girls and every woman in jeans is not wanting to be molested, every homosexual does not do drugs and rape kids. Why, Joseph Fritzl, as far as I remember, is not a homosexual - and he is a paedophile if there ever was one. Neither is Shiney Ahuja - and he doesn't do drugs either, for the record.

However you may accuse me of being a party-pooper, this court ruling still does not translate, of course, into social acceptability. We cannot possibly have suddenly become an enlightened society. There remains a lot of homophobia, stereotypes of gays and lesbians will abound in popular culture (read media), many young people will still discover that their sexual preference does not conform to the society's approved norms, LGBT people will still be confused and lonely and angry. But being so is not illegal any more. And that certainly is a big deal.

Also, the ruling still can prosecute coercive homsexual acts or homosexual acts with a minor. That’s just fine - the same applies to heterosuxual acts too. Just as long as consenting adults can do what they want.

The last word, really:

"The expression of sexuality requires a partner, real or imagined. It is not for the state to choose or to arrange the choice of partner, but for the partners to choose themselves."

So Did You Miss Me?

Hi there, everyone! I disappeared for a while, and without letting anyone know. My sincere apologies.

Its been an unintended break, longer than expected. But like it tends to, life intervened. I’ve been busy with work, practically trying to keep my job in the dark economic times. Work aside, I have been suffering from the worst writer's block ever. Maybe the turmoil at work had something to do with this.

I promise to be up and shining soon, but it may take a little more time so don't forget to watch this space (and my other one too). I failed to write the last few weeks, which have been some of the most turbulent in my professional life. This, I confess, was totally deliberate. It just felt like I wasn’t doing justice to my writing if I wasn't writing with my mind and heart in it, and both these critical components of my being were kind of preoccupied with seemingly mundane issues. Nonetheless, enough excuses.

If there's one thing my being absent from the blogging scene has shown me, it is how much my writing is valued and appreciated, even eagerly awaited, by my friends on the blogosphere. Many thanks and a zillion hugs to my bestest friends here, especially Solilo, Indyeah, IHM, Masood (in no particular order). And everyone else who patiently awaited my return and regularly visited this space to check on me. I am ashamed to admit I'd actually thought my friends would have lost interest in my blogs since I'd not written for so long. I'm so very touched to see they are as loyal to my blogs as I am to theirs, even when I never announced I wouldn't be writing for a while. Thank you.

May 7, 2009


And today, no words are necessary. A picture will suffice.

May 6, 2009

Shut Up And Vote!

"Shut up and vote!" So proclaims a popular campaign!

I had, perhaps a tad too optimistically, thought that the series of terror attacks over the last few years - in trains and buses, in temples and mosques, in malls and markets - coupled with rampant corruption eating at the very ethos of India, would have sensitised us urban voters of the need for an overhaul in governance. We saw regular and fairly well-publicised campaigns imploring us to vote in droves and change the face of tomorrow.

Yet, surprisingly, voter turnout was in a shocking 40-45 percent range. In Mumbai, no less! More than half the voters did not even turn up at the polling booths. Most of the stars and starlets who beseeched us to vote certainly did not! Sure we heard of how badly organised the whole show was, what with hapless people being shuttled from one booth to the other (in Mumbai, travelling a distance is no laughing matter) and not finding their names in the electoral roll. Inadequate arrangements and total apathy to the comfort of the voters was another issue. More significantly, the choice of candidates could be politely termed as 'inadequate' (save a very few), and the party manifestoes were vague to say the least. But then, since when did such trivial obstacles dim the radiant Spirit of Mumbai?

This is not just sad; it is downright shameful. And disturbing. It has simply confirmed the notion among political parties that all the urban middle-class knows is to make a noise, shout out from the rooftops our complaints, tell anyone who will listen about how rotten the entire system is, unite to bring justice or protest throttling of our freedom. We are aware of our rights and intolerant of discrimination. We are sensitive and patient. But we are electorally irrelevant. Which is why no one has ever visited our homes or stood at our doorsteps to tell us who they are and why we should vote for them.

We never hesitate to take the lead in standing up or raising a voice. We unite to silence bigots and fundamentalists who decide for us and force us to obey. We hit the streets in obvious outrage when misuided religion strangulates artistic freedom. We stand for candlelight vigils against politicians en-masse after a terrorist attack. We demand justice for innocent victims and retribution for the culprits. But why, oh why, do we not make a difference to the composition of the Indian Parliament. What holds us back there?

We duly demonstrate reactionary citizenship. It takes an incident or a disaster, irrespective of magnitude, to waken us from our apathy and indifference and unite for a cause. And unite we do! But it is the same people - us - who fail to ensure that we choose those who we wish to represent us. While we demand our rights be granted and our demands met, we do not turn up to exercise our voting rights or to demand judicious governance. Is it that we simply do not care who it is that ultimately steers our ride? Are we not worried that our foundations would give way? Are we rather relieved that we have held up for so long? Is it not our duty to select the right candidates and ensuring that those promises are kept? Do we not possess the power to force our elected representatives to be accountable? This is also part of the democratic process.

It is now for Delhi and NCR to show they can and will do it; that they can and will bring about change, that they can and will ask for more, that they can and will decide their own tomorrow. I know that we - the urban population - figure very low on the politicos' list, that our votes would impact a measly 22% of the total LS seats, that we would easily be outnumbered by the rural populace, that your vote or mine would hardly make a difference. The choice of candidates is as 'inadequate' as it was elsewhere, the manifestoes of political parties remain as vague, and the arrangements will be as shoddy as ever. But why on earth should that excuse us from exercising a right that we fought very hard to deserve?

It is a myth that on account of being small in number, the educated civil society cannot influence electoral outcomes. It is simply that most of us are not motivated enough to engage with the political class. We abstain from voting because we believe that we are too small a force to change the face of Indian politics. But the contours of Indian politics are changing, and this time we - the urban middle-class - can indeed impact results. If a like-minded group wanting good governance demands better candidates, there is no reason why political parties will not reach out. Who knows, your vote or mine could be that one vote that could make all the difference! And even if it doesn't, vote simply because you and I matter. This time, step out and vote. For yourself.

May 7, 2009

The hearts of Delhi/NCR beat as one.
The nerve centre of the nation awakens.
A billion people vote.

Apr 24, 2009

Prejudice Squints when it Looks

Now, really, this is going too far. Way too far.

A dangerous website that thrives on malice, hatred and some twisted superiority complex of a particularly large section of Indian society, not to mention the propagation of superstition and blind faith, has published the following content on one of its articles:

Rahul Gandhi’s unnecessary allegation in Sangli, Maharashtra: "Though BJP is criticizing Dr. Manmohan Singh calling him a weak Prime Minister, BJP had given in to the demands of the terrorists during the hijacking of a plane at Kandahar when it was in power and had released the terrorists."

Now here are the Editor's appalling comments:

Congress ruling for maximum period made the people impotent. That is why the relatives of the people hijacked in the plane were pestering the government to release the terrorists at the cost of the national security without paying any heed to it. BJP’s decision at that time was the repercussion of the Congress party’s indecisiveness (Gandhigiri). Hence Rahul Gandhi should not cast one sided aspersions on BJP! While criticizing BJP regarding Kandahar issue Congress should not forget that it had allowed the terrorists hidden in Sharar-e-Sharif without attacking them!

If only closed minds came with closed mouths! So if I have a parent or a sibling or a spouse or an offspring in a life-threatening situation of national magnitude, I should not make all efforts to ensure the safe return of my loved ones. I should also not try and mobilise all the support I can gather to force the government to even consider action. What's more, I shouldn't inform the government of my intense desire to see my loved ones again. In fact, I shouldn't allow myself to worry sick and abandon any pretence of assurance from the high and mighty political clout. More so, I must not lose touch with reality, even if I know I might not see my loved ones again. And of course, at a time like this I must eliminate all fear from mind and make a decision that panders to the reigning government, even if such a decision comes at the cost of my loved ones' security or even life. Since when was survival even an instinct? Then again, I should realise and accept that common individuals in India are aplenty and dispensable.

In many ways this statement is a turning point in the history of a modern, independent and progressive India. Not because of the depth of irrationality or the intensity of hatred or the extent of stupidity that this statement represents, but because of the direct threat that the ideology behind it has posed to the very concept of the modern Indian state.

This threat does not arise from death and destruction caused by rampaging mobs. Nor does it arise frombombs or guns or lapping flames. The tortuous history of the Indian sub-continent has witnessed many a bloody event. But the threat here arises from the concrete manifestation of a lethal ideological agenda with an express objective of destroying the present Indian state and its constitutional fabric. Any secular-minded Indian who believes in a pluralist democratic India must take this statement as a wake-up call. Here, what is at stake is the very existence of the Indian Democratic Republic, and such high stakes calls for equally radical and unorthodox measures.

Any liberal society that cherishes freedom of speech and dissent must learn to draw a line between legitimate expression and a motivated propagation of malicious prejudice and irrational hatred. Not to mention unabashedly irresponsible accusations against other ethnic/ religious/ cultural groups. Once the fine line between insanity and reason is allowed to cross, it wrecks the very fundamentals of civilised existence. Any irrational ideology would be free from hurdles like self-doubt or reasoning and offer precariously simplistic alternatives based on half-baked truth or blatant lies. When such an ideology piggybacks on mass polarisation, the combined effect is that much more vicious. Then, all that is needed is the slightest of triggers to set up a conflagration - triggers that may not even be remotely relevant.

The statement above is living proof that a constitutionally established republic can allow blatantly anti-constitutional acts to be perpetrated and even justified. Such groups would subvert the constitution where it serves their strategic interests, and it does not require an artist's imagination to visualise what they would do if allowed to flourish so.

Communalism in India is usually regarded as a socio-political issue and its virulent propagation is not dealt with the severity and gravity it warrants. In fact, there exists no substantial section of the legislation to curb and punish communal unrest. One of the largest oversights of Indian politics is to see even communal political parties as democratic, while they are really an oligarchy of assorted non-accountable individuals who thrive on a soap-bubble ideology of misguided supremacy of a particular section of the nation. Though these groups pay due lip-service to democratic values, their polity is hardly so. The power of governance should be used to combat the threat of communalism in every manner possible.

The time has come for a de-facto congregation of secular and tolerant individuals and groups to come together. Why, that time was yesterday! Nevertheless, this force should evolve a stringent law to recognise any activity that begets hatred or prejudice as "Constitutional Terrorism". A focused de-infiltrating of communal elements from governance and social institutions would help identify and thereby eliminate the former. The objective would be to create a climate hostile to the subsistence and functioning of communal forces. In a country where influential tactics can mobilise a billion-strong population in one go, a strong platform of secular-minded citizens can act as a powerful pressure group to raise a voice against communalism. This pressure group can influence political parties and governments to fight communal forces in a coordinated manner.

It is very important that the real story behind each incident of communal unrest is brought to light, so that our people are able to appreciate how flimsy the foundations of hatred can be. More importantly, the culprits need to be identified and appropriately punished to prevent re-runs of those incidents. While the governments at the Centre and the affected state would stonewall the process, it is imperative that a public investigation be launched to bring justice.

Lastly, any communal force would do better to understand this and commit it to memory: "It is better to have an intelligent and criticizing enemy than a foolish and all-agreeing friend." Always...

Facts courtesy: Gaurang Mehta

Apr 11, 2009

A Rupee for your Thoughts

She has businesses and billionaires and big ambitions. Now India wants something that no global economic powerhouse should be without: an international symbol for her currency. The hope is that the rupee sign will become as ubiquitous as the US dollar ($), or that instant emblem of the digital age, the @ symbol.

The Rupee is generally shortened to 'Re.' (singular) or 'Rs.' (plural), or sometimes denoted as INR. But these are not symbols; they are mere abbreviations for Rupee. To get an internationally recognised and accepted symbol, the Finance Ministry has initiated the search through an open competition.

According to the Finance Ministry, the symbol should 'represent the historical and cultural ethos of India'. The entries may be in any of the Indian languages, and even in English which is also an accepted language of use by the government. Each of maximum two entries per participant would be accompanied by a fee of Rs. 500. The symbol should also be applicable to the standard computer keyboard.

While we search for a currency symbol that mirrors the essence of India, we must equally be conscious of our business audience. From a strictly business perspective, the design must also reflect our monetary policy and the stability of our currency. The move shows we have begun to realise the importance of branding. The Rupee symbol could be a powerful part of India's brand iconography - a signal of stability and the fact that we are a lead player on the world stage.

Considering the multitude of diversity in thoughts and ideologies that typify India, the choice for the final design will have to be made very carefully. Aesthetic appeal is of paramount importance; we would not want a symbol that looks different or even offensive to anybody when viewed from a particular angle. In keeping with our ethos of inclusiveness and secularism, the symbol should be neutral and representative of India as a whole. It would be prudent to base the design(s) around the letter 'R' - in the officially-declared national language and script, and not English or any one particular regional language and script. It should fit well into the existing suite of international currency symbols. It is also critical to understand how the symbol would be used in all its technical applications - on a computer screen, on the web, on paper, on mobile phones.

The contest, which closes at 1 pm IST on 15 April 2009, is open only to resident Indians. The winning entry will be chosen by a seven-member jury of experts drawn from various art institutes, the government and the RBI. The top five entries shortlisted for final selection will be awarded Rs. 25,000, while the winner will take Rs. 2,50,000. The final selected symbol will become the property of the government and the original designer will claim no rights over it any more.

For more details and guidelines on how to participate in this exciting event. you may visit this page on the Finance Ministry's website.

My choice, you say? It is this:

Source: BBC News and the Ministry of Finance, Government of India

Mar 29, 2009

Primary Colours

Freedom is never free; it always comes with a price tag attached. Of the many facets that this word assumes, perhaps the most significant is 'freedom of expression'. If one goes by the classic textbook definition, this term connotes "the freedom to express freely without censorship or limitation, of any act to seek or receive or impart information or ideas, regardless of the medium used". It means that we can even say what others do not like or even detest. In India, we take this fundamental right very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that we freely exercise our free right to freely interpret our freedom of expression. Most of us would recoil in horror at the real implication of this freedom. There are limits to expression of hatred just as there are limits of freedom of expression itself. The law marks the outer limits of this freedom.

Many in India and other parts of the world would have us believe that religious fundamentalism has only one colour - that of Islamic green. Not any longer. The vicious attacks on Christians and Christian institutions - including orphanages - instigated by 'Hindutva'-spewing activists in Orissa have savagely shown that fanaticism also comes in Hindu saffron. Not that this needed any more proof after the Gujarat riots of 2002, which were vindicated with the sacrilegious claim that they 'had the blessings of Lord Ram'.

Fundamentalism is essentially the hijacking of a faith to promote an exclusionist agenda, often through violent means. This transcredal phenomenon does not begin or end within the confines of one belief system; it is common to all. There are Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh fundamentalists, just as there are atheist (condescendingly called 'communist' or 'commie') fundamentalists. Not to mention 'pro-life' fundamentalists who eliminate those working in perfectly legal abortion clinics. Though no credo can claim monopoly over fundamentalism, but for some time now the term is frequently interchanged with 'terrorism' and concatenated with the word 'Islamic'. So much, that 'Islamic' in 'Islamic terrorism' is used as an adjective.

We often urge 'moderate' and 'liberal' Muslims to stand up and act as a corrective influence on their radical co-religionists. So in the context of Kandhamal and Naroda-Patia, should only moderate Hindus denounce the horrors that were perpetrated in the name of their religion? Why should moderates of all faiths, together with atheists, realists and agnostics, not come together to condemn it? Never before has moderation itself as an ideology been more beleaguered than in an increasingly divisive world. Tolerance, and not faith, must unite people from across the various sects of society in condemnation of such acts.

The goal of all fundamentalists of any stripe - saffron, white, green - is the same; they aspire to disrupt and destroy our common humanity. Such subversion can be countered only by refusing to make it the responsibility of any one particular faith. Since fundamentalism is based on a misguided premise of extreme exclusion and xenophobia, the opposing voice must base itself on inclusivism and the affirmation of a pluralist identity. Only tolerance for the 'other' who is demonised by fundamentalists, can be the cornerstone of a harmonious co-existence. Which is why the oft-iterated call to ban organisations which allegedly are fundamentalist in nature - be they saffron or white or green - actually politicises the ideology behind moderation. Necessary though such explots may seem at times, they are hardly efficacious or even durable. Bans actually go against the basic nature of democracy, even of moderation. They are simply one more way of saying that fundamentalism achieved its objective of divisive exclusionism.

The public anger and refusal to tolerate injustice has come down heavily against those accused of the carnage against Sikhs in 1984. Let us hope it extends to the genocide at Kashmir, Orissa and Gujarat too. Let us also witness now similar sentiments (and honest ones) from our leaders and followers of all faiths. But most of all, let us hear from those who believe moderation, though desirable and even , can culminate in lack of the fabric on which our society is woven - diversity. Let us accept this - we are not a society of saints. There will always be voices of dissonance, raucous and ugly. We need to hear them in order to shun them. Gagging even their voices by using their own methods right back at them is hardly a solution. Let not moderation become a mirror image of prohibitory fanaticism.

Mar 28, 2009



On Saturday, 28 March 2009, between 8.30 PM and 9.30 PM, the world will witness its first global election - between the Earth and global warming. For the first time in history, people across the world - across ages, across nationalities, across communities - have the opportunity to use their light switch as their vote. Switching off your lights is a vote for Earth, and leaving them on is a vote for global warming. The choice is yours.

Unlike any election in history, it is not about what country you’re from; instead, it is about what planet you’re from. It is a global call to action for every individual - a call to stand up and take control over the future of our planet. We all have a vote, and every single vote counts. Together we can make a better tomorrow for us and our future generations.

WWF are urging the world to vote for Earth and reach the 2009 target of one billion votes, which will be presented to world leaders at the Global Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen. This meeting will determine official government policies to take action against global warming, which will replace the Kyoto Protocol. It is a chance for the people of the world to make their voice heard.

VOTE EARTH - switch off all lights for one hour - the EARTH HOUR

SATURDAY, 28 MARCH 2009, 8.30-9.30 PM

Log on to for more information and to raise a voice.

Mar 25, 2009

The Riots of Passage

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
- Mahatma Gandhi

An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.

At the outset it is important to underline the fact that most riots in India have refused to fit into any conceivable definition of 'communal' abhorrence. Most such incidents have been a completely one-sided and meticulously targeted carnage of innocent lives, something much closer to a pogrom or an ethnic cleansing. Moreover, the selective violence perpetrated in each such case has been done with remarkable precision. This has more often than not suggested assiduous planning and seamless collation of information over a protracted period, which is in stark contrast to the usually spontaneous mob frenzy that is characteristic of a communal riot. It also clearly indicates collusion and not merely the indulgence of the state machinery and the ruling political establishment. Such condemnable acts of genocide would always point to a trigger, but that trigger could have been just anything; any seemingly provocative act on the part of any individual or group, possibly trivial or even irrelevant, would have led to similar consequences.

When a mob murders and rapes with nonchalance and reckless abandon, it does not require any provocation or solicit any justification. Deadly ethnic riots are characterized by lucid madness - a confluence of sadism, euphoria and bestial slaughter steeped in elements of prudence and foresight. Such riots usually induce an orgy of killing that is punctuated by interludes of detached planning. They are conflagarated by an amalgamation of hypervigilance and circumspection. The rioters imagine themselves to be engaged in heroic acts of self-defense against real or imagined threats that are grossly magnified, often overestimating the dangers they face and misperceiving the intentions and actions of their target group.

The pervasive emotions typical to such events are anxiety and hatred - emotions that cannot be fully explained by any rational analysis. Crowds participating in ethnic riots tend to engage in a great deal of faulty reasoning, and in the magnification of the danger faced by the group they represent. Before the actual riot occurs, there are often false rumours of aggression, usually of events that have not occurred at all or are not in the form that the rumour depicts them as having taken. Often these false rumors describe events that are exactly the sort of event that is about to be undertaken by the rioting mob itself.

Individuals participating in violence indulge in angry, but pleasurable, violence - often experiencing a cathartic effect of their aggression. The mob takes pleasure in over-doing violence. It often trades off the possibility of killing a larger number of persons for the more certain pleasure of killing a smaller number using the slower techniques of torture and mutilation. When conventional norms are inoperative, sadists become models for emulation and respect in ways that they are not in ordinary times. How else can a mob that slits the stomach of a seven-month pregnant woman, pulls out the foetus and smashes it to the ground, be explained by any shred of reason or sanity?

Anger can grow over time, be stored, redirected, and then released all at once. The memory of prior events can be unleashed by a current event to enhance the level of anger. Rioters connect today’s provocative action by a hated ethnic group to yesterday’s. In severely divided societies, there is plenty of accumulated anger, and the riot is one gateway for its release. Because such violence is born of hatred, it always aims to degrade and destroy rather than merely rebel or punish.

An expansive study of the history of communal riots in independent India would reveal startling truths that tear at the very foundations of our belief and render false our memories of a lifetime. Riots in India are not a national phenomenon; they are highly localized. In a country that remains mainly rural, religious violence is a chiefly urban problem. The countryside accounts for merely under 4% of all riot-related deaths. Moreover, riots are largely concentrated in 4 of India’s 28 states. On a per capita basis, the worst states are Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bihar.

More startlingly, about 70% of Hindu-Muslim violence occurs, albeit repeatedly, in only 30 of over 400 cities in India. Close to half of all deaths occur in just 8 cities - all of which have a substantial Muslim minority but also a high literacy rate and a large middle class. Unfortunately, the megacities of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata all feature in this infamous list. Recently, Bangalore has been vying, thanks to its flourishing right-winged bigotry, for a respectable spot on this illustrious roll.

It is no surprise, though it may seem so, why there are no comparable outbreaks in other cities with almost identical demographic details. The conspicuous absence of lethal riots can be attributed to the presence of civic associations. Pre-existing channels of civic engagement between communities is the single most important predictor of whether a community will respond violently to ethnic provocations. Local associations that make their members aware of the dangers of ethnic violence also work to suppress the violent and criminal elements
interested in exploiting ethnic conflict.

Civil society, and not government, is the answer. The most violence-resistant and stable states and cities are those with flourishing labour as well as industrial, educational, social and political associations - inclusive and all-embracing. With inter-communal networks of engagement and open channels of communication, ethnic tensions and conflicts are moderated and managed. Without a cohabitation environment, segregated lives would invariably highlight real or imagined differences, leading to ambiguities in individual identity and culminating in hatred. The policy implication is clear. We need to support with practical measures the growth of integrative civic associations that promote the mutual interests of different ethnic groups in a constructive manner. This approach would be far more effectual in preventing and managing violence than merely concentrating on inter-ethnic dialogue.

Lethal ethnic riots are not random and/or unpredictable events. They are responses to certain conditions that can be understood, analyzed, and prevented. Governments can reduce the likelihood of ethnic riots breaking out by increasing the perception by potential rioters that participating in riots is risky. While events at the national or regional level may spark ethnic violence in India, the response to those sparks, ranging from ethnic tension to ethnic genocide, occurs at the local level. Therefore, explanations of why some Indian communities respond violently to ethnic provocations expressed at the national level while others do not must be found in factors operating primarily at the local level. Citizens seeking to prevent ethnic violence must coerce the government to be accountable for its failure to take appropriate measures to dispel violence.

The dark days of alienation will be over. The new dawn will promise bright skies and radiant sunshine and the bliss of tolerance. Only one black cloud remains to be blown away - a fair deal to families of the victims of violence. These riots have all been the most horrendous of crimes committed on a mass scale, a stigma for a nation that prides itself on its "unity in diversity". Sadly, the stories all tell us that there is only diversity, and unity is yet to be found, that Holy Grail.

* All statistical data and research information courtesy "Ethnic Conflict and Civil Life: Hindus and Muslims in India" by Prof. Ashutosh Varshney of the University of Michigan

Mar 21, 2009

Zabaan Sambhal Ke

Varun Gandhi has arrived. And how! He strode on to the political battleground with a vacuum for brains and a loose cannon for a mouth. Noxious combination, this. And while we screamed hoarse on blogs and feverishly worked on the Lead India '09 campaign, here was a man who grabbed all the headlines - major and minor - albeit for all the wrong reasons. As long as our 24x7 news channels went crazy over him, who in the wide world cared what actually happened? Everyone from Riyadh to Rohtak and Paris to Palakkad knows the man who spewed deadly venom all over the nation. Mission accomplished - hook, line and sinker.

At an emotionally charged rally in his constituency Pilibhit, this new pin-up boy of the very saffron BJP posed a serious threat to Gujarat CM Narendra Modi. He seems to have surpassed the veteran when it comes to violating the very nature of the Indian Constitution. But what comes as a nasty sting is where Varun comes from. He is not an uncouth bahubali who speaks only the language of abuse and profanity. Nor is he a bumbling buffoon caught in a situation he is not equipped to handle. He is an educated and suave young man who is expected, at the very least, to know what he can say and what he must not. He carries the lineage of a secular great-grandfather, a fiery grandmother, a dynamic uncle, an intelligent aunt, polished cousins and a distinguished mother. This LSE-alumnus represents India's first and most well-known family, but 'Feroze' Varun Gandhi displayed utter disregard for the sensibilities of India and her law as he happily cussed and cursed in a manner reminiscent of C-grade Bollywood. For this kin of a family who scripted India's history, he has conveniently forgotten that the people he judges on faith and asks to leave India had made their choice way back in 1947 - they chose India. For this son of a mother reknowned for her compassion and humanity for animals, branding a part of India with the choicest contempt and the vilest slurs is as unimaginable as it is unforgivable.

In a nation with India's sheer size and interwoven diversity, it would be logical to assume that development and social upliftment should be the ideal planks for winning an election. Sadly, things never were that way and have not changed either. We thrive on hate, which is still widely believed to be a huge and popular driver of votes. If not that, it at least guarantees full media attention. Thus said, it was not really surprising for Varun Gandhi to use this tried-and-tested technique for his share of the spotlight. He played his cards perfectly and dealt the three aces which clinched the air-time: dynasty, religion, and emotional manipulation. He says he is "a Gandhi, a Hindu and an Indian in equal measure". It is not just the order he places these personal identities in that bothers.

For a country that prides itself on a rich culture and was the first civilsation, the one obvious lesson we have learnt to never learn is this - hate can only take us so far. It may inflame sentiments and ignite passions, but it will always create a resentment that will have its own pre-determined backlash. We, the Indian voters, want solutions in these especially trying times. We want to know if our money in the banks is safe. We want to know if we will still report to work tomorrow. We want to know if we will be allowed a life where we don't spend every mooment wondering if we will get back home alive to see our family smile at us. We want to know if we as women have as much right to freedom and happiness as the men do. We want to know whether we and our children will have clean water to drink and fresh air to breathe. This is what the politicians, more so the new-age ones, should ideally be focusing on.

That may yet be mere wishful thinking. Once again, we, the Indian voters, will be asked to choose not between good and evil but between hate and progress. Gujarat's new roads will cover the bloodstains of Godhra yet again. That is the saddest part. Hate may yet again win. But that would not be the moniker of winning an election; it would be an aberration of democracy. Barack Obama won his election on hope. He suggested a change for the better and promised a future steeped in consonance. Our leaders learnt nothing from this historic event and choose to adopt a path of dissonance where hate is aggressively marketed to the masses. They promote trepidation and vehemence rather than equanimity and sanguinity. The basic lesson marketing teaches us is that customers buy benefits. Indian politics has bucked the trend.

The youngest Gandhi, along with others of his generation, represented the hope and faith we had in the young and dynamic Gen-Next leaders we thought would change the face of India. Well, this one does seem to be doing just that - changing India from a secular democratic republic to a hardliner fundamentalist religious entity. The BJP fervently projected Varun as the new face of Hindutva in the hope to free their treasured ideology of its pariah image. The idea was also, more sinisterly, to defeat the secular model of Nehruvian political project - and what better way to hit back at Nehru than to have one of his own question the very essence of his legacy. Varun’s rhetoric that made the Thackeray patriarch proud (if not blush) actually came as no surprise. Neither does his choice of a dias - his mother’s constituency, a region with a substantial Muslim population. This was no desperate attempt by a wannabe to secure his 15 minutes of fame. It was the emergence of a member of the Nehru-Gandhi clan wholeheartedly embracing the Hindutva mission. If this is not a historic incident, I wonder what is.

Varun's timing to take up a divisive campaign may seem far from judicious, especially when his party leadership has been struggling to look beyond temples and mosques to try and focus on governance. The simple answer is that he probably thought he could get away with it. In fact, had it not been for an alert media and an active Opposition, he probably would have got away. Heck, he actually will eventually get away, and in all probability even win his election from Pilibhit. Once the dust settles, Varun Gandhi may well become the icon for those who believe it is necessary to show the minorities 'their place'. This is the inexorable price we must pay for having long allowed our politics to degenerate into a bloodbath of divide-and-rule. Yet, if we have any faith in the nation as a secular democracy with an inclusive society and a republican constitution, we must not allow Varun to get away at all, at least not so easily. More importantly, our Muslim population must not validate his ludicrous invectives by actually reacting and thereby substantiating this depravity, which is what his party expects them to. That’s the least India and her founding fathers would expect of us.


This one is for RK and for my very first award.

Silent gratitude isn't much use to anyone, and we often take for granted that which most deserve our gratitude. That said, gratitude is also the secret hope of further favours. With that hope in mind, I say this to RK:

"So shines a good deed in a weary world..."

Mar 14, 2009

Yes We Can!

It is a cliché that every election in India offers a hope of change. Change has often meant the incumbent government being thrown out and a chance to punish individuals or parties that took the voters for granted. This kind of 'change' is not new in India, but there hasn't been much 'change' in the real sense after any of these elections. So will the 2009 general elections be different and usher in a new generation of politicians? Will they qualitatively redefine Indian politics for the world? We would be naive to actually believe that any one election can change our rotten-to-the-core political paraphernalia - one that survives by deceiving its people through clever media management and yet thrives on a lucrative patronage. However, some silver linings do hold our hope.

We saw some common and interesting trends emerging in the recently-concluded assembly elections of six states. The most significant of these is an exceptionally high voter turnout - in areas that extended from the unsteady western borders in Rajasthan to the volatile eastern extremities in Mizoram, from the treacherous Jammu & Kashmir to deep within Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and in the heart of the nation's capital. This high voter turnout indicates a growing awareness of and interest in elections, believed to be especially profound amongst the urban middle-class youth and particularly first-time voters.

Another striking trend is that this high voter turnout has not necessarily stemmed from anger with the incumbent government, as has been conventional political logic. Delhi stood as a stark exception to this thumb-rule with a triumphant return of the ruling party. This means that the voter does appreciate and reward good governance and is no longer apathetic to it. Whether this interpretation is right or wrong, it may actually create a vested interest among politicians to try and do their job better than before, if only to stay in power.

The real challenge, however, lies in building on these positive trends. If our political parties were to react to these perceived signals and take necessary steps, we may actually witness political progress. One sure-shot way to do this would be to put up young and educated candidates to represent parties. Omar Abdullah seems to be a definite breath of fresh air in the otherwise claustrophobic J&K environment. Another would be to focus on issues that the newly enthused voters will see as relevant and legitimate, such as gender and environmental sensitivity. Parties and their representatives can also showcase attributes that appeal to the young, such as a modern outlook and cosmopolitanism. Parties should be eager to attract these new voters.

Another lesson we learnt the hard way is that sectarian politics over non-issues does not always work. For instance, the 26/11 terror attack was expected to cost the Congress its secure position across states, having been seen as incompetent to deal with terror. The opposition left no stone unturned in playing its cards to that effect. But the voters shunned the expected knee-jerk reaction and instead voted with their minds, choosing the option they thought was better in their state - even if it meant repeating Congress. Delhi again stands as testimony to this. Parties would do well to read this as a new maturity among voters and move away from identity politics to figure out the right poll promises that can actually be implemented. What's more, since all parties would want to hold out promises that the others have not held on to, there could be a real possibility for innovation in schemes that matter to us at the grassroots.

There are other reasons why the 2009 polls could be more issue-dominated than any general election since 1999. There is a growing realization among parties that the Lok Sabha polls are no longer one big national election, but are more like simultaneous elections in all states and union territories. Therefore no grand central idea such as the delusional India Shining seems sufficient in capturing the imagination of people across the country.

This time, more than ever, issues and parties are likely to matter much more than personalities. Of course, all of this is assuming that between now and when the elections are held, nothing happens that dramatically alters the rules of the game - such as unrest with Pakistan or communal disharmony. That is one change we can do without.

Mar 12, 2009

India is my country...

A friend and I sat chatting over coffee on Sunday, reveling in the aroma of steaming cappuccino and digging into grilled chicken tikka sandwiches. Out of the blue, my friend decided to ask what had apparently been on his mind for quite some time. "Why do you love India, Surbhi? What according to you makes her so cherished that, given a chance, you'd lay down your life for your country?"

That was the beginning of a conversation that, apart from being a virtual but true 'Bharat-darshan', lost the café a fair number of customers. I took a bite of my sandwich, catching a stray piece of chicken tikka before it fell, and sipped my coffee. Suddenly, the answer was there in front of me, on the table I sat at, inside that cozy café and its various patrons who chitchatted and laughed. I realised why I love India.

By all sense of 'rational' and 'realistic' reasoning, I should hate India. She is noisy, chaotic, overwhelming, smelly, mildly distressing in parts, and mostly beyond any sort of rational analysis. She is all the things one may seek to keep out of their life. But everyday, I watch Indians going about their life, and yet everyday, I never fail to be gripped by the drama that appears to be constantly unfolding before me - one of which I can make almost no sense at all. I love India for precisely that reason - we live simple and boring routine lives, yet the air around us is electrified with the spirit of those very mundane lives we live. There is chaos in the calm, and serenity in the rush all around, but we all fit in effortlessly and seamlessly.

I love India because we Indians are so strikingly different yet so strikingly similar. We all dream the Great Indian Dream and laugh the Great Indian Laugh. There are ordinary folk living in narrow lanes and driving Chetaks or Maruti 800s, awaiting en-massé the elusive bijli and paani. There are also the fashionistas who step out of their Mercs and Audis impeccably dressed in their Louis Vittons and Giorgio Armanis. There are the uppity urbans and semi-urbans who frequent shopping malls and weekly roadside bazaars with equal gusto, often shopping for what they don't really need yet love to possess. Then there are those who consider the footpaths as their bed and the skies as their roof, snoring under their tattered rags without a care for the world. We may belong to any or none of these categories, yet we are all the same people - the people of India.

I love India for her great and fat and insanely lavish weddings - each of which can consist of no fewer than 500 guests, and I only talk of the actual ceremony and not the rituals that precede or succeed the d-day! I love India because every person on the street is related to us in some inane (and sometimes utterly ridiculous) manner; she could be maasi’s devrani’s phupha’s bahu, and would still love us as her own! I love India because we receive at least twelve STD calls in a six-hour journey from our home in Delhi to our nani's place in Amritsar, each call asking the same question - "Kahan pahunche?". I love India because we carry food just enough for ourselves during a long journey, yet end up sharing it with the whole train. I love India because we spend hours at the door chatting with departing guests, long after they said their goodbyes. I love India because we sport Levi's denims with FabIndia kurtis only to complete the look with chunky tribal jewellery and a classy Hidesign handbag. I love India because we shop at the very upmarket Shopper's Stop in a glitzy mall, but bargain just as we would at shani/mangal bazaar. I love India because I enjoy Ramlila or Diwali melas as much as I enjoy film festivals or rock concerts. I love India because I'm equally at home in a BEST bus as I am in a CNG autorickshaw, or even a cycle-rickshaw. I love India because I can wear a Mango sundress with Dolce & Gabbana shades and accessorise the look with jootis from Ludhiana or chunky earrings from Dharamshala or kitschy bangles from Jaipur. I love India because a meal here starts with spring rolls and paneer tikka or galauti kebab, moves to sizzlers and mushroom croissants with cold chicken salad, travels through daal makhani and pineapple raita with butter naan and biryani, is accompanied with masala dosa and dhokla, and ends at chocolate gateau served with tille-waali kesar-pista kulfi.

In India, love is that truly great and almost indescribable emotion that challenges people to become poets or paupers or just puppets. More poems and songs have probably been created on and for love than even on/for God. The divine madness that love creates and sometimes even sustains is the stuff that legend and lore is made up of. And all this is given depth (and height) by that eternal ode to Indian love - our Taj Mahal. Add to that Bollywood, and you know what I mean.

India sails along the lush shores and azure backwaters of Kerala to smile at the cashew trees swaying in Karnataka's misty and fragrant breeze. She sprints through the land of the brave Marathas to the heart of enterprising Gujarat, on to the thousand vibrant colours of Rajasthan. Northwards, she steadily ascends the cold heights of the Himalayas and into the lap of wide valleys and dense forests. The wind takes her to the Gangetic plains and the fertile bosom of rangeela Punjab and zindadil Uttar Pradesh. As she flies eastwards to the land of the bhadralok Bengalis, the salty air carries the smell of fish and the mighty roar of a hidden tiger. Onwards she goes to meet the seven beautiful sisters who flash their dazzling smiles as they revel in the tunes of Odissi and Kuchipudi. At the heart of Madhya Pradesh, she listens to the lore of bravery and valour, while journeying towards the rivers of milk flowing in Haryana. India finally reaches her heart, her hearth, her home - dilwaalon ki Dilli.

I love India because she makes my heart go mmm... It beats when our brave soldiers lay down their lives for us and when commandos relentlessly battle terrorists to emerge victorious. It beats when bombs and guns play havoc in the North, when the earth quakes or floods over in the West, when the rivers unleash their fury in the East, when the sea waves tower over the South. It beats when Dhoni holds the T20 World Cup, when Sachin is on 99, when we need six runs in one ball to win against Pakistan. It beats when the Chandrayaan takes off, when Ustad Zakir Hussain is conferred a Grammy, when Himesh Reshammiya sings at the Wembley Stadium. It beats when Hrithik comes on the screen and when Gehna challenges the archaic Daadisa. It beats when Abhinav Bindra wears a gold medal and when Rahman walks up the red carpet to receive his Oscar. It beats when a billion people go out to vote or celebrate or protest against injustice. These are people I have never met, yet our hearts have met long before we were even born. Indian hearts, all rooted in a common destiny, associated with the same thousand-year-old civilisation.

"Not all is well with India, Surbhi. You have painted a rosy picture with unseeing eyes, but reality seems to be a tad different and a few paces away," said my smiling and slightly exasperated friend. But I smiled back at him and reminded him that I still love India, however flawed she may be. I love her, not for our culture or heritage or values or history, not even for the sense of belonging we experience cradled in her bosom. I love India simply because she is mine - my country, my home, my haven. And I'd rather be here than any other place in the world, with or without my sparkling ruby-red shoes.

Like Roshan says to Baig Uncle, "India works. The people make it work." Touché!

Mar 4, 2009

Slimedog Millionaire

Hallelujah! In a recent survey conducted by the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC), India stands proudly as the 5th most corrupt nation in the world. Needless to say, our political and business class is making serious attempts to ensure that we come on top of the list. Unfortunately, this view does not distursturbed most of the Indians at all and they do not seem to care as to what others think of them; so long as the existing systems and practices would allow them to make money and get things done in one way or the other. It seems the virtue of integrity is all but nowhere. So, how bad is corruption in India? Yeah right, and how deep is the Indian Ocean?

It does not shock us anymore to know that not only the politicians or bureaucrats are corrupt, but even the 'humanitarian' professionals - judges, professors, doctors and NGO organisations - are. Corruption is no longer a phenomenon limited to the rich (who are greedy in spite of possessing enough) but is also rampant amongst the poor. With politics and the judiciary, and now even business, having become the playground of criminals, the crusade against corruption seems to have finally failed in India. We have become victims as well as beneficiaries of the phenomenon, making sure it thrives incessantly and becomes a way of life.

The most disquieting aspect of the widespread corruption in India is the fact that it is not anymore confined to politicians or the government machinery alone. It is prevalent amongst almost every section of the society at every level. Political corruption grabs headlines and popular attention, and reinforces the false belief that the society at large is shielded from the fangs of nepotism. But headline corruption does not convey the full picture. When we look beyond government officials, we would uncover the same in key areas such as the business sector, media, the armed forces, public healthcare and religious institutions.

Those holding the most significant offices in the country and its states should possess the wisdom to realise the potential dangers that our corrupt society can unleash. Our representatives cannot be people who would compromise with governance for the lure of remaining in power for a few more days. In a corrupt government organisation (pardon the redundancy) there are no half measures. It is not like only the babu was corrupt. Usually, the entire organisation, right from the peon to the babu right up to the top brass, has a stake in the underhand dealings. How much to be paid to whom for what is usually an open secret.

Corruption is an assault on the collective conscience of India, made legitimate by the 'chalta hai' attitude that has now come to best define our mindset. Much as we would like to (and I include myself in 'we'), we cannot dismiss corruption as something which happens everwhere and so is acceptable. This can never be an excuse for allowing it to happen here. We realise that corruption is amorphous and is a shape-shifter; it comes in many forms and sizes. Worse, the measures being adopted, if at all, to fight this menace are inept and temporary at best.

Sending a few politicians or bureaucrats to jail (presuming that enough evidence against them is available) can at best be a temporary expedient. Such an event would make the headlines of the day and would, in all probability, be forgotten in no time. Nobody, save the insatiable 24x7 news channels, would benefit from this. Another remedial plan contemplates major overhauling on the administrative, legislative and societal fronts. It includes abolition of red-tapism and insistence on statutory declaration of assets. But these are long-term measures, and who would ever expect anyone to pass legislation that is against their own interests? Several cases remain pending and are seldom probed or scrutinised with a sharp eye.

The situation, it therefore seems, is hopeless. Call it survival instinct, social subsidy or social engineering, corruption is here to stay. So should that be another reason for us to throw our hands up in the air and learn to live with the status quo? We can decry it, we can condemn it, we may moralise over it, but corruption continues to exist. We feel that if we had good politicians and bureaucrats, India would be a better place to live in. The real change, however, can come only when we start demanding accountability and the government is forced to respond. Then it would not be easy for the government to go astray.

We must pledge to never tolerate a government which tolerates injustice and accepts corruption as a national value. We must rid the country of political abuse and misuse of power, even if it means cleansing the political cesspool and massive overhauling of our systems. The support and ownership of civil society is crucial, as is the realisation that corruption is an innate psychological aspect of our mental make-up. Once this appreciation come, maybe we could find ways to tackle it.

Feb 27, 2009

The Silence Was Deafening...

Godhra. The name conjures up horrific scenes of a burnt train, heart-rending screams, the sight of charred human bodies, the terror of severed limbs. It is reminiscent of the subsequent clashes that turned out to be ugly by any figment of human imagination. The year 2002 saw the worst of communal clashes in modern Indian history, perhaps next only to those witnessed during the days of partition.

Sanjeev* has truly been through hell - he saw raging fires, heard desperate screams, smelled burning flesh and tasted his own blood. He was shaking when he arrived at Ahmedabad aboard an undamaged bogey of the ill-fated and charred Sabarmati Express. He tumbled on to the platform and sank to his knees, screaming in anguish as the horror replayed itself in his mind. He saw the corpses of children; fifteen of them had been burnt alive, he remembered. He heard the anguished wails of deperate mothers and helpless fathers. He could smell death all over him as he clawed at his own flesh in vain hope of cleansing himself of the horror he had witnessed.

Seven years on, life for Majid* has come to a standstill. His eyes are a deadened black hole, unable to forget for a single living moment that his wife and six children were massacred in the post-Godhra riots. Majid, who witnessed the Naroda Patia massacre, escaped the carnage by jumping onto the terrace of a neighbouring building, but his family was not so lucky. Later, he found the bodies of his children amidst the rubble that was once his home, all of them charred. The body of his wife was found in a dustbin; she had been raped multiple times before she was mercifully killed. His daughters, the youngest being just six-months-old, had all been raped and brutally murdered. One little daughter had her eyes gouged out, while a teenage son had his limbs chopped off.

The stories are different, but the horror in them is the same. It is about two people from different communities - for the average Indian, as different as chalk and cheese - but the suffering is essentially human. The blood that soaked the soil of Gujarat is human blood - not Hindu blood or Muslim blood. The wounds are raw, and both need to be assuaged equally. The political clout leaped into the boat of polarised sentiments, and happily went fishing for votes in the rivers of blood. A section of the media helped them dish out their crass propaganda for power. All the norms which were needed to be done were either thrown overboard or conveniently sidetracked. All evidence and explanations contrary to the scenario favouring the polical leadership were pushed under the carpet, and later incinerated.

The gut-wrenching carnage that stole the lives of hundreds of Gujarat's citizens moved an entire nation. India saw (and still sees) the plight of those who have been left grieving for lost family members, or have been orphaned at a tender age, or have been gravely debilitated for the rest of their lives. That this tragedy was not the result of a natural disaster but was man-made is perhaps what is even more chilling. Undoubtedly, the burning alive of passengers in the Sabarmati Express was horrific and gruesome crime, but that it may unleash such barbaric retaliation has left India collectively shamed.

The intent of the Hindutva leadership has been, apparently, to instill amongst the nation's Hindus a sense of dignity and pride, and to awaken the nation to the despotism of Islamic fundamentalism. Then Godhra happened. What occurred in the aftermath of the slaughter has undoubtedly shifted the focus to more fundamental questions. What truly is the essence of India and Indians? What are the duties of the state towards its people? What has been and what should be the role of organized religion in India? What is the secular agenda and why is it so fragile and vulnerable?

These are perhaps just some of the questions that need to be asked if we are to assess this catastrophe in sociological terms. What has emerged quite unmistakably is that there exist elements amongst both Muslims and Hindus who are seeped in feelings of sectarian hatred. Their anger is uncontrollable and manifests itself in indescribable acts of reckless and brutal violence. A spirit of vengeance shrouds their collective wisdom and dormant humanity. Shockingly, such elements enjoy the tacit patronage of the political clout, who feed off them to survive in a turbulent politico-social climate.

The credibility of the entire Hindutva movement is at a particular low; unless their leadership calls for serious introspection and recognizable rectification of past errors, it is very much likely that they would arouse only greater distrust and disdain in the Indians' hearts. At the same time, those who pander to Islamic extremism and approach secularism in a distorted way must also engage in some re-evaluation. The politics of opportunism especially needs challenging. Those who attempt to extract votes - majority or minority - at the cost of principle or national interest all need to evaluate their own role in stoking the communal cauldron.

Our greatest homage to those that died in the tragedies of Godhra would be to truly build an India where there is genuine respect and camaraderie between social communities. Let us take the nation to a new and more equitable secular milieu. Let us not at any level compromise with the evils of organized religion. We have for too long divided ourselves along lines of faith, and have been alarmingly shackled to primitive ideologies. Let us create new political organizations, or at least sanitize the existing ones of divisive thoughts. Indian secularism needs to be invigorated; all sectarian and psuedo-revivalist tendencies need to be quashed. We must get back to our most essential task - that of preserving our delicately forged unity.

The Gujarat crisis has at least illuminated some of the problems of India's fragmented opinion in relation to communal antagonism. In its Indian avatar, secularism is far from being the panacea that many of us believe it to be. It is profoundly misinterpreted as a concept, and heavily tainted in practice. Our religious bigotry remains as real a threat to society today as it was in 2002, in 1992, or even in 1947. That is an inescapable conclusion imposed upon us by the Gujarat crisis.

The question India needs to ask herself today is this. Will justice, if it ever comes, help to heal the emotional and economic wounds? Unfortunately, I have asked this question repeatedly over the last seven years, and each time the answer was lost in silence, and the silence was deafening.

* Names changed to protect privacy

Feb 25, 2009

Divided We Stand

How many people does it take to show us the kind of fractured society we live in? How many rogues does it take to make us realise how inept our civilian system is? How many bigots does it take to let us know that we live in a country full of insensitivity where people are not even ready for dialogue? Violence is, in most cases, the language that speaks loudest and is heard best. Intolerance is becoming more and more inherent in our psyche, in a nation that prides itself in being one of the most celebrated democracies in the world.

Our Constitution bestows upon everyone an irrevocable right to freely express themselves. Our press has great freedom and is totally independent of the government or political forces. With such freedom and fairness having been provided to us, why does the need of resorting to violence to get oneself heard arise? The country today is full of pseudo 'patriots' and pseudo 'custodians of culture' who have a megalomaniac and twisted idea that they represent a larger section of people, and an iota of an incident or issue is enough for them to create mayhem and cause destruction in the country. In fact, this is the shortest and most effective way to ensure their fifteen minutes of fame. What with the sensational media being always present in the wrong place at the wrong time to ensure widespread coverage, they become the talk of the town (actually, nation) for a billion-plus people and overshadow a billion-plus 'real' problems, if only for a few days. This grants them far more than the fifteen minutes of fame they initially aspired for. Surprisingly, or rather not-so-surprisingly, the police is never equipped to handle such criminals. Political might leaps at every such opportunity and laps it up, culminating in another of those now-weary catfights between the ruling party and the opposition. Hitherto unheard of fringe parties jump to cash in on the incident by supporting whoever they feel is the sturdiest ladder for them to reach the coveted PM's chair. As for the common citizen, whoever cared for him/her in the first place?

It more often than not seems as if there are two completely different yet parallel worlds existing in India. One, made of and by progressive people who are receptive to new ideas which may be different from their own, and want to truly see India as a real superpower. The other, home to regressive and obstinate people who make sure that India recedes to the dark ages they live in, and remains stagnant there. In the rapidly widening chasm between these two sections, it is the nation that suffers the most. India has always been identified with the phrase 'Unity in Diversity'. I wonder today if it will hold true for long.

Democracy, by its very nature, is given to recalcitrance. India, once described as a 'functioning anarchy', is naturally prone to sharply conflicting pulls and pushes, not least on account of its sheer size and diversity. Suddenly, uniformity and nationalism have become co-terminous and the country is gasping amidst socio-ethnic shackles. 62 years into independence, India is confronted by a series of schisms that indicate a dangerous emotional polarisation along social, regional and religious lines. This is tempered with a gross popular apathy to the major issues staring us in the face. The country seems to simply not agree on her fundamentals.

The prevailing despondency can be directly linked to the emotional upheaval India is facing, more so in the light of the grim economic mood. Additionally, an aura of restlessness and bubbling frustration simmers in our heart, fuelled by divisive politics and ridiculous claims to ownership of India. We have witnessed Maharashtra v/s Rest of India. We have witnessed attacks on faith and assault on sentiments in Orissa and Karnataka. Then there was Godhra which is left to bleed incessantly. Kashmir for its Pandits stands as a gaping wound in need for redressal and amenity. These epidemics are rapidly proliferating to engulf more of India within their filthy folds. Political parties hope to translate such sentiments into votes, all at the cost of our fundamental human right to peace and happiness.

The absence of a total correlation between issues and voting actually serves as a safety valve. In the past few months, communalism and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism have grabbed the national headlines. On these issues there is a definite Hindu-Muslim rift. These are worrying signs that point to the emotional gulf between the majority community and the most significant minority. Nor is this rift a persisting relic. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the youth seems to be more aware and belligerent than the elders. This raw, untapped energy is yet to find focus. A positive outlet may take India to new heights; in the wrong hands, it could plunge the country into civil strife. A divided India can swing either way.