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.