Sunday, December 30, 2012

Illiberal society behind crime against women….

An interesting story in TOI is the subject of this post. On page 8 in TOI (Mumbai) are statistics of digital readership of the most popular stories of the year. These have been clubbed into different categories like entertainment, sports, business, India, world, technology, city and interestingly “specific to Delhi”. Several observations emerge:

Generally speaking, morbid stories attract the most readership in most categories. In the India category, the highest readership (9.6 lacs) was for a story “Massive earthquake strikes Indonesia”. The same story in the World category. In Entertainment, the highest story got 7.2 lac reads and was on “Rajesh Khanna passes away”. In “City”, the highest was 4.0 lacs for “Mumbai Police bust rave party”. And in “Specific to Delhi”, it was 2.5 lacs for “Husband mentally impotent, Virgin wife seeks annulment”. So gore and grime and tragedy sells. That’s why our media loves these subjects. Speaks volumes about our society, but more on that later.

The “Specific to Delhi” section is truly revealing; and shocking. A full 16 out of 18 topics that generated more than 1 lac reads relate to sex/murder. The titles of the stories show what kind of perverted mentality the city has got. The number 1 story was the one outlined in the previous para “Husband mentally….”. The others are “Bride dumps husband, flees with paramour”, “Aarushi Talwar murder case: necks slit just before death”, “Porn MMS goes viral in JNU, 3 suspended”, “Woman gang raped in South Delhi”, “Girl abducted, gang raped in moving car”, “Tutor rapes minor, makes MMS to blackmail her”, “Hemraj-Aarushi intimacy proved fatal: CBI”, “Woman gets a gift, husband kills her for two-timing”, “Sex ring busted: Former BPO executive was kingpin” and “Call centre staffer gang-raped, 2 held”. Do you see a pattern here. All of these stories relate to sexual crimes. Most stories are fancily titled, to stoke the sexual fantasies of readers and arouse the desired response (a read).

One of the good things about the digital world is that it measures response instantaneously. As soon as a story is put up, reactions in the form of “likes”, “scores”, “comments”, “shares”, “votes” etc come up and are visible for the whole world to see. We finally get to see what actually excites our people. In the old fashioned world of TV and newspapers, we never get any granular data. Digital data is thus precious and its analysis very important. It provides us with clues about society. Clues that can help us stop crimes.

Now to the subject of this post. Let’s be honest here. India is a very illiberal country when it comes to sex. Our culture actively suppresses sexual expressions in all forms. It starts early in life. In school, boys and girls are separated from each other. Even in co-ed schools, boys and girls are made to sit on separate benches. Brotherhoods and sisterhoods are encouraged over mixed groupings. What do you expect a bunch of boys to talk about in the absence of girls? Politics, technology, movies…..or sex???. There is no talk of sex right through schools, with most schools even giving basic sex education the go-by. When these kids enter college, and where mixing happens for the first time, they are underprepared. That’s also the time when their sexuality is starting to develop. Parents think they have trained their kids; but they haven’t in this vital subject.

Sex is a taboo word in India. We falsely believe that the Kamasutra and Khajuraho temples are proof that India is liberal. It’s not. Dating is actively discouraged. Holding hands is going way too far. Kissing on screens may be ok now, but in real life? Impossible. If young lads and lasses don’t interact with each other, what, except for fantasies, will they live by??? Sometimes these fantasies cross over into the world of sleaze and crime….and the results are there to see.

In the absence of any direct interactions with girls, boys find other ways of fulfilling their curiosity. They turn to the net, where porn is the hottest selling subject. Anyone who has seen porn on the net knows that it’s a fake, make-believe world where every woman is “available” and every man is the ultimate stud. For a young man who has not learnt to even say Hi to a girl, this is too much. He starts to fantasize about women; and dreams of having his time with the women. In short, the release only happens in an unnatural way. Lack of interactions also makes these men think weird things about the women. They think of women more as mere “bodies”, rather than as living, breathing and thinking humans. The women in the meanwhile know no better. They are taught to resist the overtures of men, be coy, cover themselves up, and when assaulted, keep mute, lest society thinks it was they who behaved inappropriately. Our society has created artificial barriers between men an women when none were designed by god to exist.

Has anyone noticed how men who regularly interact with women have a much more civilized attitude towards them? The crowds at Jantar Mantar and India Gate are mixed crowds. And by and large, their conduct with each other has been exemplary. In contrast, during the Anna struggle, the crowds were mostly males, and there were stories of the red light areas around Ram Lila grounds doing brisk business during the days of the protests. It’s obvious really why this happens.

The best news of the day is about gurudwaras in Delhi and Punjab discussing the Delhi rape during daily religious discourses, praising followers for taking up the issue of “our daughters” and demanding tough punishment for the rapists. This is a good beginning, for faith has the power to correct erring individuals. I would truly appreciate if religious leaders also asked (or rather, allowed) society to ease up a bit on our male-female relationships. Its natural for boys to seek out girls; let religion or culture not stop that please.

The reason crime against women is the max in the North is because society is the most conservative there. In Gujarat and Maharashtra, social functions like Navratri (garbas) and Ganapati actively create occasions for boys and girls to meet and dance together. In Mumbai and Pune, college kids hang out with each other with far lesser restrictions (the biggest stories are of rave parties and the like; not rapes). In many parts of the East, society is actually matriarchal, with women dominating men. In god-fearing South, religion forces men to be generally more decent towards women. Its only in the North that sexual machoism takes a firm grip. The cult of the MCP is headquartered in the North. As I write this post, a story is emerging of a BJP MLA in Rajasthan, Banwari Lal Singhal demanding that skirts be banned in schools. A couple of rapes have taken place in Delhi and Amritsar. The North is truly no place for women to be.

The real truth is that rape is a crime of opportunity. It can never be totally stopped. But it is also a crime accentuated by antiquated and illiberal social restraints; and pent-up frustration. By easing up on social norms, we can reduce the occurance of rape. And crimes against women. Its definitely worth a try.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

First let’s accept the flaws in our culture….then make changes

Too many of us Indians are unnecessarily too proud of our “Indian culture”. We tomtom it as the best thing ever created on earth. Unfortunately, an intrinsic part of this culture is the way we treat our women. The entire system of dowry. The ghastly sati system which existed for the most part of our history. Female foeticide. The “purdah” culture. Widow re-marriage issues. Branding women who wear Lipstick. Opposition to Valentine’s day. Angst against Public Display of Affection (PDA)…..these are all shameful aspects of Indian culture. Yet, for every one person who protests against these, there are a hundred others out there who fight for continuance of that very culture. India is a much divided country. But never is it more visible than on the subject of our culture.

As an example, consider the statement issued by the Shiv Sena today that it agreed with Abhijit Mukherjee’s recent, utterly nonsensical statement. From the TOI: “Stating that the Congress MP had spoken the truth, the ‘Saamna’ editorial said the “lipstick gang” should pay heed to the feelings of all countrymen.” What heed should the lipstick gang pay? Not to wear lipstick or work or go to discos or aim for the skies? The Shiv Sena – and most other political parties – have become the culture minders of the country. The moral police as they are often called. But are political parties out of touch with the people as newspapers and TV channels suggest? Unfortunately, no. They are very well connected. The problem is that the vast majority of our people – both urban and rural – feel the same way as the Shiv Sena does. This is the real challenge we face as we go about enacting new laws and providing more security for women. The aam aadmi is heavily prejudiced; and he’s not about to change.

Take another part of our “Indianness” (this one comes from religion) that needs to change immediately, but will not because of vested interests. Casteism. Today, we are angry because of the rape of the girl. But if we look at the even more gory incidents of crime against the lower castes, we will have to make changes there as well. I am not talking of intermittent violent crimes. I am talking of the constant, daily denial of equality of rights and opportunities to the lower castes. Here, the guilty ones are the upper castes. They don’t want to give up their privileged status. The system works to their advantage. If we don’t iron this one out quickly, imagine the outpouring that will take place when it becomes a burning issue.

The problem is compounded by our misplaced notion of “nationalism”. When we talk about our culture, we suddenly become defensive and unnecessarily compare it with, typically, the Western culture. We love to criticize the West. We hate their nuclear families, their “dented and painted” women, their fast-food culture, their sexual independence (we call it promiscuity) and their “family values” whatever that means. We fail to appreciate the better parts of their culture. For example, when teenagers make a living by working in McDonalds, we mock their parents for not fending for their children, but we refuse to accept how that experience makes them confident, independent and ready for life. The fact is that there are good parts and bad parts in any culture. We must have the intelligence and courage to accept the bad parts of our culture, and make appropriate changes. We must also be willing to accept the better parts of other cultures. But our xenophobic belief that we are the best in the world does us no good.

Unfortunately, it is only a small section of society that has evolved socially. We see a sliver of this section in the protests across the country. Such people are in a minority. That is why, we shouldn’t expect much action from politicians. The urban politicians might be a little more sensitive, but not much, since even our cities are full of bigots. The large majority of our politicians – like Abhijit Mukherjee – have to face an even more orthodox bunch of voters. A bunch that still lives with 17th century social mores. Let’s not forget; a politicians is really alert when it comes to matters of survival. Abhijit Mukherjee said what he said not by mistake, but as a calculated and thought-through plan. Why? Because he was in his rural constituency, probably in the middle of a male crowd of potential voters. I can take a bet that rather than howls of disapproval from the crowd, his statement must have elicited huge applause. Can we then expect the likes of Abhijit Mukherjee to support progressive laws that go against their voters? The unfortunate thing is that the women voters are so subjugated that they will anyway do their men folk’s bidding.

The biggest reform taking place in the country is thanks to the growing reach and influence of media. Especially TV and digital. Foreign programming – and Indian programming influenced by foreign programming – is showing a new way of life to women. They are realizing that it needn’t be like it is right now. Slowing and gradually, there is a movement starting to happen within their own hearts and minds. The men are not liking all this. They call it “cultural invasion”, of foreign cultures. Thank god, we still have a genuinely free media – even if it is irresponsible in many cases – in this country. This media gives us hope.

The digital medium is another huge change agent. Digital is breaching the divide between different sections of society. Facebook and twitter and email and websites and e-shopping and Google searches are non-discriminatory. But access to broadband unfortunately still is. The rich have it. The poor don’t. We should ensure that broadband – especially on mobile phones – spreads rapidly if we want a cultural revolution in India. We should have demanded a roll-back of costly 3G auctions because the costly spectrum will impede the growth of mobile broadband. Instead, we made it the gold standard and enforced it even on the humble 2G. Today, 3G penetration is barely 2-3%. Just imagine if this could be made 30% to 50%. Just imagine the impact it would have on the cultural transformation of the country.

The real truth is that unless we accept the flaws in our culture, we will not be able to change. There is no reason for us to be blindly proud of our Indianness. We must be prepared for a slow process of change. Be that as it may, the process has to begin. And never be forgotten. Lets keep our fingers crossed. And pray that digital grows faster….

Friday, December 28, 2012

Lets show some maturity today India….we owe the victim that much

The poor rape victim in Delhi, the braveheart, is dead. She fought a valiant battle, but her injuries were just too many. The brutes who assaulted her will have to pay for this. The case has suddenly changed from rape-and-assault to rape-and-murder. The death penalty is a near certainty. Today, there is extreme provocation for the people of Delhi; and for the people of India. How we behave is now on test.

If it is of any help, we must remember that the entire political class is on our side on this issue. All politicians – ranging from the Congress to the BJP to the Left to the regional parties – have expressed their extreme anger at the perpetrators of the crime and have repeatedly re-assured the people that they will make changes in the laws, in the policing set-up and the dispensation of justice. Save for a few, who I would like to think of as aberrations, most political leaders have behaved fairly and maturely for a change.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of our TV channels. Especially a few amongst them, who have handled the issue without requisite sensitivity – sensationalizing the matter, blowing up unnecessary controversies, not being mindful of timing in covering certain aspects, and failing to manage the emotions of the crowds. Today, as the poor girl’s body comes back to India, our TV channels will face severe provocation. Provocation not from the girl’s death, but from the competitive nature of their business and the pressure of TRPs. We have seen in the past that TV channels see these developments as opportunities to increase viewership and monies; rather than opportunities to prove their worth. The biggest anchors will be out all day today. My fingers will remain crossed in the hope that they behave maturely; shun sensationalism for just this one moment; and focus rather on maintaining calm. If ever the TV channels had a chance to prove that they could be responsible, it is today. If there ever was one chance for TV channels to show how they can positively make an impact, it is today. What the TV channels do will decide whether there is violence and mayhem or peace and calm.

For peace and calm is what is likely to be at risk today. Especially in Delhi. The people are bound to be angry as they should be. The emotions are bound to run high, as they usually do. In a situation like this, it is not difficult to imagine how a few stray, anti-social elements of society can wreak havoc on the city’s life. If the public feels for the girl – as I no doubt think it does – it will maintain peace. And commit to keep the focus on the issue without letting it spin into a different direction.

The Delhi police has as expected shut off large parts of Delhi – especially India Gate and the vistas around it. This should not serve as a provocation by itself. This does not mean that they are stopping us from our right to protest. As mature, responsible people, we have to remember that there is a time for protesting, and there is a time for just mourning. Right now, the time is for mourning. The time is for keeping an arm around the girl’s family. Right now, we should only be thinking of what the girl’s family would want. The girl’s father – in spite of grave anger and shock – has always urged that peace be maintained. Unfortunately, early TV reports this morning – and guests who are being interviewed – are already starting to make this an issue.

We must also commit to keeping the issue apolitical. Some political parties will try to exploit this issue. The recent statements made by a few irresponsible politicians are bound to boom in our minds today. Yesterday, one TV channel ran the headline “Politicians shame India” after a few politicians have behaved like asses in the recent past. But I like to look at these idiots as aberrations. We cannot and should not generalize from these aberrations. Such aberrations exist in all parties – the Abhijit Mukherjees in the Congress, the Madhya Pradesh leader of the BJP (whose nephew raped a girl inside the party office), the Kakoli Dastedar’s of the TMC and the Anisur Rahman’s of the Left – are just aberrations. These aberrations don’t define the politics of the country. Each party has its leaders, its policies and a desire to serve the nation. Blindly attacking politicians – especially today under trying circumstances – will be just the wrong thing to do.

The biggest tribute we can pay to the victim is to make sure that we don’t let this opportunity to make changes pass. What we must do is put the political class on notice. The PM and Sonia Gandhi have given time-bound commitments to bring about reforms in laws which govern women’s issues. We have to make sure they adhere to these timelines. We also have to make sure we never forget the incident, as we do so many others. Our TV channels have to keep the focus alive, not jump to the next topic; our newspapers must make it their mission to ensure that changes are brought about.

The real truth is that today is a test for all of us. How we behave will demonstrate how mature we are as a society; how responsible we can be. If we indulge in violence, it will be the worst way of remembering the victim. If we however make this as a demonstration of our silent but firm resolve to get the changes done, we will prove just how strong we are as a nation….

Thursday, December 27, 2012

What he really meant was “Dainty and Panted”, not Dented and Painted!!!!

Abhijit Mukherjee could just become India’s latest comedian. But only if he is able to explain his brand of humor; no one seemed to have got what he really meant yesterday. He clearly has the mien of a comedian, being able to keep a contrite, weepish face while repeating to mechanical precision “I have withdrawn the statements. I have apolozised” (spelling mistake intended!). Whoever saw this on TV last night would surely have laughed his guts out.

No one understood what he really meant by Dented and Painted. Trust me, he did not mean what all of us are thinking. What he really meant was “Dainty and Panted”. You see, dainty means “delicate and pretty”. And Indian women are delicate and pretty! That’s why he preceded this by saying “pretty pretty”. But no one understood him. And then, he followed it with “giving interviews on TV”, thus appreciating how pretty our ladies look on TV! He was being nice to you, ladies, not insulting! And by panted, what he really meant was that women wore pants! These panted women come on TV to give interviews. Now you understand?! You don’t? There is a reason for that. You see, his father and sister may have a good grasp over the language the colonialists left behind; but he is a true blue, orthodox, chauvinistic, desi, son of India’s soil, whose language and mindset is Indian, not phoren. The problem is only with his language!

Again, no one understood what he meant by Pink Spring. A quick google search on pink will tell you that Pink stands for “youthful, fun and exciting” and unlike Red, Pink means “sensual and passionate without being too aggressive”. Now you understand?! He was all praise for our women demonstraters! Of course, the other meaning of the word pink is “healthy”. What he meant was this movement is good for the health of the country!

And when he said “walking on the streets” and “going to discotheques”….no one understood the real power behind what he said. He didn’t say these two things in two different sentences. He said it in the same sentence, juxtaposing the two thoughts. That’s the key to understanding what he meant. He was appreciating how tough our women are. They protest in the morning and as if that is not enough, they also go to discos in the evening! How many people can work this hard???! His reference to their children was also in the same context. Just imagine. Walking the streets, having children and then going to the disco in the evening. It’s a tough life! Abhijit Mukherjee was full of appreciation for you, ladies! Now its your fault that you can’t understand him!

Maybe he did mean Dented and Painted after all. Women protest during the day, have kids on the side, and go to discos in the night. Hence they are dented (by the sheer hard work!) and painted (the rigors of the job I say!)!! Tch Tch….and you thought he was being a misogynist???

But if Abhijit Mukherjee is funny, our news channels are no less. One of my friends yesterday called news channels “Horror Entertainment Channels”! That’s a fab description, especially if one goes by the kind of anchors most of these channels have. They are all macho men, all of them. Superman, Spiderman, Hanuman and Batman all rolled into one (Damn. There is sexism even in our superheroes….why do we only have superheroes….why not superheroines??)! Our anchors also have solid brains to boot. And also a solid point of view on everything. That’s why they are able to separate the good from the bad. It is this god-gifted capability of theirs – where would the country go if they weren’t there?! – that they showed Abhijit Mukherjee his place, but they let the future savior of the nation – one Narendra Modi – go scot free for his remarks against Sunanda Panicker (Shashi Tharoor’s wife)! Or his comment on the impoverished women of his state….that they are very actually beauty conscious! Why they didn’t even demand an apology from him. It is this ability to differentiate between the good and the bad that makes our news anchor such an important part of the 4th estate.

What was also funny yesterday was the way Arnab Goswami of Times Now was shut up by Rahul Narvekar of the Shiv Sena. Arnab was pressing Rahul on some comment that Uddhav Thackeray had made about women. But Rahul was in no mood to take it. He attacked Arnab essentially saying that media sensationalized matters and then dropped them when enough juice had been extracted. A very correct observation. But then Arnab had himself solicited trouble. He made the mistake of attacking a non-Congress politician. He should have stuck to what he is best at. Mocking Abhijit Mukherjee as he sat there like a lamb in front of a tiger (him). Anyone who watches Times Now knows that if Arnab is ever vulnerable, it is in front of non-Congress politicians. Does anyone remember his squeamish interview of Bal Thackeray’s? Suddenly, he loses his debating skills. Suddenly, he is willing to listen. Suddenly, he is unable to cut the speaker’s sentences in the middle of his talk. Poor panelists can’t even quit the show in protest like Jayalalitha did yesterday at the NDC when her speech was cut short!

NDTV’s Nidhi also found herself in quite a spot yesterday. She started the show full of fire and brimstone. But after the usual men-bashing (well deserved yesterday thanks to Mr. Abhijit Mukherjee), she turned her attention to Bollywood. What she wanted to hear was that Bollywood portrayed women negatively….blah blah blah. You should have seen the sudden turn of mood on the show. All the panelists – Sharmila Tagore, Divya Dutta and Shobhaa De – suddenly flipped, coming to Bollywood’s defence! After all, how could they snap at the hand that feeds them?! Sharmila’s daughter in law is one of the hottest item girls, and Divya Dutta is dying to land a similar role! Poor Nidhi had no idea whether to come or go!

The real truth is that there is a clear divide between Bharat and India on the position of women. Abhijit Mukherjee was clearly addressing his rural constituency, which will vote him back to power because of what he said yesterday. Unfortunately, our Horror Entertainment Channels (HECs) are national. So they will mock and deride people like Abhijit. Brings me back to the point I have always made. That it is our society that needs to be reformed. We need social reforms along with economic reforms. But do we have any reformers out there at all?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

TV channels stoop to a new low. Sensationalize even a poor Constable's death.….

The level to which TV channels can stoop is fascinating. With every new incident, a lower low is breached. Forget learning from past mistakes, TV channels are hell bent on keeping on repeating them. How else does one explain the extent of coverage of the Delhi girl’s rape, not to talk about it’s quality, to the complete exclusion of all other news? In no other country, would so much time be given to any single story, even one as gruesome as this one. Is there a need for some sort of a control to be exercised on them?

Just look how differently the controversy surrounding Constable Tomar’s death has been handled by TV and print. The TOI has put out a tiny little piece on the front page and a more factual story (without any masala) on page 11. HT has put out a small story on the front page (again factual) with just a little end piece on page 6. The Indian Express likewise summarizes the facts on page 1 and 2. There is very little sensationalism in the coverage. Further, there are several other stories that have been featured by these papers on their front pages – inclulding of course the story of the girl being airlifted to Singapore (it happened after TV’s prime time, but I doubt if channels would have found much juice in this), Modi’s swearing-in in Ahmedabad, Ikea’s arrival and even a positive story of how the Delhi Police’s efforts have cut down road deaths in Delhi. TV channels on the other hand devoted almost the entire prime time to the controversy. TV channels blame their format (newspapers can put out different stories on the front page), the TRP system (masala gets TRP) and advertisers (they put their money on masala content), but the fact is that TV channels reflect just poor quality of journalism. Where have the the likes of Dr Prannoy Roy gone? And what kind of crass underlings have become editors of the TV channels?

Look at how the discussions go. First, the panels are almost entirely made up of people who have the ability to create drama. They are all good speakers, have extreme and inflammatory points of view, are ever-ready to attack the government (the most important requirement for TV), have creative minds to conjure up imaginary conspiracies out of anything (very important) and of course, character-assasinate anyone at will (very important). Once the panel is set up, a dog-fight (not the airforce type dog fight; what I really mean is a real fight – like amongst dogs) is started off. In Constable Tomar’s death story, we are expected to believe the accounts of two eye witnesses, who apparently were so alert in the middle of all the mayhem that they accurately remember, with vivid details, how Constable Tomar fell to the ground without anybody attacking him. The Medical Examiner’s report which found that there were ante-mortem (before death) signs of physical attacks should not be believed. We are told that the breakage of the ribs was because of the CPR; even though the Medical Examiner’s report suggests it was because of multiple blunt force impacts. We are made to believe that the doctors at the RML hospital are corrupt; that their report is fudged. That this a grand government plan to push back at the demonstraters. That only the two activists are honest; everyone else including the doctors are liars. And when a panelist asks “why would the eye-witnesses lie?”, that is supposed to be compelling proof of their honesty. But why shouldn’t the same question apply to the RML doctors also? The TV anchor (he shouldn’t even be called an editor) finds no merit in seeking that clarification. God save a country which has so much negativity in its media.

Second, what’s with the fascination that TV has with these AAP guys? Politically, AAP is a small fry, but on TV it carries more weight than the Congress and BJP put together. Where is the sense of proportion that TV anchors should exercise when they give time to different speakers? Should AAP members (who are mere politicians now) be given so much air time? Because on TV, Yogendra Yadav manages to get more time than even a Ravi Shankar Prasad or an Abhishek Manu Singhvi. In no other country would this happen. It’s only in India that news is so biased. Only recently, the News Broadcasting Standards Association (NBSA) admonished CNN-IBN for its coverage of the Haryana land “scam” in which the Gandhis were accused of grabbing a huge amount of land. It was proved to be all wrong. And just a year back, Times Now was similarly admonished for biased reporting in the Kanimozhi case. If there is one slap that news organizations hate to take, it is to be accused of bias.

Thirdly, there is this whole question of what a TV channel’s raison d’etre is. If it’s a news channel, its job should be to put out as much news developing across the country as possible, no? Why then do TV channels focus almost entirely on masala-laden studio debates alone? Vir Sanghvi wrote a series of posts in his blog on this subject, with the titles indicative of the malaise. On 9th Sept, 2011, he wrote a post titled “Why sensation is replacing news on our TV channels”. He followed it up with another post on 23rd Sept, 2011 “TV news channels thrive on the free programming offered by staged events”. And the one he wrote earlier on 23rd July, 2011 “News radio is finally here; we just call it news TV”. The common point he makes in all three posts is that a) TV channels prefer studio debates over field news because its cheaper to do – just put a few people in the studio and make them blabber compared to putting so many men and machines in the field and b) a lot more masala can be added in studios – giving higher TRPs and more advertising dollars. In all of this, the question that pops up repeatedly is: are our TV channels responsible at all?

If debates must happen, why put “involved” parties on the panel? They only defend their well known positions and add no extra value to the viewers’ lives. But I guess politicians are easy to invite; they come readily because of the free publicity. The easiest of them all to invite are no doubt the AAP members, since their very survival depends on TV. Next easiest are the BJP politicians who are happy to grab any and every chance of attacking the ruling party. They don’t even have to explain why MP is the real rape capital (BJP has been ruling it for nearly 10 years) and not Delhi (which is ruled by the Congress). Then there are a whole lot of lawyers, and ex-this and ex-that, all of whom come with political biases, none of which are clarified to the viewers. But the worst of all panelists have to be journalists, the ones who come as “neutral” experts, but in reality have solid political preferences. Journalists like Swapan Dasgupta who is nothing but a Modi publicist. Or Kumar Ketkar, a Congress lapdog. My point is not about these people though. My point is about how little TV channels care for intellectual honesty and the truth.

It is for this reason that TV channels have very little credibility and remain just a small fraction of their newspaper revenues in terms of revenues and profits. Total TV news revenues are estimated to be less than Rs 1000 crores; total newspaper revenues upwards of Rs 15000 crores.

The real truth is that our TV channels have become pathetic. They don’t even care for basic decency. That when someone dies, you don’t create a controversy around his death. All that matters to these hounds is their TRPs. Everything else can take a back seat….

India’s dying need for new-age social reformers….

The recent rape case in Delhi (and the hundreds others across the country which didn’t get as much publicity and attention), along with a hundred other types of atrocities against women shows us that there is a desperate need for social reforms in this country. Without social reforms, such crimes will continue to happen. Making more stringent laws, increasing the police force, bringing in more modern technology are temporary palliatives; not the real solution. We need reformers with credibility who can address the different ailments of Indian society and make it their life’s mission. People who do it out of a passion and love for the country, not for the lure of lucre or the glory of TV cameras.

Lets be honest here. Indian society is exceedingly orthodox and bigoted. It has been for many centuries. It is plagued by several and severe faultlines which simply refuse to go away with time. Those of us who are blindly proud (unwilling to accept these faultlines exist) of the Indian culture are in denial mode. We should keep the best of our culture intact, but we should be willing to shed its rougher parts.

It was only 200 years back that the practice of Sati, one of the most obnoxious of scourges in the country, was finally eradicated thanks to the tireless efforts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Mahatma Gandhi, in addition to winning India its freedom from the British, was one of the most determined and persistent social reformers this country has seen, for which he is emulated and revered worldwise. Gandhiji is most renowned for his fight against untouchability; everyone knows he started calling dalits harijans, people of god. Unfortunately, his work in this area wasn’t completed and India continues to be ravaged by faultlines of caste, in which the worst is reserved for the dalits. Gandhiji was also a tireless crusader for women’s rights and of course ethnic and religious unity. Much like Kabir in the 16th century who made it his life’s mission to harmonize relationships between Hindus and Muslims. I think we need another Kabir now.

India has been blessed to have had so many reformers. Jamnalal Bajaj who fought to get harijans the right to visit temples and draw water from public wells, Vinoda Bhave for his bhoodan movement, Baba Amte for his struggle against the public apathy for leprosy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar for taking up the cause of widow remarriage, Dhondo Keshav Karve for fighting for women’s education (and also widow remarriage) and Virchand Gandhi for women’s education have all contributed enormously to the modernization of Indian society. As have Baba Ambedkar for his struggle for dalit pride, Jyotiba Phule for removing caste restrictions and the dominance of Brahmins, Mother Teresa for caring for the downtrodden, Swami Dayanand Saraswati who founded the Arya Samaj and campaigned against idol worship and caste divisions amongst others, and Ramakrishna Paramhansa who went so far as to regard every woman as holy mother.

In spite of the vast efforts of these reformers, the work is not finished yet. In fact, many of the earlier faultlines – most notably related to caste, religion and women’s issues – have returned to haunt India in a big way. Unfortunately, there are no reformers left to take on these issues.

The social reformer has to have high credibility because he (she) talks to society about difficult, unpleasant change. All social problems are within society, and by extension, within people. How many leaders today have the courage to speak to people about these problems on their faces? Most simply duck the issues; preferring to speak about the more pleasant things instead. I have said this earlier: a leader must have the ability, the determination, the courage to speak to his people about their mistakes, without fear of losing votes or being ostracized or worse, attacked. How many leaders speak against khaps? How many for dalits to marry into Brahmin families? How many for women to get equal opportunity for higher employment and professional glory? Why, we are unable to even pass the women’s reservation bill which could ensure a semblance of women’s representation in Parliament.

It’s not like there have not been reformers in India in the recent past. I count Anna Hazare as a social reformer who worked tirelessly in the villages for their uplift. His work on water harvesting, removal of alcoholism, etc are what made him the national figure that he is today. His fight against corruption can also be seen as a life long struggle which was going along just fine, till the time he paired up with Kejriwal & co, losing focus, becoming political and simply descending from his high alter.

Modern day reformers – if they can be called that – are more elitist, catering to the upper crust of society, and while using Indian culture and spirituality as the motif, prefer on global audiences rather than the domestic masses. Take Sri Sri Ravishankar, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev and other such. We need people like them to penetrate the many strata that makes Indian society rather than attend to the needs of the rich and famous globally. India needs them more than the West does.

There is a difference between reformers and merely popular personalities. Baba Ramdev is an enormously popular yoga teacher, but he cannot be called a reformer. He is doing a lot for promoting yoga and even ayurveda, but very little for removing deep seated prejudices in his followers. Has he ever asked his men followers to treat women with equal respect? I doubt it.

The real truth is that it is on social reforms that will rid India of the various problems we face. India can lead the world in this. Rapes are far more common in the western democracies in India, but we can reduce the incidence even further, if only we can teach our people a little respect for women, and for personal freedom….

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

With Constable Tomar dead, there is blood on the protesters’ hands….

Shocking, the extent to which the demonstraters in Delhi have lost their mental balance. What was once a noble fight has suddenly become a lowly brawl. What was once a gathering of “revolutionaries” has quickly become an assembly of rowdies. What was once a soulful and peaceful demand for justice has long transgressed into the territory of violent injustice. The murder of  constable Subhash Tomar, killed for no fault of his, has changed everything . There is blood on the hands of the demonstrators.

What was constable Tomar’s fault? That he was fulfilling his duty of maintaining law and order as ordered by his superiors? That he bravely went about doing his job even in the face of violent attacks from some of the protesters. The pictures in the papers yesterday bared it all. People pelting stones, overturning cars, attacking public property, and even provoking, taunting, abusing and physically assaulting the cops. If anyone has been arrogant in the last few days, it is certainly not the Government but these misguided “free radicals” who have made it a habit to descend onto the streets. They have now become the “mujahideen” of the Indian middle class who move from one cause to another without really having any understanding of any.

For if they did understand, they would have been satisfied long back. Their demand for a more stringent law has already been conceded. But the law cannot be made on the streets no matter how hard the protesters demand. It has to be made in Parliament and everyone from the PM to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to the Home Minister have already committed to “quick” changes. I worry about anything done quickly in our country. For, often, the pendulum of law swings from one unfair extreme to the other. We saw that in the case of Section 498 (a) of the Indian Penal Code, introduced to protect women harassed for dowry, but which soon became the most handy tool for women to batter their in-laws with. I worry about how many rape-accused in the future will first be treated like convicted criminals and subjected to humiliation before they somehow manage to prove their case.

It is of course way beyond the pea-sized brains of these demonstraters to comprehend that any justice, like demanded in this case, has to be delivered by the judiciary and not by the politicians, against whom they are raising slogans. Maybe, they would be better off demonstrating before the High Court and the Supreme Court where thousands of similar cases are lying unattended. The High Court has now said it will set up fast track courts, but what prevented it from doing so uptil now? I am told that in Mumbai, where a similar fast track court was set up last year to hear the Reuben and Keenen murders (when they tried to protect a girl from eve teasers), even a chargesheet has not been filed. But who can explain this to the demonstraters?

It is also impossible for these hare-brained loose cannons to understand that death cannot be a solution for every crime. Several women’s organizations have themselves argued against death in rape cases, fearing rapists may go even further and murder the woman to destroy any evidence against them. If we gave the death penalty for every crime (remember Anna wanted death for corruption also), India would soon resemble Talibanised Afghanistan. Its time these bunch of louts is shown their place. Like everyone else, I too have a complaint against the cops. But my complaint is not that the cops have been too harsh; it is that they have not been harsh enough.

If only the crowds had a little concern for the poor girl, they would have heeded the request of at least her father to stop the violence. The poor man hasn’t lost his composure even in the face of extreme tragedy, but these protesters are finding it impossible to maintain theirs. The poor girl is already a victim of violence; what will the protesters achieve by inflicting more violence? And violence against whom? There is no one denying them anything. Everyone is on the same side. The demonstration is now without a cause.

Delhi in now witnessing a second chapter of shame. For if there is one scourge that is even more prevelent in Delhi than rapes, it is the cult of aggressive machismo. The preference for brawn over brain. The penchant for abusive language. Delhi has to give up such conduct if it has to be considered a modern city. Moderation and tolerance are critical ingredients of modern, cosmopolitan cities.

What would be right to do now is for the protesters to go back home; and if possible say a prayer for Constable Tomar. His death was completely unnecessary. Before the situation becomes any more messy, the curtains must be drawn on this unfortunate act.

The real truth is that Delhi has been held hostage by inimical elements over the last several days. Everything has a perfect timing to end; that moment has long been crossed for this particular protest….

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Everything except justice for rape victim on minds of protesters at India Gate….

The protests in Delhi have lost direction. No one knows what is going on. The protesters rant about wanting justice for the rape victim, little knowing that everyone who matters has already agreed to that. There are peaceful protesters who complain about police excesses, shielding those within them who took to violence. There are politicians taking advantage of the situation with an eye on the forthcoming state elections, not willing to acknowledge their own pathetic track record in states ruled by them. In this jamboree, the only one forgotten is the rape victim, even though no one will admit it.

What do the protesters want? That the laws be amended so that punishment for rapists is increased. Who are they demanding this from? The Government right? The Government has already responded with the Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde reassuring them that he will do so. He has also set up a 3-member committee to look into the laws, setting a 30 day deadline for recommendations, and has suspended 4-5 cops who could be accused of de-reliction of duty (even though I don’t understand how they could have prevented the rape inside one of the thousands of buses that roam the streets of Delhi). Then there is Sheila Dixit who has said that her government will make sure the girl gets the best treatment anywhere in the world. Then there are Sonia and Rahul Gandhi who have said that they were equally appalled and that action will be taken soon. And lastly, there is the PM who is personally monitoring the situation and who also has assured the people of speedy action. What else can any government do? Enact the law by the evening, and get it passed by the assembly of people out there at India Gate? Honestly, this is one movement in which there is no “other side”. Everyone is on the same side. And yet the protests continue.

Then there is this demand of death for the rapists. What does the crowd want? That the rapists be gathered at India Gate and publicly hanged? Or maybe, shot by a battery of guns? Without waiting for the courts to pronounce the verdict??? C’mon, this is the most pathetic of all demonstrations I have seen.

Then there is this charge that the police misbehaved and acted in a heavyhanded manner. Well, at least one opposite view from someone who was at India Gate is that the police have actually been very restrained. The protesters have been intentionally baiting them. They are showing them bangles and asking them to wear them (now who will tell these jokers that this itself is an attack on womanhood; now you know why I say that the girl has been forgotten). They are abusing them. And the cops are still not reacting. It’s when the crowds turn violent – and males start eve teasing girl protesters (can you believe it???) – that the cops are acting. If they didn’t act, and if some protesters got injured (or god forbid, die), the cops would be blamed for inaction. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t. This is unfair.

The protests are being fanned by a media eager for TRPs. What better to show on TV on a lazy wintry Sunday than thousands of protesters pelting stones at the cops? All TV channels were giving back to back coverage in an acute reminder of the Anna days. After that movement had ended, many TV editors had agreed that they had probably gone overboard. But its obvious now that no lessons were learnt. The competitive nature of TV journalism makes sure that sensationalism is at the core of any story; with editing adding more drama (By the way, did anyone read the story that the News Broadcasters Standards Authority – a self regulatory body of news broadcasters – has fined CNN IBN for sensationalism and presenting untruthful facts in the Haryana land “scam” in which the Gandhis were accused of pocketing a huge parcel of land).

The internet was rife with anger. But anger about what? No one know what’s going on, so they are commenting about things that have already been addressed. That the government should meet the people. Well everyone has met the demonstraters. That new laws should be enacted, not knowing that even under the current laws, the courts can pronounce huge penalties as in the case of the Kerala madrassa teacher-rapist who has been given 22 years in jail. The butt of many jokes were Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, but why? Clearly, politics was dominating the internet as well.

There is no doubt in my mind that Delhi has become a city of “free radicals” – protesters willing to protest for anyone and available for hire. I can bet this was the same crowd that one saw at Anna’s movement. Suave, English-speaking, well-dressed NGO types. They hog TV screens and amplify incidents beyond reality, unashamedly presenting a one-sided picture; their side. The truth is of no concern to them. Everyone is on adrenaline shots.

The usual rabble rousers are there in the hundreds. BJP politicians, forgetting that the rape capital of the country is really not Delhi, but their very own Madhya Pradesh (ruled by the BJP for nearly 10 years now). The Aam Aadmi Party which has been losing steam and which found this to be a great opportunity to be seen. The Ramdevs who cannot not be seen where there are so many TV cameras. And oh yes, the latest conscience keeper of the country, General VK Singh. Pathetic. Its nothing but plain politics. And of course, no one cares for the girl.

The demonstraters have now started turning violent. Not only have they attacked the cops (one of them is critical and several others seriously injured. See the pic of a stone pelter on Indian Express’s front page), they have also been attacking public property (that’s why the Delhi metro was shut; not to keep the crowds out as some cynics were suggesting). Prompting Vir Sanghvi to tweet that damaging public property was no way of showing empathy for the rape victim. But there were the usual agent provocateurs. The Anupam Khers, who can’t wait to see the back of this government. The Pritish Nandy’s who say that this goes beyond the rape. Its about this “deaf and dumb” government. That explains the politics behind these demonstrations doesn’t it? The Kiran Bedis who haven’t forgotten the snub of last year’s. And so many more. All out to push their own agendas. With no one caring for the rape victim herself.

The real truth is that the protests in Delhi have become completely meaningless. No one cares for the raped girl. She’s just become an excuse. This is a display of the most pathetic underbelly of India. Worse that the rapists even. Shameful….

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Delhi protesters need good leadership for success….

The protesters in Delhi are onto something noble and good. Something that could help the country eliminate or at least curb the scourge of rape. But for that to happen, they need good leadership. Leadership that channelizes their energy into something meaningful and productive. Without good leadership, they could end up becoming mere rabble rousers. I personally felt the Anna movement also was good, but it failed to achieve its objective because it suffered from poor leadership. Had the leadership been smarter, we would have had a Lokpal by now. There are traps that the protesters need to avoid.

The protesters are demanding that the perpetrators of the rape be given the death penalty. Fair enough. But they must remember that many women’s groups themselves are not in favor of the death penalty. Many like me believe that India should abolish capital punishment in all cases except terrorism. What we need is harsh punishment, but not death. Fortunately, there are examples of this happening even within our present laws. A court in Kerala yesterday dispatched off a madrasa teacher-rapist to 22 years in prison. We really don’t need new laws. What the protesters must demand is strong police investigation, followed by quick and timely justice, not necessarily the death penalty. The trap is that by demanding instantaneous death, they are letting their emotions get the better of them. They are forgetting that this is India, not 18th century France when the guillotine became the symbol of the revolution. Most importantly, they must believe in the judicial process…..and let the courts decide the punishment. The death penalty cannot become the rallying point for the protesters.

Protesters can also help the cause of rape victims by ensuring that a rape is not treated as if it is the end of the world for them. It’s a serious crime, and a crime that needs tough punishment, but it’s is nothing more than physical abuse. A rape victim should not be shunned by society, her job and marriage prospects should not get hurt, and her attempts at re-building her life must not be thwarted. For this, protesters need to fight with several orthodox elements of our society. This is tricky but they should be ready to do so.

Protesters should also not mindlessly target the establishment, or even the Delhi police. The poor souls did not rape the victim. Nor could they have prevented it from happening. Rape is a crime of opportunity. A perverted mind searches for an opportunity. No matter what the strength of the force, a rapist will always find an opportunity. Just think about it. Bang in the middle of this national uproar, an educated man in Delhi raped a 3½ year old child in her playschool. He happens to be the Principal’s husband, so he found a convenient opportunity. Or the case in Mumbai which is even more despicable. A woman came from Nepal in search of her husband. And she was raped by three different people, all unrelated to each other, on her very first day in the city. Such depraved people are all over. Could the cops have prevented these incidents? Maybe. Maybe not. Remember, many more rapes happen in the developed western world, with far better policing and far better technologies, than in India. The truth is that the Delhi police has done a good job in nabbing the culprits. The public pressure has worked. Give them a little credit. Guys, the cops are not the thugs here. They are on our side.

Protesters should also be careful that their agitation doesn’t get politicized. The Anna movement failed because it became a tirade against just one party, as if all the other parties were spotlessly clean. Protesters should ask themselves why the protests are taking place only in Delhi? Agreed, Delhi is the rape capital of India. But Delhi accounts for just 575 odd rapes out of the 24000 that take place across the country. The scourge of rapes is all over; we must vent our anger over all these 24000 rapes as well. There is no point attacking Sheila Dixit just because she happens to be in the national capital. If we have to, we have to protest out the offices of the CMs of MP (3400 rapes a year), WB (2350) and UP (2000) as well.

In avoiding the politics, protesters will have to guard themselves against the trickery of the politicians. Sushma Swaraj and the BJP is apparently demanding a special session of the Parliament to pass strict rape laws. Can Sushma Swaraj please make up her mind whether she will allow this special session to function? Because her party disrupts most sessions and it has become a habit now. Also, will Sushma Swaraj please demonstrate the same fervor in demanding a special session of the Karnataka, MP and Chhatisgarh assemblies so that new laws can be enacted and debates on thousands of rapes that take place in these states be held? These are BJP ruled states, so might be a little inconvenient for Sushma. Has Sushma forgotten that law and order is a state subject after all (has she forgotten her lectures on the federal structure of the country which she so dramatically enunciated during the discussion on NCTC)?

Protesters must recognize that the real reason for so many rapes in India is that we are a perverted society. People call it patriarchal, but in reality, we are a perverted society. Our men disrespect women and treat them lower than themselves. Like Shobha De writes in TOI today, we even kill female foetuses. And like GK Pillai, the former Home Secretary writes in ET today, many men eat before their wives do and then the wife gets the leftovers. This mindset has to change. For this, the protesters must be ready to take out morchas inside residential colonies, searching for potential rapists there, and pushing the men to look inwards. Anna failed to do this; pretending that corruption exists only in government and the people are squeaky clean. Protesters must be willing to take on the khap panchayats who treat women like home furnishings. They must realize that rape is just the most heinous form of women’s abuse – the full range of abuse is far wider.

And lastly, protesters must realize that while media can be their best friend in such activism, media can also be ruthless. One fine day, as something else breaks, media will quietly abandon their cause. Media did that to Anna also. Protesters must be smart in using media. Remember, in handling media, time is of essence. In today’s fast media lifecycle, no story can survive for too long. Protesters have to achieve what they have to achieve quickly. That is why it is important to compromise, to be flexible, if required. Talk to the government. Take commitments from them that they will act. But then end the protest gracefully. This is a long battle. One that has to be fought over a long period of time. There will be more work required to be done in the future. It cannot be just a single protest.

The real truth is that the protesters are doing a great job by raising the issue so strongly. But they need to stay focused. They must not look at themselves as revolutionaries out to change the whole system; but as samaritans who want to find solutions within the system. Protests with a belief that things can improve, that everything is not miserable, can result in big changes. Let make sure this movement does not go the Anna way….

Friday, December 21, 2012

The twin challenges for Modi….and why the Congress will celebrate his victory

After his victory in Gujarat, an attempt is being made to portray as if Modi has overcome the last, most daunting, nearly impossible test set for him by his party. That he has now earned his right to be the party’s PM candidate. This is a cunning exploitation of a favorable political opportunity….for Modi’s victory in the state was a preordained certainty. Gujarat was hardly a challenge, but Modi smartly positioned it as being an “agni pariksha” for him, to use a saffron phrase. He used his journalist-sympathizers like Swapan Dasgupta for this.

By all accounts, Modi’s is an impressive victory, coming as it does for the 3rd time in a row for himself and the 5th for the BJP. But those of us who have lived in Gujarat know exactly the stronghold the BJP has over Gujarat. It sounds clich├ęd, but the fact is that the state has been totally polarized. By making the minorities his whipping dog, Modi has tapped the most primeval insecurities of the majority community; a community that prefers to do business and leave matters of protecting faith to someone else. That someone else is Modi. Modi’s PR that the people have voted for him because of Gujarat’s economic progress is rubbish. Gujarat was prosperous decades before Modi. Much of his success belongs to others. The reality is that the Gujaratis have voted for him only because he has showed the minorities “their place”. Unless Modi messes up badly, he can win three more times in Gujarat.

That brings me to the twin challenges that Modi faces as he leaps towards Delhi. Those twin challenges ironically are the exact same as the two success factors in Gujarat. First, that the Muslim population is very small in Gujarat; under 9% or so. Second, that the majority population in Gujarat has a strange anger and frustration with the minorities. Anger from past experiences; like the Muslims supporting Pakistan in an India-Pak cricket match. Frustration that they can do nothing about it, since Gujaratis are generally peaceful people.

Take the first challenge. The Muslims haven’t forgiven Modi or the BJP. Historically, the BJP has only fared well in states where the Muslim population is small; in MP (6.4% Muslims), Chhatisgarh (1%), Rajasthan (8.5%) and Punjab (2%) apart from Gujarat (9%). It fares only so-so in states where the Muslim population rises to 12-14%, the national average; states like Jharkhand (14%), Karnataka (12%), Andhra (14%) where the BJP has either never ruled or has had a sketchy record. In states where the  Muslim population is higher; like UP (18.5%), Bihar (16.5%), West Bengal (25%), Assam (31%) or Kerala (25%); the BJP has fared poorly. Remember, Bihar is more Nitish’s success than BJP’s. This Muslim formula also explains why the TN parties and Orissa’s BJD (both in states with Muslim population is less than 5%) are OK to sign up with the BJP when required. Unfortunately for the BJP, the support of these is not enough.

How will Modi handle this challenge? To most Muslims, Modi is anathema. To most regional parties therefore, Modi is anathema. Can Modi suddenly go soft; do a 180 degrees turn on his decades-old image maybe? That’s a trap. If he does that, he’ll become a confused “brand” (personality). If he doesn’t, he will wont even make a start. It’s a challenge that cannot be overcome by the usual political ideas. It can only be overcome by a huge dose of personal charisma, a readiness to stoop to conquer, a willingness to accept mistakes with a promise to correct them, a genuine concern for the “six crore Gujaratis”. Vajpayee had these qualities. Does Modi have them? I doubt.

The second challenge for Modi is that the majority community in the rest of the country simply isn’t like it is in Gujarat. It is much less insecure; and much better organized politically. Regional parties have carved out homogeneous caste-based fiefdoms within the majority community. As far as the dalits are concerned, the rest of the Hindus are as pariah as the Muslims are, and Mayawati is their proven savior. The tribals have been treated like outcasts by the Hindus, and hence are being lured by other religions. They don’t care for the Hindus, nor the BJP. On paper, all these are Hindus, but in political terms, they are not. The BJP has never been able to unite them, except during the Babri movement, when it temporarily managed to polarize the entire country. Can any party repeat such an act in today’s world where there are eagle-eyes all over keeping a watch? Can a Godhra or Ayodhya ever be repeated? Look at what happened in Assam. The media built so much pressure that the government there was forced to act at double speed. Could Gogoi have turned a blind eye for three days like Modi did in Godhra? Impossible.

For Modi, this is a bigger challenge. He can become softer on religion and adopt “Hindutva”, the fig leaf the BJP uses to cover its aggressive Hindu strategy. But what about uniting the different castes? Will the mantra of economic growth be enough? Let’s not forget. Economic growth is strong in Gujarat because its people are industrious, not because of Modi. The rest of the country are not like that. The economic growth story is difficult to replicate in the Hindi heartland.

This is what gets me worried. Modi will try something new; but whatever it is, it will be incendiary. He will reopen old wounds; resurface buried differences. He may do something silly on Kashmir for example to stoke nationalistic fervour. He may even wage a war against our neighbors – the biggest two of whom are Muslim nations – and hit two birds with one stone. Look at the BJP’s track record so far. The BJP government exploded the nuclear bombs (Pokhram II) in 1998; a purely jingoistic act. They were “lucky” that Pakistan inflicted the Kargil war on us. The Indian Army would have won the war in any case, but the BJP just happened to be ruling at the Center. That won them the next election. More recently, Modi stirred the Sir Creek controversy – as a fail-safe back-up to any second thoughts the Hindus might develop against him. This is what I am really worried of. The BJP is a party that pulls at nationalism every other day. Not out of worship for the nation, but as a route to keep itself in public memory. What the country needs is pragmatism. Navigating the choppy waters of international relations. Securing the best deal for India by befriending people of all hues and colors, and faith and belief. Seeking out preferential deals with unusual partners. And very importantly, strategically keeping mum (even if it means offending your core voters) about things like Kashmir, Arunachal, and Afzal Guru. The BJP hasn’t been able to do this ever. And Modi is not going to change that.

In addition to these, Modi faces enormous challenges from within his own party. But I will leave that for another post.

The real truth is that the Congress will be actually be deligted with Modi leading the BJP in 2014. That will make its task of shutting it out easier. Just like polarization of voters works in Modi’s favor in Gujarat, it will work against him in the rest of the country. The Congress’s biggest nightmare would be a moderate leader from the BJP. It would really fear a Nitish Kumar or an Arun Jaitley. There are very few such leaders in the BJP. Which is why it has managed to keep itself small. Modi’s ascension will ensure it becomes even smaller.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

It will take time to reduce the scourge of rapes….but let’s make the beginning

It’s a sad commentary of how men treat women around the world, not just in India. When I looked up figures of rapes around the world, I couldn’t believe what I found. At first, I thought that it was a case of under-reporting in India and over-reporting in the western world. But when I read the details, I realized that the numbers were indeed correct. This should make us sit back, pause and learn from the experiences of others, and then make what is best for our country. Just making strict rules will help no one’s cause.

First the statistics (Wikipedia – UN). India has about 1.8 (maybe 2 now) incidents of rape per lac of population. The total number of rapes is about 24000 and on a population base of between 1.2 and 1.3 billion, the average per lac comes to about 1.8-2.0. Let’s take the comparative numbers in “liberal” Western Europe. Sweden is the world’s rape capital with a figure of 63.5 per lac of population. Yes, 63.5. Even if there was a case of over-reporting, that number is truly horrific and makes you wonder whether our understanding of Europe is founded on correct assumptions. There’s more. It is 29 in the UK, 19 in Norway, 16 in France, 9 in Germany and Netherlands, a full 28 in Belgium, 10 in Austria, 8 in Italy and 7 in India’s favorite tourist destination of Switzerland. Shocking? Wait till you hear figures of the US. A full 27 per lac. The US number has been established by their Department of Justice basis several studies. Rape in US colleges is rampant, with as many as 15-20% women in colleges admitting they had been raped during their college tenure. Unbelievable. Closer home in Asia, it’s a high 13 in South Korea (another developed country), 6 in Phillipines, 2.7 in strict Singapore, 7 in the sleaze capital of Thailand, and an equally atrocious 8 and 7 in our neighbors Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. These figures are shocking. And while I won’t take all of them at face value, the larger message cannot be ignored. Rape is hardly an Indian phenomenon (though I am sure, a lot of rape within marriage goes unreported).

In comparison, India gets away lighter and is the company of countries like Canada (1.7), Hongkong (1.6), Greece (1.9) and Hungary (2.3). This is hardly going to be of any solace to our women though. What it may do however is make us think about what increases or decreases the occurance of rape.

First, it is not to do with increased police presence, or higher sophistication of devices for then the Western world should have been a safe haven for women. It’s also not to do with faster justice systems for again the western world sets the best standards there. All this will help of course, but it won’t be sufficient. So what is it to do with?

I again feel it is to do with increasing awareness of rapes and the consequent penalties that come; and bringing in a certain social respect for women. It’s a moot point whether the West gives more respect to women or countries like India. Sure, in the workplace, there is far more equality in the West. Sure, there are many more “women’s achievers” in the West. But going by other parameters, the West has as little regard for a women’s rights as here in India. Almost all lude jokes around the world deal with women’s body parts. Sex is the most common subject of any “nonveg” joke anywhere in the world. Hollywood is full of women stereotypess. So, yes, while women have many more liberties in the west than in India, one cannot say that with qualifications.

India can set some global benchmarks here. We need to go back to our core value systems where half our gods are women and all our religious scriptures give a special place to women. Somehow, we have lost the connect these days. Our schools don’t re-inforce respect for women. Like I mentioned yesterday, a course in moral science should be made compulsory for school children. There must be special camps conducted in colleges to highlight the penalties that face a man when he attempts rape. I doubt if these louts who raped the Delhi girl even knew that their entire lives would be decimated by one perverted act. It’s important we try the “softer” methods in addition to all the harsh ones that are being discussed now.

It’s the same with sexual harassment in offices. I am surprised at how little awareness there exists amongst men about what constitutes sexual harassment in offices. Narrating a vulgar joke in front of women colleagues is a harassment, as it rightly embarrases the woman colleague. Looking strangely at women, even if there is no touching or molestation, is harassment, as rape is hardly a physical act alone. I have tried repeatedly in my organization to make men aware of all this. After constant reminders, we have licked this problem, but the effort has to be repeated time and again. In the last several years, we have not had any case of sexual harassment even though we have an anonymous ethics committee to which any victim can complain.

I think we should also be careful not to make rules that are impractical. Or that make the pendulum swing the other way. For example, Section 498(A) of the Indian penal code was designed to protect women from dowry harassment. It was designed poorly, maybe under pressure of some lobby groups. As a result, a man or his family can be arrested merely on a complaint of a woman. In August 2010, Justices Dalveer Bhandari and K S Radhakrishnan of the SC expressed concern at the rise in number of complaints under Section 498A, "We come across a large number of such complaints which are not even bona fide and are filed with oblique motives." Laws should be made with a cold head, not in the heat of the moment.

The real truth is that the reducing rape statistics will take time. But we must begin immediately. And we must have both soft and hard approaches. Strong litigation – not however swinging the other way – is a must. But the softer “educative” approach will work better. Lets not lose heart….

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Shameful rape; even more shameful politicians and media

Yesterday was a horrific day. Yet another shameful rape was committed in Delhi on yet another innocent young girl. As if this was not shameful (and painful) enough, our politicians yet again attempted to score brownie points against each other. And our media yet again lost its balance and behaved churlishly, allowing itself to be exploited by politicians and failing to conduct any meaningful debates that could provide solutions for the future. For TV, it was a great way to earn some TRPs and consequent advertising rupees; for politicians yet another forum to play their dirty games.

Everyone missed the point. Too much focus was placed on Delhi being the crime capital. Of course it is, but that’s old news. It has been so for decades. Having lived in Delhi and Mumbai both, I know how my wife feels about going back there. I also know what it is like for women to travel alone in Delhi; and how dressing restrictions get imposed on them thanks to the lecherous goons on the streets. But its not as if this rape could not have happened in any other metro in the country. In fact, almost every month, there are stories of similar incidents from Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata and every other large town in the country. Why single Delhi out then?

Then our politicians. All of them grandstanded in Parliament and pretended like they would explode with anger. It made me wonder if this was the first rape case that had occurred in India; or even the most gruesome. Had they not found Pallavi Purkayastha’s rape and murder in Mumbai a few months back worthy enough of a similar exercise? How many rapes have happened right under the noses of our MPs since they came to Delhi? Why this sudden outrage? I can tell you this wasn’t the proverbial last straw that broke their back. I will tell you the real reason. Our politicians don’t care about the rape or the victim. But they care about the political opportunity that the rape has created. They know that there are elections approaching in Delhi. Nothing like an emotive issue to kick-start the election campaign. Wait and watch. More and more drumbeats will be heard against the Delhi government in the days to come. This rape was just the beginning.

All that the politicians were interested in doing last night was criticizing Sheila Dixit. Of course the CM of Delhi is responsible for the law and order situation in her state; and at an appropriate time, she must answer questions and give comfort to her people about what she will do to make their city a safer place. But doesn’t decency demand that this be done at an “appropriate” time? Should we attack her first or should we express concern for the poor victim first? Not one TV channel wanted to discuss the victim’s plight or condition; except when news came that she was in fact not doing well. That kind of tragedy builds TRPs and it was flashed on screens eagerly. The most insensitive of all politicians were the ones from BJP, keen opponents as they are of the Congress in Delhi. They finally got the chance to attack Sheila Dixit (remember they couldn’t lay their hands on her for the CWG scam). For Smriti Irani, putting on a dour face with overtones of anger may come naturally; but let me say that she looked more fake than even as an actor. C’mon guys, have some decency. Discuss the issue; keep the politics for another day.

And then the display of what can best be described as “testosterone” politics. The BJP demanded capital punishment for rape. Now outraged as I am at this rape, I do believe our politicians must carry a cool head on their shoulders. They are leaders after all. They have to handle issues maturely, even in the face of grave provocation. There are many different types of crimes, all gruesome; and while rape is surely one of those extreme types, it is lower on the crime totem pole than terrorism and homicide. We cannot let our emotions get the better of us. If we continue like this, we will soon become like Afghanistan, where anything and everything is considered fit for capital punishment by the Taliban. In the past, some voices have urged that even drunken drivers should be given the death penalty. Anna felt that even the corrupt should be given the death sentence. Religious bigots may demand the death penalty for adultery. I am sorry, but I am totally against capital punishment, except for terrorists. For rape, there is a much better solution already available: chemical castration. Get the guy’s libido; but spare him his life.

Coming now to media. Why did TV channels not keep the discussion apolitical? Why did they allow politicians to make it into a partywise slugfest? TV channels are not fools. They did it because they knew that the incident had the potential of becoming the flavor of the evening. And on a day when nothing else as sensational happened (after all who cares for important financial bills being passed), they found this to be the best thing to do. Shameful to say the least. The level to which our TV media can stoop should make us all sit up and demand something be done.

Like I said the real issues all got skirted. Kiran Bedi made some sensible points (for a change) saying that it was the responsibility of parents to raise their boys well. I totally agree. I have myself held the belief that we may have progressed economically as a nation, but we haven’t progressed one bit socially. A friend recently pointed out a term that exists for this gap between economic and cultural progress. It is called the “cultural gap”. Unfortunately, most of our media and politicians work towards increasing the cultural gap. What this country needs is social reforms and social reformers who can bridge the gap. It’s a real tragedy that the only self-proclaimed social reformers we have are the types of Anna – who prefer to beat people who consume liquor with belts. Better not to have such reformers. We need reformers who can talk to society about unpleasant things; and compel it to change. For rape is as much a reflection of our society as it is of lax policing, bad governance and lousy politicians.

If we have to avoid this problem from becoming bigger, we have to start immediately. We have to start in our schools. I remember having a subject called “moral science” when I was in school. Much as I found it a bore in those days, I think it helped me become a better person. I am sure most schools don’t teach this subject any longer. Why then are we surprised when some of these kids grow up and become rapists? We also have to look at society’s attitude to women in general. Women are treated like objects in this country, traded between families for dowry. And when women complain, they are attacked like two days back in Mumbai when Sonal Lapashiya (mistaken by the attacker to be his wife) was attacked with a sickle for filing a dowry complaint against her husband. One police commissioner after another makes comments to the effect that women are themselves responsible for their rapes by dressing inappropriately. And think of this. After so many years, we still haven’t been able to remove khaps. These khaps often order hits on young couples who refuse to obey pre-historic social restrictions. Some khaps in UP have also said that women should not wear jeans and shouldn’t carry mobile phones. Lets accept it. We are a depraved society. That’s why we need social reform, not capital punishment.

Then we have to look at fast tracking our judicial system. I am appalled at the slow pace at which our judiciary works. And of course, no one can question it. No one can demand accountability from it. When an Indian student was murdered recently in the UK, the courts there brought the culprit to book in just six months. Our system would have taken decades. We also have to think about our policy of reservations. When a majority of cops are recruited on grounds other than merit, how can we expect better policing or investigations?

The real truth is that we are ourselves responsible for the rapes that happen in our country. We have brought this state of affairs upon us knowingly. We cannot pretend to be surprised or shocked. We are all guilty of this. We, the people, our politicians, and our media. All of us should hang our heads in shame. Lets look inwards for a change and decide not to allow this mess to continue any more.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Modi’s emphatic win in Gujarat shows why we need electoral reforms….

Modi’s likely emphatic victory in Gujarat is good news for Gujarat, though it may not be good news for the liberals in the country. In a democracy, a clear victory empowers the winning party to act as per its electoral promise, without compromises necessitated by coalition compulsions. On the other hand, a split mandate – as in the Center for the last two decades and now likely in HP as well – compels the winning party to follow a “common minimum agenda” kind of doctrine which is neither here nor there. In the end, the ruling combination picks up a bad name which harms it’s future prospects. A clear loser is in fact better off than a winner without a clear majority. Our electoral system needs a reform – so that it ensures a clear majority to whoever wins.

The Chairman of the Rajya Sabha – and the Vice President of India – Hamid Ansari has made a similar statement yesterday, saying that “after six decades, we have failed to make our electoral democracy fully representative”, suggesting that the first past the post system is not working adequately and that we need reforms quickly.

There are some good examples of how electoral majorities are ensured around the world. The Greek electoral system is interesting. It follows something called “reinforced proportionality” – which basically means that in addition to whatever the winning party or coalition wins, it is allotted 50 more seats in Parliament (in a total strength of just 300, that’s nearly 17% more seats). This ensures that the winning combination gets a clear majority, and a chance to run the country by its will. Those parties that secure less than 3% of the votes are denied any seats. This eliminates the scourge of small parties that exert a disproportionate amount of the power by being willing to “sell” themselves to whoever pays them the most (we will soon see this happening in HP). Even if the country’s economy may have failed, Greece’s electoral system surely hasn’t!

It’s the same in Italy, where the winning coalition is given enough “majority prize” seats so that it reaches a 54% majority. Again the idea is the same – the winner must be given a fair chance to show what it really stands for.

The US is another example from which we can learn a few tricks. Essentially, by ensuring that “the winner takes all” in a state, small claimants are eliminated. In the end, the one that takes the majority of seats nationally is the winner. The point here is that the system ensures that the winning party wins a majority, no less.

In the UK in contrast, the problems are similar to what we face in India, though much more infrequently. Essentially, there aren’t so many regional parties and hence the top three parties fight it out amongst themselves. But just consider the results of the last elections held in 2010. For the 2nd time in its history (and only the 2nd time), the election system in the UK returned a hung Parliament, forcing the winners (Conservatives) to tie-up with the 3rd placed (Lib Dems). The tensions in the coalition are already visible and there is constant speculation that the two may part ways, leading to political instability. More importantly, there have been so many compromises forced on the winner (who was just 20 short of a majority on its own) that the government hardly represents what the winning party really stands for. In relative terms, the loser (Labour) is better placed and in a position to take jabs at the coalition for the inadvertent conflict that exists between them.

In India on the other hand, we have not had a single-party rule since 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi won a landslide. Not surprising then that we have had enormous political instability since then. The 9th and the 11th Lok Sabhas lasted just about 2 years and the 12th fared even worse lasting less than a single year. In this period of extreme instability, India saw several PMs being made, none of whom could help the fate of the country – VP Singh, Chandrashekhar, Deve Gowda and Gujral. Even when the Lok Sabhas lasted their full term, the PMs were hobbled by coalition politics. Vajpayee – the only moderate face of the BJP – was the most successful in becoming PM three times, though two of those were extremely short tenures. Even when Vajpayee got a full term, his attention must surely have been diverted more towards managing coalitions rather than managing the country. Its been no different for Manmohan Singh’s government since 2004. The Center has been truly held hostage to coalition politics for long.

When it comes to states, the relationship between a clear majority and a clear performance (good or bad) is clear. States like Gujarat, MP, Bihar, Andhra, Haryana, Delhi and TN which have seen clear mandates being given have benefitted from relatively better rule. Equally, poor rulers like Mamata in WB and Yeddy/BJP in Karnataka have been completely exposed and are unable to hide behind excuses. Either way, the people get a chance to see what is happening.

So Modi’s victory is indeed good for Gujarat. A clear mandate will ensure good governance. I also believe that it is very good for the Congress, because Modi moving on to become the PM candidate of the BJP will lead to the polarization that Modi’s presence always leads to. That can only help the Congress. The Congress will also benefit because of the division Modi will cause within his own party. But more on this in a different post!

The real truth is that the first past the post system currently in use in India certainly needs an overhaul. Either we have to look at some sort of a “bonus seats” system so that winners get clear majorities; or we give governments “fixed tenures” so that coalition partners cannot issue constant threats all the time.