Of shame and outrage…

The Delhi gang rape case has brought to the fore so many different issues that I do not know where to start. The incident, which has shocked the collective conscience of the nation, has triggered a wide range of responses, from outrage to blaming. With every minute, the drama gets more sordid, what with protests, violence, teargassing of protesters, water canons, a chief minister who cries on camera, an invertebrate Prime Minister…the list seems endless.

The latest addition to this list seems to be the Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee chief Botla Satyanarayana. In a statement earlier today, he offered his expert assessment of the situation saying, “We say we got freedom at midnight but doesn’t mean we can roam around freely at midnight.” Frankly, I have stopped expecting much more from our politicians, irrespective of political colour. He is simply the latest in the long list of politicians, starting from an ineffectual and spineless Prime Minister who took a whole week to address an outraged and angered nation.

First things first, we need to understand a fundamental truth about crimes against women. Sexual violence against women is never about sex. I have said it before and will say it again. Rape is not a sex crime. It is about power. It is about humiliation and about making a woman feel inferior to the perpetrator. Rape is simply a violent expression of the more general treatment of women’s bodies as a property of others. In the case of “Amanat”, as the 23-year old victim has been identified (not her real name), as in that of millions of other women who are victims of such crimes, the perpetrators considered her fair game simply because she was out on the streets after sunset. The rapists were not looking for pleasure, they were looking for control. It was about feeling good about being able to control another human being, who they consider a lesser mortal because of her gender. More importantly, it is about the knowledge that they will most probably get away with it. And, they would have, had this crime not so shocked the nation due to the sheer bestiality of the act.

Another disappointing facet of this whole issue is the way our politicians, irrespective of political affiliation reacted. For the ruling Congress, it was about saving their skin. Sheila Dixit cried on camera hoping to garner sympathy. The Prime Minister delivered a belated, and extremely unconvincing speech a whole 7 days after the incident. Sushma Swaraj, for all her fiery speeches against the government, spoke of a fate “worse than death” for the victim. And to top it all, the APCC chief tells us we should not expect security if we want to wander about alone at midnight. He tells us that freedom at midnight was won, literally and metaphorically, only for the men.

I have a problem with each of these statements. As a concerned citizen, I expect the Chief Minister of a state to act against the perpetrators of the crime and not just cry on camera in the hope that we will excuse her inaction. We do not want to know how bad you feel about the crime. We want to know what you are doing to bring the perpetrators to book and to prevent this from happening again. We want action Ms. Dixit, not your fake tears. I also expect the Prime Minister to step out of his bullet-proofed car and address the nation when he is needed to. I want him to, for once in his life, do the job he was elected to do. At this point, I feel like telling the APCC chief to take his moralising elsewhere, because we have no need or use of it. It is the business of the government to ensure that I am safe in my city, irrespective of what I am wearing, of whether I drink, of how I dress and who I am with. It is not the government’s business to judge my character. I refuse to allow that. And finally, I have a problem with the assessment that the victim faces a fate worse than death. This implies that what she has lost, her virginity and honour, are more important than life. It is up to her to decide what she wants to do with her life. I hope she recovers well enough to lead a normal life. And even if she does not, we have no right to decide what is good for her. She has the right to do that herself.

And finally, a word about the protesters. I completely agree that as citizens, we must demand action. Action against the perpetrators of a crime too horrendous to describe. But, I do not agree with the demand for capital punishment for the criminals. It is not capital punishment that will act as an effective deterrent against rape. It is the knowledge that they cannot get away with such a crime. It is the certainty of punishment, rather than the quantum that is a more effective deterrent. There is no point in making rape a capital offense if the conviction rate remains as dismal as it is today. There is no point in talking about chemical castration if the courts are going to acquit criminals citing the character of the victim. At this point, we do not need stronger laws. What we need is more effective enforcement.

Indian media and the credibility crisis

For the first time in weeks, I was offline for something like 4 hrs. And, what do I see when I come back? My Twitter timeline explode with comments on the The Hindu and one blogpost repeatedly retweeted on the Indian Express and its pro-establishment leanings. It felt like one fine day, the skies had opened up to rain fire on our mainstream media. Not that our newspapers haven’t already experienced this credibility crisis but these two happenings make us question the whole journalism business. Now…where do I start?

Earlier in the day, I was pointed to a letter by N. Ravi, Editor, The Hindu to all employees of the organization. In this hard-hitting letter, Ravi accuses N.  Ram, Editor-in-chief of not keeping up his word to retire in May 2010, and conspiring with some members of the Governing Board to remove him from his position of Editor. All this office politics notwithstanding, some accusations levelled by Ravi against Ram are distressing! In a damning indictment of something we always suspected, Ravi accuses Ram of forcing him to publish a defensive interview of A. Raja in 2010 against the promise of a full-page colour advertisement by the Telecom Ministry. Even more distressing is the Editor himself accusing the Editor-in-chief of being overtly pro-Chinese Communist Establishment.

In the light of these accusations by Ravi, The Hindu’s publishing of “Living our Values: Code of Editorial Values” doesn’t really make a mark. Indeed, taking a moral high ground and taking of editorial values and journalistic ethics in the backdrop of a general decline of editorial standards seems incongruous. Now, whether the Editor-in-Chief actually published pro-Raja articles and news for a direct  quid pro quo is another matter. Irrespective of whether every word in Ravi’s letter is true or not, and irrespective of whether Ravi himself benefited from an actively pro-establishment stand, these revelations make one doubt the credibility of the Hindu as a newspaper. Personally, I stopped reading The Hindu because of it’s increasingly pro-left leanings and in the light of these allegations, I really wonder how much credibility this newspaper, once the gold standard in Indian journalism, really has left.

On that note, I also came across this brilliant blogpost at Churumuri, on whether “anti-establishment” which was originally IE’s calling card has now changed beyond recognition. The analysis of whether the newspaper that chose to fight the establishment through Emergency and later, has actually changed its stripes to become pro-establishment. Do read it.

The timing is so perfect that it triggers off a range of thought about what credibility is really left for the Indian media. As I tweeted earlier in the day, The Hindu has just outed itself thanks to infighting. The Indian Express seems to be inexorably moving from being an objective and fearless newspaper to being an apologist of the powers that be. The Times of India lost its credibility the day it started degenerating from a mainline newspaper to a tabloid in broadsheet format. Hindustan Times, as I pointed out a few years back, is more interested in telling us that Michael Douglas uses Viagra than to give us any real news. What does that, as readers, leave us with? Small wonder then that we “pseudonymous bloggers” sitting in darkened rooms in our ivory towers actually prefer Twitter to newspapers as our primary source for news.

What now, of the mainstream media? Who is going to step in to fill the void that our mainstream media has created in being the watchdogs of our polity? Can we really expect these newspapers, who seem more interested in currying favour and making money, to perform the duty that is expected of them as Fourth Estate? Or will social media eventually take over that role? I have no answers at the moment. Only questions.

Living our Values: Code of Editorial Values

Sorry Mr. Sanghvi, I am not a journalist…

…but does that mean I must not express my views, criticize the media or cry foul over its dirty games? If we were to go by what Mr. Vir Sanghvi, Editorial Director of Hindustan Times says, I am one of those “pseudonymous bloggers”, who sits in a darkened room in my ivory tower and disses all that the mainstream media does and says. He says I am part of a “blogging elite”. Well, let’s not discuss either the “pseudonymous” or the “elite” bit, but I certainly am a blogger. Even assuming I sit in a darkened room in my ivory tower and criticize, what’s wrong with that? Don’t you have armchair critics all over the world? Before I go on, check out these brilliant rebuttals by Amit Varma, Rohit, Patrix and Lekhni. Each of them has fisked, very effectively, Sanghvi’s pointless and rather incoherent rant against bloggers and tweeters. Oh yeah! Forgot to mention here that he’s done this in the form of a blogpost rather than on a column in his newspaper!!

In dissing bloggers and tweeters and categorizing them all as elitist and out of touch with reality, Sanghvi conveniently sidesteps one major issue. What exactly is the role of the traditional media? Playing to the galleries and ensuring maximum TRPs? He painstakingly explains how TRPs and circulation are calculated and says programmes with maximum TRPs on television are the ones having maximum viewership. Right! I agree. But since when did the media start pandering to the will of the majority? Isn’t it the very same media that dissects election results and criticizes the decision of the majority? And even assuming that the traditional media reflects the sentiments of the majority, is that its real role? I thought the role of the media was to shape public opinion. Oh! I beg your pardon! I never realized that somewhere along the way, news channels became entertainment channels and newspapers tabloids a long time ago.

No Mr. Sanghvi. In criticizing the traditional media, I do not, as Lekhni so rightly puts it, claim to represent anyone but myself. Anything I say in my blog, is my opinion. Others are free to agree or disagree with what I have to say. I run this blog, I pay for it and I maintain it. Unlike HT or other major newspapers, I do not claim to be the most popular, the most intelligent or the most widely-read blogger in history. I leave calculating TRPs and readership to the likes of Mr. Sanghvi. I have better things to do with my life, especially since my livelihood doesn’t depend on how many people read my blog.

Finally, in the unlikely event that you are reading this, Mr. Sanghvi, let me tell you this. I care a damn about octogenarian N D Tiwari’s sex life. Nor do I care about Mika kissing Rakhi Sawant or wild speculations about Arushi Talwar’s murder. I am concerned even less about whether Michael Douglas uses Viagra (yes…it figures on HT’s homepage today!). If your newspaper can give me real news, it’s fine. Otherwise, there’s always Google News! Clean up your stables before dissing us Mr. Sanghvi. That’s all I ask!

Therukoothu – spontaneous street performance?

The September 21 issue of Outlook carries an article by Shruti Ravindran titled Life’s A Proscenium. If you can read this article, and not take offense, then it means one of two things. Either you have an inordinate amount of tolerance for bullshit, or you have no clue what Therukoothu is all about. In the latter case, Shruti is even more responsible for having created an entirely wrong impression of Therukoothu. Before I go on, check out this justifiably angry piece by Sriram.

Sriram quotes a few lines from Shruti’s article that infuriate and disgust.

“Urban denizens who’ve actually heard of this art form often mistake it for its disreputable half-cousin ‘Therukuttu’ (street performance), unpractised, spontaneous roadside performances that take place during temple festivals—and indeed, the word Therukuttu has also come to mean “making a disgraceful spectacle of oneself in public.”

Several things about this sentence infuriate. First, calling an art form a disreputable half-cousin of another is entirely uncalled for. Secondly, Therukoothu, as the name suggests, is indeed played out on the road. In fact, it is at the origins of the three Tamils (Iyal, Isai, Natakam) and is performed on crossroads (naarchandi in Tamil). The fact that an art form is performed on the street does not demean its worth in any way.

In fact, Bharatanatyam, the much-revered classical dance form of Tamil Nadu has its origins in what was called Sadir Attam or Dasiattam – the dance of the Devadasis. This is precisely why dance as an art form was considered demeaning for a woman from a good family to practice until its popularization by Rukmini Devi Arundale. Devadasis, for a certain period were nothing but courtesans (prostitutes to be blunt), and maintained by the Saraboji Rajas of Tanjavur. Does this mean that all Bharatanatyam dancers today are not worth respecting? Also, Therukoothu is by no means unpractised. Practice sessions for Therukoothu stretch over several days, sometimes weeks or months.

If Therukoothu were indeed the disreputable half-cousin Shruti claims it to be, why would there be organized groups, as Sriram so rightly points out, working tirelessly to promote the dying art? For those who need the stamp of “international recognition”, there is even a course on Therukoothu offered by the Singapore National Arts Council. What more do you need?

This article by Shruti Ravindran is nothing more than a piece of shoddy journalism at best. It simply proves, once again, that journalistic standards are at rock bottom today. If Outlook can allow publication of such an article without editing or verification, it makes me wonder what kind of media we have today. I suggest Shruti look for an alternative career, that has nothing to do with either journalism, art or even writing.

Bring back the Brits?

That’s what one Mr. Aakar Patel wants us to do. Or at least, wishes they hadn’t left India quite so soon. Check out this phenomenally shortsighted article in the Mint. Or must I say, blindingly Anglophile? I really don’t know how to classify this article. It is one thing to point out that there are problems with governance in India. It is quite another to wish an alien government had stayed sixty years longer than it actually did. Before you read on, read this article by the same person in the International News, a Pakistani site. Also, read this rebuttal by Rohit on his NationalInterest blog.

The problem is that Patel really seems to believe what he says: that the British were benevolent rulers, with India’s best interests at heart; that we could have been better off if the British had stayed another sixty years. I do not dispute the fact the British brought a number of good things to India. Think about the railways, the administrative services, the English language, and you will see what I mean. I agree. We owe much of what we see in India today to the fact that we were ruled for over 400 years by a foreign government.

But think about this. The same government threw our people into prison for the crime of questioning their authority over a country and is, arguably, not theirs. The same government skinned our people alive with the imposing burden of taxes, and denied basic human rights to about one-fifth of humanity. Let us not forget that the British government that gave us a decent system of education also founded whites-only clubs and cricket grounds were boards proudly bore the words, “Dogs and Indians not allowed.” Let us also not forget that, by Patel’s own admission millions of people died in several famines across the country during the rule of the British. And, we would also do well to remember that in the last sixty-two years, the country has not faced a single famine.

This is not to eulogise the Indian government and claim it has done its best. No. It simply means that the government listens to the people who brought it to power, not because governments are inherently noble, but because they know they can be thrown out in the next elections by the same people who elected them. It is this kind of control that gives us the right to express ourselves freely. It is precisely this freedom that has today allowed Patel to even publish something as inherently anti-establishment as this article.

The point here is not to rubbish the contribution of the British to infrastructure development or education in India. But, in acknowledging their positive influences, we must not become so blind to their faults that we wish they had stayed longer. That is extremely dangerous. Blind adoration is never good.

Yes, we Indians are corrupt, inefficient and nepotistic. But, however inefficient we may be, we still hold the right to rule ourselves. Don’t judge us because we are imperfect. Let us make our mistakes, pick ourselves up, and continue on our path to discovering the best way to govern ourselves. Don’t assume someone else knows better because they come from the west of the Caucasus. It would do well for us to remember that the British, the French, the Americans and every other developed country has travelled the path we are treading today. They have made their mistakes, learnt from them and are governing themselves reasonably well today. That might take another century in India. But, let us be. We will learn. Sooner or later.

Fighting the racism demon

We have all heard about the problems in Australia. Our media and foreign ones are going putting forward different versions of the story, depending on what their perception is. In all this, one thing strikes me as rather strange. I came across a discussion on Greatbong’s post that vehemently and passionately defends Australians and challenges the perception that all Australians are racist. So far so good. But, what gets my goat is that the commentators seem to suggest that we must set our own house in order before complaining about the Aussies. Read one commentator’s post on his blog here. Wait a sec! Just because I don’t have certain rights in my home country, I must never get them elsewhere? What’s the logic?

Tejaswy’s post is especially infuriating. He (She?) justifies practically every action (or inaction) in Australia, blaming it on stress, tension, loss of jobs, recession…you get the picture. Take this for example.

Indian students come back from jobs late at night and well they are walking back and there is some drunk chap who is drunk and is looking for free cigg or money and well mugs you. I am not supporting the guy who is mugging but this is not racism If you want examples of racism then it would be you not getting a job on the basis of your color. This does not happen in Australia.”

Yeah right! If you get mugged on you way back, it’s probably because you exist rather than because of your skin colour. There is nothing racist about it. Of course not! Australians are not racist. They are very sensitive about racial issues you know? The Symmonds issue must have told you that much. They are sensitive, children!

I am definitely not implying that we Indians are angels. We are most certainly not. We have our flaws, our prejudices and our weaknesses. But that does not mean we deserve crap from the rest of the world. Just because we are not free from prejudice, we are casteist or even racist, we do not deserve to tolerate racism elsewhere. The Indian government and its embassies are famous for their inaction and inability to assist an Indian citizen abroad. But, this time, they have at least taken notice, thanks to the media hype. Let them at least show the diaspora that they are there for us. Don’t berate them for a job well done. It’s stupid to do that.

Finally, regarding the statement that you are not discriminated against because of skin colour. I find that this is completely and totally untrue. Nita, a friend of mine, (a very occasional blogger) living in Australia can vouch for it. Without going into details, I can safely tell you that she has been discriminated against in various situations and even at the workplace on racial grounds. Denying that Australians are, in general racist is one thing. Denying the existence of workplace discrimination on racial grounds is quite another. All we need is some perspective on the issue. Please, let’s not lose it.

Intimidation by NDTV

The blogosphere practically exploded today with protests against NDTV’s silencing of a blogger’s criticism of Barkha Dutt’s coverage of the Mumbai attacks. Before I link to everybody else who has written on this, I would like to  point you to the Google cache of the original post that was later deleted by Kunte. That’s not enough.

We all need to write about just why NDTV’s actions are reprehensible. They probably threatened to sue the poor blogger for libel. But, for what? For quoting a Wikipedia entry that criticises Barkha Dutt’s handling of the Kargil War? Or for commenting on what all of us saw on television for more than three days? Many other bloggers have made the point much better than I can. Trailblazer, Gaurav Sabnis, Shripriya, Rohit, and Prem Panicker have made the point several times over.

But, I have one question for Barkha Dutt and Co. They were justified in feeling insulted that one blogger, sitting at home and watching television criticised them. They chose to sue. The allegations against them were, in their opinion baseless and libellous. So, they agree that people are free to sue for libel. Right? In that case, would they tender an unconditional apology to the Talwars for slandering them after the murder of their 14-year old daughter? Would they retract all the speculations they made on national television of the sordid details of Dr. Rajesh Talwar’s adulterous relationship with his colleague? Would they offer to bring back the time the family lost in mourning their daughter? Can they do it? Ever?

Would they apologise to the Unnikrishnans for airing the news of their son’s death even before it was communicated officially to the family, thus shocking them into learning of such a tragic news through a flash running at the bottom of their television screens? Would they apologise for shoving mics, rather insensitively, into the face of the worried husband of a trapped guest at the Oberoi, and asking him how he felt? I guess not. Because they call it freedom of speech. So, according to them, freedom of speech is only for multi-million dollar businesses that are nothing better than money-making ventures. It does not apply to individual people like Cheytanya Kunte who was bullied into withdrawing his post and apologising for citing a Wikipedia entry. Right?

Wrong. Because we live in a democracy. Because we are free to express whatever opinion we want. Because NDTV, like all other news channels, is in a business that leaves them vulnerable to criticism. Because Kunte’s post does not, and never did, fall into the category of libel. And because, as a blogger, as a human being, and as a citizen of India, I genuinely believe in the freedom of expression. Also because, the freedom of expression must apply to everyone, irrespective of money, race, sex, caste, creed or identity. Today, NDTV has silenced one blogger. Let’s see how many other bloggers they can silence. Let’s see how successful Ms. Dutt and her friends are at silencing its critics. If we are true to ourselves, our voices will be heard, whether NDTV wants it to be heard or not.

Of secularism and terrorism

I knew editorial standards in journalism were pathetic, but I frankly did not expect a newspaper like The Hindu to publish total bullshit like this. This article is offensive at so many levels that I don’t know where to start.

First, the author seems to confuse secularism with impartiality. Secular means non-religious. Terrorism is never about religion, it is simply about power. Religion is only a means to an end. She becomes incoherent when she cites Mahatma Gandhi and the Kanchi seer in a completely irrelevant situation. She then becomes outright offensive in this sentence.

A few Hindu militants emerged here and there only after the aliens who arrived in India provoked them or forcibly converted them. But their number has been too insignificant as otherwise India won’t be the multi-religious country that it is.

She basically implies that all Hindu fundamentalism is caused by the presence of aliens, supposedly Muslim invaders and European colonisers. Such a wild accusation, especially published in a respected paper like the Hindu is condemnable. That’s not all. As if wanting to prove that she understands zilch about either politics of foreign affairs, she asks why Mr. Vajpayee chose to inform Mr. Bush of the parliament attack. She wants to know who Mr. Bush is to decide the fate of our country. It just makes me wish she would shut up.
Let’s get one thing right. Secularism or religion has nothing to do with terrorism. Terror must be dealt with firmly, irrespective of the religion of the perpetrator. Equating one with the other is criminal. The task at hand is not to shun or criticise one community. It is to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice. Their religion must be of no consequence to us. Nor the religion of the arrested Sadhvi or anyone else who perpetrates terror attacks. When will we understand that talking secularism in such troubled times only makes things worse. The question now is only of whether we can meet the challenge posed by terrorism.

On the media in terror attacks

This is a continuation of sorts of my previous post on the Media and Government in Mumbai. I came across this post by Anjali Deshpande and S K Pande in the Hoot that effectively chronicles all that is wrong with media coverage of the Mumbai attacks. Also, Mukul Kesavan makes a couple of compelling points in his article in the Telegraph. At least someone is thinking right! This is reassuring. And both articles make a compelling read.

But today, my point is somewhat different. While there is no debate on the fact that the media behaved irresponsibly, the Times of India came up with something worth reflecting on. In a short write-up on Page2 of the Chennai edition, it spoke of the psychological effect of constant media coverage on kids. This is especially true in Chennai, because kids were home all day, thanks to incessant rains and flooding, and sat glued to TV all day long. They may not understand the gravity of the situation, but they certainly understand that something is wrong. They can’t figure out why people are killing one another. This trauma is especially high when one of the parents is always travelling.

This is exactly why the television media needs to show some restraint in airing unedited images of the carnage. News channels are aired 24/7. There is no censorship possible, nor is it desirable, with respect to news channels. But, is the media not responsible for what it airs on prime-time television. As an adult, I remember being both shocked and traumatised with the gory images and bloodshed on television. The image of two guests lying face-down, shot dead by terrorists at the Taj were too horrible to forget. Of course, with the level of maturity I possess as an adult, I was able to overcome that shock. But, imagine the state of mind of a 10-year-old who watches this on TV. The child, being a child, is scarred for life. Does the media have any answer to all this? Or will they continue to be guided by the cardinal principle of TRPs and viewership? We may never know.

On media and government in Mumbai

A lot has been said about the role of the media in covering the Mumbai terror attacks. And the government has often been criticised for colossal failure. But, we need to take a step back from the blame game and think. Who is responsible for the current state of affairs?

First, the government. Over the past few days, I have heard many people tell me, time and again, that we need a strong government that will impose emergency. We need someone like Indira Gandhi. Do we really? Think about it? Many of us were not even born at the time of the Emergency in 1977. But, ask your parents and grandparents. Would they like to go back to a time when banks were nationalised, IBM and Coca-Cola were thrown out, and unmarried young men were forcibly sterilised to meet some quota? Are we, as a people, willing to give up our liberty and right to free speech in exchange for security? Let me tell you. I am not. I would rather die free than live a long and bonded life. Yes, everything is not right in India. Yes, the government is weak. Yes, we have a lame-duck Prime Minister who listen to high command at 10, Janpath. But, at least he is an elected representative. Let us not forget that his faults are not his alone. Who is responsible? We. We elected him right? We elected the government. We are responsible for the government we have. In a democracy, people get the government they deserve. And we are a democracy. I would rather India remain that way.

Next, the media. The way the media behaved was unpardonable. This article by Barkha Dutt hits the nail on the head. In trying to justify the media’s actions, she actually exposes the real motives behind their actions. The viewer is king, she says. So, what the public wants they will give. This is pure and simple commerce. With no sense of responsibility, they cater to the whims of the market. For all they want are TRPs. The coverage of the attacks were simply irresponsible and reprehensible. There are no two ways about it. Whether the likes of rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt accept it or not, the media has lost its credibility and given in to sensationalism of the worst kind.

That said, I still stand by the right to free speech. However much we may want to censor and control, it is not the way to go. We need to give space to differing opinions. We need to encourage free thinking. And most of all, we need to stand by our democracy in the worst of times. Only then, will we survive the threat.