Pages

Friday, July 4, 2014

Congress Appeasment Has Never Helped Minorities

AK Antony last week decried his party's appeasement of Muslims, but Congress policies have never addressed the genuine needs of the community.

My piece in Scoll.in today.
 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Why Maharashtra’s Promise of Muslim Reservations is a Pie in the Sky

The Maharashtra government’s attempts at attracting the Muslim vote by promising reservations look rather jaded, especially given how some other states have gone beyond empty words to actually implement Muslim quotas which are working well.

An edited version of this piece was first published on Scroll.in

After 2 months or so of calm, the word “Muslim” is trending in the media again. And that could only mean one thing: it’s election time in India.  Sure enough, the Maharashtra Assembly polls are scheduled later on this year.

Electorally, the ruling Congress-NCP alliance in the state has their backs to their wall, given their brutal drubbing in the recent general elections at the hands of the BJP-Shiv Sena combine. Therefore, the incumbents are flogging the old horse of Muslim reservation as a last ditched attempt to gather the fabled minority vote.  As per the Indian Express, the government has agreed on a 4.5% quota for Maharashtra’s Muslims in government jobs.

In the recent past, the issue of Muslim reservations has been a hot button topic, popping up with clockwork regularity at the time of elections (and then quietly fading away after). For the 2009 general elections, the Congress had the issue in its manifesto. 3 years of inaction followed, after which the Cabinet suddenly decided to act on its promise and provide a 4.5% quota—a decision taken, coincidently, just before the elections were announced for five states including Uttar Pradesh. The Election Commission, however, barred the move and the matter stayed frozen till, you guessed it, the 2014 general elections. There a slew of “secular” parties promised Muslim reservations, including the SP as well as the BSP. Earlier, a desperate Buddhadeb Bhattacharya had also assured a Muslim job quota after more than 3 decades of inaction on that front. The CPI (M), however, was routed in the ensuing Assembly elections, a major cause of defeat being the shift in the Muslim vote to the Trinamool Congress.

This self-serving politics, though, does not negate the fundamental need for ameliorative measures, given just how backward Muslims are. Nationally, the Sachar Committee has found that the position of Muslims as a social group is worse than even that of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. A similar commission for Maharashtra has found that this gap is even wider in the state: Muslims have a poverty rate of 49% as compared to 33% for SC/STs. The state has also seen the highest amount of communal violence since Independence, making the problem of economic development doubly difficult.

Of course, if the Congress-NCP government was serious about Muslim upliftment, it would have utilised its 15 years in office to do something about it, rather than grandstand a few months before the election. Belying the convoluted way a number of parties have approached the issue of Muslim reservations in the recent past, the matter is really not that complex. It is often missed that a powerful mechanism for Muslim reservation already exists under the OBC quota. OBCs, as defined by the Mandal Commission, can include both Hindu as well as non-Hindu castes, as long as they are “socially and educationally” backward. In fact, PS Krishnan, a retired bureaucrat and an expert on the topic of reservations, estimates that almost 80% of Muslims in the country are included in some or the other OBC list.

This mechanism has, consequently, been utilised with great effect by all four southern states where, firstly, a very high proportion of the Muslim population has been included in OBC lists, a figure as high as 90% in Tamil Nadu. Secondly, separate sub-quotas exist in all 4 states for Muslim OBCs specifically, since, given their backwardness, they were unable to compete with other more-developed OBCs. In Karnataka, in fact, the entire Muslim community is included in the state OBC list, a decision upheld by the Karnataka High court in the 1979 Somashekarappa case. As in other forms of backward caste reservation, the results of caste-based Muslim quotas have been seen to be quite positive. An OBC Muslim sub-quota was introduced in Andhra Pradesh in 2010 and within only the first three years of its existence, it has ensured that almost 30,000 backward caste Muslims have entered institutes of higher education.

On the whole, though, the issue of Muslim reservation is one that the country has actually moved backwards on. A Muslim quota in government jobs was first implemented in 1925 by the British government. In Madras Presidency, The Justice Party, a party with a strong anti-Brahmin stance, implemented Muslim reservations in the 1930s, as a result of which Madras State was the first in Free India to have them. Post-independence, though, quotas for Muslim Dalits was scrapped by the Presidential Order of 1950 which disallowed a Muslim from being categorised as a Dalit. The ostensible reason for this was that Islam was an egalitarian religion which did not have a caste system, showing the touching faith the Indian government had in religion over actual empirical data. This faith, though, did not extend to Sikhism, another religion without a formal caste system:  Sikh Dalits can avail of scheduled caste reservations. Moreover, the recommendations of the Kalelkar Commission (1953), which promised OBC reservations, were ignored and Muslims had to wait till the Mandal Commission to see some traction on that front.


Even within that overarching OBC share, it has been seen that without sub-quotas, Muslims are unable to gain any benefit from the measure. This is a problem that has been overcome quite easily and with effective results, by the southern states. If the Congress in Maharashtra was serious about this issue, it should have simply taken a leaf out of, say, Andhra Pradesh’s book and introduced a Muslim sub-quota within its already existing OBC reservation set-up. Dangling it as a carrot, just that bit out of reach, at election time is a move that can be seen through rather easily.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The BJP and the UCC

I have a piece up on Scroll.in which explores why the BJP is so eager for a UCC but strangely silent and even keen on other religion-based laws.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Your Mangoes are Lovely

Stop by the bazaar
And see the carts laden
With plump Alphonsos
Tempting me like sin

Get home and slice one open
Like unwrapping a present
Glistening in the rich orange
My eyes have a lusty tint

Bite into the flesh, yes!
With groans and a spasm
Pleasure washes over me like waves
As I multiple mouth-orgasm

“Oh Lord, yes, yes, yes!”
I acknowledge the God true
But in my thanks, I also include
Our pesticides and the EU

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Why does the Anglo-American Media refuse to give Modi a Clean Chit on 2002?



For a decade and a bit now, the English-language Indian media has criticised Modi rather sharply on his role in the 2002 anti-Muslim violence and Modi, in turn, had projected himself as a victim of a nefarious “limousine liberal” plot. In his aborted interview with Karan Thapar, for example, Modi flatly rejected any wrongdoing on his part with respect to 2002 and contended that this whole blame game was a “conspiracy of 1-2 persons (sic)”.

As the 2014 elections draws to a close, however, it seems that our journalists have had a near-miraculous change of heart and nowadays 2002 is rarely bought up, being palmed off with all sorts of non-phrases, the most popular one at the moment being “clean chit”.

This might be explained by some people by pointing to the overwhelming support large corporations have given to the Modi campaign, the same chaps who, as it would so happen, own the media houses. To this contention I would just repeat Ian Richardson’s delicious catch-phrase from the 90s UK TV show, House of Cards: You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment.

But Indian corporations, powerful as they are, do have a limited reach and their influence, unfortunately, does not extend much beyond the shores of our great nation. It is thus instructive to see just how excoriatingly harsh the Anglo-American press’ election coverage has been on our Hindu-Hriday-Samrat-turned-Vikash-Purush.

New York Times

America’s most influential newspaper published a 5minute video on its website providing a summary of the Narendra Modi. The video has the rather damning testimony of Celia Dugger who was the co-chief of South Asia bureau during 2002. She covered the riots and reported that the administration failed completely to prevent the violence:
"…witnesses were telling me that they had begged the police to intervene and stop the mobs and that they [just] stood by and that leaders of groups affiliated with the Bharatiya Janta Party were inciting violence."

2 months later, she even interview Modi himself. This is what she says:
“I asked him if he had any regrets about what had happened in his state in that period—women openly raped [and] 100s and 100s of people were killed. He told me his greatest regret was that he didn't manage the media very well. I left the interview feeling chilled by my interview with the chief minister. He had not shown any regret or expressed any empathy for those who had been slaughtered in his state on his watch"

Foreign Policy

This quasi-academic bimonthly American magazine published a critical account of Modi’s policies which carried the byline, “Gujarat’s shiny free market reformer has a dark side”. Of the many points it makes, the piece is particularly harsh on “clean chits”:

“In 2013, an investigation ordered by India's Supreme Court found insufficient grounds to prosecute Modi. He says he has been given a "clean chit." That is an exaggeration. The investigation found damning -- if not criminally prosecutable -- evidence of questionable actions (and inactions) by Modi, as well as indications that crucial records had been destroyed. Some of Modi's behaviour after 2002 is puzzling too. Why, for instance, did he in 2007 appoint to his cabinet Maya Kodnani -- a politician suspected of, and later convicted for, distributing swords to rioters and exhorting them to attack Muslims?”

The Guardian

Jumping across the pond, the Left-leaning Guardian’s economics leader writer, Aditya Chakrabortty, proposes a powerful "thought experiment" where he contends that if a British politician would have behaved similar to the way Modi had done after Godhra, he would have been "arrested for wilful neglect of duty, hate speech and for inciting violence.".

Chakrabortty also writes, somewhat bluntly, that "Modi bears a responsibility for some of the worst religious violence ever seen in independent India" and echoes Foreign Policy by pointing out that "there has been no "clean chit" for Modi. Courts in India are still hearing allegations against him."

The Economist

This newspaper, which describes its politics as classically liberal, actually did the unthinkable and anointed Rahul Gandhi as its choice to lead India in 2014. Why? Because 2002 ruled out Modi.

The paper pointed out that “one reason why the inquiries into the riots were inconclusive is that a great deal of evidence was lost or wilfully destroyed. And if the facts in 2002 are murky, so are Mr Modi’s views now. He could put the pogroms behind him by explaining what happened and apologising. Yet he refuses to answer questions about them.”

Language is always a powerful indicator of what you’re trying to say, so one should note The Economist’s use of the word “pogrom” to describe, well, the 2002 Pogrom. Currently no Indian paper does so as an editorial standard.

Explaining its choice, the piece says, “it would be wrong for a man who has thrived on division to become prime minister of a country as fissile as India” and goes on to point out that ”for now he should be judged on his record—which is that of a man who is still associated with sectarian hatred. There is nothing modern, honest or fair about that. India deserves better.”

The Telegraph

Completing the UK’s ideology triad, the right-wing Telegraph is the most critical of British newspapers, with its Delhi correspondent, Dean Nelson choosing to describe in graphic detail Zakia Jaffrey’s account of how her husband, with a rabid mob outside his door, called Modi for assistance:
“Far from offering help, Mr Modi had taunted him and even expressed surprise that he was still alive, Mr Jafri told those around him in his final moments. “No help will come,” Mr Jafri added.
Shortly afterwards, Mr Jafri’s wife, Zakia, watched in horror from a balcony as rioters marched her husband naked from their home and chopped off his fingers, hands, arms and head.”

This is a story that Indian newspapers have rarely touched and as the elections have approached it has been all but forgotten. It is, therefore, a mystery as to why the Telegraph finds it newsworthy.

The Financial Times

The only pink paper in our list has a piece by the FT’s Delhi correspondent in 2002, Edward Luce. Titled "NarendraModi: India’s Jekyll and Hyde”, Luce recounts the “inflammatory rhetoric” Modi displayed after the Godhra incident, especially noting his use of Newton’s Third Law to signal that he was fine with violence. “No one, Indian or foreigner, who covered the following, gruesome, 72 hours, was in any doubt about the meaning of Mr Modi’s signal.”

He ends with asking “whether Modi is a Margaret Thatcher or an Adolf Hitler” and “suspects” it’s the latter, warning that “either way, I would rather not take the risk of finding out”.

The Daily Caller

That is not to say that it’s all been negative for Modi. David Cohen, writing in the The Daily Caller, takes a strong stand and says that “Modi took several steps to protect the besieged Muslim communities, including imposing curfews, issuing shoot-on-sight orders against rioters, and calling in the army.”

What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of this newspaper before? Worry not, you’re in good company. I hadn’t either. It’s not really mainstream, being a small website based out of Washington. Not that there’s anything wrong in being small, of course.

***

Admittedly, just because The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Economist, The Telegraph, The Financial Times and the Indian media from a few years back agree on something doesn’t mean its correct. Maybe the Indian media’s new opinion about Modi is correct. Or maybe no one is correct. With a man accused of mass murder, a front runner to become PM, I say this is a good as time as any to go post-modern. After all, you might talk of massacres and genocides and clean chits, but, my good man, really, what is truth anyway?

First published on NewsYaps

Friday, April 25, 2014

From the Diary of a Bombay 'Voter'



This is an excerpt from the diary of Nitin, a 19-year old college student who lives in Bandra, Bombay. It is dated from 24 April, 2014, the day the city went to the polls and might go some way in explaining the city’s abysmal voting percentages.

Ok, the day started off in a fairly confusing manner, a sign of things to come. All the newspapers outside my door carried the exact same picture on the front page: Modi stared out from it, his left hand, for some odd reason, depicting the popular physics mnemonic, Maxwell’s Right Hand Thumb Rule. Another dude was staring at the back of Modi’s head with a look of mild disgust, the sort you get when you see dandruff flaking off someone.

Huh.

(Dad told me later on that the guy’s name was Uddhav Thackeray, a distant relative, apparently, of English novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray. To fit their current image, they’d dropped their middle name “Makepeace” though.)

Anyway, I extricated our newspaper from the neighbours’ and stepped back inside. Thoughts took shape slowly but surely in my sleepy brain. Ah yes, today was voting day. Of course! A most important day for Indians like me, when we would boldly step out and exercise our democratic franchise so that our proud nation could choose a new President.

Democracy! I don’t know much about it but something about that word just gives me a warm fuzzy feeling, you know. Like when a football club which you love more than dear life, situated half way across the world and run by people who don’t even know Bombay exists, defeats another football club. Yeah, like that.

The problem was, dude, I didn’t have a clue who to vote for, you know. I mean I am aware of who Rahul Gandhi, Kerjiwal and Obama are and I know that Manmohan Singh is the Chief Minister but that doesn’t help me choose, now does it?

Apart from me, though, everyone else kinda seemed sorted. I mean just the other day my mother, who’s set on Modi, gave me a huge dressing down over the fact that I’m so laid back.

“This time, young man, you’ve gone too far
Ab ki baar….you must do something about your grades. They’re plummeting.”

Which was correct but right now I had bigger fish to fry.

My dad, on the other hand, is like this MASSIVE Kejriwal supporter, man. He hates corruption, politicians, staying too long in office and, you know, other things that the AAP hates. He’s just totally bonkers for the Aam Admi Party; pushes it every chance he can get. In fact just the other day, he got caught by a paandu for jumping a light. That bugger was asking for 300 bucks to let us go, which is way too high, you know? Dad was like, “are hum to aam aadmi hain, itne paise kahaan se laayenge?”. Turned out the policeman was an AAP fan too. The two spoke for some time about how awesome Kejriwal was and then settled on 150, which was a fair and reasonable amount, I thought.

My best bud, who we all call Pappu, cos, you know, he can’t dance, might seem as clueless as me but surprisingly the bugger had made up his mind too. A couple of days back, while we were talking of how our luck with girls was so rotten—our usual rant—he suddenly piped up and said, “We don’t need girls, maan. Haven’t you seen those ads with that guy? He’s like, ‘har haath shakti, har haath taraqqi’. I say if he can get to 43 and be so open about that sort of thing, what’s stopping us, eh? I mean that’s pretty brave, man. Rahul Gandhi, respec!”

Also, the princi sent us a mail the other day telling us about the elections. I did read it a couple of times but couldn’t understand what this Gujarat model was, that he was going on about. I mean I don’t even know about any models from Gujarat and, I mean, who cares? This is Bombay. I say talk about issues that matter here like setting up a high-security fenced border between Bandra and the rest of the city to keep out the riff raff. The other day I think I saw a person who looked like he was from Ghatkopar wandering around Hill Road. Creepy, I know. But that’s the problem with these political debates: they don’t even get close to the real issues that matter to the voter.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I did reach the polling booth, confused as ever. I had decided I’d wing it once inside. Vote for whoever strikes my fancy at the moment. As it turns out, those guys didn’t let me vote anyway. Said something about my name not being on the electoral rolls. Apparently you had to register yourself beforehand. I mean WTF. Who’s going to go through all that trouble, man?

Of course, this was extremely disappointing: not only had I been denied my fundamental right as a citizen of the world’s largest democracy to choose our country’s next ruler, I had also lost a chance to click a picture of my inked finger and upload it onto Facebook.

I wasn’t to be stumped that easily, though. I got back home and with a little bit of ink from a pen, managed to create a pretty good impression of the voting ink they used. With the appropriate Instagram filter, no one would be able to tell the difference. Uploaded it and BAM! 26 likes and one comment: “Osum! Jai Hind!”


Not a bad day after all.

First published on NewsYaps

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why Arvind Kejriwal is the only politician in India to wear shirts and trousers


Arvind Kejriwal is the only major politician in India to sport Western wear in public. What does this tell us about his politics?

A couple of days back, Arvind Kejriwal released a video titled “Samvaad - Arvind Kejriwal's message for all Indians”. Not having enough money to advertise on mass media (a fact that Kejriwal mentions in the video himself to gain sympathy) the Aam Aadmi Party is depending heavily on social media to make its case and this video is part of that.  The message delivered is standard and Kejriwal dishes out much of what the AAP has espoused since it started, mainly an end to top-down democracy and the cleansing of politics, especially with respect to corruption and criminalisation. What I found particularly interesting, though, is the way Kejriwal had dressed up it. He was sitting on a chair, had a neat side-parting, rimless glasses and a copstach moustache. Close ups of his face tell us that his moochh is turning grey and his chin sports an untidy, day-old stubble. He is dressed in a striped, pastel-coloured, formal button-up shirt with crumpled grey dress trousers. Notably, his shirt is untucked. He isn’t wearing shoes or, for that matter, any footwear, adding to the informal-yet-sincere tone of the message.

Amongst major politicians in the country (and yes, he is a “major” politician now), Kejriwal’s style of dressing is fairly unique. In politics, where symbolism is crucial, it might be instructive to see why this is so.

Most other politicians, in public, wear what the rural populace in their area does. Thus, Mamata sports a sari (suitably cheap and crumpled to suit her populism) and most male politicians in Tamil Nadu wear a veshti paired up with a shirt. Mulayam Singh Yadav, from the heartland, wears what could be called the national dress of India: the dhoti-kurta. The leaders of India’s two biggest parties, though, differ in this respect from their regional counterparts: they both wear kurta-pajamas.  The kurta pajama is, in terms of sheer numbers, not really a very popular combination across rural or, for that matter, even urban India. It does, though, have a certain pan-country appeal which suits the agenda of the Big Two.

This insistence on indigenous apparel is fairly unique to India, even controlling for size. China is a larger country (although we’re doing our best to close the gap) but its politicians prefer plain old suits. In fact, at summits like the G-20, you’ll find that our prime minster is the only one not wearing a Western suit.

In India, maybe more than most other countries, clothing has always carried a significant amount of political symbolism. When modern politics first started out in the country, though, the Anglicised “microscopic minority” that practised it, stuck to Western clothing. Two major Indian politicians at the turn of the 19th century, Dadabhai Naoroji and Pherozeshah Mehta both have impressive statues in Bombay which have them dressed in trousers, button-up shirt and an overcoat (fairly unsuitable wear for a city as humid as Bombay, it might be noted). Ditto with Motilal Nehru, most pictures showing him in a three-piece suit as would befit one of Allahabad’s most successful lawyers.

The sartorial stuffiness of Indian politics was thrown out almost completely, though, with the induction of one Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi, as a lawyer in South Africa had naturally worn Western clothing. On his return to India in 1915, though, he adopted in full measure the dress of the Indian kisan. Pictures from his first mass movement, the Champaran Satyagraha show him dressed in a dhoti-kurta. Later, he would dress “down” even further, moving about mostly bare-chested or with a shawl draped around his shoulders, in the common manner of the country.

There was a method, of course, to this abrupt change. Gandhi wanted to, for the first time in India, make politics mass-based. This included the use of vernaculars (Pradesh Congress Committees would use the region’s language), recruiting large numbers by reducing membership fees (to a piddling 2 annas) and the use of religious symbolism (mostly Hindu but also Muslim) in order to speak to the masses in tropes they would grasp easily. Gandhi was, of course, far from being a peasant and was an upper-caste, foreign-educated lawyer. The clothing was, therefore, part of his political symbolism to reach out to the Indian masses; assure them that he was one of them.

Gandhi’s influence, like in so much else, was pervasive in the matter of clothing. So much so that the Gandhian “look” became a sort of uniform for the Indian politician. Today, of course, this get-up might have lost much of the meaning it had when it was first bought in almost a hundred years back. In fact, unintendedly, the impact might even be an adverse one: wearing a white khadi kurta, once a sign of swadeshi, is one of the key constituents in how most urbanites stereotype a “corrupt neta” today.

This uniformity in political attire might be one of the primary reasons as to why Kejriwal has broken with the tradition of Gandhian dressing and taken to Western clothes instead. As a person whose primary branding is that of an “anti-politician”, this is an obvious way to differentiate himself from the competition. If every other neta is wearing dhotis or pajamas, he dons trousers. If everyone else wears bandhgalas or kurtas, he sports a button-up shirt. So sharply does he stick out, that his clothing actually came in for special comment on the occasion of Republic Day with the media clicking their tongues at this “casual dressing”.

While being different obviously has its advantages for an outsider like Kejriwal, this symbolism goes even further, speaking directly to Kejriwal’s core support base. As Srinivasan Ramani shows in this well-argued piece in the EPW, there are two characteristics of the AAP support base. One, is that it is mostly urban: the AAP did much better in the core parts of Delhi city as compared to the more semi-urban area in the north-west of the state. The other is that, overwhelmingly, its support base is drawn from the poor, mainly jhuggies and slums populated by people working in the informal sector (migrant labour, domestic help, auto drivers etc.).

This makes the AAP unique because it is the only major party which does not have a primarily rural support base. Of course, the urban poor do not wear dhotis, kurtas, veshtis or mundus. They wear trousers and shirts (often untucked). With his sartorial symbolism, Kejriwal, like Gandhi a century before him, is seeking to connect directly with his supporters.

And while the word “symbolism” might have a slightly disparaging, even “fake” ring to it, in mass politics that’s not really the case. Communicating your message to millions of people is a terribly difficult task and symbolism plays a crucial and legitimate part in that.

In grasping this, Kejriwal seems to have shown remarkable talent as is apparent given his success in the Delhi elections. That said, his performance in the Lok Sabha elections, in terms of seats, might be far less impressive, given his fragmented urban support base and the massive electorates for each parliamentary constituency. The real story, though, would lie in the vote share he manages to garner. According to the CNN-IBN-CSDS opinion poll, AAP’s national vote share would hit 4% in the 2014 elections. A number that, when compared to the 2009 election results, would put it at an impressive fifth place.

After the euphoria of the Delhi win, a number of commentators had stepped in and calmed things down by (correctly) pointing out that the AAP’s performance, while impressive, was not unprecedented: parties like the Telugu Desam Party and the Asom Gana Parishad had managed similar electoral debuts in their states. If these predicted vote shares are accurate though, the AAP’s debut in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections would be unprecedented.

Of course, opinion poll predications are fairly unpredictable things themselves. But at this stage, broadly speaking, Kejriwal’s rise, does seem rather impressive, a small part of the credit of which could maybe be attributed to his sense of fashion. To twist the old tagline of a textile brand just a bit: there are many things which make the complete politician. Clothes are just one of them.

First published on NewsYaps