Monday, October 24, 2011

It's Peak Time in Jails Again – For VIPs: People See it as Justice, and Rejoice.

Public anger against corrupt governance has never been as intense as it is today. However, there is also public jubilation as never before. Political VIPs going to jail is an unprecedented spectacle and it fills citizens with unprecedented joy. This is not sadism. This is recognising the sign that there is hope for our country after all.

When A. Raja went to jail, the general feeling was that the arrogance of his party had invited the punishment. From T. R. Baalu's days DMK ministers in Delhi had behaved as though they were viceroys of the Almighty. People have their own ways of reaching conclusions. The general feeling in this case was that, be it A. Raja or Dayanidhi Maran or Azhagiri, they were all using their power for their own and their group's interests.

That same feeling made the public rejoice when Suresh Kalmadi and some of his gang found themselves behind bars. Their misdeeds had brought international shame to our country with videos of filthy bathrooms in the Games Village going round the world and some athletes boycotting the Games. The costs to the country are still mounting, the Sports Ministry having discovered that some of the stadia have become dumping grounds and that several crores would be needed to make them useful in some way.

The jailing that got maximum applause from the public was undoubtedly that of Janardhana Reddy and B. S. Yeddyurappa himself in Karnataka. Reddy was literally above the law, both civil and criminal. No businessman, IAS officer, police chief, or ordinary farmer could survive in Bellary without his permission. His mansion was surrounded by three rings of security and CCTV cameras on approach roads. He had gold plates to eat from, gold water taps to wash his hands, a monogrammed gold throne to sit on and 1200 gold rings to wear. Now he eats kichdi from steel plates. What's it if not justice?

Yeddyurappa was second only to Narendra Modi in flaunting chief ministerial sovereignty, arms swinging like a pahelwan's. He even brought the BJP High Command under his control by using the stick of threats and the carrot of monetary contributions. Now he is “deeply pained” that the public thinks his hospital hopping was to avoid jail. It might be of some consolation to him that the public also was deeply pained by his generosity to sons, son-in-law and sundry relations and cronies. His cabinet has contributed more than any other cabinet in the country to jail population – five of them in one go, another distinction for the “BJP's first government in the South”.

For breaking the myth of ministerial invincibility and re-affirming the limits to power, the credit must go to the judiciary. The tendency of the political establishment was to protect the guilty; look at the way they put off action to curb people like Raja and Kalmadi. It was left to the judges, with some help from newly aroused public opinion, to re-establish the principle that transgressions must lead to punishment. May their tribe increase.

Jail-going was once a badge of patriotism in our country. A man with first-hand knowledge of that phase of history, P. V. Narasimha Rao, told us how that badge was misused. In his novel, The Insider, there is a father who recalls the imprisonment of the great nationalist leaders and says: “My business instinct tells me that some profit must come out of jail-going sometime, somehow. I see my son's jail-going as good business”. During the Emergency jail-going took on another character, best described by one of the victims, Maharani Gayatri Devi. “All the jails were full at the time”, she wrote, “like hotels in peak season”.

It is peak season of yet another kind now. There are ministerial-bureaucratic transgressions awaiting correction elsewhere – in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab. Rapes, kidnappings and disappearances have happened with politicians in power figuring in the suspect list. The call for justice is loud.

Monday, October 17, 2011

What's Going On? There's Need to End this Dangerous Drift to Governmentlessness

The irony is so stark that it exposes the sham of it all. The criminals who attacked a corruption-fighting lawyer in his chambers called themselves the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena. Those who gathered to see the attackers in a court were assaulted by thugs who called themselves the Sri Ram Sene. Bhagat Singh was a patriot whose writings showed great discretion and judgment and whose memory is honoured by all sections of people. Sri Ram is the most revered of all divinities in the Indian pantheon, a personification of all the virtues of man. That these hallowed names should be used by vile men of intolerance and violence is an affront. The heroes whose fame is falsely evoked will lose none of their glory. Those who perpetrate fraud in their names will go down as dregs of society.

The danger they pose has another, more disturbing, implication. Public life in India seems to have entered a new phase that must worry us all. Fringe groups and fanatics of all kind feel free to do what they like – beat up civil society campaigners today, kill whistleblowers tomorrow. The Government responds with such weak and routine measures that the crimes get bolder as time passes. This could well lead to the collapse of the very democratic system that sustains us.

A cursory look at what has been happening in recent years is sufficient to show how governmental inaction has fanned the flames of bigotry. When impermissible things happened in Mumbai, the so-called secular democrats of the Congress and the NCP were too scared – and too selfish – to take action. The conduct of leaders like Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sharad Pawar was shameless when taxi and autorickshaw drivers were dragged out and beaten up by Raj Thackeray's thugs.

Naturally thugs got bolder. The destruction of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune is one of the unforgivable crimes of our times. A precious storehouse of rare works and manuscripts, it was a jewel on Maharashtra's crown. Even that was not understood by the illiterate zealots who attacked it in the name of Shivaji.

Shivaji is another venerated name that is used as an excuse by criminally inclined people to assault their enemies. A proposal by the Maharashtra Government to build a big statue of the Maratha hero out in the Arabian sea off Mumbai was a legitimate topic for different people to express different opinions. But just because a critical opinion was published by Kumar Ketkar, one of the most distinguished journalists in Marathi and therefore a proud son of Maharashtra, his house and offices were attacked. Again, the authorities took virtually no action.

When a Rohinton Mistry novel was taken off Bombay University's syllabus, protest came from the principal of a college, but the Shiv Sena crown prince who forced the cowardly act by the University simply gloated. Now the Delhi University has censored out a scholarly work on the Ramayana by the internationally renowned scholar A.K. Ramanujan. The hundred Ramayanas he wrote about will continue to enlighten knowledge seekers; the closed minds of fanatics will remain closed in their ignorance.

Can the Manmohan Singh Government afford to quibble and dither in the face of such assaults on the values of democracy the vast majority of Indians cherish? This Government's refusal to take action when it is needed has riled the Supreme Court itself. It is also the prime factor behind the scams that have made even our economy suffer. Such is the warped thinking in government circles that even Salman Khurshid, usually a sensible man, made the dumb remark that putting businessmen in jail discourages investment in the country. No sir, it is gargantuan corruption by the politician-businessman nexus that discourages investors. The Government has become so dormant and non-functioning that the country is slipping into a state of governmentlessness. Now that this is leading to street violence and open bigotry, can government inaction continue? The time of reckoning is now.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

In the End, It is Not Power that Matters, but What You Give to the World

The craze for power is so all-consuming in India that we tend to forget the other things that matter. Steve Jobs was an exemplar of those other things. He was only 56 when he died. But he will be remembered with the same feelings of gratitude and admiration with which people like Thomas Alva Edison are remembered.

Edison, not Einstein. It may well be that geniuses who worked out the laws of the universe such as the theory of relativity are the true mentors of modern life as we know it today. But they operated at levels that were unreachable by the lay public. The benefits of their work percolated down to us through intermediaries who were adept at turning theories into practicalities.

Edison must of course have been dealing with theories, suppositions and postulates too. But he was essentially everyman's scientist, providing everyman's necessities such as the light bulb. He was a direct descendent of whoever invented the wheel, and of the unknown Chinese inventors of paper and the abacus, mankind's first calculating machine. Steve Jobs belonged to this rare species of innovators whose work made life simpler, better, richer and ultimately more worthwhile for others.

Many inventions and discoveries that enrich our lives also have a negative side to them. Einstein's theories paved the way to the nuclear bomb. The gunpowder invented by the Chinese in the 14th century was put to diabolic uses. A 2004 BBC documentary argued that the computer posed threats more real than what was portrayed in the Terminator movies. It warned that the computer might change the world in ways we do not even know.

May be. But Steve Jobs used computer technology to change the world in ways we love. When he unveiled the personal computer in 1977, people thought he had made the impossible possible. When he introduced the mouse-driven Macintosh in the 1980s, people thought he was a miracle man. After that he became a real magician, with the iPod in 2000, the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010.

The truly great advances in technology are those that come to be taken for granted very quickly. We take electricity for granted as though it had been there from the beginning of time. We see many of the things Steve Jobs did, such as the advances in mobile telephony, as though they have been there for ever. Wherever we are and whoever we are, the fact is that we cannot live without Jobs any more than we can live without Edison.

Admiration for the man must swell when we realise how much he gave the world and how little the world gave him. His early life was messy. Son of an Arab immigrant from Syria, he was “given away” at birth because his father and mother were not married at the time. During his brief stint at college, his only hot meals came from the free kitchen run by a nearby Hare Krishna centre.

Was that why he went to India in search of spiritual peace when he was only 19? He was clearly a restless man and he experimented with drugs as was expected of restless American youth in the 1970s. He would say later that his roots were in counterculture and that this was an essential part of his persona and belief systems. He went back from India a Buddhist and vegetarian.

Jobs was fundamentally a dreamer and marketing genius. Much of the brainwork behind his early products came from his partner, the engineering whizkid named Steve Wozniac. Together they did change the world, transforming the way computing is done, universalising access to music, simplifying and enlarging the uses of the mobile phone. Steve Jobs was a highly controversial and complicated man. But when he died enemies joined hands with friends to acknowledge his worth. Some compared him with Mozart and Picasso. Remember that next time your ring tone calls you.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Forbidden Territory, where Life is Death, and Women Are Sold on Thursdays

Everyone has heard of the ruggedness of the “Northwest Frontier Province”, the “forbidden area” where the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran meet, of the merciless codes of honour that govern the lives of the Pushtuns and the Baluchis, of the primitive pride of the tribes that must battle with nature – and with one another – merely to survive.

But exactly how rugged? How merciless? A new book, The Wandering Falcon, provides a rather frightening introduction to what constitutes everyday life in a part of the world that is virtually beyond the writ of governments. Everyday life here is also everyday death. Here the spirit of revenge is carried from generation to generation, tribal loyalties are unbending, and women pay heavily for any sign of self-assertion.

Human nature raises its head occasionally. A woman of the Siahpad tribe, married to an impotent man, runs away with a servant. The two are deeply in love and manage to hide in a military post. The woman's husband tracks her down after a five-year hunt. Knowing that they have no escape, the lover does what is expected of him: shoot his beloved dead. He then surrenders – to be stoned to death and the head crushed beyond recognition. That, it was proudly proclaimed, was how “the Siahpads avenge insults”.

A bunch of such stories strung loosely together make up this brief novel (180 pages). But they get under the reader's skin because of the stamp of authenticity they carry. Author Jamil Ahmad was born in Jalandhar but spent his life in the Civil Service of Pakistan, mostly in the Frontier Province and Baluchistan in senior positions. He knew the people and their passions at first hand.

There is a pervading air of menace when he describes the Wazirs and the Mahsuds, “the two predatory tribes of Waziristan”. Every few months, he says, “their hate and tensions explode into violence and some men die...If nature provides them food for only ten days in a year, they believe in their right to demand the rest of their sustenance from their fellow men who live oily, fat and comfortable lives in the plains”.

That explains why the Wazirs and the Mahsuds look upon the jobs of hired assassin, thief, kidnapper and informer as honourable professions. We are given graphic accounts of how an informer does his job, how the deputy commissioner pays the informer, how the kidnappers take away their victims and how the authorities pay the ransom and settle the matter. It's all routine.

Our sense of unease grows when we realise that the men who live by their exalted honour code are illiterate and ignorant of the world and its ways. They do not comprehend things like national borders. They have to migrate from the hills to the plains in winter and back to the hills in spring. If someone now tells them that the hills are in Afghanistan and the plains in Pakistan and that you need permission to go from one place to the other, they just don't get it. The result is that migrating groups are sometimes butchered along with their animals.

Jamil Ahmad, a first-time author, narrates all these with detachment, which adds to the horror of the events he describes. There is no judgmental approach even when he tells us about the village of Mian Mandi, the market place where women are on sale on Thursdays.

A judgmental touch is allowed only when he relates the story of how a group of rebel Baluchis were executed. “There was complete and total silence”, says the author, “about the Baluchis, their cause, their lives and their deaths. No newspaper editor risked punishment on their behalf. Typically, Pakistani journalists sought salve for their conscience by writing about the wrongs done to men in South Africa, in Indonesia, in Palestine and in the Philiphine – not to their own people”.

Very true. Of all journalists.