Monday, July 28, 2014

In India --and in no other country--rape is justified by Home Ministers, MPs, casteists. It's our shame

In this season of rape...ugh, what a miserable way to start a column! If only we could say instead: "In this land of milk and honey where the sun shines equally on all and the birds..." But that would be false. In our country the sun shineth the way rain raineth. The rain it raineth on the just / And also on the unjust fella / But chiefly on the just, because / The unjust have the just's umbrella. Brutality hits both men and women, but chiefly women because men have the backing of both law and custom.

Besides, we are past the order of seasons. Wet or dry, hot or cold, it's always the right season for rape. For we practise rape not just as it is understood in dictionaries -- sexual attack on a woman without her consent. For us rape is an assertion of power, a tarzan-call of male ego. It is sadism above and beyond what Count de Sade envisaged in his theories on the pleasures of cruelty. It is integral to the centuries of feudalism and casteism that we have revered.

In the December 2012 gang rape in a Delhi bus, for example, the girl was not just sexually used for the pleasure of the rapists. After the rape she was penetrated with rods, beaten up and lacerated; the youngest of the rapists -- later protected under juvenile law -- tried to dig out her intestines with his hands. In the Badaun (UP) case, the two teenagers who were raped, while still alive, were hung on a tree where they suffocated to death. Rape in India is not just suppressed sex finding an outlet. Nor is it, as in some developed countries, a sideshow of the liberated lifestyle. It is suppressed anger and presumed social superiority that express themselves through barbarity. The police initially made light of the Badaun rape because the culprits were higher in the caste scale than the victims.

Insensitivity and partiality at the police level are in fact a bigger shame than the rapes themselves. The hitherto lovable city of Bangalore was rocked the other day when a girl was snatched from inside a car by a bunch of thugs. When the girl filed a complaint, the police inspector tried to brush it aside, recording minor charges against the culprits. As it happened, the inspector belonged to the same community as the culprits. Higher authorities later intervened and suspended the inspector.

Bangalore has lost its innocence. In the most disturbing sexual assault case in recent memory, a six-year child was molested in her school by a member of the staff, perhaps two. What made it unforgivable was that the upmarket school tried first to hush up the matter. It then took the incredible position that it was not responsible for the safety of the students on its premises. Incensed parents took to the street in protest reminiscent of the Delhi gangrape protests two years ago. The Government, indifferent at first, was forced to take action against the school and even transfer the city's police commissioner. Unfortunately the BJP's front organisations took advantage of the public indignation, giving the protests a political colour despite objections by the parents.

Politicians in opposition see even the most outrageous crimes as merely occasions for partisan propaganda. Those in power pay only lip sympathy when popular anger is roused. They showed no sincerity of purpose even in implementing the recommendations of the Justice Verma Commission in the wake of the Delhi gangrape. The Commission wanted the recording of victims' statement to be mandatorily videographed. The Government made it optional. The Commission asked that senior police officials be held responsible for sexual offences by their juniors. The Government rejected the proposal.

Add to this the arrogant public statements arrogant political leaders go on making. UP leads this list with Mulayam Singh Yadav's statement that "boys will be boys". According to Chattisgarh's Home Minister Ramsevak Paikara, nobody deliberately commits rape, it happens accidentally. Another Home Minister, Babulal Gaur of Madhya Pradesh went philosophical and said that rape was "sometimes right, sometimes wrong". Tapan Paul, MP representing the woman-led Trinamool Congress, beat all by saying that he would send his boys to rape CPM women. That these men are not put in jail is the curse of our land -- and the reason India will continue to be the only country in the world where rape is publicly supported by public figures. We all have to bear that shame.

Monday, July 21, 2014

In Brazil a new India met a new China. Will there be a new pragmatism leading to peace on the border?

What a pity there was no independent reporting from Brazil about our Prime Minister's meeting with China's President. We can comfort ourselves by assuming that it was a subtle diplomatic ploy to impress China. After all, China's leaders have always communicated to their people exclusively through Xinhua, the official news agency. Now Narendra Modi has communicated to us exclusively through PTI. At last we are equal to China.

But let's set that aside. Let's set aside, too, cockles-warmers like India becoming the first President of the new BRICS bank. The great reality that surfaced in Brazil is that Modi has a historical opportunity to end the boundary problem with China. Two factors point to this. First, China respects strong leaders and it knows that Modi is so strong that not a mouse will move in Delhi without his say-so. Secondly, the border problem can never be solved without India repudiating some of Jawaharlal Nehru's actions; the Congress governments could not possibly do this while Modi probably can.

In the past emotionalism seized our Parliament, the media and public opinion to such an extent that the country as a whole lost its sense of direction. We never faced the fact that, historically, there was no agreed border pact between India and China. In the West the Aksaichin-Ladakh area was so barren ("not a blade of grass grows there", as Nehru famously put it) that no one in India knew that China had built a road across it. In the more contentious eastern sector, India swore by the McMahon Line, which was a line drawn by a British officer and then approved at a meeting in 1914 by British-Indian and Tibetan governments; China was not a participant.

The position Chinese Prime Minister Chou en-lai initially adopted was a reasonable one. Where negotiations were required to confirm a presumed boundary, he said, negotiations must be held so that a new treaty could be signed between equals in place of one imposed by old imperial overlords. In the case of the McMahon Line, according to published reports, Chou even told Nehru that China would not use the negotiations to change the boundary line. We failed to take advantage of that golden opportunity. When Chou visited Delhi in 1960 Home Minister Gobind Vallabh Pant spoke to him patronisingly, Finance Minister Morarji Desai insultingly. Nehru could not even keep India's dealings with China on a dignified level. When China moved to absorb Tibet as a piece of its sovereign territory, Nehru agreed without bargaining for an overall boundary agreement.

Post-Chou China adopted a more belligerent tone. In recent years it has been noticeably confrontationist in its approach to Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. Along the Himalayas there have been regular "incidents" in the border posts. Much of this is attributed to hawkish military leaders at policy-making levels.

China will never yield in its ambition to be the unchallenged regional power in Asia and then the unchallenged world superpower. To that extent it will always be a difficult customer, no matter who is at the helm, emperors or communists. But the Chinese are also history's most pragmatic people. They are natural businessmen, at ease running massive shipping corporations or tiny kirana stores. Like Gujaratis.

This is where two minds can meet. If Narendra Modi is strong in India, Xi Jinping is China's most powerful leader since Deng Hsiao-ping, combining in himself several posts including military overlordship. Both are decision-makers. Both are good at the game of politics. So Modi will quickly recognise why, even as Xinhua was reporting the Modi-Xi meeting at length and with warmth, China's border patrol in Ladakh staged an intrusion trick or two. Once he learns how to call this standard bluff, the rest will be easy.

Xi's words in Brazil suggest that he has already developed the view that cooperation with a friendly India will benefit China economically and diplomatically while posing no threat to it politically or militarily. "If the two countries speak in one voice," said Xi, "the whole world will attentively listen". It should be easy for Modi to show that if the two countries speak in one voice, business will boom for both. But, unlike Xi, Modi will have to carry the people with him. Government leaders in India have never told the people the real story of the border mess. If Modi continues that style of functioning, he will not score the way Xi might. Brazil reporting notwithstanding, we are not equal to China, thank heavens.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Thiruvalluvar has changed to Gundappa. That apart, new UPA is like old BJP, new BJP like old UPA

Every BJP voice praised the budget. Every Congress voice rubbished it. So what's new? We sometimes get the feeling that nothing changes in Delhi. Those of us who insist on seeing change can indeed find it. Government staff now reach office on time, like the trains famously ran on time some time ago. P. Chidambaram quoted from Thiruvalluvar in his budget speech; Sadananda Gowda quoted from G.V. Gundappa -- that's change. Arun Jaitley quoted from nobody -- that too is change. In substance, however, politics remain unchanged and unchanging.The Congress in opposition behaves exactly like the BJP in opposition behaved. The BJP in power behaves exactly like the Congress in power did.

The similarities range from rowdyism to appointments to policy positions. It was natural for the Congress to oppose the railway budget. But look at the way they did it. A posse of party activists tore off the Railway Minister's nameboard from the gate of his house and one MP trampled on it, patriotically. This was after the first day's session of the Lok Sabha was repeatedly adjourned following Congress-led mayhem. About this time last year (August to be precise), what was dubbed as "BJP hooliganism" had led to repeated adjournments of both houses of Parliament. An entire session of the last Parliament was demolished by protesting BJP members. The Congress has begun to return the compliment, making it clear that the choice before the people is between hooliganism and hooliganism.

The railway budget itself was a demonstration of the new Government being indistinguishable from the old one. BJP's senior leaders justified the steep pre-budget increase in rail rates by saying that they were merely implementing rates that had been worked out by the previous Government. Was the new Government elected to implement the decisions of the old? Ministers would have won more goodwill if they had admitted the truth -- that power has its own compulsions; you are free as a bird when in opposition, but your hands are tied when you are in government.

No one knows this better than Arun Jaitley. As the most respected voice of the opposition, he had demanded that the Henderson-Brooks report on India's 1962 China war be made public. But now, as the most respected voice of the Government, he had to announce that declassifying the report would be against the national interest. Opinions may differ on that. Books have already revealed details of the horrible bungles and ego clashes that led to India's Himalayan humiliation. But we have to grant Jaitley the right to reverse gear now that he is the Defence Minister.

Turn to operational imperatives and we again see similarities between the Gandhi era and the Modi era. Concentration of power in one central authority was the mantra then, it is the mantra now. Indira Gandhi turned stenographers and family retainers into rulers of India because they were implicitly loyal to her. Sonia Gandhi appointed a family favourite as the Principal Secretary in the PMO over the Prime Minister's own choice. Narendra Modi used the ordinance route (his Government's first ordinance) to get his handpicked officer as Principal Secretary.

Modi has not gone -- and perhaps will never go -- to the extent that Indira Gandhi went to subjugate the Supreme Court. But his sidelining of Gopal Subramaniam, nominated by the Supreme Court collegium for elevation to the bench, invited a strongly worded warning from the Chief Justice of India. Subramaniam was the amicus curiae whose reports led to the Supreme Court transferring the Sohrabuddin fake encounter murder case from the Gujarat police to the CBI. And the CBI investigation led to the arrest of Amit Shah, then Gujarat's Minister of State for Home. Three lawyers had argued on behalf of the Gujarat Government in that case. All three have now been given Government appointments -- as Attorney General, Solicitor General and Additional Solicitor General. A lawyer who represented Amit Shah in the cases has since been recommended for elevation by the SC collegium itself. Wonders never cease.

Interestingly, criticism of the Government in such matters has elicited response only from lower levels of the BJP leadership, the top remaining deafeningly silent. This, too, is reminiscent of the Congress policy of brazening out on issues that matter to the establishment. Remember the likes of Ottavio Quattrochi and Robert Vadra? It looks like parties may come and parties may go, but the people remain where they are. Perhaps it's time to dissolve the people and elect a new set.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Minority appeasement, a game that helps no minority. But it can cut up the country into communal bits

A. K. Antony is a politician who never ruffles a feather. His style is to speak through silences and to act through suspended animation. But suddenly he ruffled every feather in every party with a seemingly simple statement: That appeasing minorities for political gains has helped communal forces to grow. Shock waves spread across the political spectrum. The rush of protests, embarrassments and rationalisations showed that there was some truth in Antony's words. Truth hurts.

The Congress leader from Kerala was referring primarily to his party and his state. But all across the country, and for a long time, parties have been wooing religious and caste groups with special sops for winning their votes. Leaders like Mayawati and Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh have built their empires of power on such votebank bargainings. The Congress under Rajiv Gandhi took the gimmick to absurd levels. It opened the locked gates of the Babri Masjid in order to please orthodox Hindus. Then in subverted a Supreme Court judgment to please orthodox Muslims. (The Court had ruled in favour of Shahbanu, a woman illegally divorced by her husband. The Congress Government changed the law to satisfy outraged Muslim males).

Even the ideologues of the Left bowed to the presumed electoral compulsion of pleasing minorities. It was E.M.S. Namboodiripad who helped create the new district of Malappuram to please the Muslims in Kerala. In the 2011 election campaign in West Bengal, the Left offered 10 percent reservations for Muslims in government jobs and government colleges besides a string of other sops. The Trinamool Congress campaigned to raise the status of Urdu and to increase the salaries of imams. The Congress-led Maharashtra Government recently extended special reservations to Muslims and Marathas, with Sharad Pawar warmly supporting the move. The BJP itself has been cultivating sections of Muslims to show that it is even-handed. But it carries little conviction because of continuing hate speeches and hate crimes by hardcore Hindutva elements.

So Antony was raising an issue that was all-pervasive in our democracy. It cut deep because a leader from the minority segment (though not a believer) was himself criticising the appeasement of minorities. Besides, anyone could see that the policy helped neither the minorities nor the democracy in the name of which the appeasement was done. Virtually all the rights and concessions given to the minorities were appropriated by the leaders of the minority groups leaving the ordinary masses high and dry. The continuing educational and economic backwardness of the Muslim masses is a case in point; even Haj facilities provided by the Government were manipulated by community leaders for their private benefit as published reports have proved. Sops given to Dalit communities have benefited Dalit leaders more than Dalit masses. Many Christian leaders have unashamedly used the minority tag to turn their schools and colleges into high-yield commercial enterprises.

This is a negation of not only the concept of minority rights but of democracy itself. In his thesis about the cyclical nature of political systems, Aristotle argued that monarchy led to tyranny which led to oligarchy which led to constitutionalism which led to mobocracy which led to dictatorship which was the same as monarchy, starting the cycle all over again. Except that he did not use the term mobocracy; he used democracy instead. Aristotle saw democracy as mobocracy. It was left to India to prove how right he was.

The crux of Antony's statement should worry us -- that minority appeasement leads to the growth of communal forces. The best example is his own state where pampered Christian parties and the Muslim League have become unhealthy influences in politics. Significant segments of Christians and Muslims in literate Kerala are unhappy with the way wily politicians use religion for personal gain. The main wirepuller in the League, P.K. Kunjalikutty, a survivor of several scandals, once refused to light an oil lamp at a public function citing religious reasons. Contrast this with burqa-clad Muslim women in Varanasi sending a rakhi to "Brother Modi". Lighting the lamp is a beautiful Indian custom while rakhi tying is more of a Hindu practice. In keeping with Kunjalikutty's idea of demonstrative Islam as distinct from Islam as faith, the Muslim League Education Minister in Kerala recently ordered the black board in a government school to be painted green. Communal forces can not only grow, they can grow stupid.

In the end, though, those who condemn minority appeasement must also condemn the equally dangerous majority appeasement. Who dare ruffle those feathers?