Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Gauri Lankesh and the culture of impunity

The hallmark of this Rashtra is, and will be, impunity, from top to bottom

(Published on September 09, 2017 in Business Standard)

Last Tuesday was a terrible, difficult night, when news broke that outspoken Kannadiga journalist Gauri Lankesh had been murdered in Bengaluru. Lankesh was not in a conflict zone, or a riot, or a hostage crisis, or in any of the other dangerous situations that journalists often encounter. She was doing what working people do—coming home in the evening, parking, maybe fiddling with keys, maybe looking forward to some food and rest. It was in this most banal of urban commuter moments that she was executed at point blank range.

The impunity of the act is shocking. Should it have been so easy?

Everyone is at pains to stress that we do not know, yet, who killed this fiercely anti-RSS, anti-Hindutva, secular, liberal journalist-activist and publisher. This is true.

But we do know that on social media, the people who howled with glee and gloated over her death seemed to belong entirely to one side of the political spectrum. We do know that the BJP has not issued a clear, strong condemnation of it, saying instead that liberals are entitled to be upset, but what about RSS workers in Kerala? We do know that there is a concerted effort to float the idea that the comrades themselves did it. BJP MLA Jeevaraj has gone so far as to say that if Lankesh hadn’t written about the RSS, she might have been alive today—a pretzel of a statement that both openly threatens dissidence, and takes credit for what the RSS and the BJP are assiduously denying. We do know that Lankesh’s brother Indrajit, who claims both that she was never threatened, and that it was Naxalites who threatened her, aspires to join the BJP.

We do know that this woman fit, to a tee, the description of those who are constantly vilified by right wing forces, including by self-declared journalists and media channels who serve as government public relations retainers.

I was grief-stricken and sleepless for much of Tuesday night, and enraged thereafter—and I didn’t even know Gauri Lankesh. Her family, friends, and colleagues will bear this trauma forever. Whether they knew her or not, many journalists and writers, also struggling with shock and grief, feel a coldness on their own necks. Yet, nothing disperses the chill of fear like the warmth of anger, and Lankesh’s murder has infuriated the press corps, sparking protests all over the country, and spurring many journalists to rededicate themselves to the integrity and courage that the profession demands. One can only hope that this anger will translate into the kind of united effort that is increasingly going to be necessary to defend freedom of expression and democracy.

There has been much heated argument on the question of ‘balance’ in these polarised times. Should firebrand activist Shehla Rashid have asked the Republic reporter to ‘get out’ at the Press Club protest? Are protests over Lankesh’s death meaningless unless protesters have also spoken for slain RSS workers? Should the debate be focused on the Karnataka government’s pursuit of justice, and not on the long-standing and far-reaching effects of social engineering? Is shutting down hate-mongering social media handles compatible with free speech?

I submit that this is now a smokescreen of hair-splitting, and that we are long past splitting hairs. We will, in time, see justice for Gauri Lankesh—or we won’t, as we didn’t in the similar execution-style murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and MM Kalburgi. There will be more fear, more executions. There will be endless sickening finessing and justification and deflection to so-called liberal hypocrisy. There will be more discrediting of media and more lies popularised on Whatsapp.

I submit that we are not ‘in danger of becoming’ a Hindu Rashtra, the dearest dream of the RSS-BJP combine. We are there. Today, right now, we are a baby Hindu Rashtra taking its first messy, unsteady steps. This is what it looks like. Nurtured by hard-core supporters, but also by fence-sitters, the naive, and the wilfully blind, it will very soon lose its baby dimples to become much bigger, much stronger, and much, much uglier.

The hallmark of this Rashtra is, and will be, impunity—from top to bottom, from government policy to street murder. You see it already in the clumsy attempt to force-feed us Aadhaar; in demonetisation; in lynchings; in interference into cultural and personal freedoms. You see it already in the vilification of minorities, in the brazen rubbish being fed to children as history, in the unabashed propaganda sent out as ‘general knowledge’, and in the welding together of state and religion. Here’s a prediction: You will see it in changes to the Constitution of India.


Indian democracy is in the fight of its life. And if you think this is alarmist nonsense, you are helping it happen.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Puttaswamy vs Union of India: The power of one


The right to privacy judgment reinstates the individual as VIP 

(Published on August 26, 2017 in Business Standard)

On Thursday, August 24, a nine-judge Supreme Court bench delivered a unanimous verdict upholding privacy as a fundamental right intrinsic to Article 21, the right to life and personal liberty. You cannot possibly overstate the importance of this judgment. If you don’t like detail, just eyeball its magnitude by counting the number of pages it took up in your Friday morning newspaper. I counted eight pages in mine.

Sounds nuts, right? It’s 2017. Do you have the slightest doubt that privacy is fundamental to living your life in peace? And yet, until now it has never been legally spelled out, even as privacy is being battered by governments and corporations who see leverage and money in ever more access to your personal life. 

Hearing Justice K S Puttaswamy’s petition for a fundamental right to privacy was made urgent by another Supreme Court petition challenging the government’s attempt to forcibly link PAN and Aadhaar numbers. The petitioners argued that collecting, sharing, selling, or using biodata, mandatorily and without consent, violates bodily integrity, informational self-determination, and personal autonomy. They were barred from arguing on grounds of privacy, because the government insisted that there is no such thing, and that the 9-judge bench hearing that matter should first come to a decision.

In fact the government took an obnoxious anti-people, anti-rights legal stand, arguing that the idea of privacy is bogus, that the Constitution deliberately left it out, that Indians don’t need privacy because they tell their life stories within five minutes to strangers on a train, that the poor don’t care about privacy and are too backward to deserve it, that it’s an elitist concern, that it impedes transparency and social justice. It argued that making privacy a fundamental right would open a flood of litigation.

Damn straight it will.

This judgment is, of course, a much-needed boost for those challenging Aadhaar while the government and its cheerleaders sing loud hosannas to an intrusive data raj in the name of prosperity and national security. Keep your eye on those hearings, good people, if you oppose legal sanction for state surveillance and non-consensual data access. 

But Justice K S Puttaswamy (Retd) vs Union of India is not a judgment so much as a legal earthquake. It explicitly overturns the infamous 1976 ADM Jabalpur ruling which allowed Articles 20 and 21 to be suspended in a situation of Emergency. (Historical frisson: Justice Chandrachud fils overturned Justice Chandrachud père). It places sexual orientation in the realm of privacy, eloquently shredding the illiberal reasoning in the Koushal vs Naz Foundation ruling which junked LGBTQ rights. It is now probable that LGBTQ Indians will win an absolutely foundational victory.

The judgment touches on many things that liberal-minded Indians have been growling about—what we eat and wear, who we love, what we say to whom, what we are forced to do in schools. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to support challenges to such momentous things as the beef ban, and those who would impose social vetoes on food or thought and expression, and would force religious compliance, social homogeneity, and brute nationalism. 

It is, in sum, a clear, elegant, and rousing reaffirmation of India’s best liberal, rights-based, pluralist, Constitutional values. It comprehensively rejects majoritarianism, restrains the state from overreach and impunity, and reinstates the individual as the autonomous building block of national life, with a “right to be let alone”. 

The judgment dropped on India like one of those faraway mega-tonne bombs that isn’t heard so much as felt as a blast wave. It isn’t yet law; it merely sets the ground for law that the government must now pass. Its contours will continue to evolve on a case-by-case basis. Like all fundamental rights, it is subject to reasonable restrictions, which will be much debated. But for hundreds of millions of Indians, Thursday August 24 was a great day.

Days like this are rare at a time when justice can be so perverted that a state prepares for shutdown and puts the army on standby in the face of bullying threats because an alleged rapist might be pronounced guilty. It was a day when Twitter felt like a warm bath of endorphins, and right wing trolls were too flattened to fling faeces. The government did made a contemptible spectacle of itself, trying to claim credit for what it brazenly opposed, but that’s all right, we all needed a good laugh.

The euphoria that this judgement produced, the goosebumps and lightness, is how citizens want to feel—validated, free, joyous, and hopeful about India.  


And it proved the power of a single person with initiative. I’d like to envelop 91-year-old Justice K S Puttaswamy (Retd) in my arms, and give him the hug of his life.    

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Kiran Nagarkar, a perfect storm

Brilliant, inspirational, inexplicably underrated.

(Published on August 12, 2017 in Business Standard)


Kiran Nagarkar’s novel Saat Sakkam Trechalis, written in Marathi, won the HN Apte award for best debut novel in 1974. Forty-three years later, the novel is being re-released in an English translation titled Seven Sixes are Forty Three. The room was reasonably full, but nowhere nearly as full as it should have been for a literary supernova. 

Literary supernova, you say? Kiran who, again? 

The evening was unpleasantly monsoon-sticky, but I—and maybe Nagarkar himself—would chalk up the middling attendance to his being, by my lights—and perhaps also by his—the most underrated and overlooked writer in the tiny hothouse world of English-language Indian novelists. He has never been appreciated fully or widely enough, and his lousy luck with the influential Indian literary establishment must have been at its lousiest when his masterpiece novel, Cuckold, was published in the same year that Arundhati Roy blew every other literary name and event out of the water by winning the Booker for The God of Small Things.

I will say upfront that I am an ardent fan of Nagarkar, and have been from the moment I read Cuckold all those years ago. It blew my mind. And it bombed in the market. “I consider it an absolute classic,” he told an interviewer in 2015. “If nobody agrees with that, it is too bad.” Does that sound like arrogance? I think it’s simple self-recognition, and you know it's real when an author remains sure of his ability and achievement despite being widely ill-received (one critic, on hearing of the English translation of Saat Sakkam Trechalis asked, Shouldn’t it be translated into Marathi first?). I don’t think Nagarkar is above being upset by ill-will and lack of recognition, but I suspect that he remains grounded in the certainty of his superpower, which is the ability to inhabit and express every shade of human feeling and expression from the most rarefied exaltation to the filthiest gutter low.

He has said that he would love to receive an award every day; yet, when he once got notification about an award, he forwarded it to someone else—and inadvertently back to the sender—darkly mocking it as spam. (I can’t now recall which award it was; Nagarkar has won a Sahitya Akademi Award for Cuckold, and an Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, which is Germany’s highest tribute to individuals). 

That frictional cohabitation of self-belief and self-doubt is only one of the many multitudes he contains—he strikes me as both controlled and wild, both prim and bawdy, wild with both grief and joy, both depressive and high-spirited prankster, mannered and savage, earnest as well as ironic, both elegant and potty-mouthed, self-possessed and adrift, a bon vivant as well as an ascetic, capable of both exaltation and desecration, tragic and comic both. 

It is, of course, his gift. He’s a Rabelaisian rampage on legs, a walking carnival, at once blaze and blackness. It’s as if someone stuffed into his thin, tall, stork-like frame a cosmic storm—as if, if he opened his mouth, you would see all the terrifying universes.   

I wondered what a writer like Nagarkar would want to do, about a national historical moment he is so sad and angry about—a moment in which, forget literary criticism, people like him might well be demonised as immoral blasphemers, a moment in which the exciting potential of literature, history, science, education, and human behaviour is all being trimmed and harnessed into the service of a narrow, controlling politics. I asked him if he had an answer to what one can do about that.

He had only one answer: I don’t know, but don’t give up. 

I got from that event exactly what I needed just at that moment: a bit of hope and a bit of inspiration. The hope that many people are individually multitudinous and recognise that things are not simply black and white; that many, many people resonate to the freedom of their own loves and griefs, made or unmade autonomously, regardless of circumstance. Not everyone can express it all the way Kiran Nagarkar can, but they defend it by living it.

And the inspiration of a soft-spoken 75-year-old (on stage alongside the steely, ballsy 90-year-old Nayantara Sehgal), still filled with fire and fury and love and cackling laughter, refusing—absolutely refusing—to give in or give up.


Life is generous, like that. It throws all kinds of horror at you, but also the things you need to get through it.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

PG-13 nation

No adults please, we’re proud Indians

(Published today in Business Standard)

Another day, another state. The Opposition alliance stands shell-shocked at the altar as Nitish Kumar runs in slo-mo through tulip fields, hair streaming prettily, into the arms of his old flame the BJP. Much has been forgiven and forgotten. As @atti_cus observed on Twitter, Nitish suddenly remembered that Lalu is corrupt, and suddenly forgot that Modi is communal. With Bihar in the bag, the Opposition alliance in shreds, and a friendly President at the head of the Republic, things are looking bright and shiny for the BJP and Sangh Parivar in their relentless quest to turn India into a PG-13 country with a mean streak.

Besides cynically using soldiers on the border, besides tacitly-approved lynching, besides failing to make any economic headway, besides creating communal tinderboxes, besides trying to get everyone to accept Hindi as the national language, the thing that most irritates Indians is the way in which we are being culturally infantilised and sanitised.

Fully grown Indians are being nannied by patriarchal relics like Pahlaj Nihalani at the Central Board of Film Certification, who upholds his loopy version of family values by, for example, saving ladies from themselves. The CBFC refused to certify Lipstick Under My Burqa on the following grounds: “The story is lady oriented, their fantasy about life. There are continuous sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society, hence film refused [sic to all of that].” The Film Certification Appellate Tribunal overturned the decision, and the film is currently in theatres, but my god, should the arts be at the mercy of people like Nihalani?

We’re being supervised by people like Dinanath Batra, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh educator and educational activist who advocates post-truth textbooks that re-design history in alignment with the Sangh’s views. He’s willing to junk scholarship and academic integrity wholesale, in favour of propaganda. Kids really don’t need to know too much about Nehru or Tagore. Manmohan Singh’s public apology about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi should be removed because it was only put there to make the Congress look good—plus, it automatically makes everyone’s eyeballs swivel to where Mr Modi stands, not being contrite about the 2002 Gujarat riots. Kids don’t need to know that Hindu society didn’t treat women well, or that Mughal rulers could be benevolent, or that the destruction of the Babri Masjid helped the BJP grow. And why not tell the kids that Maharana Pratap, not emperor Akbar, won the legendary battle of Haldighati? Truth is entirely expendable in the all-consuming quest to somehow, by whatever means possible, feel proud.

We’re being administered by a central government whose opinion of Indians is that we are too poor and socially backward to deserve a fundamental right to privacy, and should instead be proud and happy to let proud and happy businesses exploit our data. This is not only the very definition of paternalism, but also at sharp and confusing odds with the same government’s insistence on our mega-global-super-greatness.

We’re being ordered, by our courts, to love and respect India—or, since that’s not enforceable, being ordered to put on ritualistic displays of such love and respect by standing for the anthem and singing patriotic songs and installing flagpoles and bits of military hardware in universities.

Confident countries that believe in themselves don’t feel the need to regulate citizens in this pathological fashion. It is the ferment of plurality, dissent, individuality, and liberty that fosters creativity, innovation, betterment, and excellence. It’s the feeling of being free, and treated fairly, that makes people feel they have a stake in their country. That feeling, of having skin in the game, is the definition of patriotism, and it is earned, not legislated.

The Sangh seems tormented by self-esteem that is not just low, but infected and seeping. How terrible this unquenchable thirst for cultural validation, a thirst so great that you’d think that the Hindu right has been a tiny muzzled minority since Independence. They now have the political and possibly even the cultural majority. Why, then, are they still hankering to be included by the despised left-leaning media? Pride typically manifests in calmly and confidently going about normal life, so why are they spending their time insisting on red-eyed, frothy-mouthed assertions of pride? If their worldview is so self-evident, why are they having to force people into their way of life? Why so much bluster?


The Sangh stayed largely aloof from the freedom struggle. It may be that its own preferences are for structure and instruction over freedom. Its version of freedom may be the freedom to be culturally restrictive. But you can boss around fully grown adults for only so long before they turn around and start giving you lip.