Barkha Dutt en Thu Sep 16 16:17:23 IST 2021 cases-of-aryan-khan-ashish-mishra-show-contrast-in-how-law-is-applied-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It took a week of national outcry before Ashish Mishra, accused of mowing down farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri, was arrested. Every single retired police officer of consequence called out the Uttar Pradesh Police for the bewildering delay in issuing summons to the son of Union Minister Ajay Mishra, given multiple eyewitness testimonies and chilling videos that captured how the elderly were among those crushed under his vehicle.</p> <p>Ajay has continued to deny that his son was present at the site. But multiple voices from the ground have testified to watching Ashish run into the sugarcane fields. Some farmers have provided detailed accounts of why they believe the minister’s son was both armed and drunk. On camera, there are images of ammunition and what appears to be the debris of a weapon. A 14-year-old is among those who watched his father being run over by the speeding Thar.</p> <p>Among the first to be hit, while he unsuspectingly walked, flag in hand, as part of the protest against the new farm legislations, was Nachattar Singh, an elderly Sikh whose son is a soldier. Despite the fact that the minister is also named in the FIR, he has neither been arrested nor asked to resign.</p> <p>By contrast, another son, in another city, Aryan Khan, in his early 20s, was almost instantly taken into custody after being at a cruise ship party that was busted for drugs. Khan has neither been accused of trading nor of possession. The Narcotics Control Bureau has cited messages on his phone that indicate consumption. Certain circumstances of his arrest are also shrouded in mystery and dodginess. For instance, we now know that the two men who appear on camera escorting Khan and a co-accused, holding them firmly by the arm away from the glare of cameras, are not cops or security bouncers. One is Manish Bhanushali, a BJP worker, and the other is K.P. Gosavi, a private detective. Gosavi’s online pictures have him posing with a gun like a B-grade movie villain. He has also been identified as the man who took a selfie with Khan while he was in custody. Gosavi has since absconded.</p> <p>Shah Rukh Khan has already been dropped as brand ambassador of educational technology company BYJU’s in the wake of the controversy around his son. And depending on what happens to the case, more brands could follow.</p> <p>I am not making the case that Aryan should not face the requisite punishment for his violation of the law. But the alacrity and firmness with which the law was applied to the mega star’s son is in stark contrast with what happened in Ashish’s case, even though the crime is much more egregious in the latter.</p> <p>In one case, the father has begun to feel the monetary consequences, albeit the fact that he is too wealthy for it to matter financially. In another case, the weight of the government is so far behind him.</p> <p>This tale of two sons—and two fathers—is a modern day tale of India.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Oct 14 15:35:58 IST 2021 yogi-adityanath-remains-unhinged-and-untouched-writes-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In a week when Narendra Modi and Amit Shah abruptly replaced the chief minister in their home state of Gujarat, it was a BJP chief minister in another state—election-bound Uttar Pradesh—who hogged the headlines.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If the drama in Gujarat reinforced the BJP as a ‘high command’ party, where only two men matter, simultaneously it made us notice that Yogi Adityanath is probably the only state leader who cannot be summarily substituted.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Adityanath’s often abrasive and communal rhetoric has remained untempered by five years in office. His patently anti-Muslim jibe about how those who say “Abbajaan” once got a disproportionate share of rations—a coarse metaphor for ‘minority appeasement’—will not hurt him electorally; in fact it may even help, as religious polarisation so often does.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead of the political and public conversation being focused on the UP government’s handling of Covid-19, rising cases of dengue and protests by farmers in the western pockets, debating the Hindu-Muslim fault lines may even be the perfect deflection.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That Adityanath still sets the terms of the debate around him in a year when bodies washed ashore from the Ganga and shallow mass graves of abandoned bodies were unveiled along its banks at the height of the pandemic speaks of the utter failure of the opposition. Even in terms of hindutva, the image of saffron shrouds being removed off these bodies by the local police, so that they merged more fully with the sand they had been left in, offered a galvanising moment that was not taken by the opposition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pre-poll surveys show the UP chief minister down in ratings from his 2017 peak, but still distinctly ahead of competitors. While the Samajwadi Party has benefitted from the anti-incumbency, the gains seem to have been passively obtained as distinct from aggressively sought. If there was ever a context for the opposition to change the framework from caste and identity politics it was now. But we did not see mass mobilisation initiatives or cycle rallies or enough offline, non-virtual, tactile effort to meet voters. Covid protocols forbade large gatherings but this was the time for more personal, intimate, on-the-field politics.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead, the opposition seems to have been leaning back in a lazy chair waiting for the voters’ anger to convert organically. The worst, of course, has been the Congress, and this is reflected in all the surveys as well. So much for planted news reports about Priyanka Gandhi shifting base to UP and running for chief minister! The floundering Congress has been unable to resolve its leadership issue. So, while Sonia Gandhi continues to play a placeholder in the post of party president, the few states where the Congress is still in government are beginning to simmer with factionalism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Make no mistake, if Bengal was the most important bulwark against the expansionism of the BJP, retaining Uttar Pradesh will set the stage for 2024. And, if Yogi Adityanath does manage to pull off a win, as the signs suggest he might well, it could make him the most significant BJP leader after the prime minister and home minister. The consequences for the BJP’s internal power dynamic thereafter will be intriguing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What happens in UP will not stay only in UP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 16 20:08:06 IST 2021 taliban-rise-india-wisest-choice-may-be-to-stand-with-afghans-says-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>There has never been a more dangerous time for Indian security interests than now, with the developments in Afghanistan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The responsibility for the victory of the Taliban may rest squarely with the Americans—and to some extent with Afghan politicians who failed to build an authentic following among their people—but the cross will be carried by India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Taliban, a terrorist project of Pakistan—or what Dr Christine Fair has called a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Pakistani state—has long been enmeshed with an intricate network of terror groups, including the Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Elements of it, in particular the Haqqani network, have been fostered by the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Pakistani deep state. Sirajuddin Haqqani is today a deputy leader of the Taliban.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India was among 12 countries to say that it would not recognise a government in Afghanistan that has been imposed by force. But with Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country and the Taliban literally being able to saunter into the presidential palace, albeit at gunpoint, it is unclear how long India can decline to establish official relations with the Taliban. Even to evacuate our diplomats and jawans from the embassy in Kabul, a certain local and tactical engagement with the Taliban would have been unavoidable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Eventually, India may have no option but to engage the Taliban and use the influence of our economic investments in the region to mitigate the extremism of the regime. But even in that process, we will be countering the Pakistan-China axis. It is no surprise that China hosted a Taliban delegation even before Kabul had fallen. And that Pakistan, China and Russia remain the three major functional embassies in Kabul today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There will also be consequences for Kashmir. Two decades ago, it was not uncommon for the foreign terrorists in the valley to be from countries like Afghanistan and even Sudan, alongside local militants and Pakistani terrorists. With Pakistan’s deep roots in large sections of the Taliban establishment, the attempt to revive Kashmir as a pan-Islamist project cannot be ruled out. Pakistan, already smarting from the abrogation of Article 370 two years ago, will be looking for means to re-leverage itself into this matrix.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Any option for India is currently a choice from a substandard menu. India’s wisest route probably remains in standing with the people of Afghanistan. Opening up emergency visas for all Afghans (amending an earlier foreign ministry statement that named Hindu, Sikhs and Afghan partners specifically) is a smart move in this direction. Let India be the benevolent, accessible, friendly powerhouse for a new generation of Afghans. Let us remember that there is a post-Taliban generation that has never known life under the Taliban. India should be a natural port of call for them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A ‘me-too’ relationship with the Taliban does not just upend decades of our stated position on terrorists; it is also destined to fail given the historic links between the Taliban and Pakistan, and China’s overarching influence. Despite the immediate tactical pressures to normalise the Taliban and despite the need for covert channels of communication to remain open with it, India should opt to side with the underdog—the people of Afghanistan, especially its women.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This would not just be the correct moral principle; it would also be smart statecraft at a time of diminishing alternatives.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Aug 19 15:22:57 IST 2021 snooping-culture-we-journalists-also-contributed-to-it-says-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The global surveillance scandal, involving the use of Israeli spy software Pegasus, raises many grave questions—not just about the violation of privacy, but also the independence of our institutions. In India, given the list of possible snooping targets, several pillars key to the functioning of a genuine democracy—the media, the election commission, the courts, an effective opposition—have been made vulnerable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Forty Indian journalists are among the 180 whose devices may have been hacked. In any other country, this would have caused mass public outrage. So, why are we not seeing more fury among citizens at large?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While I believe that the government is obliged to answer the central question—did it or did it not weaponise Pegasus on its citizens—I think we must also reflect on how and why we, as people, became so casual about privacy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the risk of annoying some colleagues, I would argue that in some ways we as journalists have brought ourselves to this point. A few years ago, major media outlets happily published the private conversations between Niira Radia, a representative for the Tata and Reliance group and a host of other people, including business people, politicians and journalists. Yes, unlike Pegasus, Radia’s surveillance was authorised under income tax rules. But the violation of the privacy of everyone else she spoke to was not authorised and the leaking of the conversations was unforgivable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As someone who spoke to Radia in the course of work but hardly knew her beyond that, I found myself at the receiving end of a bizarre and vengeful media campaign, one that suggested that I had somehow played a role in A. Raja, being appointed telecom minister. Snatches of gossip about who might be in the next cabinet—a routine trading of information that all journalists do with professional contacts—were edited and dislocated from the context in an attempt to sully my reputation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apart from the ludicrous assumptions about my influence, I repeatedly underlined that I had never met or spoken to Raja (and still have not) and pointed to the many hard-hitting stories I had in fact done on the telecom scam. Others like Vir Sanghvi and M.K. Venu, one of the editors of The Wire (that has led the Pegasus expose in India), took the media organisations to court. Ratan Tata demanded a right to privacy protection from the Supreme Court.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While no fingers were eventually pointed at Tata or Ambani, for whom Radia was working, the tapes became quite simply a weapon by journalists to try and pull down other journalists.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Since then, TV channels have thought nothing about leaked WhatsApp messages being part of their so-called “exposes”. We saw a lot of this salacious stuff during the coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput tragedy where the privacy of actors was routinely violated in prime-time news. It was only when journalists found their own messages and conversations leaked (the Republic TV promoter and a young, brave journalist at India Today among them) that there was pushback. Sting operations—secretly filming people—is another grey area that raises ethical questions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The media has often cited public interest as it overrides the right to privacy of public figures. Of course, Pegasus violates civil liberties and the functioning of a free press. But if we live in Orwellian times, we too have done our bit in contributing to it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jul 22 18:25:12 IST 2021 india-needs-transparency-on-vaccination-data--writes-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>India’s record-breaking rollout of the new vaccination policy has been the news we have all been waiting for all year. A country scarred by the second wave has nothing but vaccines to prevent it from an imminent third wave. At 86 lakh doses in a single day, India has reminded the world of our vast experience with mass immunisation programmes. That we are good on the logistics side is now established.</p> <p>But while we all need to feel good and indeed feel better, the early triumphalism that has followed this start is both dangerous and scary. It is frightening because it was exactly this sort of imagined exceptionalism and self-congratulatory messaging that made us vulnerable to the second wave.</p> <p>The dramatic variations in the numbers also raise some puzzling questions. The most curious has been the performance of Madhya Pradesh that appeared to go from 14,000 vaccine doses to over 16 lakh in three days. On the eve of the big-bang Monday, Madhya Pradesh administered less than 700 doses. On Monday, it soared to 16 lakhs, on Tuesday it fell to under 5,000, only to surge ahead in the lakhs again on Wednesday.</p> <p>It is not only BJP states that show these crests and troughs. Maharashtra showed a gap of two lakh vaccine doses between June 20 and June 21; Kerala soared from 57,000 doses to over 2.5 lakhs on Monday. It almost appeared as if the states had held back vaccines on Sunday to make Monday a good performer. But then there were also states like Andhra Pradesh that showed the reverse trajectory with 13 lakh doses on Sunday that fell sharply to 49,000 on Monday.</p> <p>These swings are bound to raise questions around the stability of vaccine supply now that it has been proved that the distribution and administering system works super smoothly. It calls for utmost transparency from the government on data. People already know that there is a shortage of vaccines and should be told the truth about availability levels.</p> <p>Similarly, transparency was found missing when it came to determining the gap between the two doses of the vaccine. The government has previously pointed out Covishield’s assertion that a prolonged gap between the two doses, accidentally discovered during the trial, was better for efficacy. But all of this was before the lethal Delta variant swept through India. Since then, a UK study shows that a single dose of the AstraZeneca (or Covishield as we know it in India) offers just 33 per cent protection against infection and a little over 70 per cent efficacy against hospitalisation. In other words, two doses are critical and an increased gap could make us more vulnerable. Equally, everyone understands that in a crisis the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good, and so any vaccine rollout must focus on as many people getting one shot as possible. The problem begins when the policy is packaged as led by science rather than the compulsions of the greater good—because science has since changed.</p> <p>As more vaccines are cleared for use in India and the free vaccines-for-all policy takes shape, it is critical that shortfalls, if any, are explained to the citizenry.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jun 24 21:27:48 IST 2021 we-have-to-own-our-covid-deaths-says-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Many morally egregious developments have taken place in the past two months amid a colossal failure to contain the second wave of the pandemic. The most obvious have been the failure to order enough vaccines, the gifting and exporting of vaccines before securing them for citizens, the failure to ensure oxygen supply to hospitals, the decision forcing government teachers to go on election duty, and permitting massive political and religious gatherings during the crisis.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But now, as Covid fires sweep through rural India, we are confronted with a new ignominy: the refusal to count our dead.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I have spent more than ten days travelling through rural Uttar Pradesh, uncovering floating corpses and buried bodies at six different points along the Ganga—Varanasi, Kannauj, Kanpur, Unnao, Prayagraj and the Nanamau ghat in Kanpur Dehat district. I have travelled three hours by boat down the river as well. And the dead do speak if we care to listen. Eyewitnesses confirm that they have never seen a pile-up of bodies in this manner, both in number and in the way they have been abandoned, often in the cover of night. There appear to be two reasons for this dumping of bodies: the absence of money to spend on cremations and the stigma and fear associated with Covid.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To make matters worse, the police have been supervising the removal of Ramnami chadar (sheets with Lord Ram’s name printed on them) from bodies at Prayagraj—perhaps to avoid any further documentation. Surely this is the final, unforgivable indignity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apart from the mass graves, there are two other giant factors that are contributing to the serious underreporting of Covid fatalities. In village after village, residents are confirming a surge in the number of deaths over the past month, from what is being described as a sudden onset of fever. In most cases, though, with hardly any testing or health care facilities accessible, people are dying at home, often within three or four days of contracting the virus. Since they never reach hospitals and are never tested for Covid, the death certificates either offer no cause of death or list typhoid and pneumonia as reasons for it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From the east of Uttar Pradesh to the west, the documentation of deaths is almost negligible. In Basi Gao, two hours from Delhi, villagers said “not even one house was untouched by fever”. The village has more than 5,000 residents. It was the same story at the other end in Ramana, which is part of the prime minister’s constituency, Varanasi. “Forty people have died over the last month,” said the village pradhan. “Barely anyone made it to the hospital.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Finally, in state after state, there is a mismatch between the number of deaths reported by districts and the pyres burning at cremation grounds and the burials happening in graveyards. Be it in Surat, Ghaziabad, Delhi or Varanasi, undertakers are reporting numbers that are at least ten times more than what the government is acknowledging. Data scientist Bhramar Mukherjee told me that 1.2 million Indians have already died, and that the number is “a conservative estimate”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Before India claims to have left the worst of the second wave behind, we must at least demand to know how many have died. We must own our Covid deaths.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu May 27 15:53:33 IST 2021 barkha-dutt-on-injured-cadet-long-wait-for-justice-from-the-army <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Today I want to tell you the story of a young man called Shubham Gupta and his extraordinary mother, Anupam. From a young age, Shubham dreamt of being part of an infantry brigade posted on the frontline. When he cleared the entrance for the National Defence Academy, he was the happiest he had ever been.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But two years into the gruelling training programme of an officer cadet, Shubham was gravely injured while diving into the academy swimming pool. The fall paralysed him below the neck; he was declared medically unfit. Not just that. NDA graduates get a bachelor’s degree from JNU. But because he could not complete his three years at NDA, the first two years of his BA were nullified.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shubham was given a mechanised wheelchair and sent back to his parents in Punjab. Seven years on, after regular use had worn out his first wheelchair, Shubham wrote to the Military Hospital in Pune asking for a new one. He was told that the rules did not allow the issue of another wheelchair because he was not officially recognised as an ex-serviceman.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, a former soldier, has intervened with orders for a new wheelchair. But when I spoke to Shubham and his mother, at the heart of this tragedy is not the principle of charity, but the principle of honour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At 29, Shubham does not want to be economically dependent on his parents. He started afresh and completed his college degree. His mother, a schoolteacher, speaks of the despair she feels; her son cannot even turn to his side on the bed, without help. Yet, despite what happened to Shubham, she did not stop her younger son from joining the military. “I am living my dreams vicariously now through my brother,” Shubham told me, without a trace of self-pity, victimhood or bitterness.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As an educated, well-read, intelligent young man, Shubham is confident that he could easily perform an administrative role in the private sector. But someone has to be willing to give him that opportunity. His is not the only such case. Officer trainees who are declared unfit for medical reasons are not given the benefits of military service. Ironically, jawans and civilian recruits are deemed part of the service from the first day of training.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though military chiefs have been known to intervene in individual cases—former Army chief General Ved Malik has made a passionate appeal for Shubham—a larger overhaul of the rules is needed. These are men and women who display readiness to possibly sacrifice their lives for the nation at a very young age. Some of them would be in their late teens when an accident cripples them. They take a chance on the best years of their lives, and as Shubham has shown, display great fauji (military) spirit, in their never-say-die attitude.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We owe them more. We owe them better.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Apr 01 19:21:17 IST 2021 inequality-begins-at-home <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>One of the big untold stories of the pandemic year will be how it impacted women. With families forced to hunker down and work from home—this may possibly become the norm even when things fully normalise—women, in India and elsewhere, are reeling under the consequences.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There has been some acknowledgment of the surge in domestic violence cases. In India, the National Commission for Women revealed that it received 5,000 complaints of domestic violence against women and children as of December 2020, a sharp spike from the 660 cases reported in July 2020.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This phenomenon is being called the ‘shadow pandemic’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But lurking behind these headlines is the story of how casual sexism has become institutionalised and legitimised in a way that could have long-term consequences in the battle for equality.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Facebook’s Survey on Gender Equality at Home report—done in collaboration with the World Bank, UN Women, Ladysmith and others—reached a statistically representative sample of roughly half a million people who use Facebook, globally. While many of the experiences for women cut across geographies and cultures, the results from India are revealing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That women have often been unpaid care-givers is an established fact. But with schools going online, and spouses and children both at home, for women, this has been a year more harrowing than most. For women who also hold a job outside of the home, the pressure has been near debilitating. Asked how many hours per day either gender spent on care activities for family members, men said they spent 6.66 hours compared with the nearly ten (9.7) that women do.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Fifty-eight per cent of women surveyed said that the amount of time they spent on household chores has increased compared with 52 per cent of male respondents. The findings shine a light on the absence of equality in our home spaces that clearly predated the pandemic and the lockdown. When asked whether in normal circumstances they took care of household chores, like cleaning, at least half of the time, 61 per cent of women said yes, to 29 per cent of men.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And most disappointingly, perpetuating sexist stereotypes, 73 per cent of men surveyed agreed that “a woman’s most important role is to take care of her home and children”; 63 per cent of women assented to that proclamation. At a time when women are breaking barriers in every space—flying fighter jets, leading companies, arguing for combat roles in the infantry, helming newsrooms—it is almost tragic to hear that such few women privilege their personal and professional ambitions ahead of the gendered expectations of them at home.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The truth that we do not recognise is that there can be no equality at work without equality at home. In India, the female labour force participation has been sharply declining. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, during March-April last year, 26.6 per cent of women moved out of the labour force versus 13.4 per cent of men. Put simply, it means that fewer women are working today than earlier. What appears to be like progress is in fact the exact opposite when it comes to women in the workforce and attrition rates. A key reason for this is the impossibility of juggling the multiple roles demanded of women at office and home.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We have focused all our energy on the workspace. We need to turn our gaze inwards and start talking much more about what goes on right in our own backyard.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Mar 04 14:21:59 IST 2021 the-pm-must-step-in <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The debate on the farmers’ protests has gone well beyond discussing what is the best way to reform the agriculture sector. It no longer matters what you think is the best way to get past the middleman or if you think the market and the mandi can co-exist.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After what went down on Republic Day and the build-up of barricades with nails, iron bars and concrete walls at different protest sites, the need of the hour is de-escalation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yes, the violence on January 26, especially the unfurling of the Nishan Sahib at the Red Fort, was utterly appalling, as was the breaking down of barricades and the violence that ensued. But, the farmers I meet are convinced, right or wrongly, that extremists like Deep Sidhu, who can be seen on video exhorting men to put up the religious flag, were given a long rope by the police, just to discredit the movement.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Either way, the movement has shifted gears and momentum from the primarily Sikh-led, Punjab-centric agitation to the mobilisation of Jats in western Uttar Pradesh. Farmer leader Rakesh Tikait, who told me he voted for Prime Minister Modi, pulled a rabbit from his hat by breaking down in tears and giving a call to action for farmers to arrive at the UP border. The police, sent in to clear the area of protesters, immediately stepped back, sensing the pointlessness of going eyeball to eyeball with a large crowd.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Every police officer, retired and serving, that I have spoken to, believes the force is being made to carry the cross for the political establishment. Clearly, both the decision to allow the tractor rally to roll into Delhi on Republic Day, and the decision, since then, to fortify the protest sites as if they are war zones, are political. Amod Kanth, former top cop of Delhi, told me that the images are “horrifying” even as he understands the need for the police to act. “But can we afford to have Delhi turn into Tiananmen Square?” he asked.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is peril in the fact that the farmers’ agitation is leaderless or at least without one central leader or group. It leads to the sort of free-for-all fracas we saw on Republic Day and the subsequent dissociation. Even the involvement of Rihanna, the international superstar, who tweeted about the internet shutdown at the borders of Delhi, is beside the point. Chances are if she were quizzed about the legislation or the protests she would not know too much.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But instead of getting prickly about outside commentary, as the foreign ministry has, the prime minister needs to step in. Not because of what the western media or Hollywood celebrities are saying, but because thousands of men and women, elderly and young, have been on the roads for over two months. And for the most part, they have been peaceful and dignified in the articulation of their opposition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At Singhu border, the farmers told me they will stay as long as needed. The women said they will not budge, “even if we die”. But everyone is looking at Narendra Modi to step in. “If he comes here to talk to us, we will give him chai, samosas and ladoos. Then we will ask him to repeal the laws.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Parliament is in session. The prime minister must intervene and pull the street back from the precipice.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Feb 04 16:11:36 IST 2021 for-sciences-sake! <a href="!.html"><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The vaccine wars have reached a tenuous truce, with both Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech issuing a joint statement of unity around “saving lives”. This, obviously on orders from probably the highest levels of government, came after the damage was done. For anti-vaxxers, rumour-mongers and conspiracy theorists, this week offered the perfect opportunity to bash science. And this was the real tragedy.</p> <p>Ordinary Indians, already terrified by the year they have had to go through because of the pandemic and the lockdown, really do not understand the difference between efficacy and immunogenicity. Not too many even know that in peace-time it would take a year to test the efficacy of a vaccine. And what this is simply measuring is the odds of getting reinfected. Since a year’s luxury is not available to any country in the world, scientists have to deal with other parameters, in which testing for safety is paramount. I would not have known any of this had I not spent an obsessive year reporting on Covid-19 and its aftermath.</p> <p>And, that is the point. On the day the drugs controller general of India officially greenlit the vaccines, he did not take questions from reporters. The insistence on a monologue as communication at this critical and sensitive point created a massive information vacuum which was then filled by quarrels among scientists, experts and the two vaccine manufacturers. The result is that people are besieged with doubts, some valid and some hysterical.</p> <p>Experts like Dr Shahid Jameel told me that instead of the opacity that accompanied the announcement and what followed—thereby undermining the legitimate gains made by scientists—the alternative should have been not just to answer questions, but to broadcast live the meetings of the SEC (subject expert committee) to create confidence and comfort among citizens. In this, he says, we must borrow from the American example in transparency and the public’s right to access information.</p> <p>India makes 60 per cent of the world’s vaccines, and companies like Bharat Biotech and Serum Institute are not newbies. Both have a proven scientific track record. Nor is raising questions and demanding to know more any sort of disrespect to India’s homegrown scientists. The worry, for most people, is that the pressure to be “atmanirbhar” when it comes to a Covid-19 vaccine should not lead to decisions taken in haste or approvals that cut corners.</p> <p>Since the controversy erupted, several scientists with unimpeachable integrity have explained to me that the efficacy numbers that are available now could well alter over a period of time, as these numbers have not been studied in any trial for the length of a full year.</p> <p>The government should be holding daily press briefings and running 101 sessions on the vaccine rollout. There should be digital and offline interfaces for people to post their questions. And, there should be much greater transparency and insights into the decision-making process as well as how the trials are being conducted.</p> <p>Dr Jameel suggests that the best way for Indians to believe that both vaccines are safe for use is for officialdom to lead by example. Let top ministers and bureaucrats of the government take the vaccines and demonstrate their own confidence and trust in the systems that have been used to grant the approval.</p> <p>In the cacophony, that may be the best way to salvage science.</p>!.html!.html Thu Jan 07 13:55:56 IST 2021 treat-farmers-with-dignity <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Depending on which economist you speak to, you can be persuaded either way on the new farm laws. Ashok Gulati, who has spent a lifetime studying the agricultural space, makes a passionate case for why these reforms are needed and how, as he told me, “you cannot fight the force of a free market. The government cannot be in the perennial business of deciding the price of potatoes and onions.” On the other end of the spectrum is P. Sainath, veteran journalist and chronicler of rural India, who argues that instead of eliminating the middleman, the new laws will throw up “new touts who will wear Gucci and Armani”. The reference is to what journalist Harish Damodaran has called “conglomerate capitalism”—where the market, instead of being genuinely free, is dominated by a handful of giant corporations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For the layperson this is a confusing argument. Not all of us are trained policymakers or economists to be able to decide whether the legislation will do more good than harm. However, the lessons from the telecom sector are instructive. What was meant to be an opening up of a competitive market has ended up in only three players left in the market where the third is still fighting to survive.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That said, if you did a dipstick test, most Indians would stand in solidarity with the protesting farmers. It is in fact possible to be confused, even ignorant about the exact provisions of the new farm laws and still sentimentally lean on the side of the farmers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is a reason for this. First, if the laws are meant to improve the lives of the farming community—60 per cent of India’s population is dependent on agriculture—then the people being “gifted” must believe so. If there is a gap in communication, and men, women and children are on the street—every village in Punjab is reported to have sent a tractor load of protesters to the capital—it is incumbent upon any government to talk with the citizenry and not talk down at them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Gulati, who is a supporter of the laws, told me, “the prime minister should go and eat in the langar being run by the farmers and share a jalebi or two with them”. The first instinct of the government to disparage the protests was the wrong one.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is also another missing piece of the puzzle. From the prime minister downwards, everyone in the government has assured the farmers of the MSP, or minimum support price, continuing despite the new laws. Farmers do not believe this and want it in writing as a legally enforceable guarantee. Of course, MSP varies from year to year and is in the realm of administration. But if the government is indeed sincere about maintaining the mandis and the MSP system in parallel to allowing private players in, it should have no problem in giving some manner of assurance that is formal and goes beyond the verbal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In effect, the debate around the farmers laws is not about the legislation at all anymore. Even those who think the new acts have value may believe that the farmer on the street deserves a dignified dialogue of equals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Dec 10 15:10:11 IST 2020 modi-wins-yet-again <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Despite the shades of Pennsylvania in Patna—the late count, the allegation of malpractice, the neck and neck race, and the suspense—Bihar finally has a new government.</p> <p>And the quick short political bullet point is this: Narendra Modi is a Teflon prime minister who can still tip any election.</p> <p>The two big winners of this election are Modi and the 31-year-old who was hoping to become India’s youngest chief minister. Despite a spirited challenge by Tejashwi Yadav, who fought not just an energetic but a responsible campaign focused on economy, jobs and performance, the groundswell of anger against Nitish Kumar did not stick to his alliance partner, the BJP.</p> <p>On the ground, in interviews, voters explained this by saying that Nitish Kumar ran a one-man government, and so he was alone responsible for the poor handling of the migrant crisis and the pandemic as well as the flagging economy.</p> <p>But in truth, the BJP was able to show Nitish Kumar his place. The gamble with Lok Janshakti Party’s Chirag Paswan, who broke away from the National Democratic Alliance and threatened to send the chief minister to jail, was seen as a carefully calibrated project to cut into the vote share of the Janata Dal (United). He set himself up to be the prime minister’s Hanuman and repeatedly spoke of a BJP-LJP government in the state. His game worked. Stung by the results, Nitish Kumar’s party colleagues have been lamenting the consequence of the “chirag (flame)”that burnt “Ayodhya instead of Lanka.”</p> <p>While Nitish Kumar will be chief minister again, it is evident that this win has been delivered to him by the prime minister. You can expect him to be a paler, blander, more diminished version of himself than we have seen even thus far. And there are legitimate questions over how long this alliance with the BJP will sustain. Probably, the calculation that Nitish is ever ready to switch sides and that Bihar should not throw up a surprise as Maharashtra did (when the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress came together) will ensure that the BJP does not rock the boat for now. But the power dynamic in the relationship has permanently altered.</p> <p>The other big takeaway is the fall of the Congress that has clearly dragged the Mahagathbandhan down. While in sheer numbers, the staggering improvement of the left was able to compensate for the drop in the Congress, but the fact that Bihar’s Muslim voters chose to give five seats to Asaduddin Owaisi’s party says something significant. The Congress is foolishly lashing out at Owaisi for splitting what it calls the “secular vote”. Instead, it needs to reflect on the reality that increasingly it is no longer seen as a winning party. The image of Rahul Gandhi taking a brief vacation in the middle of the Bihar campaign captures both the entitlement and the denial of the Congress.</p> <p>The Bihar verdict is yet another jolt for India’s opposition parties. The BJP juggernaut cannot be halted by last minute eruptions of energy. If anything, it is a reminder that politics is a 24x7 commitment. You have to live and breathe it, if you are to survive it in an India whose centre has pivoted right.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Fri Nov 13 13:02:30 IST 2020 barking-news <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>India’s television news is in meltdown. Channels are fighting among themselves. The relationship between television hosts is as volatile as that between India and Pakistan. And the audience is sniggering at the circus, where the media itself has become the main entertainer. I joked the other day to the razor-sharp stand-up comedian Anuvab Pal that his job was in danger. Prime time anchors, I warned him, might be funnier than he is—and without even intending to be.</p> <p>Then I amended my words. The difference, I said, self-correcting, is that the news hosts are both funny and dangerous, whereas satirists were benign, if occasionally acerbic.</p> <p>As TV news becomes a caricature of itself, it has also played to the basest prejudices a society can have; loose talk, instant judgment, slander of women, anti-Muslim rhetoric—everything that good journalism once rose up against has been normalised and made mainstream by television now.</p> <p>The navel-gazing quarrel over who is worse on the spectrum of options is one more excuse for the TV media to not to its job. First, the tragic death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput was the perfect excuse to not report on the Covid-19 pandemic, the threat from China or the state of the economy. Now the <i>tamasha</i> has been overtaken by the state of play within the media industry. Channels that were till yesterday just as irresponsible and inflammatory in their coverage of the Rajput case and the misogynistic coverage of his girlfriend, Rhea Chakraborty, are today acting sanctimonious.</p> <p>The worst are the networks which play on the formula of yin and yang. In an effort to keep all sorts of audiences on their side, some of their presenters are voluble, gossipy, aggressive and downright irresponsible. Then they have another set who are projected as more rooted and responsible. This way they get to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds, and seek to be all things to all people. Frankly, this last category is the most disingenuous; at least with the others you know precisely what you have signed up for.</p> <p>The serious impact of all this is, of course, the death of credibility. When journalists become the subject of memes and mockery, what you have is a weakened and divided fourth estate. And guess who that leaves with the last laugh—India’s politicians. Journalism was meant to hold the powerful to account. But if the media is so busy bickering, sniggering and pulling down its own, it is hardly in a position to take a united stand on anything.</p> <p>Television anchors, with delusions of grandeur, may believe that being on air every night offers them some sort of immunity. But now that a furious debate has erupted over how news ratings are measured and how easily they can be manipulated, channels cannot even hide their venom behind the boastful claims of numbers.</p> <p>No matter which way you look at it, perhaps not since its inception has television news been this disrespected and irrelevant.</p> <p>As a former practitioner of TV, I wish I could seek comfort in an “I told you so” moment.</p> <p>But a weakened media is terrible news for democracy.</p> Thu Oct 15 16:33:14 IST 2020 dont-bury-the-dead <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Migrant workers, forgotten during the lockdown, appear to be forgotten even in the unlocking of India.</p> <p>The Union government has informed Parliament that no data is available on how many workers may have died in the last few months of the pandemic, during the biggest exodus of Indians since the country’s partition.</p> <p>It is distressing that no such compilation has been made using a combination of state agencies and media reports.</p> <p>As someone who spent close to four months tracking the journey of migrant workers, walking with them as they traversed hundreds of kilometres back to their village, I, for one, would be happy to share all my data.</p> <p>I could introduce the labour ministry to Mukesh Mandal’s family that lives just on the outskirts of Delhi, in an urban village in Haryana. Mandal, a small-time house painter, had lost all his avenues of income when the country closed down. His wife Poonam, held up his passport size photo for me to see, a vacant look on her quietly stoic face. A day earlier, Mandal had sold his mobile phone for Rs2,500. He bought a table fan—it was hot in the crowded tenement where his family lived—and a few kilos of ration. Then he tied a cloth to a bamboo pole outside his hut and hanged himself.</p> <p>Or, I could draw the attention of officials to the family of Ranveer Singh, who died from a heart attack near Agra, as he attempted to walk the nearly 300km distance. I went to meet his family in Morena. His sister Pinky said her brother had to work in the city so that he could send money home; one of his dreams was that Pinky could start her own school. His last call home was to the family from Agra. “Come and get me please,” he implored. But by the time the family was able to get a curfew pass he was already dead.</p> <p>Then there is the Gond Adivasi village of Antoli. It is so remote that even when we reached its outskirts after driving for more than a day, we had to walk several kilometres inside, through mud and fields, before we could meet its residents. We all saw the macabre headline of the 16 workers who were run over as they slept on railway tracks in Aurangabad. They thought that no trains were running and that it was a safe space for them to hide from the police. This was their village.</p> <p>Or, we could remind the governments about the accident that took place in Auraiya, when 24 migrant workers were killed in a road accident. Their injury was compounded with insult when survivors were made to travel in the same trucks which were carrying the dead, the body bags resting on open slabs of melting ice. They were moved into an ambulance only after a massive uproar.</p> <p>To not tabulate the data of those who died is to render them invisible.</p> <p>We keep saying that each life lost is more than a statistic.</p> <p>But it appears that we are not even ready to acknowledge them as statistics.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 17 16:01:27 IST 2020 prime-time-embarrassment <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I was a child of television. Unlike many journalists who migrated from newspapers to the visual media, my first master’s degree was in film and television production and my first job was as a producer-reporter-sound mixer in television news.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This background is to explain that unlike others, I have never been contemptuous about television. I loved the grammar of pictures and their capacity to tell an immediate, intimate, powerful story.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But two decades later, storytelling is dead in television news. And all that remains is variants of talk—some polite, some shrill, almost all of it banal and some of it positively injurious to the health of our democracy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Whether it is the way the tragic death of Sushant Singh Rajput or the fatal heart attack of Congress spokesperson Rajiv Tyagi shortly after he attended a raucous television debate has been reported, the chatterbox is now way more lethal than a mere idiot box.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The problem is not just the coarsening of conversation or the political partisanship. It’s the unleashing of vigilante justice. Today there is little difference in an insane, blatantly fake forward you receive on WhatsApp and the content you may consume on television. And the uncles and aunties in your family forums believe both to be accurate. If the last distinguishing feature of mainstream media—challenged more and more by digital platforms and social networks—was editorial gatekeeping, that distinction no longer exists.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We debate toxicity and hate-mongering on our online platforms. How often do we step back and question the 9pm news? Whether it is subliminal hatred against Muslims, pronouncements of guilt and innocence against individuals, pseudo-patriotism or downright slander, prime time is now a pathetic spectacle.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Funny thing is wherever I go, people crib nonstop about the quality of news media. ‘Tamasha’ is a word frequently used for my erstwhile medium. Everyone recognises that there is barely any reportage in television newsrooms. But even the quality of talk is suspect. It’s not as if viewers enjoy seeing the same faces rotate across studios, or in the age of Covid-19, on Zoom. The most common thing I hear about TV news is how it is chasing TRPs. But no one stops to consider what a TRP (television rating point) actually is. A TRP is all of you, all of us—the audience. It is in your power to reject or accept a certain kind of news media.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, of course, the other big problem in an increasingly polarised polity is that of viewers seeking confirmation bias. In other words, if my programme does not confirm your political bias, you will call me partisan. Those of us who remain adamantly free from either camp get to face this even more as we get attacked by all sides.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But keeping aside political affiliations—real and imagined—for the moment, wouldn’t you want a news show that does not embarrass you, that is robustly researched and reported and that you watch for information, not for mindless entertainment?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As somebody who has migrated to the digital world from television, I know this: as a young person growing up today, I would never have become a broadcast journalist if these were the examples before me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The future of journalism lies not just with its practitioners. It lies with we, the people—the audience.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Choose wisely.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Aug 20 14:55:44 IST 2020 crisis-at-the-core <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It would be a mistake to see the Rajasthan political crisis as a story bound by geography. At one level, yes, it is about an old warhorse of politics, Ashok Gehlot, being challenged by a second-generation leader, Sachin Pilot. But more than what happens eventually in the state—and a lot will depend on whether Pilot and his rebel MLAs are disqualified by the court from participating in a trust vote—this is a story about the state of the Congress party. And, once again, it is a story that shines a light on the leadership crisis within.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There can be more than one reading of whether Pilot played his cards right. And Gehlot, by virtue of being an old-style politician who is not easily outfoxed, may well win this round. Audio tapes released by the Congress allege that Pilot’s aides were in contact with senior leaders of the BJP for a bargain to switch sides. I also believe that Pilot made a mistake in a half-way exit, keeping one foot inside the door and one out of it, as he declared that he was still a Congressman. Instead, he should have walked out neatly and outright. Similarly, Gehlot’s use of debasing language (“nikamma, nakaara”) vindicated Pilot’s claim of being shown no respect.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But no matter what side of the Gehlot versus Pilot battle you are, it has split wide open the fissures within the Congress and exposed its real problem—the decision-makers at the very top.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Gehlot camp and the Pilot camp both aver that the central leadership of the Congress—the Gandhi family—has been alerted to the growing divide between the chief minister and (ex) deputy chief minister for months. The one thing that both men would agree on is the ineffectual response from their leadership in Delhi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We know now that it was not Sonia Gandhi or even Rahul Gandhi, but Priyanka Gandhi Vadra who worked the phone lines to Sachin Pilot. But nobody knows what her official locus standi to do so was. As interim president of the party, Sonia Gandhi should have been seen and heard on the issue. But she chose to remain in the background, as she has been for several months. Rahul Gandhi remained silent for most part as well, choosing instead to launch a new video series to “counter the narrative of hate”. His first video was on China and its release was the same day as the party released the audio tapes that purportedly showed evidence of horse trading and bribery. Talk about poor timing—by the evening the media was discussing Rahul’s renewed persona instead of the Rajasthan story.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In any case it has been more than a year since Rahul walked out from the post of party president. He had insisted at the time that no member of his family would take the post. That did not happen and now the ground seems to be prepared for his return.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If you talk privately to second-generation Congress leaders not one of them is happy with the state of play in the party. Many believe that Sachin Pilot will not be the last exit either.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Gandhis can console themselves on outplaying the BJP in Rajasthan. But even that credit must go to Ashok Gehlot. The Gandhis, on the other hand, continue to be in entitled denial about the existential crisis that plagues their party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jul 23 14:24:03 IST 2020 the-message-is-everything <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>For me, being on the ground in Ladakh this past week felt oddly personal. Twenty-one years ago, in 1999, as a young 20-something reporter, I was there to report on the Kargil War, in what would be the most transformative journalistic experience of my life.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While what has unfolded between India and China—the transgressions, the squatting on Indian territory, the deaths of our soldiers in the line of duty—cannot be literally compared with the vast theatre of conflict in the Kargil War, the sense of deja vu is definitely there, especially as the anniversary of Operation Vijay is around the corner.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But no matter which way you cut and splice it, and no matter where you stand on the geopolitical handling of China’s expansionism, there is one lesson from Kargil that the government refused to learn—effective strategic communication.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is quite clear now that our soldiers showed extraordinary heroism even when they were outnumbered by the Chinese in Galwan Valley and brutalised by People’s Liberation Army troops using crude weapons. Yet, instead of simply coming forward and taking the Indian public into confidence, the government tied itself in knots, with opacity, denials and mixed messaging that only hurt India’s narrative and allowed the Chinese to make absurd, tall claims.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Till there was a clarification on his remarks, even the prime minister fumbled on articulation at the all-party meeting. The clarification made it clear that the Chinese transgression had been pushed by Indian troops in Galwan Valley (though it circumvented the issue of Chinese presence in Pangong Tso). But it was more than 12 hours before the government issued the clarificatory statement, and by that time the Chinese were lapping up the domestic divisions and fissures.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Kargil, by contrast, both the government and the military were able to use the news media as a force multiplier. In Delhi, there were daily briefings conducted jointly by officials of the foreign ministry and the Indian Army. At the frontline, reporters like myself were permitted physical access to the theatre of conflict. The result: India’s first televised war and an outpouring of national solidarity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kargil of 1999 was ahead of Ladakh of 2020 in its instinct for communication. Media planners in the A.B. Vajpayee government also understood the cardinal principle of information dissemination. Quite simply, if you do not say something, someone else will. And, where not enough facts are placed in the public domain, the vacuum will be filled with rumours, fake news and WhatsApp forwards masquerading as headlines.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>No one is recommending that a roster list of operations be provided to the public or the media. On the contrary, in times of a sensitive military situation, if officials reach out to key reporters on the beat and ask them to refrain from certain aspects of the reporting, each one of us would.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Narendra Modi government has never much cared for journalists, despite large swathes of the broadcast media being brazenly loyal to it. But in times of near-war, that contempt and dislike should be suspended.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is the age of information warfare. In psy-ops, the message is everything.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jun 25 16:41:35 IST 2020 no-eyes-to-see-no-heart-to-feel <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As I write this I have just entered the state of Kerala after a 72-hour road odyssey that has taken me through the states of Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Telangana and, then, Kasaragod in Kerala.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After clocking 14,000 kilometres and tracking migrant workers on their long journey home, certain facts have become indisputably evident to me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The humanitarian crisis of the migrant workers has come to be bigger than the challenge of the pandemic. In part, this is because the national lockdown was announced with four hours’ notice and failed to anticipate the biggest mass exodus of people since Partition. An absence of empathy, efficiency and basic coordination between the Centre and states also cost us. For the first 72 hours, as the workers walked, often barefoot, their children on their shoulders, they were treated as invisible by the Centre and states alike. Then there was a hasty, unplanned attempt to put them on trains, but without anyone to even organise queues before they boarded. This was a moment, frankly, for the paramilitary or military to have been called upon, used as they are to simplifying intricate and large movements of people. Instead, the sight of thousands of workers desperately jostling to get onto a train panicked the government and it issued orders that the movement of workers was a “violation of the lockdown.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The problem with this was that no government order could ensure that workers were paid wages. Policy makers also failed to understand the twin triggers of economics and emotion when it came to the exodus. While there was an intuitive empathy for stranded middle-class and upper middle-class Indians abroad (who were not impoverished or in any danger of going hungry), there was simply no acknowledgment of the fact that the same emotional need—the need to be at home—was just as true for our poor.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Effectively, the government issued orders that were unenforceable—both on asking the workers not to move and asking their employers to keep paying them. Oddly, in March, it told the Supreme Court that there were no more migrants on the road. Workers were walking our highways, often through the desolation of the night, as recently as this week.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Every worker I have met—those walking barefoot, cycling hundreds of kilometres home, crammed in at the back of small trucks, on board trains—have all said the same thing to me. “If the virus has to kill us, we would rather die at home.” Most believe that poverty will claim their lives quicker than Covid.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Haryana I met the family of Mukesh Mandal, who sold his phone for Rs2,500 so that he could feed his family and buy them a fan. One day later he killed himself. In Madhya Pradesh I met the widow of Ranveer Singh, who died walking home from a heart attack. In Delhi I met Fazulu, who had been locked in by his employers behind a corrugated tin sheet as if he was bonded labour. In Mumbai, at the back of a truck, I met Vinod, a science graduate, who said no one in the news media had bothered to tell their story. In Hyderabad, I met 10-year-old Sunil who was heartbroken to have to leave his textbooks behind and worried about when he may be able to attend school again. And in Bhiwani, Nitin, the 10-year-old son of a migrant worker, summed up the reality of this pandemic. What does coronavirus mean to you, I asked him. “It means I won’t get food.” He said it simply, in innocence, and after that he even smiled. But in a few words he had captured the tragedy of our times.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu May 28 17:54:28 IST 2020 no-country-for-poor-men <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>If there is one takeaway I have from the nearly 50 days I have now been on the road, travelling through states as varied as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Haryana, it is this: India has treated 45 million of our fellow citizens as if they are invisible.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From the first day of being on the ground and reporting this pandemic, the lockdown and its consequences on our poorest, most marginalised people, I have seen a staggering amount of insensitivity and even denial when it comes to our migrant workers—those who work in the cities, but live in the villages.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the beginning, the lockdown failed to anticipate the mass exodus of the workers. They did not have enough social or economic security to stay where they were, and when they tried to leave, all at once, we blamed them, as if poverty was their crime.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On March 31, the government told the Supreme Court that there are no migrants on the road. Twenty-two days after that, within the span of a week, on four&nbsp;national highways, in four different parts of the country, I met with men, women and children walking on the road. Some children walk barefoot. The women carry clothes and utensils rolled into sacks on their heads, as if the burden of the universe is upon them. And, the men take turns to carry the infants in the group on their shoulders. I have met labourers from potato and cumin farms, blanket weavers and factory cleaners. All of them have told me the same thing: “If we had not moved, we would have starved.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This week, I met a group of men who were trying to cover 1,100 kilometres from Panipat in Haryana to Aurangabad in Bihar on bicycle. “Our lala (employer) refused to give us paisa (money),” the men said, sharing how they spent nights under the open sky, right on the road, when the police permitted and did not kick them out. They had left home with biscuits and water, but that had run out. They did not have any idea where the next meal would come. “We would have died from hunger. Our lala did not give us even a day’s money after the factory was shut.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Morena, Madhya Pradesh, I met with the family of Ranveer Singh. He worked at a small restaurant in Delhi. He was walking the 250 kilometres home when his chest started to tighten. He decided to halt and spend the night at the railway station in Agra. His last phone call to his family was a plea: “If you can come and get me, please, come.” By the time the family was able to organise a curfew pass to take their vehicle out, he had died.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In his village, a sister, a wife and three young daughters, including a child with polio, stare ahead at an uncertain future. When we debate the issue of migrant workers, we treat it as an abstract; we forget there are flesh and blood tales of struggle and tragedy here.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Perhaps we look away from these images of our citizens walking our roads because it makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps we are shaken that evacuations are being planned for stranded Indians across the globe and buses are being chartered for stranded students, but no one is even talking of millions of our poor.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And, perhaps, it is time for us to be uncomfortable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Very uncomfortable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Apr 30 17:16:42 IST 2020 silencing-media-is-not-the-answer <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>If the coronavirus pandemic were not enough of an existential challenge, it has been accompanied by an “info-demic” of fake news and rumour-mongering.</p> <p>To that extent, concern about needless panic at a time when the country is fighting on multiple fronts is understandable. But the way to deal with that anxiety is to provide more information; not less. The way to encourage factual reportage and privilege it over unverified nonsense of the kind shared in many of our family WhatsApp forums is not to gag the media. The answer is to engage with the media—digital, print and television.</p> <p>The government’s plea in the Supreme Court that nothing on Covid-19 should be published without an official response could be tantamount to gagging the media. The Centre argued in the court that rumours about a three-month lockdown is what led to the mass exodus of thousands of migrant workers.</p> <p>I do not know which media outlet reported a three-month lockdown, and if any did, penalise it. Why punish the entire free press? As a matter of record—and I say this as someone who spent seven continuous days reporting from the ground as impoverished Indians walked the roads of our cities—if it were not for some of us who committed all our reporting energy on this story, we may never have seen transport provided for them.</p> <p>Is it not our duty to ask why no one factored in India’s 45 million migrant workforce prior to the lockdown? Or to flag the fact that children as young as five and eight were on our highways; sometimes their fathers would carry them on their shoulders and walk hundreds of kilometres, while the women would carry life’s small belongings rolled into giant sacks on their heads. For three days, their plight was ignored by both Central and state governments. Relentless journalistic pressure is what saw something as basic as buses deployed for them.</p> <p>Yes, the deluge of thousands of people at the bus-stops was not good for the containment of the coronavirus. But again, that has nothing to do with the media. That was bad execution. For the first few days, there was literally no official representation at the capital’s borders. No one to stop them or talk to them or help them or divert them to shelters. When the buses finally came, there was no one to do elemental things like put pickets up every hundred metres and organise the crowds into a single file. Why blame the media?</p> <p>It is journalistic robustness that highlighted the spray of fumigation meant for buses on labourers who were first made to sit on the road like a herd of cattle.</p> <p>And, it is reporters who have highlighted the vulnerability in the food supply chain, the plight of farmers and fisheries, and the shortage of personal protective equipment for our health care responders.</p> <p>No matter how much US President Donald Trump hates the media, he stands at the podium every single day and takes a barrage of piercing questions from the press corps. Here, a bureaucrat has been left with the responsibility of fronting media interactions. The prime minister and senior ministers have not addressed any press interaction. And the few video conferences or background briefings have been with only select media.</p> <p>It is not unreasonable to ask that every report should seek a government or official response. Any solid reporter who seeks to balance her coverage should be doing that anyway.</p> <p>But what does a reporter do if there is silence from the government or no response at all?</p> <p>Surely, silencing us is not the answer.</p> Sat Apr 04 10:12:57 IST 2020 an-engineered-riot <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Barring the work of a few good men who did their job bravely, the complicity of the police in the Delhi riots is now clear. Muslim and Hindu victims that I have met in the riot-torn areas of the northeast part of the capital say the same thing: SOS calls were handled insensitively or ignored altogether. Ineptitude and callousness are bad enough, but in this case the police—or sections of it—have quite clearly shown a brazen sectarian bias against the riot-affected Muslim. There are videos that have caught the police on camera joining hindutva mobs in pelting stones or leading the charge against Muslim neighbourhoods. The most damning evidence of police complicity has been the video that captures cops beating four injured Muslim men, lying on the road, pleading for mercy. They hit the men and force them to sing national songs. One of the young men, Faizan, who was only 23, has died. Another, Kausar Ali, is battling for his life in the hospital. In both cases, the families have detailed shocking allegations of police brutality and callousness. The other two men in the video are so terrified after the police assault that they have refused to talk to the media.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The picture now emerging from the Delhi riots is very different from what we believed in the first 24 hours. At the time, the violence was presented as a manifestation of ‘clashes’between two ideological groups, one opposing the citizenship legislation and the other supporting it. Extensive ground reporting over a week has convinced me of one thing: there was absolutely nothing spontaneous about the riots. Nor were these outbursts of rage between local communities. In every neighbourhood I have visited, the riot victims have said the same thing—that they did not recognise a single face in the rampaging mob. In other words, the rioters were from outside—outside of their colonies and maybe even the city. At last count, apart from the nearly 50 people who are now dead, there are 70 people with gunshot wounds in hospitals. How do we explain the sudden buildup of arms in the capital?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In area after area, neighbour has come to neighbour’s help. Hindus I have met have risked their lives to save Muslim friends. Muslims have formed human chains around temples to protect them. There is absolutely no suggestion that there was a growing divide within people, even over the citizenship legislation debate. The violence has evidently been organised and engineered.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What is worse is the lack of empathy in the aftermath. The most noticeable thing on the ground is the missing politician. I did not meet a single politician in the hospitals, at the mortuaries or at places of worship. Neither parliamentarians nor legislators have bothered to be present in the neighbourhoods that voted for them. You would imagine that this was a moment for politicians genuinely engaged in public service to park themselves by the side of the people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead, across North East Delhi, it is activists and citizens groups that are working morning to night to help people. We forget that most of the riot victims are extremely poor. They do not even have the wherewithal to organise the 0800 that an ambulance ferry could cost. You would think by now logistical issues like these would be addressed by government-run relief centres. But all of this is missing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The riot victims of Delhi have been orphaned.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Mar 06 11:26:15 IST 2020 fierce-fight-and-a-formula <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In two decades of being a journalist, I have never seen the kind of campaign we are witnessing in the national capital now. For those who live away from Delhi, there could be a degree of irritation at what may seem like disproportionate media attention. You may think that Delhi always hogs the headline because most news media houses are headquartered here.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While journalists are guilty of believing that what is close to us geographically is more important in the hierarchy of content, this time what is at stake in these elections is genuinely high.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That may also explain why the BJP is taking this contest so seriously. Eleven Union ministers have been deployed in the campaign. BJP chief ministers have been pulled in—not just the flamboyant and contentious Yogi Adityanath, but even the otherwise low-key Vijay Rupani of Gujarat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Delhi is important because Arvind Kejriwal is experimenting with a new brand of politics that if successful could prove to be the antidote to the BJP’s tried-and-tested hindutva card.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kejriwal has—and to the chagrin of some liberals—deftly sidestepped the 50-day-long protests at Shaheen Bagh against the citizenship legislation. In the past he has supported the abrogation of Article 370. When a Pakistani politician tried to comment on the Delhi elections, Kejriwal stood up for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and told the Pakistani to mind his own business. In an interview to me, he called his working relationship with Modi “excellent”, notwithstanding the polarisation attempts in Delhi and the vitriol of the BJP’s attacks on him. He wants to keep the focus on his governance record and on microeconomics—electricity, public health, housing, water—while maintaining his record as a mainstream nationalist. If this works and Kejriwal claims a second term, as seems likely, a non-BJP party may have finally found a working formula against identity-politics—and that is to simply avoid walking into that argument. It is for this reason that Kejriwal has been careful to especially appeal to Modi voters; he knows that the reasons people vote in a provincial election may be very different from how they vote in a national poll.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This has been a campaign where slogans like “Desh Ke Gaddaro Ko, Goli Maaro Salon ko [Shoot down the traitors of the nation]” have been endorsed by a minister in the government. Four different incidents of a man brandishing a gun have taken place between Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia Islamia University—two major protest venues. Despite criticism across media for the violent rhetoric of the BJP campaign in Delhi and its absolute coarseness, the BJP has aggressively doubled down on this approach.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A surprise win for the BJP in Delhi would mean an absolute free pass for the kind of incitement to violence and other-ing of Muslims we have seen by sections of the party. A defeat would not add more balance of power to India’s federal structure; it could reset the approach taken by other non-BJP parties as well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Delhi is important not just for the symbolism of being the capital and for being a barometer of north India’s political mood. It is also critical because what happens here could impact national politics, and how we approach both secularism and nationalism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kejriwal has chosen tactics over strategy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sometimes that is what battle-hardened troops do so that they can live to fight another day.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Feb 07 11:59:36 IST 2020 blame-the-prime-time-poison <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>By now we have all seen the videos of the mob assault at Jawaharlal Nehru University and the police complicity in enabling them. Much has been said and written about the masked vandals and the impunity with which they were allowed to saunter on the campus, holding their axes and iron rods.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Less has been said about the mayhem that unfolded outside the main gate of JNU as journalists and a handful of opposition politicians gathered that fateful Sunday night. As Yogendra Yadav was jostled and pushed around, and several young women spoke of being groped by the crowd, one needs to pay close attention to the slogans that went up. “Deshdrohi vaapis jao (anti-nationals go back)” were words hurled at some journalists. Even worse, as the street lights were switched off, slogans like “desh ke gaddaro ko, goli marron saalon ko (These are traitors, shoot them)” could be heard in the darkness of the night. The same slogans have been raised at rallies in support of the government’s divisive citizenship legislation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the coarseness of the public discourse and the brazen incitement to violence cannot be placed at the door of the political establishment or the government alone.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The most shameful offender in this case is the television news media—the vast majority of it. Over the last few years, we have seen fulminating, hate-spewing television hosts, appointing themselves as the arbiters of nationalism. These men and women, many of who have never done a day of reporting outside the comfort of their studios, have mainstreamed the use of poisonous phrases like “tukde tukde gang”, “anti-national” and “urban naxals”. Today these reductionist and meaningless phrases have been co-opted by several top leaders of the BJP. But politicians will always seek to intimidate those who do not agree with them. What is the defence of the journalists?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The hashtag warriors of prime time could be laughed at and even ignored if they were not so toxic. The calls to violence outside the main gate of JNU, and the fact that those seen against the dominant narrative had their heads thrashed with rods and axes inside the campus, is a grim wake up call. Words have consequences. Violent, bigoted, hate-filled thoughts usually induce violent, bigoted, hate-filled actions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The irony is that the reporters of many of the channels that have mainstreamed this language were also mocked and abused in the Sunday evening scrum. Their seniors and bosses must carry that moral responsibility.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In many ways, the last few hours have been the Indian television media’s darkest. There has been an abject unwillingness to question power and authority. There has been absolute surrender even when unasked for. But perhaps kowtowing to authority is less despicable than legitimising bullying and hate politics.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>These channels have ensured that anyone with an alternative view is branded a traitor.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The debasement of our public debates, their aggression, hostility and the “other-ing” of anyone who disagrees with you is at least partly a consequence of the odious descent of TV news media.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Earlier the worst you could say about it—and I have been a practitioner—was that it is banal. Now it can be borderline evil.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Which is why it is uplifting to see so many protesters waving the tricolour, singing the anthem, carrying portraits of Gandhi and Bhagat Singh into their marches.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They are reclaiming nationalism—not just from politicians, but also from television news.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jan 10 11:40:38 IST 2020 changing-india-we-know <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Home Minister Amit Shah insists that the citizenship amendment legislation is not against Indian Muslims. He argues that it only makes Indian citizenship faster and easier for persecuted religious minorities in three Islamic nations—Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan—and hence, by definition, cannot include Muslims.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But to understand why the new citizenship rules are blatantly anti-Muslim, you need to look at it in juxtaposition with the BJP’s next big project—a national register of citizens or NRC. Shah has vowed that the NRC will rid India of all “infiltrators”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But are we suggesting that only Muslims are “infiltrators” or illegal migrants? If you decode how this may work on the ground, we are looking at a situation where mostly—or more likely—only Muslims will end up in jail or detention camps. When you combine the new citizenship laws with the NRC, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis—basically anyone but Muslims—will be able to cite persecution in their home country as a legitimate reason to stay on as Indian citizens. The onus will then be solely on Muslim migrants, many of whom have lived in India for decades, some of whom have even served in the military, to “prove” their Indianness or face being branded as outsiders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many believe that the citizenship law became a political imperative after the absolute mess of the NRC experiment in Assam. Reports suggest that of the 19 lakh people who were not able to legally document their Indianness, nearly half were Bengali Hindus, an important electoral constituency for the BJP. Now, with the citizenship legislation, the Hindu groups can say they are a persecuted minority, leaving the Muslims to prove that they belong to this land.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ironically, the sharpest protests to the citizenship legislation have been in the northeast, where the BJP has been forced to create pockets of exemptions where the law will not apply. This is because the close proximity to Bangladesh has created a fear among indigenous communities that they will be overrun by migrants from Bangladesh—Hindus and Buddhists among them and not just Muslims alone. It is an instructive lesson for the government, a reminder that India is a diverse country and ethnicity, region, language are all just as emotive as religion can be. It is a reminder that what was not broken did not need fixing, and that these twin projects of the BJP are terrible ideas for heterogeneous India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If the BJP is really interested in upholding India’s reputation as the larger neighbour with a civilisational history of assimilation, we should open our doors for all persecuted groups—Ahmadiyyas of Pakistan, Rohingyas of Myanmar and the Tamils of Sri Lanka. There is no logical explanation for why the government chose to focus on three Muslim nations of the region.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is also the question of what this signals to our Muslim citizens. When they see a religious filter being placed on migration and their faith being pushed down on the hierarchical totem pole of citizenship, will they not feel less than equal? Why should refugees be organised on the basis of religion?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 1947, we accepted the painful inevitability of partition; we never accepted the two-nation theory. We never believed that India was a country for Hindus above other religions, and that Muslims could go seek refuge elsewhere.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The very idea of India’s constitutional nationhood is sullied by the twin projects of the citizenship legislation and the NRC.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The next battle for India’s future will be in the Supreme Court.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Dec 13 12:09:29 IST 2019 separating-religion-from-realpolitik <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The cool marble floor of Gurdwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur, Pakistan, and the serenity of the lush green paddy fields all around it—fields which Guru Nanak Dev himself is said to have tilled—were at striking odds with the high voltage politics that marked the inauguration of the sacred pilgrimage route from India to Pakistan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As a Punjabi whose family migrated from Sialkot during the partition, I was able to relate to the deep sentimentality of the moment. Shared language, history and culture, especially in Punjab, on both sides, have always complicated the dysfunctional love-hate relationship between the two countries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Homecoming” was the word most often used by the Sikhs I met in Kartarpur. An old couple, originally from Patiala, had flown all the way from New York. Another set of friends—one of whom works in a post office in Houston, Texas—were making their first trip ever to Pakistan. As they bent to touch the floor in quiet obeisance, their hands folded in submission, most pilgrims were overwhelmed and close to tears. It was not just that they were in the final resting place of Guru Nanak, for many it was also the intensity that comes from an acute awareness of a ruptured past and the nostalgic, but painful, return to a country that was once home.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The rawness of emotion helped one understand why it was impossible for India to walk away from the Kartarpur project, despite grave misgivings in the highest levels of officialdom. In some ways the Kartarpur project was teflon-coated; it survived Pulwama, Balakot and the downgrading of diplomatic relations. When no other dialogue process has remained open, Kartarpur talks have carried on unhampered. As one official in the government told me: “We did not want to be held responsible for disappointing the Sikhs.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India will be irritated at the political space that the Kartarpur project has afforded Pakistan. The shadow of Kashmir fell over Kartarpur in repeated public references. The Pakistan foreign minister lashed out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally in an interview with me. Delhi wisely struck a higher note by ignoring these attacks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But I think we need not spend much time worrying on the Khalistan factor. Though fears have been expressed that Pakistan’s deep state would like to use an open, visa-free corridor as a project to revive Sikh separatism of the 1980s, such a reading undermines the intelligence and nationalism of a proud and brave community.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sikhs I met in Kartarpur scoffed at the Khalistan theories. Jathas (collective groups) have been going across the border to other gurdwaras for years. Pilgrims were clear-headed in separating spirituality from politics. When the speeches began, and Pakistani politicians—including the prime minister—invoked Kashmir at the opening ceremony, a woman sitting behind me said to her travel companions: “This politics is wrong. Today is not the day for all this.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Sikhs are grateful to Imran Khan for enabling the opening of the corridor. But it does not make them one bit more sympathetic to Pakistan’s Kashmir push. They are in favour of an easier people-to-people contact with Punjabi brethren across the divide. But they were not happy at the Pakistani exhibit claiming, “The Indian Air Force dropped a bomb here in 1971”, or the images of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in the Kartarpur video.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The fate of the Kartarpur corridor cannot be delinked from the future of India-Pakistan relations. But while people-to-people contact may not bridge institutional divides, they certainly cannot hurt either.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Nov 16 14:51:20 IST 2019 why-congress-nyay-conceived-by-brilliant-minds-failed-to-click-with-the-masses <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Abhijit Banerjee, the Indian-American who is one of the winners of this year’s Nobel prize in economics, had also assisted the Congress in shaping its NYAY programme. Today the world is standing up and taking note of his work on poverty alleviation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It makes you wonder, if NYAY, the acronym of the much-vaunted minimum income programme, had a brain bank of Banerjee, Raghuram Rajan and Thomas Piketty shaping its contours, why did it fail to strike a chord in the elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In fact, in all my travels during the 2019 campaign, people would look quizzically at me when I asked them if they had even heard about the programme that the Gandhis believed would be an electoral game-changer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the one hand, you had the Congress unable to convert the advice of some of the most profoundly intelligent minds in the world into any sort of political opportunity. On the other hand, you had the Narendra Modi led-BJP paying virtually no cost for the disruptive and damaging demonetisation programme, the clumsy rollout of the Goods and Services Tax or even agrarian distress and spiralling unemployment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What explains it? Modi’s enormous personal popularity and the BJP’s effective use of emotive issues—nationalism, identity, hindutva—does not fully explain it. Nor does the electoral indifference to NYAY because some of the specifics never got answered—about how it would be funded, or whether other subsidies would have to be withdrawn or curtailed. Those are the sort of details that perhaps a minuscule section of people are concerned with—journalists, economists and fellow politicians.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>NYAY’s political flop show cannot be blamed on the men and women who conceived of it. The blame must be taken by the Congress leadership. And perhaps there is no better example of the opposition’s gap between ideas and communication than the failure of NYAY to get any traction among voters. If anything, it exposes how flabby, lazy and complacent the Congress has become, despite facing an existential challenge. Party members finger-point till today about who put up a NYAY hoarding in Delhi’s tony Khan Market. This was parody writing itself. A scheme targeted at the poor rural voter was on unthinking display in the epicentre of Lutyens Delhi. In the end that is where NYAY remained confined—in op-ed pages, on television shows, on new-age websites, all within the echo chamber of a socioeconomic constituency whose interest in it was, at best, academic and whose lives were totally untouched by it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even today, when the economy is the main and only vulnerability of the Modi government, the main opposition parties are unable to centre-stage it as an issue that people will vote on. The assembly election results appear foregone victories for the BJP in both Maharashtra and Haryana; the latter has among the highest unemployment figures in the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So there is no point in supporters of the Congress trying to claim any credit in Abhijit Banerjee’s big win. They almost seem to be offering it up on social media networks as an example of the party’s better intellectual pedigree, when compared with the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All of this counts for little beyond the world of Twitter. In the real world, what matters is winning elections, and finding a leader who knows how to communicate with the India of today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Oct 18 12:05:03 IST 2019 an-unwise-move <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In terms of mainland domestic political opinion (as distinct from the response in the Kashmir valley), the Narendra Modi government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 initially scored well. Even those who did not support the BJP, gave their thumbs-up to the formal removal of a hollowed-out autonomy, whose significance was more symbolic than substantive.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But one month later, we must ask the question: the government promised a new chapter for Kashmir, but is it still in command of the script? Has a gambit been made on the chessboard of political thinking without an endgame worked in? Has the withdrawal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status ended up being about tactics rather than strategy?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It appears as if there is extreme confusion over what the next moves in the Kashmir policy might be. And nothing captured this confusion more than the detention of former chief minister Farooq Abdullah under the Public Safety Act. Abdullah was under house arrest all these days. But as his colleague and friend Vaiko went to the Supreme Court demanding Abdullah’s release to attend a public function in Tamil Nadu, the administration had to apply the much more draconian provision.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, Abdullah can be criticised for many things. In his political life he has been confronted with corruption allegations, the display of non-serious behaviour and occasional inflammatory rhetoric. But exactly this could be said about many politicians in other parts of India as well. What cannot be denied is that he has stood with India over many decades of turmoil in Kashmir.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Under P.V. Narasimha Rao as prime minister, in 1994, Abdullah accompanied Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Salman Khurshid to Geneva to make a passionate Kashmir case for the country at the international stage. When Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar was to be released from a Jammu jail in exchange for the safety of passengers onboard the Indian Airlines flight IC-814, it was Abdullah who opposed the Vajpayee government most vociferously. He argued—and has been proven right—that it would be a fatal mistake. Today Azhar lives with impunity as a free man in Pakistan, while Abdullah is in jail. That is an irony that cannot make any sense. Most recently, at a BJP-organised event to commemorate Vajpayee after his death, Abdullah roared unapologetically, “Bharat Mata ki jai”, to find himself heckled and jeered for that moment by hardliners in Srinagar.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If anything, Farooq Abdullah, more than any other politician from the valley, was the living example of Kashmir’s “integration” into the rest of India. To put him away under a law that permits detention without trial for up to two years shows the lack of a plan and the first signs of panic.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Kashmir situation is complex. Over the past month, I have forcefully argued against the stereotypes and cliches in much of the international media. It is important for the world to know that during times of turmoil, internet and data have been weaponised by militants and separatists. Ongoing security operations have sometimes been hit by the live-streaming of such stand-offs that are then used to mobilise crowds at the site of action. Contrary to perceptions and misinformation, there is no curfew order in place in Kashmir. And, there are real threats from militants on the ground against people who may be looking to resume their routine life—as we saw from the attack on apple traders in Sopore.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, how does it make sense to embolden jihadists by targeting elected Indian politicians? The detention of Farooq Abdullah is not about his virtues and flaws as a politician. It is about the message. And, the message is handing over the advantage to the secessionists instead of those who stand with India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Sep 20 11:32:44 IST 2019 release-those-who-stood-with-india <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On the ground in Srinagar, bureaucrats and police officers alike tell us that they learnt from the mistakes the administration made in 2016, in the aftermath of the elimination of Burhan Wani, the dreaded Hizbul Mujahideen militant. Wani’s family was handed back his body, the funeral turned into a huge public event attended by an estimated two lakh people and protesters soon spilled over onto the streets. In the clashes that followed, there were 22 casualties in the first 48 hours; 37 lives were lost by the end of the first week. The Kashmir valley remained in turmoil for over two months.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is the reason officials give for the extreme clampdown on communication, information and movement in the two weeks after Article 370 was struck down by a parliamentary majority. Principal Secretary and Jammu and Kashmir government spokesperson Rohit Kansal told me, “Not a single life has been lost in Kashmir. The restrictions seemed a fair price to pay.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As someone who has been reporting from Kashmir for many years, I have seen curfew and snapped phone and internet lines invariably herald phases of volatility. That social media has been weaponised by a new generation of radicals and militants makes tackling mobile data and broadband lines a priority for security agencies. Irrespective of where one stands on Article 370 and the manner in which it was abrogated, I can see definite merit in prioritising law and order and containing violence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the most significant departure from the past has been in the decision to arrest mainstream Kashmiri politicians, including three former chief ministers (Farooq and Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti), a host of legislators and civil society members. While the logic of preventive detention could have held in the first few days, it is unsustainable in a functioning democracy to keep them under lock and key without any specific charge against them. They may have been placed in comfortable environs—Omar Abdullah is at Hari Niwas, Mehbooba Mufti at Chashma Shahi and the others at the Centaur hotel—but the logic of denying them their political rights is now unfathomable. Especially because even with some variations in the position that their parties may have taken on autonomy or self rule, each of them has stood for India and sworn allegiance to the Indian Constitution and flag. Sajad Lone was the first separatist to experiment with electoral democracy, as far back as in 2002, when he fielded proxy candidates. As an all-India IAS topper (before he joined politics), Shah Faesal was a compelling alternative icon to a generation of young Kashmiris. The Abdullahs have been in alliance with both the BJP and the Congress at the Centre, and have always spoken as Indians. Mehbooba Mufti is probably the most extreme of all of those under arrest, but the BJP thought her Indian enough to run an alliance government with her, before abruptly walking out.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The point is not of principle alone, though of course that matters. The question is how is keeping these politicians under arrest—and weakening them into a position of complete irrelevance—strengthening the Indian state’s position? As one young man said to me, “Kashmir is like a pressure cooker.” Sooner or later the lid has to come off.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government has also avoided answering precisely how many people have been arrested. Numbers are swirling about without verification, ranging from 700 to 4,000. Article 370 is gone. As J&amp;K looks ahead at its next election—and a new phase in politics—the first priority must be to release those who have stood with India. With all their shortcomings and flaws, they are owed that.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Aug 22 15:27:12 IST 2019 The-kargil-masterclass <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It is exactly 20 years since the Indian military took back our territory in Kargil, pushing back the Pakistan army’s soldiers, in one of the most extraordinary, valiant demonstrations of mountain warfare that the country has ever seen. As a journalist who had the privilege of reporting the Kargil conflict from the frontline, I can testify to the raw courage of young men still in their twenties, putting aside fear, vulnerability and a sense of impending death, as they marched up jagged rocks, in sub-zero temperatures, often without snow boots or night-vision devices. “We will fight with what we have,” said then Army chief General V.P. Malik, and indeed they did.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kargil is often called India’s first televised war, even though not many know that we reported it without the technology we take for granted today. We neither had live broadcast vans or satellite links, nor did we have mobile phones. Footage travelled back to our newsrooms in the same helicopters that ferried the body bags of our soldiers. Several days could pass between information from the frontline actually making it your television screen. Yet, despite the archaic media infrastructure, it was an inflection point in establishing an emotional connect between the soldier and the civilian.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Two decades on, in this age of political nationalism, while we all say we revere our military, we must ask ourselves: Did we really learn some of the finer life lessons that the Kargil War taught us?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apart from the breathtaking bravery of our jawans and officers, and the swashbuckling charisma of men like Captain Vikram Batra—who told me “yeh dil maange more”, when I asked him if he was scared—Kargil gave us an insight into a soldier’s code. It taught us that a genuine nationalist plays by the rules; he does not deny dignity even to his adversary.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of the finest illustrations of this higher code was the decision by General Malik that the last rites of Pakistani soldiers killed in action would be performed by Indian soldiers. This was necessitated by the fact that Pakistan initially refused to take back the bodies of its men, because it was unwilling to concede that they were regulars of its military.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Recently, General Malik told me how, a few months after the war was over, at the request of the grandfather of one of the Pakistani soldiers killed, he even had the young man’s body exhumed and handed over to his family with full military honours. What made you do this, I asked him, especially in that environment when Indians were furious at how the Pakistanis had tortured Captain Saurabh Kalia in custody. “This is our tradition,” he said. “We know no other way.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We also know the extraordinary story of Brigadier M.P.S. Bajwa who spearheaded the recapture of Tiger Hill, without which the Kargil conflict could not have been won by India. As a brigade commander, he was able to secure a Param Vir Chakra, a Mahavir Chakra and multiple other gallantry awards for his troops. But he also made sure that Captain Karnal Sher Khan of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry was able to posthumously win his country’s highest honour, the Nishan-e-Haider. Once the captain was killed in action and Tiger Hill was taken back, Brigadier Bajwa made sure he wrote a letter commending the Pakistani captain for how bravely he fought and placed the letter in his pocket, before the body went across the border.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In an age when television anchors think they are soldiers simply by shouting about nationalism and at a time when patriotism has been reduced to a hashtag, this is what being brave is truly about. To honour the code. And, to do it with generosity and compassion.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jul 26 11:25:28 IST 2019 will-modi-stop-the-iynchings <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>We should all be sickened by the horrific image of Tabrez Ansari, the 24-year-old Muslim man who was lynched to death in Jharkhand by a mob that accused him of theft and forced him to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’. And, there has been the usual eruption of outrage and condemnation, including by the prime minister in Parliament.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It would be tempting and comforting to locate these assaults, most of which have been against dalits and Muslims, in the larger framework of a law and order problem. The truth, however, is less palatable. I fear that despite the fact that all the right things are said by all of us, every time a murderous mob targets a hapless innocent, we are reaching that dangerous point of numbness. A point where Mohammed Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan and Ansari are becoming blurry statistics and yesterday’s headlines instead of flesh and blood men with families they leave behind.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We say we are angry. But are we really? Because if we were—like during the gang rape of Nirbhaya, or more recently the Kathua rape of a little child—we would have been out on the streets, marching, protesting and demanding change. Instead of shaking us out of our passive condemnation, every case of lynching only seems to lull us and blunt our edges. When will we say enough is enough?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Whether we like it or not there is an enabling environment being created that emboldens the murderers who lynch. Recently I met Mohammed Danish, Akhlaq’s son, who left his village in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, ever since his father was beaten to death over rumours of storing beef at home. Danish’s brother is an Air Force personnel who had this to say of India, even after his father was murdered: “saare jahan se acha, Hindustan hamara”. Danish, whose skull was broken open by the same mob that killed his father, showed no signs of bitterness. Instead, he spoke sadly of having had to relocate from his home, his sense of loss at the fact that his Hindu friends no longer speak to him and his hope for returning home one day.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What justice can we offer Danish when he sees the Uttar Pradesh chief minister address a rally where the Dadri-lynching accused sits in comfortable attendance, in the front rows of the event? Or, when a senior leader of the BJP garlands men implicated in a lynching case? Or, when every public and media discussion about lynching ends up in the worst sort of whataboutery and competitive point-scoring? What hope for justice are we offering to the victims of lynching? Think about the fact that there has not been visible justice in any of the high profile, headline-grabbing lynching cases over the last few years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Narendra Modi government is among the most powerful in India in recent memory. One of its distinctive features is the strongmen it is helmed by—both the prime minister and the Home Minister Amit Shah. They have won elections on the alpha-male positioning of the prime minister. If ever there was a moment to display strength, even brute strength, this moment calls for that.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The prime minister must take the lead in cracking down on those who dare to kill, and believe they have impunity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jun 28 11:25:06 IST 2019 lessons-from-the-defeat <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Is the Congress finally getting ready for life after the Gandhi family? Or will an all-too-familiar drama of sycophancy and emotional blackmail play out in favour of status quo?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For Rahul Gandhi’s own sake I hope he sticks to his decision to step aside. For those who say that the Congress would fall apart were Rahul Gandhi to step down as party president, I would say, you are only highlighting its structural and existential crisis with that claim.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The issue is not dynasty alone. Although in a polity that is increasingly presidential, Narendra Modi’s self-made story as the son of a tea-vendor is a much better script to market than the inherited power and elite pedigree of the Gandhi family. But yes, the BJP has its share of dynasts too. New data released by Gilles Verniers and Christophe Jaffrelot reveals that 30 per cent of India’s new MPs are from political families; 31 per cent of the Congress candidates and 22 per cent of the BJP candidates were dynasts. So yes, there is perhaps no straightforward or simple conclusion that can be drawn on the impact of dynasty in the polls.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The larger issue is of leadership—and of entitlement. And, whether voters believe that you are willing to work 24/7 as an expression of commitment to your people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Take how Rahul Gandhi has responded after the staggering defeat to Smriti Irani in Amethi. If I were him, I would have made sure that I was in Amethi the very next day, at the very least to thank the voters who had stood by me. And to apologise to those who switched perhaps because they doubted the integrity of my engagement. In this, he needs to learn from his opponent Irani who did not stop her engagement with Amethi even after her defeat in 2014.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead, the Gandhi family took the people of the so-called ‘family bastion’ for granted. Rahul would leave the bulk of the campaigning to his sister, Priyanka, who in the past (before she became general secretary) even quipped about being a ‘barsaati mendak’ (seasonal frog) in Amethi. More than dynasty what has gone against the Gandhi siblings is their assumption that they still have the cache to evoke old-style loyalty. It is this entitlement to power that the people have reacted against.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is another ‘dynast’ whom the Gandhis could learn from. His name is Jagan Mohan Reddy. His sweep of Andhra Pradesh should make the Congress leadership kick itself for virtually ousting Jagan from their fold. But the instructive thing about the Jagan campaign has been how he has been able to shrug off the charge of entitlement. And that is through sheer hard work. His padyatra kept him in the state most of the year, enabling a mass contact with people. No one called him either elite or undeserving because they could see how hard he worked.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>By contrast, the Gandhis seem like part-time politicians with other lives they return to. Work-life balance may be a millennial aspiration. But there is no space for it in new age politics. Look at the BJP and Modi. Even after winning a mega mandate, the party has not spent one day resting on laurels. Even before the new government could be sworn in, the BJP has been obsessed by its ‘Mission Bengal’. Sensing an opportunity, it has relentlessly courted workers and legislators of the Trinamool Congress and has gone for the kill.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi and Amit Shah are in permanent campaign mode. They never appear to take their victory for granted. The problem of the Congress is complacency and the smug belief that its values make it superior.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In elections, that verdict rests with the people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri May 31 11:35:42 IST 2019 when-politics-stains-uniforms <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>There have been many disturbing moments in the election campaign of 2019—one of the most vitriolic and divisive polls in recent memory. But, perhaps nothing has the potential for greater damage than India’s armed forces being dragged into the centre of all the mud-slinging. Our men and women in uniform are meant to stand guard in the trenches; not to be pulled apart to either side of an ideological divide.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many senior military officers I respect greatly explain that the engagement of the servicemen with politics began because of the institutional neglect of soldiers’ issues—one rank, one pension, pay commission disparities and now the non-functional financial upgrade debate. Soldiers who had led a cloistered existence within the parameters of a protected environment had to learn an idiom or language to speak for themselves. Because, politicians and bureaucrats would not.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Fair enough. The problem is when the partisanship of soldiers becomes public. As anyone connected to the fauj knows, a soldier never really retires in the way that other conventional professionals do. An officer’s relationship with his troops and his regiment or paltan continues over the years and down the ranks. To suddenly see the commanding officer of your unit, or your army commander—and at times, even your chief—being reduced to the level of a political functionary can have all sorts of consequences.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>First, there is the diminishing of stature. In my mind, a military chief is demoting himself by contesting to be a parliamentarian or a legislator. Then, there is the political cue a soldier-turned-neta may provide, inadvertently, in terms of party preference. And, last—this is a concern expressed by many military men themselves—there is the danger of an implicit quid-pro-quo in senior appointments and promotions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In this campaign we have also seen the dangers of political ownership of military valour. Pulwama and Balakot have repeatedly been invoked in the election campaign to seek votes. Even the prime minister’s stage backdrop in the early days of the campaign was the pictures of the Pulwama martyrs. Families of soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the horrific terror attack have repeatedly said that they do not want votes to be sought in their names.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While tom-tomming nationalism, would politicians at least respect the sentiments of these families? They may call the rest of us anti-national—the lazy abuse of choice these days. But, they will not dare to use that description for the children of soldiers who died in the line of duty.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This week we saw a dismissed soldier of the Border Security Force becoming the Samajwadi Party candidate in Varanasi. While no one believes that Tej Bahadur Yadav is anything but a token candidate against the prime minister, the optics of a soldier—and several images of his campaign depict him in uniform—hitting the campaign trail are definitely disturbing. As is a slew of generals lining up to join either of the two national parties.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is one thing for a senior soldier to offer expertise to a political party on national security, but it is quite another thing to become a party worker, MLA, MP, or even minister. Every poll tells you that Indians trust their armed forces above all other organisations. And, we trust our politicians the least.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Why do soldiers want to trade the romance of the uniform for the compromised realism of politics?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Will someone draw the battle-lines and keep our soldiers at the frontiers of integrity, away from the swamp of electoral politics?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat May 04 12:33:00 IST 2019 keep-soldiers-out-of-poll-battles <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>There is no doubt that India’s decision to bomb a Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist base camp inside Pakistan has marked a critical shift in the country’s security doctrine. Not just was air power used across the Line of Control for the first time in five decades; that the target was inside Pakistan and not Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir is the all-important shift. India is signalling to Pakistan and the world that the old assumption—nuclear weapons will deter India from conventional military responses to terrorism— no longer apply.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Since then, however, instead of a cohesive, united response to the Pakistan deep state’s patronage of terrorism, we have been squabbling among ourselves. Our political parties are trading charges and our ideological extremes are using over-generalised labels for the citizenry. Phrases like ‘warmonger’ and ‘anti-national’ are being meaninglessly and lazily bandied about.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In some ways, the BJP has only itself to blame for the political noise that has tailed the Balakot airstrike. The statements by India’s foreign secretary as well as the two on-record articulations by Indian Air Force Chief B.S. Dhanoa and Air Vice Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor were brilliantly professional, responsible and measured. The IAF chief made it clear that while the air force had got the target it wanted, the service “counts targets, not human bodies”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was party president Amit Shah who went on record at a public rally to amplify the claim that more than 250 terrorists had been killed in the air strike. In the initial aftermath of the strike, these numbers were extensively used by journalists, quoting unnamed government officials. But once it was claimed on record by the BJP president at an election rally, the statistic became fair game for opposition scrutiny. You may argue that the opposition is walking into a BJP-laid trap and that the more it raises questions, the more the BJP gets the chance to paint it as pro-Pakistan. But that would be a separate argument.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What is true is that the BJP cannot have it both ways. The party cannot use the military strikes for partisan political purposes and then expect that the political opposition will not respond in kind. We have seen the prime minister deliver a speech with a poster of the Pulwama martyrs forming the backdrop of his address. The head of the local BJP unit in Delhi campaigned wearing army fatigues. Union minister and former Army chief V.K. Singh has drawn the analogy of mosquitoes to talk about terrorists killed. And posters saying, ‘Khoon Se Tilak Karo; Goliyon Se Aarti’ (mark your foreheads with blood; offer prayers using bullets) have been used by party supporters to greet Modi at public gatherings.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP has the right to argue that it was political will and Modi’s appetite for risk that made the Balakot airstrike possible. It is legitimate politics for it to question why the Congress, by contrast, did nothing similar after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. But, once a top-secret, classified, military action becomes material for election slogans, it is as legitimate for it to be discussed and deconstructed—both by the media and political parties. In this situation, more information, not less, is the need of the hour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And while we are on the subject of nationalism, the entire country stood with the military and was overwhelmed by the courage of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. But it is not a mark of respect to soldiers to drag them into the ugliness of electoral battle. Let their uniform be deployed only in actual warfare. There is something sullying about allowing the sacrifice of armed forces to become the material for speeches, stage design, poll posters or jingles.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Election Commission must stop this.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Mar 08 11:16:08 IST 2019 trans-bill-is-regressive <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>One of the most progressive voices in the Supreme Court, Justice Dhananjaya Chandrachud, recognised that gender and sexuality defy simple binaries and lazy labels. “An individual’s sexuality cannot be put into boxes or compartmentalised,” he wrote in the seminal Right to Privacy judgment, “it should rather be viewed as fluid, granting the individual the freedom to ascertain her own desires and proclivities.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But that fundamental right to privacy—and the individual’s freedom to identify and experience her/his own gender—is now under grave legal threat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The transgender community of India is deeply concerned about the new Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill that has been hurriedly pushed through the Lok Sabha, albeit with 27 amendments. One of the biggest problems in an earlier draft of this proposed legislation was how it defined transgender—one who is neither wholly male nor female. After sharp criticism of this regressive, limiting and incorrect language, an amendment has ensured that the definition is now much more encompassing. But, in legal terms, the bill falls drastically short of the key principle of sexual autonomy—self determination. The bill acknowledges the fluid and subjective nature of gender—how it can be amorphous and escape the male-female binary altogether at times. Yet, it stipulates that legal status as a transperson can only come from a certificate issued by a magistrate. To imagine how outrageous this is, think for a moment how it would feel if each one of us had to procure a piece of paper for us to be recognised as either a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. To allow officials of the state to sanction your gender is to pave the way for not just the violation of privacy, but also the harassment of the poorer and more vulnerable sections of the trans community. We must allow the principle of self determination to drive gender identity, and not invasive bureaucratic procedures or proofs of surgeries. To authorise district-level ‘screening committees’ to determine an individual’s gender is to set the stage for the grossest sort of prying and bullying.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The other problematic proviso in the proposed law is the criminalisation of begging by transpersons. Given that many people in the trans community are already struggling to make ends meet and given their well-documented lack of access to economic opportunities, this clause must be removed. To send transpeople to prison for begging is to punish them for systemic and social injustices.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, we must remember that in its NALSA (National Legal Services Authority) judgment, the Supreme Court recognised the historical persecution of the trans community and the need to recognise them as a socially disadvantaged group. But the current bill makes no mention of affirmative action and only talks in terms of rehabilitation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bizarrely, the bill appears to cap the punishment for mental and physical abuse of transpeople at two years. This would mean that the rape of a transperson could mean lighter punishment than that of cis women. There is simply no excuse for this kind of abhorrent discrimination in the law.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are other issues in the bill that have disturbed the trans community, including a lack of understanding of traditional family and livelihood structures of the ‘hijra’ community.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In its present form, the would-be law ignores the entrenched social, cultural and financial inequities of transgender Indians. The Rajya Sabha needs to address these tone-deaf insensitivities before it is too late.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jan 11 11:35:55 IST 2019 a-soldiers-soldier <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Retired lieutenant general D.S. Hooda, former northern army commander in Jammu and Kashmir and the officer who steered the surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016, is one of the most exemplary soldiers I have had the honour to know. This week, he reminded us again of the extraordinary ethos of the Indian military.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Speaking at the military literature festival in Chandigarh, the general was blunt: Overhyping the strikes and politicising military operations was unproductive and dangerous. “There was too much political banter on both sides,” he remarked dryly on the unseemly slugfest, point-scoring and bickering that followed the strikes. Had anyone else made these comments, he or she would have been called an anti-national. But, no one could dare question the wisdom of general Hooda, who had always led from the front.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His trenchant truths were one more illustration of how our military is so often more measured and moderate than our politicians.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I recall reporting from the Kashmir valley in 2016 during a period of enormous turmoil. Burhan Wani, a local militant with enormous following among the new generation of Kashmiri separatists, had been eliminated in an anti-terror operation. Protestors had poured into the streets, and every day there were clashes between security forces and angry civilians. It should have been the job of the political class and the state government to own that decision and contain the fallout. Instead, as the situation unravelled, it was once again general Hooda who made an appeal to all stakeholders. He called for everyone—security forces, separatists, government, opposition and students to sit down around the same table and talk. He could have easily disassociated the Army from the turmoil—after all, policing crowds and steering dialogue is not the responsibility of soldiers. Instead, he took it upon himself to de-escalate the crisis and reach out across ideological divides. To me, that moment represented true and brave leadership.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The general has always been a conscience-keeper of the highest standards of the Army. In 2014, when two teenagers were killed in army firing in what was a case of mistaken identity, Hooda flew from Jammu to Srinagar to take responsibility for the mistake made by his men. His apology was unambiguous and speedy, and set an example for how to respond with sensitivity in a conflict zone.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>General Hooda is a courageous soldier, and perhaps that is why he knows there is no valour in toxic machismo. He has consistently called for dialogue and a non-militarist perspective in Jammu and Kashmir. This does not mean that he has not deployed force when necessary. He has valiantly led his men against terrorism. He deftly steered the surgical strikes as retribution for the terror attack on his troops in Uri. But, he symbolises the reason that I am a signed-up fan of our military. Chest-thumping and arrogance is antithetical to the Indian soldier.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our politicians, and above all our hyperventilating television news anchors, should learn a lesson in humility and genuine courage from general Hooda—a true soldier’s soldier.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Dec 15 12:46:34 IST 2018 volleys-of-another-kind <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>There is so little good news coming out of Jammu and Kashmir these days: the political process has stalled, policemen have been the victim of targeted killings, and in an increasingly polarised environment, it is impossible to have a rational conversation about the turmoil in the valley.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Which is why the story of Real Kashmir FC—a football club making headlines this year—is such a feel-good moment. The club is owned jointly by two Kashmiris, Sandeep Chattoo and Shamim Meraj—a Pandit and a Muslim. That happy coexistence in itself is something to cheer about, especially in a era corroded by bitterness and hostility.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the real achievement of the club is that for the first time Jammu and Kashmir is playing in the I-League. This is extraordinary, given not just the violent strife in the state, but also the absence of any football infrastructure.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2016, when the club first made its entry into the Durand Cup, it was still unregistered. No one had ever heard of it. This was the same year, ironically, when the valley was thrown into prolonged unrest after the elimination of Burhan Wani. Meraj, a Stephanian who also edits a local newspaper, started it as a private club to engage young people. After the floods, he and his friends pooled money and bought a thousand footballs to try and create some productive distraction after the devastation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The club has grown rapidly despite the limitation of resources. Srinagar’s only stadium, the Bakshi Stadium, has been under renovation after being grievously damaged by the floods a few years ago. The team has been playing in the open grounds opposite the tourist centre and has not had the luxury of a dedicated field. In the fierce winter cold, when it snows, the players have sometimes had to clear the grounds themselves before they are able to play. Because the grounds are not exclusive to them, they have often had to practise in one- or two-hour slots. And then, of course, there are the frequent shutdowns. Militant violence, street protests, curfew calls, snapped internet lines—anything can bring the valley to a grinding halt. Often this means not all players can show up for the drill, and plans can get waylaid. Very often, when the club members travel, the absence of deep pockets has meant that they have to depend on the kindness and patronage of both friends and strangers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The dream of Real Kashmir FC needs to be backed and supported by us all. It is the one thing that the valley can agree on, amid spiralling disagreements on other issues of identity and politics. It was created literally out of nothing but the passion and determination of two young Kashmiris.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now the rest of India should show that we care.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Nov 16 15:48:21 IST 2018 loud-and-clear <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Every woman has a #MeToo story. It could be a stranger on the street, a colleague at work, a cousin in the extended family or even your own spouse. We have all been variously leered at, pawed, harassed, molested and abused. This moment in India that has outed powerful men in politics, cinema and the news media is a historic phase of collective catharsis. Yes, it is disruptive and somewhat anarchic in nature. But that is necessary to fuel its raw courage.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In fact the criminal defamation lawsuit filed by M.J. Akbar, former minister of state for foreign affairs, against Priya Ramani, the journalist who first named him for sexual harassment, is the best evidence of the limitations and failure of due process. A powerful, well connected politician—now accused of misconduct, abuse and molestation by 15 women—hires an army of just as powerful, well-connected lawyers to punish a woman who dared to speak. If Ramani fails to prove her charges in court—always a challenge with endless delays, an environment of toxic coercion and the tilt of the legal system to those with wealth and influence—she could face jail time of up to two years. The audacity and sheer brazenness of the move is a message to millions of other Indian women—be quiet or you will face the same ferocious counterattack from the establishment.</p> <p>But, women are not backing off or backing down. The criminal proceedings against Ramani did not stop a 15th woman from coming out and sharing her account of harassment at the hands of Akbar.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Politicians and partisans will try and divide this upsurge of fury into camps of left and right. That would be the simplest way to sabotage and subvert the credibility of #MeToo, by reducing it to the banality of a BJP vs Congress fight.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Women must step in unequivocally and say, we do not care about ideological battlefields; we do not cherry-pick our outrage, nor do we condone a harasser or predator because his political leanings are the same as ours.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the 1990s, American liberals made this mistake with Bill Clinton. When the news of his affair with the young intern Monica Lewinsky erupted into the headlines, it became a pitched fight between the Republicans and the Democrats. At the time, the world’s understanding of what consent was very patriarchal and rudimentary. No one pointed out the obvious: even when a relationship appears consensual, the sharp power differential—the world’s most powerful man and an intern in her twenties—makes the equation a corrosive abuse of power. Today, when Hillary Clinton refuses to take a position on the Lewinsky issue, liberals in her own country slam her for it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That is the real gift of the #MeToo movement: it has enabled us to take an unvarnished and expanded look at how men abuse power. It has helped us recognise that our consent is not surrendered just because a man is our colleague, our friend, or our boyfriend. Indian women will no longer stand for victim-shaming. A dinner, a date, an evening of drinks, a previous flirtation, or a history of romance or sex does not give a guarantee of our consent every time. Our consent has to be sought and confirmed. Yes, every time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Whatever happens next, one thing has already changed. Women will not be silenced. Women will not be awkward. And yes, women will be angry, and no longer apologise for it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Mon Oct 22 10:08:46 IST 2018 indias-shame-stop-the-killings-of-sewer-workers <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It took the photograph of a 11-year-old boy hunched over his father’s body for us to finally care about one of India’s most shameful human rights violations. The moment, captured by Hindustan Times reporter Shiv Sunny, brought home the tragic fate of the country’s sewer/sanitation workers, who are condemned by a combination of caste and poverty. Were it not for the heartbreaking pathos of the picture, Anil, the name of the dead man in the photograph, could have become yet another forgotten statistic in a country where one person has died every five days while cleaning septic tanks, insanitary toilets and drains and sewers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This data compiled by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis should make us shudder in shame. Yet, each one of us is complicit in the death of these workers—I would even use the word ‘killing’. This sort of manual scavenging was banned 25 years ago; yet there are still an estimated 50,000 workers compelled to clean putrid, suffocating drains, manholes and latrines. We are all complicit. We either look away while impoverished men and women are forced to do what we would not even contemplate, or worse, we actually employ them to clean the tanks and underground spaces in our homes for just a couple of hundred bucks. We then delude ourselves into thinking we are being fair and generous by providing an economic opportunity. We do not even pause to think that many sanitation workers and sewer cleaners die before retirement. Ninety per cent work without any protective gear and equipment and are constantly exposed not just to filth but also to poisonous gases such as methane and hydrogen sulphide.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Activists like Bezwada Wilson, whose team recorded 90 manual scavenging deaths in Delhi alone in the last nine months of 2017, point out that the National Crime Records Bureau figures do not reflect these numbers, though they should. Several state governments have submitted affidavits in court claiming that there is not a single manual scavenger working in their regions. But because there has been no official survey in ten years of how many people continue to have to clean up human excreta, countering them legally becomes impossible.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This time a photograph stirred the collective conscience of people and lakhs of rupees were crowdsourced to help Anil’s family, who did not even have money to cremate him. But one-off compassion is no answer to an institutional betrayal of the very idea of democracy. That an emerging superpower has not been able to develop a mechanised, modern way to clean up our shit, and that we then socially discriminate against the same community of sanitation workers for their caste, should make us ashamed and repulsed as Indians.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What should have triggered self-loathing has instead been normalised as a professional practice, one we barely notice, unless a poignant headline screams out at us and forces us to pay attention. Yes, it is a failure by successive governments that alternatives have not been developed to erase the stain of this classist and casteist anachronism. But, we the people, are also responsible. We outrage over a million issues on social media, march in protest against violence and for equal rights. When will we come out on the streets to lend our voice to this abomination? These deaths are not accidents or coincidences or even tragedies—they are a consequence of our wilful apathy. These are killings.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Sep 21 19:02:48 IST 2018 unity-in-adversity <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In a country divided by unprecedented bitterness and toxic polarisations, this week, in the middle of its own tragedy, Kerala reminded us who we were meant to be as a nation—and how far we have drifted from that ideal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even in the worst flood in 100 years, the state displayed a mix of understated compassion and courage that have become increasingly rare for the times we live in. Two things especially stood out for me. The first was the fact that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala temporarily called a truce to take an Air Force helicopter together during flood relief. Even if this white flag calling of peace lasted only for a few hours, it establishes a clear example of how we want our politicians to behave in moments of crisis.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The second extraordinary and unusual aspect of the catastrophe has been the absolute absence of complaints and anger among people. As a reporter who has covered multiple incidents of floods, quakes and famines, it is normal to encounter rage at a broken system or at delays in relief and rescue operations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Kerala, the people came together, across all divides of religion, caste and class, to stand united as a community. Naval pilots share inspiring stories of how food packages were actually turned away by those stranded on rooftops and redirected to those who needed them more. Or how, when the chopper could only ferry two people at time, older people would insist that young couples with lives ahead of them should be evacuated first.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Especially stellar has been the role of the state’s fishermen, who have saved an estimated 7,000 lives. Most of these fishermen declined the offer of compensation from the chief minister’s office. One man placed his face in the muddy waters and lay flat, his back forming a bridge over which women could clamber onto the safety of a boat. Thus, the singularly humbling image of an entire neighbourhood standing with folded hands and heads bowed, in tribute to passing fishermen.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Credit must also be given to the response of the state government and official administrative institutions. While, as usual, the armed forces went beyond the call of duty and ran some truly amazing operations, this was not a state where the civilian bureaucracy and the political establishment simply outsourced their entire responsibility to men and women in uniform. From district level collectors to the state’s finance minister and ruling and opposition legislators, everyone was at the frontline.</p> <p>The best, of course, has been Kerala’s scornful response to prejudice and misogyny. When right-wing beef bigots tried to blame the floods on the fact that Malayalis eat cow meat, the state laughed at them. Then, the hate mongers tried to blame women and said this may be the fury of Lord Ayyappa at menstruating women demanding the right to enter the Sabarimala temple. Once again, the state rubbished them. Then, both communism and Christianity were attacked, with low-life trolls asking that donations be made only to the Hindus of Kerala and not its Christians. Once again, it was the people of Kerala who swiftly shut down the hate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In one of the worst phases of its history, Kerala showed us the way.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Aug 24 16:04:10 IST 2018 hug-hug-wink-wink <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>By now, Rahul Gandhi’s hug of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spawned a million theories. Everyone from political pundits to pop psychologists have their own version of what happened and why. It is exactly as the Congress president would want it to be. Even those who have criticised ‘The Hug’ for being too deflective and immature cannot stop talking about.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My own theory is that irrespective of what the Congress president may say ‘The Hug’ (which has now entered the lexicon of Lutyens) was the opposite of a spontaneous outburst of warmth and generosity. Yes, it could be an attempt by Rahul, who is roughly two decades younger than the prime minister, to offer a more contemporary and metrosexual alternative to Modi’s 56-inch hardline machismo. But everyone knows that slogans like “Make Love, Not War” or “Fight, Don’t Hate” are good for bumper stickers, fridge magnets and T-shirts; not so much for winning elections. I would wager that the only part of the unexpected and dramatic developments in Parliament that was unscripted was ‘The Wink’ that followed the ‘The Hug’ (a new variation on ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ is ‘hug hug, wink wink’). When Rahul cheekily winked at Jyotiraditya Scindia moments after he had shocked the treasury benches with his embrace, it was the sign of a man who knew he had won the next morning’s headlines. I do not think Rahul Gandhi necessarily knew it had been caught on camera and I do not think he cared.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the hug itself was a smart, strategic move of pure politics and probably one that had been planned months in advance. In military terms this is what you would call a classic ambush: engage your enemy on a familiar battle-turf by shooting at him and then suddenly trip him when he least expects it. The BJP was much better prepared to deal with the scathing critique of its performance than it was to deal with any unexpected displays of affection. Given that the visceral personal dislike between the Gandhi family and Narendra Modi is a pretty well-known fact, you can argue that the Congress leader’s flamboyant move was disingenuous. Probably so. But it does not make it any less legitimate as an act of politics. In fact ‘The Hug’ was almost Modiesque in its capacity to draw attention more to the optics of the moment than to its substance. By itself it may do nothing to change the electoral ground game. But, for once, Rahul Gandhi—so often described as the reluctant politician—seemed more easy-going and relaxed than Modi, who took a few seconds to recover from the unexpected gesture.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That the BJP and its supporters spent so much time on social media fulminating over ‘The Hug’ proved its own point. ‘The Hug’ finally settled one thing; no matter how many times the BJP may mock him, in the ruling party’s mind, it is Rahul Gandhi who is their main challenger for 2019. The federal front may not think so and Rahul may have annoyed them further by hogging the airwaves. But, that the prime minister spent much of his parliamentary speech attacking only the Congress, virtually ignoring the rest of the opposition, should tell you something.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>‘The Hug’ may not win Rahul Gandhi any extra votes. But it is what most people remember about the no-confidence motion, even though it was the BJP that won handsomely. Now that is called changing the headlines. And, that was once a skill unique to the Modi-led BJP government. Are the communications tables turning?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jul 27 12:53:42 IST 2018 in-kashmir-one-mans-small-hopes <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Today if you talk of hope or peace or dialogue in Jammu and Kashmir, the words sound like tired worn out clichés and jaded formulas that have served their time. A veteran journalist has been assassinated; there is resurgence in local militancy; a democratically-elected government has failed to keep it together and positions have hardened and split people into ideological camps. In such bleak and suffocating times I have often felt terribly depressed about my own bruised relationship with Kashmir—a place I have loved deeply and reported from for 22 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, when Jaibeer Ahmad, a 43-year-old advertising executive with JWT and also a Kashmiri, got in touch with me last year to say he wanted me to see a tourism film his agency had produced, I was sceptical. I wasn’t interested in a PR spin on a terrible ground situation but I forced myself to keep an open mind. To my surprise, the film, which captured the essential warmth of Kashmir, before it was battered by polarisation, violence, turmoil and terrorism, instantly made me cry. It triggered memories and a strange sense of loss—the kind you feel when you lose an old friend.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Since then Jaibeer has started what I think have been the two most meaningful peace initiatives within the state. First he curated a social media platform called ‘Reimagining Kashmir.’ Here we met a multitude of voices—a little child working to clean the Dal Lake; a young woman who was training to be a pace bowler; players of a private football league; a music band; a disabled rights activist. These were the sort of headlines that for obvious reasons never got news space. The rest of India had only known Kashmiris as militants or victims of militancy. Here they were real people and it was the very ordinariness and relatability of their dreams that brought them to life. What also kept them authentic was that Jaibeer has never pretended to draw simplistic meta-conclusions about ‘normalcy’ or resolving Kashmir from the stories he and his team share on this platform.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His second initiative is even more impressive. Called ‘Raabta’, which means connection in Urdu, it seeks to reconnect Kashmiri Pandits with Kashmiri Muslims as well as other communities in the state who may have been separated by geography, distance and time. The inspiration for this was personal. He told me that his 80-year-old grandmother always spoke of a ‘Dinanath Uncle’ who often dropped by at their home. The families grew so close that Dinanath was loved like their own son. “He was her third son. Every decision in the house was taken only after discussing it with him; this was also a time when there was a synergy in our religious practices. We visited the same shrines,” Jaibeer told me. The 90s and the enforced exodus of the Pandits drew a line across their relationship. But his grandmother never forgot and Jaibeer made it a personal mission to eventually reconnect them. He then decided to extend the initiative to reunite other friends and neighbours. This is perhaps the first intra-state dialogue initiative of its kind and in times when toxicity has made most conversation on social media impossible; it is remarkable for its gentleness and sentimentality.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jaibeer’s small but sincere attempts at peace have achieved more than lofty Track Two and Track Three seminars. He has also shown that sometimes the personal is really the political. In a dark house with no sunlight or fresh air, at least he has cracked open a window.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Mon Jul 02 10:20:59 IST 2018 why-I-think-soldiers-should-not-be-netas <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Recently, BJP president Amit Shah began the party’s mass contact programme (to mark four years of the Modi government) from the house of former Army chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag. The outreach is part of the BJP strategy to personally connect with at least 1,00,000 eminent citizens from different walks of life—military, judiciary, literature and so on. From the BJP’s point of view, it is a sound strategy to build connections with public intellectuals and influencers. It is a glimpse into the BJP’s ever-evolving election machinery under Shah.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the formal launch of a political campaign from the home of a former military chief led to the inevitable speculation: would General Suhag follow the example of two other ex-chiefs—General V.K. Singh and General J.J. Singh—and take the plunge into politics?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Like his colleagues before him, General Suhag has done the uniform proud. Lithe and courageous, he led his men and women from the front. A third generation Army officer and son of a retired subedar, the General led the surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. I have enormous regard for him and his predecessors.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Perhaps, General Suhag was just receiving a friend or a public personality at home, and there is no political meaning in it at all. Yet, the picture had me grappling with an old conflict that remains unresolved. Do we really want to see our soldiers entangled with politics and politicians, of any party? At one level, we cannot act as if our soldiers live on an island; like everyone else, they have the right to their affiliations and views. Yet, survey after survey will show you that the one institution considered above the fray is our military. It remains trusted, revered and credible in increasingly polarised and argumentative times.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Last month, I wrote about how it was the mandir-masjid-gurudwara traditions of the Army from which we could get a new model of genuine pluralism. When this country agrees on precious little, it agrees on the soldier and the izzat (honour) she or he is entitled to. I think a man (and in the future, a woman) who has been chief of Army staff has already held among the most cherished positions in the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When I saw General J.J. Singh, a friend and lively raconteur of stories, campaign for the Punjab elections, I wondered why he would want to be an MLA after he had been Army chief. Of course, General Singh didn’t agree with me. There is a sense in the military of having been cloistered and kept away from critical decision making. Perhaps that explains why some soldiers are drawn to electoral politics. Maybe they feel they will finally have an unfettered voice in the system. Or, maybe the interest in politics is because different governments don’t use the expertise and experience of retired soldiers in governance and administration, where they still have a lot of energy and wisdom to offer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, I think there is an important distinction in a retired chief working with the government of the day as an envoy, interlocutor or adviser and in him contesting elections to assemblies or Parliament. The latter, I believe, draws the soldier into an avoidable partisanship. I also think military values—of discipline, dignity and equality for all—contradict political values, which are rooted in machinations and divisions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some of our best chiefs have been apolitical and yet valuable voices of reason in the nation’s public discourse, like General V.P. Malik, who worked closely with the Vajpayee government as chief of Army staff and under whom we won the Kargil War.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I don’t know about you, but I would be happier if our generals remained soldiers and never became netas.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jun 01 18:11:10 IST 2018 a-metaphor-for-india <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The news is so depressing these days—especially out of Jammu and Kashmir—that any talk of peace, syncretism and pluralism can feel fake—or at best, like, textbook romanticism. Social media and television hysteria wrenches open the communal divide on every imaginable issue. And the phrase ‘secularism’ has become corroded like never before. The right-wing uses it like an abuse with its twisted variant called ‘sickular’; liberals are aware that political manipulations and inconsistencies have diminished the authenticity of what the idea is meant to stand for.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, in these bleak, horribly argumentative times, I felt I finally found a living illustration of what genuine, uncorrupted secularism and diversity is all about. I was invited to participate in the 70th raising day celebrations of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAKLI) in Delhi. The colonel of the regiment is Lieutenant General Satish Dua, whom I know well as a fine and courageous officer from his time in the Kashmir valley. But it was the understanding of JAKLI as a metaphor for India—or what we want India to be—that really lifted the spirits.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of the youngest Army regiments, JAKLI is one of a kind. Raised formally in 1948, it drew from local citizen’s militias that had been formed as volunteer forces to resist the Pakistani raiders in 1947. Today, the regiment is officially 50 per cent Muslim and 50 per cent non-Muslim, and enormously proud of its multiplicity of faiths and cultures.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the celebrations, where I was moderating a discussion on what meaning the word Kashmiriyat had in today’s troubled times, I had an opportunity to speak to a maulvi of the regiment. His words made me feel Indian liberals should reconsider the word most often used to describe coexistence among communities—‘tolerance’. It indicates a grudging, if civil acceptance, of the other. But the cleric spoke of not just enduring different faiths, but actually participating in them. So, during Ramadan, he said, the senior officers of the unit keep fasts, irrespective of their faith. During Diwali, the Muslim soldiers stand in for duty so that the Hindu soldiers can get a few evenings off. And this year, during Baisakhi, because the granthi was on leave, a maulvi delivered the sermons of the Guru Granth Sahib.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The most inspiring custom of the regiment is what the soldiers call MMG—Mandir, Masjid, Gurudwarara—which brings people from all religions and faiths to pray under the same roof. This encouraged intertwining of faiths—down to the cooking of food in the kitchens where halal and jhatka meat is prepared side by side—is a lesson for all secularists.</p> <p>For too long, Indian progressives have embraced the Nehruvian version of secularism—a polite, rational, and dry coexistence of communities. From the JAKLI we learnt that genuine pluralism is to actually take joy in each other’s beliefs and rituals. “After all, the only religion for a soldier is the uniform; he is aware that the bullet makes no other distinctions,” said Major Vijayant Bist, this year’s winner of the Kirti Chakra. By him stood Lance Naik Badher Hussain, who was decorated with the Shaurya Chakra. They were both in an operation together and would laugh at anyone who would even notice that they belong to different faiths.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry is a microcosm of a Utopian India. We should learn from it.</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat May 05 12:15:18 IST 2018 press-council-has-done-its-time <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have reversed a controversial and short-lived government order that used fake news as a pretext to punish journalists, but the debate is not over. Everyone agrees that the government—irrespective of which party is at the helm—has no business in the newsrooms of the world’s largest democracy. Everyone also agrees that quite beside the brazen attempts at political control by different parties, the challenge of fake news is real. The conversation has returned the focus to industry regulators like the Press Council of India. In an ideal world, this body should have evolved into a modern, independent, self-regulating mechanism with authority to penalise and reward as needed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead, the Press Council has never seemed more toothless and redundant. The prime minister’s public order withdrawing the information ministry’s order also referred to the Press Council as the arbiter of all such fake news disputes. But, is the council really up to the task? Even in 2011, when we did not yet live in post-truth times, former chief justice of India J.S. Verma, who headed the self-regulatory panel that oversees television channels, had this to say about the Press Council: “Everyone knows the Press Council has failed in its mandate, and how ineffective it has been. So, why not wind it up or scrap it?” Verma went so far as to call the council a waste of public money.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Press Council’s official remit is “for the purpose of preserving the freedom of the press, and of maintaining and improving the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India”. But, aside from the fact that over the years it has become a moribund and ineffective body, the fake news debate has also exposed the irony of what some of its members believe. Pratap Simha, BJP parliamentarian who was nominated to the media watchdog in 2017, is among those who forcefully stood by a proven fake news propagandist—Mahesh Hegde of Postcard News. Hegde was arrested in Karnataka by the Congress administration for a story on his portal that incorrectly blamed Muslim youth for an injury to a monk. While the arrest per se is debatable, the very fact that a member of India’s oldest media regulator can advocate on behalf of a website known to be communal and replete with inflammatory lies points to the cosmetic nature of the council.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The other deficiency is the division of media into silos of print and television; digital news media, which is where technology is pushing the biggest consumption of news, is not even factored in. The Press Council was born in the newspaper age four decades ago. By now, it should have been replaced or recast as a media council, where all platforms were represented. The outspoken former PCI chief Justice Markandey Katju recommended this, but unfortunately went to war with journalists in doing so. The present PCI chief Justice C.K. Prasad is locked in a battle with the Editors Guild of India and other journalist associations. This January, he rejected all their nominees for the council, citing a technicality from the rulebook. The guild has now openly questioned the political independence of the Press Council saying, “The recent reconstitution of the Press Council of India has been done in a manner that gives rise to doubts over the independence of the institution and its ability to play neutral umpire.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It may suit politicians to point to the emasculated Press Council every time there is a clash with the news media. But, if journalists and editors can no longer trust it to be both inclusive and independent, it has done its time. We, in the media, need a new regulator, and one that the government has no control over.</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Apr 07 16:42:47 IST 2018 why-worship-lenin <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>You absolutely don’t have to be an admirer of Vladimir Ulyanov, or Lenin—as the Soviet legend came to be known—to unequivocally condemn vandalism and mob violence. In Tripura, the razing of a statue built to commemorate the communist revolutionary, political thinker and leader of the October Revolution, was a shameful and unjustified moment of hooliganism by triumphalist crowds. The image of a bulldozer bringing Lenin down, as supporters of the BJP cheered on, cast an avoidable shadow over the party’s historic victory in the north-eastern state, where it decimated the left to capture more than 40 per cent of the vote share on its own. Worse, it led to copy-cat arsonist assaults elsewhere, including defiling the statues of Ambedkar, Periyar and Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Coarse competitiveness had now covered the gamut from left to right.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The debate that followed has been bewildering. While almost everyone agrees that what started in south Tripura emboldened prejudice and lumpenism—and there are no ifs and buts in my forceful condemnation of that—why must that lead to the disingenuous and obligatory romanticisation of Lenin? There have been exaggerated comparisons made between Lenin and Mahatma Gandhi. It has been pointed out that Bhagat Singh was reading Lenin right before he was executed. And, any suggestion that Lenin does not quite merit a place in India’s pantheon of heroes has been met with violent disdain from the liberal left. Quite apart from the fact that repeated electoral disasters prove how anachronistic the Marxists have become in contemporary India, Lenin’s record as a radical and significant thinker is blemished by his years as a ruthless authoritarian. A biography of the ‘Great Leader’ called Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen describes him as the “godfather of post-truth politics”, just a hundred years earlier. Above all, to me, despite his philosophical inspiration to Indian revolutionaries, he has no India connection important enough to be organic in any way to the country’s cultural or intellectual evolution. This is not xenophobia; we are after all, at least partly, shaped and formed as a nation from years of colonisation. But, you have to wonder why Lenin has over-stated importance in the country’s iconography, when there are so many architects of Free India—from all ideological shades—we could revere instead.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Does that mean his statue should have been brought down? No, absolutely not. Parallels have been drawn with the removal of Lenin statues in the hundreds, in Ukraine, or East Germany, or with the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials in the United States (for being racist symbols of white supremacists.) My own view is that this debate is wasteful and unnecessary. Why not allow history to evolve, grow, breathe and examine itself organically, instead of going by the fiat or diktat of changing governments and their ideologies. In any case, statues don’t have to be marks of respect, they can simply be about moments in time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, if the political symbolism of an icon comes to be unacceptable over the years, and in the face of newer social values, the way to change this must only be through legislation. So, if the BJP government wanted to remove Lenin’s monument, it should have passed a resolution in the assembly and proceeded by law. That is the difference between a democracy and a mobocracy. And, I would have condemned the crowd-violence as an act of shameful bullying—irrespective of whose the statue was, and who the perpetrators were. It’s the principle of law and order, and the capacity to accept diverse points of view that are the hallmarks of modern nations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Personally, I think our politicians should have better things to do than to debate the past. Countries that fight over statues are quite literally frozen in time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Mar 10 19:04:33 IST 2018 judges-do-well-what-about-lawmakers <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> Sat Jan 20 16:05:07 IST 2018 keep-private-lives-private <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> Mon Nov 20 18:06:07 IST 2017 a-no-is-a-no-is-a-no <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> Mon Sep 25 11:38:11 IST 2017 constitution-above-codes <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> Fri Aug 25 14:36:59 IST 2017 women-who-dare-to-be-disliked <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> Thu Jul 27 16:34:48 IST 2017