Barkha Dutt en Wed Nov 02 11:19:40 IST 2022 there-is-no-single-emotive-issue-that-defines-2024-lok-sabha-polls <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In the last mile of 2024 Lok Sabha general elections, two completely divergent narratives have emerged about who is ahead and best placed to form the next government. Though they are not the only individuals on either side of the trenches to have made these arguments, we can, for the purpose of shorthand, call it the Prashant Kishor and Yogendra Yadav schools of thought.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I was the first to interview Kishor. We met in Patna, where the political consultant-turned-politician—his party Jan Suraaj will contest the next assembly elections—set the cat among the proverbial pigeons with his remarks. While there was a lot of focus on his prediction that the BJP will be back, “by the same or slightly more”, intriguingly there has not been as much debate on his description in the same interview, of the prime minister being, in his words, “a brand in decline”. Likening it to “a century with six dropped catches” Kishor has blamed the opposition for “poor fielding”. He forecasts a “weakened prime minister” whose main resistance will come from the general public in what he is sure will be Modi’s third term.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yadav, a supporter of the INDIA alliance, has an entirely different sense of what happens next. In a conversation with me, he underlined that he was not talking about a ‘1977-style’ mass wave of anger against the incumbent government, but “a return to normal politics” where a phase by phase decline, combined with the dip in turn out numbers, has now painted a likelihood of the “BJP, maybe even the NDA, slipping below the majority mark”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Is there a space between these two predictive arguments that we know to be true?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I won’t hazard any guess on numbers. But here are some observations from my road trip traversing the distance between Kanniyakumari and Kashmir—covering 12 states and 12,000km over 40 plus days.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi remains the dominant political brand across India. There is more incumbency against local MPs of the BJP than against the prime minister. Whatever the eventual outcome, there has been a spirited fight in this election.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The election feels more competitive than anyone would have forecast at the beginning of the campaign. Modi’s own voters want him to dial down religious rhetoric and Hindu-Muslim barbs. The biggest applause for Modi comes on matters of internal security, abrogation of Article 370, infrastructure and India’s stature in the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One thing voters want Modi to do differently (apart from toning down religious politics) is to focus more on jobs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is no palpable anger, but in many places, there is despondency and disquiet—small street vendors and shopkeepers spoke often of <i>“sannaata hai”</i> (everything is still) when I asked about how their businesses were doing. Yet, they did not suggest that they would vote differently than before. Young men are agitated about jobs. The four year cap on Agniveer, the new military recruitment scheme, is a genuine issue of angst in states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is no single emotive issue that defines the election. The Ram temple, while welcomed by millions of devout Indians, does not come up in political conversation. These are disparate, seemingly unconnected observations in what’s being called ‘a zero wave’ election.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For the rest, we must have the humility to say the following three words—we don’t know—and wait patiently till June 4.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri May 31 13:00:01 IST 2024 ram-temple-not-an-election-issue-in-south <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Much has been said this election season about the alleged north-south divide. There are those who believe there is a political line drawn across the map of India and those who believe that these are divisive ways to understand elections and the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As a Punjabi from Delhi, I have just driven through most of peninsular India. My election road trip series, <i>Dhabas of Democracy</i>—designed to discover all the resplendent flavours of India—began in Kanniyakumari and wove its way through Thiruvananthapuram, Coimbatore, Wayanad, Mysuru, Bengaluru, Kurnool, Hyderabad and onwards to Maharashtra.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I have discovered and loved <i>pazham kanji</i> (watery fermented rice with chili and onions), marvelled at the popularity of <i>kalaan</i> (Tamil for mushroom) served by the street side in a stir fry paste, stood in line to eat a butter <i>masala dosa</i> at Vidyarthi Bhavan, discovered what the history is of Mysore Pak, devoured the onion samosas of Hyderabad and eaten curd rice at every meal I could.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I have gathered some food for thought as well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While I won’t use the word divide—and normally I hate generalisations—the southern states did feel different. For starters their cities were cleaner and better planned and their surroundings were greener and more lush. The emphasis on education seems greater in many of these states. For instance, in Coimbatore, the high-profile seat of the BJP’s Tamil Nadu chief K. Annamalai, two of the three candidates are IIM alumni (including Annamalai) and the third has a doctorate. I can’t think of another constituency in India with a similar profile of contestants.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The other thing that struck me was the role of religion. I felt the physical presence of religion and faith much more overtly in the south than in the north—temples, churches and mosques. In fact, elaborate wood carvings framed homes in villages, the temples are gigantic compared to the north and much more ornate and grand. And, yet, among everyone I spoke to across peninsular India, not one person mentioned the Ram temple in Ayodhya as an election issue. There was only one elderly gentleman in Kerala who referenced it. But other than that, it came up in conversation when I asked about its impact. Of course, despite the single-minded push by Narendra Modi in the south, the BJP is, at the moment, playing to increase vote share rather than seats. It knows that with the exception of Karnataka, which it swept last time, any gains will be incremental. But, what’s most important is that this response on the temple held true even among Modi voters and fans. In the urban pockets of these states I met many citizens who are big admirers of Modi. But when I asked them why they were voting for the BJP, I often got the same answer—under Modi, India’s standing in the world was stronger than ever before. Sometimes I would follow it up with a question on the Ram temple, and mostly the answer would be that it was of no or little consequence to their political choices.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi still holds the distinct advantage in these elections. And maybe the answers I will hear will be very different in the north. But my travels through two phases of the elections convince me that in the southern states there is no political surge around the temple despite religion being a more entrenched and visible part of daily life than in the north.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat May 04 15:37:30 IST 2024 manmohan-singh-may-not-be-king-but-he-deserves-appreciation <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Former prime minister Manmohan Singh officially bowed out of politics this week after 33 years in the Rajya Sabha. Perhaps the most recent image of Singh in public memory is of him arriving at the Parliament in a wheelchair, to cast his vote during a critical proceeding, even when the outcome was foreknown to be in favour of the treasury benches. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his political opponent, complimented Singh on his sense of duty.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Singh famously argued that history would be kinder to him than contemporary media had been. And while, like many other politicians and public figures, he also had several flaws, history is already more benign and generous as it looks back at his years in government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As a journalist, I would argue that he is the last old-style politician I know who upheld the right of a free media to be critical. In today’s hyper-polarised media environment where if you do not confirm the existing bias or leaning of a political party you are immediately characterised as the ‘enemy’, Singh never closed the doors of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to those who had criticised him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If his first term was a normal mix of praise and criticism, his second term, especially towards the end, saw him and his cabinet at the receiving end of relentless criticism, including by this columnist. With swirling corruption allegations, sharp questions about who really wielded power—Sonia Gandhi or him—and his inherent diffidence, the second term of his prime ministership was brutal from a communications perspective. Yet, it never impacted our ability in the media to meet with our sources, to be briefed on background on important national issues or indeed to ask questions of the prime minister directly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I remember after I presented an especially critical programme on his government’s handling of the unrest in the Kashmir valley in 2010, I received a call from his office to come by and share my thoughts directly with him. The only other time a senior politician responded in a similar manner was when L.K Advani, who was deputy prime minister and home minister, invited me for a cup of tea to talk about a column I had written that he especially disagreed with.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I can’t imagine this sort of encounter happening today with any political leader in any political party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, neither the opposition nor the government—for different reasons—has a healthy, even-keel relationship with the media. Both sides have favourites—depending on how they perceive your ideological slant and both sides block access if you are sharply critical.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As his former media adviser Sanjaya Baru said to me on my podcast, Manmohan Singh could have had a different legacy if he had done two things—contested the Lok Sabha elections—and resigned after Rahul Gandhi publicly undermined him on an ordinance that Gandhi thought protected corrupt politicians.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Having said that, he was still a man of rare civility, essential decency and intellectual open-mindedness. And as he steps into his political twilight he deserves at the very least that acknowledgment and respect.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Apr 06 15:25:56 IST 2024 in-india-we-dont-know-to-talk-about-rape <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Grotesque details are emerging about the gangrape of a Spanish vlogger in Dumka, Jharkhand. We know, based on a first information report filed by the woman and her husband (both bikers), that she was threatened with a dagger, kicked, punched and raped repeatedly by a group of seven men for over two-and-a-half hours. Her husband was assaulted and tied up according to the FIR.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While all incidents of sexual violence are horrific—and while women battling for space inside and outside of the home is a universal fight—the responses to this gut-wrenching incident have been disappointing and tone deaf from the get-go. Within hours of the couple releasing a video detailing what had happened to them, the issue erupted into a political war.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The chief of the National Commission for Women—while promising justice for the Dumka rape survivor—got into vociferous arguments on social media over what she called an attempt to tarnish the image of India. Others brought up the grave complaints of sexual abuse in Sandeshkhali, West Bengal, to underline a doublespeak in public debate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Once again, women’s bodies were reduced to a battlefield for competitive politics. Yes, the initial attempt to protect Sheikh Shahjahan, the TMC strongman at the epicentre of the Sandeshkhali storm, should be criticised. As should be what unfolded in Jharkhand. Most Indian women—and men—look at the horror of abuse and violation in a clear-eyed way without the foggy lens of party politics. Unfortunately, the public discourse is captured by politicians who shout and scream at each other, dicing and slicing crime data to wag fingers at each other.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There has not been one case of sexual violence or rape in my memory that has been discussed without it being reduced to the lowest common denominator of leftwing vs rightwing or Congress vs BJP or some other framework of competition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From Nirbhaya to Bilkis Bano, Dumka to Sandeshkhali, our politicians have pitted women against women. And we have watched this, participating in this trench warfare if we are politically aligned, cynically silent if we are not.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We, the women, have failed to unify on the same side—our own.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While we wait for the day when sexual violence can be discussed beyond politics, the final moment of tone deafness was the ‘compensation’ of Rs10 lakh given to the victim-couple by officials, down to a photograph to record the moment. The idea that sexual abuse can be monetarily ‘compensated’ is a revolting one. Making a photo-op of the moment is abhorrent. And the couple’s decision to accept this money is problematic. Their friends tell me that they are foreigners who were robbed at knifepoint. Given that the seven men have been arrested, the police could have pushed to have their material belongings returned. Throwing money at rape makes me distinctly uncomfortable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Whether it is judges who have on occasion asked rapists to marry the women they abused, politicians and officials who hector survivors of violence, or, worse, reduce rape to an electoral battle, in India we have not yet learnt how to talk about rape with sensitivity and quietude. And the political noise drowns out the conversations that need to be had and heard.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Mar 09 11:42:25 IST 2024 regulation-of-live-in-relationships-is-definitely-invasive <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In principle, I support a progressive Uniform Civil Code.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For too long, orthodoxies of different faiths have been weaponised against women. Gender justice as the goal of a secular family law—on marriage, divorce, inheritance—is something I would support.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A Uniform Civil Code is not meant to be the hegemonic assertion of one set of customs and traditions on the other. Nor is it meant to be a triumphalist political document.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In my understanding, a UCC should standardise family law within the framework of fundamental rights. But the voluminous draft of the new Uttarakhand Uniform Civil Code—tabled in the state assembly amid chants of Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Jai Shri Ram—seems to go well beyond this remit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While it will take time to go through its 800 pages, the proposed regulation of live-in relationships is definitely invasive and ill-thought through. The demand that couples who cohabit outside of marriage have to register their relationship or face a possible jail term/fine is preposterous. Even if we assume the intent of this proviso is noble—arguably to protect women and children by recognising the legitimacy of a non-marital relationship; the punitive action against those who decline to do so is unacceptable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The bill says that registration of the relationship is required within one month of the date of entering the relationship. A failure to do so can result in three months in prison, or a 010,000 fine, or both. Effectively, it is an invitation to the police to enter the bedroom. Or even to pesky neighbours and landlords to start reporting new, young couples to the local police station. The registrar also has the power to decline the application of a couple. Relationships where one partner is married or registered in a live-in relationship elsewhere cannot have official recognition. It is not clear what happens to those who are separated, but not yet divorced due to the snail-like pace of court hearings or long-drawn out property/custody battles. Nor is it clear what this bill means for same-sex couples. And the legislation already exempts tribal communities. So its uniformity is questionable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But let us be clear. Not only are these proposals meaningless in the age of Tinder and Bumble, they are completely violative of the right to privacy, a right recognised by no less than Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To give the state machinery overarching powers of this nature is to unleash the moral police on consenting adults. It is criminalising personal choice. It is quite literally policing the personal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Those who opt to live together instead of getting married either do so because they are not convinced of the need for the formality of marriage or because they are in an exploratory phase of their relationship. Sometimes it could be because one or the other partner is still emerging from a previous relationship because of a prolonged legal battle.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Whatever be the reasons, what happened to live and let live?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If the essential aim of a Uniform Civil Code is to equalise rights between men and women, these tenets, if approved into law, will have the opposite effect. It is women, young and old, who will be judged, character-assassinated and possibly prosecuted.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Feb 10 14:49:00 IST 2024 why-bilkis-bano-verdict-is-seminal <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Bilkis Bano cried tears of relief,” her lawyer, Shobha Gupta, told me as the news filtered in that the Supreme Court had ordered her 11 convicted rapists to be sent back to jail.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The passage of time can dull the memory of the horror that was inflicted on Bilkis when she was just 21 and three months pregnant. She was gangaped, pinned to the ground and forced to witness the rape of her mother. Worst, Bilkis was held forcibly as her three-year-old daughter was killed; her head smashed with a stone. Several other relatives were killed. The men who did this were sentenced to life imprisonment. But they were released by the Gujarat government in a wholesale remission decision that has now been described by the Supreme Court as an order obtained through “fraud, ...abuse of power... and misrepresentation of fact”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We are often desensitised because of what we see everyday, but this was a crime against society, a crime against humanity, a crime against the Constitution,” Justice Deepak Gupta told me. Gupta was part of the Supreme Court bench that had in 2019 ordered the Gujarat government to pay Bilkis Rs50 lakh in compensation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Justice U.D. Salvi, who had sentenced Bilkis Bano’s rapists to life imprisonment in 2008, said the verdict would “reaffirm the trust of people in the judiciary at a time when all kinds of things are being said about it”. The fact that these convicts had walked out to celebrations, garlands and sweets, Salvi told me “was proof that they had never reformed at all”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Bilkis Bano verdict is seminal and not just because it delivers long overdue justice to a beleaguered woman who has spent the last two decades fighting in court. It is important because it reminds the judiciary about what its role is in a healthy democracy. “This is what justice feels like” is how Bilkis expressed it, but she spoke for millions of Indians.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Justice B.V. Nagarathna, whose bench delivered the powerful order and who might well be India’s first woman chief justice, located the Bilkis case within the larger debate around the rule of law as the essential principle of a democracy. “Rule of law means whenever and wherever the state fails to perform its duty, the court would step in…. Courts have to be mindful of not only the spelling of the word justice but also the content of the concept,” say the judges.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Most bravely, in a possible nod to their own colleagues—because remember this judgment nullifies an earlier verdict by the Supreme Court—the order states, “Those concerned with the rule of law must remain unmindful and unruffled by the ripples caused by it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The last word in this case has, unfortunately, not been spoken. The lawyer for the convicts, Rishi Malhotra, has made it clear that he will exercise legal options in seeking a review of the Supreme Court response. On the ground, several of the convicts have been ‘missing’ from their homes since 2022, raising questions about whether they will surrender in the two-week time frame set by the court. Another set of pleas and petitions could consign Bilkis Bano to more years of struggle.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But with all these caveats, the Supreme Court verdict does what is needed in every democracy. It restores checks and balances. It is a spring-cleaning moment to clear out the cobwebs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jan 13 11:21:59 IST 2024 modi-shah-bjp-and-the-surprise-factor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Let us admit it. No political pundit, whether on the left, right or centre, was able to predict who would be the new chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Narendra Modi government and the Amit Shah party organisation have always thrived on the surprise factor, and it was no different this time. That the BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the BJP under Modi are different is a given. But with one fell swoop the Modi-led BJP has ended the political careers of what used to be known as the party’s second generation leaders in the Vajpayee years. With the exit of Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the only state level leader the BJP central command would find it tough to replace at will is possibly Uttar Pradesh stalwart Yogi Adityanath.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Raje sat stoically surrounded by MLAs as she was handed over a <i>parchi</i> (small paper). The speculation is that like an Oscar or a Grammy award, this hand-written note had the name of the new chief minister—Bhajan Lal Sharma, a first time MLA from Sanganer district. If Raje was unhappy—as she must be—she did not have the luxury to show it. To compound her disquiet, the deputy chief minister is Diya Kumari—female and royal, like Raje. Chouhan, otherwise low-key in the way the Sangh parivar prefers it, revealed his feelings. “I would rather die,” he said, “than go to Delhi to ask for something for myself.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So the BJP’s recently won states are led by a tribal CM in Chhattisgarh, an OBC in Madhya Pradesh and a Brahmin in Rajasthan. Clearly caste engineering and not disruptive decision making for its own sake is at the heart of these choices.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even so, there are two ways of looking at what has happened. The opposition says this is further evidence that under Modi-Shah no one else with an independent political profile will be allowed to rise. However, the BJP can easily throw that back at the Congress and several regional parties—where families continue to control the organisation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The other way to see it is the BJP and the RSS have decided that the organisation is bigger than the individual. The paradox is that this clearly does not apply to Modi, who is now the message, and clearly bigger than the Sangh parivar in terms of electoral winnability.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ironically, there is a precedent which is similar but not identical in the history of the Congress. Hark back to what Nehru called the ‘Kamaraj’ plan. Kumaraswami Kamaraj’s plan for Congress revival was born after India’s defeat in 1962 and the Congress drubbing in three by-elections in 1963. Kamaraj argued that ministers and chief ministers should resign from their posts and work for the party. Six Union ministers and six chief ministers complied.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, the Congress may not be able to take such a risk given that it has tried to regionalise its fights in the states. But there is some merit in keeping the party agile by constantly changing incumbents so that entitlement and status quo instincts do not set in.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Have the BJP’s choices in these three states been ruthless, strategic or laden with risk? Possibly, all of the above.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As long as the party keeps winning elections under Modi, it will continue to take such chances with convention, upending the rules of politics and the capacity of journalists, pundits and the opposition to anticipate them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Dec 15 18:22:33 IST 2023 end-of-two-high-profile-political-careers-raje-and-chouhan <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The BJP, which is known to fight every election, from local polls to the Lok Sabha, with an insatiable appetite, has taken a curious approach in these assembly elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite the setback in Karnataka, where the marginalisation of stalwart B.S Yediyurappa was at least one reason for the party’s decisive defeat; the BJP has still taken the ‘collective leadership’ approach in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, two of the most critical battlefields ahead of 2024. In fact, the BJP tacitly seemed to acknowledge this mistake in the recent elevation of Yediyurappa’s son, B.Y. Vijayendra, a first time MLA, to the top post of party president in the state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And, yet, it has not stepped back from the very visible undermining of Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje in MP and Rajasthan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is almost as if the BJP has decided to quietly phase out all remnant leaders from the Vajpayee years as the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah led BJP builds a new hierarchy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But would it want to do so at the risk of potential electoral defeat?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Possibly, the BJP believes that neither individual is central to its loss or win.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Rajasthan, where traditionally, a revolving door system has alternated between the BJP and the Congress since 1996, historical precedent suggests that it is the BJP’s turn to form the government. While several MLAs considered loyal to Raje have been given tickets, the BJP has tried hard to experiment with new faces—Gajendra Shekhawat, Satish Poonia and C.P. Joshi among them. Raje is certainly not the main face of the BJP campaign and who will be chief minister, if the BJP were to win, is a question that is wide open.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Madhya Pradesh, ‘Mamaji’ as Chouhan is colloquially known, is probably running his most low key campaign in years. His personal popularity is only a few points behind that of Kamal Nath, the de facto CM candidate of the Congress and very much the leader of its campaign. But polls reveal a fatigue factor with the incumbent legislators.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If the BJP manages to win either or both states without Raje or Chouhan at the helm, their redundancy will be highlighted by the central leadership. If the BJP loses either or both states, the party might still argue that the defeats were foretold.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are other intriguing experiments by the BJP in these assembly elections, including the decision to field a large number of its parliamentarians. Eighteen MPs, including four Union ministers, are contestants across three state assemblies. This decision has caught state level leaders off guard. Perhaps the decision is guided by the overwhelming popularity of its party in the Lok Sabha polls of 2019 in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh where the states swung back to the party despite defeats in the assembly elections of 2018.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ironically, the BJP and the Congress appear to have swapped their approaches to state election campaigns. It used to be the Congress playbook to avoid a personality-centric campaign in the states till well after the results came in. In the past, the Congress ‘high command’ has historically weakened state satraps. But the results in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh revealed the electoral value of keeping assembly elections local, led by strong local faces. The Congress has embraced that philosophy in these elections, while the BJP appears to have borrowed from the old Congress rulebook in counting on the party cadres, ideology and the Modi factor to win.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Either way these elections are not just the semi-finals ahead of the big elections of 2024; they could well mark the end of at least two high-profile political careers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Nov 18 11:31:29 IST 2023 womens-reservation-bill-is-finally-a-reality-now <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The ‘special’ in the special Parliament session was finally revealed. It was not an early election, the announcement of ‘one nation, one election’, or a move to implement the Uniform Civil Code. Instead, the Narendra Modi government made its big move. Twenty-seven years after its inception, the women’s reservation bill has been tabled in Parliament, appropriately in a new building, to mark new beginnings.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Less than 15 per cent of India’s elected parliamentarians are women in a country where they make up nearly half of the population. And, this is the highest representation we have ever had.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For as long as I have been in journalism, I have watched the ritual of the women’s reservation bill being announced with fanfare only to be buried, abandoned, and in some instances, physically mauled by male members who opposed it. As a young reporter who had short hair, I remember being mocked by the Janata Dal (U) leader Sharad Yadav for supporting the bill. “Women like you with short hair are the types to advocate for this law,” he told me. It was his shorthand for elitism and western ideas of feminism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But there is nothing elite about asking for more political space for women. India’s women are designing space programmes, flying fighter jets, running law firms and banks, leading parades on Republic Day, closing billion dollar deals. In effect they have stormed every bastion except politics. The representation of women in state assemblies is even worse than in Parliament. In 19 state legislatures, less than 10 per cent were women, according to government data released in 2022.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The women’s reservation bill passed the Rajya Sabha in 2010, when the Congress was still in power. It was Sonia Gandhi’s pet project but she could not prevail upon leaders of regional parties like the Samajwadi Party, the RJD and the Janata Dal (U), who were adamant on a sub-quota for Other Backward Classes (OBC). Ironically, an old speech of Mulayam Singh Yadav accused the BJP and the Congress of conspiring together on this issue. But since then the bill went into a deep freeze. Even the issue of women’s political representation fell off the national grid. The Modi government’s revival of the legislation will give it a special place in history. But women will watch with bated breath to see when it actually translates into actionable reality this time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The fine print (clause five to be precise) in the new bill speaks of how the seats reserved for women will be rotated but only after a delimitation exercise is completed and a fresh census conducted. There is no mention of timelines in the proposed law. And, at least, at the time of writing this column, there has been no clarity about whether the bill aims at a deadline. It is safe to say that if the reservation of women cannot take place before constituency boundaries are re-marked or before a fresh census (the 2021 decadal census has not yet been conducted), then there will be no political reservation before 2024 elections. In fact some say it could even take up until 2029, since as per present law the new delimitation exercise is to take place in 2026.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s women have waited close to three decades for this moment. There is no denying the historic value of this moment. This time, let us hope that a finite closure is within reach.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Sep 23 11:21:49 IST 2023 why-i-am-mighty-impressed-with-mallikarjun-kharge <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Did journalists get Mallikarjun Kharge wrong? When Kharge won the election to the post of Congress president, only the sixth time that such a poll was held in the 137-year history of the party, the commentariat was less than impressed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This scepticism had nothing to do with Kharge’s own impressive credentials. As a nine-time legislator, Kharge, 81, had always been a grassroots leader and a prominent dalit face of the Congress, who rose from poverty and hardship. But, in the high-profile face-off between him and Shashi Tharoor, Kharge seemed more ‘selected’ than elected. In other words, he was seen to be someone who was the preferred choice of the Gandhi family who would then continue to control him—and the party—by proxy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tharoor, with his eloquence, charisma and cult following among the rising numbers of aspirational India, seemed just like the disruption a party weighed down by the burden of status quo desperately needed. That may still be the case. Of course, the Gandhi family is still involved in every critical decision and retains veto power.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Kharge has turned out to be more than a mere placeholder.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In fact, he has been a significantly successful reconciler so far.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Karnataka, where D.K. Shivakumar, who brought hustle to the Congress game in the elections, was openly demanding the post of chief minister, instead of the more low-key Siddaramaiah (who had more of the legislators with him); Kharge managed to create a holding operation for governance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the real imprint of his authority and deftness is on the newly appointed Congress Working Committee (CWC), the highest decision making panel of the opposition party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Just when it had begun to seem as if Tharoor was being sidelined and thus punished for running against Kharge and owning his ambition, he found a place on the panel.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sachin Pilot, who has made no secret of his rebellion in Rajasthan, ahead of a critical election, was inducted as well, to at least temporarily assuage him. Another significant appointment was that of Manish Tewari, one of the signatories to the group of 23 Congress leaders who had first raised existential questions about the fate of the party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kharge seems to have a penchant for crisis management and the negotiator’s key skill—be flexible when needed and firm when the red line needs to be drawn. And in the last few months he has also shown the energy required to be a 24x7 politician, submerged in meetings and rallies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kharge does not come waving a magic wand. He may never be the sort of politician who captures the imagination of a wider, general population. And, of course, the Congress has structural problems—it will still have to answer the tough questions ahead of 2024. Is it fighting an ideological battle? What is that ideology in an increasingly polarised country? Is it ready for a clash of personalities in taking on Narendra Modi?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But for a party bruised by electoral defeats, listless leadership and confusion at the very top for months altogether, he proved to be an effective pivot. It turns out that those who wrote him off underestimated him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Aug 26 11:39:27 IST 2023 crisis-in-manipur-calls-on-us-to-be-genuine-patriots <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In the last few years, on India’s news channels, it is not uncommon to see anchors huffing and puffing hysterically about “anti-nationals”. In fact, the phrase has become near ubiquitous. Every time an individual does not conform to a dominant narrative, their patriotism is called into question.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The horror of what is unfolding in Manipur should make us challenge these faux nationalists.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Over the last few weeks I have been documenting testimonies from the state of those who have suffered, been killed, raped and tortured. Among the victims and survivors are a military veteran, a legislator of the ruling BJP and the ageing wife of a freedom fighter. The horror of what has been inflicted on them should make us banish the loose use of this banal and overused phrase—anti-national—from our political and media lexicon. Either that or we should start calling out those who are truly against the interests of an inclusive India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The country is still reeling from the viral video in which two women were paraded naked, one of them was brutally gang-raped. I spoke to the husband of one of the survivors. “I served 28 years in the Army,” he told me, “I served in Sri Lanka, in the Kargil war operation. I fought in wars for India. But I could not save my wife.” As his voice fell to a whisper he spoke of his sense of helplessness and fear. “In my worst nightmares I never thought I would see such a day.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I met Vungzagin Valte, a three-time legislator with the BJP and former adviser to the chief minister. Today, he is barely able to talk after he was crippled in a mob attack. His head was smashed. He was allegedly given electric shocks and he is unable to eat or walk on his own. Though the state government vows that it will pay Valte’s hospital bills and says it has spent close to Rs50 lakh on airlfiting the MLA; his family says they are still struggling financially. They live in tiny rented accommodation—13 of them in three small rooms. For medicines, physiotherapy and other expenses, they are dependent on the charity of “friends and family”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As houses have been torched and razed in Manipur, the elderly have not been spared either. An 80-year-old woman married to a freedom fighter was burnt alive. Their small village home proudly displayed medals and honours, most recently from president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I have consciously not mentioned which of the victims I chronicle here are Kuki and which are Meitei. For a moment let us put aside the complex and unique history of Manipur that led to these ethnic clashes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For now let us remember that Manipur shares a long border with Myanmar and 4,000 weapons were looted during this crisis, including high-calibre ones like rocket launchers and automatic rifles.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If anything, the crisis in Manipur calls on us to be genuine patriots. We should be asking tough questions and we should be able to offer empathy. To lose sight of the human tragedy in whataboutery and competitive politics, or in the banality of TV studio debates, would be a travesty.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, will the faux nationalists please sit down?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jul 29 11:55:52 IST 2023 why-india-needs-a-uniform-civil-code <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Now that the prime minister has come out and batted for the Uniform Civil Code on the front foot, it is no longer a theoretical debate. The immediate responses have been along predictable lines—right-wing supporters of the BJP have defended it, and the religious orthodoxy and the political opposition have flayed it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The blanket opposition to the push for a common family law is a short-sighted and ill-advised response. And, in fact, the more the opposition allies with conservative religious bodies, with mostly archaic ideas about sexuality and gender rights, the more it would help the ruling party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A uniform civil code is a directive principle of the Constitution. It had the support of the great architects of modern India, including Nehru, Ambedkar and Ram Manohar Lohia. Its philosophical essence is equality.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A uniform civil code is not a Hindu civil code; nor does it mean the homogenisation of culture, faith or rituals. At its heart, a well-drafted UCC should simply be a law that protects the equality of all citizens. Indians would still be free to profess, propagate and practise their own religions—another constitutionally enshrined fundamental right—as long as these tenets did not violate a fundamental principle of equality.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In general, personal laws of all faiths, especially as interpreted by the clergy of that particular religion, can often militate against women. A uniform civil code is an opportunity for India’s feminist movement to reframe the conversation around equality within the framework of the Constitution.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Not everyone who supports the idea of a uniform civil code is making a political affiliation. In the past, individuals as varied as musician T.M. Krishna and author Nilanjana Roy drafted their own talking points, for what they called a ‘progressive uniform civil code’. Both happen to be staunch critics of the Modi government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead of rejecting the very idea of the uniform civil code and ceding the entire space of its debate to the BJP, the opposition, as well as religious bodies, should engage strenuously on what such a code looks like. Goa, which has long had a uniform civil code, can be an educative example for a robust public debate on what has worked and what has not.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The debate around the uniform civil code can, in fact, be used to demand the strengthening of the Special Marriage Act, a civil law that permits union of interfaith couples. Right now, the act remains shackled by bureaucratic hurdles. The UCC debate actually allows a strong counter to those who classify every Hindu-Muslim union as an example of what BJP leaders call ‘Love Jihad’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sure, the BJP is bound to bring its own ideas of such a code to the debate. But, if civil rights groups, opposition parties and religious groups decline to be part of this discussion, it would be an own goal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The resistance to the UCC, as well as the support for it, should be focused on what the details of such a code might look like. And there are drafts that have been prepared by the Law Commission in the past that could be a starting point.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Uniform Civil Code should be seen for what it is—a constitutional ideal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jul 01 13:08:11 IST 2023 wrestlers-must-not-immerse-their-medals-in-water <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I think Indians, irrespective of political leanings, were dismayed to see the country’s top wrestlers break down in tears, as they sat in a huddle by the riverbank, all set to immerse their medals in the Ganga river.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Farmer leader Naresh Tikait has been able to convince Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik to refrain from doing so for another five days. The wrestlers have been on the streets for over a month demanding the arrest of the till recently Wrestling Federation of India chief and BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh Brijbhushan Sharan Singh, a strongman with an empire of private colleges and four pending criminal cases against him. In the past, Singh has been linked with underworld gangster Dawood Ibrahim, before being acquitted because of lack of evidence. In other words, he has always been a terrifying figure to take on.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is important to understand why it would have taken so long for women in the wrestling community to break the silence around what they allege is entrenched sexual abuse and harassment. Seven women filed a complaint, among them reportedly a minor. Though there is now a dispute over the age of the minor girl, with an uncle claiming that she is at present 20 years old; the wrestlers say she was younger than 18 when the abuse took place, and hence the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act should apply. The law mandates an arrest before bail is granted. In this case, POCSO or not, Singh has not even been called for interrogation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Singh is not a favourite with the BJP establishment. But he is a sort of autonomous island in the tightly controlled regime of Yogi Adityanath. He has openly criticised Adityanath’s government in the past. The BJP’s inaction against him is inexplicable, especially given the message it sends out to women and young girls everywhere.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Supporters of the government say the wrestlers have diminished the moral force of their movement by allowing opposition politicians to hijack it. Personally, I am not a fan of politician-led people’s movements. But let us remember that the politics was there from the start; otherwise why would a parliamentarian be heading a wrestling federation? Of course, this politicisation of sporting bodies did not start with the BJP; it was always there, right through Congress-run governments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The worry now is that the shrill collision between the opposition and the BJP has made this yet another political headline, shifting the focus from this being about women in sport alleging institutional harassment and violations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The United World Wrestling has made its displeasure clear, threatening to throw India out if elections are not held soon to choose a new management. But, as Phogat and Malik explain, Singh is de facto the man in control, even after the government said he had been asked to step aside as the head of the federation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Singh’s guilt and innocence will be decided in court. But the fact that he has slandered the women who have spoken out against him—taunting with references to Manthara from the Ramayan, quipping that their medals are worth no more than Rs15—says a lot about the brazen impunity he still displays.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government must begin a dialogue with the wrestlers and the police must act by the book, as it would have if the man in question was not a powerful politician.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And the wrestlers must not immerse their medals in the water. A day’s news cycle is not worth a lifetime of hard-won recognition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jun 02 15:01:50 IST 2023 rahul-gandhi-should-apologise-or-choose-jail <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Ever since Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification from the Lok Sabha the media narrative has focused on his potential status as a political martyr. The debate on prime time shows has been framed as one around why the BJP would hand him an ace to play with in the form of a sympathy card.</p> <p>I disagree.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Of course, for Rahul to lose his parliamentary seat in this fashion is wrong and the criminal defamation law that enabled it is problematic. But looked at through the prism of politics, for Rahul, the legal route may not be the smart one.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In fact, he runs the risk of being trapped in the quicksand of court dates in a year when he should not be distracted by anything but the 2024 elections and the big state elections just ahead of them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though a sessions court in Surat has suspended his sentence, a suspension on a conviction could still be a lengthy process. Rahul, who lost his Lok Sabha seat, after being found guilty in a criminal defamation case, could be facing multiple legal summons from across India. At last count he already had eight pending defamation cases to fight.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The charge against Rahul is that by linking corruption to the Modi surname he defamed the entire OBC community. The Congress has argued that the petitioner who dragged Rahul to court had no locus standi to do so because he was not an OBC. Of course the party has also argued that the comment was rhetorical and about what Shashi Tharoor called “rich, fat cats”—in a reference to Nirav and Lalit Modi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the most recent petition dragging Rahul to court is by the BJP Bihar leader Sushil Modi, who is from the OBC community. And Rahul will most likely have to now turn his attention from Surat to Patna. Expect the cases and petitions to keep stacking up.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP has always calculated that by keeping the public focus on Rahul, the contest for 2024 will be framed as a Narendra Modi vs Rahul battle—a battle that Modi always wins. But by keeping Rahul embattled they may succeed in enfeebling him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Would it not be smarter for Rahul to simply apologise?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sure there might be a loss of face for a day or two. But who would remember anything more in the heat and dust of elections?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We have a living example that illustrates this in Arvind Kejriwal. The Delhi chief minister had charged an entire slew of leaders with corruption and, eventually went on an apology spree, including to Nitin Gadkari, Arun Jaitley, Bikram Majithia and Kapil Sibal. His supporters never cared or held it against him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If Rahul refuses to cut his losses and say sorry, he may want to look at a disruptive option. He could consider not pursuing the route of legal appeals and welcome his arrest.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even a short stint in jail would be a more effective political statement than offering up a battery of lawyers. Then he may even have a real chance of being a political martyr.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Apr 08 11:48:46 IST 2023 is-the-counter-to-the-male-gaze-the-female-gaze-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A recent meeting with actor Aditya Roy Kapur got me thinking about whether we have sufficiently included men in the gender conversation—and whether it us, we, the women, who are guilty of a patriarchal double standard.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kapur, fresh from the success of The Night Manager, was one of our key speakers at We The Women, the flagship annual festival I curate with THE WEEK as a media partner. Not surprisingly, the crowd, many of whom were young women, were ecstatic and animated as he walked onto stage.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He was also the perfect guest—easy-going, informal and a good sport. A former video jockey with Channel V, Kapur spoke of the special place music had in his life. The crowd urged him to sing. He said if there had been a guitar available, he may have agreed. Another speaker, a guitarist from Nagaland, Imnainla Jamir, obliged. Kapur played and sang a Coldplay number; the audience went wild.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Suddenly, someone yelled from the audience—“Adi, you are so hot!”—loud enough to be heard over the music and the cheering. Kapur laughed and said thank you. But I had a moment of pause. What if it was a female actor on stage—Vidya Balan and Janhvi Kapoor had been on the We The Women stage earlier in the day—and a man from the audience had said the same.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Perhaps, Balan and Kapoor would also have received it as a compliment. Perhaps, I am overthinking it. But my guess is that the gender conversation has drawn enough red lines in public discourse for a man to think a few times before saying something that could be even remotely considered objectifying. And, if he had, there would be at least some people who would have considered it entirely inappropriate conduct.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Just recently, in fact, the actor had to deal with something much more egregious—a fan who tried to forcibly kiss him. Kapur told me, she attempted this, not once but twice. “After a brief moment of surprise, I quickly recognised the situation for what it was and relied on my self-defence instincts…. While it can be uncomfortable to have your personal space invaded, I understand that some people can’t help their excitement. I did not make a big deal about it, and security quickly took care of the situation.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now imagine if the genders had been reversed. Had a male fan made such a move on a female actor? Would we have been so forgiving? Would we have been able to half-joke about it as so many have done with the Kapur episode?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Is the counter to the male gaze the female gaze? Is the answer to the sexualised objectification of women to look at men through the same lens?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There aren’t any easy answers. Because, on the other hand, puritanical invisibilisation of attractiveness and sexuality is obviously not to be encouraged. And actors in the public eye, both men and women, know that their sex appeal is at least part of what makes them who they are.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, when it comes to boundaries and the appropriateness of language in public and personal spaces, surely the rules should be the same for men and women?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Mar 10 15:17:53 IST 2023 air-india-peegate-incident-analysis <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>News cycles are short-lived, fast-spinning wheels of information. Here today, and poof gone tomorrow. Now, we are caught up in the drama of Gautam Adani’s battle with Hindenburg Research and its political tremors. So, it is hard to feel there is any other headline worth tracking.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, I draw your attention back to an issue, which though almost irrelevant in implication compared with the Adani saga, was covered with as much breathless urgency—the infamous Air India #PeeGate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A month later, I have to cautiously wonder if Shankar Mishra was a victim of a media lynch mob. I think we still do not know the facts, for certain. I was among those who was scathing about the man, I then called, the ‘urinator’. As a feminist, it is obviously my instinct to believe women. Even now, I cannot for the life of me answer why anyone, elderly or young, would single out a fellow passenger to blame, if he had not actually done what she says he has. When the story first broke, I even said—apart from the unruliness—it seemed like a case of sexual harassment to me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, as time went on and I started doing deeper reporting on the story, some things stopped making sense.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ina Bannerjee, in her 80s, was seated next to the complainant in the aisle seat. We tracked her down and she was clear that she had neither seen Mishra pee on the alleged victim nor experienced anything herself. All she had seen was the crew cleaning the seat next to her. Her testimony was one of the reasons why Mishra got bail—the judge pointed out that there were contradictions between the police case and what other witnesses recorded.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To discuss the mechanics of #PeeGate feels bizarre, but is necessary. How does any person, no matter how drunk, jump over the passenger asleep in the aisle to urinate on the passenger in the window seat, without them waking up or being urinated on?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The only other “witness” that we know of is the passenger seated next to Mishra—a US-based doctor called Dr Sugata Bhattacharjee. His initial comments to journalists, including to me, became the media basis to further build the case against Mishra. Bhattacharjee recounted how Mishra had too much to drink, how he found the complainant in the galley, distraught at her soiled clothes, and how Mishra purportedly whispered to him, “Bro, I think, I am in trouble.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Air India crew have a different take on Bhattacharjee. Crew logs claim Bhattacharjee—whose display picture shows him shaking hands with various US presidents—asked for an upgrade to first class on boarding. That he was denied one, they claim, explains his “loud” behaviour later.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If Mishra is innocent, why didn’t he assert that, instead of apologising and paying for dry-clean—money the complainant later returned. A written submission by crew member Neeta Kararia says that when Mishra was confronted, he was stunned and said he could not imagine doing such a thing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The internal inquiry panel has not helped the credibility of the process. It got the configuration of the 777 aircraft wrong, referencing a 9B seat that does not even exist in business class.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is not to say that Air India did not mishandle matters. The pilot, asleep on his rest-shift, should have been woken; he should have upgraded the complainant to first class irrespective and informed the international operations control centre immediately. The case should have been handed over to the police on arrival for them to determine truth from fiction. The management instinct to gag the crew was also a self-goal. But something has shifted internally as well, the Tatas have backed their pilot against the suspension of his license.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Suppose this case collapses in court, would we in the media think we handled the story appropriately?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Feb 11 11:29:09 IST 2023 joshimath-is-not-greater-kailash-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In 2021, I was driving through Uttarakhand to report on the avalanche and deluge triggered by a glacial burst. I was shocked at what I saw—rampant construction, mountains stripped of green cover, clouds of dust and soot rising from the sites of infra-projects every few kilometres. It took us 22 hours to reach the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydroelectric power project site, where hundreds of workers were trapped inside the tunnel. Another hydroelectric project site at Rishiganga had collapsed under the force of the floods.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I stood with desperate families in the cover of darkness, as they waited for some news of their husbands, sons and brothers from inside the tunnel. This was February. But even three months later, in May, rescue teams had been able to recover only 83 bodies and “36 body parts”. Many others remained missing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Is the cost of human life really so paltry that we are staring at a catastrophe yet again in the hill state? Joshimath—one of the most revered pilgrimage towns of India—is sinking, and geologist S.P. Sati told me, “Nothing and no one can save it now. Aag lagne ke baad, kuan nahin khotde (You can’t go looking for water after the fire has already started).”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The fragile Himalayas have been pushed beyond capacity despite environmentalists arguing against mega infrastructure projects like the one at Tapovan. Started in 2006, it was meant to be completed by 2013. A decade later, it remains incomplete.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Worse, even warnings by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) have been ignored. A report by the NDMA that studied the impact of the Chamoli disaster of 2021 emphasised the need to find alternative sources of energy in “environmentally fragile” zones like Uttarakhand. Released as recently as the summer of 2022, it warned against large-scale hydroelectric plants that continue to be the policy of successive governments. It also called out the failure of infrastructure companies to put in place early warning systems at projects such as the Tapovan one. The NDMA also questioned the district disaster management plan for not being able to “cover the climate change-related risks and the impacts of developmental activities, infrastructure, environmental changes, houses/buildings and deforestation”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Obviously no one paid attention. Neither the loss of lives nor the wisdom of experts has been able to shift the callous casualness with which every calamity is moved on from.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even today experts are lamenting the one-size-fits-all growth model that is being force-fitted onto the Himalayas, again, across all governments. They are urging the government to scrap the Tapovan-Vishnugad project, asking why it was cleared at all. The idea of ‘Big is Beautiful’ is a flawed one when it comes to an already damaged ecosystem. As Sunita Narain, one of the country’s leading environmentalists, told me, “the Himalayas cannot be treated as if they are a parking lot in Greater Kailash,” referring to a tony neighborhood in Delhi that has been increasingly commercialised and built-up over the years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is too late to save Joshimath. But other hill-towns are showing serious signs of breakage. From areas in and around Rishikesh to Uttarkashi, the walls are heaving under cracks. Despite a government order calling for an interim halt to all construction activity, there is work taking place on rail lines near Atali and road construction near Joshimath.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is as if we have a death wish when it comes to Uttarakhand.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That, or a self-destruct button.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jan 14 12:28:48 IST 2023 the-rise-of-arvind-kejriwal <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The unprecedented media interest in Delhi’s local elections can only partly be explained by the north-centric bias of major newsrooms. The other big reason for the disproportionate curiosity it generated is the interest in Arvind Kejriwal—and this is true well beyond the borders of the capital.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even the most avid supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi want an effective national opposition. And, the continuous vacating of that place by the Congress has led to intense debate over who else may take that spot.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There have been other contenders—Mamata Banerjee’s expansionist experiment in Goa, K. Chandrashekar Rao aiming for national attention, to name a couple. But, perhaps, because of the anti-corruption movement that birthed the Aam Aadmi Party, none of them have the pan-India recall that Kejriwal does. The Delhi chief minister does not have the political cadre that a national party needs, but he has the brand positioning to build on.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And, above all, perhaps more than any other party among the non-BJP players, he is deft enough to borrow from the BJP’s own playbook when needed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The AAP had a few nervous moments as the results poured in, but was eventually able to break the BJP’s 15-year grip on Delhi’s corporation. The victory—though not as large as forecast by the exit polls—was no less significant when you consider how much energy the BJP invested in the election, bringing out a slew of chief ministers and Union ministers. The AAP has wrested the verdict from the BJP against the backdrop of a barrage of corruption allegations, CBI raids on the deputy chief minister and leaked videos of AAP’s Satyendar Jain getting preferential treatment inside prison. For a party that is still just 10 years old, this is no slight feat. It is, as Kejriwal pointed out in an address to workers after the result, the party’s fourth electoral victory in the capital. Juxtapose this with the BJP that has not been able to win the assembly since 1998. And now has lost control of the civic administration as well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If Kejriwal is able to take over 6 per cent of the vote in Gujarat—and this appears to be a sure shot—the Aam Aadmi Party, officially, becomes a national party. If it breaches 15 per cent to 20 per cent, not many can deny the primacy of Kejriwal in the opposition pantheon. What will be closely observed is its comparative performance with the Congress, especially after its success in displacing the Congress vote in both Punjab and Delhi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the AAP increases its footprint, Kejriwal’s party will perhaps have to find greater clarity on issues of ideology and policy. Its ambivalence has stood it in good stead—politically and electorally. But as it officially enters the national arena, more and more people will want to know Kejriwal better.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Till then, love him or hate him—the opposition and the ruling party can no longer ignore him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Dec 10 17:01:26 IST 2022 supreme-court-rape-case-verdicts <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Before the Nirbhaya gang-rape, there was the Chhawla case. It was in the same year of 2012, in February, many months before the Delhi gang-rape that brought a country onto the streets.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A 19-year-old, the daughter of a security guard, was pulled into a moving car and raped and killed on her way back from work. Much like Nirbhaya, in this sexual assault, too, car parts, glass bottles and metal were used to attack and violate her. The men, in this case, were known to her; one was reported to be especially outraged that she had dared to spurn his interest. Her mutilated and decomposed body was found later in Haryana.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Her parents fought a long and lonely battle for justice. The men were put on death row and the High Court called them predators and trained bloodhounds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>These men, much like the convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang-rape case, are now free.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Unlike in the Bano case, where the guilt of the rapists was never questioned; here the men have actually been acquitted on the grounds that prosecution had failed to follow process and had taken far too many shortcuts. They could not, the judges ruled, prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Supreme Court may have gone by the book when it decided on their release. But what really stays with people—especially women—is the image of the devastated parents, hunched over in helpless tears on the lawns of the Supreme Court. They say, after this sudden turn, they have lost the will to live. The prosecution’s failure cannot be the victim’s punishment. But that is precisely what has happened here. That a young woman was sexually abused and murdered is not in doubt. And, yet, think for a moment of the despair of the parents, who believe they are in this situation only because they are poor.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the same week the Madhya Pradesh High Court suspended the 25 years of rigorous imprisonment sentence to a gang-rape convict. The reason? That he had already spent close to six years in jail and there was no likelihood of an early hearing of his appeal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Once again the slow-moving wheels of justice—certainly not something the rape survivor or victim should be answerable for—effectively meant that six years was considered time enough for the convict.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All three cases—Bilkis Bano, Chhawla and MP—reflect an underlying prejudice. That rape and sexual assault are crimes where leniency is generous. For courts that often put complex or sensitive cases on the back-burner, and where hearings for closure and justice usually move at a snail’s pace. This is nothing but the trivialisation of sexual violence and of the gravity it deserves in response. It is the same mindset that has, on occasion, made judges suggest that rapists marry the women they have assaulted. We have seen this suggestion made by no less than a chief justice at one point, who advised, in open court, that this would be one way of staying out of jail.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Such judgements have been delivered by both men and women.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And the Supreme Court may do well to explain this thinking—and the spate of recent acquittals of rape convicts—to the public at large.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Else, these are developments that would discourage other women from pursuing justice in instances of sexual abuse and violence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And it would mean that after Nirbhaya, nothing—or precious little—has actually changed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Nov 11 16:01:01 IST 2022 outrage-is-either-misplaced-or-entirely-missing-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>This past week, two events triggered different political and media responses in India’s capital.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And what happened should give us pause.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At a meet organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a BJP MP, Parvesh Sahib Verma, gave a brazen call for the economic boycott of Muslims. Though he did not name the community, the context was obvious since the meet was organised against the backdrop of the stabbing of a Hindu allegedly by a group of Muslims. Verma went so far as to exhort people to not buy anything from shops and street carts owned by Muslims. A BJP MLA then reinforced the hate speech by using language that was even coarse. A third speaker affiliated to the VHP spoke of taking up arms against “jihadis”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This outrageous violation of public decency has passed without a blip—or not much more than a blip.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead the political noise and prime time attention has been focused on another public event, also in Delhi. This was a mass conversion meet where dalits embraced Buddhism by chanting the 22 vows of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Present on stage was the Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi’s minister for social welfare, Rajendra Gautam, himself a convert to Buddhism. The vows included the rejection of key Hindu Gods giving the BJP an opportunity to target the event for being anti-Hindu.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead of standing by their colleague, the AAP clearly felt political anxiety. In Gujarat, where Arvind Kejriwal is trying to take on the BJP on prime minister and home minister’s home turf, posters and banners surfaced showing Kejriwal wearing a skull cap—that is, being soft on Muslims. A day later Gautam resigned from the Delhi cabinet. It did not end there. He was later summoned by the police for questioning.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Speaking to me, Gautam underlined that he had meant no disrespect to any religion or deity. The Ambedkar vows, he argued, were officially recognised by all governments. He then framed the mass conversions in the context of rising atrocities against dalits and posed the question at the heart of this debate: “If we are Hindus, if you want us to remain Hindu, why do you hate us so much?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The police showed much more alacrity in questioning Gautam—though voluntary conversions are lawful—than it has so far in interrogating those who made hate speeches against an entire community.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though there may be legitimate questions about how conversions are organised and whether financial incentives can sometimes be part of them, the right to practice and propagate faith is a constitutional right. That we are now criminalising it—and doing so at a speedier pace than the prosecution of hate speech—is worrying.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As if on cue, comes the horrific news from Karnataka of 16 dalit labourers locked up in a coffee estate and tortured for their failure to repay a loan. Among them was a pregnant woman; she was beaten so badly that she lost her baby. The government’s own data shows a rise in atrocities against dalits and scheduled tribes—by over one per cent and six per cent respectively.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The outrage is misplaced. And entirely missing, where needed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Oct 14 16:10:49 IST 2022 why-is-india-still-a-member-of-the-commonwealth-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It is perfectly possible to hate the idea of a monarchy and still have a sneaking admiration for Queen Elizabeth II. Much has been said about the duty-oriented devotion of a woman whose tenure spanned 15 prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But for us in post-colonial India, Elizabeth’s passing throws up an interesting crossroads question: Why are we still a member of the Commonwealth?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On December 13, 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru moved a resolution that “free India can be nothing but a Republic”. Though we mark our independence day on August 15, 1947, up until 1950 we continued to have dominion status within the British empire. That is to say we were autonomous but owed loyalty to the Crown. King George VI was still emperor; Mountbatten was independent India’s Governor General. It was not till 1950 (1956 for Pakistan) that we became truly free from the imperialists with the President replacing the monarch as the head of the Indian state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ironically, the same Nehru who had vehemently made the case for being a republic—unlike Canada, New Zealand and Australia that till this day remain dominions of the British Empire—also advocated in 1949 for India to remain a part of the Commonwealth. In 2021, Barbados did what India did decades ago; it parted ways with the Queen but continued to be a Commonwealth nation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even if there were once compelling pragmatic reasons for a young nation to maintain a close relationship with the UK and hence the Commonwealth membership was purely tactical, how can we continue justifying the membership of a group rooted in the history of the empire?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Unlike other alignments of countries, there is nothing that binds the 54-member Commonwealth except for the shared past of British colonisation. We may not pay much attention to this inconvenient truth as we cheer on our athletes at the Commonwealth Games. But even Ireland quit the British Commonwealth as early as 1949.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yes, of course, the Commonwealth may not operate today as a British forum. Countries can and do participate as equals. But that does not erase the problematic symbolism that defines it. There have been eminent individuals who have called out continued subliminal imperialism of the entity. Amitav Ghosh, for instance, withdrew his novel from the Commonwealth Literature Prize in 2001 because he would not agree to have The Glass Palace be qualified as ‘Commonwealth literature’. As a young reporter I have received a Commonwealth media award without thinking much beyond the joy of winning it. 2022 calls for all of us to think more deeply.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Erasing imperialist symbols is what drove the government’s decision to rename Delhi’s Rajpath to Kartavyapath. Is there not a contradiction between that and a one-day national mourning for the Queen?</p> <p>The British owe India reparations—for the Bengal Famine, for Jallianwala Bagh, for uncountable cruelties, for the theft and pillage of India’s wealth and assets. While we should not allow them to whitewash their historical crimes, we cannot continue to be part of a colonial forum and demand compensation for the past.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Let us leave the Commonwealth. Yesterday.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Sep 17 10:58:15 IST 2022 why-isnt-there-more-outrage-over-release-of-convicts-asks-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In 2002, I met Bilkis Bano under a tattered tarpaulin, in pitch darkness, save for the small flicker of a gas lamp, in a relief camp in Godhra. The white plaster of her broken arm—the men who raped her had broken it—gleamed against the black of the night. She spoke softly, with stoicism and a sense of disbelief as she recounted what had been done to her. She knew these men—they were her neighbours; they used to buy milk from her family.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bilkis Bano was 19 years old—and five months pregnant—when the men lunged for her. They gang-raped her; then they gang-raped her mother, both in the presence of the other. Her two sisters were also raped, she told me. The horror did not end there. As she lay helpless, battered and bleeding on the floor, they took a stone and smashed the head of her infant daughter, Saleha. Bilkis Bano lost 14 members of her family that day.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It took Bilkis and her husband, Yakub Rasul, more than 17 years to secure justice. In this time, they had to change homes 20 times, all in fear for their lives. It was not till 2019 that the then Supreme Court chief justice ordered 150 lakh compensation to the family. As Yakub told me, “We had only just started living again.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The decision by the Gujarat government to release the rapists and child-murderers as part of a special prisoner remission scheme is an outrageous travesty of justice. This summer, the Centre released new guidelines for shortening the sentences of convicted prisoners. But the rules were clear: heinous crimes like rape were excluded from the ambit of this scheme. So, did the Gujarat government contradict the home ministry’s rules? How did this happen? Whose decision was it?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Senior advocate Vrinda Grover argues that despite the Centre’s new guidelines, the law under which the Gujarat government issued an executive order for the release of the 11 convicts—all of whom have spent 14 years in prison, but had been sentenced to a life term—could not have been done without the “mandatory consultation of the Central government”. In other words, the Centre, while officially quiet on the release, cannot pass the buck entirely to the state government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Bilkis feels alone,” Yakub told me, vowing to “never give up. I will support her for as long as I live.” The family has shown extraordinary fortitude. It is gut-wrenching to hear Yakub’s voice choke as he says, “All these years we placed our faith in India’s justice system, now we are scared and demoralised.” But why have they been placed in this position at all?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a country where gangrape is considered a crime horrific enough to merit the ‘rarest of rare’ proviso of capital punishment, was keeping these men in jail for the rest of their lives so difficult?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And where is the outrage we saw during India’s Nirbhaya moment when a 23-year-old medical student was gang-raped in a moving bus?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Otherwise, so many Indians think it is morally justifiable to eliminate rapists in encounters—we speak loosely of chemical castrations and public hangings in drawing room debates and Twitter arguments. Today, confronted with a real-life travesty, why aren’t we more angry?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is a betrayal of India’s women. And we should all take it personally.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Aug 20 11:12:13 IST 2022 then-ayodhya-now-gyanvapi-the-indian-army-perhaps-holds-the-solution <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I was in college when the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992. I have faint memories of marching down the streets of Delhi in protest against the vigilante violence and triumphalism of the men who took the law into their own hands. And, even L.K Advani, the architect of the Ram Mandir movement, called it one of the saddest days of his life.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Thirty years later, even after the Supreme Court has pronounced that the disputed site at Ayodhya where the Babri mosque stood was indeed the birthplace of Lord Ram, and plans are afoot to build a grand Ram Mandir, the country is again quarrelling over whether a temple stood where the Gyanvapi Masjid does today in Varanasi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If the Ayodhya verdict was meant to bring closure, the exact opposite appears to have happened, with Mathura and the Krishna Janmabhoomi movement also acquiring new legal momentum. Jurists are quoting the Places of Worship Act, 1991, which seals 1947 as a cut-off point after which the nomenclature of a religious site cannot be changed—temple, mosque or church. Ayodhya was the main exception that the law provided for, and that has been settled.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the very fact that Justice D.Y. Chandrachud did not invoke the law when the Gyanvapi case came to his bench—sending it back instead for a fast-track hearing to the district court in Varanasi—is proof that this law will not be the necessary guiding principle in this dispute.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Constitutional scholar Faizan Mustafa told me that Indian Muslims “were in danger of repeating [at least] 10 mistakes they made in the Ayodhya case, and the Gyanvapi case is a much weaker case than that was”. Mustafa’s argument is that instead of looking to the judiciary in every such contestation, Muslims and Hindus of Varanasi should settle this among themselves at a community level, without mediation by political parties or lawyers. One way forward, he suggests, is that Gyanvapi makes space for Hindus to offer prayers “silently” in a section of the complex. The petition was first filed by a group of Hindu women who say they have been barred from worshipping their deity at the site.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Indeed, multi-faith sites of worship may be one graceful and equitable method of emerging from the shadows of the past. The country can take inspiration from the sarv dharam sthals of the Indian military, where all faiths pray together and the commanding officer often leads the worshipping congregations of his troops, irrespective of his own faith.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, then again, context is everything. And, you cannot decontextualise the Gyanvapi battle from the larger sense of siege that the Muslim community must be feeling, given the increased incidents of hate speech, an evident political marginalisation and countless instances of violence that many of their own have been subjected to in recent times.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Religious leaders from both communities have suggested an inter-faith dialogue to create a truth and reconciliation commission. This may reach a final consensus of sorts that, once there is a broad agreement on specific places of worship, history will not be wrenched open with depressing regularity every few years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri May 27 11:20:47 IST 2022 gandhis-on-vacay-party-in-decay-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Prashant Kishor is a rare political being. While most people talk to journalists off the record about what they really think of their competition or potential allies, “PK” is unique for how much he reveals on record. For instance, well before his 600 “slides for change” blueprint got leaked, he told me in a recent interview about how the Congress could learn from the BJP model of separating who leads the party from who is the prime ministerial candidate. “Even a booth worker can become [party] president, that is the message that goes out when someone like J.P. Nadda leads the BJP,” Kishor said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He was also matter-of-fact about what made Narendra Modi win again and again—a combination of the cult of personality, nationalism, hindutva and welfarism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The failure of the Congress to induct Kishor—and worse, admit that it was they who were rejected—is not about whether you are convinced or unconvinced of PK’s political worth. It does not matter whether you are a PK fan or sceptic, those debates will carry on well into 2024. What is indisputable is the tardy, casual and non-serious way the Congress has responded for a party that is in grave danger of being wiped away from the country’s electoral landscape.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Congress supporters can hardly argue that they did not see merit or value in Prashant Kishor. For, why else, would their leaders spend weeks urging him to become a Congressman. Given that, what can possibly justify their “committee” approach to change?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is the equivalent of looking for a locksmith when the adversary is about to break down your door.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And, if politics is war, the Congress is betrayed by its generals. The announcement of Kishor’s refusal to join the Congress has to be viewed alongside another fact: both the Gandhi siblings are outside India on personal vacations. Nothing reflects either the denialism or the entitlement of the family leadership as much as sojourns at the most critical time and in face of 24/7 politics from Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. As someone in the PK camp quipped, “it gives a glimpse into what would have happened if he had joined the party. He would have been made the fall guy for failures while the brother and sister holidayed”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From Prashant Kishor’s perspective the ‘thanks, but no-thanks’, was borne from the appraisal that he would not have a free hand to make any big changes. The setting up of multiple committees reflected what Kishor has described as “incremental change and low-hanging fruit”. Those in the know confirm that the party remained averse to structural changes and the leadership continued to be loath to nip internal bickering in the bud. The results of that infighting were there for everyone to see in the unravelling party campaign in Punjab and the decimation that followed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Prashant Kishor is right. More than him, the party needs to get over living in the past. It needs to shed its delusional belief that one day, the voter will tire of Modi and fall back to the default party of government, the Congress. And, it needs to accept that the Gandhi family is the problem; not the solution.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Congress leaders have repeatedly described Sonia Gandhi and her children as the glue that binds the party together.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If so, this is the glue that keeps them stuck in the past with no future to speak of.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Apr 29 14:48:03 IST 2022 india-should-get-off-the-ukraine-tightrope-writes-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>All the points about western hypocrisy are true. As are, what veteran diplomat Vivek Katju has called, “India’s cruel dilemmas” when it comes to being able to take an unambiguous position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.</p> <p>But there comes a time in the life of nations, especially those who see ourselves as global players with a moral force, that walking a precarious tightrope appears timid more than thought-through.</p> <p>India’s response to Vladimir Putin’s unilateral act of aggression against Ukraine may have evolved in shades and hues, more critical today than at the start. But as Russian shelling kills Naveen Shekharappa, a young Indian student, all of 21, the war has come home. Looking at images of his distraught father—who reminded us that even with a high 97 per cent score his son could not get admission to a medical college at home—there comes the reminder that in an increasingly globalised, interdependent world, conflicts do not take place in distant lands any more.</p> <p>So, yes, the Americans and the Europeans have been transactional and self-serving. And yes, they have not stood steadfast by the side of India when the Chinese or the Pakistanis have intruded into our territory and sought to undermine our territorial integrity. And yes, the Americans invaded Iraq on the back of dodgy, questionable claims of weapons of mass destruction. And wrote the playbook on ‘military action for regime change’.</p> <p>But the enumeration of these examples does not really tell us why India abstained from a vote calling for an emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly. Especially when the previous vote at the Security Council was redundant, given Russia’s automatic veto.</p> <p>The attempt by the UN to call for a ceasefire during the 1971 war between India and Pakistan has been cited as an example of the sort of necessary relativism that makes one country’s ingress another nation’s freedom movement. But surely we cannot benchmark Putin’s wilful destabilisation of the world with the genocidal killings of the Bengali population in 1971 that eventually gave birth to Bangladesh—with India’s military support. That Putin’s troops have taken the conflict beyond the separatist regions that he initially recognised as independent, too, speaks for itself.</p> <p>There has also been the suggestion that India has to tread carefully because it does not want a Russia-China axis to solidify if Delhi were to more openly back the other side. But has that ship not already sailed? In fact, China will watch this space with some interest. If Putin is able to get away with his audacious intervention inside Ukraine, who is to say China will not try the same with Taiwan next? The world would have shown that it will look the other way; Beijing will be the biggest beneficiary.</p> <p>With a little bit of this and a little bit of that, India may have bought itself some time in the initial days.</p> <p>With Putin marching deeper into Ukraine, India should get off the trapeze and take a stand.</p> <p><b style="font-size: 0.8125rem;"></b><br> </p> Sun Mar 06 14:22:30 IST 2022 barkha-dutt-writes-on-the-congress-and-the-punjab-pickle <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Aam Aadmi Party and Arvind Kejriwal have already pushed the Congress in Punjab into borrowing from its playbook. The party says it is seeking feedback on who should be its chief ministerial candidate, much like the AAP did before naming Bhagwant Mann as its contender. In 2017, Captain Amarinder Singh threatened to quit and form his own party if the Congress did not declare his name for the top job. In 2022, Charanjit Channi and his supporters have been forced to point out the obvious. The absence of cohesion in the Congress campaign and the lack of clarity over who its leader is has handed the advantage to its challenger.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Congress has a problem in Punjab and his name is Navjot Sidhu. Sidhu’s elevation was billed initially as Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s decisive intervention. It has turned out to be a colossal self-goal. Sidhu is plagued by delusions of grandeur. At the highly fortified Chandigarh bungalow that is presently his base, the cricketer-comedian makes mercurial appearances before the media when he is in the mood. At other times, nervous aides speak in hushed whispers about how he cannot be disturbed. On a recent trip, one of them told me grandly that it took five days for anyone to get some time with Sidhu, sounding like an overawed supplicant in obeisance to a feudal landlord.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>More critically, as an aide in the Channi camp told me, every decision announced by the Punjab chief minister was “mocked” by the ambitious, egotistical president of the Congress’s Punjab unit. “We announced a waiver on electricity bills and he calls it a lollipop,” said the aide, despairingly. Sidhu pointedly left out posters of the chief minister from his press conference to unveil a blueprint for Punjab’s development.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The original idea was that Sidhu would keep Jat Sikhs on the party’s side while Channi, the state’s first dalit chief minister, would pull in the votes of the scheduled castes. Sunil Jakhar, the third face in the troika of Congress leaders, was meant as the Hindu face. Jakhar, also sulky, left for a trip abroad, claiming he could preside over ticket distribution over a Zoom call instead. And the chief minister, bruised by the constant undermining of his authority—an eyewitness says Sidhu lashes out at Channi even in party meetings—has openly pushed the party to name a chief ministerial candidate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sidhu’s rantings have made Congress voters on the ground doubtful. While the party made the right call in dropping Amarinder Singh, even if it handled the process clumsily, its delay in publicly endorsing Channi has made his followers sceptical about whether Channi will get to keep the top job even if the party were to defeat the AAP. In the villages of rural Punjab, Channi is universally liked. I did not meet anyone who said anything adverse about the chief minister. But, among Congress voters, their statement of support would invariably trail off into ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. In Ludhiana, a long-time Congress voter told me, “I am embarrassed today to tell you that I support the party; every time Channi takes one step forward, Sidhu takes him two steps back.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sidhu’s induction was billed as Priyanka Gandhi’s Ahmed Patel moment, in reference to Sonia Gandhi’s crafty former political aide who died last year. Instead, in the Punjab context, it is a giant blooper, of the sort we saw on Sidhu’s slapstick TV shows.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Feb 05 11:27:07 IST 2022 to-fight-gentlemanly-omicron-we-need-to-reimagine-covid-protocols-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Omicron third wave is officially here.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The bad news is that the virus is more infectious than its previous two avatars; the good news is that it is distinctly less lethal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Iqbal Singh Chahal, Mumbai’s top administrator, confirmed to me that the recovery, especially among those vaccinated, is taking place mostly within five days, as opposed to the 14- to 16-day period that the Delta variant took up. Thus far, the need for ICU beds and oxygen has also been limited.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, in 2022, we have responded to the third wave with some of the same measures—and mistakes—as two years ago.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The night curfews and weekend curfews are especially galling. They are galling, first and foremost, because of the staggering political hypocrisy. Politicians are locking their citizens in, while proceeding with mass rallies themselves. Not just is this mixed messaging, it is dishonest and unethical. It is also the worst sort of deja vu because of the failure of the Election Commission to show a more proactive intervention against these mass gatherings.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the scientific basis for the restrictions is also extremely dodgy. If Omicron is in community transmission—which it clearly is—curbing social activity on select days or hours is not going to stop it. In fact, it only ends up hurting the economy and lives and livelihood for no significant, achievable gain.</p> <p>Institutional quarantine or hospitalisation is mindless. Shefali Manilal, a French citizen of Indian origin, arrived in Delhi to meet her mother. On arrival, she tested negative. A few days later though, her 11-year-old son and she turned positive. But both mother and son were entirely asymptomatic. Yet, an official ambulance forced them into a private hospital for several days. “Is this not a waste of hospital beds and doctors’ resources?” Manilal lashed out, in an interview with me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She is absolutely correct. If anything, there should be clear communication from state authorities urging people not to rush to hospitals. The one thing that can make the health system collapse is if a huge section of frontline workers test positive and are pushed into fortnightly isolation. Given that most Omicron cases are mild and can be managed at home, hospitalisation must be done extremely sparingly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is time to reimagine Covid-19 protocols as we know them. Dr J.P. Muliyil, leading epidemiologist at Christian Medical College, Vellore, and also a member of the government advisory task force on Covid-19, told me that “asymptomatic patients and those with mild symptoms should not be encouraged to test”. This variant, he argued, is a “gentlemanly virus” and one that is, in fact, offering a shield against the much more lethal Delta.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The argument is not to go out and get infected, or to be cavalier or callous. But as we watched the United States hit a million cases in a single day, we could be looking at that sort of steep spike here as well, with accompanying panic and a rush for hospitals. It is this that would break the system again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jan 06 15:14:09 IST 2022 vaccine-certificate-should-be-given-aadhaar-card-like-status-says-barkha-dutt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>We are back to counting cases and variants as the spectre of Omicron haunts the world. But the responses, including many in India, have been short-sighted, full of counterproductive panic and reminiscent of some of the early mistakes of 2020.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Except, today we have many more tools to fight the virus—knowledge of its airborne nature, confirmation that masks in closed indoor places can help, awareness that opening a window can make a difference in a classroom, therapeutic pills of varying success, and above all, vaccines.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Dr Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who first detected Omicron, told me she found it on a random rapid-antigen test. That in itself should be a warning against the needless RT-PCR tests travellers are being subjected to at both departure and destination, creating a mass congregation at airports themselves.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Most importantly, she said—and this is now being confirmed by doctors worldwide—that feedback from South African doctors is that the symptoms of Omicron are mild, there is no respiratory failure, no plummeting oxygen levels, good self-recovery by day 6 (unlike in Delta) and most critically, vaccinated patients are doing well at getting better.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In other words, while data will reveal if vaccines have fallen in efficacy because of the high number of mutations on the spike protein of the Omicron variant, they are still offering decent protection against the seventh new variant, especially against hospitalisations and deaths. In fact, there has not been a single death from Omicron so far, despite it now being present in 38 countries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The lesson, if there is any left to be learnt, is an immediate mandating of vaccines. I understand that coercion is anathema to public health specialists. But when you consider that 12.5 crore Indians are yet to receive their scheduled second jab, their freedom ends where all of society is being damaged.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Those who are declining vaccines—and not from a shortage of supply—are holding up the economy and well-being of our nation. I am glad to see some states moving in this direction. Kerala is declining free treatment to those who are unvaccinated; Karnataka is making vaccine passports necessary for entry into malls and theatres. This is the only way forward. Whether you call it a mandate or not, it is time to link it to so many social, economic and professional activities, that it becomes much like the Aadhaar card—whether you like it or you hate it, you need one.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The other policy that needs urgent attention is vaccines for children. India has already had the largest school shutdown in the world, exacerbated by pollution and now the new variant. Children cannot be kept at home or in online classes any longer without it stunting their mental, social and emotional skills. Moving to operationalise these vaccines, making adult vaccines compulsory and adding a third shot to the repertoire for at least the elderly and frontline workers, is the need of the hour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Anything else is hysteria. And with it we are not saving lives; we are shrinking the very idea of life.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Dec 09 15:07:29 IST 2021 up-elections-is-the-opposition-giving-the-bjp-a-walkover <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As the host of a daily digital news show, I am bewildered by some of the issues our politicians manage to push into the headlines—and therefore on to prime time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The referencing of Mohammad Ali Jinnah by Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Akhilesh Yadav is one such. Yadav’s comments may have been misrepresented by his political opponents, but why would Jinnah come up in an Indian election campaign at all?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Not just does it make gratuitous assumptions about the Indian Muslim voters—implicit in the reference is that they care about Pakistan’s founding father—it offers the BJP, on a platter, the perfect mix of distractions from issues of economic importance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The most poignant tale to emerge from poll-bound Uttar Pradesh was the first-person accounts of abjectly poor citizens who came to retrieve the residual oil from Diwali diyas in Ayodhya. The holy city had been bathed in a blitzkrieg of lights with lakhs of earthen lamps sparkling during a festive week. But the reality check of rising prices left its shadow on the celebrations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>You would imagine that Covid-19 deaths, mass shallow graves of abandoned bodies and inflation would top the list of issues that the opposition parties would use to target the Yogi Adityanath government.</p> <p>Instead, Akhilesh’s mention of Jinnah in the same sentence as Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel has created the proverbial storm in a teacup. It may not have too many real electoral consequences either way, but it queers the political pitch in such a manner that identity politics and the fault-lines of history and religion become the dominant debate. And that is a debate that the BJP will always win.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The opposition—this includes the Aam Aadmi Party, the SP and the Congress—all seem to have pivoted right into playing some variation of BJP-lite. They are clearly and visibly anxious that the ruling party’s emphasis on hindutva, subsumed within the larger cover of nationalism, is an entrenched poll-winner. And so, for some time now, you have seen the Gandhi siblings drawing attention to their temple visits. Arvind Kejriwal has a list of religious pilgrimages that he is vowing to deliver on. And Akhilesh is falling back on imagined religious polarisation to craft his seat strategy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Secularism may have become a corroded political slogan. But the problem with the approach of the non-BJP parties is that they are essentially playing by the BJP’s rule book—and on the BJP’s turf.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The UP chief minister has had a challenging two years because of the pandemic. An active grassroots opposition movement could have at least created a competitive playing field. Instead, the SP, clearly the dominant opposition, was dormant through much of the lockdown months. And Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, continues to make guest appearances in a movie where the ending seems to be pre-ordained—another likely victory for Adityanath. Despite her high-voltage announcements on reserving tickets for female candidates, her refusal to lead by example by running for chief minister, makes it difficult to take her seriously as a contender.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The opposition is not just divided; it is ideologically floundering. That confusion means—Advantage BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Nov 11 15:45:12 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